Washington — One of summertime's charms is the way it tinkers with our ordering mechanisms. What's important and what's not, what's enduring and what's fleeting, what's normal and what's out of the ordinary: Summertime shifts the terms.
Take the news, a funny, fluctuating thing in summertime. We get lazy little stories that would never see the front page in bigger news seasons. And then, unexpectedly, huge stories pierce the lull. One day you're reading about what part of the mind solves problems. The next day Mideast peace talks implode, a Concorde bursts into flames, and Dubya has chosen his veep.
Summertime's reordering of rhythms permits us to see how meaty the "lighter" stories are. A gender gap in black college attendance, the role genes play in cancer, a spat among researchers over whether boys or girls have it tougher in adolescence: These are enduring currents, even as the big news skitters more dramatically across the surface.
In sleepier news times, health stories rise to our notice. These are the stories that remind you life is short but also that we can do better with it. A study concludes that the test they usually use for colon cancer misses the disease a third of the time. You really need to get that colonoscopy.
The brain is like a muscle, another study tells us: Read, learn a language, do crossword puzzles, and you keep it healthy. Watch television, your brain goes into neutral, atrophies. This new theory (how long will it last?) is such an improvement over that tiresome old one, the one that said everything was over for your brain by age 5.
The blurring of divisions between big and small, what's serious and what's not: Summer vacations have the same quality. We set off for relaxation. We end up delving deeper into life. It's on such a "getaway" that you find out your brother is heartbroken, or your kid is in love. You realize it's time you had a baby. Or you think, for the first time, about what you'll do after you don't go to work every day. You escape from "reality"; you find something more substantial.
Summertime's schedule-shiftiness invites a re-examination of the ordinary. At home to receive the mail, you linger over the announcement of a friend's mother's death, the bulletin lovingly describing a rich and wonderful life. It arrives the same day as your nephew's wedding invitation. Together, these two, amid the drift of bills and catalogs and real estate sales pitches.
Big news vs. little news, individual vs. global. An e-mail says another friend's husband has six weeks to live; the radio announces a plane has crashed into a French hotel: Grief and mourning, human loss on one scale and on another. Or, what is personal and what is political? Dick Cheney's voting record in Congress is instructive. So is his record as defense secretary. But something about the man himself makes him appeal to moderates despite a deep conservatism. What?
What is his life like? The press says his own thoughts of running for president four years ago foundered on family worries: One of his daughters is gay. Does he feel that has less power politically now? Did the daughter object before, but no longer? Does this matter less when you're running for the No. 2 slot?
And what about his wife? Lynne Cheney speaks briskly against anything she loathes. She particularly loathes political correctness and other sins of liberal excess. She likes to draw clear lines. Where does accommodating her daughter's life fit?
For that matter, what lies behind Cheney's gaining 40 pounds (according to one report) since last we knew him nationally? Is he unhappy? Scared about his heart troubles or oblivious to them? And what's the difference, anyway, between a weight problem and an eating disorder?
Personal, political, a puzzlement: Summertime blurs the lines, jostles the priorities, upsets the hierarchy. Perpetual family squabbles, enduring conflict in the Middle East. A little Cuban boy and his father are reunited; Cuban-American relations are changed as no political initiative has changed them in 50 years.
Some things never change, we say. And then they do. What else will follow this way? Race as the defining issue for American society? Will it tip one day, and will people wonder ever afterward why we were so obsessed?
In one presidential election, crime is the major issue; crime gives way, in the next, to sprawl. Like a big pot of water lapping one way, tilting, lapping the other. Slow, mysterious, timeless.
Geneva Overholser is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. Her e-mail address is email@example.com