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A brief summer
erica bartel photography—Getty Images/Flickr Select

Come, children, time to don your traditional back-to-school scowl, for it’s Labor Day weekend! Time to wear fake mustaches while dressing up like early labor leaders Matthew MacGuire and Peter J. McGuire, both credited with suggesting the holiday in 1882. Time to sing hymns in honor of the workers who perished in the Pullman Strike in 1894. And don’t forget to leave a quarter under your pillow for the Union Dues Fairy to collect!

Just kidding, we all know what Labor Day is really about: mourning all the fun stuff you didn’t get a chance to this summer. Most holidays offer up equal doses of delight and disappointment (Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, Christmas) but on Labor Day, that balance is especially stark: whatever summer fun you’ve had by now is pretty much all you’re gonna get.

And that’s terrifying, because, let’s face it: the “last” barbecue of the summer is probably also only your second. You might be drinking a freshly made mojito, but it’s the first one you’ve had in years. Your bikini body definitely didn’t happen, and that vodka-soaked watermelon probably never will. You never even downloaded Anna Karenina, let alone finish reading it.

Summer, like everything else that glitters, is never as golden as we think. On Memorial Day we envisioned three months of bliss, punctuated by the satisfying “clucks” of opening beer cans. We never really let go of the school-age idea that “summer” is a break from real life, which it’s why it’s depressing to look back and see that life has been going on like usual this whole time. Even when we’re older and have jobs and responsibilities, it’s hard to shake the idea that we should have this time off.

So the idea of “summer” as a season-long vacation is so deeply ingrained that we can’t believe it’s not real — instead, we convince ourselves it’s just happening somewhere else to someone else. Cue the Labor Day ennui: we have somehow “missed out” on the summer that everyone else was having! Where was I this whole time? Just at work like a total chump? During the summer? Quick, hand me that moldy beach towel so I can wipe my tears. It’s a collective entitlement to summer relaxation that morphs into a shared melancholy when we think we’ve been robbed. Cue the vacant stares over Labor Day hot dogs, the heavy drinking of pale ale, the furious application of sunscreen from a still-full tube.

Because midway through the Labor Day tailspin, it occurs to us that it’s not just summer we’ve missed, but youth. Having a summer break is the privilege of being young, and missing one means you’re officially a grown-up.

Then again, it could help to remember that summer vacations of the days of yore were probably not all they’re cracked up to be. You probably had to get a crappy job or go to a day camp. You couldn’t drive yourself to the beach yet, or have sex, or drink, or make any decisions of your own. If you were in college you could do those things, but you also had other stuff to worry about, like where to get weed or how to get a job or whether your high school friends still liked you. In other words, even back when you had a summer vacation, you probably thought someone else had a better one.

So, cheer up! No need to mourn for summertime lost. And look on the bright side: you can still get affordable office supplies at the Staples Back to School center, for all the work you’ll be doing in the coming year.

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Write to Charlotte Alter at

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