My inspiration for this week’s column comes from an experience I had last year while visiting a local business. When I entered the office to discuss my needs, I was invited to sit down in a tree swing that was suspended from the office ceiling. Needless to say, I was very much impressed by this creative approach to doing business and was immediately put at ease while swinging during the transaction. “Why can’t every office be like this?” I asked after my visit. I haven’t seen a tree swing in any office since then, and I have often wondered if the world would be a better place were this the case. We all need a more playful approach to many of life’s experiences.
As I was preparing to write this playful column I came across an item in my Flipboard, written by Richard Fisher last November. In it, he describes a neat idea that emerged from the World-Changing Ideas Summit. Now that sounds like a very interesting event to attend. At this summit attendees were invited to write down a world-changing idea on a postcard. According to Richard, who was a participant at the event, postcards were chosen because “We may live in a world of screen and digital discourse, but sometimes the written word feels more personal–more direct–and postcards encourage brevity and clarity of thought.” Not a bad idea. I’m sure there’s a postcard app out there somewhere, but why bother? Lots of inspiring and creative ideas were jotted down, including gyms that generate electricity from pedaling and running, “car trains” that would link cars together for common trips, uncoupling when vehicles want to go their separate ways, and a proposal for “entire nations to swap countries (live in each other’s geographies) for a period of time [to] gain new perspective.” Now that’s a world-changing idea that should be followed by our powers-that-be.
My favorite postcard idea that follows the theme of this column is “My world-changing idea is to build slides into all buildings so we don’t have the boredom and fatigue of walking down stairs.” Just think how our perspectives would change if had more slides and swings in our workplaces and especially in our classrooms. Of course, there are offices (Google headquarters, for instance) and some classrooms that do have slides, but they are the exception rather than the rule.
My point, if you haven’t already guess, is that we need more play in our lives. Yes, life is serious much of the time, and we don’t want to make light of that. But play has a way of making us not take seriously those things that need not be taken seriously, while reducing our stress levels. And I’m not talking about competitive play, like sports. These often raise rather than lower our stress and blood-pressure levels. What I’m referring to is frivolous play, the kind that has no object other than having fun.
As Steven Johnson points out in his new book WONDERLAND: HOW PLAY MADE THE MODERN WORLD, many of our most important technological inventions came about because of our desire to play and to be entertained. For instance, computers first appeared as mechanisms for automating various “toys” like mechanical chess players and musical instruments like player pianos. As a promotional piece for the book explains, Johnson “introduces us to the colorful innovators of leisure: the explorers, proprietors, showmen, and artists who changed the trajectory of history with their luxurious wares, exotic meals, taverns, gambling table, and magic shows [and] compelling argues that observers of technological and social trends should be looking for clues in novel amusements [because you will] find the future wherever people are having the most fun.”
While we are on the subject of books about fun and play, I must recommend two of my favorites. First is Kembrew McLeod’s imaginative PRANKSTERS; MAKING MISCHIEF IN THE MODERN WORLD (2014), a book that takes us on a tour of fun and mayhem from the eighteenth century to the present. A related book is John Beckman’s AMERICAN FUN: FOUR CENTURIES OF JOYOUS REVOLT (2014), a new interpretation of American history as seen through the lens of frivolity and anarchism–I have thought seriously about using this as a text for one of future American history courses. What fun that would be.
Because we need more play in our lives, especially this week as we contemplate the news coming from our nation’s Capital, I not only urge you to seek out slides and swings, but also to find sources joy in your life. For me, this means watching some classic movies that are just plain fun (while often being satirical as well). You should start your fun-seeking by watching at least one Marx Brothers movie–although it’s difficult to stop with just one. There are several to choose from, such as “A Night At The Opera,” “Animal Crackers,” and “Duck Soup.” Although made during the Depression years of the 1930s, these movies are more relevant today than ever, and I often take great delight in telling people I’m a Marxist–Groucho, not Karl.
Movies from the Thirties gave us templates on which most modern humor is based, so let’s stay in that decade a while longer by watching one or more of the very amusing “Thin Man” series of movies, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as private detectives Nick and Noral Charles, a wise-cracking pair that gets themselves in some problematic predicaments while poking fun at the society in which they live. A double feature you shouldn’t miss is “Bringing Up Baby” (1938) and “What’s Up Doc?” (1972). The latter is Peter Bogdanovich’s hilarious remake of Howard Hawks’ equally hilarious “Baby” movie. I won’t give you any spoilers, because I don’t want to ruin your experience of having so much fun.
Here’s wishing you a week filled with tree swings, slides, Marx Brothers anarchy, brontosauruses and leopards (you have to see “Bringing Up Baby” to see what I mean), and goofy detectives. Let the fun begin.
See you next week.