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Essay

A Serious Case of Summer Blues

July 14, 2002|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Any day, any minute now, summer is going to arrive. Isn't it? After all, the signposts and seasonal cues are there, those reassuring little rituals that measure out our lives with metronomic precision.

Memorial Day and the Fourth of July have already come and gone, trailing phosphorescent clouds of nostalgia and patriotism. Wimbledon and the summer solstice are but fond memories.

A few days ago, Major League Baseball's All-Stars put off their impending strike long enough to distract us with their annual slug-fest. Closer to home, the L.A. Philharmonic has donned its white evening wear and hunkered down at the Hollywood Bowl until Labor Day. Meanwhile, a giddy Hollywood basks in the moonglow of record box-office hauls.

School's out. The beaches are open. And after a lengthy bout of what sunny-minded Angelenos darkly refer to as "June gloom," temperatures this week shot up into the 90s.

Why, then, does it somehow not feel like summer? Maybe because this summer has been plagued by so many false starts, deferred expectations, odd flashes of lightning. Yep, it's summertime, and the livin' is uneasy.

This summer's flair for the bizarre and troubling was symbolized by Tuesday's All-Star game. Faced with a 7-7 tie in the 11th inning of a contest that already had run 3 1/2 hours, Major League Commissioner Bud Selig declared the game over and sent the players to the showers--without an MVP named--while fans cursed and pelted the field with garbage.

The official excuse was that both teams had run out of pitchers. But it was a Twilight Zone coda to a baseball season already tainted with strike threats and an alleged steroid craze. What's next for America's beloved summer pastime? Banning Cracker Jack in the bleachers? Canceling the seventh-inning stretch?

Across the West, the season of iced tea and surfer tunes opened to the roar of some of the worst forest fires in U.S. history, laying waste to huge stretches of wilderness and threatening to engulf entire communities. Incredibly, of the two alleged suspects in the Colorado and Arizona blazes, one is a U.S. Forest Service employee, the other a firefighter. A friend, just back from the Great American Summer Family Vacation, was asked how he'd found those amber fields of grain and purple mountains' majesty. "Covered in smoke, mostly," he e-mailed back.

Not all this summer's disasters are natural ones. Wasn't this supposed to be the season the American economy threw off its lingering 9/11 jitters and high-tech blues, so we could all get back to making money hand over fist? Instead we've watched one Fortune 500 company after another go down in flames, victims of their own executives' finagling, or of creative accounting practices, or some combination thereof. As the stock market continues to tank, President Bush, after pledging to crack down on white-collar scofflaws, has been put on the defensive about his own tardiness in disclosing a 1990 stock sale.

Not even national holidays have been exempt from this summer's nasty tricks. On the Fourth of July, local newscasters were obliged to open their coverage not with footage of kids gobbling watermelon and beer-gutted men shagging fly balls in Griffith Park, but with news of the shooting death of two people by a gunman at LAX. In San Dimas, the crash of a Cessna in a crowded park cut short the lives of four people. And last week, the alleged beating of an African American man in Inglewood by a police officer, caught on videotape, has raised the specter of other beatings and of long, hot L.A. summers past.

If parts of this summer have been ominous and unsettling, others have been just plain strange. An ebullient South Korean soccer team made the World Cup semifinals while Argentina, Italy and France were sent packing. Weird.... An iconic '60s rock band hints that it may be putting out new music for the first time in 20 years. Then its bass player drops dead of a heart attack on the eve of a U.S. tour. Weird....

Martha Stewart, America's first lady of domestic bliss, finds herself transformed into a shifty-eyed harpy staring down from the tabloid covers, following her alleged stock-trading improprieties. You have to wonder what Ann Landers would have to say about all this. (Knowing Ann, probably plenty.)

Even the recent death of Hall of Famer Ted Williams wasn't allowed to be the dignified, uplifting story of a great American life that it should've been. A world-class athlete and U.S. military pilot in two wars, "politically conservative but in his core the most democratic of men" (as David Halberstam wrote in the New York Times), Williams was an exemplar of a John Wayne-like brand of rugged individualism.

Now, in a grotesque twist, some of Williams' kin have reportedly had the old man's body shipped to an Arizona cryonics lab so his DNA can be frozen and someday used to clone another super-slugger. From sports immortal to Popsicle stick--what a way to go.

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