In recent weeks I’ve been transfixed by news of the measles outbreak that started at The Happiest Place on Earth — Disneyland. In particular, I’m fascinated by the rhetoric that accompanies vaccine rejection. How did a medical intervention that was once considered a common-sense precaution become so controversial?
One of the arguments I’ve seen in favor of foregoing immunization is that our (Western, affluent) society is far too protective of children. Parents are ridiculed, castigated, sometimes arrested for doing things that were commonplace when I was a child, like leaving their kid in the car for five minutes while they run into the store, or letting their child play at a neighborhood park alone. Vaccinating a baby against once-common diseases like measles or chicken pox is, the vaccine opponents say, another way in which we’re overprotective. On the other hand, they argue, vaccines themselves are risky, and what parent wouldn’t want to shield their child against a bad reaction or lifetime health consequences? Either way, the conversation seems to perpetually circle around perceptions of risk and which ones we should be protecting our children from.
Amy Fusselman has thought a lot about why we’ve become so risk-averse. Her latest book, Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die, examines the existential angst that lies behind modern parenting — modern life, really — and does it with style.
The book centers around a Japanese recreation area called Hanegi Park, from which it spirals in and out masterfully, from the examination of tiny details to the contemplation of our deepest human needs. Here are some questions I asked Amy about Savage Park, and her answers.
HDYWT: How did you come up with the idea for Savage Park?
Amy: I was inspired to write the book after visiting Hanegi Playpark in Tokyo, affectionately dubbed “Savage Park” by the child of the friend who took my family there. Hanegi Playwark is an adventure playground, which is a type of playground first developed by landscape architect Carl Theodor Sorenson in Copenhagen in 1943 when that town was under German occupation. Adventure playgrounds are composed of essentially three elements: a vacant lot, donated materials or tools, and a playworker who is there to facilitate children’s play but not to direct it.
Given the play environments I was accustomed to in my hometown of New York City, this landscape was inspiring to me, and I wanted to explore it.
HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?
Amy: I began taking notes and took notes for a long period. This book had many changes before I decided on the structure.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Amy: I read and mark up what I read, and I take notes. I tolerate a lot of mess on the way to making a shape.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Amy: Writing is a very different activity from promotion, but in any case, none of it happens unless my three kids are in school. So far, I can’t work very well when my kids are at home. Maybe in a few more years.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Amy: Probably the thing I value most is just reading a piece of writing or even seeing a piece of art or dance or theater that inspires me. Just seeing that someone is making thrilling or interesting or provocative work is important to me; it encourages me to keep going. This is especially true if the artist is a woman. It’s critical for me to see women artists working.
Bonus question: You have a powerful way of taking a small interaction and cracking it open so that it reveals surprising possibilities for new ways of thinking. Is there something about your writing process that allows you access these insights? What advice would you give a fellow writer who wants to develop a talent for close observation?
Amy: Thank you for that compliment. I do think close observation is important but I also think it’s important to allow myself to pull apart what I observe. I never want to be afraid to ask “Why?” “Why?” is a really important question.