Monday, April 20, 2009


Beauty is momentary in the mind--
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.

Wallace Stevens

Few experiences of childhood anticipation rival the first sight of a roller coaster's bending rails rising above the trees. It is summer, or promises to be so soon, and one has traveled an hour, or two, or three, to see and ride just this. The crowds--competing suitors for this prize--are already streaming from the vast parking lot. There isn't a moment to lose.

More spectacular ones are continually being built, and I enjoy the steel singularities too, but it's hard to beat the classic wooden coaster. The struts ascend rank upon rank--antique, delicate, and seemingly incongruent with the mass, velocity, and torque they must support. The wood has a disconcertingly weathered and derelict look, and one wouldn't be surprised to see high weeds growing beneath. There is a ritualistic feel to the wooden ride: the deliberate ratchet skyward, the ecstatic drop, and--what the newer coasters lack--the long hilly straightaways that mimic a high-speed race down country roads. As one hurtles through the high turnaround, it feels even on the hundredth ride as if one will careen into empty space.

Children must be provided opportunities for wonder, for some early joys must have the inertia of a lifetime. The best come from sun, water, sky, and from storied fantasy, but there is an innocent joy of technology too, which is easy to forget these days (I don't know for sure, but I doubt that amusement parks are particularly "green"). On a roller coaster, of course, once you get on you are compelled and not free; you're getting exactly the same ride everyone else is (well, the back may be a little faster), every ride is physically identical. And yet the lack of freedom is freely, exhilaratingly undertaken, and there is a fine art of delectable repetition. Lots of things in life are like that I guess, the best things anyway. There is nothing new under the sun--and that's okay. One can easily imagine a world without roller coasters, but as it is, plenitude is something to be grateful for. Elemental delights are best.

Roller coasters, like skyscrapers and rockets, are great oddities of nature, testaments to our kind's hunger for height and speed. It has only been in the past few years that I have realized how punishing wooden coasters are. As a teenager at King's Island, when the hordes dissipated near closing time, I would ride the Racer or the howling Beast a dozen times or more. Now my body feels and retains the violence--as it does the violence of sub-tropical sun.

Young 'un number two just reached 48 inches this year and so has been able to ride a few coasters. I wasn't sure how he'd react, as he's unpredictable, liable to playing in traffic or on precipices if not watched, yet sometimes disturbed by darkness or noise. After the first one, a vintage wooden one that had us bouncing up and down and from side to side, he had a kind of stunned expression. When asked how he liked it, he took a moment before declaring, somewhat solemnly, "Yes!" Then: "I want to go on it again!" and off he ran.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The roller coaster is such a great metaphor for the compatabilist model of life: We choose to get on, but then suffer the assaults of the determined course.

Fear and caution are so destructive of creativity/wisdom/insight/evolution etc. Why can't we all be like children?

To be a child, but with the capacities of an adult...bliss? I guess, having children is the next best thing.

Welcome back.