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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

The word is play.

I’ve been percolating on this since yesterday, but yesterday was Valentine’s Day with words of its own. But today, today we play.

Actually, yesterday we played, Kevin and I, which is what made me start thinking about it.

Do you know what grownups do too little of?

But this is not an admonishment to play more.

Once in a while I get a craving for Play-Doh, then I go to Amazon and look at all the cans and all the colors and all the kits. I really just want a few cans of a few basic colors, not sparkle colors or neon colors or cookie cutters or spaghetti presses.

Also they apparently sell these mini-cans that everyone complains about because they are too small, which is true, except clearly that meant someone did not read the product description where it said they were one ounce cans.

Long story short I never buy it, because it gets too complicated, and also because I remember how as a kid, as much as I loved Play-Doh, I hated when the colors got all mixed up and turned brown, which was always in about five minutes if you were making anything cool at all.

So I always want Play-Doh but never buy it.

Sometimes I just want to play. Not even anything in particular. Not anything that requires a lot of time or effort. Just… squishing something green.

Whenever Kevin visits we play something. Usually Trivial Pursuit, which we’ve renamed Regulation in honor of the fact that we make up our own rules and then check to see whether something falls within regulation before deciding whether we can do it or not. When we make up the rules, it’s very easy to fall within regulation.

The reason we make up the rules is because sometimes the questions are really dumb, or really hard, or really obscure, or really badly written, or actually out of date so that the answer on the card as of when it was printed is no longer true today.

In Regulation, you get a chip if you mostly answer the question right. Or if you answer it with a little prompting. In Regulation you don’t have to answer the question about some random boxer’s cousin’s mother’s name.

It’s a lot more fun.

We played Trivial Pursuit last week. This week we played Boxes.

I don’t know who invented it, I only remember playing it as a kid, mostly with my grandfather. According to my mother, Aunt Rosie taught it to us, but I don’t remember that. Apparently Kevin doesn’t remember playing it at all, which, given his elephant memory, is shocking. I refuse to believe he never played it before yesterday.

Boxes, you play it with a piece of grid paper and pencils. You take turns drawing a single line between any two adjacent dots on the page. The idea is to make as many closed boxes as you can while preventing the other person from making boxes. So the game starts out with a lot of lines between a lot of dots.

The first person who is forced to draw the third line in a box gets mad. Or, at least that’s how I remember it. Wasn’t too far off this time, except it was more of a huff and a sigh.

When you close a box you put your initial in it. The person with the most initials wins.

The thing about Boxes is that it starts off very slowly. Then it gets a little more tense as you run out of spaces to draw lines. Then there are long, dramatic silences while you look for that one last unnoticed place to draw a line that won’t give the other person the opportunity to close a box.

Then a few boxes get closed and there are more dramatic pauses and more searching for places to draw lines that won’t lead to a domino-chain of closed boxes.

At a certain point, you aren’t going to have any choice but to draw a line that will lead to a cascade of closed boxes for someone other than you and you will watch your chances of winning dwindle with each initial.

It’s fun.

My grandfather played with me all the time. He also taught me how to play checkers and never let me win. Game after game after game I lost, no matter how much I stared at that board.

One time I won. It’s the only time I ever won. What I remember most is feeling like I had accomplished something tremendous, because I knew it was real winning and not winning because someone let you, because you were a kid.

These are the things I remember most about playing. Not necessarily the game, or the specifics of it, but the experience. The feeling of that shared time with someone, whether you were deep in thought or laughing out loud.

One of my favorite family games was badminton. It was something my father did with fourfivesix of us every summer.

While we never gave it a name like Regulation, we still played by our own rules. The rules were that you had to hit the birdie as high and far as you could so the person on the other side of the net had plenty of time to run as fast and as far as they could to hit it back.

We took especial joy in hitting it high and far enough that our father had to run all out across the yard and make a diving swing to return it, which usually ended with him rolling across the grass and us rolling in laughter. The goal was not ever to count points or to win, but to run and run and laugh and laugh.

If you dove headfirst into the grass and still managed to send the birdie back over the net, even better.

This is how playing should be.

And also losing enough so that when you win you know it.

We played lots of games in my family. Some board games, some not. Scrabble was a staple. Rummy-O was another. The best Saturday nights we spent were ones with half a dozen of us, siblings or aunts or grandparents or parents, hour after hour configuring little tiles in groups of threes. The point was to win, but the bigger point was to make cool melds and use up all the tiles, so when someone ended up stuck because they got a little too ambitious, everyone else helped them get unstuck. When Aunt Rosie won, she spent the rest of the game helping the rest of us use up all our tiles in cool, clever ways. When grandma had terrible tiles, we all pitched in and took a shot at helping her offload them.

We were very terrible at competition but very good at playing.

A couple of years ago I started a game with Kevin. It wasn’t supposed to take several years but it’s still going on. The premise of the game is based on one we played as kids.

One person says, “We’re going on a picnic and I’m going to bring…” and that thing has to start with the letter A.

The next person says, “We’re going on a picnic and I’m going to bring…” and that thing has to start with the letter B.

And so you go through the alphabet. This kept us mightily entertained on long car rides as kids, when every car ride more than ten minutes felt eternal.

The game I started, we did it by mail. I mailed him apple seeds for A. He mailed me balloons for B. The only rule was that whatever we mailed had to fit in nothing bigger than a #10 envelope, and couldn’t cost more than a few dollars, if anything.

By nature of the fact that I started the game, I got all the vowels, plus Y, plus Q, which required a lot of creative thinking.

It probably should only have taken us a year to finish this game. But there was that time I was really busy with work and didn’t have a chance to figure out what the heck to do for I. Then I had a great idea for K but it involved ordering some stuff that took a minute to come. Then one thing he mailed to me took weeks and weeks to show up, and one thing I mailed to him never showed up at all, so after a few months I ended up sending it all over again. Then he sold his house, then we moved, then he stayed with us for a bit, then we went to New Orleans together, then there was a pandemic and we ended up quarantined in my apartment together for months on end.

I sent him my last letter, Y, two weeks before he arrived here for this visit. It never got to him.

As of now we’re two letters and several months away from finishing this game.

But it was still fun.

We played another alphabet game on long car rides, where you took turns finding each letter of the alphabet somewhere. On a road sign, on a truck, on a license plate. The only rule was that you had to call it out and the other person had to see it. If you were on a boring stretch of local road, it could take a long time to find a letter. If you were up to Q, it could take forever.

Games didn’t have to be profound or complicated or even involve a winner. It just had to be a game.

I feel like past generations who had a lot less to work with were very good at making up games. Now there has to be entire kickstarters for games because they need to build card decks and boards and pieces and things, and they need to have entire books designed to explain all the rules.

I’m not saying we don’t have some very cool games, but I am saying we don’t need very cool games. A lot of very cool games are on shelves waiting for enough people and enough time and the right conditions and the right mood.

You don’t need to be in any particular mood to look for something that starts with the letter A.

Ralph and I have always played games. Most of our dating years were spent in front of a computer, a Tandy to be exact, playing games on CD-ROM.

This is what an awesome date looked like: getting buckets of ice cream from Friendly’s, then going to my parents’ basement where the computer was, and playing hours and hours of Myst.

We played all through college, and after we got married. We played Myst and Riven and Uru. We played Seventh Guest and Eleventh Hour. We played Gabriel Knight.

Then we graduated to console games.

This is what an awesome married date looked like: getting buckets of Ben & Jerry’s, then sitting on the couch with one or more cats on our laps, playing hours and hours of Gauntlet.

Ralph liked to stand back and shoot things strategically. I liked to run into melee battle and slash everything like a maniac.

Then console controllers got hard. Too many buttons.

Ralph went on to play many more hours of games without me, and board games with me.

We have some very fun games, like Settlers of Catan and Dixit. They’re usually played best with at least four people, which makes them harder to play than the alphabet game. So when we do play, it tends to be with cocktails and friends.

One of my current favorite things to do is play back seat driver while Ralph plays Destiny on X Box. He deals with the controller and I look up things about how to kill enemies and which weapons are best and which planet to go to for which award. As long as I never have to figure out when to hit LB or RB or what the difference is between X and A, then I’m very happy.

He tried to teach me to play it myself once. I have a cool character and everything. Except I always end up looking down when I want to walk, or looking up when I want to shoot, or jumping when I want to switch weapons. Inevitably I just fall off a cliff.

I remember us kids trying to teach my mother how to play Breakout on Atari. It was about the same as trying to teach me the difference between LB and RB. It was hilarious, and ultimately futile.

Seems like some games were made for playing, and some were made for back seating.

Ralph likes to play Trivial Pursuit, too, although he likes to back seat it from the couch. He plays Destiny while I play Trivial Pursuit with Kevin, and when one of us doesn’t know an answer Ralph chimes in and gets it right.

He’s got a lot of trivia in his head.

I feel like I could talk about this all day, from playing “Where’s the doggie” with my grandmother, to negotiating contracts with Ralph during Moonrakers. One requires looking out the car window in hopes of being the first to spot a dog, the other involves whiskey and cigars and a lot of instructions and counting and paying attention to things.

Both have been fun.

But inevitably I will have to get back to work, until the next time someone cracks out the playing cards. As I wrap up this pleasant reflection, I’m reminded finally of my Uncle Arthur who taught us a particular version of Solitaire. I don’t remember what it’s called or even exactly how it’s played, but it involved laying out all 52 cards, then moving them around in a certain way until you lined up all the suits. What I do remember was that it was possible to spend more time laying the cards out than actually playing the game.

And he was meticulous. He laid out cards one at a time, in perfectly neat rows and lines, like each one he turned over was a precious discovery. It was a work of art. And then he played, and sometimes he barely got a few moves out of the game before he had to scoop up all the cards and start over. He did this with precision, too. One card, one row at a time.

Had I understood the word zen back then, I would surely have said he found it in a deck of playing cards.

Now I suddenly have a craving for Play-Doh again so I think I’ll go mitigate that by reading the Amazon reviews of everyone who hated the colors and sizes. Maybe one day I’ll cave and buy some. Until then I will think of interesting things that are brown.

Photo: the beginnings of a game of Boxes, in which Kevin eventually emerged triumphant.