In the idyllic landscapes of my mind, every community revolves around a manicured town square where ornate fountains send water cascading from the gaping mouths of chiseled fish. Perfectly planted flower beds bloom with the rhythms of the season, expertly maintained by volunteer gardeners. In the center of this colorful square, under the canopy of ancient trees shielding cicadas from predators, is a gazebo. This is the great forum. The grounds upon which all the neighbors gather to discuss the needs of the town. It’s a magical place where parents sit on the gazebo steps, chatting about life, as their children ride bikes in the safety of the local town square.
Sounds awesome, right?
In my single road subdivision, just off a busy six-lane road, we don’t have any of the above. There’s a swing, though. It hangs from a tree in my weed-choked yard, expertly neglected by myself.
When my family and I moved into this house, we almost took down the swing. The previous owner had installed it. The swing is in an awkward spot. While the tree is in my front yard, the swing hangs over our neighbor’s. It also goes over the front sidewalk, and swings toward the road. Although we live in a very quiet cul-de-sac, vaulting my children toward the road feels a little odd. When people are walking by on the sidewalk, they have to dodge the giggling children dangling from a rope of ambiguous age. It’s not ideal.
Swing by and meet the new folks
But after our first few days swinging, something magical began to happen: I started meeting neighbors.
In our last house, we were pretty isolated. Our neighbors were sort of close, but even after six years of sharing a driveway, we spoke to them maybe a half dozen times. A prime reason for picking a new home in a subdivision was to have more visible neighbors again. Neighbors with kids. Neighbors who shared wine and food. So far, we haven’t had any free wine or food, but it’s still early.
The more we went out to the swing, the more time my kids spent with the neighbor kids. Soon these gatherings moved from the swing to the yard. And their parents followed.
It felt like the swing was the town square of our cul-de-sac. It provided a non-verbal invitation to all to gather. What may have just been a wave from across the street became an impromptu hang out for all. The kids would play, the adults would chat. The swing began to feel like the red Solo cup that keeps your hands busy at an awkward social gathering. It satisfied the enduring human need to be doing something else while also being social.
Interestingly, while I feel like my wife can speak with other moms with little need for an activity to center them, we dads … we need something. A point around which to rally. Our swing has become this point. Guys can walk over because something is happening. Somehow this rope, which I’ll never replace (because it’s way, wayyyy too high), and this tiny plastic seat transform into an easy ice breaker. No one has to come up with a topic. There’s no need for a cold approach, an awkward, “So how about the local sports ball team?” The swing naturally provides the, “Kids, ‘amiright,’” topic. Total strangers immediately have something to talk about.
Putting dads at ease
The swing’s natural draw has been a big help to me because I’m terrible at being social. It’s been an issue my whole life. As the kids age, I can see where my anti-social attitude has begun to have a negative effect on them. I want to be the guy that sees other kids and another dad and says, “Hey, let’s go make friends!” Frustratingly, I’m not that guy. While I have a very Ron Swanson demeanor, I’m soft and cuddly on the inside, but my genetic inability to smile seems to put people off.
But the swing!
The swing has saved me. It’s the friendly smile from the front porch that I can’t muster on my own, and it’s made it clear to me why the City Dads Groups have been so helpful to me. They provide the thing around which to rally. They provide an activity or a metaphorical town square in which to meet. These groups are my swing, and my swing is the extension of the groups.
As humans we are all told who we should be. Men are not immune to this. We are told to be tough and strong. We are told to be independent kings of our individual castles. Sometimes our walls are up, especially when it’s so common to feel at ideological odds with our neighbors and fellow humans, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe one day there will be a tree swing on the grounds of the White House. All sides of the political spectrum can swing together, laughing, remembering the joy of being a kid, forgetting all the forces that seek to divide us.
Until then, I’ll keep my swing up as a beacon to the other families to come hang out and chat awhile. Maybe this simple swing will unite the entire subdivision!
As long as the homeowner’s association doesn’t force me to take it down . . .