AUGUST GOETH BEFORE THE FALL
August depresses me. It did when I was a kid and it still does now.
When I was a student at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic School during the 1970s and early '80s, the summer was the centerpiece of my life. To a kid thoroughly brainwashed by the superstitious dogma of parochial school, the summer seemed to be a personal gift from God: a brief burst of sun, water and recreation smack dab in the middle of the cold, monotonous year.
Summer was both an end and a beginning; a reward for hard work completed and a time to prepare for harder work that was yet to come.
Back then, the entity known as The Summer began in mid-June. There was something about those first two weeks off that took some getting used to, particularly as I got older and intense final exams preceded the vacation. The remaining days of June were spent decompressing, debriefing and detoxing from pencils, books, dirty looks etc.
"What will I do with all this free time?" I always wondered, as the summer stretched before me like the all-you-can-eat salad bar at Beefsteak Charlie's. Of course, I always figured it out and, by July 1st, I had eased into the relaxation and recreation of summertime like an icy pool on a scorchy day.
July was (and still is) the most perfect month of the year: not too hot, but not too cool; never too busy, but never boring; not too early in the season, but far from too late. July is summer's first act. The days are long and there are plenty of them (31!) to enjoy. In July, school seemed as far away as Albuquerque, unless you actually lived in Albuquerque, which thankfully, I did not. (Not that there's anything wrong with Albuquerque. It's just far away, and hard to spell.)
Back then, everyone referred to the time when school would resume as The Fall. For a kid in Catholic school, the Biblical significance of this was hard to miss. The Fall felt vaguely Apocalyptic, like something that would result in weeping and gnashing of teeth. The Fall was something to dread and avoid at all costs. But July was The anti-Fall: an endless orgy of pools and beaches, of picnics and bar-b-ques, of baseball games and bike riding and tag you're it!
Then came August, like a dark raincloud somewhere in the distance, threatening the picnic. Hide the potato salad! Here comes the panic!
You know that clichéd story, where somebody drives drunk, almost hits a kid and then resolves to change their ways for good? That's what used to happen to me on August 1 of every year.
The beginning of Act Two of summer was a signal that I needed to kick the fun into high gear, because it wasn't going to last forever. August is to summer as Sunday is to the weekend. I began to hear the clock tick. The trick, of course, was to acknowledge the mortality of my summer vacation, while still enjoying its remaining days of life.
But isn't that what summer is all about? Summer is a terminal patient from the day it is born. Summer is Dead Season Walking. It's a doomed, yet somehow eternally optimistic season.
On August 1st I would begin waking up earlier each morning in an effort to expand the space-time continuum. Sleep is vacation's willing accomplice, but also its mortal enemy. Too much sleep can cause you to lose a summer faster than Ray Milland can lose a weekend. Excessive summertime sleep is like a bottle of cheap hooch. It seems like a good idea at the time, but you regret it later.
"Summer is meant to be fun," I would tell myself on August 1. "And there's nothing fun about being in bed!" (Thankfully my perspective on that has changed.)
So I would make my peace with August and do my best to enjoy it. Then, sometime around the middle of the month, I would be watching Bugs Bunny cartoons on Channel 5 when my peaceful bliss would be shattered.
"It's the J.C. Penney Back to School Sale!" the commercial would proclaim, accompanied by relentlessly cheerful stock music. How could they put a commercial that mentioned going back to school on a cartoon show in the middle of August? It was like screaming "fire!" in a crowded movie theater. All the relaxation in my body immediately ran for the exits. I clenched up with visions of early morning bus rides, math quizzes and hair-pulling nuns.
And that was the worst part. These commercials that invaded my consciousness and destroyed my fun weren't even meant for me. I wore a uniform to school every day: bright yellow dress shirt, forest green pants and green plaid tie. I looked like a bottle of Mountain Dew for eight years. But it was okay because, so did everyone else. We all looked equally stupid, courtesy of the fine folks at The Greene Uniform Company of Hackensack, New Jersey. (Yet another reason to dislike the Garden State.)
I never went Back to School shopping in my life. And, if I ever had, it certainly wouldn't have been at J.C. Penney's! Not with those freshly scrubbed cherubs in the commercials who seemed to think that buying school clothes with Mom on a sunny summer day was an absolute blast. I had no need for those dream crushers at J.C. Penney and their discount corduroy slacks or misses separates.
I'm 37 years old. I haven't been a student of any type for more than fifteen years, yet the impending arrival of August still has an effect on my mood. And it only seems to be getting worse because, what used to happen in mid-August is now happening earlier and earlier each year.
This year I noticed Back to School sales at Staples, Best Buy and Bed Bath & Beyond weeks before the end of July. Why would they do this? Who in their right mind would shop for school supplies in July? I am completely baffled by this. But I know one thing: I'm not supporting any retailer that depresses today's kids with inappropriately early Back to School sales.
I spoke with my sister about this recently. She's a teacher living in south Florida with two young daughters, one of whom is about to begin third grade. We reminisced about those lazy, hazy days of summer past, but then she put a new spin on my annual seasonal affective disorder.
"The school year starts for me on July 31st," my sister said matter-of-factly.
"How is that possible?" I exclaimed. "We're still in the middle of the summer!" I immediately began composing my letter to Governor Jeb Bush, in which I would complain about him ruining the summer for millions of Florida kids, while doing my best to avoid topics like Terri Schiavo, my dislike for his brother and my inappropriate lust for his niece, Jenna.
Then my sister interrupted my righteous indignation.
"Keep in mind that August in south Florida is dangerously hot," she reminded me. “There are a lot of poor kids in my school who can't afford air conditioning, so it's actually safer for them to be in the classroom than it is to be at home."
"Oh. Well. When you put it that way." I said, as I tore up my letter to Gov. Bush.
"And that's why you see those ads starting earlier at national retailers," she said. "For people who shop at the Staples around here, Back to School has been going on for weeks."
Nothing dispels righteous indignation like cold, hard fact.
I'm just happy I didn't grow up in Florida. At least, here in New York, I can still enjoy one month out of the year.
See you next year, July. I'll miss you.