Play

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“In a world continuously presenting challenges and ambiguity, play prepares them for an evolving planet.”

– Bob Fagan, on why bears play

Last night, after a particularly frustrating day of wanting to write, but with no words at all forming on the page, I went to the gym. Some people go to the gym and really look forward to it. Unfortunately, I am not currently one of those people.

So, I scuttled on over to Adrenaline last night at the last possible moment (8 pm) after telling myself I was only allowed to listen to a recent NPR podcast if I were walking briskly on the treadmill. (I know – this shows what a nerd I really am. Most normal people listen to hip-hop at the gym. I listen to NPR.)

My mother-in-law told me about a recent episode on Krista Tippett’s Speaking of Faith program in which Tippett interviewed Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play. Brown has observed animals in the wild at play, dogs at play, kids and grownups at play. He has also studied convicted killers who all have one very striking thing in common: as children they were not given the opportunity to play. He talks about making eye contact with kids at play and letting them learn empathy through sometimes scary-looking wrestling and rough-housing. He is a proponent of skinned knees and daring. But these lessons are not just for kids, says Brown: he gives himself a couple of hours every day committed to his own favorite past-times: reading, playing with grandchildren, letting his imagination roam. Some of his adult patients have re-learned how to play by learning how to play musical instruments, taking dance lessons, fencing lessons, or diving in to visual art.

To hear Stuart Brown speak of these things is to reconsider life and culture in America. We as a people, especially in these difficult times, are driven to exhaustion by work: thoughts about our work, analysis of other people’s work (think of all the energy we spend on G.W. Bush’s job …), considered safeguards for our kids bodies so they will continue to work, etc. We give ourselves a hard time for taking too much vacation, or for lingering a little too long by the water cooler. On a day spent “writing” (unproductively), I begrudged the 45 minutes (or was it longer?) I spent checking personal email, chiding my playful, friend-loving self for wasted time, for not being serious enough. You get the picture.

But Dr. Brown contends we are funding cheap thrills will all this work, trading that which is truer and more eternal for material happinesses and the satisfaction of doing what we feel we “should” do.  The benefits of play abound. His research has found that playful people cope with stress better than non-players; their brains are better developed and their overall adaptability, character, and decision-making skills are more sound.

I left the gym feeling like a new person, and not because I’d paid my penance there. To think of play in this stage of life as something that is not just permissible but prescriptive is a truly amazing thing. I drove straight home and chased Ivy around the house. Today, I gave myself a reading break (for fiction, no less!) in the middle of my work day. On Saturday, I’ve got plans to go to the Annie Liebowitz exhibit all by myself – and all of this because of Stuart Brown. (I had a great writing day – by the way – thanks to the guiltless break.)

I hope Stuart Brown starts a revolution. What a wonderful thing it would be if we could start solving cultural and religious differences on playgrounds instead of battlefields, or if people stuffed into office cubes insisted, for their mental and emotional health, on making for themselves weekly or daily play dates, doing only what they themselves want to do, not anyone else.

If you need a more persuasive argument for why being playful is such a valuable thing, go to http://www.nifplay.org. There’s a link on their website that will lead you to the NPR page where you can download Tippett’s free podcast.

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MAC

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Last November, I traded in my dinosaur Dell (bought in 2004) for a MacBook. The Dell got my husband through his MBA program brilliantly, and for a year or so of my writing classes, it chugged along, dutifully saving hundreds of pages of notes, manuscript drafts, and digitally recorded interviews.

But last summer, shortly after I returned from my second Goucher residency, Dell started acting out. He was scarily slow to wake up from his sleep-mode, sometimes requiring that I jump-start him by unplugging everything and popping the battery out for restart. Upon restart, he would get stuck on the start-up page and linger there so long that I would have to do the unplugging/battering popping thing all over again. Since I was nearing the end of my MFA program and I had tons of precious data stored on Dell, I was very, very concerned.

Enter Mac. We bought her for a steal, and life in my writing world immediately improved. Mac was sleeker and lighter than Dell, that was for sure, but also cooler, infinitely cooler, and I think this somehow began to improve my writing. Since last November, I have begun carrying her with me everywhere. I have not named her – she’s still just Mac, maybe Mary Mac if you want to get technical (after the Atlanta tea room) – but the time we have spent together must be something close to what a mother experiences with a newborn. If I am not away from the house (without MM), I am with Mac.

This poses a bit of a social and relational risk (not to mention an intellectual one). In our household, we do not watch TV. We’re not trying to be high and mighty about it – we’re just too cheap to pay for cable and we don’t really think there’s anything worth watching (except for Lost, for which rabbit ears on top of the RCA suffice). But, what I’ve found is that the Mac (or any quick, new internet-enabled laptop, I’m sure) is addictive. There are always emails to check, iTunes to download, Braves, Mets and Phillies scores to analyze. There are things on eBay to bid for and books on Amazon to buy. Not that I have time to read the books I purchase … because there’s always something faster, cooler, and more entertaining to look at on Mac.

Which brings me to one slight diversion – a recent poll shows that the number of readers in the U.S. are dropping.  It’s a pretty depressing article, but, if you happen to be addicted to your computer, like I am, it may just irritate you enough to turn the darn thing off and pick up a good old-fashioned paperback:

http://www.cnn.com/2007/LIVING/wayoflife/08/21/reading.ap/index.html

I was mildly reassured that this article could be found on CNN’s front page in the first place.

Anyway, slowly, I am going to try to wean myself from this crazy relationship with the computer. Staring at her, at all hours, has become a way of life for me. Starting this week, after 8 pm, Mac will be going to sleep. (Doesn’t every little member of the family need a scheduled bed time?)

We can fill our downtime with conversation or good books (I’m currently reading The Gay Talese Reader, and it is fabulous.). We can finally get around to writing all the thank you notes we owe for birthday and graduation gifts. We can do all the things we did before Mac and the graduate schools came into our lives … if we can remember what they were.


Talking to Strangers

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At my workplace, there is a little cafe in the office complex. In it work Serena and Sammy, the owners, and whomever they can keep as the scrambled egg and sandwich maker, who stands behind the counter and takes orders. Serena and Sammy are South Korean, and most of the women they hire for the deli job are, as well. When I first started working at the office complex, a woman named Sun worked there.

Each morning, I walked down to the cafe for a cup of hot water for my tea, and almost every day – unless she was very busy – Sun would greet me, saying: “Towles! You are so beautiful! You must make husband very happy.” I would laugh at this, thank her, and order my tea. Sun was desperate to perfect her English, and she loved to chat, so in time, I began to learn a little more about her:

She drove an hour and a half to work each day, arriving around 6:00 am for her all-day shift. Once, when I mentioned I was headed to China, she drew an imaginary map in the air for me, to show just how far South Korea was from the NRC, and where her relatives lived. She showed me photographs of her family – a husband, a son and a daughter, tightly posed and smiling brightly in front of a gray, air-brushed canvas.

When Serena and Sammy weren’t looking, Sun would, with a furtive glance, pass me a fresh biscuit, a cookie or a luscious cube of cantaloupe, shushing me when I tried to thank her. Sun worked hard at scrambled eggs, but she would sometimes confide in me how bored she was with her job, how she longed to spend the day with her music, teaching American students how to play the violin. She invited me to her children’s orchestra recitals, gave me her business card and urged me to pick up a stringed instrument.

One morning, when I went to the cafe for my daily cup of tea, Sun seemed brighter than usual. She announced that she would be leaving the deli. “I can’t take it anymore,” she said. “This is America. I must pursue my dream.” Before I left the deli that day, Sun gave me a little gift bag. I tried to open it there, but she stopped me. I thought that her reluctance to have me open the gift in her presence might signal some kind of cultural difference, and I was keen to respect my new friend’s native customs.

Back in my office, I considered the bag: It was small and silver, embossed with snowflakes despite the spring-like weather. The tissue paper Sun had used to conceal the gift was white and gauzy, and inside was a slip of paper on which she had written a note, thanking me for helping her practice her English and for being so nice to her. The gift she gave me is still such a puzzle – when I opened the bag, I found two delicate, lacy brassieres – one pink, one white – too small for me, but lovely. I giggled – and blushed. I imagined Sun worrying over her choice, the packaging, how to pass the bag over the sneeze guard without anyone taking notice. When I walked down to thank her later, she was gone.

Among all the gifts Sun gave me while she worked at the deli – the conversation, the stolen goodies – this last, dear, strange, funny one taught me the most. There are all kinds of people in the world like this, people who want someone to talk to, people who are full of surprises.

Andrew, the guy who used to work the cash register at our dry cleaners, was, in a former life, in his former country, a classical pianist. I loved to see him drum out tunes on the countertop in time to the music from his headphones. I sat beside a guy named Don once at a Tennessee football game whose memories of Vietnam made me shrink from my own selfishness and indulgence. At my first-ever job out of college, a woman named Nancy owned the convenience store in the building. After I’d gotten to know her, she set me up on a blind date with a guy from the 12th floor (he was British – and another stranger! – but it didn’t work out).

So, over time, I have become slightly obsessed with talking to strangers. I am a little shy, but these people fascinate me – and they are everywhere: on every city corner, in every car on the highway, in fields and big office buildings and in taxi cabs. All of them, filled with life, potential, stories and surprises.

Seeking Narnia

Ok – I’ll admit it.  I have been having a hard time getting back into my blog.  For some reason – and this is really silly – I feel I must clarify that this is not because of anything you, dear reader, have done.  The issue is my own, not lagging numbers or lacking commentaries on my posts.

If I don’t write for a little while, the blank page takes over and begins to creep into my brain.  I freeze up and forget that ideas are everywhere and that the fun is in the Narnia factor: capturing the language so that it paints a picture for people, or moves them, or takes them into a dimension they never imagined they might know.  I stare at the computer screen and think about boring things, things no one would be interested in reading about (like, who are all the people after whom roads in Georgia are named? Are any of them connected?  Could I write a book on them? These thoughts go on for five minutes or more before I come to the stunning realization that I may be capable of forming some of the world’s worst book ideas).  Then, I imagine that the space where my brain should be is actually made up of a vast, dark, miasma of nothingness.  I convince myself that the things I think about are completely insignificant, and therefore unworthy of being written down.

But, now that I’ve started a blog, everything is different.  I am forced out of the nothingness and onto the page by Web-instituted boot camp.   My blog is out there, waiting.  The longer I stay away, the worse my writing will be.  The more I procrastinate, the more ridiculous the ideas will get.  So, I’m back, promising myself to be more consistent, if only for the good of the exercise.

In closing, a quote that defies the nothingness spiral:

“We say we waste time, but that is impossible.  We waste ourselves.” ~ Alice Bloch