The ostensible reason for my trip to Oxford was to take part in the first global conference on play, the subject of my research for the last eight years. But, as always, these conference trips to Britain are usually a chance to explore, see a few things, and catch up with friends.
Yet, this one felt special. I left last Monday with a pile of uncompleted manuscripts in my bag for editing on the plane. I love the chance for uninterrupted writing and thinking afforded flights across the ocean. The open luminal space between one world and another, in between the time change and destination, opens new ways of seeing things.
I read through my friendship manuscript, imagining things about my father’s best friend from college as I wondered through customs, out of Heathrow, into my train to Paddington, and off to Oxford. Wandering the streets of an age old city such as this, I feel like I am navigating a space between time and Technicolor, movies of my childhood and conferences of my adult years, where my steps follow in the footpaths of legends, myths and movies.
|Wandering through the haze of history at Oxford. Photo by James Rogers.|
My friend Rob dropped by to visit. He’s lived in the UK for several years now, after spending the better part of two decades in Los Angeles and San Francisco. We talked about the riots and history of Oxford when the townies rebelled against the drunk students enjoying free tuition and full access to the pubs of the city. The author of the Gravedigger, Rob is one my best friends and certainly one of the only persons from college with whom I am still in touch. After driving the van from college Rugby games throughout Southern California, Rob played the sober observer to my college drunken revelry, bonding, and transgressions with the other Rugby players and fans. That summer, he visited me Dallas, staying at my house on Nakoma Drive in Dallas, making buddies with Essie, our housekeeper, enjoying an omelet and a conversation. The implicit message of the visit was that he took my life seriously and we were friends. Over the years, we’ve hung out in San Francisco, driving North from LA listening to Arlo Guthrie and Madonna. Others meetings took place on Winter days in Philadelphia, New York, and even to the Oxford like surroundings of the University of the South in Sewanee, Tn, where my Dad once taught and Rob was the recipient of the Sewanee award for first time novelists. On that trip, we sat in the cemetery where confederate soldiers lay. As usual, we talked about our favorite authors. One of my heroes is Sewanee’s own Walker Percy, whose novels the Moviegoer and Love in the Ruins, and his accounts of a fallen Catholic, lapsed from god and himself. His writings profoundly, influenced my growing up. Walking through Oxford’s historic streets and pubs, Rob and I made our way past Blackwell’s bookshop, Radcliffe Camera, and the New Bedleian Library where my mom once studied manuscripts for her dissertation. Our we drank at the Turf Tavern, a 13th century ale house on Bath Place, where we talked about the politics of friendship, the subject of my recent writings and a possible new manuscript. Rob suggested I look to Plato’s writings. We talked literary friendships as well as our own on the way to the Bear Inn, the oldest pub in Oxford. And grabbed a nightcap at the Head of the River on Folly Bridge.
Walking up to Mansfield College where the conference was being held, I stumbled upon a billboard with an image of kids playing basketball, declaring children have a right to play. This should be a rightful part of growing and learning, as the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child notes:
The child shall have full opportunity for play and recreation, which should be directed to the same purposes as education; society and the public authorities shall endeavor to promote the enjoyment of this right.
Looking at those words, my mind traced back to the days when I first interviewed for academic jobs. And few understood that play was a vehicle for imagination and healthy expression. Half the interview committees thought the topic of play was just too frivolous.
|Photo by James Rogers.|
At the conference I spoke on a panel with some of my favorite theorists of play. Walking away from the session, it felt like our time has come as researchers of play.
The rest of the week, I listened to other talks as our conversation expanded into conversations about play in relation to a world increasingly dominated by work and the way people around the world are building communities and resisting controls with their play.
Several in the conference highlighted the work of Right to Play, an organization whose mission is:
To improve the lives of children in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the world by using the power of sport and play for development, health and peace.
Yet, for these children to have a space to play, we will need to create a world with less war, violence, and pollution. A tall order, but the politics of play must extend into a less restricted polluted geography. There is more to play than play, just as there is more to sexuality than sex.
At night, other friends came to talk. I limed with a few buddies from Trinidad. My buddy James and I met Matteo in London for a night of carrying on and romping around Piccadilly Circus. Majestic London felt like a global city, teeming in history, which we enjoyed as romped through the West End.
And the next day, I was back to New York for Bastille Day with the kids. Standing on the roof at the Met looking out at the ring of trees sounding the museum in Central Park, and the buildings in the distance, I was glad to be back.