New Clothes and Three-Ring Binders

MY calendar may not admit it, but my inner clock knows better. The alarms start ringing inside my head every year, just about now. Rather than on January 1,life begins in September, after Labor Day has passed. A new year is finally underway. What is it that makes this unofficial starting point so tangible? Is it that September jolts us awake, making us impatient to adjust our hats and resume our journeys, to get on with deeds that require fresh socks and new three-ring binders - or is it just the contrast to late August's lull that makes it seem that way?

I notice September's jump-start more than most, since I live on the edge of a college campus. I've learned to cherish the timeout between summer school's final exams and freshman orientation week. For a blissful fortnight, my neighborhood is emptied of stereos blasting out windows and frisbees whistling between elms. Life slows to the pace of leisurely squirrels and reverent tour groups; while the rodents methodically fill up on acorns, the out-of-town visitors tiptoe about, one ear cocked toward their guide, one eye toward the landmark under discussion. Then the squirrels skitter up trees and the tourists trail back to their minivans,leaving quiet expanses of brick and lawn behind.

August and its lull may seem the perfect antidote to our wound-up lives, but September still comes when we need it most.

It comes in warnings - that first day when the air is clearer, the edges around buildings and treetops are sharper, the sky bluer. Never mind that the humidity will settle back in again; September's change of season has been announced.

It comes in the urgency of days that get darker earlier - as if the sun has lopped an hour of daylight off our evenings without our noticing it until just now. September is forewarned by a window left open that demands more covers in the middle of the night, or a breeze that makes the kitchen floor feel cold under bare feet when you stumble downstairs to feed the cats.

September comes in aromas. It smells of chrysanthemums, with tight green buds ready to spring open and stave off the browns and grays of October and November. It smells of toxic hi-lighters and magic markers and plastic notebook/organizers, of new leather shoes and mail-order clothes that arrive just in time for school. Never mind that the things I get in my mailbox these days are closeout summer stock from L.L. Bean and J. Crew, they still have that get-ready-for-fall smell, all crisp and plastic-wrapped, untouched as yet by detergent or human sweat.

September is time to move on, up, out, in. U-Hauls and moving vans line the streets in my neighborhood, where lives and leases begin in September. In these parts, it's a well-settled individual who can buy a stereo or a TV or a personal computer and throw away the box it came in. I've been living in the same place for nine years, and I still have a collection of custom-molded styrofoam and mover-proof containers for things like printers, speakers, food processors. How can any of us be sure we might not be carting that keyboard across town or across the country, come this September or next? Who knows when I might heed the September call of the wild?

September is for getting serious. It's for everyone back in their places - no more end-of-summer sabbaticals, no more springer spaniels lolling about at press conferences or Kennebunkport White Houses. September is for seminars and serious reading material, regular hours, and sensible shoes.

September is time to get quantitative. It's the start of the season for checking daily to see where my beloved Red Sox are in the standings, with how many games to go. (``The Blue Jays might have time to win some more,'' says Joe Morgan, Boston's manager and resident sage, ``but they won't be able to lose any less. We'll beat 'em in the loss column.'') September is time to calculate magic numbers, those combination of good-guy wins and bad-guy losses that will spell out victory for the Olde Towne Team. It's time to wonder whether October will leave me calculating individual glories - Roger Clemens's Cy Young hopes or Wade Boggs's battling title chances, for example - in the face of faded pennant hopes. September can be cruel in that way.

I stopped to chat with my mailman today, as he was coming and I was going. He handed me back-to-school flyers and fall/winter catalogs and far-flung postcards from other people's last summer sprees, more proof of my New-Year-in-autumn thesis. ``Great weather, huh?'' I said, remembering last week's insufferable heat.

My mailman smiled. ``Didya feel the air this morning,'' he asked. ``Felt just like football.'' We all know the signs.

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