Tuesday, September 17, 2013

When do you play?

A girl plays tether ball at Union Station, August 26, 2013, part of the Active Union Station experiment set up with the Metropolitan Planning Council to try to better use space in the Great Hall.

     Children play.  Adults play at something. I'd never say, "I'm going to go play." That would be weird, and would beg for elaboration. Going to go play what? Grown up play has to have an object, a point—Scrabble, racquetball, cards. Or with something. I go play with the dog. I used to play with the boys. No more. 
      Adult play needs a reason, an excuse. Children just play, period. They play because they have the time, and the energy, and they're supposed to. Adults have finite stores of both time and energy, though I'm wondering if we may still have an infinite need to play, unsatisfied and slumbering, buried within us.  Maybe we're supposed to play but just don't know it.
     Maybe we need to play far more than we do. 
     In what way? First from a purely physical point of view. Play is active.  The dictionary definition of "play" surprised me. I expected something about fun, or distraction, or relaxation, but the New Shorter Oxford definition begins, "Active bodily exercise; brisk or vigorous action of the body or limbs, as in fencing, dancing, leaping, etc." I guess that fits into the standard way we use the word — "We were playing badminton." 
     Perhaps trying to fill the gap caused from our missing play, adults exercise. This often makes for grim business. All that solitary jogging. All those intense young people on their treadmills, all facing the same direction, isolated together in their private agonies. If you turned them loose in a gym, they wouldn't know what to do. They wouldn't be bold enough to chase each other, or cook up games, the way kids would. They would just stand there and stare at each other, or start gawping at their phones, if they had them.
     What is lacking is permission. That's what sports give us. Adults wouldn't go to the park and run around. But we'd play softball with our pals. As if the bat and ball matters, which they obviously do, to us. When somebody says they are playing a sport, no one replies, "Why?" The reason is implicit. Sports are important, though really they are just play layered with a veneer of organization and meaning. 
     Later in the Oxford definition -- which goes on for the better part of two-densely packed pages—comes that kind of play: "A particular diversion or amusement, a game." Adults lose our ability to frolic, but we can still compete, and a desire to win replaces a desire to just move. I can't say it's an improvement.
     So the secret to play, for adults, is to get permission (ironic. Kids, who have no authority over themselves, generally, can still play without permission. Adults, who are supposedly autonomous, need somebody to say it's okay for them to play. You'd think it would be the other way around). That's why adults who don't ordinarily start playing games in public will play games on their phones, because the games are there, ergo it's okay. A kind of permission. If I pulled out a handful of jacks and a ball and started playing on the train, people would look at me strangely because it would be something I had come up with on my own. A transgression. But some balloon game on my phone is okay because the makers of the phone put the game there.
      I used to have a friend at work. Every week or two, we'd go to lunch, then swing by the ESPN Zone to play a game we both loved—Hydro Thunder, a boat racing arcade game. I'm certain neither of us would do that on our own. It would seem odd, solitary, almost sad. But together it was epic, a contest, allowable. Plus the restaurant encouraged it.  
      The boys were good for a dozen years of permitted play, of throwing balls and wrestling and Super Soaker fights. Now I'm lucky to get a game of "Settlers of Catan" in once every three months. Thank God I have a dog who, among her many unexpected benefits, is always ready to play. We tug-o-war over lengths of rope, over a stuffed bear she is fond of. Not only is play a possibility, it is an obligation. I have to play with her, to be a good owner. She almost demands it. On our morning walk, she'll do her business, then, heading back home, I will look at her, and she will look at me, and then we'll both break into a mad dash toward the house. For some unknown canine reason she snaps at the leash until she grabs it in her teeth, then we stop, and face off. She goes "grrr" and pulls and I go "grrr" and pull back; for a moment it's nip and tuck, then I let her have her victory, dragging me forward a foot or two. Then we stop, our play over, the game complete, and go inside the house together for breakfast. 


  1. You're talking about game theory, in a way. Children play infinite games, which have no prescribed ending or point, allow for anyone to join or leave, and have the goal of continuous play.

    Adults play finite games, which have a definite end, a goal, and do not adapt to new players well.

    The difference is really the goal of the activity.

    An adult plays poker to win the pot. A kid plays space pilot to play space pilot and because they are awake.

  2. I'm cracking up at the idea of you playing jacks on the train as everybody else tries to block the image out by becoming absorbed in Angry Birds on their phones. Also dug "fave things week," now coveting me an IBM wall clock.

  3. Yesterday on a crowded Red Line Train, I was forced by proximity to watch a young woman play some kind of Tetris-knockoff game on her cell phone. She was terrible at it. After figuring out the rules (the goal was to get the red rectangle from the center to either the left or right edge; the tan rectangles were either vertical or horizontal and could be moved only in that one direction (up or down for vertical, side to side for horizontal) and watching her NOT WIN GODDAMNIT I had to exercise a modicum of self-control to not snatch the damn phone out of her hands and show her how to do it.

  4. I've watched guys play the phone version of flipping coins against the wall, basically, for the entire 40 minute ride. That's why newspapers are dying.

  5. Please caption the photos everyday.
    I'd like to know what & where they are & I'm sure a few others would like the same.

  6. We have a new young dog. She is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. She wants to play, play, play, cuddle, cuddle, cuddle, and then sleep, sleep, sleep. After living with two geriatric dogs who are more-or-less indifferent to us, it's so much fun to have this lively spirit in the house. She's livened up one of the older dogs, who, by virtue of a big difference in height, can just lay on her dog bed and bat this little one around without exerting too much effort. The young one cuts a wide berth around the other old gal, so that's working out too. I'd forgotten how fun it is to have someone to play with.

  7. i love how i can just give my dog 'the look', and we both launch into an attack of the crazy touch-and-goes. dogs rule.

  8. Neil can you post the column you wrote on spending the last day of your life at the post office? Maybe you have already and I missed it. Still kicking myself for not cutting that one out when I read it in the paper.

    1. It's up here: http://www.everygoddamnday.com/2014/02/make-most-of-every-minute-wait-at-post.html


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