Play is awesome. A Google search will give you a plethora of information about play’s useful properties, both for children and adults. I believe in this research but I’m also a big proponent of play simply for the sake it. That’s why kids do it, right? Kids aren’t thinking, “this activity will help boost my creativity and bring me closer to the state of flow as described by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi, thus making me more productive at work.” Kids do what feels good.
Recently, Chris and I were waiting to enter TEKNOPOLIS, an exhibit of interactive art and technology at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Most of the patrons were moms and dads with children under 8 (the exhibit was listed as for ages 6 to adult). The line was a bouncing, waving, whining stream of child energy.
Along with the “everyone-would-categorize-them-as-such kids,” there were a mother and her teenaged son in front of us; he looked to be about 14 or 15 years old. He wasn’t quite full grown. He had long hair and was dressed casually. He looked around and expressed dismay at the preponderance of children. “I didn’t think there would be so many kids,” he said. His tone suggested that the kids made the event seem less cool, and that he didn’t identify as a kid. Like maybe he wasn’t in the right place.
This attitude isn’t surprising. I remember how it felt to be a teenager. I’d also heard similar concerns from Chris — to whom I simply kept insisting, “it’s all good; we’re giant-sized kids; this will be fun.” I told the teenaged-kid essentially the same thing. Turned out, I was right!
TEKNOPOLIS was FUN.
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Somehow, Chris and I ended up working our way through the exhibits on roughly the same path as the teenaged-kid and his mother, and that was fun too. When they opened the gate, we beelined for the virtual reality room upstairs and stood together waiting to use Google Tilt Brush — a 3-D virtual reality drawing program. The teenaged-kid went first. He was prepared (and, we learned, had been pestering mom for a home system) and he made a drawing that was recognizably derived from life. It was fun to watch.
I said to Chris, “I need a plan!” It was intimidating knowing that a line of people would be watching me. First though, I wanted to experiment with all of the brushes and to orient myself in space. The few minutes I had with the system went by quickly. I want to play more with this very cool tool!
Later, we went downstairs to the XYZT room. Borrowing from math for its name – x (horizontal), y (vertical), z (depth), and t (time) – the room was full of sensory, immersive, playful, and interactive technological innovations in black and white. The video below is from “Anamorphosis in Time” which transformed live video of exhibit-goers into wavy and time-distorted alter-versions.
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Another of my favorite pieces was the “Kinetic Sand,” a light-table-slash-horizontal-responsive-video-screen. It showed digital “grains of sand” that could be manipulated in patters by touching the table. We met up again with the teenaged-kid at this table. He watched us us play for a few moments and then started asking questions… “how does it work? … ” is it responding to your hand like there’s a gravitational pull?”
“Try it,” we suggested. We all played for a little while and then, as the group around the table enlarged, Chris and I wandered off. When we returned, the teenaged-kid was still there. He had played through each of the five or so cycles of pattern and physics that the table offered, and he explained to us how it worked. One pulled particles towards the hand, another pushed them away, and so on. We all played together a while longer. “What happens if …?”
Others joined, and the games continued.
That kind of engagement is why giant-sized kids are so cool. Chris and I had a blast running and jumping around the exhibits for our allotted two-and-a-half hours. We problem-solved our way through the interactive parts but it wasn’t a serious science project kind of vibe. It was play, curiosity, complete engagement in the moment. We were absorbed. We were inventive. We connected.
My complete attention to the moment reminds me of how I felt in the South Dakota Wind Cave. It also reminds me of long-ago adventures; early in our relationship, Chris and I visited Ireland together and spend days crawling around the Burren, amused by little more than limestone rock, tide pools, the smashing of waves, and each other.
Homo Ludens, a classic work on play by the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, describes play as “a free activity standing quite consciously outside ordinary life as being ‘not serious’ but at the same absorbing the player intensely and utterly.”
That quote describes travel-adventuring at its best.
I am so grateful that we can still find the time and places act like giant-sized kids, even now that we’re living like grownups back home.
This is life. I am lucky.
These Crickets are pretty well settled back into (and enjoying!) the routines and rituals of everyday life. I miss the open sky and easy connection to natural landscapes, yet I’m glad to once again be part of the community structures within which I feel most intellectually and spiritually alive.
There’s a richness to life within a community; that’s an obvious point, but one that is under-appreciated because for most of us, social structures and our DNA are always driving us towards creating and maintaining connections. When you’re not living on the road (or otherwise reconstructing your life in some kind of new environment), you don’t usually have to think too much about it.
Networks of people have many functions. To mention just a key few, they help us meet basic human needs, bring us together to create and share joy, and offer us support during times of trouble.
In a talk this week at Smith College, Maria Stephan highlighted the importance of networks in successful nonviolent resistance to authoritarian regimes (this is her expertise). “A movement of movements,” she called it, describing the ways that working at a local level builds trust and loyalty that are needed for a sustained engagement. If these efforts are also organized with intersectionality and into larger networks, rather than in silos, they are more likely to succeed. If you’re interested in these ideas, this TED talk will give you food for thought about the need to mobilize 3.5% of the population, and what that means.
I heard about Stephan’s talk from someone at work, and I’m grateful for that. I love to build connections around my perpetual desire for learning and growth. One of my (several) favorite things about being home is that as I’ve wondered how to re-engage in democratic civil society, people I know have pointed me towards lectures and other resources that were just the thing I needed at a particular time. (I read a lot, but lectures are unique. To speak for an hour or more to a live audience is to create a particular kind of responsive long form journalism that requires a lot of clarity and care.)
First, it was Garry Trudeau. He reminded me that it can feel good to connect with people about distressing events, and that it’s possible to be entertaining and constructively engaged. Next it was Adam Gopnik, who reminded me that there’s precedent for dealing with uncertainty and ugliness. Societies are cyclical, vacillating in fairly predictable ways between openness and aggressive reaction. This can result in feeling disheartened and hopeless, but it can also help us use great minds of history to inform our thinking about the present.
Most recently it was Maria Stephan, who spoke cogently about action informed by history and brought up the importance of self care. She had already pointed out that it’s important to plan for at least 8 years of civil resistance, if not more. The divisions in our society are that deep and it’s a big mistake, she says, to allow people to become discouraged because of unrealistic hopes — we need to plan for a marathon, not a 400 metre dash. I’m drawn to think about deliberate nurturing as an important element of sustaining momentum. I already think a lot about the overlap between healthy shifting of awareness and unhealthy avoidance — how to tell the difference, and how to create practices that serve me well.
The day after the election, Chris and I happened to be near Boston and we visited the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis. There was a particular installation by Sarah Sze (this page has photos and describes the enchanting piece better than the official Brandeis site) that allowed me to feel calm in a way I could nowhere else. We spent time exploring together and then, while Chris visited other galleries, I sat for more than an hour and sort of meditated in the large dark room. While that activity felt healthy, the desire to stay seated there forever did not (or wouldn’t have been in practice).
In the months after the election, I’ve felt a strong desire to escape. Burning Man has thus crept into my psyche; I’ve often been viscerally reminded of pieces like the lighthouse and I’ve felt a pull to run away to a magical place that doesn’t exist. I’ve also felt an urge to run away into the hills; I think lots of people feel that way, but for Chris and I it’s somewhat more of a practical option because of the ways we’ve lived in the Cricket. I’ve observed the blogs of fellow road travelers, noting that some have gone quiet (sometimes as their life patterns change, as ours have) while others keep up a steady pace of festive adventuring, no mention of the state of the world. I wonder if they feel as carefree as they seem?
For some time, those various couples were the network to which I related most easily; they understood and could inform that peculiar lifestyle of living together on the road. I wonder, would I would still be avoiding the news if Chris and I were still on the road? It would be easier to do so without the forces of community here at home inciting me to talk, question, and know. Or I might also be building networks of a different sort; I had one non-escapist fantasy that involved taking the Cricket to all those places we skipped and interviewing people who support Trump about how they feel and what they hope to achieve. I think it would make a great podcast (someone’s doing it, I imagine).
Chris and I hope to get tickets for Burning Man 2017; they go on sale soon. Burning Man is a once-a-year-extravaganza of departure from everyday life. I wrote last year that it felt post-apocalyptic. It’s also a place of super strong community and active engagement. A city almost unto itself, bound by both ritual and radicalism — and that’s exactly this year’s theme: Radical Ritual.
In 2017, we invite participants to create interactive rites, ritual processions, elaborate images, shrines, icons, temples, and visions. Our theme will occupy the ambiguous ground that lies between reverence and ridicule, faith and belief, the absurd and the stunningly sublime.
There will surely be rituals of cleansing escape and rituals of social action (along with everything in-between). The more I think about the networks of people volunteering year-round towards making the on-playa event happen, the more I realize that Burning Man isn’t quite as debauched as it looks while biking around, especially to an overwhelmed newbie. So maybe the question is, how does that energy translate now, post-Trump? As a healthy escape, a safe space, a refuge? Or is Burning Man more part of the activism of everyday life than I realize? A place where intersectionality already flourishes?
As I was thinking about Burning Man 2017, I looked at our photos from 2016. The theme was “Da Vinci’s Workshop” and as a small contribution to the Burning Man community, I had posted a “Leonardo quote of the day” each day of the event. Some of the quotes (as below) are strikingly appropriate to the concept of nonviolent resistance and social change, as part of a network.
I realize that quotes don’t change culture and Burning Man doesn’t represent any practical solution to the challenges of a divided America. Yet it’s an interesting piece of the puzzle, somehow representing both an effective system of connections and a place of renewal. As I talk with people about how they are making sense of the current social and political climate, I realize that although my dilemmas are specific to me, they’re not particularly unique. People who followed the campaign straight through are still facing questions about how to be useful and how to feel ok. I find it to be comforting that the Burning Man network exists (admittedly far more liberal and open-minded than the population at large) and succeeds as one sort of movement of movements.
Now, I need to dig into the many resources for organizing and action suggested by Maria Stephan and others. Radical ritual and life in action. My community has persuaded me that there’s no other choice.
(All photos in this post are mine from Burning Man 2016.)