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The Swing of Things

the utter importance of the humble swing set

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by Mike Paulus illustrated by Ian Kloster

It’s easy to forget how hard it is to swing on a swing. You need to pump your legs. You need to get the timing right. You need to harness gravity. Once you do, eureka, it’s the most obvious thing in the world. It’s as easy as breathing, so we forget all about it.

But at one time in your life, you didn’t know how to breathe, either. You’ve probably forgotten all about that, as well.

St. James Catholic Elementary School used to have a large set of swings embedded right in its parking lot. The laws governing our nation’s playgrounds have changed since then, but at the time, if you fell off, you fell right onto the dusty blacktop. These are things I only think about now, years later, as I worry about adult things like bloody elbows and irreversible cranial damage.

As a kid, I truly imagined it was possible to not only swing to bar level (and higher), but to actually swing so hard and so high as to complete a 360 degree rotation around the bar – like a glorious rocket ship tethered to the earth by a thin metal chain. Sure, you’d need an underdog push from Ben Spanel, the fastest runner in class, but theoretically, it was possible. And theoretically, it would be the best thing to ever happen to anyone ever.These foreign concepts never mattered to a St. James second grader. The only thing that mattered was swinging high enough to be level with the top bar. We had a clever name for swinging that high: “bar level.”

Sadly, I must inform you that I have never once in my entire life achieved bar level, let alone the completely imaginary 360 degree rotation. And because of things like bloody elbows and irreversible cranial damage, I probably never will. 

However, it feels like I may have come close a time or two – pumping my legs as hard as I could, leaning back as flat as my body would go, getting higher and higher, tucking my feet back at the very peak of the swing, and feeling that queasy nanosecond of flight! before falling back towards the earth. I must have come close, right?

I have no idea. Right now, I’m imagining someone walking by my school’s playground to see a pudgy little boy on an old swing set, swinging (at most) three feet up and yelling, “I’m at bar level, guys! BAR! LEVEL!”

Who cares? It was exhilarating. 

It would be years later, after college, before a swing set would be even near as exciting. This time, it was the playground at Lakeshore Elementary School in the middle of the night. I walked there with a girl who was braver than me. She had decided it was time for us to hold hands. 

Later on, I learned how this girl was a notorious lover of swing sets. And yes, she has achieved bar level. She’s braver than me in a lot of ways. Eventually, she actually married me. 

I really don’t remember swinging that night. 

Last summer, my dad helped me build a swing set in my backyard. And by “helped” I mean to say “my dad built a swing set in my backyard while I dug some holes to put it in.” I also had the arduous task of calling Digger’s Hotline.

Our kids adore the thing. They fight over who gets to use which swing, and they love to show off how high they can go. There are maple branches hanging over it (above bar level), and my son demands that I push him high enough to touch them. Luckily, he’s only two years old and I just need to yell, “Dude! You’re touching the branches!” He’s cool with that. 

My daughter would swing all day if she could. She’s really into twisting around as she swings, flying around all wonky. She even reads while she’s swinging. Her mom used to do the exact same thing. As I see my kids doing this stuff, I know I need to work hard to remember it. These are the kinds of things that quietly change your life.  

See, it’s easy to forget how important it is to go swinging. You’re learning how a memorable plaything works, and that’s awesome, but there’s so much more going on. You’re learning how your body works. In your gut and in the back of your mind, you’re learning about the bizarre and fantastic laws of the physical universe. You’re learning how the world works against you, and how it works with you. You’re starting to master your own tiny part of everything.

These are things we need to learn outside. With a smile on our face.

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