Kate Walbert, Playdate (2007)

The culture of fear has surreptitiously crept up and now seems to pervade our lives. We take it for granted, most of it, and tragic events keep reminding us why it is (at least partly) justified. But the toll of such a culture on our lives, really, what a weight!

Courtney has recently illustrated this point with her usual talent. At about the same time, I read a wonderful short story in the New Yorker, by an author I didn’t know but now wish to learn more about. She retells the very banal event of a play date in New York. Play-dates aren’t something I’m used to: I don’t have children, and when I was one, such things were kept rather informal. But the story soon turns out that the ones who are playing are the mothers, not the daughters. One is a woman from Ohio who recently moved to New York for her husband’s work, the other a divorced, rather intellectual mother. Their lives are full of fears and threats and messages of caution and strained optimism, just like this school session for parents where they met, called “Raising a Calm Child in the Age of Anxiety; or, How to Let Go and Lighten Up!”, where they were advised to keep an anxiety journal. This play date is a privileged moment where they are able to shake off the burden of the culture of fear, and honestly confide in each other. It’s beautifully, delicately drawn.

“What have you got?” Fran says. She’s pouring [wine] and doesn’t notice.

“Oh, nothing,” says Liz. “Your anxiety journal.”

Fran stops. “You were reading it?”

“Oh, God, no. Of course not. I just saw it here and picked it up. I mean, I was thinking, Good for you, and remembering that I’ve been meaning to buy one, or get one. I’d write, ‘TV-dinner tray.’ ”

“What?”

“ ‘TV-dinner tray.’ Like the one you’re holding. It makes me nervous and I can’t tell you why.”

Fran looks down. “It belonged to Richard. He liked to eat in front of the news.” “Exactly.”“Maybe it’s the news you associate it with.”“Maybe.”

“See? She had a point,” Fran says. “Cheers!” They toast and sip the wine, which is delicious chilled, Liz says—she never thinks to do that. “You should,” Fran says. She takes the anxiety journal and tucks it beneath one of the sectional cushions. “To playdates!” she says, toasting again. 

While details of their lives may be exotic for those like me who live outside the U.S., we are no strangers to the same culture of fear. The more we integrate it into our lives, the more control we wish to have over everything, and as a corollary, the more we accept that others control everything for us. There always will be things we can’t control, even terrible things, but also beautiful ones. Out of fear we might just be giving up on luck that goes with a free life.

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7 thoughts on “Kate Walbert, Playdate (2007)

  1. I heard this story on the New Yorker podcast and also liked it a lot. I have read other works by Walbert–my favorite being “The Gardens of Kyoto”, which is incidentally available on bookmooch.

  2. I really loved this story (unlike so many New Yorker stories, which leave me cold). It was remarkable yet ordinary, chilling yet congenial, dreamlike yet stark. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

  3. Hope you don’t mind a comment from a stranger–it’s funny to me how something as arbitrary and artificial as a “play date” can somehow save them. “Anxiety journals” and all the inventions to deal with our culture of fear don’t do much good because they’re inventions. But if you focused on the reason for the ritual it might possibly work. It sometimes seems we’ve cast aside all the little rituals that gave us comfort and replaced them with doing more and more stuff…as if drinking more will somehow bring us around to being sober again.

  4. RUminator, I must check these Gardens of Kyoto, thanks for the tip!
    Joe, of course I don’t mind comments! I see your point, playdates and anxiety journals all started with good intentions at heart, that’s why we can’t discard them altogether.

  5. Pingback: A May 1st Bookish Mishmash « Smithereens

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