Coop’s Childhood Part 2 – Play, Play School & Other Explorations

Me & Molly age 5

Me & Molly age 5

Though I was born in the 1950s with all its conventionally stark division of gender roles, my mom and dad were a pretty unorthodox couple, with a much more egalitarian relationship than the norm. They had been acquaintances and friends for a number of years before their relationship became a romantic one. They were both intellectual and athletic, and both comfortable with parenting tasks ranging from changing diapers to throwing a ball.

I believe theirs was a natural inclination to parent in the most progressive way, but it was certainly aided by the new parenting wisdom championed by the most popular pediatrician of the day, Dr. Benjamin Spock. His bestselling book, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, challenged the rigid childrearing practices that had been prevalent since the beginning of the century that included warnings against excessive affection to prevent children from becoming spoiled or fussy. Instead, Spock advised parents to be flexible in order to treat each child as an individual. He also educated parents about the stages of child development and how to create an appropriately safe but nurturing environment for each of those stages. And perhaps most importantly for my mom and dad and how they raised me, Spock urged them to trust their own common sense, instincts, and judgment.

I don’t think I got from my parents any clear difference as to how men were supposed to behave versus how women were, except perhaps that my mom was more extroverted and assertive, and my dad more introverted and passive-aggressive. I tended to be more like my dad in that way, though I think that the introversion was more a result of nature while my own passive-aggressiveness was a learned behavior. My mom generally used very little makeup and wore above the knee length skirts and casual collared shirts without bows or ruffles, except when they got dressed up for some fancy or formal event. In all aspects of their lives, at least that I witnessed, I don’t recall them behaving in stereotypically masculine or feminine ways.

If anything, my mom’s extroversion and assertiveness were closer to the masculine stereotype. When I behaved badly it would almost always be my mom rather than my dad who would call me out on that behavior. But she would never punish me, by either spanking or restricting my access to things. She was profoundly opposed to spanking, seeing it as “hitting kids”, end of story. Instead, she would simply command my attention and directly and at times angrily tell me that she was disappointed with my behavior. My dad once or twice actually hit me on the bottom, but only in the heat of a moment of severe frustration with me, when his generally repressed emotions got the best of him.

Our family dynamic was becoming more involved and at issue with the birth of a second child. As I learned later as a parent myself, with one kid you can kind of maintain your previous lifestyle and relationship dynamic, but with the second, you are generally more drawn into full-time parent mode. My brother Peter was born on June 30 of 1958, when I was three years old, still too young to remember him coming home with my mom from the University of Michigan hospital. My first memories of Peter are actually from my parents’ home movies; a baby in his high chair smiling and playing with his food with me close at hand looking on pensively.

My brother would be challenged in his earliest years with traumas that I had been fortunate to avoid. One day, when my dad was holding him, Peter managed to slip out of his hands, fall and hit his head between his eye and nose on the sharp edge of a small coffee table. He was immediately rushed to the hospital emergency room, but the wound developed a staph infection, which threatened the loss of sight in the affected eye (I don’t remember now which one). Just a toddler, Peter had to spend a week in the hospital, given heavy duty antibiotics, and strapped to a crib with his hands restrained so he could not touch his face and upset the healing of the wound. To cope with this claustrophobic situation, he would repeatedly bang his head against the mattress to vent his anxiety. Finally recovered and eyesight saved, he continued once home unrestrained in his crib to bounce his head as part of his falling asleep ritual. This continued for at least a decade after that until he finally stopped, I recall some time in his pre-teen years.

The event was undoubtedly traumatic for our dad too, the shy sensitive person that he was, and particularly because his GI Generation of men had the cultural expectation of being tough, silent and stoic. I think he probably struggled to process his feelings of guilt (particularly because he was reminded of the incident every night when Peter went thru his head bouncing ritual) which may have created some inadvertent distance between him and his younger son, while maybe being more comfortable around me.

I recall during that period I had my moments when I could be exasperating, like the time at age four when I somehow got mad that my mom drank from her glass of milk before I drank from mine. I don’t remember what possible context could have triggered this intense feeling, but I yelled at her to throw up the milk so I could drink first. Maybe that was tied up with my own discomfort with my mom’s attention now more directed to my little brother. But most of the time I was the kind of kid who was shy and wanted the acknowledgement and blessing of others, particularly my parents, who seemed like gods to me at this point.

For the most part I lived in a world of my own imagination, beyond the real world my parents inhabited, but facilitated by their thoughtful actions. They had purchased our small house on Prescott Street across the street from a park and with a backyard as well. It had two 10 by 10 foot bedrooms with a small bathroom in between off a central hallway that exited into a little living room and a relatively roomy kitchen across the front of the house. The footprint could not have been much more than 600 square feet. But it also had a full unfinished basement with a concrete slab floor and cinderblock walls and those small basement windows looking down into from above. So I had three great venues for my imagination play: basement, backyard and park.

Almendinger park was about 150 yards on a side and sat between the “old west side” of Ann Arbor across to the north and then the newer blocks of generally smaller homes on our south side of the park. Two blocks further south across Stadium Boulevard was the big Ann Arbor High School, looking more like a science research facility than any sort of stereotypical high school. Three blocks east of the park, across South Main Street was the big University of Michigan football stadium, the biggest actually in the whole country, later to be dubbed “the big house”, but now not the consuming fall passion of the town that it would become in the 1970s. The north side of the park was a woods of trees with swings and other play equipment in the northwest corner. The southwest corner had a single tennis court. The south half of the park was divided into two baseball diamonds surrounded by intermittent large stands of Lilac bushes, big enough for a kid could to disappear into as I often would do.

Our backyard was not big, but it included three big trees, a 20-foot spruce on the north and south property lines and a 40-foot very climbable maple tree just behind the house itself. Ann Arbor had originally been a town full of Elm trees, but in the early 20th century when they were ravaged by Dutch Elm disease, a local woman had left her fortune in an endowment for the town’s trees, and her money allowed the city to replace all the dying elms with beautiful maples. Under our maple my dad had dug out maybe a ten by ten foot area and had brought in dirt from a local gravel pit, regularly replenished, that served as a sort of large sandbox for me.

The unfinished full basement was divided roughly into four quadrants, which all had a different primary role, but all employed by me as venues for my imagination play. One quadrant had the furnace and laundry, but all the machinery and pipes gave the room the feel of perhaps the engine or other room of a ship or a submarine. The second was my dad’s “office”, with an eight by eight rug, a wooden desk, bookshelves along one wall built from loose bricks and painted wood planks, and a small box springs and mattress on the floor that he often would nap or even sleep on when he worked late into the night. The third quadrant had another eight by eight rug plus a stand holding a small black and white TV. The fourth quadrant was all mine; bare concrete floor and no furniture other than another set of brick and wood plank shelves to hold all my toys.

At age four, before I went to regular school, my mom did her research and sent me to “play school”, which may sound like an oxymoron to some. Actually the place was called The Children’s Play School, and it was founded (in 1935) and run by Margaret Grace Dow Towsley, a feminist, a University of Michigan graduate, and a woman of wealth who was deeply committed to issues of child development. She was a founding member of the local chapter of Planned Parenthood. In the 1940s she led the effort to gender-integrate the Ann Arbor chapter of the YMCA, one of only two chapters in the country to accept males and females at the time. In the 1950s she served two terms on the Ann Arbor City Council. In founding her “Play School”, Towsley was acting on her belief that play was critical to child development, self-confidence and a sense of worth.

Towsley may well have been inspired by Maria Montessori, the famous Italian scientist, feminist and humanistic educator, who said that, “Education should no longer be mostly imparting of knowledge, but must take a new path, seeking the release of human potentialities.” Montessori demonstrated in her schools (and packaged in her “method” that is used today in thousands of schools around the world) that children learn best in an enriched child-centered environment where they can explore, touch and learn at their own direction. This should be an environment without tests or grades, which retard learning and self-esteem by introducing a negative and debilitating competition.

I have only a few recollections of “Play School”. I certainly remember the place (its still there fifty years later), two green houses side by side on Forest Street south of the University campus about two miles from our house. I also have a memory of building a rocket ship out of some sort of large wood boxes that I could climb into and pretend to pilot, and another of being out in the backyard digging in the dirt.

So my mom and dad had the same insight as Towsley and Montessori (or maybe noted the toys at Towsley’s Play School) and made my world, particularly the basement, the backyard, and with the park across the street, an enriched environment where I could explore and learn at my own direction. They bought me constructible materials like Lincoln Logs, Duplos, Legos, Tinker Toys, Erector Sets, wooden trains and simple wooden blocks. They got me lots of three-inch plastic human figures (mostly Civil War and World War II soldiers) plus plastic animal figures as well. I also had access to construction paper and whatever discarded cardboard boxes, small and large I could find in the house, which using scissors and tape could be turned into various, boats, submarines and other conveyances or structures. Finally they gave me white chalk which I could use to draw on the concrete slab basement floor, islands, rivers, roads, what have you, to facilitate my creation of imaginary worlds. Out in the backyard was the big pile of dirt to make castles and forts or rugged terrain plus a hose to add real water as rivers or small lakes. It was an array of stuff that could facilitate the imagination of the kid to go any direction it wants to. The toy or the tool not dictating how it would be used.

Over most of the next decade of my life, these “imagination toys” and a basement or yard venue to deploy them in, would create perhaps the most significant enriched environment for me to do my developmental work as a young human being wrestling with the aspects of human culture that I was confronted with and were part of the adult world I was preparing myself to enter. Confronted with in the comic books and regular books I read, movies and TV shows I watched, other media, plus the stories that my parents or my friends told me about other compelling real world experiences. War, space exploration, science fact and fiction, were all ripe contexts for compelling human story arcs and ethical issues that I could play out, inspired by the tales of others. (More on that to come!)

Moving beyond my personal world of imagination, I think my parents’ egalitarian relationship carried over to my own with my young peers. My closest friend and playmate in my childhood was a girl my age who lived across the street (who I will call “Molly” but not her real name). I don’t recall that the fact that Molly was a girl and I was a boy was very significant in our relationship. We were both just young human beings into imagination play and spent many many hours together in my basement, our backyards, or her big attic bedroom across the street. We quickly became best buddies and soon after complete soulmates.

The developmental plot thickened one day when our shared inquisitiveness and precociousness led to a joint decision that we were going to take our clothes off and show each other our naked bodies. We were up in her wonderful attic bedroom which afforded us a lot of privacy from her parents downstairs, and I hid behind an overstuffed chair so we could not see each other as we jettisoned our shoes, socks, t-shirts, shorts and underwear. After verbal confirmation that we were both ready, we stepped naked into each other’s view. On careful examination of my play partner, triggering a quick look down again at myself, I realized that ninety-nine percent of our bodies were pretty much the same.

We noted and even commented on the one difference, that I had a little thingie poking out from between my legs and she had a little slit instead. This small detail was judged insignificant by our collective wisdom and we basked in the excitement of breaking convention and being naked together, with no one around to shame us into doing otherwise. Molly’s slight anatomical difference was not the source of the excitement, it would have been just as thrilling to show all if we had both had those slits or thingies. Our attic revelation had confirmed at least one difference between us, however minor. But whatever differences our parents and other humans had associated with these two varieties of human being, it never jibed with our experience of each other, comrades of the soul that we were.

This was perhaps my first inkling that gender was not a significant part of the nature of the individual human soul, just the “sexual plumbing” of the mammalian body our soul inhabits, despite our culture being built in so many ways around the supposed profound difference between men and women. Given that cultural divide, I would grow to become uncomfortable with the “men are from Mars” cultural expectations of my gender, and as a result increasingly uncomfortable in circles of men, gravitating to the world of women, and their insurgency to leverage the positive relational aspects of “women are from Venus”, while challenging its cultural limitations.

Another compelling part of my life was the developing of my relationship with my dad with insights into who he was. The closest Peter and I got to the things our dad was passionate about was in his nightly ritual, which I can remember back to age four, of singing songs to us and with us at bedtime. Peter and I would each be in our beds and he would sit in what I recall was a rocking chair facing us. We would briefly discuss the proposed song list and then he would start to croon.

Since our dad had that thing, endemic in his generation of men, of not directly sharing his most deeply felt passions and other emotions, the songs he chose to sing were one of our few windows into his soul. Music, and particularly in the volume and inflection of a human voice singing, is all about conveying emotion, passion, and generally what is believed to be of great value.

One song I remember him loving to sing, and that we would join in with him on, was “Don’t Fence Me In”, which was written originally by Robert Fletcher and Cole Porter, and had been recorded and popularized by Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters in 1944, when my dad had been a soldier during World War II. The lyrics were evocative of a “Marlboro Man” yearning for a more free and full life …

Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above
Don’t fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don’t fence me in
Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees
Send me off forever but I ask you please
Don’t fence me in

I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences
And gaze at the moon till I lose my senses
And I can’t look at hobbles and I can’t stand fences
Don’t fence me in

Like snippets from the lyrics of many popular songs to follow (which I would subsequently hear particularly on the radio or record player), phrases from this song were very evocative for me as well. The adventurer’s ethos of “riding through the wide open country that I love”, which would play out later as my dad shared with us his love of travel. The willingness to be sent off forever, to trade comfort for freedom. And perhaps even the quest for a deeper level of enlightenment behind the “gaze at the moon until I lose my senses”. Our dad cared about this stuff, and it was put forward for our consideration as well.

The majority of the songs he sang came from his experience of college life, including his Alma Mater, the University of Michigan, and its classic anthem, “Hail to the Victors”…

Hail! to the victors valiant,
Hail! to the conquering heroes,
Hail! Hail! to Michigan the leaders and best.

Both our mom and dad held this local institution in the highest regard, which had drawn them away from their young adulthood in Binghamton New York and propelled them to academic achievement, marriage and starting a family. The song called forth an exceptionalism and an almost tribal connection with one’s academic roots and hometown “team”. Both my parents were diehard Michigan fans, perhaps like other converts always the most zealous. Peter and I quickly adopted much of that same zeal, to honor them and be up and coming members in good standing of the “tribe”.

But our dad would also sing the songs of other colleges, though within a context of them as our “opponents” at least at this mythopoetic level. I can remember Dartmouth’s, Notre Dame’s and Indiana’s, though he also taught us an alternate version of the Indiana song where the line…

At the altar you never falter
From the battle you’re tried and true

Became…

At the altar you always falter
From the battle you’re black and blue

Apparently a version sung by drunken taunting Michigan fans at the stadium when the University of Indiana football team came to town. He sang them with gusto and my brother and I learned to sing along with the same level of enthusiasm. He even taught us the fight song of one of Michigan’s most hated rivals, Notre Dame. Though he and our mom went to great lengths explaining to us the provenance of the bad blood, incidents of Notre Dame players breaking the rules and slugging Michigan players when the refs couldn’t see. I am sure we were indoctrinated with a one-sided retelling of the events, probably a mostly Protestant UofM versus the Catholic Notre Dame. Still we were inculcated in a parochial mythos of our home team and its rivals. I still to this day feel the remnants of a sense of deep martial pride when I hear “The Victors”.

My favorite song from his repertoire, was a little ditty he taught us honoring our town and lampooning college life…

I want to go back to Michigan,
To dear Ann Arbor town,
Back to Joe’s and the Orient,
And back to some of the money I spent…

Mother and father pay all the bills
And we have all the fun
In the friendly rivalry of college life
But we have to think of a hell of a lot
To tell what we have done
In the coin we blew in dear old Michigan

There was a subtext of privilege in the song that I was of course too young to fathom, of elite young men sowing wild oats while well-heeled parents paid the tab for their indulgences and profligacy, knowing this was part of the rite of passage to connections to power. It was a gentle indoctrination and passing of the torch of privilege to the next generation, with the expectation that we too would be privy in our own young adulthood.

But we witnessed the most intense emotions in his heartfelt renditions of soulful and bittersweet longing in the “The Whiffenpoof Song”. He would raise his head and croon, almost campily, to the ceiling…

To the tables down at Mory’s
To the place where Louie dwells
To the dear old Temple bar we love so well
Sing the Whiffenpoofs assembled
With their glasses raised on high
And the magic of their singing casts its spell

Yes, the magic of their singing
Of the songs we love so well
“Shall I Wasting” and “Mavourneen” and the rest
We will serenade our Louie
While life and voice shall last
Then we’ll pass and be forgotten with the rest

We’re poor little lambs who have lost our way
Baa, baa, baa
We’re little black sheep who have gone astray
Baa, baa, baa

Gentleman songsters off on a spree
Doomed from here to eternity
Lord have mercy on such as we
Baa, baa, baa

As I sang along I felt that rich blend of maudlin ennui and sense of innocence lost, certainly in the inflections of my dad’s voice if not the subtleties of the lyrics we were singing. My dad loved college life, as a graduate student when he first sang those songs to us, but later as a college English professor himself.

And I loved this ritual of nightly singing so much, that some thirty years later as a parent myself, once my kids got old enough to appreciate songs at bedtime, continued my dad’s tradition, though the songs I sang were for the most part different. The exception was “I Want to Go Back to Michigan”, my homage to my dad for my own kids’ consideration.

All our lives were to endure upcoming twists, turns, slings and arrows, but as I completed my critical first five years of life, mine so far was an incarnation bathed in love and possibility.

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