Programming note: Monday is going to be hell squared on a unicycle. At Noon central time I will be on the Dennis Prager show, thanks to the kind graces of Northern Alliance ringleader Mitch Berg. I don’t have a sitter, so Gnat will be right outside the studio with her iBook playing a game or watching a DVD. This should work for about seven minutes. Then we head cross-town to meet her new teacher and tour her new school; then Hugh’s show, then a two-column night. So if Tuesday’s offerings are rather thin, you’ve been warned.

Right now it’s Sunday night. The windows are open and the crickets are loud. Every so often you can hear them drift out of sync as the temperature wanders down. It doesn’t take them long to regroup. Odd how the song of crickets gets twinned with Peaceful Summer Nights; they’re hardly relaxed. If you spoke as fast as the crickets, one syllable per chirp, you’d sound like a motormouth maniac. But somehow the manic two-stroke beat lulls us into drowsy smiles. Why? It’s the sound of time’s implacable passage, the second hand of the universe. Ticktickticktick, with frogs noting the minutes with ripe wet belches.

There they go again . . . they’ve lost the beat.

Ah. Back in sync.

Of course they spell calm because they sing when nothing’s happening - when it’s dark, when the trees are still, the stars are out, and the last ripple of the day laps against the shore and the great wide lake goes smooth. It’s the cicada that should come out at night, with their great long droning breaths. I’ve taught Gnat that the song of the cicada means there’s still some summer left. Once a day she’ll hear one sing, and she’ll smile: not fall yet. Or, as she put it tonight: “Not fall yet, father.” I love that. Makes me want to smoke a pipe.

This summer never ends. Which is good, because it had no beginning – April smeared into May, which aped the sullen moods of March; June was dank and cold, July had mornings that required long-sleeved shirts. August did what it could. Half the Fair days were cold. But it’s been warm all month so far. The trees suddenly look reluctant to turn, like an audience resigned to ride out a bad play finding something good in the third act. We can all feel the world brighten a little. It’s late, but we’ll take it.

Saturday night was the block party. But not our block, not anymore; we moved away in 2001, happy to be heading to Jasperwood but sad to leave the best place we’d ever lived. It’s the neighbors that do it, of course. There’s been some turnover the past few years, but the people you think of as the neighborhood anchors are still there. They’re the people you still meet at the grocery store, the ones you see at the Halloween party for the kids. The ones you greeted like long-lost friends when spring came and the moms and kids and trikes and bikes returned to the sidewalks.

The block is the fundamental component of urban life, and it has two types: the dense compacted old-style East Coast model with rows of brownstones or tenements, and the block with two rows of houses facing one another under the common roof of the sheltering elms. Worked in the 1890s; worked in the 20s; worked in the post-war ‘burbs. The streets bow to the law of the compass. Up the street is north; down the block is south. The living rooms face the street; the kitchens face the alley. This means that the kids across the street grow up with bright sun at breakfast; you grow up with suppers basked in sunset palette.

You have your allies on the block, but they shift. You have more of a sense of shared territory with the kid across the street from your house than the kid on the same side who’s farther down the block. But you are all united against the kids from the other side of the block, a foreign and dangerous element. Kids from three or four blocks away might as well be Martians, and possibly are.

That’s how I grew up, and that’s one of the reasons the old block has such a pull. It was where we came to rest after the East Coast experiment. We’d already decided on a house by Minnehaha Creek. A fine house, with a broad lawn flowing down to the parkway. Perfect in every respect, but I didn’t love it. I have no idea why. En route to submit an offer, the realtor drove us past this new listing on Girard, and the moment I walked in I knew I was home. Despite the wallpaper, which I steamed off. Despite the brown-wood kitchen cabinets, which I spent the summer painting. Despite the carpet, which I pulled up. Despite the mantle over the fireplace, which I crowbar’ed off. Despite the wallpaper in all three rooms upstairs and the color of the bathroom. Nevermind; this was home.

The summer of 1994 was one of the happiest I’ve ever had, even though my wife was still in DC and I had just a TV, a computer, a chair and a mattress. Didn’t matter. Back in Minneapolis, right by the creek, close to the lake, with a back yard, a by-God BACK YARD – after four years in DC apartments, it looked like a football field. No helicopters overhead at night; no car alarms. There were kids out laughing in the streets, but unlike DC you didn’t hear them shrieking and playing at midnight. I was home! And I had a brand new career ghost-writing the MYST novels. What could possibly go wrong?

I’d find out soon enough. But for now, this was sublime. At summer’s end there was a block party, and I wore my dad’s old bowling shirt from the early 60s. At the end of the night someone dragged out a brazier; a fire, s’mores, beer and smokes and conversation long into the night. Heaven and then some. I wore the shirt the next year, and the next. I’d hang it in the closet for a day instead of throwing it in the laundry bin, and it made everything smell like a campfire.

FF to 2004. We park around the corner. The lights are strung over the street, as usual; the grills are out, the keg has its place of honor, there are two dozen kids running around screaming and laughing, a few loose knots of adults. We walk past our old house. The new owner made some exterior changes – swapped the white stucco / green trim for a dusty dun-colored look. She removed the vines that held the house in a loose embrace during the temperate months, and faded to fiery reds in the fall. Keep walking.

“You wore the shirt!” an old neighbor said.

“Ten year anniversary,” I said.

And then there was a party.

Before we left I picked up sleepy Gnat and we sat on the steps of the old house. I told her how I planted that tree, and all these bushes. And I even put the numbers on the house. These were the steps where I sat when we first got Jasper, and everyone came to see our cute new puppy. And these were the steps we walked up when we first brought you home. And these were the steps where we sat in the summer and you blinked and cried, and everyone came to say how sweet you were.

“I was just a lil baby.”

“You were. But I can still hold you the same way.”

She giggled and wriggled and slipped from my and ran to the fire to make smores. I sat on the steps of my old house, wishing I had remembered to put out the Flag. It was 9/11, after all. But it was also a normal late-summer Saturday with so much to do. I had thought about 9/11 when I got up. I had thought about it later in the day when I realized how flabbergasted I would have been in September 2001 to know that the main issue three years to the day later was forged documents about Air National Guard service. Really? My God, things get normal again? They really do? I knew that I would end the day as I always do on 9/11, by getting out the TiVod footage I edited and watching it all happen again. Remember.

But move forward, too. Light a candle, yes. But also drive a rivet.

The block is old enough to have suffered the first wave of Dutch Elm Disease, years ago. You can tell: the south end of the block is still a little light on foliage. You can tell: now and then a square of sidewalk has a circular indentation that marks the spot where once a massive ancient elm trunk stood. The tree’s gone; the accommodation remains. Even the stump has faded back into the earth.

There are three giant elms on the block. Two wear the fatal orange stripe, indicating they have been infected. One’s on the east side, one’s one the west. They are the tent poles around which the party lights are wound. In the next few months the crews will arrive and bring them down. Three days, at most – one to shave the fractal branches, one to carve the thick limbs, one to sunder the trunk and feed it to the chipper.

“How are we going to string the lights next year?” my old next-door neighbor wondered as we discussed the plight of the trees. He shrugged and took a pull off his beer.

“We’ll figure out something,” he said.

Then we had burgers and chips and beer and watched the children run and laugh in the shadows. Is it too much to believe it will be this good next year? No. And that’s something.

Hell, that’s everything.


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