Remember When Playgrounds Were Dangerous?

The playgrounds of today do not look like the playgrounds that I played on, when I ran around with my jacket unzipped and in blissful ignorance of the fact that I would one day have more conversations with Time Warner Cable than with my parents.  Gone are the monkey bars, the jungle gyms, the pieces of metal welded together in the shape of something that was at the same time a slide and a medieval torture device.  No longer can children test their courage and their parents’ coronary strength by climbing to the summit of iron structures, where one slip would send a child pinballing down to an unforgiving concrete surface in an indifferent universe.

Playgrounds today are made of single pieces of plastic, their summits so low that children can eat on them without having to sit on telephone books—not that there are any telephone books left to sit on.  The concrete ground has been supplanted by rubber foam, and the swings are allowed a maximum swing of five degrees in either direction, and even that much requires clearance from air traffic control.

Look hard and you will see the city of wood and metal that once was there.  See the tiered wooden maze with splinters and exposed nails.  Run your hand over the rubber ground, and you will feel the sea of pebbles that once washed over Velcro sneakers, and drove little rocks into the soles of little feet as those feet dropped from the monkey bars.  Sniff the air, and you will smell the charred pieces of wood that littered the playground, with which the children would draw pictures of bison and of teachers they despised, just like their ancestors did on cave walls some 40,000 years ago.

And along the perimeter of the southeastern quadrant lay a line of giant rubber tires, each one the width of three children, or one and a half of the children we have today.  The tires had been implanted into the pebbled earth on their sides, forming a tunnel that the children could crawl through, and catch their Champion sweatshirts and scratch their rosy cheeks on the wires that protruded from the tires as a testament to the thousands of miles that those tires had traveled before being retired to the playground where they could bring joy to all children.

Crawl through that tunnel of tires.  You are led to a three-story rusty metal cylinder in the shape of  rocket.  Children climb up to the top of it with only cold metal rungs to keep them from falling to death or paralysis.  At the top of the rocket there is the opening to another tunnel.  This tunnel is horizontal and is made of the same wooden planks as the charred and splintery maze.  In that tunnel three stories above the world, a boy can meditate on what it means to be young, and dream of one day having a television in his room.

Listen!  Hear the cries of a child who slipped off a giant metal sea horse placed on a spring.  The child split his lip when he hit the pebbles, and he leaves a trail of blood as he is led to the nurse’s office.  The other children observe a moment of silence out of respect for their fallen comrade, and after that moment go back to their wanton cruelty.

Here, in this playground whose spirit will not leave, is where blood was spilled and teeth were lost, knees scraped and ankles sprained, skin pierced and lockjaw contracted.  And where heroes were born.

Remember Life Before Greek Yogurt?

When I was a kid, I remember that there were two kinds of yogurt.  There was the kind with the fruit at the bottom, and the kind where the fruit was already mixed up with the white yogurt.  I liked the kind with the fruit at the bottom, so that I could eat small spoonfuls of the white yogurt until I saw the deep colors of the fruit, and pretend that I was an archeologist dairy.

Today it seems like the yogurt of those days is out of style, and has been supplanted by Greek yogurt.  I admit that the containers of Chobani have taken over so much of my own refrigerator that I hardly have enough room for the 5.0 liter box of wine.  And with good reason—the yogurt is delicious, and I can feel the active cultures improving my digestion and reading comprehension.  One website ( even touts its products as containing the qualities of the gods.  But how did Greek yogurt come to be?

According to legend, Epimetheus, who was a Titan until he was traded to the Jets as a third-string quarterback, was entrusted with equipping all of the creatures, including humans, with whatever they would need to survive in a very dangerous and expensive world.  To birds he gave beaks, to rabbits he gave speed, to elephants he gave size, to house cats he gave cute faces and arrogance.  He was satisfied with the job he had done, and planned to reward himself with a whole season of Dawson’s Creek on DVD.

His twin brother, Prometheus, came up behind Epimetheus, flicked his ear, and said, “What are you up to, Epilady?”

“Don’t call me that, Prometheus.”

“Oh, and what are you going to do about it?  Tell Dad?”

Epimetheus didn’t reply.  Prometheus seemed to always know what to say, whereas Epimetheus never thought of a good retort until days later.

“So these are the celebrated humans?” he asked Epimetheus.

“Yes,” Epimetheus said, and smiled, proud that finally he had done something that Prometheus had not.  Let’s see him criticize me now, Epimetheus thought.

Then Prometheus said, “The humans have no yogurt.”

“What do you mean?  They have yogurt right there.  See that man scraping the inside of the container, trying to get the last bit of fruit?  It’s an annoying sound, I know, but—”

“What I meant is that they don’t have Greek yogurt,” Prometheus said.

“Greek yogurt?  But that’s just for the gods.  Dad said that Zeus keeps it…”

“Who cares what Dad said?  What are we, little kids?  Little Titanettes?  Remember when I called you a Titanette, and made you dress up like a little ballerina?”

“Yes, Prometheus.  I do.”

“And then you cried in front of all the gods?  Oh, how I miss that Golden Age.  But listen, I think these humans could use Greek yogurt.”

Greek yogurt was indeed reserved for deities, which, along with incest and turning themselves into aquatic birds, ranked among the gods’ favorite pastimes until Dancing With the Stars came around.  Zeus, the king of all the gods and keeper of the remote control, had deemed Greek yogurt too tangy and creamy for mere mortals, so he kept it locked up in his safe with his thunderbolts and auto insurance policy.

One afternoon, Prometheus crept into Zeus’ room while the safe was open.  Zeus was trying to decipher the supplemental coverage clause in his policy and reached over to his telephone to call his carrier, and had his back turned to the open safe.  So Prometheus crept in, grabbed the Greek yogurt from the safe, and gave it to the humans while Zeus was still listening to all the choices on the menu.  The humans were then able to enjoy the tangy and creamy food, but with greater nourishment and active cultures.  Equipped with numerous and diverse bacteria, humans became the masters of the planet, and soon filled the Earth with their offspring and their offspring’s music.

As punishment, Zeus chained Prometheus to a rock, and every day a bird would come by, eat his liver, and chastise Prometheus for not getting enough Omega-3 fatty acids.  This went on until Heracles persuaded Zeus to replace Prometheus with Charlie Sheen.

Remember Being 13 and Drunk?

My wife and I were dining at a popular Italian restaurant the other night.  As I worked through my third bowl of salad, I learned from my wife, who in college had minored in eavesdropping, that the girl in the booth next to us was 13 years old, and had accidentally been served an alcoholic beverage.  She was with her mother, who was standing up and looking around as if waiting for an ambulance to arrive.  The girl was fanning herself and looking like she wished she hadn’t said anything.

I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be 13 years old and consume an alcoholic beverage.  I became Bar Mitzvah at 13, and after the ceremony one my peers became inebriated by consuming several of the plastic thimbles that the congregation used to sanctify the Sabbath.  He spent the next few hours pretending he was a helicopter.  I think he does something with computers now.

The mother at the Italian restaurant, however, was clearly not at any Bar Mitzvah.  Eventually someone came and talked to her, a manager-type dressed in plainclothes and who looked like she was in the position to authorize free meals.  She looked to be about 25 years old.  She spoke to the mother while the teenage daughter fanned herself and tried to piece her life back together after a few sips of a weak strawberry mojito.  After a few minutes the manager left, and I figured that the woman would probably get a free meal out of the deal.  Good for her, I thought, as I signaled for another strawberry mojito.

Then another manager came and talked to the woman and her drunk daughter.  “Probably trying to get a dessert to go out of this, too,” I mused as the front-end loader lowered my entrée onto the table.

I was absorbed in stuffing my face for a few minutes, and forgot about the underage drinking at the adjacent booth.  But when I came up for air from my lasagna-cum-linguine alfredo-cum-chicken parmigiana, I saw that the mother and her daughter were still there, and that the mother had moved over to her daughter’s side of the booth, so that both were facing in my direction.  I was a little surprised they were still there, since at this point the girl must have been sober enough to drive.

Then the first manager came back and spoke with the mother for some time, and then the mother and her daughter got up and I figured, “Okay, that’s really it then.  The manager was just making sure the girl was sober and did not sustain the kind of damages that would lead to diminution in future earning capacity.”

Then a police offer walked through the front door.  And then another police officer.  I couldn’t see what the officers were doing, but I imagined it was not choosing two of the four listed sides on the menu.

I didn’t see the ambulance pull up in front of the restaurant, but we passed it on our way to the parking lot.  As we walked by, the back doors of the ambulance opened and the mother, her daughter, and a man with a button down shirt and a clipboard alighted.  I took the man to be a doctor or perhaps an adjuster from the insurance company.

My eyes locked with the mother’s eyes for a moment.  In that moment I tried to communicate all my respect for a parent who was so concerned about her child that for even a few sips of alcohol arranged for two sheriffs and an ambulance.  I tried to tell her that she was the embodiment of the rugged individualism that made this country great.

And in return, her look said to me, “Go eat your salad.”  Only not in those words.