Another Week Ends

1) It is “Play Week” at NPR, so let’s have some fun! Among the legions […]

Ethan Richardson / 8.8.14

1) It is “Play Week” at NPR, so let’s have some fun! Among the legions of playground research data, lab rat tickle tests (not joking), and zany stories about parents at “amusement parks”, play is becoming the boon of brain science, the absence of which we feel a threat to the very health of a nation. Erik Erikson, Brigid Schulte, eat your heart out! Tag this with busyness, successaholism, moms “having it all,” you name it, play is really just the current word for freedom—from demand, from time, from broccoli. It is the inspired no-where of imagination, inquiry, and social engagement. Is it odd that this is the proven way that we learn best? NPR interviewed Dr. Stuart Brown of the National Institute of Play. I love this definition:

e2fd6299dfb1f1ba0636318b88880c01Play is something done for its own sake,” he explains. “It’s voluntary, it’s pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.” So, let’s take gambling, for instance. A poker player who’s enjoying a competitive card game? That’s play, says Brown. A gambling addict whose only goal is to hit the jackpot? Not play.

Brown says that children have a lot to learn from what he calls this “state of being,” including empathy, how to communicate with others, and how to roll with the punches. “Those kinds of resilient learning processes [are] different than what occurs in adult play,” he says. “But the harmonics of this occur in adulthood as well.”

…And, says Brown, there’s another big factor: If we don’t play, there are serious consequences. “What you begin to see when there’s major play deprivation in an otherwise competent adult is that they’re not much fun to be around,” he says. “You begin to see that the perseverance and joy in work is lessened and that life is much more laborious.”

And then there’s the interview with rat tickler, Jaak Panksepp, who talks about the prosocial effects (commiseration, empathy, collaboration) that happens with free, unstructured play. In a time when more and more (not just public) schools, under the demand for higher test scores, are deciding to limit (or remove completely) recess time, it seems that the metrics have counterintuitively killed what they’ve meant to build up.

And in people, he says, an added bonus is that the skills associated with play ultimately lead to better grades. In one, researchers found that the best predictor of academic performance in eighth grade was a child’s social skills in third grade. Another hint that play matters, Pellis says, is that “countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less.”

And working (inversely) at the end of that long road is the college landscape, of whose rigor has been the subject of recent discussion, especially in relation to the Ivy League dispute started by Deresiewicz’s article a couple weeks ago. Deresiewicz called for a change, a movement of the college prospective student away from the modernized cult of lazy performance of the elite schools. In this New Yorker piece, though, written by Joshua Rothman, and given cartoon annotation by Robert Mankoff, that kind of revolution is a lesson in futility. College education is not, and never will be, an institution to help enter the pre-modern sphere of non-busyness and non-overworking. College, like any modern institution, is, well, modern, and so it might be beneficial to ask, What meaning am I accrediting this institution? What value do I hope this work imputes to me, my soul? Rothman asks as much:

To think about busyness in terms of modernity is to think about its deep roots. In part, busyness is a matter of economics: it has to do with bosses driving workers harder (or admissions committees asking more of applicants), and with the forces of meritocracy making life more competitive. But it also has a spiritual dimension: careers mean more to us because the traditional sources of meaning, like religion, mean less; increasingly, work is the field upon which we seek to prove our value.


Because of modernity’s dual nature, it’s hard to figure out what role it plays in your life. If you’re feeling anxious, overworked, and uncertain about what the point of all your work is, is your boss to blame, or is it just modern life? If you’re unhappy at Yale— which, one student tells Deresiewicz, is “stifling to the parts of yourself that you’d call a soul”—then why are you unhappy? It could be that the practical circumstances at Yale are soul-crushing. (There are a lot of extracurriculars.) It could be that you’re cut off from other sources of meaning. (Deresiewicz thinks that Ivy League students live in a “bubble of privilege,” with a “narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, prestige.”) Or it could be that modern life makes thoughtful people feel, as Deresiewicz puts it, “emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.”

It would be comforting, in a way, if the Ivy League were a particularly soulless place. But is that really a plausible thing to say about a place like Yale, with its playing fields and courtyards, its libraries and theatres, and—most importantly—its population of energetic, intelligent, optimistic young people? I tend to draw the opposite conclusion from Deresiewicz’s data: the fact that you can feel soulless in such an intellectual paradise suggests that the problem is bigger than college.

It seems this is precisely what DZ had in mind with his post this week about performing children and their parents. As he said, “If the ever-shifting, never-stopping little-l laws of society give us the illusion of meeting their demands (for that brief second before the next set appears), then the Big L Law of God confronts our collective striving by stopping us in our tracks and putting us all, parents and children alike, on the same playing field: not that of winners but of, yes, losers.” This and only this allows the hope of, then, finding commiseration with (and hope within!) the modern world.


2) Sticking with The New Yorker for a moment, Anthony Lane provided a fantastic (and exciting!) write-up of the new John Michael McDonagh film Calvary, starring Brendan Gleeson, who plays a good Irish priest and good Irish sufferer: a recovering alcoholic, a widower, and a father.

We see nothing more than the expression on Father James’s face, but it’s like an open wound. He sits in a confessional and hears the complaint of an unidentified man, who explains that he was abused by Catholic clergy from an early age, that the damage is irreparable, and the he has therefore decided on vengeance, of a very particular kind. By way of a public statement, he will murder a priest: not a bad priest—that would be too easy, and would solve nothing—but a good one. To be specific, he will murder Father James, in a week’s time, on Sunday, at the beach. “I’m going to kill you because you’ve done nothing wrong,” he says.

What a great setup. It plunges us, without ado, into the guts of a moral crisis, but it also has a satisfying smack of the whodunit, rather, a who-will-do-it. Think of Agatha Christie’s “A Murder Is Announced” being handed to Dostoyevsky for a rewrite. Moreover, the sequence tells us quite a bit about Father James, who seems far more distressed by the recitation of the man’s sufferings than by news of his own impending doom—the true Christian response, which is ever rarer in cinema than it is in ordinary life. If the film had ended there, leaving us poised on that existential brink, I would have been content.

Speaking of priests on screen, The New Republic discusses the religious elements of The Leftovers, wherein “all religions…are founded on scandal and start life as an outrage.” While the television show paints a stark bipolarity between those who live (i.e. believe) and those who ignore their lives, something I tend not to see in my own lived experience, this is certainly true to it. The kind of cultic pervasiveness in the aftermath of The Sudden Departure, the faith via encounter and desperation-led surrender is an incisive portrait of the man or woman in the face of the unexpected.

3) A brilliant one from The Onion: “Study Finds Blame Now Fastest Human Reaction.”

WALTHAM, MA—According to a study published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, blame has now surpassed instinctive responses such as blinking and flinching as the fastest human reflex. “Our research shows that assigning fault to another person for a negative or unintended outcome is now the human body’s quickest involuntary action,” said lead author Dr. John Wittsack, adding that changes to the brain’s neural pathways over time have allowed for a nearly instantaneous transition between perceiving a problem and condemning someone else for causing it. “In the time it takes for a single sneeze or for the pupil to contract once, an average human can blame dozens, if not hundreds of individuals. In fact, the blame reflex may soon be too rapid to be measured even by our most sensitive instruments.” By contrast, Wittsack added that accepting responsibility had degenerated into a purely vestigial reflex and would eventually exit the human race altogether.

4) Here’s the title track for Stuart Murdoch’s God Save the Girl musical. Looks amazing!


5) Over at NPR, Samantha Schoech tells us why she’ll never read another parenting book. As the laws of rearing ebb and flow along the banks of infant psychology, infant feeding philosophies, infant whatever, Schoech says she realized the ladder was not just endless, but capitalizing on her inadequacies. She calls them her “You-Are-Doing-It-Wrong” books.

The you-are-doing-it-wrong books include best-sellers like the unintentionally irritating Bringing Up Bebe in which American-mom-in-Paris Pamela Druckerman enlightens us to all the ways in which French moms are better. We already knew that French women don’t get fat, but did you also know that their children all eat braised leeks and sleep through the night?

Getting to 50/50: How Working Parents Can Have it All by Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober cheerleads for working moms and gender equality in the home, but bawls you out if you decide to stay home rather than lean in. I find the whole idea more exhausting than a Saturday of back-to-back swim lessons, soccer games and grocery shopping.

It just seems to me that when it comes down to it, no expert or years of impeccable research is ever going to change who we are. Parents are not people machines to be tinkered with and adjusted until the product comes out right. We can strive and we can make small calibrations, but really we are just ourselves using our own best instincts to try to keep our children from becoming insufferable jerks.

Bonus Tracks:

PZ covers The Guess Who at Christianity Today

Have you heard the 70s band Devo? Have you heard their (tongue-in-cheek) Christian alter-ego Dove the Band of Love? (ht JAZ)

And from the before-they-were-cool files, the year Apple had a clothing line.


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