Child’s play

Inside the play-ground an absolute and peculiar order reigns. Here we come across another, very positive feature of play: it creates order, it is order. Into an imperfect world it brings a temporary, a limited perfection. Play demands order absolute and supreme. The least deviation from it “spoils the game,” robs it of its character and makes it worthless.
– Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Beacon Press, 1950)

The hasidim tell the story of Rabbi Baruch, whose grandson Yechiel was playing hide-and-seek with a friend. Yechiel hid himself cleverly and waited for his friend, who never came to find him. Realizing that he had been abandoned, he ran crying to his grandfather and complained about his faithless friend. Rabbi Baruch’s eyes, too, filled with tears, as he told the young boy: God says the same thing: I hide, but no one wants to seek Me!
– Rabbi Amy R. Scheinerman, ELUL WEEK 1 — RESPONSIBILITY (via Velveteen Rabbi)

I hid too well. I lay under the tarp in plain view and willed myself into a clump of weeds, a mound of dirt. Springtails and inchworms began to claim me as an extension of their territories. A daddy longlegs scaled my torso and ran across my face, palpae ghosting over the Braille of my cheek and forehead.

My niece ran around the house, peering into all the obvious places, hollering my name. I lay still, certain the slight crepitating of the tarp in time with my breathing would give me away. But in less than ten minutes, everything was quiet. A vole began rustling against one of the corners farthest from my head, and I began to think my presence there was unwelcome. But I waited, trusting that the seeker would not abandon the chase without signaling surrender.

I’m not normally inclined to claustrophobia, but after twenty minutes it got too hot under the tarp and I had to get out. I eased it off me as quietly as I could and stumbled to my feet, dislodging several ants and caterpillars in the process. The thing to do now, I thought, was creep around the house and take a seat on the verandah, where she’d find me right before she gave up.

But when I rounded the corner of my parent’s house, there she and my dad sat, reading a book together. “Where were you?” she asked with feigned unconcern. I stood there blinking in confusion. “Where did you hide?” she persisted. I brushed at an imaginary spider. “You think I’m telling you? Don’t you even know how to play hide-and-go-seek?” I demanded angrily.

But of course she didn’t know. Without siblings, and with precious few playmates her own age down in Mississippi, where would she ever have learned the rules of engagement?

***

Thhhnk! Thhhnk! Thhhnk! Eva’s fist slams into my diaphragm with all the strength she can muster. She stands with one foot forward, in prizefighter form. Then for variation she crouches and aims a karate kick at my head. “Hey! Where did you learn to do that?” I barely dodge in time, grabbing her foot. “From watching my mommy!” Then she’s back to punching my flabby gut.

“Does your dad let you do this to him?”

“Uh, well, I don’t know. I guess not.”

“So why pick on me?” I whine. “Can’t you pick on someone your own size?”

She giggles. “No! I only punch my Uncle Dave! Because I know you’re FIERCE!”

If only that were true, I think to myself – but already the game has morphed into something else. “I LOVE you, Uncle Dave!” she says in her most melodramatic voice, throwing her arms around me. Good grief! What next?

There’s no question the kid’s got brains: it didn’t take her long to figure out the one kind of attack I’m not very good at fending off. “Put your arms around me!” she commands. I reluctantly comply, thinking: another eight years and this girl’s gonna be hell on ice.

***

The crudely drawn map had shown only a few, tentative landmarks – lines that might or might not have been trails, an “x” showing where the treasure chest had been hidden “at ye base of ye white pine tree between two okes.” Additional inscriptions hinted at the forbidding nature of the terrain: “BEWARE: Many Spyders,” and “here there bee squirrels.”

The doughty female pirate, accompanied by her two chief scientists, was unperturbed. She hacked mercilessly at the webs of the spiny micrathena with her vorple, cardboard blade. Any squirrels that hadn’t fled at the sound of her bloodthirsty cries must’ve been struck dumb by the terrible device with which her shield was emblazoned: a skull swimming in a pool of blood, encircled by a ring of fire. It looked a bit like the cover of a Slayer album.

Even with the help of scientists, the map’s instructions were difficult to follow. Where was that scurvy pine tree? Disoriented, they found themselves stumbling in circles, the thick vegetation tearing at their clothes, vultures circling. But just as they were about to abandon the search, the chief scientist spotted a scrubby sapling with dark needles. “Hey, there’s another pine tree! And look, there’s the chest!”

And there it was, a classic, green sea chest with tarnished brass fittings, gleaming in a patch of sunlight. Eva let out a triumphal shriek, and she and her grandpa pushed their way through the laurel to claim their prize. But just then they heard a crashing noise off to their right, the sound of pirate boots scuffling on dry leaves. Sun flashed on metal. The air filled with the smell of brimstone. They stood transfixed with horror as the apparition hove into view: a bearded, black-bandanna’d pirate ghost clenching a scimitar-shaped machete between yellow teeth. “WHO DARES DISTURB THE LOST TREASURE OF PLUMMER’S HOLLOW?”

“Avast!”

“Have at ye!”

“ARRRR!”

The fight was long and – needless to say – terrible. Blood was curdled. Timbers were shivered. When it was over, the undead defender of the lost treasure lay in a pool of gore, torn limb from limb. The female pirate and her assistants ignored the threats of revenge that still issued in a hoarse whisper from his bloody lips. They broke the lock on the chest and lifted the lid: another strongbox! They tore savagely at the duct tape. Oh my god! Styrofoam packing peanuts!

A small jewelry case lay hidden at the bottom of the box. Cautious now despite her great excitement, Eva pried it open. At last, the treasure was hers! It sparkled between thumb and forefinger as she gazed for a moment or two in uncharacteristic silence.

“AHA! Feast your eyes on this, me maties! The world’s most precious and only clear ruby!”

***

“Yes, Eva, there are female pirates – or were.” One of the encyclopedias we consulted even included portraits of two of the most famous women pirates from the late 18th century. We were careful not to mention the reality of modern piracy in places like the Molucca Straits, nor to bring up the only slightly more figurative piracy that is contemporary monopoly capitalism.

The idea of a treasure hunt on the last afternoon of Eva’s latest sojourn in Plummer’s Hollow had come from my dad – her grandpa. Which is ironic, given his strongly pacifist views. They’d hung out together all morning, telling stories. “Geez, you were never this much fun when we were kids!” I said jokingly during lunch.

But the truth is that when my brothers and I were kids, living on an isolated, mountaintop farm, we had each other as playmates and fellow adventurers; Eva is an only child. Now, thinking it over, I’m forced to reevaluate my childhood memories a bit. However much each of us three brothers might choose to dwell on the times when we fought, when we dominated and made each other miserable for no good reason, the fact is that we were extraordinarily fortunate to have grown up the way we did, our imaginations virtually unimpacted by television, pop music, and all the other anodynes of post-industrial civilization whose side-effects seem to include a general stifling of the imagination and a fracturing of the attention span.

The most salient fact of my pre-pubescent history remains my unusual capacity for self-induced misery. I was a displeasure addict, throwing tantrums at the drop of a hat. Even so, I can easily recall dozens of memorable adventures that I had in the company of one or both of my siblings. There was the time we went looking for Middle Earth in the hollows beyond the Far Field, mysterious with fog. I got completely disoriented and frightened, and was forced like Rabbit in the House at Pooh Corner to humble myself before my little brother, who led us unerringly home. Then there was that time when my big brother led the way into a giant blackberry thicket – at a rabbit’s-eye level. The three of us spent a lovely couple of hours on our hands and knees, gingerly excavating a long tunnel, then hollowing out a sanctuary in the thicket’s impregnable heart. Talk about a pirate fort!

On rainy days, we set up makeshift tables in front of the doors to our rooms, set out all the toys, knick-knacks and gee-gaws we could afford to part with, and then took turns “shopping” at each other’s tables. No money was necessary; even questions of trade, fair or otherwise, didn’t intrude. These were, as we called them, “give-away sales.” And just as in the kula system of ceremonial exchange described by Bronislaw Malinowski in Argonauts of the Western Pacific, the same items circulated from owner to owner.

Raised by liberals who believed in treating their children as intellectual equals, the problems of the world were never far from our minds. Our parents didn’t try to shield us from the knowledge of such nightmare-inducing horrors as mass starvation, genocide and nuclear Armageddon. But we remained kids; such knowledge only challenged our imaginations to work harder. Now, from the perspective of a quarter century later, I am struck by the fact that the adult reality we lived under, the Cold War, has utterly vanished, while the worlds we conjured up in its stead have lost none of their power to enchant. The buried treasures and dragon hoards we sought then seem, in a strange way, realer than the stock-optional wealth of the dot-com boom or the ebb tide of investments that devastated the economies of Southeast Asia a few years back. My brothers and I each remain idealists, and on the rare occasions when the three of us get together, the B.S. sessions are a wonder to behold. We may disagree about the nature of the quarry now, but the rules of the game are still intact and the search is still on.

Posted in
Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

Leave a Reply