Sunday, May 17, 2015

A Celebration of Play

(This is a piece I wrote in connection with my 25th college reunion.  I wanted to put it here so I could link to some of the references mentioned therein).

My undergraduate experience continues to nurture (it is our "alma mater" after all) the parts of me that are the most important. Not enough space here to list them all, but here is the most critical and the one that may sustain many of the others: the ability to play.

To be fair, I certainly arrived in late Summer of 1986 with some innate and learned capabilities for play (or at least playing . . ok, playing around): a working knowledge of a soccer field, a basketball court, various “leisure activities,” and a host of comedy movies. But my undergraduate experience took an unfocused affinity and hard-wired it into me, so much so that what took place during that relatively brief (and getting briefer) 4-year span spawned a quarter century of the same.

Soccer on those Saturday afternoons (you know I like the smell of cut grass) with Scott Levitt, Patrick Brown, Rick Silva and others was just a beginning, and in the years since I have spent many hours playing, coaching, and watching, most recently celebrating Rolf Piranian’s career back in October.

Basketball: the intramural and pickup hoops in the Warner Center, Doremus, and outdoor courts around town presaged future nights at Episcopal High School in Alexandria with Chris Giblin, Wesley Goings, Russell Wilkerson, Fred Shannon, Lynwood Mallard and others, law school and attorney leagues, and shoot-arounds with my children.

Even the P.E. courses were extraordinary and memorable. Harlan Winn and I experienced “Aerobic Running” with “Stormin’ Norman” Lord, and I don’t think any subsequent physical challenge was any more difficult than some of those runs. But we did it together.

Russell Wilkerson and I took softball with the legendary Joe Lyles, (where we “paired off in threes” and “lined up in a circle). I must’ve used those phrases and others a thousand times over the years. And years later, (as Clint Robinson knows), there is something indescribable about throwing the baseball for the first time in the Spring.

As significant as the organized events were the invented, improvised, and impromptu contests and collaborative efforts-  Quad Lacrosse, Bounce, Bridge Tennis, Bike Polo, Ultimate Frisbee, and hacky-sacking on every patch of grass in Rockbridge County- sprung up again in various forms over the years, notably when Thomas Sheehan and I hacked at Loveland Pass.

Play extended far beyond the fields and courts and into our living space as well. Hobe’s Place was a veritable playground. My undefeated record on the ping-pong table still ranks as one of my greatest athletic feats.

The Fort we built in Chris Pennewill’s room drew a line in the sand for play: Either you understood it, or you didn’t. That metaphor continues to apply in numerous contexts.

The music played during those years has never stopped. What started at the Pavilion, Zollman’s and other venues (behind the Phi Kap House in particular)- offering up Little Feat, Charlie Daniels, Indecision, Widespread Panic, Liquid Pleasure, the Truly Dangerous Swamp Band, and at least five of the better versions of “Whipping Post” I ever heard-- transitioned seamlessly to the Blue Dogs, The Allmans, the Grateful Dead, Phish, and others.

Eventually some of Michael Higginbotham and Tiny Purple Fishes must have rubbed off on me, (and it only took 15 years) and now I have the great fortune to jam with the Bomber Invitational House Band on occasion.

(At this point you (or I) might point out that this play was surely not unique to our college experience.  After all, we were scarcely the only college kids coming up with things to do outside the classroom.  True.  But something about Lexington and W&L created a safe and welcoming environment for those experiences that was truly unique).

All of those shared experiences--and the laughs, community, and connection they sparked and fostered-- have been a common thread ever since. And not just a thread, but a lifeline and a source. As is always the case with the really meaningful stuff, the true significance of play (and its role in my “education”) was not apparent during those salad days, but revealed its real value as life began to unfold.

It was apparent that as a Freshman I could crack a joke and get a laugh (See “They Call Me the Cruiser” speech, Fall of 1986). Making Trey Haydon laugh, and laughing with him, is without question one of the best feelings, and still feels as good as it did in the mid-80s. But back then I sought to create laughter to overcome what I recall as crippling insecurity and a staggering lack of confidence.

I had no idea back then why a fully developed sense of humor was so essential for navigating life’s real slings and arrows. I now know. It is absolutely true that sometimes there is nothing left to do but smile, smile,smile—and laugh at yourself- in service of forgiving (yourself and others) over and over again.

When we were in Lexington, we took for granted that we were there for each other because we really were- in no small part because of the sheer amount of time we spent together. And when we needed to lean on one another, it was usually because we were literally about to fall down. Over time, as we began to realize that we were only immortal for a limited time, so too came the understanding of why friendship is such an inestimable blessing. Play was the bond, the glue, and the ease that set those relationships in stone.  As The Bard wrote, “those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried; grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.”  Done and done.

I have had amazing experiences and countless successes over the last 25 years.  I have also lost people and relationships that are irreplaceable, and wrestle with doubt, guilt, regret and many other demons daily (all in a First-World way, mind you. I agree with Jason Isbell that I have it more than “Relatively Easy”). 

And while Lexington has always been a place to celebrate, it has been equally welcoming for grieving, a safe place to fall apart, and fertile ground for rebirth and renewal.

Fortunately, whether I am flying low or high, W&L made sure that come what may I would keep playing. And paradoxically (aren’t all essential things paradoxical?), the nonsense of play, in Lexington, Atlanta, Pensacola, Alexandria, Transylvania County, Columbia, Jackson Hole, and countless other locales, is often the only way I make sense of things.

The ability to play gives me fresh eyes to know the world, and washes away the cynical, the tired, the mundane and banal, and the constant drumbeat of the haters. And for me that is most crucial, because if left to my own devices sometimes I am one of those haters. When you spend a lot of time in your head like I do, it is very easy to establish and maintain a separateness.

Playing works instead in the heart, and connects me back to what is truly timeless: the love, joy and magic created when people who love each other do the things they love together. When I play, it is neither 1986 nor 2015, and the experience is the same as it ever was. Chronos shifts to Kairos, and I get just a fleeting glimpse of the eternal.

And for that I am most grateful.

I look forward to playing with all of you in Lexington--