Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Goodbye to the 'Huck Finn Summer:' Three Examples of How We're Losing Our Collective Minds

Kids, teens and even adults. Playing Wiffle ball games. Riding bikes. Playing outside. Swimming in a clean pond. What could more all-American than those things? Unfortunately, the new definition of all-American consists of threatened legal action, fines, asserting claims of potential property devaluation, "safety" issues and creating an "imbalance" in the ecosystem because human beings actually want to be out of doors and do stuff.

It was with great disgust that I read about a series of three articles in which kids being kids and people enjoying nature are in the process of being thwarted by folks who are likely the same ones griping about the epidemic of childhood obesity and lack of community spirit these days.

First there was a story in last week's New York Times about some teenagers in Greenwich, Connecticut who created a Wiffle ball field where dozens of teens were regularly gathering to play Wiffle ball. However nearby residents didn't like it. Didn't like all the kids. The town said they hadn't secured proper permission and permits for what they did. The adults want the makeshift field dismantled. The Times described the situation this way, "It turns out that one kid's field of dreams is an adult's dangerous nuisance, liability nightmare, inappropriate usurpation of green space, unpermitted special use or drag on property values, and their Wiffle-ball Fenway has become the talk of Greenwich and a suburban Rorschach test about youthful summers past and present."

Second, there was a Boston Globe story about a proposed bike trail along no longer used train tracks that is opposed by some residents because they don't want people outside in between properties, riding their bikes and disturbing the environment and, likely, talking. ("Instead of solitude, you'd be having people," one abutter said.)

Third, there was another Boston Globe story about Boston residents who want a city pond re-opened for swimming, as it had been decades ago. However other residents and city officials said they'll fight any change in the status quo because swimming there isn't safe (even though people are already doing it in violation of city statutes), because abutting residents could be subjected to "the deafening din of children from every corner of the city descending on the pond" and -- the clincher for folks who want to pull out a trump card -- because allowing swimming would disrupt the pond's ecosystem.

Yes, by all means, let's tell people that we hate impromptu, unsanctioned playing of Wiffle ball or dips in a city pond. Let's tell them that they can only ride their bikes alongside clogged busy streets or really narrow rural streets winding through New England or shell out money and secure the proper permission to utilize existing municipal ballfields, the only place where games should be played. Let's tell everybody that if they dare to step outside of their homes and try to do anything outside, they need explicit authorization from local officials and residents. Oh, and let's ask the squirrels and the ducks if they mind if we humans frolic.

As Boston Globe columnist Derrick Z. Jackson wrote: "So much for the romantic vision of families bicycling together, with little Johnny and Jamila wobbling on training wheels. So much for teens who actually disconnect from Facebook for facetime, community cleanup, and -- good heavens -- exercise. No, no, no. Some people are so divorced from society that they see this as almost evil."

The Times' Peter Applebome put it even better: "All kids deserve a Huck Finn summer. We perhaps have lost our collective minds about our overscheduled, overstressed young. But in the end, maybe there was a reason that Kevin Costner built that Field of Dreams in Iowa and not in Greenwich."

Image credit: The New York Times/Rob Bennett.

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