Well, great, it’s fall now, so you can tuck away those freckles and dim that dazzled stupor of being skin-warm and lazy and slightly more alive. Where just a minute ago you had in your hand a copper cup sweating ginger beer and mint all over it like grass on your knees, now you’ve got a torture rack of #2 pencils and a guy trailing behind you pretending he’s being shot for J. Crew, and where mornings brightened into afternoons melted into twilight deepened into dark, hot, damp forever, you’ve now got a day that’s organized like fucking high school. Nothing’s changed about it, really, except that fall feeling; time to wake up early, time to work, time to check your to-do list, in which the last item is “die.”
Fall is the year’s Sunday, cheerful industriousness that flips imperceptibly into terror, buoyed by the pitch-black gurgle of never having enough time. Fall is seasonal twilight, the kind where the air drops 20 degrees when the sun disappears behind the buildings and you look around, suddenly detached from your body, having lost track of your desires. Fall is the season of requirement, when your brain turns on again and you are opening envelopes and filing papers and remembering you never sent the wedding gifts and you’ve got the sensation of a downhill with the requirement of an uphill and your sock drawer’s an absolute crime zone and you’ve got the taste of iron in your mouth.
Fall is the worst season.
Seasons are taught to us like a foursquare, a perfect schematic in which every part pulls equal weight to form a harmonious whole. This is a lie. The repetition of a cycle does not imply peace. The placement of seasons matters greatly; each must be weighed in conjunction with its neighbors. Like conversations, seasons tend to devolve, but they begin beautifully. Fall comes as temperate relief after summer, which comes as bright release after spring, which comes as capricious but blossoming happiness after so long in the cold. What I mean is that seasons always get better, with one exception: Fall is the only season after which the next is definitely worse.
(You might say, it’s that internal devolution that matters—that proves decline as the norm and not the exception. I hear it: fall ends in brittleness, winter in desperation, summer in the garbagey undecided heat. However, I was raised in the hundred-degree urban swamp of Houston, Texas, i.e. outside the cultural centers where Big Fall prevails, i.e. I love garbage and will not be distracted from the central issue, which is that 60 percent of people in a recent unscientific poll on this website picked fall as their favorite season, and only 2 percent—i.e. me, my phone, and my work computer—picked fall as the worst.)
“Things getting cold” is just not a theme worth honoring. Fall is an off-ramp straight into the worst time of your life. “But what about the people who actually like winter best,” you might say. I don’t know, what about the people who actually think we live in a post-racial America? There are people who say they like winter best (roughly 11 percent of people, according to Gallup), but this is a cohort dominated by children, who disproportionately prefer winter because of the presents, the school break, and the fact that they don’t have to buy their own coats. There are also, of course, a certain number of well-adjusted people who are able to “appreciate” all seasons for “what they are.” I live with one of these people; clearly his life cries out for a strong rethinking. The thing to remember, anyway, is that all these goddamn winter-lovers—masochists, children, holiday fetishists, weather Pollyannas—are complaining like the rest of us come February. There is no way around winter’s merciless brutality, which is the exact thing that redeems it. Honesty impairs anyone competing for the shitcrown of the worst. Fall is as superficially blissful as it is internally deceptive, but winter has the exact same surface and essence. It’s pain as opposed to anxiety. It’s preferable to fall in the same way that I’d rather be dead than thinking about it.
Winter only flirts with dishonesty, actually, with the involvement of those aforementioned holiday fetishists, who are intolerable by Christmas and maniacal for New Year’s and by Valentine’s animate piles of sale-section CVS trash. I’m not talking the jolly homemaker who likes big dinners and getting the family together; the true holiday fetishist is a product of overheated capitalism, a festivity-camouflaged modern-day ghoul. The holiday fetishist loves rituals of consumption, no matter their substance, and these rituals of consumption really get going in the fall.
It all starts with the back-to-school feeling, a sensation beloved by freaks. This feeling is prim, ambitious, organized, high-strung, pedantic and subtly deviant if sustained over time. Driven by an instinct that’s like a narc inside the heart, the back-to-school feeling manifests materially in various accessories of regimentation and office LARPing. And school supplies, which mainly consist of containers for other school supplies, are cute and fine in their proper context (distracting children as they’re trained for the workforce). But to crave the sensation of these objects without being trapped within the institution that requires them is twisted almost beyond measure. It’s political kitsch, regression to a dollhouse. “FRESH PENCILS,” screech these malcontent psyches. “PLEASE, TEACHER, GIVE ME A TASK!” And yet, inside, the animal self reigns.
As an adult, there are other fall purchases to consider—mostly in the apparel arena, subcategory Comfort Is a Lie. Time to shine, collarbone-shivery girl in a molting pyramid of throw blankets; it’s your season, guy who has ever considered the crime of fingerless gloves. Oh, yeah—you like your sweaters? You like to be cozy? What a nice mug, so oversized, hope those “fall flavors” catch like sourceless emotion, liquid gimcrack in your throat. But of course, sweaters and mugs—at least being functional—are not the worst things you could buy in the fall. The worst things in any situation are those which are primarily or purely decorative (like fall, one might say, itself). Those gourds, those wreaths, meant to signify—what? Latent Puritanism? “It’s decorative gourd season”—forget the motherfuckers—is a dictionary synonym for “I’m white.” Fall’s color scheme is just another thing detached from its native origins and permanently associated with a long series of Mayflower babies, from the settlers whose startup was smallpox Thanksgiving to the men who go to coffee shops to stroke their book spines and pretend to read.
This would all even be bearable if the material palette weren’t tied so sternly to fall’s forced activities, which also reek of a certain Jamestown swagger; they’re Protestant-work-ethic pageants masquerading as—well, again, you’ll have to tell me the draw. Holiday parties at least glitter a little; summer’s mandatory relaxation is openly hedonistic, lazy, and dumb. But fall asks you to go do farm work. I’ll go apple picking at the 7/11 or go fuck myself, buddy! Hand me your Steinbeck and save that hay ride for yourself! No haunted house can out-scare a bar when the lights come on, and all these things are about as photogenic. Unlike with other rites engineered for photography—Coachella, engagements, children—pictures at a pumpkin patch have never once in history looked good.
And yet, you’ll say—there is nothing more beautiful than a fall day.
You’re right. Fall is uncontroversially, celestially beautiful—the light trapping each afternoon in slow amber, the sensation of aerated translucence, the furious roosterish gradation of the leaves. Two years ago, I lived in a pale blue duplex in Michigan with a Japanese maple in the front lawn. Its plumage, always colored within the autumn schematic, would grow especially sharp, super-saturated, for a few weeks during fall. Blood-red, it would switch and shiver right outside my window in the wind, and I loved it, and I would go to sleep loving it, and then I’d wake up one morning with a debauched murder mattress of feather-leaves on my sidewalk and above it, a skeleton tree.
The wages of fall is death. Its beauty is predicated on mortality. The forces that push us towards comfort and industry in this season are, despite Fall People’s absolute love of them, just ways of pulling out of that undertow, which drags us and drags us—draws that incandescent honey light across the city like a bow across strings, at a frequency whose lowest register is inaudible unease. It’s true that there’s a magnificence in the way things go about dying, although even this poignancy is nauseating, as winter comes every year. But winter will come in a more personal sense eventually—the permanent one. And where will your big fucking scarf be then?
Illustration by Jim Cooke
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.