Posts Tagged ‘play’


Posted: December 29, 2010 in friends
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Mostly we shot each other, with every kind of gun we could get our dirty little violent hands on. We often shot each other on Christmas day, after we had gotten a new kind of firearm. The best weapon I remember for blowing away family was a small hand gun that you filled with round silver bullets about three times as big as bb’s. Endless killing! You just kept pulling the trigger and watching your brothers fall. At a recent Christmas party in Los Angeles where everyone came and some were nasty, I thought of the old days and longed to fire away again, with perhaps a tranquilizing dart gun. But it wouldn’t work; I’ve lost my passion for sustained violence.

We also  found fellowship in riding things, like the day my brother herded a small steer into the corral, his friend Lonnie working the critter with him. Inside the fence they trapped the beastly transport system in a corner; Steve edged close and jumped — onto its back. The response was immediate. The steer, as if fired from a rifle, charged out of the small enclosure, into the woods, and toad’s wild ride was on.

Steve bounced on along the bucking steer’s spinal column, into the wild, green woods, past one then another then another and then they were scraping his legs on both sides, and the steer went scooching through and “bam” Steve was on the ground, downed by trees too tight on both sides, and Lonnie was yelling, “Yahoo!” It was a ride to be repeated, and repeat it we did.

Some of the best rides were on our pet steer, Moosehead. The difficulty with Moosehead was that he was broad, and so the rides were spread-legged, rodeo wild and short. He was a fun guy, a hairy  brother who we had nursed with a bottle, so he loved us, and getting on him was easy. He was friend. I now think, after years of studying the science of friendship that perhaps steers and dogs and cats make the best friends. Looking back, I’ve had more fun with of my cats, in the shower, my pet fish in the pond filter, my dogs and their puppies than some of my friends, but who is really to say for sure. Eventually we all come to realize that no friends last forever. The Moosester didn’t. One day he was present, the next  gone! It’s like that with friends, especially on a farm, here and then gone, and we never knew why or where.

Growing up my two brothers were my best friends. Think brother steer.  This is because they were my only friends, and my only options for friends, most of the time. In rural Missouri, the nearest house was a half-mile away, and the nearest house with children who went to our school, was miles and miles away. There was no neighborhood, just  brothers. Someone once said that friends are family you choose for yourself. They were, literally, for me; I chose my family when there was no other choice. And we chose to have fun. C. S. Lewis speaks of friends as being people not focused on each other, but on a thing between them that they both find fascinating. That was us.

We focused on rideable things, things mobile, each other, the Shetland ponies kept at the farm for camp children to ride in the summer, the  rideable cows, goats, dogs, skateboards with metal wheels, bikes,  coasters we constructed, sleds, a toboggan dad pulled behind the boat, water skis and eventually the ultimate ride — cars. The ponies were an obvious choice to ride, but they weren’t that much fun; they had to be led away from the barn, threatened, goaded and yanked. You’d think that unlike Moosehead, they knew they were being led to the end, but they weren’t. It got better when you headed them back home. Suddenly they were all animated and joyful; they began to trot and then grow younger and  sprint when they saw the barn, and then at the end they would become deadly serious and risk their lives in the home stretch as they flattened out in a dead run for the goal of life —  no saddle and rest.

We also drove cars and trucks before we had driver’s licences. We drove the Timber Wolf, a big old truck used to haul logs for firewood.  Especially crazy and fun was the old car my dad cut the body from. When he was done, the thing was just a hood, front fenders, a motor, and an open frame from the dash back, no roof, no doors, no trunk, no rear fenders and no floorboard.  My dad welded a folding chair onto the frame behind the steering wheel, and we drove it around the campgrounds for errands and fun. Crazy! If we had fallen off the chair, we would run over ourselves with the back tires.

Friends are people who have wrecks together or know each other’s wreck stories. We brothers crashed. One evening, on our way home, on our bikes, flying down the dirt drive, dodging the rocks, I hit a big one, straight on with my front tire. One moment I was pedaling hard, the next moment I ascended through the evening air, up over the handle bars and down again,  into the dust, hit hard and rolled.  I remember sitting up, feeling sick, looking at my bloodied arms in surprise and then grabbing my bike and heading on home with the brothers, but not fast. It was no big deal, it happened, to all of us, the battering, the bloodied skin —  it changed nothing, our speed, our wild abandon, nothing. I remember later, when my brother’s moved on to cars, and smashed up several in a row, we took it all in stride too, except my dad, who didn’t like it. But he was in on it, destroying stuff. It’s friend and family glue.

One day dad decided to haul a steer to town, so we could have steaks again, and not having a truck, he ran the steer up a dirt ramp and into the back of a jeep station wagon. Not so good. Half-way to town the steer decided that he was tired of looking at the radio, six inches from his nose, and he turned around. That didn’t quite work out as  he had planned, and he broke out all the side windows of the jeep. Fearing for his own life, dad stopped at a little country store where a real farmer was consulted, and he explained that a truck with side rails was best for this kind of job, so they completed the trip thus. I think at that point they should have let the steer go. He’d made a point. I’m sure, he would have beaten the horses back to the barn. The other day, when my family was together for breakfast, my dad told this story again. We laughed and hooted and spoke of his decision-making during that era, how he had almost burned down the town we lived near during a brush clearing project and how he had put buckets of coals in the back of the jeep, on the floor board, to keep us warm on cold night when we were driving to church. This is how family and friendship are defined —  people with crazy stories that they have in common.

The other day, my dad told  us again the story of  how he’d gotten the job on the campground in Missouri. Dad and mom had both grown up in California, and early in their marriage they bought a little track house in Torrance. There they attended a small church where Maurice Vanderberg, back from the war and recently married, was their pastor. After a time, Maurice moved back to Kansas City to run the Union Rescue Mission that his wife’s mom  had founded, but then needing help, he called  and invited my dad to join him in the work. So my parents moved. Moves change things, for families, for kids, but they are never consulted in such matters. Old friends lost,  new ones gained — no choice. The  move to the midwest eventually put us on the campground, which was owned by the rescue mission, and put my mom and us boys in a  isolated place that profoundly shaped our family, our friendships and more. My mom suffered badly, a California city girl transported to a small rural cabin without a bathroom, kitchen, or heat or neighbors to raise three little children. She lost some years there. No friends were present for her, except the boys and we were way too male.  Significant stuff — my brother Steve married a Missouri girl, Joyce, who turned out to be a good deal.  When we did leave Missouri, and returned to California, it was because another pastor, who my dad knew from the old Torrance church, invited my dad to move to El Cajon to work him. Friendships form the web on which we move, and catch food and are ourselves caught and eaten.

Part of the reason why the family didn’t always work for my mom was that destruction and violence provided most of the fun with my father and my brothers. I think that violence brought us closer to each other but  not to mom.  We blew up our little green toy soldiers with fire crackers, we killed the little clay spacemen by throwing their clay space ships onto the floor hard, we hit each other in the arms daily, we wrestled on the big, round braded rug in the living room until we either knocked over a lamp or somebody cried, and we eventually shot every kind of creature living in the woods nearby and caught, killed and ate every species of fish.

As I child, my favorite killing posture was not western style, the standing back-to-back, taking three steps, turning, quick drawing and firing. That cut the violence too short. I liked hunt-down-and-kill approach. It began with one of brother in one end of the house, another in the furthest extreme, the call, “Ready?” and both of us moving silently toward each other. Then the shooting commenced and proceeded until death. Shot in the arm, you had to switch your weapon to the other hand, shot in the leg, you were left with one hopper, shot in the torso or head, dead. I loved the final, trapped stand, both of us wounded, immobilized, having it at at close range, one behind the bed and the other shielded by the dresser. I loved it when a brother’s head peeked over the top of a bed and caught a round perfectly between the eyes. Then I would see him fall back, to the floor, man down and out with a final death rattle. You had to make a sound. “Cool, I just killed my brother.” True friends and loyal family are the people you can kill and then shortly after sit down to dinner with as if nothing happened. Your average American family does this regularly, the verbal assassinations followed by the evening meal.

When I got married and had my daughters, I continued in the same vein; I made my wife and daughters my best friends, built around our shared narratives,  games, interests and arguments. The thing missing was the violence, mostly. My girls and I did play shoot ’em up a few times. But mostly, in my own family, we gentilized. My wife and daughters and I have always shared a love for “getting out,” for water in all its playful forms,  for print and food and coffee and conversation in all their various addictive and nonadictive forms and we really like God, a lot.  There are other things, but fun has tended to glue us together. I see families where the members aren’t friends and it doesn’t look much fun to me. Some parents say you can’t be friends with your kids. I know what they mean, that you have to be a parent, which means sometimes being mean and saying “no” and doing things friends just don’t do. I know all that, and I’ve done it, and still do at times, but here is the deal. You can go back and forth, be parent, then friend; you don’t have to always play the same role with your children. I really like the times my girls and I are friends.

I took my daughter Rosalind to see the Little Mermaid for our first movie together when she was three years old. Outstanding fun, great Disney film, superb enduring memory for us. We still love the song “Kiss The Girl” and we love “Down by the Sea” and Sebastian the crab these many years later. Magical, the movie, our first father-daughter date, the many times since that we’ve reprised that kind of thing, gone out to eat, watched a football game together, played Yahtzee, taken a walk, talked long, wrestled on the floor and knocked over a lamp. The thing with friendship is not to define it too narrowly, within family or outside of family. We need it, we want it, in all its forms odd and familiar and normal and not.

I have a lot of different kinds of friends now, besides family.  I have friends from school. I have friends from work. I have friends from church.  I have friends in other countries. I have friends who are dead. I have friends who are not but pretend to be. I have friends who I meet for a tête-à-tête at Starbucks, and I have friends who add me on Facebook.

By friends we mean a lot of different things — people we got drunk with in high school but now have nothing in common with, a checker at Costco whose line we often choose, people who dabble in what we also waste time on, people who “get us” and leggo-people who used to get us but have now snapped off and don’t, furry friends, literary friends, our favorite dead poets, painters, novelists or philosophers, and lastly and most importantly, our real friends, the cherished soul-mates who hang on through it all and just won’t let go, like Taylor in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Pigs in Heaven, who won’t let go of little Turtle —  the mythic, profoundly archetypal lost child, “six pigs in heaven and the mother who wouldn’t let go.”  We all need a bit of this,  the will-not-let-go friend.

I’ve told my girls. There are all kinds of friends, from casual, even momentary, to life-long. There are all kinds of levels, and they change over time even with the same person. You can be close, then not close, then close again. And just because you are close, doesn’t mean you have to stay that way. It’s okay to let friendships change, even to let them go. Sometimes you have to.

Recently, my brother and I drove to a Idllywild, a mountain town half-way between our homes, about two hours away for each of us. We rented a room in a bed and breakfast and stayed overnight together. We talked shop, both of us being pastors, and we talked family and we ate good food. He had just bought a new sports car, a Mazda RX-8 with a 240 horse power rotary engine and so we took it out on the mountain roads to test its potential. It was the good old high-school days all over again, except we were driving fast Japanese rather than fast American, and  we weren’t drunk and there were no girls with us. What a shame, but maybe not. I’ve owned several sports cars and my wife claims that she doesn’t like being thrown against the doors in the sharp turns. So I slammed by brother against the door and went a bit too fast into a corner and missed a shift. It was all the same game again, flirting with danger, riding the steers, driving the cars.

In the morning, we broke out a plastic bat and whiffle ball and played a few innings of baseball.  It was fun. Depending on how you held the ball and because off the holes in one side of it, you could throw a slider, a curve a sinker and a rising fast ball. But we weren’t practiced up, and so after I hammered a few of his hanging curve balls up over the limb of the nearest pine tree for home runs, he started pouting and didn’t try as hard. It seemed like we had returned to our childhood again, two brothers killing and being killed in mock battle. But then in a short while he regained his form and struck me out and slammed a few of  my sliders that didn’t slide out of the park, and we both cheered up again. Brothers, friends, in combat and not — still.

Other friends in life, interesting.  Why did I make the friends I did?  What does it say about me? Having left our families, most of us find people who function as family. We meet them anywhere, somewhere, and talk, and touch, in time, on the same web, the same thread of the web, and then we climb along together for a bit. In high school it was John, Lonnie and Jim. We fished, hunted, drove fast, avoided girls, and engaged in boy-brother wildness-mayhem. Upon my move back to California, those relationships ended. In California I met a college student named Steve, and we surfed together and philosophized. I also met Jim, and we shared an apartment together with two other guys. It was cheap rent. He was an artist, using clay, me an artist, using words. I still have some of his art pieces, but not him. After college I met Tim, a won’t-let-go friend. We bonded over insight, books, faith. He became family, so to speak, and was the best man at my wedding.  We are still close. We go to the same church and we share a common passion for truth and radical love and justice for our community.

Fishing, wilding, cars, surfing, art, books, faith — my friends have often been my playmates, but more and more they have become my thought-mates. Time makes philosophers of most all of  us, clowns and killers alike. My friendships are now conversations. We  meet over coffee, books and food, and we talk, and talk and talk, but not always. A few years ago, my friend Tim and I fired off some loud, flashing fireworks near the house, and then ran when the police came. We hid in a fast food restaurant, bought cokes for camouflage, laughed like boys and  then headed for home to brag to our wives and children over what we  had done.

Friendship is and always will be a bit of safe violence together, a fast ride,  fast run, or fast pitch together, a laugh, a movie shared, a book discussed, a trip together,  a home run, a crash and a fire and a story to tell again and again until it gets good.

As I grow older, and fascinate more and more over  life, its people and problems and beauty, I find myself making more and more and more friends, of all kinds, in all  places. I am shamefully indiscriminate. Most anyone can be my friend, execpt a few former assaasins. Want to talk? You are my friend. Have something fun you like to do?  Tell me about it; you are my friend. Have a problem? Let’s explore it! I love a problem and the typical nearby solution.

What am I doing?  I don’t like living alone. The friend thing is now under my control, mostly; no one is moving me.

And so Iam adding friends. They are the family I am choosing for myself.

Men chiefly miss the most important criteria for picking a wife — the thermal factor. Before marrying my wife, Linda, I checked her radiation level. They were high, so I proceeded toward the ceremony. Since the vows, I’ve only had warm nights.

My wife always keeps me cozy, and I usually try to keep her laughing. The two go well together.

In one season of our life, when I wasn’t coming home from work on time, I told her I had a solution. I would hire a husband named Brad to come home each night at five o’clock. He would say “hi,” listen to her day, pick up the house, do any dishes in the sink or any other small chore she asked him to do, and then he would slip out the back when I arrived. One rule – Brad wasn’t allowed upstairs in the bedroom.

I haven’t seen Brad lately. I think she fired him. I’m expected home again at night. It’s probably better.

I have a deeply held belief: laughing is esential to good living, and a husband and a father should do anything for a laugh. So I pretty much do.

When Linda and I first married I made her cry, once or maybe more. But I didn’t panic. When the tears came out, I took my fingers and gently pushed them back up toward her eyes. “Go back,” I commanded, and she laughed as she cried. Laughing and crying have actually gone together for us, in tandem so to speak, through our whole marriage.

I’ve worked at it. Trying is at least worth something.  If I want to convince one of my daughters to do something they don’t want to do, I often begin, “I read a study that said…” and they begin to holler and hoot. “I read a study that children who rub their father’s back, tended to live 10.5 years longer than those who don’t.” It doesn’t work, and yet it does. They laugh.

But it’s hard to be droll, all the time, so we got pets.

Last week, I kicked the small chip of ice that fell from my cup across the tile and into breakfast nook. It skidded along the floor like an ice hockey puck and came to a stop in the corner. Before it could even think about melting it was had.

Into the corner my black cat, Shanaynay, bounced. Up on to the wall she went with all four paws, off the wall she glanced, onto a second wall of the corner she bounced, then twisting in the air she landed facing and swatting the ice with a velvet paw. Nice!

Playful!  It is an excellent way to live. To fly through the air, to bounce off the walls, to spin on the way down, to swat at life between your paws, to have a little fun, to make someone else laugh – it’s good. Even the cats know that.

My daughter Laurel skyped me from Spain yesterday. She told me that she had a fine salad that day sitting at an outdoors café with a friend. The local feral cats provided the entertainment.  Two kittens wandered into the patio; the waiter threw one a wine cork, and the game was on with some skittering, some back arching, some stiff-legged bouncing and some super cute, kittenesque, mock fighting.

Nothing like a wine cork and a kitten to liven up the place. Who needs to have a home to have fun?

One makes the best of it pretty much everywhere, in Spain, in California, everywhere,  by some bouncing, swatting and a bit of jesting. I try to live a life of wit, but I’m not sure how I came by any skill in the therapeutic art of humor. I grew up in a home where jokes didn’t win many accolades. We were a bit of a serious crowd, we white, Germanic, Protestant, displaced Californian Haspers. There was a lot of religious devotion, hard work, serious book reading and a good bit of discipline, but not many witticisms in my family.

I only remember my father telling one joke. “What happened to the general who went in all directions?  A bomb hit him.” At the punch line my dad would burst out laughing, every time, just the same, as if it were the first time he’d heard this, and we would laugh too, at him, laughing at the exploding general.  If a person isn’t funny but they think they are, they are, a bit. Laugh, and at least part of the whole world might laugh at you.

A good family collects and stores humor. It is stored in the form of family stories, family jokes, famous family phrases, favorite movie quotes, favorite children’s books, family noises and family smells.

 It often begins with, “Remember the time when …”  The other day to my mom I  said, “Remember the time we went camping and the storm came up and we threw everything back in the trailer and it wasn’t properly hooked up to the car and it the tail tipped down to the ground from the weight and everything slid out in the mud.”

She remembered and we chuckled a little. While it was tragic at the time; later in the retelling, it has became part of our family’s comic history.

But there wasn’t enough of those comic moments for me within the context of family outings, so I went out on my own or with my two brothers for additional play and fun. We found a tree that had fallen down in the woods across the road from our house. It was lying on the ground but still alive, its branches now growing up vertically from the trunk. It became our fort, the “fallen tree fort.” There was something magical about walking on the trunk of the tree with ease, swinging around a branch strolling blissfully to the top of the tree and back. Adults didn’t know about it. It was our secret, and we acted out a fantasy life there in this hidden home.

 We found another tree closer to the house with a net of grape vines in the top. It was a crow’s nest of vines, and once up inside it, you could lay down, in the top of the tree, and no one walking by knew you were there. It was a safe spot, lying in the sky, peaceful, free from intrusion, a lazy boy’sworld. And so in this way, by means of trees, we achieved another world for ourselves, a playful, free, happy world away from adult concern with clean bodies, neat rooms, and finished homework.

It was a bunch of fooling around.

Growing up my brothers and I loved to fool around. We fooled around with clay and made red clay rocket ships and put little yellow clay men inside and then threw them against the floor with all our strengthm and then opened them up to see if the rocket men had survived the flight and the hard landing on Mars. We were thrilled when they were squished, and if they were not we threw them hard again until they either were or they achieved the status of hero for surviving so much.  Were were simply mimicking and expanding upon reality. On the morning of February 20, 1962, John Glen rocketed 100 miles into space in Friendship 7, a tiny 9 by 6 foot space capsule. I was twelve years old.

 Boyhood play is often just a bunch of reality-based fooling around.

We also fooled around with little plastic, green soldiers, WWII soldiers with green carbines and green bayonets and green grenades in their green hands. We built trenches in the dirt for them and little shacks of twigs and we posed them on their flat green bottoms in battle positions. Then we threw fire crackers in to the trenches, Black Cat firecrackers, and then like medics we went back down to the fields see the devastated huts and blackened little green men.

To us it was fun, it was play, it was reenactment, it was living the life of the men in of our time. My dad was in World War II. Play mimics reality, minus danger, sort of. I remember the day I picked up unexploded ordnance. It was curious, inspecting the thing, until it went off between my fingers. My fingers were still there, but they were so interesting at that point with the powder burns and the tingling tips.  But that was part of the fun; the play wasn’t entirely safe. In fact our  best fun never was entirely safe, jumping out of trees and riding our bikes crazy fast, like the day I hit a rock coming home on my bike and pitched hard over the handle bars and took a beating in the dirt and came away with some serious road rash. It was scary and painful and later, it was fun to recount.

Fooling around, I grew up with it, and then found it again as an adult when my wife brought home a brilliant children’s story from the library where she worked, How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen. In this story, Tom’s Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong tires of young Tom’s fooling around and brings her friend Captain Najork and his hired sportsmen to challenge Tom to three rounds of womble, muck, and sneedball to teach him  a lesson. It’s great fun as Tom wins every contest against the serious adults by doing what he is best at — fooling around.

The story is full of good fodder for home fun. Like Tom, at home we like to do some fooling around, to “womble and muck” a bit, and tell each other at the table, like Tom’s Aunt commanded him, “Eat your greasy bloaters.”

It has always seemed to me, and it still does, that serious things go down smoothest with a joke wrapped around them. And it seems to me that when we are thinking at our best, we are laughing at our most. Horace Walpole got the sense of this when he wrote that, “The world is a tragedy for those who feel, but a comedy for those who think.”

I like a droll bit of sarcastic and insightful humor, sometimes. It’s great commentary on life.  Cats are like humans; they are both born blind, but different too; in a few weeks cats recover their sight.

Mr. Mark Twain was good at feline humor and dark sarcasm. In his notebook in 1894, he penned the memorable quip, “Of all God’s creatures there is only one that cannot be made the slave of the lash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.”  But if Mark Twain were crossed with a cat, it might improve the cat, a least it might come out witty-sarcastic.  I would like to have sat with Twain when he was alive and in good spirits and laughed a bit. We all need a wry friend.

One of my best friends in earlier years, Pat Chism, was Mark Twainian. He once told me, “Don’t do anything for your kids, then they won’t expect anything from you.” He could get away with this, because he was a pretty decent father. I used to tell him, “I like you; I’m my worst self around you.” He took it as a compliment. His humor was contagious, and I always caught it in his presence. At his funeral I was one of the speakers and I mostly told jokes, stuff from his life. This honored him and everyone knew it. I told him just before he died, “When you go, I want you to look back, like Elijah did on Elisha, and cast a double portion of humor upon me.” He either didn’t, or he did, and it bounced off.

Religion needn’t leave the laugh line out, for God himself is, I think, the grand jester. Someone told me recently, “I think that God is whatever we want him to be.” Shortly after hearing that, I am almost sure I also heard God’s characteristically contented and unflappable chuckle.

God has a sense of humor; consider the zebra, the baboon, the giraffe, the slime molds and all the jellies in the oceans. Consider you; what a crack up!

God thought up all the things that make us laugh – the physical humor found in all the ridiculous shapes, the hilarious ways of falling down, the cartoonish faces, the stiff legged mock fighting, the playful biting, the fake boxing. God invented all the verbal humor,  the endless plays on words, the syntactical ploys, the catchy punch lines, the unexpected juxtapositions. There is more fun from God. Consider sex, that fresh spring of a good deal of the humor of the world. God thought it up. It’s funny; jokes about it are pretty much universal.

Once, on a family outing to the San Diego Zoo, we walked up on a giraffe doing the unthinkable in public. He butted his wife in a place on her body that he really shouldn’t have been touching in public, and she let loose a steady stream, and he took a long sip as if from a drinking fountain, and then he raised his mouth and fashioned an expression that combined serious scientific analysis and pure, erotic ecstasy. It was a moment. Several families stopped and watched with us, in shocked embarrassment, and then we all snickered and muttered things like, “Stop it,” and “Don’t do it,” and “Hide the children’s eyes,” and “Wow, what was he thinking?” It was hilarious. I went home and googled it. Normal, for a giraffe; he was testing her fertility. In all actuality, God made him do it.

Jimmy Demarets remarked about our passions, “Golf and sex are about the only things you can enjoy without being good at.” Billy Crystal quipped, “Women need a reason to have sex. Men just need a place.” It goes on and on. I think God is laughing at it a good deal too.

Some religious men act like God is uptight about sex all the time, against it, not amused at our romantic antics. God must have a good laugh about that too. God doesn’t want sex misused, for harm, us going at it outside of marriage, but this is the same way any moral inventor wouldn’t want her or his invention to be turned to something that would damage the very people it was intended to benefit.  

Really, humor is a great protection. One can only survive being human and having religion, and going to church, by laughing a lot. Once Christmas Eve, during a candle light communion, I was passing the bread, a gold plate filled with broken crackers, the body of Christ, when the event happened. The music was playing softly, the candles flickering beautifully, and then a little, old lady near the end of the row, instead of taking a piece of cracker from the bread plate, instead dumped a whole fist full of change into it.  Her husband elbowed her and whispered, “It’s not the offering!”  But she was clueless. And after that, instead of receiving the body of Christ, people were picking dimes out of the communion plate all the way to the back of the church.

I just kept smiling; it was one of my favorite Christmas communions ever. She had the right idea. Christmas is best celebrated by giving. Whatever the reality for her, church is always a good place for laughing.

Truthfully, my favorite spot in church is either up front, making people laugh a little or sitting back with my wife doing some gentle quipping so as to make her laugh.  When we dabble in humor in a public setting, we refer to it as some “mocking and scorning,” but it’s really just some gentle punning to keep from being bored out of our minds.

For good mental health each institution of society should store up a repository of idiosyncratic humor, laughing at itself, laughing with itself in order to survive the boredom and even perhaps the toxic politics and dangerous personalities.

In one season at work I took to hiding my trash can from the janitor. He’d find it and then hide it from me. We got creative, the best spots above the dropped ceiling tiles and nested inside another trash can of the same size, with the bag over the top edge. Only by the weight, could you tell there were two. That was the best hide, and when my secretary and I found my can in another can, after weeks of looking, we had a good hoot over the whole thing. Survival, and fooling around – fun.

Work, home, family, church – they are all best served up with a laugh. This isn’t always possible, but I’ve come to think that as much as it’s possible we will do well to giggle, snort and guffaw as much as we can, and to fool around with reality the best we can.

We’ll be better for it. If not, we will have at least had some fun.

game on (extended version)

Posted: September 6, 2010 in game
Tags: , , , ,

This morning when I opened the refrigerator and pulled out at carton of soy milk, a large container of feta cheese jumped off the top shelf, hit on the bottom edge of the frig, and emptied itself in a large mucky pile at my feet.  I wanted breakfast. I got to muck around in feta.

Stuff around my house seems to be making choices, and sometimes it is getting the better of me.  

Yesterday, I snaked the hose over to the edge of the backyard to water some flowers. It wiggled under a patio chair leg and then it kinked up so the water wouldn’t come through. After some coaxing we got going again, but only a few minutes later the hose was hung up on a sprinkler head, stubbornly refusing to move with me over to the pond. Ridiculous!

I’m  starting to get it. Things are animated, and I’m on to them. The evidence is overwhelming. Last week I saw my ink pen jump off the center console in my car and hide under my driver’s seat, by the seat track, in the hardest place possible to be retrieved. There is more. When I was going out the back door of my home, a loop on my jacket reached out and grabbed the  knob and jerked me back in the house. Things are leading me to reconsider the merits of animism.I think they may be alive; I suspect they have even talked among themselves, have entered into a pact —  to mess with me. 

I’m not crazy. Respectable people understand this.  In Piaget’s child psychology, he asserted that a child’s mind assumes all events are the product of intention or consciousness. I have always had a child’s mind. Really, we all do.  The feta meant to jump. The garden hose is playing games. Disney has it right; tea pots can sing, and want to, loudly and with joy. The mop can dance.

I am in good company on this. David Hume, a very fine and respected mind, writes in his Natural History of Religion, “There is a universal tendency among mankind to conceive all beings like themselves, and to transfer to every object those qualities with which they are familiarly acquainted, and of which they are intimately conscious.”

I have made the transfer, and I’m wiser for it.  You should too.  If you know that the things in your house are just like you, you can manage them better. The TV wants to stay up at night; just like me.  That’s why when I press the “off” button the TV stays on, because it has switched over to cable mode and must be returned to TV mode to be turned off. Tricky TV.

I put my coffee cup down the other day. When I went back to get it, it was gone. I later found it hiding in the microwave. I know what happened. It got cold and went for a warmup. I understand these things now. And I’m on to their strategies. Things are not always going to stay where I put them so I must sometimes go looking for them in different places than I left them so that they know that they aren’t the only ones thinking. Aha!

And yet with all my new-found awareness and vigilance, I still sometimes get caught unawares, surprised by the resistance or the playfulness or the downright stubbornness of things. I put the bike in the back of the SUV the other day and it jumped back out so that the door wouldn’t close. I had a horse like that once — didn’t want to leave the barn. I get it. Sometimes I don’t want to head out for the day either.

A contact lens jumped out of my fingers recently and took off for the floor. I trapped it in a corner and got it safely back into its case. It gave me a blue glare as I dropped it back into the soaking solution.   

I’m in the game now, and I’m keeping score. This morning as I rounded up my breakfast,  the Splenda took off into the air and got onto the counter top. But the bowl and the spoon minded their manners, and the Wheat Chex, awash in soy milk, stayed nicely between my teeth. At the end of breakfast it was four to one, my favor.

I think it was a pretty good morning’s play. I’m getting ready for the day soon, and I’m wondering if my socks will attempt that sideways thing they sometimes do, where they twist around and get the sole of sock on the top of my toes.

Game on!

And it is, and I am ready, up for a fight, but now I am beginning to see that there are other problems that complicate the thing; the game had tentacles that reach further than I first suspected. I have more to dread than flying buckets and dancing mops. Fear the body.

The other day I was taking a shower when I suddenly caught sight of someone else’s midsection in the shower with me.  I usually bathe alone, but here I was with another person, soaking up soap and water  in my own shower. Upon a closer examination, I discovered that the girth was mine. Shocking!  How did this happen?  I don’t know. I didn’t notice things were going this way. I swear.  But how could that be, for I am myself and this waist is mine. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that I usually shower without my contact lenses in. Perhaps, or not, but most likely, when I was asleep, my stomach expanded, without my approval.

What to do? Not stop eating.  In this game, the other sides’ moves can be countered, as most people know, and handled, by covering up, with the right clothes, with a shirt or a coat,  for several years. And I have covered up, but it has come out anyway — on all sides. Too many bowls of Wheat Chex, at night, for a snack, and peanuts, crackers, popcorn and candy, for a treat.  Game on —  in me! 

 How bad it it? “Ten pounds, I’d say.”

My family and friends protest, “Quit whining. You don’t even know.”  But on me, with my skinny legs, and the room addition all on the front of the house, above the foundation, it shows.  The slide, the sag, the wrinkling, the fold, a bulge, the effects of gravity, I can see it, in the shower, under my shirt– winning. Other can see it too. My daughters named it, “loafy.” How embarrassing! I have a body part, with a name. The toned, smooth, hard, sculpted, skinny, young thing that used to be me, plus my amazing will-power and my youth — losing the game.  “Going, going, gone!” A home run, for the other side, and me running after the ball, hopping over the fence barely, running fast over the hill, finally and beyond the dale —  permanently? Wow. Really?

It’s fun, going on like this, playing the game, surviving another round, where will the next one appear, taking up arms or against powerful enemies, fighting back, against things, with the body, like that. But really, all things considered; this is an issue, important and real, this thing about who or what is in control. It’s a philosophical issue, a scientific issue, a theological issue, a literary issue, long-debated, not agreed on, still-out-there issue. I’m trying to figure it out.

I remember in college, taking a class in psychology, and encountering a world view  new to me — behaviorism. I bridled under the idea of life reduced to stimulus and response formulas, all behavior conditioned, no choices, just reactions. I argued with my professor and wrote a paper on the power of our choices to shape environment. Of course I wasn’t the only one arguing, and the cognitive revolution, with its interest in meaning-making process provided plenty of challenges to the behaviorist model.

But  despite the opposition, of course behavioral mechanisms are at works, some of the time. This morning, my daughter Rosalind told me her throat hurt. I gave her a bit of post-Christmas candy cane to suck. “Why will that help?” she asked. “It will make you salivate,” I said, as I handed her a broken piece of stripes, “and the  saliva will sooth your throat.” She put it in her mouth and salivated, just like all of  us  thus stimulated, Pavlov’s slobbering canines, simple responses to simple environmental stimuli. I’m a believer, in a qualified behaviorism. Sometimes, stuff around us rules us, but sometimes not, because  our responses are often not simple, and we are not simple and the enviroment around us, not simple. Brains think, and make very important, self-actualizing choices.

Last year a friend of mine quit drinking. “You’re done,” a voice in his brain explained to him. He was, and he quit, and it was a very conscious choice, and highly unlikely. Nothing in his environment had changed. He had been drunk, downtown, homeless, for years, and he still was. It was a lifestyle. But he came to, as recovery people put it, “a moment of clarity,” and stopped. Yesterday, I was talking to another friend who quit drinking, probably ten years ago, and he explained it this way, “You have to want to.” I buy that; I respect that, the exercise of the will, to stop, and start,something new.

It comes down, really to how we see the world. Is it under our control, or is it out of control. Is it guided, or is it random, or is it under its own control, following its own rules, or perhaps someone elses, from the outside, so to speak?

My thoughts go off, fire alarms and siren in the night. I hear voices of researchers in laboratories; I hear the planets turning in orderly fashion; I hear kings commanding and armies rattling their shock and awe and slaughter, and I hear the medics bending over the wounded and asking them, “Can you raise your right hand for me? I need to see if you can lift your hand.”

Dan Ariely, in his book, Predictably Irrational explains a bit of it based on his research. We get stuck in“anchor decisions,” he claims,  and  our initial choices, for instance to buy or not at a certain cost, determine our later decisions. Once we go a way, for instance, we pay a certain price for something, that initial decision dominates our thinking. It becomes our anchor, one that we arbitrarily adhere to, and break away from only with great effort, by an intentional rethink.

Examples come to my mind easily, assuring me that Dan is onto something here. If we grew up on cars getting 15 miles per gallon, we may well think 28 mpg is good. If grew up on 28, then 40 mpg is good. Good is what we know. But when gas goes to $5 a gallon, then it might be wise to think this through

again, and come to  see 50 as the new anchor, the acceptable standard, or to come to the conclusion that no gas burned, ruining the earth, is the standard.

I like it, the rethinking things, being astute.  By my own observations, we do get stuck in arbitrary mindsets, and I think we can rethink that think and then think a new, more rational thinking thought. I’m for rationality, and I’m for choice. I’m not a behaviorist; too pathetic, “We are the products of our environments.” It doesn’t work for me. My environment is not in charge of me:  “En garde, marche, balestra, froissement!”

It’s a fight, against things, and to decide, how we view our world.  Points of view, models of nature, our sense of  objects  — these have, as we can see in the past, operated as hugely powerful historical frameworks, dominating nations, cultures, an era, millions of minds. Consider the Elizabethan world view and the idea of the great chain of being.  In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare poetically summarizes the perspective of an era: “The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre/Observe degree priority and place/ Insisture course proportions season form/Office and custom, in all line of order.” The view here is that there is a hierarchical ordering of existence, heavenly bodies in order. And there was more than astronomy here. The chain of being, the order in the heavens was believed to have been mirrored on earth, the divine monarch at the head,  the sun,  and men descending downward on the social ladder, like the planets, all in order.

Scholar E. M. W. Tillyard explains further, “If the Elizabethans believed in an ideal order, animating earthly order, they were terrified lest it should be upset, and appalled by the visible tokens of disorder that suggested its upsetting. They were obsessed by the fear of chaos and the fact of mutability; and the obsession was powerful in proportion as their faith in the cosmic order was strong…. to an Elizabethan [chaos] meant the cosmic anarchy before creation and the wholesale dissolution that would result if the pressure of Providence relaxed and allowed the law of nature to cease functioning.”

We see this view in Macbeth. When the king is  killed, nature is undone After Duncan’s murder,  Ross cries, “Ha, good father, Thou seest the heavens, as troubled with man’s act,/Threatens his bloody stage. By th’ clock ’tis day,/And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp./ Is ’t night’s predominance or the day’s shame/That darkness does the face of Earth entomb/When living light should kiss it?”

And more, “Duncan’s horses—a thing most strange and certain—/ Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,/ Turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,/ Contending ‘gainst obedience, as they would/ Make war with mankind.”

Wow and wow again! They had it all figured out, with God and king on top, and nature troubled when men upset this order, nature responding, disordering and attacking. And yet, this mindset  didn’t work out all that well for the Elizabethans, the great chain  became a bit of a chain for the monarchs and the people, not so true or great. Think the War of the Roses. Think Charles the I.

And yet such ideas, the sense that nature responds to the world of men, was not new to the English people. Consider Isaiah, the ancient Jewish prophet writings: “You will go out in joy/and be led forth in peace;/the mountains and hills/will burst into song before you,/ and all the trees of the field/will clap their hands.” It sounds like Shakespeare, and game on, with a positive twist. Those Hebrews, so fun! How cool is that, singing mountains, clapping trees, all that wild-nature, joyful clapping and singing for us. What? Is this anthropomorphism, or reality; is it poetic device, or, “I think there just might be a lot more going on behind the scenes than we know” ? I was reading research on waves theory recently. The expert scientists still can’t entirely explain the origin of rogue waves, freak waves, 80 foot waves.

Jesus, the Jewish prophet, was schooled in the Hebrew line of thinking. When the crowds of miracle followers called him “king,” the legal experts told his disciples to shut them up. Jesus responded, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will  cry out.” Hyperbole?  Maybe not. Really? Perhaps, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

We have our philosophical anchors, every age does, and our traditional, of the first order, main stream, educated mind-sets dominate, and then change, with the passing of an era and our passing from the scene. Think the geocentric view of the universe. Gone.

So what is it? John Watson, Shakespeare, Jesus, Ariely, nature, God, me? Is it what we think it is or what it is, is, is and then is again, despite what we think? Is it game on or game off or just game?

I find it arrogant of folks to act like they can give a final answer to such questions on how it all works, the nature of reality, our relationship to the environment, although I understand the impulse to babble on like one has an inside track; I’ve done it. But it’s a humbug and its quackery, too confident; we don’t know yet, the deep structure of reality, how it all works.  Who knows very much at all? I don’t. 

I love science, and theology, and I read both, but I don’t have to choose between them as if one knows, the other doesn’t. Each one knows part of what there is to know.  I respect validity of the scientific process. I respect the position that there is more here than science has charted and modeled.  I believe our responses are conditioned, and I believe we make choices that break free from powerful influencing factors, and I perceive, in the universe, the presence of  motivating factors, unseen and powerful. The truth is that, just like the Elizabethans or the ancient Hebrews, we live with a mindset, and it doesn’t have a final corner on the truth, and it is really smart to be open, to change, to rethink our current think. I’ve  never heard the rocks cry out, or seen the sun darken when a king died, but it is reported that this happened when Jesus died.

About ten years ago I had a surgery that didn’t turn out well; a nerve was damaged, and I ended up in chronic, daily, mind crushing pain. Under stress from that, and just by coincidence, I’d say, other things unfortunate things went down. My ears began to ring, , a nerve in  my foot became pinched; part of my foot went permanently tingley and numb. I developed a severe rash, that resisted all treatment. My shoulder began to ache horribly from a pinched nerve in my neck. It froze so  that I couldn’t lift it above my chest. My stomach began to swell up when I ate, which acutally is normal, I think, loafy, but not acceptable. My mother-in-law died, that hurt, and my wife and I inherited a whole new set of responsibilities; anxiety set in, and depression. I was comprehensively sick.

Game on! And I was knocked, off, my game.  “Wow, it was a bad spell there,  buddy. I’m sorry.”

“Thanks,” I’m not sure about that. I am now more given to say “I’m glad it happened, although I wouldn’t want to go through it again,” and to add, “It’s not so much that I now know something different, but that I am something different,” and I’m really grateful for that, and I have chosen to use all that now as a new anchor and as nuclear fuel, because it is, and I’m tapped into it now. Coincidence? I’m not so sure.

I have recovered from being sick, pretty much, or not. We all eventually live with some stuff,  but now, I think differently, about a lot of things. And I think, that we can rethink, pretty much everything, and should from time to time, as the game moves on.  Perhaps, just perhaps,  more is going on than we have first suspected, in our anchor decisions, and in what comes to us in life, but then, that is for us to figure out today.

Game, and, on, and I can hardly wait to observe, the next move.