Sunday, August 29, 2004
A terrifying noise woke me up one morning this week - a grinding, growling, squealing sound like a tortured cement truck, which makes children weep and turns men's knees to linguini, even 40 years after the scars have healed.
Yellow buses carry summer like hearses
It was a school bus.
Nothing drains the pool and takes the flip-flops off summer like those unspeakable words, "Back to school.'' It's almost worth it to grow up and work like a serf in a rat-maze of cubicles all year, just to avoid the trauma of being dragged back to the social-studies chain gang after tasting the wild-raspberry nectar of summer freedom.
For me, "back to school'' opens a whole toolbox of nightmares. The stiff shoes that pinch like pliers. The new shirts that scratch and chafe like steel wool. Textbooks stacked like lumber. And bus brakes that screech like an electric drill on a blackboard.
But not everyone feels that way. "I'm glad we're finally going back,'' said a girl waiting for her bus as I was walking the dog. "Summer is so boring.''
She will probably grow up to run the company that buries Microsoft, while people like me can hardly run a floppy disk.
But "summer boring''? I can't fit those two words in a sentence. Summer is not boring. It's the season for what I do best:
My teachers often commented on my ability to understand nothing because I studied nothing.
My bosses at summer jobs often marveled at my ability to do nothing for an entire shift.
Complete strangers would see me on the street with my tattered jeans and hippie ponytail and tell me I was "good for nothing.''
And maaaan, I was good at it.
People who achieve excellence at nothing are not crazy. Just ask yourself who is more mentally shiny at the elbows: The feral commuters on I-75, with the wild-eyed look of pets that have been teased a few too many times? Or the guy sitting on the end of a dock with a line in the water?
(Fishing is the official sport of people who are good at nothing. It's the closest you can get to a coma while still pretending to do just enough to avoid an appointment at the nervous hospital.)
Nothing came easy for me in the summer. I would get out of bed, put on shorts, a T-shirt and sneakers, hop on a bike and spend the entire day playing with friends, chewing grass stems under shady trees and hatching grandiose business plans for lemonade stands that never got past the first pitcher of red Kool-Aid we drank. We declared dirt-clod wars, played army and shot things with BB guns that could put an eye out.
And if anyone asked, "What did you do all day?'' the answer was always the same: "Nothing.''
These days, kids are expected to do something all the time.
Neurotic adults who would form a committee to over-organize a nap in a hammock just can't resist inflicting mindless activity on their children.
Every potentially idle minute is crammed until the seams split, like one of those 80-pound backpacks kids lug to school.
Used to be, a kid who sat under a tree with Huck Finn was doing nothing - and enjoying every minute of it. But when Huck is assigned for "summer reading'' homework, it's just not the same. The Huck I knew would rather take a beating from "Pap'' than do "required reading.''
I think I saw him running to catch a bus Wednesday morning, dragging a backpack like a suitcase packed with 50 pounds of responsibility. He didn't look glad to go back.
Maybe that scary noise was the sound of summer dying.
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