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Did you read the thought-provoking opinion piece by evolutionary anthropologist, Dorsa Amir, in the Washington Post?  You should read the whole thing and see what you think!  Clickbait title aside, it presents a powerful premise, even if the writer does not quite follow through on her conclusions.  In case you don’t feel like reading it (or if the WaPo paywall is knocking you around), here is a crude summary:  one of the unique features of human culture is children’s culture which, across time, and throughout all different nations, has provided a sort of society-within-a-society where playing at being adult teaches the critical aspects of social interaction and creative problem solving to the next generation.  By pushing children immediately into the great adult hierarchical game of constant adversarial competition (by means of overscheduling, too much busywork/schoolwork, constant supervision, curtailing free play, and so forth and so on) contemporary society is denying children a chance to get good at the truly important things: curiosity, creativity, and interpersonal relationships.

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As ever, I find humans less different from other animals than the anthropocentric author seems to be willing to recognize (has she never watched kittens play…to say nothing of juvenile spider monkeys or baby elephants?), but let us leave that aside and address to her social thesis. I am not sure that 21st century adults’ overprotective urges to give their kids any advantage in our workaholic, winner-take-all culture is the real problem.  I think the workaholic, winner-take-all society itself is the problem.  It is not that kids play too little in our over-teched world.  It is that adults play too little. Plus we do it wrong.

Let me explain with an anecdote before expanding my critique. I have some friends who are super-successful Park Slope parents.  They are raising their children with every advantage (and every overscheduled, over-tutored, overworked, over-fretted-upon stereotype of Amir’s piece).  The children however, are not mindless little perfectionist zombies.  They are brilliant wonderful kids. My buddy heard his 5-year-old daughter talking with great animation to someone behind closed-doors, and, upon bursting in, he discovered she had snatched a tablet and launched an internet chat show of her own.  “These kids are already broadcasting!” he told me with a confounded look.

Just as the Thule kids of Amir’s essay built miniature hunter-gatherer storehouses, the Park Slope children were assembling miniature media empires.  The ancient analogous relationship was still perfectly intact.  It’s just that the adults are no longer stalking javelinas or building granaries, we are staring at damned screens (argh, I am doing it right now, after doing it all day at work! So are you!) [as an aside, I was shocked to find “Thule” showing up again in an essay about hunter-gatherer childhood culture…what is up with that confounding name?]

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American society features a well-known need to be continuously productive (this is the famous “Protestant-work-ethic”…though New York has taught me that our newest citizens from West Africa or East Asia have a very homologous sort of code).  Technology and the shifting nature of work have somehow brought that tendency even further into our lives.  When my mother was baking a pie or feeding the geese, I could grasp those activities and join her or make my own games about animal husbandry or baking mastery.  Yet when modern parents are on their smartphones responding to late night emails from the boss about PR or legal questions, the script is harder to follow for children.  The kids do get onto the devices and there are plenty of games and social and other diversions to be had there.  I am no technophobe: I think the next generation’s technological savvy will serve us well, yet things online are crafted like fishing lines or beartraps to capture our attention for the purposes of others.  Free unstructured play in the real world transcends such things. To see people engaged together in such play is to see their faces alive with thought and delight.

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When I ran a toy company, my business partner and I did not know very many children.  In order to test our creative animal-themed toys out, we showed them to adults.  The poor people looked deeply flustered at being asked to “play” again and they stared at the toys like dogs who had been whipped.  Only gradually would they pick up the colorful pieces and try to recapture the magic of childhood.  However, then a lovely thing would happen.  They would be captivated by the delight of making things for the sheer joy of it. They would get all wound up in toys and in explaining their creations. Unexpected people came up with all sorts of great ideas. Children know that play is the magic elixir for bonding and brainstorming. Adults have forgotten this or only rediscover it in attenuated form with team-building exercises or obsessive-compulsive video games.

Watching people go bowling or play with Legos or play with children makes you immediately recognize that watching Netflix or “liking” things on social media is not playing.

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How do we create a world of meaningful creative play for adults?  That sounds like a crazy/frivolous question compared to queries such as how we confront 21st century business monopolies or solve political paralysis or make people interested in the beautiful yet complicated inquiries of science.  But I feel like the answers might actually be related.

We modern adults need to work harder at playing.  Only then will we capture the true benefits of all of our frenetic toil.  Let’s learn from the kids instead of breaking their spirits early on with too much of our gray work world.

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The oldest known epic is The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was composed during the Third Dynasty of Ur (circa 2100 BC). It is regarded as the first great work of literature–a masterpiece which examines humankind’s quest for transcendent meaning in the face of our mortality.

It is a beautiful work about friendship, sorrow, and heroism. I have always meant to write about it here–for the epic’s two greatest scenes take place in a forest and in outer space. The crushing moral denouement is delivered by a water snake. However I have always hesitated because, although it seems outwardly straightforward, The Epic of Gilgamesh defies easy categorization. Suffice to say, humankind reaches out for godhood, yet, though our fingers tantalizingly brush the numinous, apotheosis slips ineluctably away. We are only what we are. Even the greatest human heroes–kings who founded dynasties and pursue mysteries to the ends of the solar system–are still sad and lonely. And everyone must die.

And so it has been for 4 millennia. One does not expect updates to literature written before chickens were domesticated or iron was forged. However this week featured an unexpected gift from the ancient past. Twenty new lines of The Epic of Gilgamesh were discovered!

The story of how scholars in Iraq found the new text is amazing in its own right: the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan region of Iraq has been offering cash compensation for cultural treasures with no strings attached. Since so many antiquities have been displaced by the war and have gone wandering, this Indiana Jones-like scheme is regarded as the best way to protect the ancient heritage of the region. Unknown looters showed up with an cuneiform fragment. The museum director paid them $800.00 for the piece (which would only be chicken scratches to anyone other than a great scholar of Akkadian). As it turns out, the extant version of Gilgamesh comes from an incomplete collection of tablets unearthed at different times and in different places. This clay tablet features 20 entirely new lines from tablet V of the epic.

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The best part of this story is that the new fragment is really good! It is an important and meaningful addition to the story. In tablet V, the heroes of the epic Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight and kill Humbaba, the monstrous guardian of the great cedar forest. In the twenty new lines they reflect on the fact that Humbaba was a king, trying to protect his realm. They rue the destruction of the cedar forest (where they encountered monkeys and other exotic creatures) and they realize that they have disturbed the divine order of things and incurred the wrath of Ishtar.

The fragment thus gives the characters a more refined conscience and introduces an environmentalist theme. The idea that humans can injure the planet and permanently destroy irreplaceable life forms is new and alien to many contemporary people. It strikes a powerful chord appearing in the first work of literature. Yet it seems to me that themes of environmental devastation (and consciousness concerning our own destructive nature) are hardly out of place in a story which deals with the creation of civilization and the liminal edges of humanity.

The Demon and the Sylphs (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

The Demon and the Sylphs (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Yet another summer day has ineluctably slipped through my fingers.  What with work, friends, art, and the great human endeavor there was no time to find out about crab-eating seals or exoplanets for today’s post.  Fortunately I have my little book of fun sketches for such occasions (for those of you who just walked in, this is the small sketchbook I carry around and sketch in during downtime like the subway or lunch).  Above is my favorite of the three selected sketches for today.  I imagine it as being the dramatic climax of an unknown ballet where a tribe of sylphs confront the underworld demon-god and wage a tremendous dance battle with him on behalf of their upstanding moral principles (actually I think that might be an actual ballet).  In the real world, the pink and blue and yellow all blend together more seamlessly, but I guess I am stuck with what my camera can manage under halogen light.

Sulawesi Shipwreck (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Sulawesi Shipwreck (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

In the second picture a shipwreck at the bottom of the Indian Ocean is the scene for wayang theater, written edicts, and ghostly machinations.  It seems like the picture might be about the Dutch East India Company or some other Indonesian colonial enterprise.  At any rate, the great flesh colored sawfish who appeared from nowhere steals the scene from the human agencies (although the brain coral seems to also be in the know).

Cityscape (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, Colored pencil and ink)

Cityscape (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, Colored pencil and ink)

Finally I included a geometric doodle of a colorful cityscape.  I sketched this on the train after a frustrating day of work.  My colleague was out that day, so I spent the entire workday trying to answer two to six confusing phone calls every minute for hours on end.  I was thoroughly frustrated with New York and cursing the entire beastly expensive overrated mess when I got on a train car which had a foul smelling beggar in it.  Because of the smell, the train car was unusually empty at rush hour and I opted to remain on it so I could I could sit down and draw.  I sketched away furiously as the car stopped underground and lingered forever in a tunnel beneath the East River.  The beggar got off in Brooklyn Heights and I kept sketching, but I was still angry at everything.  When I was almost home (which is near the end of the 2 line) the woman who had been silently riding next to me the whole time quietly said ‘you are a great artist” which really turned around the bad day.  I am not sure the picture merits such a statement, but the comment made me feel great and stood as a powerful reminder of what a large effect small actions and statements can have.  I hope that kindly stranger is reading my blog so I can thank her properly for her words.  They meant a lot to me.

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