Monday, February 8, 2010

Girls in the 'Hood

I grew up in a part of Toronto called North York, a borough that cut a vast swath of land across the northern border of the city. It was exploding with new tracts of houses made of ‘ticky-tacky’, and something called ‘plazas’ but there were no trees. We lived on a street ploughed out of a former farm, bordering on a wide field full of what was left of nature. The pond behind our backyard was gorged with tiny tadpoles in the spring and noisy mallards in the summer. It froze over in the winter, making a lovely skating rink, upon which my father, in yet another failed effort to pretend that he had sons, tried to teach us some rudimentary hockey plays. (We never got past the 'face off' part, to his chagrin).
Pheasants strutted through our backyard every morning.

Everyone is tired of hearing it, but what can I say? In those days, children played outside all day, all year round. We had no choice. Our homes were tiny with unfinished basements. There were no dens or family rooms with plasma TVs and game consoles. The television was ensconced in a mahogany (if you were rich) or walnut (if you weren’t) cabinet in the living room. You had to get up from the couch to change the channel…yadda..yadda.

The living room was where we all ‘lived’. It was the only place to sit, entertain guests or gather behind TV trays each evening to watch the best entertainment in the history of the world. Bedrooms were barely large enough for beds and dressers. No one I knew had a desk in their room, let alone a computer with Facebook or internet porn to wile away the hours.

The only piece of technology available, to grace the bedside table beside a lamp, (required for something we used to call ‘reading’) was the highly coveted pastel Princess phone. This required what was called, an ‘extension’, which was unaffordable and way too luxurious for my father to contemplate, until, weakened by the years of our incessant whining and nagging, he indulged us in this adolescent frivolity.

So we had to get out of the house. Without protective headgear, knee or elbow pads or electronic tracking devices, we roamed the neighborhood for hours, unsupervised, returning home only at mealtimes for refueling. None of us had watches, but we instinctively knew when it was time to head for home in the evenings....when it started to get dark! The evening cries of mothers on verandahs, up and down the street, calling out for their young, was another signal not to be ignored.

Down the road, there were several unfenced construction sites with huge mountains of loose dirt and bottomless foundation pits. They were the closest approximation of the Grand Canyon and Death Valley as we were going to find in what was essentially a prairie landscape. This was where the kids in the ‘hood gathered daily to play cowboys and indigenous peoples. I yearned for a Davy Crockett hat of my own. I pined for a pair of shiny six-guns in a red leatherette belt or at least a box of caps to smash with rocks of a lazy summer’s afternoon. All I got was the admonition that those sorts of things (like the shimmering electric trains in the Christmas display at Eatons) were for boys! As a consolation, my father gave me a book about Annie Oakley, which only served to frustrate and confuse me further. I longed to stand tall in my stirrups (the pedals of my no-speeds two-wheeler) and pick off the hostiles. If he was so easily impressed by Annie’s exploits with a rifle, why would he curtail my dreams of markswomanship with silly social proprieties? Gender equity was an idea whose time had not yet come.

When there was no one to play with, I would take a matching pair of red, white and blue rubber balls and toss them alternately against a narrow piece of flat wall at the side of our house.
For hours. I could even juggle them with one hand, but unfortunately never really mastered the 360-spin-around move required to go to the playground Olympics.

Speaking of which, I was the local master (mistress?) of another game which required the kind of flexibility I can only dream of today. I am speaking of that great sport of Yokey, wherein two girls of relatively equal height stand a few feet opposite each other clutching a length of manually conjoined elastic bands, scrounged from the depths of kitchen junk drawers around the neighborhood. As they position this ‘stretch’ firstly at the ankles, then to the knees, hips, waist, underarm (there were no breasts, yet), shoulder, earlobe, head and finally, at ‘arm’s length’ as high up as they could reach, it was the goal of the contestant of the moment to sing a little nonsense-song and dance a little dance, lifting the right leg back and forth over the elastic ‘bar’ a few times, finishing with a two-legged hop over and back. This may sound easy, and it was, around the knee-level, but as the elastic band went up and up, you had to reach further and further with that first kick until, by the end, it looked like a contortion from Cirque de Soleil.
Like many of our playthings, it was cheap, had no sharp edges and encouraged the development of co-operation, co-ordination and agility.

To this day, I can’t figure out why Fisher-Price hasn’t market the hell out of this ‘toy’.
(As I write this, I realize that it is now probably reincarnated as a $200 add-on to Wii, or will be by the time I’m finished).

All self-respecting little girls could skip rope, either alone, for many hours, or, even better, with a couple of friends, hopping up and down or running in and out of the quickly turning rope, with incredible timing, to a ditty called, if my fading memory serves me: “Apples, peaches, pears and plums, tell me when your birthday comes.” My poor sister was born in December, and so, had to wait eleven hops before she could enter the fray, squeezing herself in at the dangerous periphery. Since the rope only touched the ground in the middle of its arc, which was, by then, crowded with earlier-month-skippers, she had to hop twice as high, because the position of the rope at that point was raised up to curve into the turner’s hand.
(I’m sure there must be some mathematical formula for this to spoil the fun).

Then there was Double Dutch (no offense! I have no idea why the Dutch are singled out here, but I am pretty sure, given the high degree of enjoyment, there was no intent to disparage). There was a very narrow window for pre-teen girls to master and enjoy this sport, which, to me, should definitely have been considered for the summer Olympics, never mind Skateboarding and Beach Volleyball. The complex choreography and incessant hopping required to skip rhythmically, between two alternately turning red plastic ropes, necessitated a certain physical balance that could be completely thrown off by any subtle change in weight distribution, an increasingly impending threat, especially in the ‘chestal region’, during these pubescent years.
(Same thing holds true for Gymnastics, I believe).

While old guys may still get together to toss around a ball, there is a good reason (or two) you don’t see fuller figured women running out to the driveway to play pick-up Double-Dutch!

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