Tuesday, September 14, 2010


More than any other season, autumn is steeped in tradition.  Perhaps that’s because it’s an amalgam of all the other seasons.

There are the end of summer clearance sales, the back-to-school sales, the Labor Day sales, and the pre-season ski sales.  There are a plethora of baseball games, football games, sports tournaments, and Rafa Nadal. 

Autumn has a rhythm all its own, but fall officially arrives on the first day back to school.  The date on the calendar is irrelevant, really.  When children with sun-bleached hair and feet that are summer-barefoot brown dawn a backpack and new clothes…it is autumn.

Something changes.  Everything changes.  The air seems crisp, regardless of the dictates of the thermometer.  And the refrigerator is still colonized with its late-summer picnic remnants, as red and gold delicious apples encroach upon the territory.

Taking our kids, and now our grandkids, to their new classrooms to meet their new teachers is an autumnal rite of passage.  But it never gets easier. I wonder why. There is an air of excitement, but there’s also a tug at the heart.  The annual ritual, with its smells of pencils, chalk, blackboards and books should go off without a hiccup after all these years of “first days.”

And it does…for the most part.   The kids do just fine.  It’s me.  I get the hiccups.  I don’t understand why, as I say good-bye and walk away, relinquishing custody to their new teacher, why they suddenly seem taller, a little older,  bigger, somehow, than they were just the day before at our final picnic of the summer.  But this is as it should be.  Life has a certain ebb and flow that imposes appropriate order. 

Time passes in increments so small they’re barely noticeable…until they accumulate and cluster around my heart when school starts.  Seats that seemed to swallow the child just a year ago have lost some of their large.  I like to think they’re making furniture smaller these days.  It’s the ultimate down-sizing. 

I wouldn’t change things, even if I could.  I’d just slow it down long enough for the hiccups to pass.

Labor Day is the true harbinger of autumn…and the Christmas season.  Holiday catalogs with pictures of angels on the front, herald the glad tidings that there are only four more months until the Big Day arrives, and I’d better get crackin’ because I’m already behind in rackin’ up my over-indulgence credit card debt so crucial to capturing the “true meaning of Christmas.”  I wonder how Mary and Joseph ever had time for birth and taxes when there was so much to do to prepare for the holidays.

Apparently Nieman Marcus didn’t get the memo about the current recession.  Boy Howdy!  Buy a couple of items from that little establishment, and I could single-handedly cause the DOW to leap a couple of points.

By Labor Day, Halloween-themed items that have been on display since the Pioneer Day Parade must be moved aside to make room for the Christmas decorations.  So much for the old adage that “to everything there is a season.”

But by far my favorite Labor Day tradition is the International Sheep Dog Championship.  This is the competition in which border collies and their handlers work as two people with a single brain to pen a group of incredibly unpredictable ( not to mention dumb) range sheep off the mountain, through a series of upright panels, over the river and through the woods and into an 8X9 pen.  Not as easy as it sounds, because shouting obscenities is not allowed.  The border collie cannot excite the sheep, but must control them with just his presence…and intense gaze.  This technique is known as “the eye.”  The dogs seem to hypnotize the sheep into following their demands.  A skilled border collie can deliver the herd within the allotted time without having to touch or confront a single ewe. 

With a series of tweets and whistles, the handler, never leaving his post, communicates the commands necessary for the dog to drive the animals through the course successfully.  The handlers rarely use audibles, but one woman had a voice like a Wagnerian bull horn.  When she hollered, “LIE DOWN!”,  all six thousand spectators hit the ground!

Well, needless to say, I was inspired.  So much so that I thought it would be a good idea to set up a similar communication system for me and Dennis.  That way I wouldn’t have to nag and plead with a constant hum and drone as annoying as the vuvuzelas at the World Cup Soccer games.  Brilliant!

So here is my simple tweet command system to ensure efficiency and harmony in our household:
1.    Whee-Who:  pick up your towels.
2.    Whee-Wheee-o:  pick up your towels…or die.
3.    One Prolonged Whistle Blast (compound signal - command with implied threat):  pick up the towels – there’s a sale at Nordstrom, I have your credit card, and I know how to use it!
4.    Whee-Whee:  PUT THE TOILET LID DOWN!

I’ve been working on “the eye,” but my technique needs practice.  I must be doing something wrong – the only one I seemed to hypnotize was myself.  I spent the entire morning picking up towels and closing toilet lids.

Maybe it’s because autumn is a time of nostalgia.  Maybe it’s because so many birthdays are clustered in September – a natural biological consequence of cold winters.  But I tried once more, and failed miserably, to throw away my baby swing.

Every fall I am seized by primordial instinct to clean out closets and discard old and obsolete items – to make room for more stuff that I will clean out next September, because they, too, will be old and obsolete.

And every year I am determined to dispose of the swing that we used to lull our daughters to sleep when they were babies.  The gentle rocking and swaying would calm and compose them.  It was a sweet receptacle that enticed fussy babies to slumber.

Obviously, it’s been decades since I nestled their diapered nether regions into that seat.  The swing has occupied a corner of our storage room forever, and gathers dust for months until I make time for its quarterly cleaning.

But things that no longer have a purpose should be disposed of.  It’s the law of practical consequence. Besides, I need the room. So I asked Dennis to remove it from its place in the corner, haul it down the stairs, and place it in the trash bin.  Soon it would be garbage day.  (I’d have done it myself, but I had just washed my hair.) 

Each day thereafter, I looked at that swing with its little toys tied across the front, peering forlornly out of the garbage can.  But I was resolute. Forget the memories. I would not be deterred.  I simply could not justify the expenditure of space simply to house sentiment.  It had to go.  End of discussion. 

Well, Tuesday finally arrived.  Dennis lugged the can to the curb for the weekly pick-up.  And then we waited.  Earlier than usual, we heard the roar and the belch of the garbage truck, with its distinctive beep and squeal. 

Dennis and I looked at each other.  With an understanding that exceeded the communication between border collie and handler, we sprinted to the street in a sentimental smack-down, just in time to rescue the swing with its baby toys on the string, guide it through the upright panels, and return it safely to the 8X9 pen,…in its accustomed corner of the storage room.  And we sighed in relief.

Some things whose primary purpose has expired, are still of great worth.  I just hope everyone remembers that when I’m really old.

I’ll clean out the storage room next year.

Autumn is hidden within every leaf – even when they first bud in the spring.  It’s Nature’s disguise – like the arboretist’s witness protection program.  Not so many hummingbirds at the nectar feeders these days.  But that’s OK.  There isn’t much time for bird watching right now.  I’ve got Christmas shopping to do!