Monday, August 17, 2009

Making Time

Slices of summer --
and the seasons of a life

I suspect that I'm not unusual in having running mental obsessions to occupy my time when doing fairly mindless tasks like mowing the lawn, folding laundry, or taking a shower. Perhaps because I'm in the history business, these mental obsessions typically involve segmenting time.

For instance, I've spent a fair amount of time mapping out the components of a month. You could simply divide one into two halves: early and late. Or you could slice it into thirds: early, middle, and late. But this is more complicated than it appears, because 31-day months don't cleave evenly. On the other hand, 30-day months don't have the nice fulcrum on the 16th, fift
een days on either side. Thirty-day months are always either early or late.

I also make a distinction between early and beginning as well as late and end. The 6th of a month is the beginning of the month because it's less than a week old; the 27th is the end of the month be
cause there's less than a week left. The 9th, by contrast, is early (not the beginning) and the 22nd is late (not the end), because while they fall in the first or third segments of the month, respectively, they have more than seven days behind or in front of them. I also made distinctions between, say, early-mid month (e.g. the 12th), or late mid-month (the 18th). After a while the whole thing got tedious, so I stopped doing it. But it was something to get me through a vacuum cleaning or leaf-raking session.

This is the year I finally decided out how to segment a summer. What's surprising when you start to think about it is how many standards there are. The simplest is meteorological: as a matter of temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere, summer = June, July and August. As a matter of astronomy, i.e. the amount of light in the day designated by the summer equinox (longest day of the year) and summer solstice (halfway to the shortest), the season begins at slightly varying points in the day on June 20th and ends at some point on September 20th or 21st. Culturally speaking, summer in the United States is widely understood to commence on Memorial Day weekend and end on Labor Day weekend. Independence Day on July 4th is more or less the middle.

For me, none of these periodizations are satisfactory. I think we'd all agree that June 21 is at best a very late time to begin summer, and that the party is long since over by September 20. Some public school students and teachers might go along with the former, but even they wouldn't be satisfied with the latter. College students and teachers are typically done by mid-May; the exodus back to school begins in mid-August. Indeed, as I reflect on all these variations the thing I find most surprising is the way we all seem to assume there's a consensus of what we mean by summer. July is about the only stretch that falls squarely into everybody's definition.

My school year usually ends around June 15, give or take a couple days that vary by the year. I now call the three weeks or so that follow "early summer." Early Summer ends with the arrival of the July 4th weekend, which can happen any time in that first week, and ushers in Mid-Summer, or as I call it, "High" Summer. High Summer is six-weeks long, ending sometime around August 15 (actually, my anniversary falls on the 12th, so I consider it a holiday of sorts). The next three weeks, leading up to Labor Day constitute Late Summer. It's taken me a while to decide on all of this, but it's my story, and I'm sticking with it. Be curious to know it corresponds to yours. I think I can say that by about any standard, we are now in Late Summer.

I know: this is all a bit neurotic. But I like to think it's not all that different from what serious historians do all the time. What marks the effective end of the Roman Empire: the military disaster at Andrinople in 376 CE, the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, or the abdication of Romulus Augustulus in 476? When did that period we call "The Sixties" actually begin? How about the "Middle Ages?" The fact that answers to these questions vary -- vary over time, and vary at different locations at the same time -- is a vivid reminder that time itself is a historical artifact. Time is something we make. But we never make it alone, and we never entirely control it. And while we may make time, time ultimately unmakes us. We resist that process in ways that range from children to blogs, with varying success. Part of what defines that success is our skill in manipulating it for maximum advantage.

For now, at least, we have some more time. What would you like to do with it?