Playing isn't just for kids, declare the authors of two new books. If you have any reason to doubt that not-exactly-radical statement, only one of the two is likely to convince you.
"Beyond Love and Work: Why Adults Need to Play" reads like a self-help book without the help. Clinical psychiatrist Lenore Terr diagnoses a social problem: Adults don't play enough. She suggests this is harmful, though doesn't say exactly why. Like a pop psychologist, Terr offers tales of real people -- celebrities, identity-disguised clients -- and how they benefited from play or suffered from its lack. But unlike the gurus who write on winning at romance or career success, Terr never shows us how to apply these lessons to our own lives.
Moreover, her thesis isn't quite as self-evident as she apparently thinks. Sure, Americans are working long hours these days, so maybe there's less time left for play. On the other hand, who's buying all those in-line skates and fancy tennis rackets? I have no idea what research would show, because Terr doesn't cite any. She relies on our intuitive agreement.
"We are forgetting how to play," she writes. "And we are failing to realize how important play really is. When we jog through the park or work out on our muscle-toning, body-building machinery, we may be fooling ourselves into thinking we are at play, but we're not."
Yet, if jogging isn't play, her concept of what does qualify is so broad it's hard to believe there's a shortage. She applies the label to recreation such as gardening and romping with the dog, and quite reasonably extends it to creative jobs, such as cooking or playing the violin. But Terr stretches the term to include "sitting around in the family room watching television with the kids, talking back to the TV set."
If lounging in front of "Wheel of Fortune" qualifies as play, how can our TV-saturated country not be getting its full share?
Poet and essayist Diane Ackerman writes not just about any old frivolity, but about something she calls "Deep Play." And although this term, too, can encompass many activities, it's safe to say TV-watching isn't among them. Deep play provokes feelings of 'transcendence, risk, obsession, pleasure, distractedness, timelessness, and a sense of the holy or sacred," she writes. Ackerman, whose own past adventures range from frolicking with dolphins to auditioning for the space program, can describe it first-hand.
"Creativity, psychotherapy, sensation-seeking -- all are ideal playgrounds for deep play," she writes. "Of late, I find many such moments while biking, but in the past I have found them riding horses, piloting light aircraft, scuba diving, studying animals in the wild, and exploring unfamiliar landscapes. Those moments have powered my dreams and yearnings, inspired most of my writing, and formed the basis of my spirituality."
Like Terr, Ackerman offers no step-by-step instructions. Instead, she simply demonstrates play, in the form of her writing. She rambles about her subject like a puppy set loose in a big field, sniffing around a word origin here, exploring an unusual viewpoint there, returning occasionally to touch base with her ostensible main subject before bounding off again on some other barely related but nonetheless delightful tangent. What makes her writing compelling isn't so much graceful prose -- sometimes it's almost a little clunky -- as her bracing perspectives and her ability to draw inspiration from myriad places and eras and cultures.
She informs us not only that the word "play" is related to ancient words for risk and danger, but also that the word "amateur" comes from lover, "bless" once meant redden with blood and "porcelain" describes a material as being as smooth as the vulva of a pig. She peers through the eyes of bees and penguins and ancient sailors casting off, without maps, into terrifying unknown waters. She quotes the Dahomeans of West Africa and describes sunrise rituals at the Mulkteshwar temple in Mapu, India. She informs us that clothing was so flea-infested during the reign of Louis XIV that a special shade of dye (puce) was created to camouflage the pests. She reminds us that humankind's domestication of horses allowed long-distance courtship and thus eventually changed the gene pool and the look of humans themselves -- a process continuing today, on a larger scale, through air travel.
What do any of these things -- or her riffs on dolphins or Paul Gaugin orthe Grand Canyon or poetry or Timothy Leary -- have to do with play? Only that reading them is the mental equivalent of pedaling along a sun-splotched bike path on a breezy afternoon. Ackerman's writing is refreshing, invigorating and so enjoyable you don't even have to know it's good for you.
-- Katy Read is a Minneapolis freelance writer and a former reporter for theDuluth News-Tribune and The Times-Picayune in New Orleans.