Tuesday 3 September 2013

S. : Happy Birthday

Dear S.,

Happy Birthday!

I hope you don’t think it’s ridiculous that this letter is your spirit-father’s gift to you.  You probably do.  So what, am I writing this to your future self?  Happy 15th birthday!  Why don’t I just wait and write to you then?  I don’t know.

Truth be told, I’ve never been very good with kids.  When I meet a four-year old I stretch out my hand to shake hers, and I say hello more formally than to a judge.  I typically avoid eye contact, but if I keep it, I make silly faces because, well, isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?  Sometimes I can let go for a little while, splash about in the pool or wrestle around on the couch, but eventually, without fail, I tighten up and go off by myself, or find an adult with whom to discuss the Arab Spring.

It’s not that I’m afraid of looking stupid (I am), but that I’m so desperate to improve myself, to prove it to others; for structure, for constructive exercise, for meaningful play.  See, don’t those phrases just make you want to puke?  That’s not play!  That’s not fun!  And by so avoiding the spontaneous and goofy and unnecessary, I miss out when the play evolves – as it often and naturally does – to something “worth the while”.  That’s the paradox of play: it has significance for the player only when the player does it without significance.  And thus the following paradox, more personal and barbed than the first: I spent years in university and months in workshops, learning and studying and practicing the art of play!  Who, you’re thinking, is this bonehead?

I’m your spirit-father, a sort of god-father minus religion, and your parents and I used to play together in the theatre.  Even though I’ve only met you the once (I’m the guy who taught you to hold CDs by the sides so you don’t scratch them), I take my role seriously.  Well, of course I take it seriously.  Did you read the above paragraph?  Anyway, I had this idea that I’d start writing you on your birthdays, and here I am.  Given that I’m psychologically incapable of simply saying hello, asking how you are, and telling you about what I’m doing, I figure this letter has to contain something; even if it’s just a big, bulbous sentimental stone, perhaps there’s some nugget of half-baked aphorism you can dig out, if you work at it.  That’s right: your birthday present is a job.  You’re welcome.

I didn’t plan this letter.  It’s coming out this way.  Forgive the lack of polish, but not only do I figure you deserve the right to get to know me, but that somewhere in the style is the theme: that theme of play.  So here goes.

From when I was seven until I was eleven, I attended a boarding school far away from home; in fact, I was so far away for so long at so young an age, that the school became home.  While I was there, perhaps because I was several years younger than the next youngest person in my dorm, I often found myself alone; I lived in my imagination.  I invented vampire stories, drew magical worlds on maps and diagrams, created treasure hunts and special swords, heroes with special powers, and vanquished enemies who would never remain vanquished.  I devoured X-Men comic books, Marvel trading cards, Transformers cartoons, and countless video games on Sega Master System and TurboGraphx 16.  All of this was like food, food I couldn’t get enough of.  It morphed in my mind to form composites, synthetic spaces where each element was at first borrowed, at second transformed, and at last belonged as if it could be nowhere else.  For me, these became better worlds, more real worlds, my worlds.  They are worlds that still, to this day, tick on, make me dance, and drag me away.  I played, I can’t tell you how much I played.

When I was at the school I was at first not afraid of my imagination, of what it meant to others or to my future, or even of what it made my body look like when I was in it (one friend at the time said I rode the “backwards motorcycle”).  My favourite thing to do on Sundays was to tie my Batman cape around my neck and go fly (or drive backwards) around the school campus.  So, it was natural to speak my fantasies, share them, and find others to bring them to life.  At some point, a group of us in the same class got together to play with superhero characters I’d made.  We’d act out the stories at the playground and torture the mere mortals who weren’t in on it.  One of us was very talented with a pencil, and he sketched out each hero on paper while on the back I wrote up the lists of special powers, weaknesses, traits and histories.  There was Blow Torch, who controlled fire.  Windwalker, who could fly.  Genesis, who was made of metal and could form any shape.  And there was Cyber Image, reserved for myself, who, well…  I’m pretty sure that if there was a special power available, he would have it.  We were called the X-Eagles.  We felt totally original.

I don’t remember the exact sequence of events, but cracks began to form in our team.  The conflict first presented itself in the improvised stories.  I’d suddenly find that two of the others were fighting against me, and that I had to make a sacrifice in the precious name of unity.  Then my teammates began inventing their own characteristics: new special powers, different backgrounds, stuff that sounded great for the player but (obviously for me, the Great Creator), contradicted the overall picture.  It was only a matter of time before my leadership would be questioned.  I steeled myself for the challenge, and readied my cards for the battle.  The coup d’état would happen in the playground, I was certain.  I would crush it.

Well, there was no coup d’état.  There was a declaration of independence.  The others all came up to me after class one day, and completely out of character announced that they were no longer in the X-Eagles.  They said I was too controlling.  They were forming a new group, the X-Terminators.  Of course, I questioned their originality.  But moreover I said they couldn’t take away the characters.  They laughed at that.  What made them mine?  They walked away and played in the playground without me.  It won’t last, I thought to myself.  They’ll want me back.

I was right, but it gave me no solace or pleasure.  The X-Terminators folded after about a week, and the least proud former member (Blow Torch) asked me if he could rejoin the X-Eagles.  I said yes, haughtily I’m sure, and probably demanded some sort of subtle penitence.  The others eventually asked if they could have me create new characters.  I think I agreed, but I don’t remember if that meant anything, if I gave them new suits of armour, or how it all played out.  The games died, and the characters got folded up and stored in the box of my brain.  I was done sharing the fruits of my imagination.  In the years to follow, and for many other reasons deserving (or not deserving) of another letter, I retreated further and further back into my mind.  I learned to do the “backwards motorcycle” sitting down, so I could sit in my desk in class and appear like I was paying attention.  I crawled away and to this day haven’t fully come out.

I’m not really sure what all of this means, to me or to you.  For the former, I should get a psychiatrist; for the latter, a moral.  So what’s the message?  Don’t be too controlling with other people?  Respect the imaginations of others?  Or, be yourself?  Cherish your imagination?  Maybe none of this will ever apply to you, because you’ll stay as unhindered, compassionate and idiosyncratic as you were when I met you.  I don’t know.  And now I feel lazy for writing all this stuff and not boiling it down to its essence.

There I go again, seeking structure, meaning, improvement.  If it’s true that the player only gains in play when she tries not to gain anything, like the actor who is most true when no longer acting, then I might just be the poorest player to ever play.

So that’s that, let’s leave it there.  Let me know if you find the nugget.

Have a great birthday.