A couple of weeks ago, I stood on an East End beach looking out at the harbor and the bay beyond. I saw, all at the same time, the Dolphin Whale Watch boat rounding Long Point buoy into port, the beautiful Bloodhound vessel tilted into the wind with full sails, many smaller sailboats flitting about, and the Long Point shuttle headed out with passengers. The Boston ferry had just come in, and the Cee-Jay charter fishing boat had just gone out. Someone dangled a hundred feet up in the sky, being towed by a parasail boat.
We live in Play Land. Every soul in town, and on the Outer Cape in general, is devoted to recreation and play or is working in the service of others with that goal in mind. (There may be a few among us who are just trying to get by and avoid all the commotion, but that is a story for another time.)
It made me stop to think about play itself — what it is exactly and why we pursue it. Many animals other than humans indulge in play beyond adolescence, but we are the only ones that have industries devoted to play and areas such as ours dominated by its pursuit.
Is it strange to be talking about play when Labor Day has just passed? When so many here are working so hard and have worked hard all their lives? But it is precisely these people, whether just off work, or on vacation, or officially retired, who look for play. And, really, our choice of play and how we pursue it defines us just as much as our work does.
Is it strange to talk of play when it is so hard to define, when it can range from playing a hand of solitaire to running a marathon?
Let’s say play is any activity that has no direct benefit or practical purpose. Ah, you say, but exercise has the benefit of increased fitness. Yes, but this is an indirect benefit. Still, the category gets fuzzy: I ride my bike to work, so there is purpose in that, but for over 70 years I have enjoyed the process of propelling myself forward through the world on my bike. It brings me back to childhood.
How about swimming? To learn to swim is an important, potentially lifesaving skill, but, really, to immerse yourself in water is an undeniable pleasure.
Watch children at play: there is no purpose on the playground. Certainly, learning proceeds from all such activity, but it is not the motivation. In the flow of play, we are all children. Sports are just a grown-up example of this.
A good fisherman will tell you that it is the process, not the product, that is sustaining. A good birder will say the same. Of course, a beautiful bass or an exciting bald eagle is always appreciated, but it is being out there that makes the difference.
I am not a shopper. I avoid it at all costs, but I observe so many milling about the shops and galleries: it is the looking that they are enjoying, whether they buy or not. Some people shop, or dance, or surf; others paint or sculpt. They are all seeking joy, and an escape from time, from the everyday. We who live here are humbled to consider that we live in this Play Land.
Me? I go birding, I go whale watching, I swim — but right now, as I consider this topic, my number-one play activity is my weekly poker game, when I and a bunch of old gaffers like me play for pennies but act like they count. I spend more on gas than I can possibly win at cards. But the joy of hanging around with those guys, enjoying their company, and seeing what fate deals me, is beyond words. You might call it a waste of time, and maybe it is.
I call it Play.