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.


  1. I think see-saws were a great educational tool in learning how to navigate relationships. The teeter-totter playmate selection process grew more astute the longer you'd been around. Getting your ass dumped a few times led to more stringent criteria. You learned pretty quickly who NOT to sit opposite. Bullies used it knowingly as a catapult of gullible little sissies.

  2. ow.
    I have much to say and applaud here.

  3. A hell designed by Baby Einsteins? Bela Karolyi would barf.