When the city revamped Huron Avenue, they sunk granite curbs level with the pavement to define the crosswalks, an expensive yet elegant bit of urban dressing. On my meditative walks home from the gym, I often find myself tracking the granite as if I were an Olympic gymnast, one foot in front of the other. A simple bit of balance with no risk, as there is no place to fall.
The Olympic analogy is short-lived; I can’t pretend to be an Olympian for even a few moments. So my mind spins to other feats of folly. I recall the child actor Matthew Garber, who played Michael Banks in Mary Poppins. In a movie-instant that few probably recall, as Mary, Jane, and Michael depart 17 Cherry Tree Lane for adventure, Michael snakes around the porch column, rather than simply trod down the front steps. The image of that round-faced boy in his shorts suit and cap pivoting off that column stuck with me for years. I credit it as the inspiration for the Master’s thesis I wrote almost twenty years later: Architecture that Affords Play.
I savored that time: studying the psychology of play; analyzing how people interact with the built environment in unanticipated ways; creating over two hundred free-hand drawings back in the pre-Photoshop days of cut and paste.
Then my mind turns a dark shadow as I flinch at a more recent memory. The director I’m collaborating with on a new play chastised my working process. “Loosen up, play with it!” I explained to him that, as a person of engineering temperament, I know how to play like an adult— manipulating something I’ve already mastered—but find it wicked difficult to play like a child—who seeks mastery through open-ended exploration. Even when I was a child, I don’t recall playing like one. I don’t know if he ‘hears’ me, or believes me, but his words sting deep because I know all too well how my creative impulses are stymied by a rigid constitution that simply won’t things fly.
By now I’m approaching the next crosswalk. A dozen steps ahead, I see a woman pursuing my own indulgence: balancing herself along the granite strip of crosswalk. She’s older than me, but simply from the way her body jostles as she steps, I can tell she’s jolly.
I Mary-Lou-Retton my way across the street and greet my fellow gymnast on the far side. “I’ve never seen anyone else left-right-left across the street on the granite strip.” “I do it all the time; it’s good for my balance.” We laugh with each other and move on. Grateful to live in a city that can afford the indulgence of granite curbs where none are required. Thankful that we can still toe the line.