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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Trigger warning: the following post contains morbid content, dark humor and potentially controversial subjects told in a non-PC manner. It may also be peppered with gross misrepresentations of life and facts. It is highly recommended that you go away right now.

Oh. You’re still here.

Well this is your fault, then, because you were warned.

I enjoyed a lovely Zoom call with my friend Kaarina today. We regularly catch up with the intent of solving all the world’s mysteries and problems. We come close sometimes, but that whole “404 page not found” thing has really thrown a monkey wrench into the equation.

Anyway, today’s conversation hovered around the use of sunscreen for a moment. Why? Because Kaarina had a rebellious moment and went outside to do yard work without it. More significantly, she deliberately went out without it. Because who says you need sunscreen!

But the conversation was not really about sunscreen. It was about how we are in a constant state of fear about everything, conditioned to wonder about and try to preempt whatever is going to kill us next or debilitate us or ruin our lives.

We lamented this state of fear and imagined mayhem. We reflected on the fact that we survived our lives to date, even in spite of never knowing that Teflon was going to peel off your pan and kill you.

When I was a kid the biggest threat was “brush your teeth so they don’t rot out.”

I don’t remember a cloud of do-this-not-that hanging over my head. Maybe my parents felt differently, but beyond not letting us cross the street alone or go past the white fence with the dog up the block, we pretty much lived our lives.

We went out and played by ourselves, and there was no surveillance. We didn’t go equipped with cell phones and GPS and – god forbid – microchips to keep tabs on us. Nobody had “find my phone” turned on so we could be tracked down to the corner of the block we were on.

We left the house in the morning, got on our bikes, and came back for dinner.

I mean, we weren’t allowed to disappear. I remember once when I was too terrified to bike up the hill home because someone on the block had a dog that liked to run out into the street and bark and snap and terrorize me, I took the long way by the lake and was late getting home so naturally my mother assumed I was dead.

Then one time I succumbed to peer pressure and let my friend convince me to ride home with her before riding back to mine, in spite of knowing I’d be late, and my mother was none too pleased.

So clearly we had some rules.

“Don’t disappear” is a good rule.

But these days you don’t let your five year old out of the house without a cell phone with you on speed dial. These days it seems like everything is not just an existential threat, but a threat to your actual continued existence on planet earth.

Could it be true that my nine year old nephew is safer riding in the back in a car seat? No idea. All I know is I remember sticking my brother David, barely able to walk, into the front seat of my car and strapping him in so I could take him to the mall and show him off.

I remember my mother returning from the hospital after giving birth with a newborn in her arms in the front seat of the car.

We survived this.

So do I wear sunscreen?

Only if I’ve been vampiring all winter and am going out into the 95 degree sun for the first time. Because I don’t feel like coming home burnt.

But on an ordinary day, no. I managed to be a summer camp counselor for five years without wearing a drop of sunscreen. The tanner, the better.

I slathered myself in baby oil and literally lay outside on a blanket to fry myself. So no, I did not wear sunscreen.

Will I get skin cancer? Who knows. If I don’t I’ll get [insert other horrible disease here] from eating flax seeds contaminated with cadmium or drinking water contaminated with trichloroethylene or using a container that isn’t BPA-free.

Or else I’ll just get run over in the parking lot by the next person who thinks “drive on the right side of the road” is merely a suggestion.

Other things that did not kill me: riding a bike without a helmet.

Not only did I survive not wearing a helmet as a kid, but I also survived riding a bike standing up while someone sat behind me and held onto my waist as we barreled down the hill fast enough to outrun the terror dog.

I fell off my bike plenty of times, even once had stitches. Not on my head, but on my knee.

Is it possible that some kids fell and smashed their head into a rock with less than ideal outcomes?

(Trying not to be morbid.)

Sure. Anything is possible.

But does that mean that forever until we die of BPA or acetaminophen in our drinking water, the rest of us have to wear a bucket on our heads instead of feeling our hair stream out behind us in the wind, on the off chance that we’ll fall and crack our skull open?

If anything, kids should have to wear a helmet on the monkey bars. Have you ever seen kids on monkey bars?

Hell, I WAS a kid on monkey bars. If you played on monkey bars you did it upside down or it just wasn’t considered proper.

You swung upside down and hung by your knees and flipped around them like a gymnast and never once did it occur to you that you might crack your skull open.

Maybe it did to your parents.

But nobody wore helmets on the monkey bars.

The thing is, anything can work out less than ideally.

I bent over to pick up a newspaper and put myself in traction, so maybe newspapers should only be set on counter-height ledges.

I think there’s reasonable precaution and then there’s fear mongering. And I think that in a lot of cases we’ve tipped the scales so that the idea of riding your bike down a hill past a flesh-eating dog without a helmet would be the stuff of horror movies. Not because of the dog, but because of that death-defying bare skull.

Today’s snowflakes would be horrified at how we rode in the car as kids. Stuffed into the back of a van, sitting on the tire wells because there were no actual seats let alone seatbelts. And we did this day after day after year, on long and short drives with my grandparents and we loved every second of it.

Besides, that made it easier to crawl up to the driver’s seat and check on grandpa or get a snack from grandma if you really needed a cheddar goldfish.

Somehow we survived this.

I’m not arguing the veracity of seatbelts. I wear one today. I’m just saying, we survived stuff before we were told we couldn’t.

It’s really astounding how many things are in imminent danger of killing you on any given day. We have to drink bottled water because drinking it out of the tap just makes you a savage. Wait until someone hears we drank right out of the garden hose, warm water and all, and it tasted like rubber and was fantastic. Best water I ever drank.

We have to pay $13 for organic cranberry juice because of whatever goes into non-organic cranberry juice that will most certainly kill you.

The Peloton treadmill clearly hates children. I mean, I looked it up. Over 125,000 of them sold, and a kid died. I’m not saying that wasn’t awful and tragic, but more kids die drowning in toilets every year and nobody’s banned pooping.

Is it possible to make a treadmill that’s safe for everyone at all times, even for people like me who tend to fall over while standing in place?

Is it possible to eliminate all threat of injury or death from inanimate objects?

Remember roller skates?

These metal plates with a screw in the middle and a curved edge in front and back to hold onto your shoe. You loosened the screw until your foot fit into it then tightened it back up and buckled the leather belts and off you went.

In shorts. On asphalt.

Stuff got bruised and scraped. It never deterred us.

Then Rollerblades happened and you had to go decked like you were preparing for urban warfare, with your knee pads and elbow pads and helmet and wrist guards.

Here is the difference between my childhood and kids today.

Someone in the 70s: hey you wanna go rollerskating?
Me: yeah!
:::buckled up and out in five:::

Someone in the 2020s: hey you wanna go rollerskating?
Kid: yeah!
:::two hours later:::

Although more realistically, it’s probably likeā€¦

Someone in the 2020s: hey you wanna go rollerskating?
Kid: what’s a roller skate? Check out this video of a deer walking up a slide!

This was a lot more than I planned to write when I chuckled over the Great Sunscreen Rebellion.

I’m not trying to minimize safety precautions and I’m sure there have been a lot of improvements since the 70s, like taking lead out of plastic bracelets. Probably even the treadmill could have some new safety mechanism that kicks in to avoid running over some poor kid. But I also think that our survival rate was pretty good, even though we ate bologna and Wonder bread.

And I think we’ve overdramatized to the point of sucking some of the joy out of life.

When I was a teenager, I went to a pool party where some of the kids climbed up onto the roof and jumped into the water. This was not the smartest thing, perhaps, but they survived.

The thing is, you can’t legislate or design out stupidity. Or accidents. Or even tragedy.

And even if you could, even if you could live in a perfectly safe haven of utopian bliss, where nary a car accident happens and certainly no child sticks a Cheerio up their nose and ends up in the ER, there would still be a wasp outside on the balcony and it will probably sting you to death.

I will leave you with one final, brief story of the childhood I survived. It was the truest brush with death, and it happened on the monkey bars.

I was in kindergarten. On the playground outside there was a dome-shaped lattice of a climbing death trap, with a firehouse-style pole that you could slide down once you reached the top.

One day I took a notion to climb to the top even though I had never gone past the first rung before. I made my way up, one rung at a time, traversing wide gaps between, until I reached the top and stepped out onto the platform beside the pole. I surveyed the great land from my 47,000-foot perch, glorious and triumphant.

Then I looked down.

Did I mention that the ground was 47,000 feet away?

I turned around and looked at the monkey bar dome of death behind me, thinking, perhaps, that I could go down the way I’d come up, one rung at a time. But the gap between me and the dome had widened exponentially since I stepped foot on that platform.

I was stuck.

Too terrified to move, and too timid to screech for help, I stood there until the teacher called an end to recess. And then came over to find out why I was still on the monkey bars. I explained my plight, by carrier pigeon, because she was too far down to hear.

She nodded, then went and got a seventh grader who came over and promptly picked me up and set me on the ground.

Trial survived!

Photo: the best part of every fall was when dad raked every leaf in the yard into a pile under a huge tree. We took turns climbing up the overhanging branch and diving into the pile. We survived this.