They’re at it again,” my wife said with concern.
I looked up and saw flames rising from a pile of dead branches off in the distance. Another night, another bonfire in the woods beyond the stone wall that separates our property from conservation land.
“They’re just kids being drunken, destructive, nihilistic kids,” I said as I knocked back the spit hit at the bottom of my bottle of Bud Light Lime and returned to Paradise Lost, the special 343rd anniversary edition that comes with the free t-shirt of John Milton.
“We should do something to stop them,” my wife said, growing alarmed as the flames climbed higher.
“I cleaned out the brush at the back of the lot,” I said. Maybe it was the Milton, but I seemed to speaking in blank verse.
“No, I’m thinking someone will get hurt,” she said. “One of the boys will get drunk and fall in it, or maybe one of the girls will get too close and her scarf will catch on fire.”
“Well, what do you suggest I do?” I asked.
“You could go out there and bore them away. You’re pretty good at that.”
I stood up and squinted, the better to see what was going on. “I don’t know,” I said. “It’s been a long time since I took on a crowd that big.”
“When was that?”
“The American Society of Chiropodists convention, 1999.”
“Please, do something,” my wife said. “If anybody gets hurt we might be blamed–for doing nothing.”
She was right about that. In today’s litigious society, because of obnoxious lawyers like me you can’t be too careful.
“Okay,” I said grimly. Like Gary Cooper in High Noon, I was too proud to run.
I hacked my way through the tall grass and came to a clearing where the kids were seated around the fire. I recognized a few of them; Derek, the scrappy, pass-first point guard from my U-12 CYO basketball team; Chris, the pot-smoking son of pot-smoking aging hippie parents; Meghan, the nimble vegan vixen who introduced my elder son to the joys of . . . uh . . . BK Veggie Burgers in the front seat of our 2004 Toyota Highlander.
“Hi kids,” I said affably as I ducked under a pine tree branch. “How’s it going?”
The gang looked up at me with surprise. They thought they were beyond the prying eyes and censorious looks of old farts like me.
“Hi, Coach,” Derek said. There was silence; I think they expected me to be judgmental, to tell them to put the fire out and go home, but that’s not how I operate. I accept teenagers as they are, in the fullness of their adolescent stupidity. It’s why we get along so well.
“What’s up?” I asked, my voice a model of equanimity.
“Uh, we came out here because we got bored of playing video games,” Chris said.
“I don’t blame you,” I said. “You know, when I was a kid . . .”–I hesitated for just a moment to see if I had their eyes rolling yet–”we didn’t have video games, but we had great cartoons.” I waited for someone to say “Really?” or “No kidding?” Hearing nothing, I continued.
“Tennessee Tuxedo, Top Cat, Underdog.”
Again, silence. Finally, the vegan girl spoke. “I think I saw Underdog in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade once.”
“That’s him!” I said with enthusiasm. I was glad I was getting through to them. “Those cartoon shows had great theme songs,” I said, as one of the boys stood up, tried to conceal a quart bottle of malt liquor under his shirt and shuffled off. “Come on and see, see, see–Tennesee Tuxedo!” I sang.
They were good listeners, those kids. They sat there and seemed to hang on my every word.
“The Top Cat theme went like this: ‘Mmmmmmmm–Top Cat! The indisputable leader of the gang! He’s the boss, he’s the king, but above every thing, he’s the most tip-top–Top Cat!’“
“I’m not really into cartoons,” one of the kids said when I was done.
“That’s okay,” I said. “There’s plenty of things we can talk about. How about–life insurance?”
To say that the kids were stunned by this segue would have been a gigantic understatement. I truly don’t think they’d even considered life insurance before.
“You know, there are basically two different kinds of life insurance,” I said quickly, before I lost their attention.
A kid whom I’d heard the others call “Dragon” on the soccer field spoke up. “What difference does it make?”
“Well, there’s whole life, which has an investment component, and there’s term life, which is just a basic death benefit,” I said, passing on the wisdom of the ages. “Pretty soon, one of your classmates will become a life insurance saleman, and he’ll start hounding you to buy whole life. Don’t let him do it!” I said this with a stern tone of admonishment. I didn’t want these kids to go down the wrong path in life. “Buy cheap term life, and put the difference between the premiums into an S&P 500 index fund!”
“You really seem to know a lot,” said a Goth girl in a black S&M restraint-style bodice. “I’m going to go home and write this all down before I forget it.”
“Good idea,” I said cheerfully as she walked off with three others. I noticed that the fire was dying out, but some of the hard-core kids were holding on, hoping for something to break the dreary monotony of the sheltered lives they live in our upscale zip code.
I looked into their eyes and saw a great void–a blank where their imaginations should have been. “Do you guys have summer jobs?” I asked after a while. As Paul Goodman wrote in Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society, one of the reasons adolescents rebel is the lack of meaningful work available to them.
“I’m working at the snack bar at the country club,” one of them said after a while.
“You know,” I began, “that reminds me of the summer I spent driving an ice cream truck. That damn jingle–‘Ding, ding, ding–da DING ding ding’–drove me crazy!”
I turned to face them with an avuncular smile–and they were gone!
Just another day at the office, for a full-bore bore.