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Joe's Neighborhood

Playing as an old man

9/6/2023

Listen, this is truly going somewhere. I promise. But the journey requires that we play Candy Land, which means we have to get past Peppermint Forest and Gumdrop Mountains and survive Molasses Swamp, all to hopefully arrive at King Kandy. You don’t want to do that? Sorry, those are just the rules of the game. 

And to even start the game, you need to understand the problem: I’ve always loved a list. For example, today I have a list carefully itemizing the five chores I want to complete before tomorrow. This list is separate from the two calendars with travel plans and doctor appointments and writing commitments. And I have a list on my phone with groceries and where to find them. And then there are the daily diaries setting out personal goals and aspirations and dreams. Yup, list upon list upon list, until I’m  hopelessly stuck in Licorice Castle with Lord Licorice. Now that’s a sticky mess. 

Then, of course, there are the self-help programs that fill my bookcase. Before the advent of spellcheck, my bedside reading was “20 Days to Better Spelling,” by Norman Lewis — even my wife shook her head at that futile effort. No matter, I particularly like any self-help program that can be completed in 30 days so I can start my next 30-day self-help program to coincide with the beginning of my next 30-day workout program. And let’s not forget my calming meditation programs.

This is not only crazy but exhausting. And, really, I am a retired old man who needs to get it together before all my list-making and personal striving find me on my deathbed, miles away from Candy Castle with all the good cards already dealt. 

I recently re-read Daniel Klein’s book, “Travels with Epicurus.” Klein wrestles with the question of what to do as an old man when life is in the last quarter and you’ve used up your time-outs. He gives several wonderfully humorous and thought-provoking suggestions. But one that caught my fancy is steeped in the notion that we are terrified of boredom even though we are inescapably bored.

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“Nothing appears quite so potentially boring as being an old man without any new goals or upcoming exciting experiences, an old man without the buzz of a hungry libido, an old man whose energy level is gradually sinking to the point where the prospect of camping out in the woods seems more like an ordeal than recreation.”

The boredom that Klein is talking about is existential boredom, where you can’t find meaning in anything: “With nothing meaningful in life, nothing is interesting. Enter boredom.”

So what are we left with if everything is boring? Klein claims we are left with distractions from boredom — goals, lists, calendars. In other words, I am the poster child of distractions from boredom.

OK, fine, my life is a meaningless sideshow. So, Daniel, what’s the plan here? 

“For many philosophers, idleness … is actually one of old age’s greatest gifts. It gives us time for that wondrous human activity, play.”

What the heck? That’s the plan? I’m supposed to go play? Like what? Kickball with the neighbor kids? Build a house out of cardboard boxes? Cannonballs in the public pool?

Klein says that “play” needs to be pointless, not in any way associated with how many steps I have just walked (as I jiggle my Fitbit while writing so as to get steps without walking) or my won/loss record at competitive pickleball. Play requires losing oneself without any purpose. 

Me oh my.

So, today I am trying to act without my lists. No calendars. No commitments. No goals. Just play. I sit in my chair. Whistle a little. Look around. I wonder what my wife is doing? Hmmm, does the dog need to go out? Whistle some more. Lord, I’m hungry. What is that noise? It sure is hot today. My shoulder is itchy. Look, my granddaughter is putting all her dolls down for a nap. Maybe I should take a nap?

Then my granddaughter sets a game in my lap: Candy Land with Disney Princesses.

Really? Are you kidding? I hate games. Not just Candy Land, but all games. What’s the point? Seriously. While all of you are playing games, I’m getting things DONE! I’m getting ahead! I’m achieving! Games are a waste of my time. No thank you. No games for me. 

“You be Sleeping Beauty,” my granddaughter says as she hands me a blue figurine with puffed sleeves, opera gloves, and a tiara balanced on her blonde hair.  

“Sleeping Beauty? But I really wanted to be Snow White.”

“I’m Snow White,” she says smugly. 

And we play. I immediately stall out on single blue cards, whereas my granddaughter starts jumping ahead with double cards and a light spirit. I’m not sure I like Snow White. What’s she hiding behind that red bow? And her questionable relationships with strangers in the forest? Give me a break. 

Unsurprisingly, I get trounced at Candy Land. My granddaughter wanders off to play with my much more interesting wife. Who wouldn’t?

But… doesn’t this Candy Land thingy qualify as play? I think so. I think I just played. In fact, I’m marking it down on my calendar that I successfully played. Whew. Now how many more times do I need to play before I can get back to my lists? ♦

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.

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