In Praise of Play

November 6, 2011

The motto of the 5th street band: "More Cowbell"

This weekend, we put aside work in favor of play.  I played music three different times:  first with the Tiki Brothers on Saturday night, belting out Aretha Franklin covers and singing harmony on Johnny Cash’s Big River.  DH came out to hear us, and we all stayed up way too late, enjoying the rare feeling of freedom that comes from having nothing to distract us from the important pleasure of listening to songs that we already knew deep in our bones.

The girls played, too, but at their own chosen pursuits: soccer instead of classic rock.  Abigail’s team, the Highlighters, beat their competition in a close match, and Grace’s team, The Electric Oreos, did the same.


The sun shone all weekend, and the bright blue sky played with the bright turning leaves.  After their soccer games, the girls played with their friends.  DH played his bass, getting ready for band practice.  We played, serious and silly.

And then on Sunday came the Marathon.  Tens of thousands of people took to wide Fourth Avenue in a human river.  While there could be only two winners of the race, every runner’s journey was epic.  Each runner had his or her own deeply individual story of why and how.  My friend Andrew from the 5th Street Band trained barefoot, and wanted to finish in under 3 hours.  (He did, at 2:57.)

Many of the people running were running for something or someone. My friend Buck, who was up playing with me and the Tiki Brothers well past 1:00 AM the night before, was running in honor of his friend Moose, who is fighting a brain tumor, hard.  I have no idea why Buck didn’t just lie down on the street and take a nap that afternoon, instead of running 26 miles, but perhaps his decades-long friendship with Moose had something to do with it. And the deep, deep pleasure of throwing oneself completely into the impossible possible of 26.2 miles.

I don't know why Buck ran wearing a wizard's cap and black cape. He's just like that.

My other band, the Fifth Street Band, set up all of our equipment on a street corner to play for them, for all the runners, and for the hundreds of spectators there to cheer them on in the beautiful sunny day. For Andrew we sang “Take a Load off, Andrew,” and Buck got, by request, “Gigantic” by the Pixies.  It was so much fun it should have been illegal.

The whole weekend was stuffed with various forms of joy.  I didn’t work nearly as hard as the marathoners, or get as little sleep as did Buck, but I still wore myself out, just playing.  The girls did, too.  Play can be just as deeply engaging, and tiring, as work:  we just don’t notice how much we’re putting in, because play engages us completely.  It soaks up all of the mental and emotional energy we have to give it.

While our band was playing, little kids at the Marathon were drawn like bees to the basket of percussion instruments that my friend Carey and I keep at our feet to play when we are not otherwise occupied with singing. The little kids would stand and stare at us, and then gradually let themselves come over and grab a shaker or a wooden drumstick or the cowbell (when Carey and I weren’t using it.  We really really like cowbell.)

With little kids, it’s easy to see them losing themselves in the joy of play. These girls danced for almost an hour, oblivious of everything else going on around them.  They were 100% in the moment, 100% alive.

This aliveness is not always easy to see at work in the real world.  Sometimes we forget just how alive we all are, and we only see it when we remember to pay attention.  We feel our own aliveness so acutely when we are at play.

I ran into my friend Dina at the marathon.  She told me that the race was making her teary.  Happy and teary in intervals.  Another friend posted this same sentiment on facebook later in the morning.  I have felt this same catch in my throat, this same bizarre flood of emotion when I watch all of those thousands of people, each chasing their own version of the same goal. I think that part of the reason that the Marathon chokes me up is just how alive all those people are, running down the street in a standing wave.  We are so alive right now, and we will not always be.

Running a marathon is so far outside of the sphere of possibility for my own life that I don’t ever really even think about taking that up as my form of play. I would pretty much rather eat nails than run further than to get the telephone.  But joining a rock band — or two or three — and really letting loose on a sunshiny day, surrounded by thousands of people at play?  Now that’s what I call joy.

Alive. With Cowbell.




Lindsey November 7, 2011 at 7:28 am

So wonderful. The Boston marathon always chokes me up, too, and I’ve never really figured out why until I read this. I think you’re right. Thank you for inspiring me to throw myself into that whole being alive business with a little more enthusiasm, with some untrammeled joy. xoxo

Terence November 7, 2011 at 8:28 am

I just read the study that argues people “catch” happiness from their friends (Christakis and Fowler – they’ve made it into the popular book “Connected”). And now I’m experiencing the contagion!

Launa November 7, 2011 at 8:43 am

Perhaps we also catch an intense desire for international travel? Because I am ready to go, again!

Stephanie November 7, 2011 at 10:08 am

All of us at mile 8 were so focused and in the moment serving cups and cups and cups of Gatorade to the waves of runners. The transfer of joy and appreciation between servers and runners was absolutely electrifying! So so so ALIVE!
Thank You for the Words, Launa!

GailNHB November 7, 2011 at 7:13 pm

I’ve got a travel rash developing in my right palm, that’s the hand I usually use to hand over my passport when I enter foreign airport security checks…

I love, love, love this post. Especially the statement: “We are so alive right now, and we will not always be.” So perfectly appropriate every single moment of every single day. How easily we forget. And the description of the emotion of the marathon, the runners, the stories, the goals, the hopes and plans for a finish for some personal gain or gift or achievement – I have a similar feeling every time I see a bunch of school buses leave a school and take the kids home. There’s something about all that young energy and potential, all those young dreamers and schemers that makes me a little weepy.

You look fantastic in the photos. I would LOVE to hear you sing sometime. Gotta make that happen.

Launa November 8, 2011 at 1:44 pm

Of course I did not post the many photos where my eyes were closed or I looked really really angry.

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