Opinion

Ode On A Jungle Gym: Father’s Day Thoughts On American Exceptionalism

“Look, dad! I’m flying!”

“That’s great, son, ” I reply. Or is it? He of course is not flying but swinging with boyish exuberance from the first rung of a horizontal ladder. The distance between that rung and the jungle gym platform from which he leapt is about nine inches, which is roughly the same distance between his toes and the ground underfoot.

A word about the ground. It is not natural terrain but a synthetic, rubbery surfacing that ensures a soft landing to any fall, if it still fairly can be called that. Around this soft center is a perimeter of mulch spread so lushly that it discourages getting up after falling down. One thing is certain. In these nine hundred square feet, the prospect of a skinned knee is nil.

And so I wonder: what ever happened to real jungle gyms? The old geodesic domes of cold, skeletal steel connected by skin-grabbing bolts that rose up over gravel to twelve-foot commanding heights? Gleaming frames that stretched defiantly heavenward, with enough open space between climbing bars for not just one but two well fed children to fall through. Now she was a worthy adversary. I spent the better part of September 1978 walking around her, man versus machine, at first summoning my courage and then getting acclimated for an eventual climb.

By October I was scaling to about seven feet from ground level, heights where a missed foothold would bring on a banged shin: painful for sure, but not certain grief. A hard fall to the cold November ground would have brought tears had lovely Tara not been jumping rope nearby. It might even have thwarted further attempts to climb the summit. But I soldiered on, and when I reached the pinnacle in December, with a showman’s flair climbing head-first down on the opposite side of my ascent, I was a second-grade deity.

Does anything in this consequence-free park offer my son such a path to glory? What child grows to do great deeds who didn’t first dream of doing great deeds? And who dreams without first being challenged?

The Ancient Greeks understood the importance of seeking out these challenges. They valued something called arete, or excellence, which carried with it much more than the modern, conventional meaning. To them it was considered virtuous to discern what you were best at in life – know thyself – and there to pursue excellence to your fullest potential. In other words push yourself hard, first in identifying your highest and best use, and then in becoming a master of your craft. How is that first inquiry even possible when we, through vapid jungle gyms and beyond, encourage our young to aim not for the heights to achieve glory, but for mediocrity so as not to offend?

The evidence of misdirection is everywhere – scoreless youth soccer leagues, graduations without valedictory remarks – and it tells our young that life is not graded on a curve, or even pass/fail. Life is audited, and your job is simply to show up. How much longer can we expect virtuoso performances when they are applauded with no more gusto than inferior ones?

In slyly subversive “The Incredibles”, Dash got it exactly right in one exchange with his mother:

Dash: Dad always said our powers were nothing to be ashamed of, our powers made us special.

Elastigirl: Everyone’s special, Dash.

Dash: Which is another way of saying no one is.

Perhaps some time in the future we Americans will prove not to have been able, as Benjamin Franklin warned, to keep the Republic. Should that doleful day come to pass, subsequent generations surely will study our decline and fall, and historians will engage in full-throated debates over what did us in. Did Washington become like imperial Rome and through decadence destroy itself from within? Did we go the way of the British Empire and overdraw our home accounts to support far-flung operations? Those may prove to have been the consequences of our downfall, but they will not have been the causes. It will have been much simpler: we got soft. And it started on the playground.