Saturday, October 13, 2007

Another new autumn

The first 17 autumns of my life were spent in one spot, the central suburbs of New Jersey, where we watched the beach clubs close up for the winter and Saturday afternoons became full with football -- whether we were playing ourselves, watching our peers from the high school stands or sitting on the couch in front of a college game on TV.

The next four falls, I lived in South Bend, where the season really took hold of me. After a week or two of sweltering summer heat, someone flipped a switch and the Indiana nights grew cooler, the days more pleasant. I came to realize in the Midwest how the season really assaults the senses. The crisper air and lower light of the sun makes the colors pop, similar to capping a camera lense with an enhancing filter. The washed-out brightness of July and August is gone. As leaves crunch beneath your feet, every walk makes you more aware of where you are and where you're going. And while summer has its own sweet smells, the baking heat rarely benefits those with overactive sweat glands or does anything to help preserve things left out in the sun -- from milk to beer to garbage. But in fall, the scent of decay -- in the form of those damp leaves underfoot -- is a symbol of the season, and in South Bend, the neighborhood around campus often held the smell of leaf piles on fire every weekend into November.

The Saturdays, of course, meant bagels and beer in the morning, a trek to the stadium in the afternoon, and a night of parties. Sunday, as the Lord decreed, was a day of rest and recovery, usually in track pants -- not to mention NFL football and, usually, some sort of course work to catch up on.

After college, I returned to what I knew, in a sense. In covering high school sports for my hometown paper, I once again spent my autumn Saturdays as I had in my youth, at one football field or another -- this time roaming the sidelines enjoying my priviledged view and enjoying the scent of the cleat-torn grass from end zone to end zone.

But since 2002, I've averaged a new dwelling every two years, twice moving in the fall, which is not known as the season of rebirth and new beginnings. I've always thought the opposite, however. My birthday comes in early September, just before the start of every new school year, so to me, autumn marked the next year after the last. Each new home has meant learning the new and wonderful quirks of our new neighborhood. In Edgewater, it was watching the late-afternoon light bathe Manhattan in an amber glow across the Hudson. In Cliffside Park, it was the smell of fireplaces on Inwood Terrace and the scraping of leaf raking up and down the block. Back in Edgewater, at the conglomerate-run apartment complex, it was catching the last glimpse of the groundhogs in the cemetery below and watching the ivy on the abandoned factory turn red, yellow and orange before dying off for the winter.

Now, we're homeowners, and fall brings with it a whole new set of responsibilities. The screens will soon be replaced with storm windows -- a more intensive task downstairs, where the screens come out and some of the storm windows are more easily maneuvered from the outside. The lawn could use one last trim before winter, and eventually we expect to pull up all the ivy and take out the rhodedendrons on the side of the house. Casey wants to plant bulbs for the spring, too. Finishing certain work indoors -- particularly the strip moulding where the walls meet the floors -- takes on new urgency, because we can't schedule insulation installation until those gaps are sealed so that the insulation doesn't blow out into the house.

I woke up this morning colder than I've been in a long time. Our two previous homes were second-floor apartments, drawing heat from below. In the Cliffside apartment on the second floor of a two-family house, we didn't control the heat -- the downstairs residents did. So while we were overheated much of the winter, at least we didn't have to pay for it. In the Edgewater complex, our only windows faced south, keeping the apartment so warm that our preset thermostat rarely kicked in because it fell below even 70 degrees so infrequently. This morning, the reading at the house was 60 degrees, where I'd set the thermostat back in May, and the heat hadn't clicked on yet. I pushed it up to 65 while I ate breakfast, just to give it a run while I was home. I'm sure we'll long for the days it read 60 on its own before long.

The other day, as I sat in the living room with the front windows open, the cats and I were both intrigued by a pop-pop-popping coming from the street. Confused at first, I realized what was up without leaving the couch. As cars pulled up along the curb in front of a neighbor's house, they slowly cracked the acorns that have fallen to the street. Clearly, the squirrels must be grateful for the assist. Perhaps it's an annual rite for them -- a little help in gathering their stores for the winter. For me, it's another subtle change, another new discovery in another autumn beginning.

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