Railroad Park and Dr. Seuss on humor.

Gnome finds a frame at Railroad Park.

A few weeks back, we wandered around Railroad Park in Birmingham and the kids found so many things to touch, see, and explore. The goofiness was contagious.

Shadows and light.

In 1952, the dearly beloved Dr. Seuss published an essay on writing for children and how it differed from writing for adults. It’s brilliant and inspiring and reminder not to regulate laughter. As we know, regulated laughter easily morphs into cynicism or absurdism.

When you were a kid named Willy or Mary the one thing you did better than anything else was laugh. The one thing you got more fun out of than anything else was laughing. Why, I don’t know. Maybe it has to do with juices. And when somebody knew how to stir those juices for you, you really rolled on the floor. Remember? Your sides almost really did split. Remember. You almost went crazy with the pain of having fun. You were a terrible blitz to your family. So what? Your juices were juicing. Your lava was seething. Your humor was spritzing. You really were living.

At that age you saw life through very clear windows. Small windows, of course. But very bright windows.

And, then, what happened?

You know what happened.

The grown-ups began to equip you with shutters. Your parents, your teachers, your everybody-around-you, your all-of-those-people who loved you and adored you * * * they decided your humor was crude and too primitive. You were laughing too loud, too often and too happily. It was time you learned to laugh with a little more restraint.

They began pointing out to you that most of this wonderful giddy nonsense that you laughed at wasn’t, after all, quite as funny as you thought.

“Now why,” they asked, “are you laughing at that? It’s completely pointless and utterly ridiculous.”

“Nonsense,” they told you, “is all right in its place. But it’s time you learned how to keep it in its place. There’s much more in this world than just nonsense.”

Your imagination, they told you, was getting a bit out of hand. Your young unfettered mind, they told you, was taking you on too many wild flights of fancy. It was time your imagination got its feet down on the ground. It was time your version of humor was given a practical, realistic base. They began to teach you their versions of humor. And the process of destroying your spontaneous laughter was under way.

A strange thing called conditioned laughter began to take its place. Now, conditioned laughter doesn’t spring from the juices. It doesn’t even spring. Conditioned laughter germinates, like toadstools on a stump.

And, unless you were a very lucky little Willy or Mary, you soon began to laugh at some very odd things. Your laughs, unfortunately, began to get mixed in with sneers and smirks.

This conditioned laughter the grown-ups taught you depended entirely upontheir conditions. Financial conditions. Political conditions. Racial, religious and social conditions. You began to laugh at people your family feared or despised — people they felt inferior to, or people they felt better than.

If your father said a man named Herbert Hoover was an ass, and asses should be laughed at, you laughed at Herbert Hoover. Or, if you were born across the street, you laughed at Franklin Roosevelt. Who they were, you didn’t know. But the local ground rules said you were to laugh at them. In the same way, you were supposed to guffaw when someone told a story which proved that Swedes are stupid, Scots are tight, Englishmen are stuffy and the Mexicans never wash.

Your laughs were beginning to sound a little tinny. Then you learned it was socially advantageous to laugh at Protestants and/or Catholics. You readily learned, according to your conditions, that you could become the bright boy of the party by harpooning a hook into Jews (or Christians), labor (or capital), or the Turnverein or the Strawberry Festival.

You still laughed for fun, but the fun was getting hemmed in by a world of regulations. You were laughing at subjects according to their listing in the ledger. Every year, as you grew older, the laughs that used to split your sides diminished. The ledger furnished more sophisticated humor. You discovered a new form of humor based on sex. Sex, a taboo subject, called for very specialized laughter. It was a subject that was never considered funny in large gatherings. It was a form of humor you never indulged in at Sunday school. It was a form of humor that was subtle and smart and you learned to restrict it for special friends.

And, by the time you had added that accomplishment to your repertoire, you know what had happened to you, Willy or Mary? Your capacity for healthy, silly, friendly laughter was smothered. You’d really grown up. You’d become adults * * * adults, which is a word that means obsolete children.

The Eldest cavorts atop a see-saw.

As for Railroad Park, you should go there. And bring a bike.

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