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Column: When mulch was hot lava

Over the summer I worked as a summer hire for the Department of the Navy. The command I worked for, like any good Navy command, had a summer picnic where the families of the sailors and civil servants came together for an afternoon of beer, burgers and good, clean, American fun. After hob-knobbing with my coworkers for a bit, I became tired of the formality and expectation of adult conversation and went in search of an activity somewhat less boring.

Salvation came when I saw a group of picnic kids congregating in a playground area. Despite being about three feet taller than them, I was welcomed openly as I came to the playground. Apparently I don't look or act old enough yet to be a true adult. That's a comforting thought. Still, since I was the big kid in the group, I thought I would be benevolent and help the others reach the monkey bars so they could enjoy a nice game of chicken or some other childhood delight.

To my dismay, when I was helping the youngest of the children reach the bars, an older kid sitting on top of the steel contraption declared himself king of the playground, informed me that the mulch flooring of the playground was in fact hot lava, and that I had better get out, or I would be melted! Fortunately, I remembered the rules that kids, especially little boys, play by, and I quickly informed the king that I was equipped with special lava-walking shoes, that allowed me to help his younger friend reach safety. Without missing a beat, the king congratulated me on the coolness of my footwear, and asked that I would help him down when I finished helping his friend.

This scenario brought a rush of nostalgia to my head as I remembered games of cops and robbers I played as a child. The creativity factor on my childhood battleground was immense, as fortresses were fashioned out of trees, grenades out of balloons, guns out of sticks, plus the more pragmatic intervention of the commercially produced toys we owned. Rules were ever-changing, depending on the specific objectives at hand, and the diabolical imaginations of my comrades. Survival was predicated on conceiving the greatest armor, the most impenetrable force-field, or the most powerful ammunition. Yes, it was a simpler time, when obligations to civilized life were minimal, and there was no haunting fear of responsibilities to come. Then came high school, where the traditions and mores of the playground disappeared along with recess into a never-ending cascade of school-work for classes that "mattered"and after-school activities that were based in rules of order, and were necessary for college applications. Creativity and imagination still existed, but they existed within a much more refined, purposeful and unfulfilling framework. All the while we yearn for the day when the freedom of life's mysteries will give us the breathing room to create as we did as children.

And lo, then came college. Not exactly the freedom of childhood, yet quite a substantial liberation from the chains of high school, college occupies a strange middle ground between blissful ignorance and driving paranoia about the future. Here at Duke we have the ominous fate of careers hanging over our heads, but coupled with a great deal of personal freedom and a never-ending supply of playmates. What's more, we have new and different toys at our disposal: computers, music, commons rooms and, most importantly, alcohol. The atmosphere, naturally, is primed for regressive behavior.

Hiding from the ever-looming future, and fondly remembering the freedoms of the past, we create new social worlds around the toys at our disposal. Drinking games emerge, with rules that ebb and flow with every shot.

Obeying the rules again is necessary only to the extent that you can't imagine a better rule that your friends will accept in their inebriated glee. From asserting the power of our armor to demonstrating our ability to consume fermented grain, the psychology is the same: We escape reality by creating a more agreeable world for ourselves using all the material and cognitive resources we can easily command.

 Even where alcohol is not involved, our social machinations reveal a blatant desire to retreat to those childhood memories we so treasured. Everything from frat parties, to sorority mixers, to dorm tee-shirts consistently calls upon 80s icons and images to instill in their attendees the mindset of escapist and surrealist pleasure.

 Some may criticize the excesses of the college lifestyle and the regressive nature of binge drinking and escapist socialization, but I do not subscribe to such a theory. We as college students must take this time of freedom and companionship, hold onto it with all our might, and suck the marrow out of it with all the creative force in our souls, remaining ever mindful of the future that awaits us, but above all never forgetting those special powers that are granted when structure dissolves and the mind wanders.

 Otherwise, we will spend the rest of our lives in a frantic grasp for memories of the beauty and power that came only when mulch was hot lava.

 Andrew Waugh is a Trinity junior. His column appears every third Thrusday.


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