Friday, August 08, 2014

90 Days of Play

I've been thinking a lot lately about play. In June, as we neared the end of the school and extracurricular activity year, I asked Stellina if she wanted to continue with tap dance in the fall. This conversation took place in the dance school bathroom as she suited up for her final class. "En. Oh!" she said with uncharacteristic fervor. "I thought you liked tap?" I said. "I like it OK, but I just want to do nothing. No classes, no nothing." She made big X gestures with her arms. "I want to be home, just go where I want, see you and Daddy, play with Posy and Meow Meow. Just PLAY."

Then I read this, and a couple weeks later heard this, and realized there's a collective "En. Oh!" being shouted at the moment. As defined by Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play, "Play is something done for its own sake. It's voluntary, it's pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome." Yet, it seems that as a society we've overscheduled, goal-oriented and enrichment-activity-planned ourselves and our children into a corner -- a corner decorated with color-coded wall calendars, sticker charts and payment installment reminders.

Now, Moses and I already are big on leaving our kids' unstructured time that way. My stepson has always been inclined toward team sports, but similarly resisted additional planned activities. We let him quit violin lessons and chess club (though he still plays the latter on occasion), to allow more unscheduled breathing room (a.k.a. time to play Nerf guns, paintball and xBox). Most days after school, Stellina free-ranges around the house or outside, watching an episode of something via the PBS Kids app, making art, jumping on the trampoline or giving the cats relationship advice. Occasionally, her teenage pal Addie comes over for a ukulele "lesson," which means three minutes of fingers on strings and 87 minutes of playing with her Calico Critters. For most of the summer she's been at Audubon camp all day (since her dad and I both work full-time-plus). Her time is pretty activity-packed there, but the activities are of the play-based, exploratory, running through the woods, feeding injured birds of prey variety. She comes home calm and filthy and bug-bitten, with cicada shells and dried owl poop in her pockets.

But how do we, as grown-ups, rate on the play-readiness scale? Moses is far more skillful at it than I, both at playing with his kids and at engaging, per Dr. Brown's definition, in things he enjoys that take one "out of time." In contrast, I usually just feel out of time -- as in, that there isn't time to play. I prided myself preparenting on being that childcare provider or full-grown friend who joined kids on the swing set and kept a stash of dress-up costumes on hand. Now that I have ultimate responsibility for the survival of, and share surnames with, legal minors, however, I take things far more seriously than is probably healthy or useful. Even when wearing my best R&R face, my Virgo inclinations to fret and keep shit in order are ever-perseverating just under the fun-times, tattooed surface.

 I've realized I respond to "Mom, will you play with me?" not always, but too often, for me, with some version of "No." Usually I phrase it as yes-like as possible: "I'd love to, but I have to finish this [fill in the blank work-freelance-task at the computer]." Which is a total dodge, because after that's done, then it's homework-shopping-cleaning-chores-dinner-bath-reading-bedtime, and playing just ain't happening.

So, I've decided to play, just play, every day for the next three months. I started out calling it "100 days of play," a la the "100 happy days" trend making social-media rounds, but I like the ring better of 90 days, since it's that magical-yet-proven recommended time frame for forming new, good habits (such as exercising daily or not being a drunk). Plus it's shorter. Though, of course, the point is to play every day (one day at a time) for all the rest of my days.

 So far, that's involved hula-hooping; playing Twister (past bedtime!); doing somersaults and handstands in the neighbor's pool (despite feeling pretty certain that I'll die whenever in water deeper than the bathtub); and asking Moses to reteach me to play cards, resulting in many, many hands of Gin -- and an evening that felt like a lovely, impromptu, at-home date, during a summer when we've been working and parenting largely in shifts. Another pearl from Dr. Brown, from this NPR story a couple days ago: "The couples who sustain a sense of mutual playfulness with each other tend to work out the wrinkles in their relationships much better than those who are really serious." (Especially important: Yelling "Gin, MOTHERFUCKER!" and then realizing it wasn't, actually, and having a partner who mostly thinks you're cute when you act a fool, and being able to laugh with him, at yourself, in a way that feels like it heals some less charming, dictatorial know-it-all moments from the past.)

As it turns out, predictably, playing takes work! Or effort, rather. It's an effort for me to play versus to play-teach-correct-coach. That's uncomfortable to see in myself, and to say. Teaching-demonstrating a new activity is part of play sometimes, but I default so fast to a hands-on-hips stance (whether literally or in tone) that it admonishes the fun out of anything.

Last night I came home from work to childcare pal extraordinaire "Uncle" Diane hanging with the kid, clothes strewn about, Play-Doh and snippets of Barbie hair on the floor (some was pinned into Diane's hair, I think), Princess Mononoke on the TV. I admit that my first, internal reaction was not, "Look at the fun! Look at the creativity!" but rather, "Where's the vacuum? And why isn't she in her PJs yet?" But I persevered, faking my way into a dance party. We sang "Lucky Star." Diane had an impressive Cha Cha Slide debut. Stellina was on the dining room table at one point, wearing tap shoes and a vintage men's straw hat, legs still covered with mud from a ponding expedition at camp. While boogying down I calculated the time until lights out, if allowing for a quick bath and two chapters of our current read-aloud book (Betsy-Tacy). 55 minutes. I am getting better at pretending to play, anyway! Not bad for Day 5.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Happy Singles Awareness Day!

I've never really been single, not for more than four, maybe five months. I'm not bragging; this isn't a point of pride. There are certainly times I should have hung the "closed for business" sign, or cloistered myself for a designated period.

I thought I was doing the latter when I went to stay with a friend in Greenwich, CT, following a breakup of a relationship that had followed a breakup. I felt like I was lurching away from a three-car collision, technically intact but unsure of my whereabouts or who the current U.S. President was. My plan was to move back to California after a short stint in her guest room, settling my affairs without having more affairs. I'd only spent a few hours in Greenwich before, mostly at Whole Foods, the only one in the county at that time. My frame of reference for health food stores will forever be the food co-ops of my childhood: bulk vats of tofu and tahini; a peanut grinder that produced a dreaded bland and sticky paste that Skippy and Jif would have beat up on the playground; Dr. Bronners soap, natural sea sponges for sopping up kitchen spills and/or mentrual cycles, and chunks of crystallized mineral salt with purported deodorizing properties not in evidence among the co-op's worker-owners; posters of Angela Davis and Cesar Chavez.

Of course I knew by then that Whole Foods, or any natural food chain, bears little resemblance in either content or labor practices to its 1970s forbears. But the patrons were a total mind fuck. In place of an earnest and gentle bunch with reusable canvas totes bearing public radio call letters who were still the mainstay shoppers of such stores, coiffed women in fur coats (!?) and men with tiny whales on their neckties commandeered Range Rovers and Beemers through the undersized parking lot, hollering at each other and at their children  and at workers collecting shopping carts -- anyone coming between them and the juice bar.

Add to those experiences the episode of TV Nation where Janeane Garofalo takes a coach bus of NYC residents on a field trip to Tods Point, Greenwich's residents-only beach. Turned away at the gate, they attempt to reach the beach via a fleet of dinghies, only to be intercepted by the cops. And the Coast Guard. Residents regrettably respond as expected, making "shoo"ing gestures and protesting that they embrace diversity by employing minorities in their homes.

I knew that if my friend, a writer and yoga teacher, lived there, she surely had a community of like-minded and lovely friends. The town boasted an incredible library (I went to readings by Frank McCourt and Jhumpa Lahiri), two independent bookstores, a cheap French creperie, and oh, those beaches. But all told, the overarching attitudes and aesthetics make my libido curl up like a pill bug. Which was a very good thing.

This lasted five weeks. Then someone who either lived in Greenwich's gritty neighbor, Port Chester, NY, or, as indicated by his work boots and Carhartt jacket flecked with sawdust, was working on one of the myriad palatial residences that went up during that prerecession housing boom, came into a diner where I sat with my friend and her like-minded and lovely friends. We spotted each other, and there's no way to describe it that isn't a cliche. All I knew was that my celibacy was inevitably over, however the logistics would play out. He was Italian, and had hands that swung a hammer, not a golf club. He had tattooed, Popeye forearms. He swaggered in not a macho way, but in a way that said he had swaggered since age two. Women got all primal and squirmy in his presence, voices involuntarily rising an octave, chests thrusting forward. Still, I tried. I literally ran away from him that day and the few sightings thereafter. Finally, too annoyed by the junior high vibe of it all, or too turned on to help myself, I introduced myself.
"You want to go get tea?" he asked.
"I'm not dating right now," I said.
"So it won't be a date," he said. We both laughed. It couldn't be anything but. I moved in with him a month later.

It was all wrong on paper (though the actual paper record of my swoony journal entries declared otherwise). He had a kid and wouldn't move more than 20 miles away, never mind to the West Coast. He was five years younger and hadn't graduated high school. He drove a van with doors a different color than the rest of it, and lawn chairs where a back seat ought to be. He had just gone on short-term disability for a work-related back injury. The first time I met his son's mother, she threatened me with bodily harm. I was no prize, either, what with my track record of serial (and occasionally overlapping) relationships, crash-and-burn breakups, and mounting debt from some compulsive post-breakup shopping and a dry spell in my freelance work. But he was deeply intelligent and funny. He could cook, and listened to Charles Mingus, and he was a great dad. And, fortunately for me, his ex's temperament and life choices made mine appear entirely sane.

Dare I say it? Despite (maybe because of, who's to say) the circumstances, it turned out to have been love at first sight. We lived together well, especially considering that the whole place was the size of my friend's guest room. Which kind of made it feel like we were teenagers holed up in his bedroom. The whole thing felt young for some reason, considering we were 29 and 34. Maybe because he'd do anything to make me laugh, we were broke, and we had sex all the time.

When Valentine's Day rolled around a couple months later, my expectations were low, given our financial status. Call it a Hallmark holiday, but I've always been a fan, from the days of gluing a construction paper heart to a doily for my preK teacher crush. I also haven't been single on Valentine's Day since I was 13, which a friend who refers to it as "singles awareness day" pointed out when I so very ignorantly asked what she was so grouchy about, as her coworkers' desks filled with obligatory, overpriced bouquets.

When I came home, though, the kitchen counter and coffee table were covered with flowers -- several vases filled with roses, gerbera daisies, cala lilies.
"What is this? They're gorgeous, but--"
"It was no problem. What, I'm not going to give you flowers on Valentine's Day? Come on."
As I admired them more closely, I noticed something odd -- while they were loose bouquets, some of the stems had little green clumps stuck to them.
"What's that green stuff?"
"Oh, that's nothing. You want something to eat?"
"It looks like that foam from flower arrangements."
"Where did you get these?"
"From the flower place."
"What flower place?"
"It doesn't matter. Here, eat your sandwich."
I realized the only two places he could have gotten the flowers were a wedding or a funeral, and he hadn't been to either that day. "Please tell me you didn't take these from a cemetery."
"Ok, I didn't take them from a cemetery."
He totally took them from a cemetery. It was horrifying, and the most romantic thing anyone had ever done for me.
He shrugged, and bit my neck. "What? You deserve flowers, and they don't need them anymore."

Header Image from Bangbouh @ Flickr