shovels and swings
1 April 2000
Damian and I took a little field trip Thursday to check out Dan’s new cutting room. We ate Chinese Chicken Salads on the huge mauve leather couch the associate producer dragged out of her garage just for Dan (the thing takes up two thirds of the room) and watched as Damian tried to manipulate knobs and keyboards and anything else that looked interesting. I think he would have been happy to take a whirl at cutting some dailies if Dan had let him. Of course, the result might be unwatchable... (Then again, it’s for the WB, who’ll notice?)

Damian seems to be over his fear of strange places. It vanished as mysteriously as it came. Or maybe it wasn't so very mysterious. Children are emotional sponges. I was anxious and stressed, Dan was anxious and stressed, so Damian was anxious and stressed too. How does an almost two year old manifest stress? Not by overeating or drinking too much coffee, not by driving too fast or cursing too much. No, a child that age gets scared of monsters under the bed and strange houses and Restoration Hardware storefronts where evil might lurk. Mommy is now mostly calm and still-stressed Daddy is mostly not home, so Damian has reverted to his usual sunny self. It’s once again safe to venture out of the house, and more crucially, into other people’s houses.

Crisis averted. Until the next odd phobia hits, that is. The road through childhood is filled with emotional potholes.

After lunch, after Dan’s eyes drifted back to the Avid screen and his mind was completely distracted by work, Damian and I went outside to inventory the parked cars. Five times walking back and forth labeling each car. I learned that black and gray are the current favorite vehicle colors for post-production workers. Makes sense if you think about it. Editors aren’t exactly flashy types.

I finally got bored with saying "gray car, black car, gray truck, gray -- uh, wait, that’s dirt -- green car." I bundled Damian into the (dark red) car and headed home. We drove right by Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills. The playground there is famous in Los Angeles parent circles. Never thought I’d discuss playgrounds in depth, comparing features -- sand versus wood chips, cleanliness, what kind of swings? Then again, I never realized how central a spot playgrounds play in the life of a small person in the great big city.

We stopped at the park, walked to the playground. I was eager to see the dinosaurs. Everyone says "Have you been to Roxbury Park? They have dinosaurs! And steam! The kids love it." Sounds exotic, right? Exciting? I was imagining towering sculptures, the elegant curve of a brontosaur’s neck emerging from mist as thick as on a Ridley Scott film set.

We got there. Low walls surrounded a wide expanse of sand. Where were the dinosaurs? Wait, is that a wisp of steam over there? We headed over. Found:

One small purple generic dinosaur. Knee high to an adult.

One small green triceratops, ridged. Same height.

One frog.

That’s it? That’s the famed Dinosaurs of Roxbury Park?

Talk about a tale getting taller in the telling.

But Damian watched as three older kids (five, maybe, or six years old) raced around between the dinosaurs (and frog), jumping on them and sliding off and grabbing each other and squealing. He thought it was all pretty damned cool. So I helped him get on the triceratops and he held on for a few minutes and slid off.

The steam was as good as advertised, though. Periodic blasts of cool wet shooting up and smoking the air. Kids congregated, let the blast fill their faces and steam their hair. Damian stood on the grate and looked disconcerted but pleased.

Dinosaurs conquered, we checked out the rest of the playground.

I have now sampled four Los Angeles playgrounds. I feel like a connoisseur, a gourmand of sand and slides. Roxbury is probably the nicest -- three distinct sets of swings, for one thing. Plus a whole row of little bouncing -- hobbyhorses? Plus two -- spinning things? (You stand on the tiny base and hold the pole and spin.) Plus two big colorful jungle gyms (standard issue -- all the playgrounds have them -- the only major differences are color choices and height). Plus -- oh, a bunch of stuff. But the people -- the moms and dads and nannies and the kids themselves -- they didn’t do as well in my informal survey. The parents mostly seemed either grouchy or bored and the kids...

Damian tried to join a lanky six year old girl who looked like a boy. She was filling a bucket with sand. Damian picked up one of her unused shovels. The kid grabbed the shovel away irritably, setting it on the sand safely away from Damian. Still not using it. Damian, unfazed, tried for another. The kid grabbed that one, dumped it out of reach again. The father, sitting nearby on a low wall, said halfheartedly "you should share" but did absolutely nothing to make it happen. I couldn’t stand watching Damian’s overtures continue to be rebuffed so irritably. I scooped Damian up, said "she obviously doesn’t want you to play with her, let’s go somewhere else where we might be more welcome." I heard the father scolding his daughter behind me. Still on his perch. Still miles away from his kid. Passive father, angry daughter.

We settled elsewhere on the sand. Damian found some plastic forks and dug through the sand with them. Then he spotted a three year old boy who looked like a girl with a green turban wrapped around his hair. He was methodically stuffing wet sand into a bucket. Damian went over to help. He used his own shovel this time, so that wasn’t the problem. Didn't matter. The kid rejected him, "No, don’t do that." I said "he’s just trying to help." "I don’t want him to help. He’s doing it wrong."

Filling a bucket with sand wrong? Who knows the logic of a three year old? A very focused three year old, I might add. But a friend of his came up a few seconds later and started shoveling sand into the bucket and that was just fine with him.

We went elsewhere.

I’ll grant you, kids can be possessive. It’s a phase. I’m sure Damian will go through it too. But two in the space of ten minutes? That’s more symptomatic of the environment. Almost nobody was friendly, most seemed suspicious of strangers. It’s a rich part of town; I think the parents have a certain kind of rich people’s outlook on the world. Wanting to form some kind of cocoon around themselves, trying to keep the dirty, ugly world away from their special kids. And the kids pick up on that.

Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t all like that. I sat on a wide swing, gently pushing off as a pooped Damian nestled in my arms, his head on my shoulder. A little girl -- five, maybe -- plopped onto the swing next to me and her mom pushed her, talking all the while: "you’re swinging by yourself, you’re such a big girl, I love you!"

We may go back there after all.

Every park has such a distinct flavor. The little park near us, with its Russian matrons and wild kids, isn’t my favorite. They’re not terribly warm to outsiders and the playground isn’t the cleanest. The jungle gym is peeling, the swings sag. And cigarette smoke always blows across the sand from the old men loitering around the edges of the nearby poker games. But it feels like a very specific enclave and I can forgive it its idiosyncrasies.

I recently discovered another park on La Cienega, on the eastern edge of Beverly Hills. A pleasant swath of sand filled with toddlers. A merry-go-round (one of those metal lazy susans for humans) always spinning deliriously fast with half a dozen kids piled on. A veritable parking lot of stroller on the concrete overhang: nannies watching their charges, moms with babies in arms watching the older sibling race around burning off energy. I heard several different languages and I’d guess it’s a blend of recent immigrants. It makes for a slightly standoffish environment. Shy smiles and awkward moments. We ran into an old colleague of mine there last weekend. His little tow-headed boy is four months older than Damian. We caught up on editing gossip while swinging our sons in adjoining swings. Trying to keep the boys’ feet from slamming full tilt into the side of a little girl's head -- a fast-moving little girl who wasn’t listening to her heavily accented grandfather. A pleasant place, yes, but I don’t feel fully comfortable there.

The West Hollywood Park, where we usually go, is a delight. Not as fancy as Roxbury Park -- no dinosaurs, no spinning thingamajigs, but they’ve got separate playgrounds for little tots (sand and low jungle gym) and big kids (wood chips and dizzyingly high slides), and everything’s spanking clean. Plus, I like the ethnic mix. More white than not, but Los Angeles is one of the most segregated cities I’ve lived in. Still, I see more black and Latino families at this park than most anywhere, and -- more important to me -- I see ethnically mixed friendships. This is what I experienced as a matter of course growing up in Manhattan but out here it seems you have to work for what should be natural. Damian’s half Jewish, one quarter Latino; I don’t want him only surrounded by blue eyed blondes. I want him to get a flavor of the world and all the people in it.

Something about this park, too -- the location, the demographics -- makes for a companionable atmosphere. Most everyone’s warm and friendly. Kids share toys, parents smile and ask how old your kid is and if he’s sleeping through the night yet. I chatted with a movie star there one Friday afternoon as my son played with her kid’s truck and hers kept her busy racing around under the jungle gym. She came, I think, because she can be just a mom there. It’s that sort of place.

Here I am, actually comparing and contrasting local playgrounds. Hard to believe, hard to take seriously. But there turns out to be a world of differences hidden behind those low walls, out there in the land of sun and sand and swing sets. It’s no secret that neighborhoods have very specific characters. I just never expected to find it so clearly reflected in the places children play.

I wonder what I’ll find when I start looking at schools. I’m a little afraid to find out.

last // home // next

current log / Damian essay archive / other essays archive / what's all this, then?

copyright 2001 Tamar