Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall ~ Songwriters: Johnny Mercer / Jacques Andre Marie Prevert / Joseph Kosma
I detest that song Autumn Leaves. Yeah I know, it’s a sort of sacrilege to throw shade on Nat King Cole. I’m more or less ambivalent towards the song and Mr. Cole. My issue is that the song brings back memories of Mr. Navarro, my chain smoking guitar teacher who insisted on teaching me “old people’s” songs, like Autumn Leaves, when I wanted to learn Beatles and Beach Boys songs.
Autumn just sort of happened this year. Seemed as if one day I was basking in a warm pleasant Indian Summer when whomever or whatever controls the thermostat decided to turn it down to autumn. One morning I was running in short sleeves and the next I was in long sleeves and watching the puffs of Lexi’s condensed breath as she trotted in front of me.
It can get cold in the Bay Area but it rarely gets COLD; COLD like my cousin experiences in Wyoming. Below zero COLD. Our cold is lower case compared to parts of the rest of the country where you can only do justice to the raw iciness by expressing it in caps, bold and underlined – COLD – screaming COLD. Still it’s what you’re used to and if you’re accustomed to 50 – 60 degree (F) mornings a 35 degree morning is downright arctic. So you have to understand that when it comes to temperature extremes we’re a little wussy here in the Bay Area.
“I enjoy the spring more than the autumn now. One does, I think, as one gets older,” wrote Virginia Woolf.
I have to agree with Ms. Woolf. I don’t do autumn very well these days. Ms. Woolf didn’t just pull that saying from her ass. Then again great writers don’t usually pull phrases from their asses. They leave that sort of thing to political hacks. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz come to mind – but let’s not veer too far into that arena. There’s actually some science behind Ms. Woolf’s comment on old folk and cold weather. Something about changes in metabolism, less elasticity in the blood vessels and thinner layers of fat (As I look down at my belly and a layer that could actually use some thinning I’m not sold on that latter theory).
I don’t favor autumn so much these days but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it’s charm. Even though I shudder, literally, at replacing t-shirts for sweaters and flannel shirts I do still sentimentalize the fall. If I had a bucket list, and I don’t because I really don’t hold with bucket lists, I would put a fall football game at one of those big Midwest colleges like Ohio State or Notre Dame near the top of that list – if I had such a list – which I don’t. There’s something autumnal about the idea of walking across a big, venerable campus on a brisk afternoon, orange leaves crackling underfoot, to a stadium in a place where football’s only rivals are god and basketball.
Autumn and the midwest just seem to fit. Harvest time on a crisp morning; a country road as straight as a rifle shot cutting through endless farmlands; trees clothed in brilliant orange and yellow; small town sidewalks adorned with a bright carpet of crisp leaves.
Sure, I enjoy the serenity of reading in front of the season’s first fire in the fireplace, the snapping of seasoned wood, the dog curled up on her dog bed soaking in the fire’s warmth. It’s the season of mini Snickers bars or a handful of candy corn leftover from the Halloween candy bowl, the first slice of pumpkin pie and the first sip of eggnog. You can’t beat a thick slice of leftover Thanksgiving turkey with stuffing and cranberries all on white bread (has to be white bread). Good for lunch or dinner or even breakfast.
I guess that if it weren’t for the chilly weather, Autumn and I would get along just fine. The problem is that along with the fireplace, the crackling wood and the contented dog, autumn augurs thick socks, bulky jackets and a beanie – and that’s just for inside the house – a house that never seems to get warm. At this stage of my life the passing of winter solstice is one of my favorite days because it’s the beginning of longer days. You can argue that the time difference between December 21st and the 22nd is imperceptible but I can tell, even if it’s really just in my imagination. I can feel that minuscule lengthening down in my cold bones and if nothing else is warm my soul certainly is just to know that we’ve started on the road to longer days, a thawing out and the day when the heavy blankets are packed away and the garden furniture is pulled from the garage.
During my childhood September signaled the end of summer pool days and afternoons playing army in the nearby fields. The coming cloud of nine months of school cast a shadow on the last grilled burgers and hot dogs of the season and the final Saturday at the beach.
These days kids seem to be over summer as July turns to August; they’re bored. Maybe that’s because they spend so much of their days in front of a screen regardless of the season that school offers a change of scenery. My friends and I had many more options and if we spent more than an hour or so in front of the T.V. our moms would kick us out of the house.
“That’s enough T.V. It’s sunny out. Go play with your friends and don’t come back until it’s dinnertime.”
With college, my outlook on the start of the school year changed. I looked forward to the new school year. Fall quarter meant new classes and new challenges. The prelims to the first day of class were expensive and could be bureaucratic pains in the ass but for all their trouble and stress they still failed to dull the anticipation of the first day of class.
In the 1970’s the idea of online class registration would have been dismissed as the fantastic ravings of a lunatic. There was no online anything in the 1970’s. Registration was done in person and began early in the morning with the goal of being first in the registration line. You’d arrive at campus and the fact that you had to park a good ½ mile or more from the school didn’t bode well. A jog to the student center revealed the horror of finding out that you would be falling in line behind what looked like most of the student body already there in an endless queue.
Looking at the snake of humanity coiled around corners the thought occurred that maybe you could just blow off the quarter – try again in winter. The line would creep slowly forward – glacial – and you’ld look down at your list of class choices and start considering alternates. After all if the lit class that you were set on, Hemingway’s Life and Times, was full you had plenty of time in line to convince yourself of the merits of taking a cooking class. Hemingway – cooking? How different could they really be? Hemingway wrote – he most certainly drank. He surely must’ve cooked
Even going to the campus bookstore to buy books held some momentary pleasure. Before getting down to the business of actually finding your books you could browse the goodies; the logoed T-shirts, sweatshirts and caps emblazoned with a pissed off looking school mascot. And how about the aisles of calorie laden, vitamin bereft snack foods; not a crumb of nutritional value to be found in the whole bookstore.
Once the school spirit and junk food trance was broken you got back to the business of finding texts that were sold at extortionate prices. Chemistry texts were legendary for carrying stratospheric prices that strained the limits of an American Express card and the temperance of the cardholder. What added insult to injury done to the pocketbook were the books that required only a partial reading by the professor. To be assigned 15 percent of a 300 page book didn’t qualify for an 85 percent discount on the book price. You paid full freight to use only a fraction of the load.
Back home and after some recovery from the sticker shock, browsing through the textbooks allowed a peek into what your autumn would offer. Some looked exciting and some – well – I still remember my reaction as I flipped through the pages of The Politics of the Prussian Army, required reading for a class about modern Germany. I still have a small handful of my college textbooks including the inglorious Politics of the Prussian Army. On a few occasions I’ve picked it up to see if old age would lend some appreciation but it still provides all the stimulation of 20mg of Valium.
The fall quarter shine started to wear off after a few lectures by the colorless, sleep inducing monotony delivered by a wooden professor whose more appropriate profession might have been as an undertaker; a calling in which he could honestly put his clients down for a permanent sleep rather than the one hour slumbers he inflicted on otherwise vibrant young people. A few weeks in, after the panic of cramming for exams, endless reading and waking up midnights in a library easy chair, book by your side and drool oozing from your mouth the excitement of the school year was for all intents and purposes, spent.
All wasn’t lost though. There was always at least one professor whose brilliant excitement for his subject radiated even to all but the most jaded students or the ones who were there “because it’s a general ed requirement.” I still remember their names and their classes; Dr. Linder’s American History class; Dr. Gelber’s Urban History; Dr. Meier’s class on Mexican History. All of them were brilliant and all of them demanding.
The autumn quarter introduced new classmates and new friends and for me the most striking was Denise. On the first day of Senor Castillo’s (He insisted on the title, Senor), Spanish class I arrived just too late to get my traditional seat of choice; the one in the very back of the class, next to the door. It was the seat that provided a handy unnoticed escape, the sure cure for the onset of acute boredom. That choice seat was taken by a very tall young woman whose chestnut hair flowed in a long silky stream that cascaded down the back and front of a green tartan sweater. I was in love. And as luck would have it the seat next to hers was available.
One of the first orders of business was to choose a conversational partner for the remainder of the class. We turned to each other with questioning looks, shrugged and agreed to be partners. Outwardly I maintained a calm businesslike demeanor that presented an “Okay, I’ll deign to partner up with you” aspect. Inside I was losing my mind.
Three autumns later, shortly after my birthday, Denise broke up with me, told me she was a lesbian. Well, poor, pitiful sheltered me I barely knew what that meant. I wanted to tell her that I really didn’t care what religion she was.
I was crushed. You know how it is? It’s when you lose all interest; it’s when you go to bed at like five in the afternoon because, well, just because there isn’t anything else and then you wake up at something like two in the morning and satisfy yourself that it was all a bad dream until the dreadful moment later when you realize that it wasn’t. In the end I got over it and during the course of my recovery I came to the conclusion that while lesbians were nice people dating one just didn’t hold much future for me.
We ran into each other many years later in San Francisco and got reacquainted over burgers at Hamburger Mary’s a burger joint that catered to a mostly gay clientele.
We talked about where we had been and about our time together. Three years is a long time. What did we first notice about each other?
“You were staring at my boobs.” she said.
“I was NOT,” I protested.
That dinner with Denise included a side order of drama. Cora and I were coworkers, dating each other at the time. Cora just happened to see Denise and I get in my car and drive off. Well, hell hath no fury like a 5 foot tall Filipina who feels like she’s being stepped out on. She wasn’t buying any explanations so she packed up her possibles and moved to Los Angeles.
I’d more or less moved on from Cora during her self imposed exile, until the following autumn when I decided to stopover in L.A. on the way back from three weeks in Italy. We went to Disneyland, which is great to visit in autumn, got reacquainted and a few weeks later she flew to the Bay Area to visit over Thanksgiving and go through the meet the parents ritual. We were married seven months later.
We’ve spent 39 autumns together and hosted 35 or so Thanksgiving dinners until gladly passing that chore (err-tradition) on to my son and his family. Autumns seem colder every year but there is a familial warmth that never dies.
Five autumns ago we took a road trip to Wyoming and Montana. It was the coldest fall I’ve ever spent. One COLD morning in Jackson, Wyoming I got up before dawn to photograph Oxbow Bend in the Grand Tetons at sunrise. Cora got up on a 20 degree morning to ride with me and sit back while I took pictures. The next morning she stayed in the nice warm bed while I got up at sunrise again to take photos of the Moulton Barn, also in Grand Teton National Park
We worry about each other when I take my photo excursions. She wants to know that I’m safe and I worry that I shouldn’t be leaving her in the car or back in a hotel room while I’m out enjoying myself. It all works out. Sometimes she rides along and sometimes she sleeps in and gets up to a leisurely breakfast.
Below is a collection of autumn photos taken at various locations. Featured photo – Oxbow Bend, Grand Teton Natl Park.