Kids and Danger - II

September 19, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Matilda’s mother apologizes for calling so late, but she wonders whether Caroline might be free for a playdate? Like, tomorrow?

“Matilda’s had a cancellation,” she says.


Liz searches the kitchen drawer for Caroline’s Week-at-a-Glance. It’s ten already and she’s had her wine; down the hall the baby nurse, Lorna, is asleep with the twins and Caroline; Ted’s out of town. What the hell is Matilda’s mother’s name, anyway? Faith, Frankie, Fern—


“We could do an hour,” Liz says. “We have piano a
t four-thirty.”

That’s the opening of “Playdate,” a story by Kate Walbert published in The New Yorker several months ago. It fits with my previous post about parents and children, control and protection.

Is this the way we live now, I wondered as I read these paragraphs – six-year-olds with planner appointment books, mothers scheduling playdates because a child had “a cancellation”? A nurse for the kids even when mom is at home? (The twins, we learn later in the story, were conceived in vitro with another woman’s eggs.)

Sometimes fiction captures the culture and social structure well before the sociologists move in. For freshman English long ago, I had to read J.D. Salinger’s much anthologized story, “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut.” At the time, I didn’t appreciate its sociological imagination, its showing the connections between private troubles and social structures. Nor did I appreciate how ahead of its time it was in applying this sociological imagination to women. (If you have a copy of the story, take it off the shelf and read it now. It won’t take long.)

The postwar years in the US seemed prosperous and problem-free. The principle criticism of the period at the time was that it was dull, dominated by conformity. But Salinger’s story gave us the underside of middle-class prosperity – the frustrations of the bright, educated woman trapped as a housewife in suburbia. That suburban context makes us understand and sympathize with her cynicism, her drinking, her anger at her husband, and even her anger at her child.
Salinger’s story was published in 1948. Sociologists and psychologists began exploring this territory in the fifties and didn’t begin thinking seriously about women until at least a decade later.

“Playdate” is obviously based on “Uncle Wiggly.” (I suppose there are fine lines between being inspired by, writing in homage to, and just plain ripping off another author.) The New Yorker blurb puts it this way: “Short story about two Manhattan mothers getting drunk and confiding in each other while their daughters are on a playdate.” Which would work for “Uncle Wiggly,” except that there’s only one daughter, and the setting is a Connecticut suburb rather than Manhattan. The rhythm of the events in the stories is the same, some of the images are identical (a woman lying on the floor balancing her drink on her chest), even the flow of the final sentence.

In both stories, the women sense that something is missing from their lives, something they can’t quite identify. In the 2007 story, that sense is symbolized in the pet cat’s “hot spot”: “Their cat . . . recently contracted a hot spot. A hot spot, she tells Liz, is an itch that can’t be scratched.” A problem you literally cannot put your finger on.

But while the mood of Salinger’s postwar story is isolation and anger, the tone of “Playdate” is not as bleak, and its central feelings are anxiety and uncertainty. The mothers have attended a talk at school: “Raising a Calm Child in the Age of Anxiety; or, How to Let Go and Lighten Up!” Walbert is spoofing pop psych here, but the “anxiety journal” the professor tells the parents to keep becomes a significant item in the story.

“We are living in the Age of Anxiety,”says the professor. But several eras in the last century have been the age of anxiety – the phrase itself originates (I think) in a 1948 poem by Auden, and an Internet history guide applies the phrase to the 1920s. What’s different from one era to another are the causes of the anxiety. This is the post-9/11 era. “Helicopters,” the mother lists in her anxiety journal along with Thieves, Crowds, and Playdates. Twice in the story we hear the subway warning announcement: “Protect yourself. If you see a suspicious package or activity . . . .”

There may also be differences in how we react. Salinger’s suburban postwar mother chose sarcasm and alcohol. The Manhattan mothers in 2007 deal with anxiety by trying to schedule uncertainty out of their children’s lives. They hover like helicopters.

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