LONDON — What is summer? Silly question, you say. Everyone knows it's the season of warmth and light, a time to work less and play more, to walk a beach and dine al fresco, to putter in the garden, read on the patio, and attend concerts in the park.
But for much of June and July, those expectations went unfulfilled for many Britons as rain - and more rain - dampened skies and spirits. One observer likened it to "living in a carwash." So gray and cool was the first half of the season that the weather set off a public debate about just what constitutes a perfect summer.
Writing in The Times of London, Lord Jenkins offered his ideal: temperatures of at least 70 degrees F., no rain, a minimum of six hours of sunshine, and only a light breeze.
One respondent, insisting that "uniformly blue skies are as boring as uniformly gray skies," suggests a temperature of 75 degrees as a maximum.
A homeowner takes a more practical view. For him, "the best measurement of the quality of a summer is the absolute minimum number of days on which I have to mow my lawn."
Another letter-writer states, "Surely the quality of one's summer is determined by the number of days that the neighbours are away on holiday."
For a visiting American following this debate, these varying ideals of summertime bliss prompt another thought: The biggest threat to summer, at least in the United States, may not be changing weather patterns but changing cultural practices that conspire to shorten or seriously alter this most-precious season.
Leading the list of summer-stealers is the trend toward shorter vacations. The two- or three-week break is in danger of becoming only a memory. In its place are mini-vacations, hurried weekend getaways. Whatever the advantage of shorter trips, most lack the restorative benefits of a longer absence.
Even workers who do escape for more than a week often remain tethered to the office by at least one electronic ball-and-chain: cell phone, e-mail, voice mail, or fax. So much for mental freedom from the job. And pity the underlings back in the office, left on the receiving end of the boss's faxes from the Caribbean or e-mail from the Louvre.
Nonvacationing workers face another summer-stealer: the over-air-conditioned office. While pedestrians stroll by on the sidewalk outside, clad in shorts and sundresses, employees shiver in high-tech meat-lockers, clutching sweaters and longing for moderation. Energy conservation, anyone?
Then there are those other blatant summer-stealers - retailers. Beginning in early July, few shoppers can escape mannequins garbed in autumnal shades and racks filled with wool and cashmere. Similarly, back-to-school promotions, once mercifully postponed until August, have become a late-July staple. Can the first Christmas catalogs be far behind?
Summer-lovers on both sides of the Atlantic understand that their favorite season is a state of mind - not defined by perfect temperatures or the calendar. This year, summer-lovers feel a special need to defend their balmy timeout, their oasis from the rest of life, not just until Labor Day but until snow falls and it's time to dream of summer again.