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After Summer of Discontent, Hope Springs for Fall

September 09, 1993|PARKER'S PLACE | T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month

If summer is supposed to be a season of sunshine, lightheartedness and recreation, then it seems to me that we barely got one this year.

The weather, of course, has been poor by county standards. The June gloom hung around for most of July and August, turning each day into a battle between murk and clarity that usually ended in a tired standoff lasting through sunset. Next day, more of the same. I have a theory that people's moods influence the weather, not the other way around, and my one-man polling of friends and acquaintances has offered me strong evidence that the theory is correct.

What's happening to our working man? All of my blue-collar friends are suffering mightily now under mortgages difficult to pay, health care costs off the charts, a slowdown in work. These are union men, good men, hard-working men, skilled men. Every one speaks to me of living check to check, of home strife brought on by money worries, of the days--just a few years ago--when the checks would cover the expenses and leave enough left over to finance a little fun.

Their wives, who work also, seem to focus their worries on the children: too little time to spend with them, violence and stupidity rampant in the schools they go to, the fact that you've got to be taking down about $15 an hour to make your toddler's day care cost-effective. It is not in the nature of these people to complain. When they do, you know something large is troubling them. It is bound to affect the weather.

The white-collar people I know don't have it any easier. Business is shrinking, and dollars are harder to earn, whether the trade is accounting, medicine, publishing, insurance, real estate, law, what have you. The houses they labored to buy are shrinking in value, as surely as gangs arise in the neighborhoods, freeways become even less passable, tax burdens grow.

In addition, there's a deep and often unsubtle assumption on the part of many that these more affluent professional types have been living off the fat of the land too long; there's a stink of disrespect in the air. It's not a pleasant smell. It's hard to feel good about yourself when you put on a tie. Little surprise to me, then, that our two consecutive dreary summers have come at a time of recession, uncertainty and fear. They are all, quite literally, in the air.

One antidote to desperation is perspective, the kind of perspective one sometimes can get by reading the newspaper. This summer's headlines offered the following balm to anyone here who felt as if his life was unraveling: biblical floods in the Midwest, terrorist cabals operating in New York City, ceaseless carnage in the Balkans, starvation in Somalia.

Looking closer to home, we could console ourselves with news of the murder in South Africa of Amy Biehl of Newport Beach, with the story of the 4-month-old Orange County infant killed by the family's starving pet rat in the car in which they were living; with the fact that our constitutionally guaranteed right to free assembly translates to armed street gangs who think that shooting people is basically an OK thing.

That dark streak of clouds that hangs over the horizon all day? It's the condensation of violence and mayhem sent up from the populace--fear made visible, thought turned to matter.

One sensible way to escape the dismal is to simply leave town. Like a lot of other countians, I tried that a few times this summer. Los Angeles sat in stunned self-consciousness, locked in smog. San Francisco was tawdry, cold, bitter. Berkeley looked like a populist hellhole, though the weather was mild.

The idea hit me that if things in Orange County seemed somehow worse than usual, we weren't alone. (I discovered perfect weather down in the Anza desert, far from what we would call civilization. The quail had bred crazily over the summer, and a hatch of baby horned lizards skittered over the sand like tiny dinosaurs. A five-minute thunderstorm washed a brilliant day even brighter.)

Back home, I was greeted by news of certain young white countians busted on suspicion of plotting to bomb a black church and murder prominent black leaders in order to start a race war. I noted that the sky that day was a heavy, ponderous gray.

It seemed imperative this summer to not lose one's capacity to feel pleasure. Thus, there was some enjoyment to be had from the little things--the meteor shower, the good waves, some fine baseball, Beavis and Butthead. When all the world seems ready to implode, there's much to be said for a cold beer and a conversation with your dog.

But at some point--last week, I think it was--I looked up to that troubled, joyless sky and wondered just who the hell am I in trying to make light of anything? The measure of the human spirit is not always in the humorous little nuggets one can find amid the rubble of catastrophe. Sometimes you just plain give up.

All of which is my way of saying goodby to the summer of '93 and getting ready to welcome the fall. It's coming: You can feel it in the changing shadows, the bite of the breeze, the shortening of the days. For me, summer-into-fall has always been time's grandest annual pivot.

There's a good chance too, that summer will make a liar out of me once again. By the time I see these words in print, we easily might be enjoying a clear, warm, smogless day; we might be reading some great good news in the papers; we might be experiencing that increasingly elusive epiphany in which we realize that even when life is bad it beats the alternative.

We might be sitting in the shade on our last good evening of the summer, exhaling, watching the sun set, tracking the flight of a dove across the blue and into the bright center of the sun.

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