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Commentary: The summer that never was

  • Story Highlights
  • Bob Greene: It seemed as if the summer of 2009 never arrived
  • He says weather and the economy made it harder to enjoy summer as usual
  • He says more people than ever stayed in touch via mobile devices
  • Greene: We're all given a finite number of summers in our lives
By Bob Greene
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose new book is "Late Edition: A Love Story."

Bob Greene says the weather and the economy made it seem the summer of 2009 didn't happen.

Bob Greene says the weather and the economy made it seem the summer of 2009 didn't happen.

(CNN) -- Did summer really happen?

That's a question more than a few people have been asking -- either directly, or between the lines -- for many weeks now. This has been a summer that has often felt like anything but. And now that we find ourselves in the middle of Labor Day weekend, it may be time to try to figure out what went askew.

Calendar summer is not yet over: official summer began on June 21 and will end on September 21. But in the American mind, true summer always commences on Memorial Day and concludes on Labor Day. Which means that, in our hearts, summer is saying goodbye now.

So why does it feel like it never said hello?

The easiest answer is the weather. Especially in the midsection of the country, the days of summer 2009 as often as not felt like they were being blown in from Manitoba; there was a Canadian chill in the air that would have felt more fitting on Halloween. You half-expected to hear geese.

And that was on the days that were, technically, sunny. Much of the time, the cloud cover was so constant that summer might as well have been taking place beneath the roof of a domed stadium. In the warmer precincts of the nation there were ceaseless reports of driving rainstorms and whipping winds. Meanwhile, the country kept waiting patiently for genuine summer to announce itself.

On one evening in Illinois last week, I observed someone wearing gloves. Mittens in August -- not a good sign.

If the weather was the only problem, though, the phenomenon of the summer-that-wasn't would be more easily explainable. There has been an ineffable and otherworldly aspect to the last three months that has been a continuing part of conversations as people have tried to determine what it is that has felt vaguely off.

(By the way: If you find yourself disagreeing with the premise of today's column -- if you find yourself silently arguing that this has been a great summer, a once-in-a-lifetime summer -- then please know that there are a lot of us out here who genuinely envy you. If you managed to make this summer a time that has been musical in its sun-dappled magic, we salute you and we're jealous. Just don't rub it in.)

One possible reason for the low-grade-fever feeling of the summer may be that many people, because of the economy, did not feel at liberty to bask in the carefree frame of mind that June, July and August are supposed to deliver. It is hard to take a deep breath -- never mind take a long vacation trip -- when you are worrying deep into the night about whether your job will soon be eliminated. And it's even harder if your job is already gone, and your every waking thought is devoted to the task -- a task that on some days seems unattainable -- of finding a new one.

Summer, after all, is not supposed to feel like a luxury item, elusive and locked behind glass and out of reach.

The news itself has felt compressed this summer, like a repetitive and fitful dream. Michael Jackson, the health care town hall meetings, cash for clunkers, that exceedingly odd Beer Summit on the back lawn at the White House ... and all of a sudden it is September.

What probably hasn't helped is that this was the summer when the proliferation of people walking down the streets staring at the screens of their hand-held communication devices seemed to reach critical mass. It's hard to notice what is around you, never mind savor whatever season it may be, when you're peering straight down, absorbed in a flow of digital data. The act of unplugging from the grid appeared, for some, to have become all but impossible.

Out in Southern California, the "Surfin' USA," "California Girls" epicenter of idealized American summers, the week before Labor Day arrived featuring flames and smoke, one more vivid symbol of the not-so-golden summer of '09.

What has been different about this summer? Every year, there is the bittersweet feeling of "the summer went by so quickly." That is part of the beauty of summer, of why we love it. This year, though, it is as if summer has made it to the finish line without ever showing up at the starting blocks.

Why does this matter? Because we all are given a finite number of summers in our lives. There are no do-overs. Once August is gone each year, it's gone.

Of course, we are always encouraged to look forward to the autumn ahead, with its annual pleasures: the leaves turning colors, the sounds of football games, the tang of apple cider, the clean crispness of the air.

And as this summer-that-didn't-really-happen draws to a close, we have, indeed, been told that there is something awaiting us as fall arrives:

Swine flu.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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