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The Conversation of Play

It's not every day one gets to converse with a Bitter electromagnet.

Rather, it's not every day one gets to try to converse with a Bitter electromagnet. I battled valiantly to uphold the family dignity, but how could I process a single word of content, let alone produce meaningful verbally-based response, when 99% of me was overwhelmed by the presence of this zillion-tesla solenoid sitting in front of me? Everything around him dimmed in comparison, and my body shut down all inessential services, including language.  Merely by existing, he redirected my magnetic north.

It was as if God had said, “oh, so you think you have basic elocutionary competence, Jordana?  How about *now*, Miss Smarty Pants?"

And I couldn't do it. He was asking me to play the hardest rôle of my life: Authentic Me, except not really Authentic Me, because Real Authentic Me would have turned red to the tips of the ears, stricken entirely deaf and dumb, and after about thirty minutes of sitting like a block of stone, would have swept the entire table aside (a host of irrelevant china and glassware crashing to the floor) and wrapped myself head-to-toe around this light-emitting force field, as oblivious to propriety as the next bonobo.

And this is proof that God is an environmentalist. He doesn't want smashed crockery and ensuant purchasings of replacements. He wants the plates to stay in one piece. And this is why he invented Rules and Regulations. This is why he invented Play.

Rats play. Dogs play. Children play. I've got news for you: human beings in general play. Grown-ups at play is a delightful sight, albeit a disconcertingly rare one. Far more grown-ups play games, which is an unpleasant and generally painful pastime that should be avoided at all costs. Remember, grown-ups: only you can prevent forest fires of the soul. Don't play games.

But real play, ah, that's a lovely thing! There's nothing more innocent and charming than battle-scarred world-veterans gambolling in the wabe. I always wanted to see the Bristol Old Vic production of Romeo and Juliet with 80-year-old Michael Byrne and 76-year-old Sian Phillips in the title roles. Who has a greater sense of newness and discovery than people who've already seen and felt it all, too many times?

Play, unlike games, does not have a fixed goal.  It's not about vanquishing.  It's not about fighting, conflict, or proving one's mettle.  It's about harmony.  It's about delight and sharing.  It's about peacefully enjoying the tender surprises of the moment, getting caught off-guard, and allowing yourself to be bashful and awkward, or intense and driven, or whimsical, or excited about ideas, or...anything you truly are in that moment!

Games are the embodiment of roles.  Play is the duet of admission.

Play exists as a way of making sense of a whole that is otherwise overwhelming. Play exists to narrow down an otherwise circuit-frying quantity of data. Play gives us boundaries, constraints, and focus. Play is the truth that sets us free. However...nobody said it was easy! And there are many who would agree that the more challenging it is, the more fun it is.

Too much freedom emprisons us. Too few social boundaries cages us in loneliness. I attended a hippie dance once and noticed that everyone was flopping around like jellyfish. Their insistence on no rules was the worst and most confining rule of all. They were helpless slaves trapped in their meaningless flailing, ungrounded, unconnected, and undefined. In this world where everyone could and did have sex at the drop of a hat, in public places, in the middle of crowds of people, some of whom were watching them, everyone looked desperately and miserably alone, closed down and locked away in their inner sphere of privacy.

Human beings need structure. Bodies need skin to hold them in, and bones to give them form. Otherwise we'd all be piles of guts oozing across the floor. Social interactions need skin and bones too. Sometimes the skin and bones is, we are going to do this complicated yet simple dance that comes from South America. Sometimes it's, I will be here in my city and you will be in yours and all you can have is some words on a screen. Sometimes it's, I will sit here and you will sit over there out of arm's reach and we will talk about matters that are reasonably interesting but not overly personal. These are all forms of play that help us forge bonds by directing and limiting our attention. Energy needs a channel to flow through, otherwise it's just Ragnarök, and that's not a sustainable long-term social model.

Everybody likes to play with people who play well with others. The gift of play is a combination of inherent talent and acquired skill, and not only is it what keeps society running smoothly, it's the true gift our human minds give our animal bodies. Mental discipline creates room for instinctive freedom. Electricity is everywhere, but we need to consciously and specifically coil a bunch of wire around some iron ore or stack up a bunch of conductive disks in order to make it do anything. The more we cultivate our skills as a courtier, the greater our capacity for true self-expression.

I am a rank amateur. I need to go back to Castiglione for remedial tutoring. Still, I do my best, and I love a great playmate! I love someone who forces me to have to hang on to every inch of my mental discipline. If I lose it, so much the better. It's just the dance of play. I pick it up off the floor (where it joined the smashed crockery) and try again, trying not to blush too much.  

Grown-ups of the world who haven't played in too long, please do your part to beautify the world:  give it a try!  There's an infinite number of ways to play, verbal and nonverbal, but you'll do the same things in all of them.  Hang on to your axes, challenge each other, share jokes, converse, discover, explore, screw up, struggle, and caress.  The more skilled, talented, and chemically well-matched everybody is, the better.

But this above all else: you'll go on a journey with someone else and you will both end up somewhere quite different than where you started.  And in my world, if life isn't a verb in the most active of present tenses, it's no life at all.