A Fortnight in the Life Of #6
The bus is almost full as I shuffle on. We move in steady unison like a weary marching band, our instruments our bank cards which we flash to the left of us as we pass by the driver, the metronomic beep of the card machine our collective tune.
The drumbeat of the footsteps upstairs and the sharp banking left of all my bandmates in front of me when they reach the foot of the stairs tells me that probably there are no seats downstairs. But when it is my turn to take the handrail I look forward and see one spare seat right at the back of the bus. I decide to break ranks and head for it.
I can’t tell if the heating is on really high or whether being squashed together so tightly is helping me warm up, but I know two things, it was touching zero outside and I am grateful for the warmth wherever it comes from, even if it does require me to touch shoulders with my two temporary neighbours who I will inevitably ignore for the next thirty minutes.
I take out my book and start reading.
Ten minutes in and the bus is literally enacting a secondary school math equation. If only two people get on but at least thirteen get off will Tim have enough space to spread his legs and relax a bit on the way home after a hard day’s graft on the penultimate day of work? Fortunately the answer is yes; my area right at the back of the bus with its train like layout of seats facing each other is emptying fast. Then he gets on; the three of them get on.
We have moved from numbers to geometry and this triangle of a man, shoulders as broad as can possibly be, and his sons, twins I think, both around ten or eleven are heading towards me. There is only one place three people can sit together. So I shuffle over to accommodate them.
One of the twins sits by me and he sits opposite eating up the chair with his frame; yes he taketh from society by dominating more than his fair share of the upholstery yet he giveth back with his infectious and cavernous laugh. They are joking and jesting and after a few minutes they start playing a game of slapsies. A raucous game that involves this father mostly winning and his sons mostly rubbing their hands.
I am still reading but finding them amusing and smiling along with them as they fill the bus with joy. They are, like everyone ever alive who has ever played slapsies, becoming more and more aggressive with their attempts to hit each other, and cavorting their bodies into shapes that resemble the more curvaceous letters of the alphabet as they try to avoid and get away. Suddenly the space for relaxing is being taken up but I willingly trade that physical space for the opportunity to bask in the space taken up by their contagious delight.
Maybe he misreads that sign, he looks over at me and when my eye catches his he says directly, I’m sorry my friend.
He has nothing to apologise for. I put my book down, my hands out and say, are you going to let me have a go?
And boy does he slap me hard. We all laugh, he and I shake hands and I go back to my book and they go, at the next stop, to karate.
The pub was deliciously warm after the final day of work before Christmas, especially compared to the bitter cold of five hours up in the white woods. I don’t know though whether it was the heating or whether the tight embrace of the company of good friends was warming me up from the inside out. Final drinks downed the three of us head back out into the frosty evening and our separate ways. Goodbyes are ways to temporarily release us of our bonds, but a frozen dog bowl is an invitation and, wow look at this ice, an incantation to rebind us. Freed from its metal prison this humongous ice hockey puck brings joy to one of my fellow mentors as they throw it and kick it down the road and the rest of us chuckle in delight at this playfully joyous moment.
I’m sure that we have probably all watched someone bounce out of a pub and find some innocuous object they subsequently play with. I’m sure we have all had a pleasant interaction with a stranger on a bus.
I’m sure that some of us could make the claim that these events are not rare in our lives, not uncommon, but I would be surprised if many would are make the claim that they are common. Just your normal everyday events that happen with such mundane regularity.
At the learning community this week all the children have been playing with all the ice at every opportunity.
When an eleven year old joined on the last day for a trial day the rest of the children lined up for a pleasant interaction with this stranger, and he willingly put his metaphorical hands out and said, are you going to let me join in?
To me this is why these events stand out. When you spend enough time in both adult spaces and in children’s spaces you can do a comparative analysis of these two subspecies of human and notice that there really is a difference. What separates the child from the adult is that often they know the answer to the question which forms the title of David Graeber’s essay on play: What’s the point if we can’t have fun? The answer, to them, is there isn’t.
Graeber asks us why do animals play? What is the relationship between means and ends in play? Is it all just about behavioural, physical, educational betterment or is life an end in itself. Since Darwin biologists have tended to say yes, play is a way to serve other tangential purposes, a means to other ends. However, since Peter Kropotkin wrote Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution in 1902 it has presented biology with the “problem of altruism”, which has mostly been taken up by evolutionary psychologists. The answer to the Darwinists was that selfish genes were simply driving cooperation as a means to pass along their genetic code.
However, Kropotkin was not just interested in cooperation for the benefits of survival or reproduction, but pleasure itself. He cites plenty of examples of animals playing just for pleasure, one example, being of hares so keen to box other species that they mistakenly run up to foxes to fight them. Graeber introduces what he terms a principle of ludic freedom: that an entity’s most complex power or capacities will tend to become an end in itself.
In other words play doesn’t have to serve any purpose but can just be, something purely done for the sake of it’s own enjoyment. This holds for ants, dolphins, for dogs, at least for mine it definitely does. And through journeying from panpsychism and the hard problem of consciousness to particle physics and Richard Feynman we see that maybe it even holds for an electron which
as Richard Feynman is supposed to have said, “does anything it likes”—it can only be acting freely as an end in itself. Which would mean that at the very foundations of physical reality, we encounter freedom for its own sake—which also means we encounter the most rudimentary form of play.
This week my family went on holiday and I, still having work, stayed behind. Five days of freedom is an extremely unusual set of circumstances and on Tuesday when we did the weekly review for our self-managed learning program and I admitted I hadn’t done what I had intended to do last week, because I had instead played Minecraft for three days, I was basically abused. They were incredulous. They swore at me, shouted at me. No, no, no, no, Tim! It seemed to them to be inappropriate for an adult with free time from children to make that choice.
The rumour got around, even the eight year old who I would have bet my landlady’s house on siding with me told me I was, fucking crazy!
Sure there may be some mimesis at play here. It is possible that the first child responded for whatever reason with such outrageous disgust and everyone else joined in with the joys of berating an adult; that after this first child decided it was inappropriate and the others followed then perhaps we should not read too seriously into their responses. However, maybe they do genuinely believe it to be not becoming of an adult to play.
Or to put that last sentence another way from a slightly different perspective of theirs: it is in becoming an adult that we will learn not to play.
Maybe they see this and know this already and they are already trying to wrap their heads around this eventual transition and why this mid-thirties man wandered in with his tales of freedom and owned his choices and disturbed those notions of normalcy.
Our culture is very adamant that play is the domain of the child. Yet paradoxically the time in a human life where play is accepted as normal we have decided that education should be to warehouse them into factories of learning where the desire for play is suppressed and the principle of ludic freedom no longer holds. Graber asks us
Why do animals play? Well, why shouldn’t they? The real question is: Why does the existence of action carried out for the sheer pleasure of acting, the exertion of powers for the sheer pleasure of exerting them, strike us as mysterious? What does it tell us about ourselves that we instinctively assume that it is?
What does it tell us about us that we can’t see play for what it is in our culture? What are the implicit messages that this culture so devoid of play is telling our children? What is the hidden curriculum of opposing “learning” and play as if they are separate beasts and not acknowledging that play is the well-tuned evolutionary process through which learning takes place best? Are even these children, who are given the freedom to play all day, immune from the myths our culture tells about play?
What does it tell us about ourselves indeed?
This week countless Nativity plays will have been enacted. Communities will have been brought together, children, parents , grandparents, teachers and brothers and sisters. Whether through the story of Jesus’ birth it is God’s presence you meditate on this season, or the presents under the tree, either way there has always been something about this time of year that is reserved for family and community. Whatever God we place at the centre the real point is who gathers around that with us.
The Nativity play is an opportunity to witness and celebrate children playing, but the whole season is a special place in the calendar precisely because it brings us all together, an intergenerational soup of a festival like no other. I invite you to consider the season of nativity as an opportunity to play. Play with the children that you come across as much as possible, in part for yourself, in part for them, but also find ways to play just for yourself. Embrace the principle of ludic freedom, for if an electron can, then surely so can you.
Merry Christmas indeed. Thanks for reading my musings this year. If you enjoyed this please feel free to subscribe as a present to yourself!
I too do bus ridership math in my head, but of economic rather than geometric type. I can't help myself, I have a thing about venue attendance, assuming x paid for tickets per y customers, does it justify z cost of the event? In bus terms I get the added notion of traffic flow: a bus is three car lengths, so for it to save space on a bridge, at least three riders (not including the driver, who is 'working' and if not bus driving would otherwise be in an office or anyway not in a traffic location while driving) must be on the bus. But three may still be too little to pay for the gas mileage and wear and tear on the bus to cross the bridge daily. So it has to be made up in ridership earlier where there is more riders riding shorter distances.
Lots of assumed numbers I don't look up the actual costs and profitability for. Generally speaking the MTA is unprofitable at a deficit of about a billion dollars per year. But I can't help running the numbers I can observe from real life through my head for funsies or at least as a way of paying attention.