WOODS HOLE, Mass. - August, not April, is the cruelest month. The days are still long, but with the impatient intensity of the waning summer of boundless sky, yellow sun and white sand, foaming edges of ocean. There's the first hint of melancholy. The children sense it as they pass the drugstore and supermarket shelves of back-to-school supplies, and no matter how playful and colorful the displays, the evidence is irrefutable. Summer's in retreat.
But summer isn't what it used to be, anyway, such is the power of nostalgia, even in an idyll like Woods Hole, with the diffident sophistication of urban visitors seeking the succor of a small New England town.
Visitors no longer leave the "other life" behind. Bikers on paths that curve around the point of salty sea are busy on cell phones, often forgetting to look at the sailboats on the horizon. Teenagers caught in a spontaneous cloudburst, who in another century would have tapped into a sense of adventure in nature on the loose, stop strangers to borrow a cell phone to call parents to pick them up.
A woman in a maid's uniform walks a golden retriever and the dog suddenly rebels against its gentle nature, biting the woman as she tugs at the leash. ("Golden bites the hand that doesn't feed it".) Neighbors call 911 and gossip while they wait for the emergency medical team to arrive, talking about the way the new summer people aren't like the old summer people. An old summer person would have walked her own dog. But this isn't Washington. The ambulance arrives in only seven minutes.
The supper table literally groans, under plates of fresh halibut, tuna or bluefish, bowls of sweet corn steaming with melted butter, greens from the local fields and thick slices of tomatoes as red as the last roses clinging to the flat wood fence. The tomatoes taste the way tomatoes are supposed to taste.
This is the same table that earlier in the day held a laptop computer, with children and adults competing for time to retrieve e-mails from distant friends. Message machines and faxes keep work and social life alive in the house that is empty of people on a sunny day.
Kids watch videos of "Arnold," the child with a head shaped like a football, from the back seat of the SUV while parents talk about another Arnold (with muscles the size of footballs). "Hasta la vista" is the goodbye greeting of the day. "Die fast, Baby."
Comic and serious cultural references are high-tech, whether of "Inspector Gadget" or "The Terminator." A 4-year old listens wide-eyed to tales of "Uncle Wiggily and his Friends" and doesn't understand how Gentleman Rabbit's red, white and blue crutch could substitute for a barber pole. What's a barber pole? The mug of barber's lather doesn't look anything like the stuff from the can his father uses. The glass jar that Uncle Wiggily fills with fireflies to light up the forest isn't nearly as much fun as a flashlight with three different settings.
Thus has it been, always. When my mother talked of churning fresh peach ice cream in a wooden tub, made with the creamy milk she had taken from the family cow on a tiny farm in Ontario, I felt pity for her. She grew up never enjoying the thrill of digging out the chocolate in "Chunky Monkey" or the nuts in "Uncanny Cashews."
A man down the lane cuts the grass with a hand-pushed mower and the kids think he's eccentric. Physical exercise is for people who work out in gyms and run in marathons. If the lawn has to be cut, there's a powerful mower with a place to sit and ride, above it all. Ordinary tasks require little energy.
Grown-ups talk of farce in California, and for once there's no tension over talking politics because it's about entertainment, not politics. Whoever said politics is show business for ugly people obviously didn't know about the Terminator. Vacations and real life have become interchangeable, too. In the high-tech world of work and pleasure it's hard to make distinctions between work and play. Children only think they're playing computer games; they're actually "stretching educational strategies." Pagers find fishermen pretending to seek solitude.
Getting away doesn't mean what it used to mean, but it's not all bad, considering the alternative. By the time the new backpacks are filled with books and there's no sand on the floor beneath the computer or the fax machine, high tech lives will have moved into a higher gear. Soon enough we'll recall the summer's idyll as an interlude of delicious distraction. More iced tea, Mom?