Who invented playgrounds and why? It’s an interesting question because they’re a fairly modern development, basically created in response to growing urban populations and the need to keep kids off the streets. Although before the rise of automobiles streets were usually crowded they were still used by horse-drawn carts and, most kids being short, they weren’t always easy to spot and could get run over. While the first playgrounds attached to schools were created in Germany in the 1840s, the idea of child psychologist Friedrich Fröbel, the first play area for kids that wasn’t part of a school was opened in Manchester, England, in 1859.
While that much is known I can’t find anything about who had the idea for that first playground. It was probably a collective idea, though, and, kids being kids, they probably staked out their own territory even in areas that didn’t have a designated play area. I grew up reading John D. Fitzgerald’s Great Brain books, set in small-town Utah in the late 19th century, and one recurring spot for adventures was a vacant lot the kids were allowed to use as long as they kept it clear of trash and weeds.
Looking at contemporary playgrounds I’m a little amazed and a little jealous of how they’ve changed just in my lifetime. The playground at my first school had a collection of all-metal jungle gyms in various configurations and they were fun to play on but they also got hot in the sun. I also remember the day I was sitting at the very top of the tallest one, a squarish rectangular contraption painted bright orange, when I slipped and fell. Most playgrounds now are covered with soft material but in those days it was gravel and often crinoid fossils. I think I blacked out for a moment and I remember moaning, trying to get my breath, but, aside from a few scrapes, I was okay after a few minutes and climbed right back up.
That brings me to how I’ve heard people say, some sarcastically and some, I think, seriously, that modern playground equipment is too safe, and that all the hot metal and sharp edges and rocks toughened us up. I’m pretty sure those who are so cavalier about safety aren’t thinking about their own kids, or may not have kids at all. Anyway here’s an interesting fact: an early advocate of playgrounds in the United States was Teddy Roosevelt. Yes, the archetypal tough guy and Rough Rider believed kids needed a safe place to play. I’m sure he had his critics who felt that giving kids playgrounds was coddling them and that back in their day they were toughened up by having to play in the street.
When a friend sent me a news item that a handwritten manuscript by the Marquis de Sade has been returned to France and said, “When I saw this I thought of you” I wanted to say, “Gee, thanks,” but I knew what he meant. Maybe I knew a little too well what he meant. In college I went through a phase of reading everything I could find by and about Sade. I even read a paper on his work to a local chapter of the Samuel Johnson Society. After I was done the members took me out to dinner and the vice president laughed as she paid my bill, saying, “It’s so funny that I’m sponsoring scholarship of the Marquis de Sade.”
I’m not sure I really got across just what a terrible person he was, or how terrible his writings are, but that was my fault. I wasn’t into his kinks—he’s the source of the term “sadism” after all—but I was enthralled by just how extreme his works were. He covered subjects I didn’t think people in the 18th century even thought about, much less wrote about. He took the idea of “natural man”, unfettered by the laws and standards of civilization, that Rousseau wrote about and Voltaire parodied, to its extremes, asking, what does absolute freedom look like? How much he did personally isn’t clear–he was smart enough not to put too much of his personal life to paper, at least in prison, or maybe but he did but a lot of his work was burned after his death. I’m pretty tolerant of what consenting adults do among themselves but he didn’t seem to care about consent, or limit himself to adults. He beat several prostitutes, was accused of poisoning some with what he probably thought was an aphrodisiac, abducted his sister-in-law, and tried to molest some peasant children. Being a nobleman he might have gotten away with all that too in pre-revolutionary France, but he had a wealthy mother-in-law. His own family was aristocratic but bankrupt and his mother-in-law used money to keep him locked up for various reasons including blasphemy. It didn’t help that some of his exploits got enough public attention that authorities felt compelled to act, and, after the revolution, he still represented the excesses of the aristocracy to many and that Napoleon ordered him arrested for some of his published books.
Anyway there’s no book of his that tries to answer the question of absolute freedom as much as the one that’s just been returned to France: Les 120 Journées de Sodome ou l’école du libertinage. He wrote it, and several other works, while imprisoned in the Bastille. Some of those works he published but Sodom, written in tiny letters on a scroll more than twenty feet long, he kept hidden in his cell. It was unpublishable, maybe even unprintable—at least at the time, and part of me wonders if it should have stayed that way.
On July 2nd, 1789, Sade started screaming from his window that the prisoners were being murdered and the people should rise up and free them. He was taken out and moved to the Charenton asylum where he’d spend the rest of his life. Twelve days later French revolutionaries would storm the Bastille. I don’t think there’s any evidence Sade had anything to do with that, and I doubt he did ; the prison had become a symbol of the monarchy and a raving nobleman probably didn’t get much sympathy. Sade thought his manuscript was destroyed in the attack ; in fact it was found and passed through various collectors.
As fascinated—even charmed—as I was by Sade Sodom was a hard book o get through. Like all his works the plot, if you can even call it that, is pretty simple : four noblemen, a duke, a bishop, a judge, and a banker spend five months in a remote castle where they rape and abuse each other’s wives and children while being entertained with tales of increasing sexual depravity by four prostitutes. The whole thing ends with a murderous orgy, the noblemen marry the prostitutes, having killed their own wives and children, and return to their respectable lives. It sounds almost like satire, and Sade definitely intended it as an attack on the nobility, but even his notes—he didn’t finish the book and most of it is a rough outline—are so detailed it seems like he took real pleasure from what he was supposedly condemning.
It’s a book that pushes boundaries, and it’s so full of rape, torture, and murder I had to skip parts of it, and it really broke any romantic notions I had of him. He could be charming both in life and in his writing but in both he also had a very, very dark side. And his philosophy has some major weaknesses. Sade was interested in defining freedom but his idea of freedom was limited to men of a certain social class; almost everyone else was disposable. When the French Revolution happened he claimed to support it but really, I think, just hoped to be freed from the asylum. He also wanted to return to his luxurious castle and the life he’d enjoyed before prison—he never directed his hatred of the nobility toward himself; when he could get away with a crime he was proud, when he couldn’t it was someone else’s fault, which is ironic for a guy who wrote so scathingly about hypocrisy.
The Marquis de Sade is less famous for who he really was than what he represents—freedom, especially sexual freedom—but who he really was, and what he wrote, raises complicated questions about what freedom means and what its limits should be. So I’m glad Les 120 Journées de Sodome now belongs to the French government. They can keep it.
Atypical is focused on Sam, a young man on the autism spectrum, his younger sister Casey, his parents, his best friend and coworker Zahid, and his girlfriend (although there’s some trouble getting there) Paige.
Even though it’s a comedy Sam’s autism isn’t treated as a joke—although his occasional bluntness does give the show some of its funnier moments and, okay, here’s a small spoiler: one of the show’s most popular lines is when Sam excitedly tells his parents, “I got a hand job in an igloo!” But really the show gives every character their own quirks and difficulties dealing with the world around them. Sam may be the main character but the real point is that everyone’s atypical.
But that’s not what I want to talk about.
What I want to talk about is a scene in Season 4, Episode 1, in which Casey is out for a run. She’s gone through some major changes of her own, particularly in season 3, and is struggling with how to talk to her father. She stops in front of a street painting of a bird.
Birds are a subtle but recurring theme throughout Atypical. Sam is fascinated with Antarctica and especially penguins. He draws penguins and when stressed repeats the four penguin species: “Adélie, Chinstrap, Emperor, Gentoo,” a habit some of the others pick up on.
The bird Casey sees obviously isn’t a penguin. In fact it may not be a real bird at all. The point is that, as the scene pivots back and forth between Casey’s face it’s clear she’s making a decision. What significance does the bird have for her? Why does seeing it help? None of that is clear. It’s a really short scene—less than a minute, just long enough to let us see it and to see that Casey is making a decision, and the payoff doesn’t come until later, almost at the very end of the episode. It’s unusual in any TV show, but especially a lighthearted comedy, to have a scene that’s so ambiguous, even vague, and—but I love that the producers trust the audience enough to do something so atypical.
It’s been a while since I was last in a movie theater and I’m not quite ready to go back to one just yet even though I’d really like to. It seems hard to justify going to a theater when I have an overabundance of movies (not to mention TV shows, documentaries, and, oh yeah, I’ve got a few books too) but I love the experience of going to the theater and sitting in the dark with strangers. There’s the smell of popcorn, having my ticket torn, the process of finding just the right seat. Things happen in movie theaters that could never happen at home, like the time I went to see Pulp Fiction and a couple behind me got into an argument about whether they’d seen Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta together on TV and it was so weird I thought it might actually be part of the movie. Or there was the time I went to see the 2011 film The Thing, which was a prequel to the 1982 film The Thing, which was described as a remake of the 1951 film The Thing From Another World but was actually closer to the source material, the 1938 novella Who Goes There? written by John W. Campbell. Anyway the 2011 film ends with an exact recreation of the opening of the 1982 film and as the credits rolled and Ennio Morricone’s haunting score played all of us in the theater—all seven of us, since it was a box office dud—gathered in front of the screen and had an impromptu film discussion.
Especially terrifying are the sequels that seem like they really could be made.
And, you know, there are some I would actually like to see. Seriously. Sometimes what starts off as parody crosses over into something potentially good.
And speaking of movies that should be real I think we can all agree that the only thing wrong with this reimagining of Calvin And Hobbes is that it isn’t a real full-length movie playing in theaters everywhere.
The people we choose to celebrate and remember don’t just tell us who we are as a society but who we hope to be. That was my first thought when I read that Nashville is naming a street after Bianca Paige, the drag queen name of Mark Middleton, a Nashville AIDS activist who passed away in 2010. And my second thought was to write something about the art and history of drag. Thanks to RuPaul drag queens have gone mainstream but drag has a long and colorful history which some sources trace back to William Dorsey Swann, a former slave who organized balls in Washington, D.C. in the 1880s and 1890s. Wikipedia also traces the term “drag” to the 1870s, but history is complicated, especially the history of people who had to hide who they were for so long.
Anyway I kept coming back to Bianca Paige’s work to raise awareness and money for research on AIDS because, having grown up in the ‘80’s, I remember how terrible the AIDS crisis was. I remember that the worst part of it wasn’t the disease itself, which was horrible, but the irrational fear it created. It wasn’t just a disease that affected gay men but, because they were the main victims, the AIDS crisis brought out the worst in some people. In high school a girl named Kay sat behind me in some of my classes and we’d talk. One week Kay was out for a few days. When she came back she told me her best friend, whom she’d left behind when her parents moved from Atlanta to Nashville the summer before, had died. He was gay and he’d learned he was HIV-positive. It was difficult for Kay to talk about it because of how he died. He got on his motorcycle late at night and drove straight into an oncoming car.
If you’re inclined to judge him negatively for that consider what having AIDS meant at the time. For too many, even those who could afford treatment, it meant a slow, agonizing death as their body’s ability to fight off infections broke down, and for too many it meant more than that. Too many lost their families and so-called friends. Even those who had families who loved and supported them were treated cruelly by strangers.
Kay wrote an essay about her friend and what his loss meant to her. A teacher wrote, in red ink, at the top of her paper, “He got what he deserved.” That attitude was far too common. There wasn’t a principal or counselor in the school Kay could turn to. There were very few teachers who would have sympathized and the ones who did would have been afraid to say anything.
Still progress has been made and it’s because of Bianca Paige and others like her. It seems almost too on the nose that there’s now a street named for Bianca Paige because she provided a place for people to go and showed us a way forward.
I love public art, especially large murals on buildings, and I feel very lucky that we seem to be in a time when those are very popular not just in Nashville but in cities everywhere. There are probably a lot of factors that have spurred the creation of murals everywhere but one thing I think has helped is a widespread desire for community, and public art is a great way to foster community. Murals on buildings that people drive or walk by are something we can all share. There’s also something very special about the fact that you don’t have to go to a museum or gallery to see them. You don’t even necessarily have to make a special trip just to see them. Often you find them on your way to somewhere else.
Source: Nashville Public Art
The murals I’m featuring here are the work of Nashville artist Charles Key. Unfortunately I didn’t take these pictures myself but I’ve seen his work around, but only in passing. Even though he has a very distinctive style, I didn’t realize I was seeing murals by the same artist.
Key was featured in a Nashville Scene article last month and his own thoughts on community, and especially the need for art in the neighborhood where he lives have stayed with me:
Why not shine light? My thing is I want to spark somebody, some little kid — spark their imagination. … Maybe I could keep somebody on the right path through this small gesture that I’m leaving in these communities.
I may look like I don’t put a lot of thought into what I wear but that’s only because I don’t put a lot of thought into what I wear. As much as I’d like to say my slovenliness, at least around the house, is the result of a carefully studied sartorial choice, an affectation of looking disaffected, the truth is it’s usually the result of fumbling through drawers in the dark and pulling out whatever shirt is available before I throw on yesterday’s jeans. Although I do sometimes dress up, sort of, preferring a button-down paisley shirt and I at least put on today’s jeans, and sometimes I put on my red shoes and dance the blues.
Simple clothes made from thick furs were probably sufficient when hominins began to occupy northern Europe during colder glacial stages from half a million years ago. Complex clothes are closely fitted around the body and can have cylinders attached to enclose the limbs properly; additionally, they can have up to four or five layers.
One of the problems with studying clothing is that even the sturdiest woven cloth is fragile compared to tools and pottery, and at least as far back as the 18th century, if not farther, clothes were recycled into paper for books, so if you ever find a first edition of Pride And Prejudice you just might be holding some of Mr. Darcy’s underwear, but that’s another story, and also means that clothes have a short shelf life. This makes early fashion hard to study, but archaeologists have found prehistoric sewing needles, and there’s more evidence in lice. Clothing lice would only have evolved with, well, clothes, and genome research traces them back to about a hundred thousand years ago.
It’s an interesting thing to think about even as the world of haute couture is collapsing, at least from the perspective of the sort of people who actually think it’s wrong to wear white after Labor Day. My own feeling, and this is just a thought, is that agriculture for food and clothing might have evolved together. Cultivating any crop, whether it’s cotton or wheat, means a lot of time in the sun and early farmers would have wanted protection from the sun while they were sowing and reaping. But now that I’m thinking about why we wear clothes maybe I’ll put a little more thought into what I wear.
A coworker and I were talking about travel and I said I really love islands, especially small islands because I feel it’s possible to explore every part of them and not miss anything.
“Are you a completist?” she asked.
I’d never heard that term and it sounded vaguely insulting but I just said, “Yeah, I guess I am.” And I liked the term. It sounded better than incompletist which is probably more accurate, but that’s another story.
That was a few years ago but I was reminded of it by New York City’s new Little Island Park, an artificial island set on top of a bunch of funnel-shaped pilings that look like something out of a futurist utopia. If it were in a movie I’d think it was a special effect but, no, it’s really real—smaller than Gulliver’s Laputa, but nicer, and easier to reach.
Source: My Modern Met
I keep looking at those pillars, though, and thinking how fragile they look. My inner cynic says that every utopia has its dys, an ugly underside that props it up, but it’s really more complicated than that. Little Island Park is a beautiful, if unintentional, metaphor for our world: a great place to be but carefully balanced and dependent on collective effort. Our world is an island unto itself but also connected to and floating in a very dark, very cold sea.
Source: My Modern Met
In spite of that somewhat morbid turn I’d really love to go there. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to New York but if I ever get back Little Island Park will be high on my list of places I’d want to go, even if it means missing something else.
Several years ago I went to local yoga classes. It was fun and good exercise, mostly—I liked a lot of the poses but really hit my limit with the Sarvangasana, and I just couldn’t manage to go all the way into the next pose, Halasana. I told the instructor, who was younger, that at my age I didn’t think it was a good idea to put my ass over my head, but the truth is it’s something I always had trouble with, even as far back as seventh grade when I got a low grade in gym class because I couldn’t do a forward roll. Coach Withers said, “Come on, I’ll help you through it,” and he got me to tuck my head down as far as it could go and then he grabbed me and flipped me over. I immediately got up and said, nope, never doing that again. I still got a passing grade because, let’s face it, no one flunks gym, not even that one kid who refused to take a shower, but that’s another story.
I’m pretty sure I got a passing grade in the yoga classes too, even though we weren’t being graded, and we had two different instructors who alternated Saturdays. One was kind and supportive and tried to gear her choice of poses for the beginners in the class. The other was kind and sort of supportive and also working on a high level yoga instructor certification and would get all of us to try out more rigorous poses. She’s the one who got me to do the Sarvangasana for the first time, which involves lying on your shoulders and stretching your legs upward, and then suggested I go for the Halasana, which is the next position and involves lowering your legs toward your head, and said, “Come on, I’ll help you through it,” and that’s when I said, nope, not falling for that one again and headed for the showers.
The “Namaste” pictured above was carved into the railing at the center of this bridge which is a nice spot for looking at the lake.
Seeing “Namaste” carved into the center of the railing of the bridge at Radnor Lake reminded me how much I enjoyed those yoga classes, which, regardless of the instructor, always began and ended with the Hindu greeting. Hiking is great exercise and I very rarely have to worry about overstretching or getting into an uncomfortable position on the trail, but I need to get back to the challenges of yoga, even with the possibility that I might fail.
A couple of weeks ago when I met friend and fellow blogger Ann Koplow one of the things we talked about was the art of blogging, a subject I meant to bring up in my first post about our meeting, but I got distracted, which often happens to me, especially when I get into an engaging conversation, as Ann and I did, although I can also get distracted when I’m by myself, and I was going to share an example of that but now I’ve forgotten what it was because one of the dogs started barking in the other room and I had to go see what was going on and while I was doing that I thought I’d get some water and the next thing I knew I was outside in the driveway surrounded by parts from our car’s engine, but that’s another story.
Anyway Ann asked me an interesting question: “How long does it take you to write a blog post?” And I was so surprised that I said, “About a day,” which seemed like an honest answer at the time and which may be correct, but I’ve never really thought about it and feel guilty about not giving the question more thought before I answered, or at least not saying, “I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it.” I could have said that everything I write has taken me my whole life, and it’s true that every idea is the summation of a lifetime of experience, but it’s just as true that all writing is selective—everything’s edited even before the actual editing—and there are things I could have written earlier in my life if I’d just gotten the idea. Some posts take hours to write and even though I’m an obsessive reviser don’t have a lot of changes. Some take months or years and end up being something very different from my original idea. Before I started actually writing this I wanted to fit in a joke about “How long is a piece of string?” but that got cut.
Ann writes a blog post every day which is impressive but I could also understand what she meant when she said it was a meditative process for her. I write almost every day and try to write every day, even if it’s just a few minutes of jotting thoughts down in one of my journals, because I feel better when I do.
Something else I think most writers can relate to is I’m always thinking about writing even when I’m not engaged in the act. Probably every writer has had the experience of suddenly coming to in their backyard surrounded by car parts and thinking, “There’s a story in this.”
There’s no single answer to Ann’s question and that’s what makes it so important and useful for consideration, so I thought I’d throw it out there. How long does it take you to write a blog post?