Sunday, August 2, 2009
T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruelest month, but I disagree. I think it’s August.
I hate August.
There’s something about the unrelenting sun, the extreme heat, the sameness to every day, which makes these 31 days the most unpleasant of the year.
The only good thing that ever happened in August was that my son Peter was born on August 6th – Happy Birthday, baby! But my much-beloved father passed away in August, 1985. I miss him every day, and August is when I miss him most.
Even when I was a little kid I hated August. During those years, my passion was swimming, but in Buxton, North Dakota where we lived, there were no actual swimming pools. Instead, we kids worked overtime to persuade some grown-up to drive us out to Asheim’s farm, several miles out in the country.
There were only five kids in my grade in school, but one of them was Bernell Asheim, so since he was a classmate, we felt comfortable using Asheim’s cow pond as a place to swim -- just as we ice skated on it during the winter. At Asheim’s, the swimming season started during the last part of June, when the water was finally warm enough. We swam as often as we could in July. But by August, the pond was unswimable. The water level was very low, and it was green and slimy, filled with algae. When the hottest days of August came, the swimming season was all over.
So was the family vacation. When I was very young, we’d spend a week at Wis & Effie’s Resort on Lake Plantagenet in northern Minnesota, near Bemidji. I looked forward to that one week for the entire other 51 weeks. For seven glorious days over the 4th of July holiday, rain or shine, I’d be in the lake, swimming, boating or fishing 14 hours a day, from dawn to long after dark.
But when that week was over, it was over for a whole year. August was a good time to think about how very long it would be until we could go to the lake again.
By the time I was in high school, my parents had bought a home on the lake, and they spent large parts of the summer there. But by that time, I had a job -- lifeguarding and teaching swimming – at the new community swimming pool. I loved working at the pool, but I was a little young to be living by myself in the family home, not only working every day, but also being responsible for everything from watering and mowing the grass to keeping everything clean.
August never offered much of a vacation – there were times I absolutely knew I could see that darn grass growing, which meant yet another three hot mosquito-filled three hours with the lawnmower.
August was also prime tornado weather, when everyone in the prairie states pays strict attention to the weather and forecasts, dreading the funnel shaped wind tunnels that love to sweep down and wipe out whole towns.
The worst tornado I remember took place in August.
I was with a friend in Fargo, 40 miles from where we lived, where we’d gone to shop for back to school clothes. This was before malls, so we were downtown, going from one store to another, when someone spotted the funnel cloud and shouted a warning. Like everyone else, we ran for the nearest building, which happened to be a bank. Along with about 60 or 70 others, we were hustled into the basement where we huddled against the walls as the tornado passed over, complete with the beyond-description roar. Nothing in the world is as loud as a tornado.
Conventional wisdom is that you try to stand in a doorway or sit against an interior windowless wall. I sat on the floor, but directly across the room was a small slit of a window high up on the wall. As I watched, the huge metal flagpole on the building across the street bent until it lay flat on the roof, then sprung up, then bent flat again.
Weird, impossible things happen during tornados, like finding a piece of straw driven straight into a brick, having a whole truck picked up and set down a half-mile away, or even seeing someone’s kitchen table deposited 100 yards outside the demolished house, with a cup of morning coffee still undisturbed.
Several people died during that tornado, trees were down, electricity was out and dozens of homes were demolished. By the time we two teenagers found our way back home that night, we were totally exhausted.
And then there was the problem of school.
At that time, school – for everyone – started the day after Labor Day, whenever that was. So every day of August was like a countdown to execution – every day meant there was one less day before the combined trauma and boredom of school began again. I was never happy to go to school – which is why, when I got college, I doubled up on studies so I could finish faster, get done, get the degrees and get out.
But all that’s changed now. Now there’s no problem of school. There are no tornados in Israel, swimming pools exist, as does the Mediterranean. Why do I still hate August?
Interestingly enough, the concept of “dog days” -- that most sultry period of July and August – originated right here, in the Mediterranean.
Why ‘dog days’? Not because our canine friends are especially miserable during those days, although they are. Every morning, my two roommates stake out their own personal spaces on the cool tiled floor. From about 9 am to 5 pm, nothing much interests them. They hardly move. They don’t like the heat any more than I do.
Officially the ‘dog days’ extend from 20 days before to 20 days after the conjunction of Sirius – the ‘dog star’ -- and the sun. Even in ancient times, this part of the year was associated with disease and discomfort.
Disease as such may not be worse now than during any other month, but somehow, there’s something sad about August.
When T.S. Eliot wrote “The Waste Land”, he lamented April as the worst month, characterizing it as full of false promises of spring and rebirth. But August is a time of endings. Summer isn’t over in August, but everything good about summer is. All that remains is unbearable heat – and worse than that, the assurance that every day will be exactly like the day before: hot sun, dry and dusty landscapes, with flowers that are all done blooming.
It’s a frustrating month, too. It’s not even easy to work. Israel follows the European mode so here, lots of things are closed during August. If there’s anyone you need to reach, they’re gone, on vacation. Which certainly presents August’s greatest mystery: With everything closed, where does everyone go?
What’s the best thing about August? It has only 31 days.
This too shall pass. August can’t last forever. With a typically motherly rationale, I hear myself saying, “I’m so happy August is here. The sooner we get it started, the sooner it will be over.”
If you can think of anything good about August, I’m waiting to hear it.