Sav­age Park: A Med­i­ta­tion on Play, Space, and Risk for Amer­i­cans Who Are Ner­vous, Dis­tracted, and Afraid to Die by Amy Fus­sel­man

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Jen­nifer Levin

Sav­age Park: A Med­i­ta­tion on Play, Space, and Risk for Amer­i­cans Who Are Ner­vous, Dis­tracted, and Afraid to Die by Amy Fus­sel­man, Houghton Mif­flin Har­court, 144 pages

Since the mid-1980s, most Amer­i­can play­grounds have fea­tured blocky equip­ment de­signed to look like fortresses, with foam pad­ding all around to cos­set chil­dren and pro­tect them from in­jury. In Ja­pan, at Tokyo’s Hanegi Play­park, chil­dren and adults ham­mer, carve, and build things; climb trees and swing from ropes; and even use open fires. Amy Fus­sel­man spent a month in Tokyo with fam­ily and friends some years ago. Af­ter vis­it­ing the park, which she and one of her young sons nick­named “Sav­age Park,” the au­thor found her view of space — the en­vi­ron­ment in which we live and how we in­ter­pret what it’s for — so rad­i­cally al­tered that it drove her to write a mem­oir about it. The story, told in a non­lin­ear fash­ion, cov­ers the ini­tial trip to Ja­pan and a re­turn visit to learn more about Sav­age Park, weav­ing in in­ter­ac­tions with friends, fam­ily, and dif­fer­ent kinds of artists; the 2011 Ja­panese tsunami, earth­quake, and nu­clear ac­ci­dent; and a few trea­tises on moth­er­hood. We meet Fus­sel­man’s hus­band, Frank, and chil­dren, King and Mick; her friend Ye­lena, their host in Tokyo; and Noriko, a Sav­age Park em­ployee who plays Ir­ish mu­sic on a tin whis­tle.

The ideas that un­der­lie Fus­sel­man’s sub­ti­tle — “A Med­i­ta­tion on Play, Space, and Risk for Amer­i­cans Who Are Ner­vous, Dis­tracted, and Afraid to Die” — are ripe for ex­plo­ration and the ex­pres­sion of per­sonal opin­ion. What does it mean to play with­out di­rec­tion or overt pro­tec­tion? Why have Amer­i­can par­ents be­come so averse to let­ting their kids skin their knees, bang their el­bows, or ex­pe­ri­ence the hereto­fore usual hard­ships of happy child­hoods? What’s hap­pened to the idea of let­ting chil­dren’s cre­ativ­ity guide their arts and crafts, in­stead of cir­cum­scrib­ing it with com­put­ers and tablets? What has changed since the days when Amer­i­can kids played with pocket knives? What ex­actly are we so scared of?

In this slim book that is part prose poem, part es­say, part med­i­ta­tion, and part mommy blog, Fus­sel­man asks all of th­ese ques­tions and more, most of which are very much a part of the zeit­geist in me­dia sto­ries about con­tem­po­rary par­ent­ing. Un­for­tu­nately, Fus­sel­man spends more time pon­der­ing the idea that there are ques­tions than she does at­tempt­ing to an­swer them. What at first seems as if it will be a high-minded philo­soph­i­cal ex­plo­ration quickly be­gins to feel like self-in­dul­gence. Uti­liz­ing a meta-struc­ture that par­al­lels the con­cepts of space she dis­cusses in her book, in prose stuffed to burst­ing with rep­e­ti­tion and par­al­lel­ism, Fus­sel­man writes from her own ex­pe­ri­ence of the world. But in the free-flow­ing, pur­pose­fully dis­jointed nar­ra­tive, she moves over and over again from first into sec­ond and third per­son — some­times si­mul­ta­ne­ously — sweep­ing read­ers into a lit­er­ary royal “we” that feels oddly nar­row-minded even as it pro­fesses to in­vite read­ers in.

“That we should con­flate eat­ing with experiencing space makes sense, how­ever, con­sid­er­ing that one of a hu­man’s first and most en­dur­ing ex­pe­ri­ences of be­ing here is likely be­ing fed at the breast of his or her mother,” she writes. “In your first days, you are fed by, warmed by, shel­tered by, and com­forted by a who, a who that is ac­tu­ally, in th­ese ear­li­est mo­ments, less of a who and more of a where. If you’re go­ing to be brave enough — and it gen­er­ally does take some courage — to ac­knowl­edge the ex­is­tence of, and ex­pe­ri­ence your re­la­tion­ship with, space, it is log­i­cal that you would want to do that in a place that you des­ig­nate to be the space equiv­a­lent of a mom, a place where you will be warm, se­cure, and fed.”

While this riff is sweet and ide­al­is­tic, it’s also a bit con­vo­luted and hokey. The phras­ing pre­sumes that moth­ers, by and large, al­ways love their chil­dren, and that such love is so strong their chil­dren feel it and un­der­stand it as the ul­ti­mate protective force — for­ever. Some peo­ple might see a lot of truth in that. Oth­ers will no doubt ex­pe­ri­ence it as a fun­da­men­tally flawed propo­si­tion (a re­al­ity much darker than any­thing in­ves­ti­gated in this book). There is no space for that here, de­spite the fact that fear and death are more than im­plied in the ti­tle. Fus­sel­man’s in­quiry into any kind of fear can of­ten seem su­per­fi­cial.

Fus­sel­man is at her best when writ­ing in the first per­son and opin­ing about cre­ativ­ity. Com­put­er­based arts pro­grams for chil­dren re­ally bother her, and when she dis­cusses them, her prose has sud­den en­ergy the rest of the book lacks. Much of Sav­age

Park is over­gen­er­al­ized and sen­ti­men­tal, lack­ing any ac­knowl­edg­ment that ideas about space might be tied to so­cioe­co­nomics. This feels ei­ther tone-deaf to the cur­rent state of class war­fare in the United States or pur­pose­fully twee, as if the book is a game she’s play­ing with words in­stead of an hon­est at­tempt to connect with a world of read­ers.

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