Let's just admit it: Summer is hugely overrated.
Spring is just fine. I can enjoy a nice, crisp winter. But summer? Summer is gulping down liquids because you can't stop sweating. Summer is sitting as still as you possibly can in hopes the sun won't notice you. Summer is feeling like a candle that's slowly drooping in on itself. Summer is lunch meat that's just starting to turn, a fly buzzing around your ear, a slight imbalance in your inner ear. It's a dumb season, and I hate it.
There is, however, a good thing about summer, which is that it gives way to the four best months of the year: September through December. Every year, I look forward to this time. Every year I treasure it. And every year, it passes too quickly.
(A note: Today's edition is not really applicable to our friends in the Southern Hemisphere. Just read all of the above and mentally insert "March through June," I guess. Boy, that sounds wrong. How do you live with yourselves? Also, the rest of this is going to be a confusing mish-mash of things you don't have at this time of year, like leaves turning color, and things you do have, like Christmas.)
(Additional note: How is there not a novelty Christmas song about Christmas in Australia?)
I'll freely admit that much of my love for these months is driven by my childhood in the Midwest. September in California is almost always the worst month of the year, because you expect it to start cooling off, but it's still mostly summer, technically, which means that it gets stupid hot, and there's not nearly enough of the other autumn stuff to offset it. So September is managing expectations.
But it's also back to school sales (and even if you don't like going back to school, you surely like a good back to school sale). It's the gradual realization that the year is clattering toward its end. And it's the soft glowing lights and thumping bass drums of high school football games. It's the prologue to everything that's coming.
The beautiful thing about October, November, and December is the way they conclude in the little kid holy trinity of holidays, each subtly topping the other, with Thanksgiving the underrated middle chapter (the Back to the Future II of year-end holidays, if you will).
But this time of year also always puts me in mind of a childhood spent climbing giant piles of corn, the sweet, dusty smell of it clinging to the nostrils, yellow kernels pouring out of my sister and my boots, or the way that frost settled over everything, like nature reminding itself it could still rev up the engines of winter and etch new patterns upon our glass. And it reminds me of the way that everything seemed to get sharper, the air brisker and the colors a last bright flash of brilliance, before the world seemed to muffle, just a bit.
It's also a period of wonderfully intense flavors. We are people who evolved to follow an intense, annual clock of harvest and planting rituals, and even if we don't quite live by those rituals any more, there are pieces of our DNA that never left them behind. It's easy to goof on pumpkin spice whatever and apple cider novelty treats, but there's also a reminder of a time when those flavors in abundance meant we were all going to live through another winter. The next time you feel like making fun of some person sipping at a pumpkin spice latte (and we've all done it), think about that: This is an echo of an echo of an echo of a tradition meant to celebrate the simple fact of survival. Digging out a gourd, baking a pie, making a feast. All ways of marking this clock.
And, of course, we come to December, the harbinger of winter, but not always. It can be the last echo of fall. It can even feel like spring or summer from time to time. But even when it does, the days are still darker than ever, and it's still a time when we make more light, in case this is the year when the light finally ceases to be. We've modernized our rituals, but we haven't buried them so very deeply. We've just given them costumes that will seem as strange to people 500 years from now as those of 1515 do to us.
I used to think my intense emotion for this time of year was driven by my religiosity as a child, by the thought of every year re-enacting the pageant of the world descending into darkness, only to be saved via a pinprick of light. But now, as I write this, I think that those feelings were probably a reflection of something deeper in my own life.
Growing up a farm kid, in a farm town, you can't help but be attuned to the way the calendar sweeps you around in ever-repeating patterns. Winter is for contemplation. Spring is for hope and renewal and anticipation. Summer is the time when things can go wrong, and you just hope they don't (which may be part of why I hate it so). And autumn, autumn is when you reach the end, and you can celebrate a year that has gone well or poorly, always in the same manner.
It's also when, his long year of work done, my father would come in from the fields, the machines of harvest parked for another year, and return to my sister and me, again, cheeks cold from the tendrils of winter, eyes tired from all of that work, great heaps of corn and soybeans and wheat in our grain bins, ready to sustain the family for another year, if only monetarily. I remember watching from the window of our house, the little island of light that was his combine, out in the fields, harvesting until late into the night, in a race against winter.
And I waited.
A call for reader requests: I'm going to spend next week talking about scary TV episodes, ideally ones I've never seen. Please email (by replying to this email) or Tweet me with your nominations! (To help you out, yes, I've seen every Twilight Zone, X-Files, and Buffy.)
Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.