Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Laughing for No Reason

 “You don't stop laughing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop laughing.” -Michael Pritchard
“Ho. Ho. Ha. Ha. Ha,” Our instructor chanted with arms raised.
My 14-year old son gave me a sheepish grin while his eyes conveyed the question “what have you gotten us into?”
I bribed him and his five-year-old sister with the promise of going to Downtown Disney later if they would make the hour and half drive with me to check out a “laughter yoga” class in Orlando. I wanted to learn more about the concept of voluntary laughter and meet Pat Conklin, Central Florida’s specialist in laughter for wellness, a member of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor and a self-described fun-raiser.
“Grab your imaginary bat. When you swing, I want you to hit that belly laugh out of the park, then run the bases, high-fiving each other.” Pat took us through a series of scenarios meant to get our intimate group of seven moving, and laughing together.
Pat received her training from the creator of laughter yoga, Dr. Madan Kataria. Kataria began with a
class of five people in a public park in Mumbai, India in 1995. Today, there are thousands of  clubs meeting regularly in 72 countries. Kataria was at the forefront of a medical movement that recognizes laughter really is the best medicine. Since Kataria published Laugh For No Reason in 1999, there have been numerous studies that found laughing: reduces stress, increases tolerance for pain, lowers blood pressure, increases emotional resilience, relaxes muscles, elevates moods, and improves oxygen levels. Researcher Norman Cousins likened laughing to “internal jogging for all major organs.” 10 minutes of laughing a day reportedly burns as many calories as a half-hour workout. It helped Pat out of depression and she believes it gave one of her first laugh club members, who had stage-four colon cancer, a few more birthdays than she ever dreamed possible.
There is now even a new funny name for scientists who study laughter and its effects on the body. Gelotologists. The word conjures up images of someone playing with green jello in my mind. While the name may be silly, laughing has little to do with humor. In Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, Dr. Robert Provine found jokes only triggered laughter about 15% of the time. Subjects were 30 times more likely to laugh in a group compared to laughing alone. Provine concluded people’s bodies aren’t responding to punchlines, but rather to the social connections deepened by laughter.
“Ok, pretend you are on your phone and someone is telling you something hilarious. Walk around, looking at each other while referencing the call you’re on by simply laughing,” Pat coached us.
Studies show children laugh an average of 300 times a day while adults only laugh 17 times a day. Not surprisingly, my 5-year-old daughter was a natural. She easily played along by diving into a pool of giggles with some of the class regulars, who ranged in age from their mid-fifties to eighties. Laughter yoga is the only technique that allows adults to achieve sustained laughter without cognitive thought by practicing laughter as a form of physical exercise, combined with childlike playfulness and eye contact in a group setting. The theory is that your body can’t tell the difference between purposeful laughter and spontaneous laughter. It’s all good. Not to mention, even purposeful laughter is contagious. Pretty soon, my son and I couldn’t look at each other without cracking up. (A note to other parents of teens: I gave him the option of playing on his iPhone in the lobby during the class or joining us with a promise that no pictures would end up on Facebook.) His curiosity got the best of him. Laughter isn’t just contagious, it’s irresistible and universal. Laughter is a biological reaction as natural as breathing. Babies start laughing at the age of four months. Even animal laugh. No matter where you live in the world, laughter sounds the same in every language.
Pat concluded the hour-long class by asking us to savor the joy we had just experienced and to share it with others. As promised, I took the kids to Downtown Disney for lunch. We were surrounded by tourists and no shortage of entertainment options, yet I was struck by the number of people silently staring at their phones. Some, no doubt, traveled great distances to be together- alone. Something was fundamentally missing. Suddenly, spending three hours round trip in the car with my kids for our laughter class didn’t seem like such a long way to go.
How often do you laugh?

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Playing For Alms- The Busker

As a busker, one thing that does not work is self-consciousness. A busker needs to be working. A busker needs to shed all ego and get down to work. Play your songs, play them well, earn your money and get out of people's way.
- Glen Hansard

I’ve listened to guitar players in subways, violinists on street corners, and an ensemble of banjo and harmonica players outside the original Starbucks in Seattle.  Once, I sat mesmerized under a bridge for almost an hour listening to a family of eight singing acapella, harmonizing with the voices of angels. But this pianist playing a baby grand in the park was a first. Last Sunday night, I wandered down to Washington Square Park in NYC’s Greenwich Village, following the classical notes as they drifted on the summer breeze.

The park benches were filled with people of all ages, listening to what the performer gently reminded his audience was not a free concert.  

“This will be my last song for the night unless someone buys my CD.”

Street performers, also known as buskers, have been part of every culture since the beginning of time.

Before the invention of recording devices, the street was the first and best place to reach an audience. The name busker comes from the Spanish word ‘buscar’, which means seeker. Seekers of fame. Seekers of fortune. Seekers of someone to simply recognize and appreciate their art. The seeker playing the piano was competing at times with a horn player on a nearby corner. As the sun began to set, he consolidated his tip buckets into the bucket he was using as a seat, put it on top of the piano and began pushing it toward the corner where a sand artist was creating a spectacular display for spare change.

I don’t know much about music. I only know what I like. I
didn’t recognize any of his pieces. I imagined they were the same scores that have echoed through out concert halls in Europe for centuries. Intoxicating. Timeless.

Like this pianist, Rod Stewart, Tracy Chapman, B.B. King and Jewel reportedly all got their start as street performers. Occasionally, already famous musicians still return to the tradition. Sting went in disguise in London’s subway a few years ago and earned 40 pounds for an honest day’s work.

I threw $10 in the pianist’s bucket. He answered my most obvious questions. He works the park every weekend and pushes his instrument to a storage locker about a half mile away. Where else do you play? What do you do during the week?

“I recover from the weekend.”

Is there something that you love to do enough that you would do it on a street corner for spare change?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A Professional Kid

 Work and play are words used to describe the same thing under differing conditions.
-Mark Twain

We’ve all heard perky little motivational quotes like “love what you do, do what you love” or “treat work like play. But how many people actually live by that advice? According to the Gallup 2013 State of the American Workplace Survey, 70% of American workers either hate their jobs or admit they are totally disengaged.

World-renowned artist Sean Kenney once fell into that grim majority. The man, who the New York Times calls the “artistic elite of LEGO-building,” worked as a cartoonist, illustrator and web designer for ten years before following his passion that began in childhood. Kenney, who calls himself a “professional kid,” says he was daydreaming about his favorite pastime one day when he symbolically tore off his tie and “just like that” walked out on a sterile desk job. Ten years later, Kenney is the author of several children’s books and his commissioned LEGO creations are in corporate headquarters, galleries and traveling exhibits around the world.

I caught Kenney’s mind-blowing “Nature Connects” exhibit at the Naples Botanical Gardens this past spring. Any guy who keeps two and half million LEGO bricks in his New York studio and tells people with a straight face that he is still 12-years old is my “kidness” hero and a perfect muse for this month’s blog focus on childlike playfulness. Kenney was kind enough to respond to my interview request while anxiously awaiting the overdue birth of his second child. Thanks and congratulations Sean Kenney!

You describe daydreaming and literally walking out of your office one day to follow your dreams. Do you think your practice of continuing to play through out the years contributed to your courageous leap of faith?

Everyone certainly has the context of work=boring, hobby=fun, so I wonder why I decided to take this leap, when others are simply fine leaving their hobby as their hobby?  We don't find every model railroader, garage musician, and hot rod enthusiast eagerly stomping out of the office, yet we seem to always cheer on any that do.  I always get very excited when I learn that a friend is leaving the office to open their own bakery or the like. 

I never had that moment where I walked off the job and said "forget all this, I'm going to make my hobby my career."  Perhaps I was too scared of the myriad of pitfalls that would await?  When I left my job behind, I felt like I was simply leaving one employer and that I'd find myself at another similar one. I was just leaving a job I didn't like.  In the ensuing years as I continued building my LEGO models for fun and profit, I still referred to myself as "unemployed" not "self employed" and still considered the hobby just something I was doing to pass the time.   Albeit, I was already getting commissions here & there, and I saw the potential for the business to grow, but I didn't feel like it was already "there".  Perhaps just the cautiousness in me, but it wasn't until two or three years later that I decided, "yes, this is my job" and fully got over the mental hump of my old career and the idea that I needed a regular job to make ends meet.  

Was that the first time you attempted to make a career change to "professional kid" or were
there other baby steps along the way? Can you describe some of the obstacles in making that change?

I think baby steps are safer and less daunting.  The scariest obstacle in my mind was financial; you'll never have enough work at your side job to be making as much as your day job, which makes taking the plunge a real leap of faith.  Not only did I get paid a lot more per hour/day/year to sit in an office, but I was working more hours at the day job as well.  This "double whammy" causes the hobby-job to seem like an insignificant amount of revenue compared to the day-job, and to appear like either a frivolity or an imprudent career switch.  

But I recall a conversation I had with my wife (girlfriend at the time) about this.  She obviously could see that which I was too close to realize: that I needed to follow my dreams because it was the right path for me as a person.  She gave me her moral support and told me, "just try it! What's the worst that happens?" It took me years to realize what my wife obviously saw in me at the time: My unhappiness at work. My true nature as a creator of things. My desire for freedom.  

The mental hurdle that I mentioned earlier was probably the other major obstacle, but I didn't even realize it was there until I wrote this (ten years later).  That's pretty significant and something I'll need to ponder some more.  

Once I began down this path, I certainly faced obstacles, plenty you'd find with any self-employed venture.  But unique to my line of work was overcoming the image of a hobbyist, someone who was not serious or professional:  "Play" does not seem like work, and therefore it's hard to justify getting your client to pay for it. It's important to note, I suppose, that constructing something on commission or with an otherwise similar end goal in mind is not play, per se, but rather it's design and creation.  How is designing a LEGO model any different than designing a skyscraper or the score for a movie?   I've met plenty more "professional kids" in my travels: A man who has does nothing but take photographs of Muppets and Sesame Street for thirty five years

To that end, I also suffer (still) with client education on the realities of how expensive it is to create custom LEGO sculptures. It stems from the "how hard can it be, anyone can do LEGO", and we are routinely approached by clients ranging from architecture firms to moms that tried first and realized they needed to call in a professional. (I suppose the same could be said of industries like auto repair or home renovation, where the process of creating something commonplace is more complicated than the end result would imply.).  We still get myriad absurd requests for projects with no budget or appropriate schedule, most of which are great for a laugh, but in the beginning this wasn't funny: it was difficult and frustrating because not enough work was coming in.  This week a request came in to " build something creative and abstract with 1 million LEGO pieces that we can auction off for charity next month", which of course would have a quarter million dollars of LEGO, take 4.8 years to create, and would occupy a footprint the size of a house, but I digress.

As a parent, how important is it to encourage play as serious business? How was your love of play nurtured?

My daughter is three and half and we have another due any day now, so on the parenting side we haven't gotten into the world of careers and employment yet.  But I find that nearly every life-lesson that comes out of my mouth when raising my daughter is influenced by my decision to leave the desk job behind. When she's coloring and wants to make the sky purple with green splots, I gleefully encourage her go right ahead.  I'll count for her "uno, two, triangle, four, ..." she calls me silly but is probably making much better mental pathways by drawing her own connections.

I try to avoid saying "no" as a parent when teaching things.  (Disciplining, of course, gets a heck of a lot of NO NO NOs).  But I think "incorrect" is a bad thing to say to a kid.  I'm honestly more curious why my daughter came to a particular conclusion, rather than that the conclusion was wrong. Because the way she learns fascinates me and it teaches me how to teach her better.

I know that I won't ever force the "go get a good job" mantra on her, but by the same token I don't want my personal preferences to taint her own.. what if she just really wants to be an accountant at a major financial firm?  Ok, sure.  But in the meantime seeing her now, I try to encourage her creative tendencies as much as possible...  She's got a great natural sense of rhythm and an ear for identifying music and song.  She loves to color and draw.  So like any good parent I'll toss as much at her as I can and see what sticks.  

Any advice for grown ups who don't remember what it is like to play or who think that work

and play have to be mutually exclusive?

It's funny that we denounce playfulness as being "childish", and not simply "child-like".  I think the latter is seriously lacking in adulthood.  There's nothing wrong with mulling around on an idea, or sleeping on it, or bouncing something off someone.  It's giving your brain an unstructured way to get your thoughts together on something.  It's messing around with an idea until you get it right.  That's play.   Why do we fear making mistakes?  Our system of education is to penalize errors, but ironically we learn a lot more from mistakes than from being right.   I encourage risk-taking and mistake-making at my studio so long as we do them in a controlled and recoverable way.  (Save a copy first.  Don't glue that yet.  Undo!  Make two and let's look at them both.  That's probably not strong enough so let's reinforce it this-and-that way.)  

I also try to actively encourage creative growth in my staff of assistants.  Everyone on my team is an artist in their own right - painters, sculptors, musicians, animators, etc - and I know they weren't put on this earth to build LEGO sculptures for me.  I make sure to give their work a priority... many will take multi-month sabbaticals for an artist's retreat or a personal project, or a week off to install a gallery show, etc.   Everyone's is different, but for example one of my senior designers is the kind of person that needs lots of unstructured time to go deep into her head and to create, so she works four nine-hour days each week instead of five 8 hour days...  This gives her longer chunks of time at my studio to explore her designs more deeply and also a free day each week to spend at her own painting studio.

For more information on Sean Kenney’s brilliant work or to find an exhibit near you, visit seankenney.com

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A Visit to an Adult Playground

The true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.
-Gilbert Chesterton

My GPS said it was a mere 2.5 miles away, so we decided to walk. It seemed counterproductive to take a cab or the subway to an adult playground. John Jay Park on New York City’s upper east side is listed as one of the first adult play areas in the city. A handful of similar “playgrounds” have sprung up around the country in the last few years, borrowing the idea from thinner Asian and European nations where people of all ages still actively spend time outside.

I was intrigued. Our journey began on the west side and took us past The Museum of Natural History and through Central Park, where there were street performers, scores of bicyclists, joggers, and chess games. We passed a couple making out on the grass near a family picnic, I asked the man with dreadlocks making giant bubbles for his bubble juice recipe, but he grumbled something about trade secrets and brushed me off. On the other side of the park, we explored a new neighborhood while pretending to be apartment hunting in our dream city. I imagined where we might walk our dog on the upper east side, if we lived on the upper east side, and of course, if we had a dog. We stopped in Urban Outfitters, bought a few books and picked up an early Halloween purchase because one should never pass up a good unicorn mask if one finds one.  We made it to the east river and I could hear the laughter mixed with the muffled sound of balls hitting the pavement. Splashing. Whistling. Horns. I picked up the pace, my enthusiasm and curiosity mounted.

First, we walked past a public pool next to the children’s original playground.There was a baskeball game going on next to tennis courts, where a group of kids were trying to catch air for their kites. Is
this it? It looks like an ordinary park. My husband followed as I pressed on. There in the back, was a quiet corner with some benches and exercise equipment. Unused. Empty. Exercise equipment.

I guess I didn’t know what to expect, but considering how brilliant and engaging the rest of the parks are in New York City, I guess I wanted something more than an outdoor gym. To be fair, it is a gym with a river view.  But seriously, how old were the people who bid this contract? Where were the street performers and guy making giant bubbles? Where were the places to picnic or make out? Not even a hopscotch board. Maybe it’s the concept I have a problem with. How old do you have to be before you figure out the world is the playground?  Adults have cash, and cars. No permission needed to go outside and play. Anywhere.

The trip was not a total waste. We took a few selfies with our new Halloween prop and took our time wandering back.

What would you want in your adult playground?

Monday, June 2, 2014

A League Of Her Own

Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.
-Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr.

As my children played in the park, I couldn’t help but notice the woman on the neighboring baseball field. On the first pitch, she landed a double, rounding the bases with vigor. At the bottom of the inning, the same woman guarded short-stop, knees bent and ready for anything to come her way.  By the looks of her silver-haired teammates, it was obviously a senior league. But she was the only woman on the field. After the game, I wandered over to ask some questions, starting with the question one should never ask a lady.

“I’m almost 85,” she said proudly, reminding me of my five-year old daughter, who also rounds up.

Ethel Lehmann told me a little bit about the Kids & Kubs, a Saint Petersburg baseball league that was founded in 1930, a year after she was born.  The league cheer is “What’s the matter with 75? We’re the ones who are still alive. Hi-ho, lets go! Rah, Rah, Rah- 75!” The league minimum age is 75. It was an all-male league until Ethel accompanied her husband for try-outs and became the first woman to earn a spot on the roster. That was ten years ago. I tried to ask her more questions, but she politely said she was too busy to stay and chat, with that she gave me her cell and literally ran with her bat bag to her car.
I called her today to ask a little bit more about her philosophy on play. 
“It keeps you healthy, keeps your mind always looking forward to doing something  in the future. With the tournaments, I can’t wait to do all that. Mainly, it’s the friends that I have gotten to know, even on the other teams. There is such camardarie,”  Ethel told me from her summer home in New York, before adding, “It doesn’t have to be softball. Find whatever you're passionate about.”

For Ethel, her passion is on the field. She played women’s semi-professional fast-pitched softball from 1946 to 1951, until her mother insisted that she focus on other more acceptable pursuits, like finding a husband. Married 59 years, she went on to have five children in five years; hence, the lucky number “5” on her softball jersey. Today, she is the grandmother of nine, a full-time caregiver to her husband and the co-founder of Florida’s first female senior team, which travels annually to compete in the National and World Senior Games. Of course, she still makes time for Kids & Kubs.

“There are men in Kids and Kubs in their nineties. I’m hoping that I’m still good enough to play into my nineties. If you can’t run, walk. I’ll keep playing until I can’t anymore. It’s my outlet. It keeps me happy.”

Do you make time for play?
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