Quindlen: Summertime Blues

The symbol of the summer of 2008 may well be the FOR SALE sign swinging wildly in a thunderstorm outside a suburban house, or outside two houses, or nearly every house on the cul-de-sac or the street. Or maybe it will be the gas-price signs, the numbers ticking up as rapidly as the symbols on the slots in Vegas as motorists fill their tanks and shake their heads. Or the sodden remains of a den in Iowa, or the smoking husk of a California hill house.

Once I read that humans resonate to the season in which they were born. Maybe that's why I love summer. Hate the cold, like the heat, love the pace. I'm still on a school schedule, and it's not just me. Some offices in New York City go dark on Friday afternoons during the summer months. Compared with the other seasons, summer seems easier, brighter, fraught with promise, a state of mind redolent of lying on a beach at the Jersey shore drenched in baby oil, a sin for which I pay now at the dermatologist's office, and about which I am insufficiently repentant.

Of course there were summers past that were dark and fraught with peril. There was that terrible summer after Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were murdered, when the police and protesters did bloody battle in the streets of Chicago during the Democratic convention, a summer when the American ideal of dissent seemed like a preposterous lie. There was the breathless summer of Watergate, the televised hearings and the revelations of wrongdoing that ended with the August resignation of Richard M. Nixon, a summer when the American ideal of principled leadership seemed like a laughable fiction.

This summer is different. There is, so far, no one day or date, no central event, no indelible political scandal or tragedy. Instead the domino theory that justified the war in Vietnam suddenly seems to be true, not in terms of world communism but in terms of American optimism. One thing has led to another, and another, and shaken the stability of the nation down to the ground.

"Zeitgeist" is a term so overused that the vocabulary guru of The New York Times once banned it until further notice. But there's no better term for the vague and persistent sense, like a low-grade fever, that all is not well in the United States. Most of us expected to hear the term "run on the bank" only when watching "It's a Wonderful Life" each Christmas, but there it was in real time as the investment giant Bear Stearns began to crash and burn. Many of us grew up with the maxim "home sweet home" but are new to the phrase "jingle mail," which describes keys left in mailboxes for lenders by homeowners who would rather default than fight their rising payments under adjustable-rate mortgages.

Whole neighborhoods in the South and West have been foreclosed; whole areas of California are ablaze, while in Iowa they are underwater. In Cedar Rapids, the river broke all records as residents fled homes and businesses. Those of a Biblical state of mind might see the End of Days (or retribution for single celebrity moms and sex blogs) in these natural disasters, while environmentalists said they were not natural at all, but reflected manipulation of the landscape that changed its ability to withstand both fire and floods. The flooding in the farmlands will likely drive food prices higher, which is unfortunate: like gas prices, they've already risen this year at an alarming rate. This has gone down hard with the nation's neediest families, since the food-stamp allotment will not increase until October. No milk and eggs this summer for those poor kids!

Four out of every five Americans—more, if you just survey the wealthiest—think the country is in a recession. But there's a precise formula for such a thing, and economists say it's not so, although Warren Buffett says it is, and my money's on Buffett (I wish). Of course, it's mainly a semantics game, particularly if you're hard-pressed to afford a gallon of milk or a gallon of gas. The economic classification "recession" was actually invented in 1937 when the economy was back in the toilet but FDR didn't want to call it a depression. And the description "depression" first surfaced during the Hoover administration, a substitute for a more vivid but disconcerting term of art: panic.

Most of us feel the ground trembling beneath our feet, as though the epicenter of an earthquake is somewhere else but still nearby. Some of the growth industries in the country nowadays are built around disaster. There are companies devoted to clearing away debris from flood zones, and contractors who tend houses that have been foreclosed on behalf of the banks that now own them. The Forest Service will be hiring every qualified applicant in California to battle the fires scorching hundreds of acres there.

But at least since the days of the New Deal there has been a national assumption that failure is not an option. Playing by the rules and working hard will lead to prosperity. Prosperity will lead to security, and security is immutable. But little seems immutable this summer, and prosperity has led to credit-card indenture. Having a two-car garage has an entirely different feeling when the cost of filling a car with gas begins to edge toward $100. This is the summer of our discontent, when the equivalent of the ice-cream-truck bells is the music of jingle mail, signaling that our old optimistic notion of America is on increasingly shaky ground.