'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Monday, April 23, 2012

A Day at the Playground 

Yesterday, I took my five year old son Daniel hiking in the East Bay hills just to the southeast of UC Berkeley, near Panoramic Way. It was the first time that we did it, because, until now, I wasn't confident that he had the strength, endurance and coordination to make his way along such a steep path. I needn't have worried, he made his way along the trial almost effortlessly, at least in comparison to me. After taking a lunch break, he urged me to take him a little farther into the hills, which I did. I had made the mistake of telling him that I had seen a fox up there at dusk about 10 years ago.

After exiting down the Arden Steps and along the Mosswood Path, we returned to our car and made our way over to People's Park in a search for a parking space near Telegraph, where we could get something more to drink as we had run out of water. Fortunately, there was a water fountain at the restrooms by the basketball court. Upon quenching his thirst at the fountain, he noticed a small playground nearby. I used the word "playground" advisedly, because it consisted of a small slide, about five or six feet tall, a slight structure with two swings and a small sandbox that was partially overgrown with grass. But he recognized none of these comparative defects with the more recent grandiose ones that he visits in Sacramento. He asked me if we could go there, and I reluctantly said yes, not because I was dismissive of the playground, but because of fatigue.

As he climbed up the stairs of the slide, I looked around and thought about Daniel and his willingness to play in what others would consider the daunting atmosphere of People's Park. In the trees just to the east, and near the small amphitheatre to the west, homeless people were either sleeping or relaxing as the wisps fog floated past the sun. The playground and the bathrooms displayed the worn, rustic quality associated with facilites that had been there for many years. Of course, none of this made the slightest impression upon him. For him, the homeless people were people like anyone else, and the playground and bathrooms were, well, just a playground and a bathroom. Later, another, slightly older little boy named Phoenix came by, and Daniel played with him for about half an hour or so. Despite his hippie parents, Phoenix wore a Spider Man shirt, which delighted Daniel, who identifies with him as well. Like me, his parents had apparently conceded the struggle against popular culture, perhaps with the expectation that they could eventually induce resistance through familiarity.

After Phoenix left with his parents, I thought about how Daniel has yet to display the socially judgmental behaviors of older children and adults. If people are nice to him, he is nice to them. He doesn't care about their appearance, and hasn't yet internalized the markers of social status. In Sacramento, his favorite playground is located in Southside Park, a park situated in a lower middle income neighborhood with an old housing project, Seavey Circle, nearby. Seavey Circle has long been known for having a veritable rainbow of tenants, including immigrant families from Russia and South and Southeast Asia, and he joyfully plays with anyone who wants to play tag or hide and seek. He asks the Hmong families at the lake nearby if he can help them fish, and they invariably briefly allow him to do so. He prefers this playground to one a few miles away in McKinley Park in East Sacramento, a more exclusive, upper middle income neighborhood, for reasons that have nothing to do with race, class or poverty.

As he slept in the carseat while I drove home, I wondered when Daniel would start distinguishing people and places as we all too often do. Upon entering elementary school? Upon participating in activities like soccer and Little League baseball? For me, in the 1970s, I didn't begin to encounter social differences until I went to junior high school, but things have obviously changed for the worse, with children seeking to differentiate themselves from one another at much younger ages. Baudrillard was, I think, on the mark when he asserted that the transformation from primitive to feudal to mercantile to capitalist society was instigated by a human desire for hierarchical differentiation, and not by material scarcity, as claimed by Marxists. Fortunately, Sacramento is not as extreme as the coastal regions, where families search for pre-schools that will expose their children to French and classical music, while providing them with the latest technological baubles. No child has ever been dropped off at my son's pre-school with a cell phone, as happens in the Bay Area. In one notorious incident, a mother wondered whether she should get her four year old son a phone after the other kids at his pre-school teased him upon discovering that he had been talking into a toy one.

Sadly, Daniel will probably begin to do it sometime soon. It is, arguably, the most essential cultural norm in this society. It is pervasive in every aspect of our relationships with others. But, to his credit, he has a strong, oppositional nature, one that will place him at risk of being characterized as hyperactive, particularly in future educational settings that value conformity. Fortunately, he does think for himself, which my wife and I encourage, and, hopefully, he will successfully call upon this quality as necessary to engage the world on his terms, and not those imposed by others.

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