Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The End of Summer

As my girls and I were walking our dog the other day, I spotted a lone firefly blinking his way through the dusk. He was floating around the rear bumper of an old Buick, perhaps looking for his friends. I watched his self-illumination with longing, and wished him well as the dog pulled me away.

I guess that firefly didn’t get the memo. Either that, or he was granted one of life’s greatest gifts – an eternal summer. Ah, perchance to dream.

For those of us not living in San Diego or Miami, summer does come to an end every year. We try to ignore it, but those fireflies depart so that fallen leaves and carved pumpkins can take center stage. Baseball’s regular season gives way to baseball’s playoffs, which yield to pro football. It’s a different season, with different rhythms.

Most of us who work as educators in the Northeast have started school this week. The first week of school always feels like you’re going from zero to 75 miles per hour in about 10 seconds flat. Even if we’ve spent days preparing our rooms and curricula, there are just so many new variables that can only arise when those students first walk in the door. They’re here now, and the marathon has started – as it always does – with a sprint. But we will manage our new challenges as they arise, and make sure we’re nurturing our new students in all the right ways. It’s what we do.

And as we do so, we’ll glance over our shoulders and notice summer cruising away. Maybe it’s attached to that Buick, with the firefly serving as escort. Most likely, though, it’s somewhere we simply can’t be right now – like down in the Caribbean, or out in the desert. Last weekend, my wife and I took the girls to the USS Intrepid museum on the West Side of Manhattan. It was fascinating to be on an aircraft carrier and inside a submarine, and the girls enjoyed it quite a bit. But every time we stood on the port side of the ship, we all found our eyes drifting to the giant cruise ship docked just north of the Intrepid. This Carnival ship was boarding for a late-afternoon departure. Some passengers sat in the boat’s restaurant, visible through tinted windows. Others walked around the place, checking out their home for the week. Still others sat on their balconies, staring at us.

It was just too much to take – these lucky souls, boarding their ship for a summer extension. Finally, we turned away, and began walking southbound along Hudson River Park. We stopped to watch some tiny waves lap up against rocks and soda bottles near the Circle Line dock. We watched bicyclists and in-line skaters zoom past us. The girls got to pet a horse from the police department’s mounted squad. And then, as we neared the end of our sun-drenched, late-summer walk, I overheard two women talking as they strolled by us.

“I love the Dairy Queen near me,” one woman said, “because it only accepts cash. That way, I can’t stop there unless I have the money on me.”

The other woman nodded, about to say something. And then they were gone. I had no interest in eavesdropping, so I kept walking. But I took some small consolation in the fact that this conversation was every bit about summer. I could taste that Blizzard – soft-serve vanilla with bananas, please – as we made our way back to Penn Station.

Summer is a collection of strikingly vivid details, photographed with slow exposure. We savor these details, filled as they are with wonder, serenity and – cue the ice cream – even temptation. But this season always manages to leave us. And, like any great romance, the longing makes us love it all the more when it comes back.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Waterlogged American Dream

So much for the American Dream. The two-story Colonial, the wraparound porch, the white picket fence, the backyard garden. Who needs a mortgage when you’ve got hurricanes with which to contend? Here in the Northeast this week, homeowners are dreaming more of an end to the flooding, the sewage backups, the dampness and the fallen trees. They’re dreaming of having their power back. They’re dressing like fly fishermen just to walk out in their streets.

In our home, Amy and I were lucky. We pulled our first all-nighter in some time Saturday as we worked to save our basement. After about 10 hours, 50 towels, dozens of buckets of water and hundreds of broom sweeps, we kept the water from destroying our finished basement.

But we were lucky. We had the chance to fight off the water. For those in nearby New Jersey towns such as Cranford, Paterson and Manville, there was simply no way to stop the rush of water that Hurricane Irene brought with her. For these families, there will be a long road back to normalcy. It is the same all along the East Coast, from Vermont to North Carolina. For some families, there are also individuals to bury in the days after this vicious storm. Talk about a week.

In most of New Jersey, the streets are now passable, although nearly every curb is filled with giant tree branches. For those still without power, the hum of generators can be heard, and extension cords stretch across the street as neighbor helps neighbor. What looks like a midweek yard sale is actually a family’s basement belongings, drying out on the lawn. Most traffic lights are working again, and war stories can be overheard in workplaces, libraries, stores and parks.

It’s been a tough five years for U.S. homeowners. For nearly a decade, Americans were able to make hefty profits from their homes as real-estate prices soared and lenders doled out cash by the bundle. But since the mortgage bubble burst, the American Dream has given way to a bevy of foreclosures, a huge dip in most families’ equity, and a realization that your starter home will likely be your finishing home as well. On top of all that, many regions of America have suffered from severe natural disasters, from New Orleans to Missouri to Alabama to Arizona to the entire Northeast.

So that brings us back to my initial point – what’s to make of the American dream? Should we be working so hard to buy our own homes anymore? Is it all really worth it? I’m 40 years old, and I’ve spent far more time this week thinking about French drains than French kissing. Is that really the sign of an improved quality of life?

Homes are a lot like kids, it seems – they’re a ton of work and money, they make you nervous, they require constant attention and tender-loving care, and – often when you least expect it – they make it all worthwhile. On Sunday night, as our endless day came to a close, a pink sunset decorated the western sky. I stood beneath that setting sun with my daughters, and they wore baseball gloves on their hands. As the swift breeze of Irene’s tail filled our lungs, we tossed a neon yellow softball back and forth. We had this peaceful catch in our own backyard, where we could laugh and talk and throw to our heart’s content. Katie pumped me some fastballs, then hopped inside. Chelsea stayed out awhile longer, and she kept catching and throwing and chatting away. I listened, and caught her tosses.

It seemed like my 6-year-old could play catch all night. On this particular evening, her dad definitely could not do the same. As we finished our catch and walked inside, I heard the crickets starting their song in the gathering darkness. Inside, I heard the running water of two girls brushing their teeth. I walked upstairs to sing my daughters to dreamland in their bunk bed, and, after a few songs, I heard the soft breath of sleep.

In the end, it can be a house, a condo, an apartment, or a FEMA trailer. It’s not the home that makes up the American Dream. It’s the living that goes on inside and outside it. I’ll hold onto my house, all right. (I might even add one of those fancy French drains.) Because in the end, the fury of a hurricane can’t hold a candle to the love of a family. It’s not the American Dream that matters most; it’s the American spirit.