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Too Old to Play?

By on June 5, 2011

 Somewhere in my haphazardly catalogued box of memories sits a photograph of my three closest childhood friends on a basketball  court. Two are scowling at the camera, the sun’s unyielding summer gaze barreling down on their naked backs. The third is preoccupied with a bottle of water. All three of them are drenched in sweat. In all probability I – the photographer – was as well. Even now, coming up on fourteen summers later, I can close my eyes and feel the heat.

But I can also still feel the thrill of the competition and camaraderie. Friendship Heights playground was just one of our many haunts. All through high school we spent after-school hours and weekends walking, riding and driving from one end of D.C. to the next looking for the best competition. When I took this particular photo we were still in our early twenties. Still lean. Still nimble. Still young. Still owners of full heads of hair.

That photo marks the last time the four of us ever played together. For the past thirteen years our hang out sessions have been stripped down to one constant: alcohol. To be specific, there’s usually an expensive bottle of vodka involved when we get together. When we started drinking together in our late teens our tastes were far more modest – malt liquor, cheap brandy, pre-stewed Gin ‘n Juice. As we matured, so did our tastes. St Ives, Crazy Horse and Mickey’s gave way to bottles of Hennessey. Who knows when or how we learned it – cultural osmosis possibly – but “Henney” symbolized our collective arrival into black male adulthood.

So now, he we are: thirty-somethings doing 85 on the expressway to forty. The hangovers last a bit longer. The pounds around the waist are a little more resistant to shedding. Persistent Injuries, age, pride and disinterest have all conspired to detach us from the hardwood. When we get together these days one of us walking past the flat screen to liberate more ice for the drinks is the closest we get to a basketball court. And while we each do what we can to stay reasonably fit – bike, jog, lift, golf, even a little yoga here and there – our friendship isn’t the same now that we don’t play hoops together. I always enjoy seeing my close friends. I laugh about the good times so hard that my cheeks hurt. But something vital in our camaraderie has been lost.

My theory is that we’ve fallen into to the Cult of the Individual. We spend the bulk of our day in front of screens or in our cars. We interact with our devices more comfortably than human beings. We’ve taken the American ideal of rugged individualism to the extreme. Moreover our collective fascination with on-demand culture – what we want, how we want it, when we want it – has spoiled us rotten. Quite simply, if it doesn’t fit (our schedule, our interest, our purposes), we’re not interested.

Modern gym culture fits. Gyms are open practically around the clock year round. They allow us to have our own highly individualized experience with a machine. Our reflection in the mirror offers us the illusion of company. We walk around attached to our iPods as if we’re still at the office or, worse, the street. We count the calories we’ve burned, the miles we’ve covered, the steps we’ve climbed, the weight we’ve wielded. We’re deeply invested in firming up, slimming down or staying trim. Even the classes are offered to suit our specific interests. It’s all very … functional. And purposeful. And healthy.
But is it fun?
Is it play?
The National Institute for Play, a research organization dedicated to bringing the “unrealized knowledge, practices and benefits of play into public life” believes that play is exactly what old friends need in order to refresh the relationship.

Take play out of the mix, and … the relationship becomes a survival endurance contest. Without play skills, the repertoire to deal with inevitable stresses is narrowed. Even if loyalty, responsibility, duty, and steadfastness remain, without playfulness there will be insufficient vitality left over to keep the relationship buoyant and satisfying.

Modern life is frantic. It takes remarkable effort just to tread water. It’s understandable that when we do get leisure time, we want to unwind completely. But we also can’t allow our relationships with one another to devolve into sedentary re-enactments of way-back-when. We have to create new memories. Unregulated, purposeless play together may be the easiest (and cheapest) way to accomplish this. So, maybe, the next time we’re sitting around watching the game I’ll be the one to suggest we go to the park and shoot some halftime hoops.

Dax-Devlon Ross is the author of several books, co-publisher of Outside the Box Publishing, LLC, and the editor of the HNIC Report, a daily blog covering political issues. Mr. Ross is a sought after speaker and consultant who resides in New York.

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