THIS is the week when a bittersweet question hangs in the air: Where did summer go? The season that in early June promised to stretch for three carefree months has ended, leaving in its wake long lists of activities still undone: Weekend trips not taken. Friends not invited for backyard parties. Gardens not weeded. Books not read.
Labor Day has always marked the unofficial end of summer. The sound of crickets, the sight of maple trees tinged with red, the reality of shorter days and cooler nights - all signal a return to a brisker pace and more serious activities: school and work.
But increasingly summer winds down long before the calendar flips to September. Like Dr. Seuss's Grinch who tried to steal Christmas, a host of grinches now try to steal - or at least shorten - summer, putting the season even further out of sync with the calendar. So numerous are the forces conspiring to shrink it that summer may soon belong on an endangered-season list.
Who stole summer? Consider a few of the leading suspects:
The Grinches of Academia. Once upon a simpler time, school ended the first week in June and didn't start until after Labor Day. Now more and more schools begin in August, in part to accommodate assorted holidays that offer welcome minibreaks during the school year. This year, in many parts of the Northeast, snow days also extended classes until late June - a necessity, but one that shortchanges vacation time.
The Grinches of Commerce. No sooner have the fireworks burst in the 4th-of-July skies than retailers decree a change of season. Racks of summer clothes, light and cool and full of the delicious promise of warm weather and play, go on sale. Replacing them are racks of fall garments, all dusky colors, sturdy fabrics, and serious, buttoned-up styles. Store managers further rush the season by displaying Christmas ornaments and cards.
Emily Post was right about not wearing white shoes after Labor Day. But she needn't have worried. Today in big cities, anything white - shoes, skirts, slacks - starts looking out of season by early August. Blame those mannequins clad in wool. And blame those air conditioners running full blast everywhere, creating a permanent Arctic front that leaves customers and workers shivering in stores, offices, and restaurants. Goodbye seersucker suits for men and short-sleeved dresses for women, staples of pre-air-conditioned wardrobes. Hello dark colors and heavier fabrics, even on the steamiest days.
The Grinches of Technology. In the olden days of low-tech living, a summer vacationer could truly disconnect from the office. A beach or a cabin in the woods offered splendid isolation. Now electronic tethers - cellular phones, laptops, faxes - convert everything from airplanes to mountain huts into portable offices. A worker vacationing on an island in the Pacific can still be chained to a desk in Philadelphia. Translation: No vacation.
The Grinches of Tourism. So successfully has the travel industry promoted global wanderlust that vacation gridlock ranks as a common problem - not only on Martha's Vineyard, where President Clinton just wants to ``veg out,'' but in other tourist spots as well. The prospect of rush-hour traffic at the beach is enough to make some would-be tourists forego summer travel and opt for an off-season trip - Moscow in January, perhaps.
Just as fictional villagers wrested Christmas from the Grinch, perhaps it is time for real-life summer-lovers to plot ways to reclaim their season, or at least prolong it as summer disappears.
Like tourists remembering trips by looking at snapshots, summer-lovers in October can still feel again a bit of August sun by looking at their fading tans. But in January, will it help to recall sand between bare toes by rubbing an insulated boot over a sanded, snow-covered road? If only summer were a state of mind.
Once gone, summer seems like a blessing too good to be true. Let those who have been complaining about the heat remind themselves of that as they grab, like the rest of us, for the remaining golden moments.