All summer, New Englanders have been waiting for summer. Throughout a June and July that never reached 90, and during an August when the wonderfully sibilant adjectives of the season - sweltering, steamy, sticky - went mostly unused, fervent summer-lovers longed to walk out of over-air-conditioned offices and feel even a tiny blast of heat. No wonder at least a few hearts leapt for joy last week when a Weather Channel announcer pointed to the Northeast on his map and uttered that long-awaited phrase, "It's looking more like August."
Yet this belated arrival represents a bittersweet victory. For even as the thermometer flirted briefly with 90 degrees - summer at last! - other unmistakable signs herald the approach of fall. By day, who can miss the first tinge of red on scattered maple trees? And by night, who can fail to register the symphony of crickets tuning up as the moon rises in a twilight sky? This week, crickets; next week, an extra blanket on the bed?
Already an early-morning riser notices a different slant and a paler intensity to the 6 a.m. light sneaking under the bedroom window shade. Already an after-dinner walker must start sooner or take a shorter route to be home by an earlier dark. No wonder suburban sidewalks and streets seem more crowded as walkers and bicyclists count their late-August blessings by lingering outdoors.
Even in this not-quite-summer of our discontent, this season without dog days or brownouts, August reigns supreme as a season of bounty, with bountiful lessons to teach.
August is a great equalizer. A swim suit is not a power suit, and a beach towel - even a very large beach towel, with power toys such as a laptop computer and a cellular phone anchoring its corners - can never be made to resemble an executive office. Hierarchies and titles disappear in the presence of water and sand.
August serves as a humbler in other ways as well. Even the most self-important CEO, returning from vacation, can hardly fail to notice that business has gone on mostly as usual without him - or her. So much for being indispensable.
In the offices of August, where summer clothes turn every day into casual Friday, the month also makes a mockery of lists marked "Urgent" and "Rush." It's hard to feel frenzied in August. Even the "Extremely Urgent" labels on FedEx envelopes, languishing on a vacationing worker's desk, seem slightly comic, raising the question: Are all these overnight deliveries really necessary, whatever the month?
Above all, August is a teacher, offering gentle reminders of the value of reordered priorities. The world needs ants, diligently planning for tomorrow. But it needs grasshoppers too, singing and savoring the moment. The challenge hanging in the warm air is: how to find a balance between the two extremes.
Perhaps that's why August inspires resolutions. Not New Year's-style resolutions with self-improvement overtones - get up earlier, work harder, accomplish more - but resolutions of a gentler kind: Take more walks. Smell more roses. Enjoy more family time. Read more books for pleasure.
The message wafting through languid August days is unmistakable: Lighten up. Slow down. Chill out.
Yet that message must compete with the background noise of merchants who pitch their autumn and winter wares earlier and earlier. The first back-to-school ads began appearing in mid-July. About the same time, a television commercial teased viewers by saying, "It's your first chance to get the Barbie keepsake ornament." Hurry, hurry, only five months until Christmas.
Late August is a season where sweet corn stands ripe in the field, homegrown tomatoes hang heavy on the vine, and jars of jewel-toned homemade jellies - grape, beach plum, elderberry - crowd the counter at roadside stands. Let the would-be season-stealers play their little games. The rest of us will continue to savor the preciousness of the vanishing season at hand, however unsummerlike it might be.