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Suddenly no summer


SUMMER'S COME. If I close my eyes I can hear a hundred insistent hisses as a hundred mothers spray Solarcaine on backs as red as strawberries, hear their tired voices saying acidly: "I told you a hundred times to keep your T-shirt on, but would you listen to me? No."

That was my summer, but summer isn't what it used to be. Children of the 1990s do not sunburn; they sunscreen. This protects their skin from damage and, as a collateral benefit, teaches them math.

Any American kid today can tell you that 30 provides twice the protection from ultraviolet rays that 15 does, and that 2 is a complete waste of time. They are not impressed by good weather.

Oldthink: Beautiful sunny beach day.

Newthink: Greenhouse effect. Global warming. Hole in the ozone.

Fishing has fallen out of favor since we discovered that fish are people, too. ("Do fish have feelings?" a little boy peering at a bucket of dead-eyed flounder with mouths agape asked his mother. "Everything has feelings," his mother replied. Even sushi.) And exploring the hills bare-legged is a medical emergency: Lyme disease alert.

Recently I saw a jumpsuit some mother had invented so her kids could go out without any risk of being bitten by a deer tick. It covered every inch of the body and looked like a snowsuit made by someone at NASA who was in a bad mood.

I try to hold on a few old ways. We plant a vegetable garden, but we've lost interest in the tomatoes by the time most of them appear.

The zucchini thrive, of course, which is God's way of having a good laugh, and each summer we look at them and wonder whether it wouldn't be better to plant something we'd like to eat. When we do, it's eaten by bugs savvy enough to take a pass on the zucchini.

"Why do I get bugs on my eggplant?" I ask the farmer down the road, who lives all winter on three slaughtered pigs, a deer he dresses himself, 100 jars of preserved beans and beer, and whose children spend the summer weeding, picking strawberries and seeking a lift to the mall.

"Because everybody gets bugs on their eggplant," he says. "Blast 'em. I got some stuff left over from the gypsy moth caterpillars I can give you that kills anything."

No. Those days are gone for good. Today's children know as much about insecticide as they do about sunscreen. They think a beach is a place where you can bodysurf alongside a used hypodermic needle.

Summer isn't what it used to be. They are never allowed to be bored. Boredom was once the backbone of summer -- long afternoons spent gazing sightlessly into the depths of the refrigerator, complaining in a high voice, "There's nothing to do."

Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Frank Lloyd Wright -- I am convinced that they began to germinate their important theories during summer vacation, over Kool-Aid and a DC comic, taking a break from tormenting younger brothers.

Today parents are terrified of boredom because they are convinced it will lead to drug use, sexual experimentation and low SAT scores.

So children go to camps: drama camps, computer camps, gymnastic camps, sleepaway and day camps. Sweaty school substitutes. They must be stimulated.

My parents' idea of stimulation was a trip to the Dairy Queen. But today we talk about stimulating children as though we were going to hook them up to a machine and administer mild electric shocks.

"The children are constantly stimulated here," says the director of the day camp. Which I suppose is why they always look so tired.

I have an oldthink attitude toward summer. I picture making potholders out of those stringy things at the Y in the morning, hanging around the house in the afternoon insisting that there's never anything good to eat, then going out to catch lightning bugs and falling asleep in front of the fan.

No sunscreen, no stimulation. Endless days of nothing much. I don't remember being afraid of anything except the summer reading list. (Why was every American sixth grader once required to read Booth Tarkington's "Seventeen"?)

Today our kids learn to be afraid of everything, of ticks and ultraviolet rays and needles buried in the sand and having nothing to do. Trouble is, if you look up "summer" in the thesaurus, "nothing to do" should be one of the first entries. Of course, I have an old thesaurus. And summer isn't what it used to be.

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