Falling Down in Mother Goose


After another week of reading Mother Goose to my son, it’s become obvious that he has a clear preference for a certain kind of nursery rhyme. Namely, one in which people (or in one case, an egg) fall down.

And there’s a lot of falling down in Mother Goose.

We all know about Jack and Jill, and the hush-a-bye baby whose cradle fell down, and of course there’s Humpty Dumpty. But what about Blue Bell Boy (“in coal scuttle fell he / up to his little chin”)? And the poor two gray kittens (“the bridge broke down / they all fell in”)? And the Man with bandy legs (“I met a man with bandy legs / bandy legs and crooked toes / I tripped up on his heels and he fell on his nose”)?

And then there’s the metaphorical falls. Jenny Wren fell sick. Molly, my sister and I fell out. Little Bo-Peep fell fast asleep.

So what’s with all this falling down in Mother Goose? There’s the audience of course, little children, who love the fact that gravity works, and works well.

I think there’s also the hint of the peril in the everyday, the 18th century equivalent of danger in the suburbs: downed power lines, fatal swing sets, strangers with candy.

Consider “Three Children on the Ice”:

Three children sliding on the ice
Upon a summer’s day,
As it fell out, they all fell in,
The rest they ran away.

Oh, had these children been at school,
Or sliding on dry ground,
Ten thousand pounds to one penny
They had not then been drowned.

Ye parents who have children dear,
And ye, too, who have none,
If you would keep them safe abroad
Pray keep them safe at home.

This tragic nursery rhyme offers a stern warning to parents: keep your children “safe at home.”

I can imagine a modern PSA with essentially the same message, just replace “ice” with “local gravel pit.” Or even better for my small town, “infill construction lot.”

This is a test, this is only a test.

“The more we rehearse disaster, the safer we’ll be from the real thing…..There is no substitute for a planned simulation.” So says a character in Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise, as a midwestern town is overrun by men in Mylar suits, conducting a simulated evacuation from some vague chemical disaster.

Yesterday we had out own rehearsed disaster here at the McGuire Nuclear plant. Here is the official news release, sent via email to local residents:

On Tuesday, August 9, 2005 McGuire Nuclear Plant, Mecklenburg County Homeland Security, and regional first responder agencies will conduct a full-scale facility exercise to test the plant’s response systems as well as local resources and their capabilities in the event of an emergency. So if you live in Huntersville you may see more activity around the plant than normal, no worries. We will share the results after the event debriefing, take care, and be safe.

I had really wanted to go hang around the plant to see what a “full-scale” exercise looks like, but unfortunately I was out shopping. Nothing big, just some groceries—milk, cereal, whatever. Come to think of it, maybe my trip to the store was some sort of defense mechanisim. As Jack Gladney observes, once again in White Noise, “Everything was fine, would continue to be fine, would eventually get even better as long as the supermarket did not slip.”

The irony of it all is that the supermarket is, according to the email Duke sent out, likely more dangerous than a nuclear power plant. The email continues:

People have always been exposed to low levels of natural radiation. These levels provide a “background level” for comparison to exposures that occur from man-made sources. Basically, natural radiation is the result of cosmic rays from outer space and from radioactive materials in the earth. Man-made radiation comes from a variety of sources including medical and industrial uses, nuclear weapons testing, consumer products, and the nuclear power industry.

Damn those “consumer products”!!! I like how the email nestles this phrase in between the equally innocuous phrases “nuclear weapons testing” and “nuclear power industry.”

The good people at Duke Power then attached an informative graphic which details exactly how tiny a threat our neighborhood nuclear reactor poses:

Dangers of Radiation

What I love about this image is the juxtaposition of the Coleman lantern and the nuclear power plant. (Although, as I’ve mentioned before, McGuire Nuclear Power Plant looks disappointingly nothing like the towering nuclear plants of my childhood imagination, which is how the nuclear reactor appears in this image.)

This image informs me that natural background radiation is 300 times greater than the radiation released by a low-level nuclear waste storage facility. If that’s true, why is one of the lead stories in this morning newspapers the EPA’s announcement that the Yucca Mountain Facility in Nevada, where much of the nation’s nuclear waste is stored, should shield the outside world from radiation for 1,000,000 years? As most critics note, the one million years rule is a ruse to conceal the fact that the EPA is actually raising the allowable radiation limit for the first ten thousand years of those million years–the years that probably matter more to the Nevadan citizens living near Yucca Mountain.

If you’re a terrorist and you’re reading this, then the terrorists have already won.

I just can’t leave the nuclear power plant in my backyard alone.

I recently discovered a site from the Eyeball Series that lists formerly public FEMA information about McGuire Nuclear Power Station, information which was taken offline in the aftermath of 9/11.

The Eyeball site faithfully reproduces the FEMA information, which, according to what I’ve learned from TV shows like 24 and Alias, contains everything a terrorist needs to know to sabotage a heavily guarded nuclear plant.

As a bonus, the site posts a few high-resolution satellite images of the facility, so the terrorists can even find the parking lot with the best spaces.

Warning!! Duke Power!!

High Voltage in Suburbia

High Voltage in Suburbia Detail

High Voltage in Suburbia (top)
and detail (bottom) (Larger Image)

Here’s a common sight in my neighborhood: a locked utility box. I’ve already posted on a similar box powered by Energy United. This one is Duke Power.

The warning is pretty straightforwardly lethal. The scary killer lightning windmill guy says it all.

I guess all these transformer boxes are a result of the electrical wiring for the subdivision being hidden, buried underground. In the neighborhood where I grew up (which we called an allotment–it wasn’t until college that I encountered the word “subdivision”), all the power cables were strung on telephone poles running alongside the streets. Not as pretty as them being, well, not there, but it definitely gave the birds a place to hang out.

Warning!! Playground Jungle Gym!!

Playground Jungle Gym (Larger Image)
Posted to Flickr by samplereality.

Continuing my series of posts on Danger in Suburbia, I want to highlight another lurking horror on the playground in my subdivision. Here is a sturdy metal and PVC slide/tunnel jungle gym, with a warning sticker posted in several places on the equipment: “Warning: Installation…may result in serious injury or death…” [Original sticker text edited for brevity and shock value.]

Any warning with “death” in it definitely ranks high on the Suburban Danger scale.

Terror hides everywhere. No wonder we declared war on it.

Warning!! Playground Swing Seat

Playground Swing Seat (Larger Image)
Posted to Flickr by samplereality.

There’s a playground around the corner in my subdivision, and it’s loaded with warning signs. There’s even one on the toddler swing seat, alerting all who read that “improper installation, maintenance, use, or vandalism can damage seat and lead to serious injury.”

What I find intriguing about this sensible sign is that it speaks to all sorts of people at once: the workers who installed the swing, the crews who maintain the parks, the parents and children who use the swings, and the teen pranksters who vandalize such parks. All are addressed in a single, leveling sentence. And it’s punctuated, without a trace of irony, with the phrase “Made in the U.S.A.”

So, “serious injury”–especially to a child on a seemingly harmless swing–that ranks high on the Deadly Suburban Danger Sign Scale, maybe all the up to Code Orange.

As an added bonus, I’ve geotagged this sign: N 35° 29.42390′ W 80° 49.60180′

Update: Looking back at the photograph of the swing seat, I realize that it looks awfully a lot like a pair of worn, dirty, stiff underwear. I guess that adds a whole other dimension to the warning on the swing.

Warning! Better Lawns through Chemistry

Lawn Doctor (Larger Image)
Posted to Flickr by samplereality.

Here’s a sign in the front yard of a house in my subdivision. The “Lawn Doctor” has been there, doing whatever it takes to make the grass green, green, green.

What’s with the blue thumb? Instead of signaling competence with gardening (a green thumb) it’s as if Mr. Freeze or the Cold Miser has gotten hold of the yard and gone to town. Or maybe the thumb is infected? It’s not clear.

There’s no direct warning on the sign, but it does recommend reading the “door hanger for additional information.” I was polite enough not to sneak a peek at the door hanger on the front door, but I’m sure it had all sorts of friendly reminders not to let pets or small children play in the yard for the next day or so. At least until the rain washes away the chemicals into our drinking supply…

Warning! Energy United

Here is a power transformer on my street, operated by Energy United, one of the two power companies in the area. (The other is Duke Power. I’d have to say that having their own nuclear reactor probably gives Duke some sort of competitive edge.)

This sign (larger image) gets right down to business, no subtlety here: “Can shock, burn, or cause death.” I love the illustration. It’s as if the box itself were attacking the stick figure human, hurling out lightning bolts from its innards.

On the Deadly Suburban Danger Sign Scale, this sign ranks high. Bonus Points for the ecumenical name, Energy United. Sounds a bit like some sort of European Football Club.

Warning: Invisible Fence

Invisible Fence
Posted to Flickr by samplereality.

Here’s another sign common in my subdivision. It’s an Invisible Fence (r) sign, and in terms of semiotics — i.e. the study of signs, signification, and meaning — it’s surprisingly dense.

The sign is not a warning sign per se, but it does evoke several implied threats. The most obvious is the object contained by the invisible fence — a dog. Presumably a large and hungry one, a dog who would cross property lines without heed, were it not for the invisible fence reining in the roaming canine. The fence keeps the dog in and passersby safe.

The corollary to this relationship is that intruders who cross the “invisible” line enter into the dog’s domain — a dog perhaps so territorial that its owners resort to electro-shock to keep it in its place. Now, in this specific case, I saw the sign, but no dog. You’d think that as I crouched in front of this house, snapping a photograph, the dog would be baring its teeth, chomping at the invisible bit. But no, no dog in sight. Maybe it was locked inside. Maybe it had managed to chew its shock collar off and was free. Maybe the dog didn’t even exist.

So, the “Invisible Fence” sign is an updated version of the threatening “Beware of Dog” sign. And it too is effective even if there isn’t an actual dog.

Whether or not there is a dog, to intruders on the homeowner’s property, the “Invisible Fence” sign also sends the message that the owners are into sophisticated electronic systems. The words “Invisible Fence” dominate the sign, and it’s a recognizable name brand. The Invisible Fence company all but dominates the “electronic pet containment” industry. And who’s to say that these homeowners aren’t into other elaborate electronic apparatuses, say, an advanced home surveillance system keyed into the local 911 network? This system of invisible technology aimed at buttressing the us/them duality of suburbia is another threat implied by the sign.

Warning! Southern Bell!

Southern Bell
Uploaded to Flickr by samplereality.

Lately I’ve become aware of all the danger signs and hazardous warnings in my subdivision. Who knew suburbia could be so dangerous?

I’ve decided to document as many of the warnings as I can find, beginning with this sign. It’s on a Southern Bell utility box, located in my very own front yard, warning me that there’s an underground cable nearby, and I should call before any “digging, excavating, boring, etc.” Not that I do much boring or excavating, but the archeological reference to excavating is fitting, since the poetic “Southern Bell” is now known as the inversed, truncated, and more corporate “BellSouth,” making this sign somewhat of a historical artifact.

On the Deadly Suburban Danger Sign Scale, this sign ranks pretty low.

Update on Burglary

First the facts…the word floating around town was that there were over thirty break-ins over the holidays. The police have announced that there have actually only been twenty-four reported break-ins. So already I feel safer. (So already I feel safer?)

Other facts: mostly jewelry was stolen. Yes, some Oreos. And in one case, seven bars of Irish Spring soap. No electronics, no firearms, no alcohol, none of the Christmas presents wrapped under all the trees.

The police announced all this at a recent community meeting, held on the neighborhood green, which I left feeling like I had just stumbled in and out of a Twilight Zone episode. Which episode? Any of them, I guess.

The police chief told the crowd of nearly fifty that the thief is most likely “one of us” and could even be there at the meeting. I had momentary visions of the Salem witch trials–neighbors turning on each other, fingers pointing, the gallows being readied right there in the middle of the green, hastily assembled from nearby benches. Luckily, my neighbors all had cooler heads than that.

My own theory is that the criminal is a college kid, who was home for the holidays and needed some cash. Gambling debts? It was either steal his neighbors’ jewelry or have his kneecaps broken? Or maybe he wanted to woo his girlfriend with an awesome Christmas present? The police estimate that the total value of all the goods stolen is about $31,000. That could buy a nice iPod and a few accessories. (Of course, why not just steal some of the doubtless countless iPod-shaped presents that were under everybody’s Christmas trees?)

At any rate, in our own household we were lucky. Or just a plain waste of the thief’s time. We can’t find anything missing. We don’t have many valuables, but it’s not like we don’t have any. Surely the crook could have found something worthwhile to steal after going to all the trouble to break in? Truth be told, I feel a little dissed. Like somehow I wasn’t good enough to rob.

The American dream lives on…