Sunday, November 8, 2009

Taking the Jungle out of the Gym.





When I was a kid, I played in Central Park, at one of the several playgrounds on the east side of the park. One in particular, that I remember well, had a brick and mortar pyramid, that you could scale the outside of, and also a tunnel that ran through it. On a hot day, the sand around the playground would be Sahara hot, but that little crawl space was cool and shady. Often some terrible kid would shove you while you were in there, it being out of site of parents, or more often nanny; they'd take a swipe at you while you were enjoying the cool damp of the passage.  There was a tire swing, mounted horizontally, so twenty-seven kids could get on there like it was the last American chopper out of Saigon, and swing that thing around at terrifying velocity. If you lost your grip, well, have a nice trip, see ya next fall.

Other playground equipment (a term that didn't even exist in the lexicon) were things like 4x4 posts buried on end at different heights, that you could leap-step from one to the next. One wrong move and you'd catch your chin on the next higher post, or you could slip and land straddle. In either case, you'd have to wipe the sand off your tongue with your grimy hands, feel the grit in your molars and the throb in your groin. The metal slides were second-degree-burn hot, the swings high and close, the see-saws without buffer. The safety measure that existed with see-saws was ingrained in its riders - you picked a person who wouldn't jump off when you were at the highest point, sending you rectum-first to the ground. There were no sanitizing wipes, no juice boxes at the ready, no intervening adults with sock monkey cold packs to sooth, scold and separate.  You just took your blows, shook it off and moved on to other things.  Maybe at the end of the day your mom would buy you a hot dog from a cart, or an Italian ice before you got on the cross town bus. It was perfect.

Today playgrounds are a whole different game. In many ways they are better, more plentiful, more modern, less burn-inducing. There are climbing things in the shape of castles with turrets and peep holes. There are slides that tunnel and curl, and benches for the parents.  Nothing to complain about, really. But there's also something missing in these injection molded fun-houses.

There is a lesser-known playground, not far from our house, that I've taken my kids to for some years now. I particularly like this little spot for some very specific reasons.  For one, the whole adventure takes place on grass.  Grass in a playground is a real treat and a novelty.  Mostly today you find the equipment knee deep in wood chips.  Its a safety thing. There's a certain head-height to smack-down ratio that dictates the depth of the chips. But wood chips are sharp and pokey, they get stuck in your sandals, and all the little wrappers and gum and crapoola that falls from kid's pockets gets mixed in with the shards, turning it into a splintery composite of flooring and rubbish. At other places, chips have be replaced with a bouncy rubber matting that is novel, but utterly unnatural. But at our little "castle playground", its grass, with little islands of pea gravel, that is both attractive and round to the toes. With grass, a mother finding a warm sunny spot, could actually lay her body down on the organic substrate and rest her weary bones. An attractive feature.

But perhaps the best part, in addition to the two modern, molded plastic monsters of fun, with bridges and perches, slides and corkscrews, are the jungle gyms. Yup, good old fashioned metal domes that you can climb dangerously high upon. In fact, you climb to a certain point, it becomes necessary to actually invert and change the position of your body at its greatest height. Its death-defying, takes some skill, and is not for pussies. There is also a freestanding set of  high monkey bars, that necessitate a leap of faith to mount, and a goodly drop for dismount.  It also has a set of big swings and a see-saw. See-saws have gone the way of the belted maxi-pad, being far too dangerous in their trust-equation for the modern world.  Someone might actually have fun on one of those things. 

This little park also has something that few others do, shade trees.  In the middle of summer, when the sun is high, and your kids are slathered in an armor of eclipsing sun screen, running from thing to thing, its nice to find yourself sitting under the canopy of nature's original sun block - leaves.  Also nice to spread a blanket on the grass, under the tree and eat your PB&J. This too is a rare treat. Trees have been replaced by pavilions, concrete slabs with rows of picnic tables under a roof. This is not the same thing. Eating your sack of McDonalds at a picnic table is not like laying on a blanket with your smashed sandwich and banana.

This park also has a porta-potty. Not a big deal, and not exactly a privilege to use, but in an emergency, much nicer to have one than not to. Cutting short the fun to find the facilities is everyone's buzz kill.

Today the sun was warm and bright, an Indian summer day, the most delicious of all warm weather days. We headed out for our castle park. The kids chattered amiably in the back of the van and we were full of anticipation for fun.

When we got to the park we found it painfully de-clawed. The jungle gym and monkey bars had been removed, the swings and teeter-totters yanked. In their places, bald patches of memory.  My heart made the sound of an accordion when you let one side drop. The plastic structures are still there, but the stuff that made it different, a little saucy, a little risky, was gone.  The disappointment made my kids have to pee. And, as you might imagine, the porta-john was gone too.

Why did they take that stuff out after twenty years of play? Because someone might find it hard, or fall off it. Someone might get rust on their jeans. Someone might sue.

So sad were we that we'd been fucked with in this way, and so full their bladders, I did what I could think to do, I encouraged my kids to pee on the spot where the monkey bars once stood, the empty sound of their urine splashing on the spot where laughter once pealed.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Falling Back




Every year its the same. Its Halloween, followed by the aggressive ouch that is the setting back of the clocks.  I don't feel happy about the extra hour; I feel hurt and confused.  You don't know where that hour has been. You don't just pick up an extra sixty minutes and dig in like its an eclair. You have to approach carefully, with suspicion.

It starts in the morning, when 7a.m. is suddenly 6 a.m, a deeply unkind weekend hour.  Am I supposed to feel grateful and go milk a cow?  No one's circadian rhythms are deceived by manually ticking back the clock on the coffee maker the night before.  Least of all my little boy, up in the dark, who whisper-talks directly into my ear like its a walkie-talkie, "Mama is it wake-up time?"  Tch tch, is this thing on?  "Get in here."  I indicate with a throwing back of blankets, revealing the envelope in which he is to mail himself back to sleep. This works for a time, sometimes he sleeps, or sometimes he traces the alphabet on my face with his tiny, tickly fingers. But ultimately his wakeful package is returned to sender, and we have to have Rice Krispies in the gloaming.

Its a weird day for me. Always has been. More than birthdays or Christmas, this day marks a passing of time, and the fucked up way its marked only makes it more potent and absurd, with everyone stumbling around like blind moles, late and wonky and hungry at the wrong time.

Historically I've been stricken with depression, but today was different. Today I wandered around lobotomized, looking for a start to something. I felt a certain emotional riptide pulling me away from the shores of cheer and into the darker, colder waters where the big ugly fish of desperation and loneliness swim and feed. But I felt somewhat more Jacques Cousteau about the experience.

I know that there are things I could change to make this time of year better for me. Maybe if I liked winter sports? Or if I could once again harness the anticipation of Christmas. Perhaps if my winter wardrobe weren't so unforgivably utilitarian and used up. Maybe if it weren't such a feat of will to heat my house. Maybe if I lived in a community where the inhabitants didn't burrow so deeply underground. Maybe if the leaves in front on my bathroom window didn't fall away to reveal my chubby nakedness to the chopped down soy plants and the cars that will never slow down enough to notice the nude, weeping lady, framed by the vinyl replacement window.  Maybe then things would feel different.

But instead we're all hungry for dinner at 4 o'clock and I've forgotten how to cook.  The kids are drawn to the TV like the fruit flies to my rotting bananas. My husband travels, and the darkness falls, close and itchy, like a sweater of the wrong blend.

So today it wasn't depression I felt, for a change, thank you upholstery shoppers and my lovely blog readers, all of you have taught me how to lay back and swim parallel to shore. Pulling me delicately, gracefully out of the scary, futile tide. But though I am not drowning, I am mighty tired and needing a clam roll and a beer.

Its still the day that isn't. And there's an extra hour of it.