The photograph of Curator Man that hit all the wire services and accompanied most of the online stories is of a tall, thin, well-groomed, friendly looking fellow (the kind of guy you’d actually call a “fellow”), with short hair, prominent ears, wire-rimmed glasses, and what looks like an expensive tie. In his hands he displays an elegantly framed item that in a few moments will become the most prized and celebrated treasure in his museum’s collections. And what is the treasure behind the glass in the mahogany case? The stick.
This stick is at once just any old stick and not at all just any old stick. It is the stick that on November 6, 2008, was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. As yet another anniversary of the stick’s induction rolls around, I’m reminded of this photo of proud Curator Man, who could not have anticipated the media circus his museum’s stick would provoke. When news of the stick’s induction was announced in a ceremony and accompanying press release, the story was picked up by hundreds of online news sites and blogs and was even featured prominently in the last sixty seconds of many local TV news programs, right in the slot where the quintuplets usually go. Reporters invariably skipped the obvious question, “Is there really a National Museum of Play?” and went straight to the kind of penetrating journalism that helps a benighted public understand the complexities of so important an issue. “What can you do with a stick?” they wondered in print. “Who plays with sticks, and just how do they do it?” Since the stick doesn’t come with directions and doesn’t cost anything, they worried, how will Americans figure out how to use or value it? And, the tabloid sites asked, what do we really know about the panel of nineteen so-called experts whose deliberations resulted in its selection? In short, everyone demanded to know what’s so great about a stick.
I’m intrigued by this famous stick for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I still can’t figure out if it is profound or absurd, or profoundly absurd, or absurdly profound. There’s a little of the emperor’s clothes phenomenon going on here, I think. When I tell people about the celebrated stick, the response is nearly always the same. “You’re kidding, right? A stick? You mean a real stick? Like one you’d pick up off the ground?” There follows a long, uncertain pause. Then, almost invariably, comes the grinning reply: “Hell, yeah, the stick. Greatest toy ever. Totally brilliant!” And after proclaiming something “Totally brilliant!” it is difficult for people to turn back. But I do want to turn back, to ask whether the museum’s stick was nature masquerading as culture or culture masquerading as nature. I want to return to the moment in which we had to decide for ourselves what to make of the idea that a stick, rather than being viewed as a natural object, needed to be displayed in a museum.
If Curator Man thought any of this was funny, he certainly didn’t let on. First, he pointed out that the selection panel of esteemed judges—intellectuals, artists, curators, pooh-bahs of various stripes—had a very difficult decision to make. They also had to adhere strictly to a formally articulated set of explicit criteria when choosing a toy to join the vaunted ranks of already inducted classics like crayons, marbles, the teddy bear, and Mr. Potato Head. To be selected, the toy must: (1) possess icon status, (2) have longevity, (3) encourage discovery, and (4) promote innovation. Curator Man went on to extol the many virtues and uses of the stick: “It can be a Wild West horse, a medieval knight’s sword, a boat on a stream, or a slingshot,” he pointed out. “No snowman is complete without a couple of stick arms, and every campfire needs a stick for toasting marshmallows.” The media’s immoderate love of Curator Man and his stick even spawned a widely syndicated “news” story actually called “Notable Suggestions for How to Play with a Stick,” which made it evident that Hannah and Caroline were already as intelligent as at least some journalists.
It is at this point that the strange stick story jumps journalism’s slick tracks and begins tearing through the weedy field of American popular culture, no longer under anyone’s spin control. In Rochester there was still a stick in a case on a wall, but the story of that stick had gone viral. The first wave of responses to the stick was uniformly positive. What we might call the Good Old Stick! crowd rushed to expand Curator Man’s already long list of noble uses for the stick, and they were mighty hard to argue with. I wasn’t so impressed that a javelin and a golf club may be considered sticks—finding one so dangerous and the other so dangerously boring as to have no use for either—but a fishing rod and a baseball bat were sticks of an entirely different sort, and it was painful to imagine life without them. What about a conductor’s baton or a pair of drumsticks? The fretted neck of my guitar is a kind of stick, and even the wooden combs of my harmonicas are little ten-notched sticks. The more I thought about it, the more impossible life without stick play seemed, and for a while I teetered on the brink of conversion.
Then, predictably, the closet Luddites—who might best be described as “really old white guys who somehow learned to use social media”—got involved in the debate. The excruciatingly detailed “When I was a boy . . .” stories about sticks proliferated so quickly as to crash several servers, even as young IT people scrambled to figure out how a lowly stick could have brought down their networks. These old-guy stick lovers were soon joined by the TV haters, who didn’t care about sticks one way or the other but judged them better than what they called the “mind-numbing cancer” of television, never mind that they were sitting in front of glowing computer screens and posting their views on blogs with disturbing names like Turned Off Moms.
At last, the very worst occurred. We eco-geeks got hold of the story, and that was when the shit that was already hitting the fan began to stick. According to its green defenders, the stick is important not because it is iconic or because it promotes discovery or innovation—indeed, even the detail that sticks might actually be played with by children drops out of the story at this point—but rather because it is “ecofriendly,” “the ultimate disposable, biodegradable, versatile, multipurpose plaything.” These ecobloggers celebrated the stick as “sustainable, recyclable, and upcyclable.” One exclaimed euphorically that “you can even turn it into mulch when you’re done playing with it!” which made me imagine tearing a stick from Caroline’s little hands and jamming it into my tractor’s wood chipper.
I ultimately decided that to settle the troubling matter of the famous stick I would have to consult a real play expert. Hannah seemed to me the right choice. She’s thoughtful, asks good questions, and doesn’t jump to conclusions about anything other than the need to take care of her little sister and eat ice cream immediately. One morning, while driving the girls to school, I told Hannah all about the Strong National Museum of Play, and the National Toy Hall of Fame contained within it, and about the stick.
“Who are the kids who get to decide which toys are allowed to be in the Hall of Fame?” she asked.
“They aren’t kids,” I explained. “They’re all grown-ups.”
“That’s weird,” she said. Little Caroline nodded in agreement. “Kids have a lot more practice playing. Why don’t they ask kids?” I told her I didn’t know. Hannah said she could understand why somebody might think of a stick as a toy, since kids could use sticks to . . . and then she breathlessly listed about fifty uses of the stick that had never occurred to Curator Man: a bridge for an ant to walk across, a hole poker for making secret caves, a fencing foil for sister Caroline, a key to a magic ice castle, a cloud scratcher. “Yeah, a cloud scratcher!” Caroline repeated enthusiastically.
Hannah has always loved learning the names of flowers and trees, and so she also wanted to know what kind of stick it was. Was it a stick from a Utah juniper, or a Jeffrey pine, or maybe a Fremont cottonwood?
“Nobody ever said what kind of stick it was,” I replied. Now Hannah frowned in earnest. Caroline followed suit, shaking her head side to side as if perfectly disgusted.
“They put it in a museum without even learning its name?” Caroline asked, incredulous.
I was nonplussed by how quickly the girls’ simple questions were exploding the pretensions of the National Toy Hall of Fame, and I was quietly embarrassed that their best questions had never occurred to me. But Hannah’s next question was especially provocative.
“When kids visit this Hall of Fame, can they play with the stick?”
I paused before replying.
“No. They can’t. The stick is in a display case on a wall in the museum.”
“Really? Why do they call it a Museum of Play if you can’t play with the stuff there? Maybe they could make the case with a lid, so you could just get the stick out. Or maybe they could have lots of sticks, so if me and Caroline and a bunch of other kids showed up we could all have a stick to play with. Why don’t they do something like that?”
Hannah’s critique reminded me of the debate we’ve been having about modern art since the early twentieth century. Does the display of an object—an African mask, a bicycle wheel, an antique milk jug—deprive that object of its life? When we put a vernacular object in a museum and declare it “art,” are we celebrating the meanings of that object, or are we impoverishing our understanding and enjoyment of it? And what becomes of the stick’s status as a natural object once we define and limit its use? Is a stick in a case just another elephant in a zoo, another butterfly with a pin through it, yet one more grown-up way of attempting to domesticate the wildness that is inherent to natural play and to the children who benefit from it? Is a stick on display in a museum even a stick at all?
Hannah sat quietly for a while before reaching her conclusion. “Dad, since the stick isn’t made by people, it really is different than a Hula-Hoop and stuff like that. And I think natural things that belong together should stay together, so if the stick is in there, then it isn’t fair not to put in the whole tree, plus leaves, and rocks, and everything else around it.”
“And bugs too,” added Caroline, “but it wouldn’t be nice to keep bugs inside like that.”
“Right,” Hannah agreed. “I think they ought to just leave the stick outside. That way it can be in the wind and rain, which it’s used to, and bugs can use it to crawl on, and also kids can play with it.”
I’m aware that we’ve been waxing rhapsodic about the wisdom of children since the romantic poets tromped euphorically around the Lake District (without children, I might add), but this struck me as a sensible verdict, rendered by a thoughtful judge and based on a sound interrogation of the facts. Caroline’s energetic nodding in support of her sister’s argument suggested that even a little kid could grasp the problem Hannah’s logic had exposed. We grown-ups had insisted upon turning the stick into everything from a three wood to a bazooka, but the girls’ imaginations had effortlessly, magically transformed it back into a stick.
From Raising Wild by Michael P. Branch © 2016. Reprinted by arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. roostbooks.com. Read our interview with the author here.