Friday, March 27, 2009

Hollow Support

When I was in seventh grade, there was a playground near my house that served the kids of about ten families in our very tiny community. It had the usual kinds of things—a swing set, a sandbox, and perhaps a few other less memorable items. However, it wasn't the fixtures that call this scene to mind just now, but the use we put them to and a concept I learned about which I get occasional senses of deja vu.

For example, someone brought some good sized tires, perhaps from trucks, and we made up a game where some people would swing on the swings and others would roll the tires at the people on the swings and the game was to dodge the tires rolling at you or to hit them just right to knock them back in the other direction. It was a very dynamic game, not for the faint of heart, perhaps reminiscent of Rollerball or American Gladiators, though a lot more low tech and presumably less safe.

A short distance from the battleground area that the swingset came to be was the sandbox, where we played more cerebral games. As I recall, we had some little vehicles, probably Tonka® or some such thing, and we'd dig tunnels under the sand for them to drive through. The game in this case was to make bigger and bigger tunnels, almost like a game of Jenga®, but with sand. We'd reach into the tunnels and find a handful of sand to remove and cross our fingers that by removing that particular bit, the entire structure wouldn't fall in.

The game got harder as more was removed because there was less holding things up—and also because it was just hard to reach all the places you needed to without pushing on them. It became more and more intricate to manipulate, and through the eyes of a kid, quite beautiful.

We used terminology that denied what we knew to be the obvious truth, that we were weakening the ceiling above the area we were making. The goal, of course, was to make a giant underground cavern for the trucks to move around in, unimpeded by vertical columns. No one really thought that by removing all the columns, it was becoming stronger. We just loved when it stayed up at all as we used ever bolder techniques that by all rights should have knocked it down. And we tempted fate further by emboldening our terminology to match.

We called it “hollow support,” both as a noun and a verb. I guess it was a kind of cartoon physics thing where if we didn't admit it was getting weaker, maybe it wouldn't. “We need some more hollow support over here,” someone would call out, and another would rush to yank out another bit of supporting structure, all in the name of coming as close as possible to what we all knew was unachievable. All in the name of perfecting the hollowness of the support.

It was beautiful up to the end. And after that? Well, it collapsed, of course. It was just for fun—it wasn't going to affect our lives, after all. If there were little guys driving those Tonka trucks, we were pretty callous about their fate, but that's the nature of the game. We'd just pat each other on the back and talk about what great hollow supporting we'd done and how we should do it again sometime. Then we went home and didn't have to care. The next day would just be another day, like any other. At least for us.

As I look at the US economy these days, that concept pops back to mind a lot. The people running the show, those who devised the complex pyramids of economic sophistry that became our banking system were playing with just so much sand in a sandbox. They were seeking to build something fun, not something secure, and pressuring it ever closer to collapse. Then off to dinner like any other day, not having to care. Over a nice wine, they'll talk about the great things they achieved, and then moan about the great loss they, too, suffered in the Big Collapse. Perhaps they'll think of a few supportive words to offer the little people who were crushed in that collapse.

Hollow support—it was so obviously ridiculous even as we were doing it as children, who could have ever guessed I'd find use for such a concept again as a grown-up?

Author's Note: Originally published March 27, 2009 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman. I have reproduced the article here, but to read the original discussion, you'll need to click through to the snapshot created by the Wayback Machine.

Tags (from Open Salon): little people, jargon, terminology, fragility, fragile, lack of support, support, digging, building, collapse, fantasies, illusions, delusions, daydreams, dreams, goals, hollow support, metaphor, lessons learned, childhood memories, swing set, sandbox, economy, economics, politics

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