Monday, August 25, 2008

Cure for the Summertime Blues

Well, tomorrow is my first day back in class. To commemorate the passing of Summer 2008, I thought I'd re-print an article that ran a year ago, in the August 2007 edition of a now-defunct magazine called CT Slant. The piece is a little dated (with references to Shrek and Captain Jack), but I wanted to run it because I think it eases the transition into autumn.

Weird note about this article: the editor asked me in June to write a piece about the end of summer. So I had to re-create in my mind the dog-days of summer only a few days after I got out of school. Psychologically, I think it sort of messed up my whole summer.

Anyway, here's the unedited version of the piece, originally published in CT Slant under the headline, "And So It Begins."

If you’re thinking about finally taking the kids out strawberry picking, you’re about a month too late.

Unlike the apple-picking season, the Connecticut strawberry season is short, running only from the second week of June to the first week of July, tops. During that window of time, when the majority of strawberries have changed from green to whitish to pink to red, the season peaks; in other words, the majority of strawberries are ripe. But that moment of ripeness is also the moment of decay; after that, the strawberries get soft and squishy, a yummy snack for some nasty black bugs.

In many ways, Connecticut’s strawberry season can serve as a metaphor for our entire summer—not just in terms of the fleetingness of both but because New England summers also tend to decay. The ripeness of July gives way, as it does every year, to a soft and squishy August, forcing you to face a sad fact: the party is just about over.

Actually, you first faced this truth a long time ago, back when you were just a child. Remember those days? The bell would ring on that last day of school, and in that instant, the whole summer would stretch out before you like the limitless blue Atlantic. To this grade-school version of you, summer means freedom—a special kind of freedom, one unlike any other, that delicious, glorious, “no-more-teachers’-dirty-looks” kind of freedom.

But that very freedom can also paralyze. You have so many things you can do, you end up doing nothing. You have so much free time, you end up wasting it.

And so, not long after the dust from the fireworks settle, you find yourself saying, almost against your will, those two words that mark the unofficial death knell of summer: “I’m bored.”

And not long after that, you overhear your mom on the phone saying to her friend, “I can’t wait for school to start so we can get back into a routine.” You’d take her to task for her blasphemy, if not for that part of you that actually agreed with her.

Hey, don’t get me wrong: I love summer. I love everything about it—from barbecues to bocce, from the scent of sunscreen to the rush of liberation that comes from walking outside barefoot. But even I can’t deny that, around the first week of August, you see signs of summer’s decay at almost every turn.

At the multiplexes, your Shreks and Spideys and Captain Jacks have been eased out, replaced with underwhelming Underdogs and Daddy Day Camps and, yes, new Care Bears movies. Liquor store owners have removed all Summer Ale stragglers from the shelves. For weeks now, Target has been pushing “Back to School” sales.

Summer decays. But that’s not altogether a bad thing. It has to decay; the deteriorating dog days of early August cushion the blow for September, when summer finally leaves us for good. And by winding down the way it does—with a whimper, not a bang—summer actually gets us excited for what’s coming up.

Here’s what I mean: I teach high school, and at the start of every year, I always marvel at the energy those first few days bring. And most of this energy comes from the students themselves. That’s right: the students—the same kids who proclaim their hatred of school to anyone who will listen, the ones who danced a jig on that last day in June—are now legitimately excited to be back.

Don’t get me wrong: they’re not exactly begging to get back to lectures on the Harding administration or quizzes on the periodic table. But they know that the beginning of school means the beginning of autumn, and in New England, autumn has some pretty cool associations, too— pep rallies and corn mazes and country fairs and apple-picking. These kids have watched another seemingly endless summer recede before their eyes, and they’re understandably sad to see it go, but they’re also are excited for what’s next.

So, yes, you’ve missed your chance to pick strawberries, but don’t despair. Instead, look at what’s coming up. Strawberry season’s over, sure, but hey… how ‘bout them apples?

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