Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Stop for Lemonade

I brake for lemonade

That's a bumper sticker I have on my bicycle trunk; it's also a true statement. I have never, in recent memory, failed to stop at a trailside lemonade stand. I just can't get enough of that sticky, sour-sweet liquid goodness.

Actually, there's more to it than that. You may remember, if you were a trail-rider or just a follower of the local news, that in 2006 teenager Laura D'Asaro raised thousands of dollars selling lemonade on the Burke-Gilman trail just north of Matthews Beach, which went towards improving the local playground. I was a regular customer, and as the summer wore on she started calling me "trunk guy" because of the afore-mentioned bicycle trunk (sans the afore-mentioned bumper sticker, which came later). Besides getting a nice refreshment midway through my ride, my contributions were going towards a cause.

Then there are the young entrepreneurs that I feel good about supporting. It takes a certain level of initiative to put together a lemonade stand, and I want to reward that. Once there were two stands within a couple hundred feet of each other near the Ronald McDonald house on 40th. I stopped at both of them, had a couple of lemonades, and sloshed my way home.

But neither of these really get to the heart of the issue. I stop for lemonade because — well, because I can. If my life is too busy or my commute too rushed to take five minutes to enjoy a cup of lemonade, then my life is too busy, and my commute is too rushed. And that is not the way I want to live my life.

Some people ride the trail for exercise, decked out with heart rate monitors and whiz-bang computer gizmos that tell them exactly how much of a workout they're getting. I see them whizzing past, heads down, legs pumping, weaving around obstacles without slacking their pace (I plan to write a column at some point on trail types — these are the fitness junkies). Others are heads-down commuters on a schedule. I'm a commuter, yes, but I'm doing it to escape the rat race, not just participate in a different form of it. Stopping for lemonade is a way to prove to myself that I haven't back-slidden into commuter hell. The day I have to pass up a lemonade stand because I don't have the time is the day I need to take stock and figure out what needs to be changed. Lemonade stands are my personal canaries in a coal mine.

Sadly, there are precious few lemonade stands. Aside from the anomaly of 2006, when Laura's very reliable stand was a daily fixture, I doubt I stop more than half a dozen times in a typical year. What happened?

I'm trying hard not to use the phrase, "In our culture...," an overused subordinate clause that irritates me no end; as if everyone were some kind of anthropologist. But really, what's going on when a perfectly viable means means of earning spending money is not being taken advantage of? What else can it mean but that the kids that in former generations needed to earn cash are, today, just given everything they need by their doting parents?

Perhaps lemonade stands are coal-mine canaries in another sense. When they die, they are an early indicator of an unhealthy consumerism and materialism in a ... no, I won't use the word! Just end it there: unhealthy consumerism and materialism.

We've been hearing since the 1980's that consumer spending drives the economy, and that we're actually doing a good deed when we spend as much as we possibly can, because every dollar we spend cycles through the economy x number of times and increases the national wealth by a factor of ... yada, yada, yada. Evidence from the trail tells me that today's parents have taken that teaching so much to heart that their children no longer feel the need to work for their toys. Call me a fuddy-duddy, but I think that's a shame.

If this financial meltdown we're now in the middle of turns into a major recession or depression, things may change. When parents start scrimping and saving, and maybe even, perish the thought, skip one generation of Wii/XBox/PS, what will their children do for entertainment? Might they actually have to (gasp!) rustle up some spending money all on their own?

I've got my eye on the trailside lemonade indicator. I'll let you know.

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