I always appreciate the chance to embarrass myself in front of strangers, especially strangers whose language I don’t speak and who will therefore never understand that I’m not actually a lunatic. (Or I’m at least less of a lunatic than I might seem.) My daughter has understood this since birth, so she’s frequently given me cause for becoming a spectacle. For example, one time we went to a playground and I alarmed a group of quiet Asian women by falling in their midst. I guess they didn’t expect to see a man drop from the sky. I didn’t expect to be that man, but I was trying to protect my baby.
As I’m sure others would attest, the playground experience in general is more stressful as a parent than as a child. When I was younger and went to a playground, all I cared about was climbing, jumping, and similar daredevilry. We only enjoyed the playground equipment that encouraged high velocity recklessness. I would fling myself into the air from perches thirty feet off of the ground with my chief concern being whether I looked cool enough doing it. At one point my brother and I invented a game for the sole purpose of hitting each other with sticks while standing in precarious places. In retrospect I’m a little surprised that my parents let me out of the house at all. I suppose it’s safer to do those sorts of things outside though.
When I take my daughter to a playground on the other hand, I spend a lot of my time inspecting the equipment for hidden dangers. It’s as though I think the cheery colors hide spikes and buzz saws in amongst the smooth rubberized corners and large plastic doodads. I don’t take my daughter to playgrounds in the Temple of Doom or anything like that, but I’ve seen enough crazy medical shows to populate my imagination with worst case scenarios. (“Doctor, Help! She fell against the slide during a rare weather event and exploded!”)
It may not seem it, but I’ve gotten a lot more reasonable than I used to be. The first playground to which we ever took our daughter was in a local fast food restaurant. The room was entirely enclosed and padded–even the floor was foamy and safe–and she was too young to reach any of the interesting toys. She played there for an hour and a half, and the most dangerous thing she did was try to eat fast food. Nevertheless, I worried the whole time. (Ironically, I was the one giving the fast food to her.)
By the time of this story, I had relaxed considerably, which is what got me into trouble.
My daughter and I were exploring a very conventional little playground not far from our house. I had helped her up the steps, because she still had tiny little legs, but then given her freedom to roam while I followed. I didn’t let her get more than a couple of feet away from me, but I forgot how fast she could move under the right circumstances. When motivated she was like pudgy bouncy lightning.
For motivation, the playground provided a slide or, as it looked to me, a windswept cliff overlooking death. She’d been on slides before of course–she relished the thrill, in fact–but always with the help of both parents. One of us would guide her at the top, getting her into proper sliding form, and the other would supervise the descent. Unfortunately, being a toddler she only remembered the fun in the middle. She didn’t mind her mother’s absence; she didn’t want to wait for her father’s help. She just wanted the fun. She was probably thinking, “What could possibly go wrong?” I would complain except she gets that from me.
The situation unraveled in a second. I had barely registered the excited gleam in her eyes before she bolted. She had the sort of enthusiastic abandon only available to those whose most serious injuries have been solved by a hug and a snack. She wasn’t going to slow down at the top of the slide; she wasn’t going to slow down until she landed in the mulch below.
Which brings up the following question: “Seriously, mulch?” Rough edges on wood cause splinters, so clearly children should play in a pit of wooden chips that have nothing but rough edges? Were razor blades or radioactive soup too expensive? Why don’t we just let the kids play in gravel, because it might scrape them a bit, but at least it won’t lodge pieces of itself in their flesh. (Well, at least not as easily.)
Either way, I tried to catch her but she and I had played the tickle game too many times. She interpreted any sudden movements on my part as a reason to giggle and run faster. I had trained her to evade my rescue! As soon as I missed her with my first frantic grab, I knew she was going over the edge and that there was nothing I could do to stop her.
Fortunately, fatherhood emergencies sometimes transform me into an Olympian, in this case an Olympic diver. Or possibly an Olympic stuffed tiger. After the fashion of Hobbes in Calvin and Hobbes, I pounced. I dove under the railing with all the speed I could muster and plucked her out of the air before she had fallen very far at all.
Then we fell together, which wasn’t an ideal feature of my plan.
We landed about halfway down the slide, half on it and half dangling precariously over the edge. I managed to catch us there with my feet, but it wasn’t the most comfortable position I‘ve ever discovered. For one thing I was upside down by virtue of having dived head first. Also, I’m too old to dive on things that aren’t cushioned. Naturally, my daughter kept squealing merrily as though this were the best game we had ever played.
I was lying there, trying to figure out how I was going to get us down safely, when I suddenly noticed that the slide was surrounded. In every direction I saw stricken looking Asian women, each clutching her children tightly to protect them from the playground madman. Maybe they thought of the tiger imagery too, and wondered if I periodically emerged from hiding to eat babies.
I’ll never know because, after saying some things that didn’t sound complimentary, they ran away. I should probably learn some disarming phrases in as many languages as possible. Things like, “I’m not going to eat any babies. Please help me before this slide breaks beneath my weight.”
I suppose that might be a bit too specific, but given my life, I can’t be sure.