BOSTON -- My neighbor and I meet at the corner and exchange September greetings. She is dressed for this new year with a briefcase in one hand, a tugging schoolchild in the other.
''Well,'' she says ruefully, pulled already in two directions, ''back to the real world.''
We are home from vacation. The seaside house that she rents every year has been boarded up. It will linger in her mind over the long workaday winter as her sunlit Brigadoon -- the place where it is always August and her wardrobe is always a T-shirt.
We trade quick notes from the past weeks, and then silently I count the artifacts of this ''real world'' to which we have returned: car keys, pantyhose, school bells, mascara, the computer over my shoulder, the deadline over her head. It is a world as man-made as an alarm clock.
This is the moment for reality checks. Back to school, back to work, full speed ahead. The last vacationers -- even the president -- straggle in to their respective offices. Over cardboard coffee cups and desktop bagels and bulging e-mail files, we offer 3- and 5-minute reprises of the life we chose when we briefly vacated this one. A stay at the beach, a book in the hammock, a hike in the mountains, modest stretches of time that was simply ''off.''
Is this, then, the ''unreal world''? A week or two in a place where the air is not conditioned. Mornings when we get out of bed only because we are awake. The background Muzak of sea gulls. Days we call our own. Is this the modern idea of a fantasy?
As summer slams shut like a storm door, I wonder: Have real life and its artificial counterlife been reversed? Has the most manufactured world now been defined as real, while nature -- especially human nature -- has been relegated to wish lists?
Next to me in the supermarket line was a woman with a basket full of Lean Cuisines and a copy of Martha Stewart Living. What is Martha's multimillion-dollar counterculture? A dream world visited by women for whom cooking is something to read about.
The "simplicity movement"
In the bedroom suburbs that lie empty all day, commuters who work for international conglomerates decorate their homes in ''American country'' decor. Stage sets for the life we aren't living.
And day by day, we are told, the ''simplicity movement'' picks up followers. Or are they voyeurs, romantics who log on to simplicity on the Internet with the aid of a Pentium chip?
There was a time when the deepest American fantasy was to follow Horatio Alger, tyke to tycoon. There was a time when children in the country dreamed of the glittering, hustling, making-it city. But for many in the two-career, two-car, one-mortgage, eight-credit-card world, something has changed. The fantasy figure now is as likely to be the stressed-out manager who chucks it for another way, another speed of life.
A few years ago, a much-parodied catalog sold shirts with tales of foreign intrigue. Today every bottle of roadside jam, every bag of gourmet catnip, every bed-and-breakfast brochure seems to come packaged with a tale of the burned-out or downsized couple who packed up their kids and went out on their own.
If the innkeeper works seven-day weeks, if the jam maker goes without health insurance and the gourmet catnip bags are mass- produced, they do not say so. The story lines we buy are those that promise the taste of an entire lifestyle with a spoonful of strawberry-rhubarb preserves.
I am not surprised that so many of us have created a shadow life, the life that we would live, if and when, if only and when only. But this shadow is not some glamorous image cast beside us, but one as unadorned as a country road.
''Back to the real world,'' says my neighbor as we leave behind goldfinch- and sunset-watching, as we return to offices where the windows do not open and overdrive is the norm. In this strange new dictionary, where the real and the unreal have been transposed, it seems harder to live simply and easier to live uneasily.
In September when re-entry resembles a crash landing, there is barely enough time to wonder about the reality we have created-- a place where nature is a luxury and a sense of ease may be as fleeting as a late summer day.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 9/09/97