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“It’s the most wonderful time of the year . . .”  That was the soundtrack to an office-supply commercial from a few years ago. It showed a delighted father swooping around the aisles on a shopping cart while his children followed glumly along to pick out their school supplies. It made parents laugh and children glare.

That wonderful time arrived here yesterday. I walked around the neighborhood in the morning and found the street corners filling up with kids, some of them lugging backpacks so big they could use them as treehouses. Parents with cameras milled about waiting for the buses to arrive so they could preserve the historic embarkations on memory chips. It’s a time-honored ritual, although there was a time when we captured it all on film instead of bytes.

I took pictures of my teenagers on the porch before they left for high school. We’ve taken pictures on the first day of school every year and if I had the energy I would find all the pictures and string them together like an educational timeline. Someday they’ll appreciate it. This morning they just looked increasingly put out at an embarrassing parental tradition that was about as cool as wearing black socks with sandals.

After they drove off and my wife left for work and I was alone the house. It seemed unnaturally quiet. It was hard to believe that summer was over, unofficially anyway. This one blew by faster than any have before. Is that a sign of impending age when life stops sauntering and starts to sprint? Seasons now change in a blur, like the pages in a flip book.

I really sensed summer’s impending end last week. I was clomping around the neighborhood the day after we returned from our annual vacation. The customary post-vacation blues were hanging over my head as dark as the clouds that started spitting rain when I was about halfway through my walk. The skies finally opened up as I neared the neighborhood park. It’s a nice little grassy spot with a roofed picnic pavilion, a playground and a basketball court. A little path, its entrance nearly invisible in the undergrowth, leads down a hill to the creek. One day this summer I was just pushing my way through the branches to get onto the path, singing along to some Elton John song, when I was startled and embarrassed to see, out of the corner of my eye, a pony-tailed woman sitting beneath the trees off to my left. One of my life’s goals is to never have anyone hear me singing “Rocket Man” in public, so I was mightily relieved when I turned and the woman turned into a squirrel sitting on top of a rock.

Today I took shelter beneath the pavilion, sitting on top of a picnic table and feeling blue as I watched the rain splash in the puddles outside. The song that saved me was “The One” by Old 97’s, from Blame it on Gravity. I had bought their Fight Songs CD a while back because WXPN played a lot of the tracks—“Jagged,” “Oppenheimer,” Indefinitely,” “19”—and they were all so damned catchy. Some people have a knack for melody like other people have blue eyes and songwriter Rhett Miller is one of the melodically endowed. Fight Songs sounded like a greatest hits album, one killer track after another so I finally downloaded Blame it on Gravity a few months ago. It’s excellent too. “The One,” which seems to be about a band that also robs banks, immediately lifted my spirits. Somehow it managed to stop the rain too so I pulled myself up, dusted myself off, and started walking again.

The next song was “Ruby Baby,” a Leiber and Stoller cover from Donald Fagen’s Nightfly album, his first solo outing since the end of my favorite band in the world, Steely Dan. The iPod’s digital DJ made good choice, because for me that’s a classic fall album and it made me realize that fall was waiting just around the corner. The Nightfly came out in the autumn of 1982. I had just returned to Maine from my stint in California and had used my clips from the Hollywood Reporter to get some freelance work from Maine’s very own music paper, a swell little publication called Sweet Potato. I had read Sweet Potato for years, depending on it for music and concert reviews and news about upcoming shows, but I never thought of writing for them until I returned from California. Now I was a published writer—heck, I had written for the Hollywood Reporter! Either my clips impressed the editors or they were short of writers because I received an assignment to review The Nightfly. The only pay I would receive was a free copy of the album but that was alright with me. Later I wrote a few features for them for almost no pay but I got a byline and a clip and I felt like I was doing something better than just substitute teaching. The editor also sent me a laminated press card that I could use for . . . well, nothing, really, but it was nice to have. I still have it, too, stored away in a box in the basement someplace. I should dig it out in case I ever need to push my way past the police into a crime scene. “Huntington, Sweet Potato!” I’d bark to the cop manning the barricades as I flashed my card. “Where’s the lieutenant?”

“He’s in there,” the cop would reply, pointing over his shoulder. “And don’t call me Sweet Potato.”

Each song from The Nightfly reminds me of Sweet Potato and summons up the smell of autumn leaves. Today was no exception, even in the late-summer’s rain and humidity. It was still August but the seasons were turning. And fall promised to be the most wonderful time of the year.



August 2010
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