Wall Street Journal
By P.J. O’Rourke
Sept. 3, 2011
The logical argument contra summertime should be four words long: middle-age men in shorts. Q.E.D.
Alas, shorts are being worn year-round by us graying porkers with legs as ugly as stump fences—if stump fences had hairy varicose veins. But there are plenty of other things wrong with summer, starting with the fact that it comes at the wrong time of year.
In the contiguous 48 states, the best weather isn’t in June, July and August. Spring is glorious in the South. Fall is splendid in the North. And winter is swell in Florida and the part of California where the four seasons are Smog, Mudslide, Brush Fire and Oscar.
Our summer weather in 2011 consisted of tornados, heat waves, an earthquake and a hurricane. For everyone this side of Nome, summer vacation in the summer is like having a coffee break at 2 a.m.
Supposedly, summer vacation happens because that’s when the kids are home from school, although having the kids home from school is no vacation. And supposedly the kids are home from school because of some vestigial throwback to our agricultural past.
This is nonsense. The little helping hands of farm children were needed during spring planting and fall harvest. (And they must have been more helpful than the little hands of today’s children, or our grandparents would have died of starvation.) Farm kids, if they went to school at all, went in midsummer and midwinter, when nothing much was doing around the barn.
Summer vacation is, in fact, based on horse crap. American urbanization predated the automobile. Horses and what they leave behind them clogged cities that were already insalubrious from coal smoke, industry and notional sewage systems. Come summer, it was vacation time because—if you had any sense, common or olfactory—you vacated.
Men who could afford it sent their wives, children and, if possible, themselves off to the mountains or the shore. I live in New Hampshire, several hours from Boston, which has been full of prosperous urbanites for longer than anyplace in America. Every summer, people who use “summer” as a verb dutifully peregrinate here to the middle of nowhere and take up residence in crumbling ancestral 30-room shingle cottages, although they can’t quite remember why.
And what are Americans doing taking summer vacations anyway? Our economy is a shambles. U.S. debt has been downgraded. GDP has flat-lined. The unemployment rate—with everyone on vacation—is nearing 100%. We should be in the office right now, trying to get the price of small-cap stocks up, developing new techniques of program trading, maintaining confidence in dot-com start-ups, building a fire under the housing market and generally working our tails off the way we were in the summers of 1929, 1987, 2000 and 2008.
At the very least, our elected officials should be back on the job. They left some unfinished business—such as the survival of America into the second quarter of the 21st century, etc.
Swarms of politicians running for president were crawling around every place I went this summer in the Granite State. They ought to be in Washington, where I’m sure they’d be doing good things. They can’t spend more money, because there isn’t any left. And they can’t pass new legislation that’s worse than what we’ve got, right? Or is my mind in a haze from a relaxing summer vacation?
Not that it’s been a relaxing summer vacation. Americans are good at vacationing. We can vacation our pants off. (It literally happens with us middle-age men.) But we stink at relaxing.
A tense and busy futility is the best Americans can do by way of down time. How else to explain golf? And how else to explain all those politicians running for president when they should be kicking back and cooling it while the current president manages their campaigns for them by destroying his political base, his poll ratings, the economy and the nation’s standing in the international community. And that’s what he did just while relaxing on Martha’s Vineyard.
Is it nature or nurture that makes Americans unable to relax? It’s some mutant gene at our house—nothing to do with the family environment. Mrs. O. is too European, only one generation removed from a continent that shuts down completely in the summer. (And what a relief to international investors when it does. Note how the euro fell when the Europeans went back to work at the end of August.) And me, I drink.
American children are said to be overscheduled. We have three, ages 7, 11 and 13, and they are. But neither my wife nor I remember scheduling anything for them. What we had planned for the summer was a little light gardening followed by mimosas on the patio while the younger kids disported themselves on the swing set and the 13-year-old moped in the hammock.
Instead, we spent June through August less as parents than as common carriers, driving a Suburban full of children to places like Math Camp. If my parents had taken me to Math Camp, I would have soaked their martini olives in ant poison.
Buster, our 7-year-old, is obsessed with organized sports. I was the spectator—sometimes the only spectator—at summer baseball games, soccer matches and flag football scrimmages of infinite number and interminable length. To judge by the confusions about time, place and personnel, with the rules of play made up on the spot and many players whose role was apparently to stand around looking like they had to go to the bathroom, Buster himself did the organizing of these organized sports.
Poppet, our 11-year-old, loves horseback riding. She arranged for the “half-lease” of a pony at a local stable. I never fully grasped the concept. But, since Kibbles-‘N-Bits didn’t inform her of his candidacy for president, I gather she was leasing the front half.
We have no idea what our 13-year-old is interested in. Muffin spent the summer with her face plunged into her laptop, her ears plugged into her iPod and her fingers thrust into the buttons of her smart phone. Mrs. O. is afraid that Muffin is being sucked down the trash chute of popular culture. I’m afraid she’s trading derivatives. She’s going to wake up one morning (afternoon, actually) and inform me that her venture-capital fund has effected a hostile takeover, new senior management is being brought in, and I’m fired.
Muffin did not, as far as I could tell, leave her bedroom this summer. And yet somehow I was still always driving to pick her up, usually at Abercrombie & Fitch. Alarming photographs appear on their shopping bags. It’s a good thing for Abercrombie that no one trademarked the male nipple.
We might have had, nonetheless, some relaxation this summer if we hadn’t ruined travel and leisure by deciding to combine the two. It started well. We took the kids to south Texas, where we have friends with a place on a lake. The ferocious June heat was ideal. Our New England-bred children—for whom summer at home is the season when they wear just one layer of fleece—were forced to immerse themselves every waking moment. They couldn’t argue with each other, or water got up their noses.
Keep children wet at all times. When combined with frequent slathering of sunscreen, what you’re doing is marinating them. The tough, stringy gristle of the child psyche is tenderized, and, after prolonged broiling, at the maw of bedtime, child flesh goes down easy.
We could not, however, impose ourselves on our friends for three months. We have our local lake with its charming collapsing boathouse-style New Englandy lake club, complete with peppy, preppy lifeguards to whom the task of yelling at the children can be delegated.
But no heat wave since the Mayflower landed has been sufficient to bring our lake water up to the recommended temperature for serving iced tea. We stick the children in, but they jump right back out no matter how long we hold them under.
Then NASA invited me to the Kennedy Space Center for an up-close, journalist’s-eye view of the last shuttle launch. I finagled an invitation for Buster, too. What he likes, besides organized sports, is terrific noises. The space shuttle makes a terrific noise he’ll never forget. Its rockets are so clamorous that the sound alone will kill you if you’re closer than 800 feet. (As a father of three, I can testify to the murderous effects of decibels.) The usually voluble Buster gaped in silent awe at the blast-off. I found out why when I sat down to write a shuttle launch piece. It’s very hard to describe the experience of a rocket launch when you don’t have access to a full repertory of four-letter words.
To get to the shuttle launch, however, meant hours and hours of travel with protracted airport layovers. Thank goodness for junk food and health nut Mrs. O., whose strictures against anything unwhole-grain or inorganic make junk food so alluring. Eating Whoppers and fries for breakfast together was a bonding experience. Every boy treasures that moment when his father first says to him, “I don’t think Mom needs to know about this.”
Mrs. O. decided that she should have her own bonding experience with Muffin and took her to London. They were cagey about what they did there. “London is so beautiful,” said Mrs. O., “we spent most of our time just walking through the streets.” I think I know what streets—Sloane Street and Brompton Road, between which is Harrods. There was much more luggage when they returned than when they left.
Poppet is our most obliging and good-natured child. As usual with the obliging and good-natured, she’d been forgotten. Some sort of trip had to be cobbled together for her on short notice. Poppet loves horses but is also fascinated with ancient Egypt, particularly mummies. A “Mummies of the World” exhibit was at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Mrs. O. whisked her there.
Poppet returned aglow with enthusiasm about old dead people. Since that’s a 66.6% description of her father, I was flattered. But if Poppet gets fascinated with probate, I’m hiding the martini olives and ant poison.
There was one last chance for relaxation this summer. Hurricane Irene prevented anyone from doing anything. Or should have. As roofs leaked, oak limbs crashed in the yard and I was trying to remember how to start the generator, it was announced that the school our children attend has something called summer homework. This knowledge had been kept from dad and repressed by the rest of the family.
Here is what went on at our house, between temporary power outages, on the last day before school:
Buster completed the printed forms for 10 book reports.
WHAT WAS THIS BOOK ABOUT?
TELL SOMETHING ABOUT THE BOOK.
it was long
I LIKED/DID NOT LIKE THIS BOOK BECAUSE:
I liked this book because it was good
Poppet learned to type.
Muffin designed a science project (“Psychology of Taste Bud Perceptions— Do people think food tastes better if it’s colored red or if it’s colored yucky gray-green?”). She created a historical display showing how daily life has changed since the 19th century (an empty canning jar). And she filled in her PE exercise log for the summer (going upstairs to find her phone charger counts).
Of all the American educational system’s problems, none is more severe than the academic year beginning before Labor Day. There we were, the next morning, Mrs. O. still wearing white linen pants, me with my madras jacket not yet in mothballs, facing the last and worst thing of all about summer—it’s over.