I officiated a marriage at an assisted living facility in the morning and was the guest of honor at a bat mitzvah in the Bronx that night.
What’s unique about a bat mitzvah in the Bronx? It was for a child I visited as the supervising clown doctor at Memorial Sloan Kettering for 5 years. Like so many of the families we work with, we do what we can to bring joy and delight amidst the suffering of illness. Then one day, you just don’t see them anymore.
Then one day, you just don’t see them anymore.
5 years have passed since I’ve seen this family. Then I get an email inviting me to a Bat Mitzvah. Well if the MTA can get me there, bring. it. on.
I completed my friends’ nuptials before booking it to the nearest D in Brooklyn. I would only make it in time for my surprise entrance if I changed on the subway. Channeling my inner drag queen, I beat my face on the train. MAC Foundation applied in Brooklyn. Bold eyebrows in Manhattan. A strong white lip crossing into the Bronx. The final piece, my petite red nose, I glued to my face in the freezing cold of the subway platform before schlepping in a mad dash to the venue.
When we danced the Hora that night, I celebrated every child, every family I had the honor to serve, every path crossed, every story whose ending I didn’t get to witness.
There are many stories for which I don’t know the ending…but I’ll never forget the day that started with a wedding in a nursing home and ended as the clown doctor guest of honor at a bat mitzvah of a cancer survivor in the Bronx. Only in NYC, right?
Anytime we moved, we ended up with TONS of boxes. They were fairly large, uniform in size and for some reason we kept them after we moved in. We had a ready-made supply of designer building materials emblazoned with the Bekin logo. Steph (my older sister) usually orchestrated our escapades and I was only too glad to follow. She invited me to play: she wanted to include me (which is no small feat considering there’s a five year difference between us.) She was an 8 year old who was willing to play for HOURS with a 3 year old! Of course, in my 3 year old brain, I was mature and as capable as her. Just…shorter.
We built our forts outside in Sacramento where the weather was often mild. Boxes formed tunnels behind a lemon tree and a garden that might have had pumpkins, or tomatoes. You crawled through the cardboard tunnels and arrived at a larger antechamber made with bigger boxes where you could actually sit up and have a picnic. Our outside forts were made with boxes, and our inside forts were made by draping sheets and blankets over furniture.
What does a fort do? A fort demarcates a play space. Building the fort creates an opportunity to create a sculpture and then play IN the sculpture. It’s an activity that’s imbued with some of my favorite qualities: co-creation, process, no fixed route yet a clear(ish) sense of direction. You know when it’s complete yet the infinite opportunity for refinement keeps the game going. When it’s time to stop, it morphs into a new zone for play. You create the play space in which to play: Play within play. The process of creation is productive, however the product is a temporary, imaginative re-structuring of space, a liminal zone. The fort embodies transition. It’s a transitional space AND object.
Steph, my older sister (age 8): “Let’s build a fort.”
Me (age 3):“Okay!”
Josh, my younger brother (toddler): “Gravel.”
A fort is a feat of extemporaneous engineering, an ephemeral architecture of childhood: creativity incarnate. You build as you go, with no clear idea of how, just a sense of what and a goal: a place to hide, a place that doesn’t let in light, a space with walls, a roof and (hopefully) a door. Maybe a window, but that was tricky. You want to be able to come and go without risking damage to the integrity of the structure. Some forts were built more soundly than others, depending on your level of experience and the materials at your disposal. Ceilings sag, walls lean. Hopefully you set it up long enough to retrieve objects for survival: a flashlight, pillows, a blanket, a book and a snack. Then you sit inside and listen. Listen to the world outside.
Then you sit inside and listen. Listen to the world outside.
An inside world outside your domain. You’re hiding in plain sight. You can see shapes and shadows of the adults carrying on and they can’t see you. They have NO idea what you’re doing. Privacy and protection. Temporary resilience. Calm.
Forts are a temporary play space where you exercise domain over your surroundings. You exert control over your circumstances. You can invite others to help you build, an exercise in cooperation and co-creation. What if you have a vision and they don’t agree? You gotta sort it out. Or two separate forts get built and then you engage in conflicts over materials. There’s rarely enough prime material for more than one fort in a home. Depending on the age of the architects, one fort usually ends up way more sophisticated than the others, introducing fort-envy into an otherwise fairly innocuous activity. I was always jealous of my sister’s forts, because she had a sense of structure and engineering that my 3 year old brain hadn’t quite developed. I was interested in balancing objects to make my walls. Steph was better at creating firm foundations of support. She even utilized suspension by tying ropes to chairs and draping sheets.
My Favorite Fort Building Techniques
The Drape: drape a large sheet over a chair
Simple. effective. Limited by the design of the chair. This is often quite lovely for the toddler set, but get’s a little cramped if you can’t get under the chair.
Add a second chair, and you’ve got a nice variation, with a little more ceiling height. However, the weight of the sheet can lead to ceiling saggage and might even knock over the chairs.
Tripod: three chairs
This helps disperse the weight of the sheets and blankets, provides more support AND creates a larger interior space for sitting crossed legged without ducking. There might even be enough space in the floorplan for reclining with a book, or snack.
Suspension:draping sheets from taller objects, maybe even using some rope
This is an advanced technique. Tying a knot that can bear weight requires skill and expertise. Also, what are you tying the rope to? if the base isn’t anchored, you’re asking for a collapse of some kind.
Stacking and Leaning:piling cushions, leaning them against other chairs
If you have large enough cushions, this is a great strategy. Of course, large cushions take up space. Also, there’s usually a time limit to how long the adults in the house will let you abscond with the cushions from the chairs and/or couch.
Do you find yourself incessantly doomscrolling in hopes that your finger will find a morsel of light amidst an infinite deluge of disaster?
So allow me to ‘disrupt your finger of doom’ with a ‘sticky finger of fun.’
Introducing Monday Matt Picks: Gifts from Me, for Me.
Introducing Monday Matt Picks: Gifts from Me, for Me. Each week I’ll highlight a morsel of delight I’ve uncovered that would improve my life immensely and I think should be in your feed…or on your work desk…or breakfast tray…or nightstand.
Monday Matt Picks are the nudges I need to remind me that it’s okay to play. They press my joy buzzer.
We won two goldfish last week on Coney Island. I never would have chosen to play to win fish, but they made my wife smile—or the idea of them made her smile. Playing the game by tossing the multi-colored ping pong balls into tiny goldfish bowels definitely made her smile. Even the Carnie smiled.
*Carnie is considered a derogatory name by some. My friends who are ‘with it’ might not appreciate my use of the term.
I personally believe the proprietor, or agent, actually helped us win a fish. He gave us extra balls, and one appeared to land in a bowel. Heck, he basically gave us two fish in a plastic baggie, and we rode home on the subway together, a newly forged carnival family.
I became a steward for our goldfish the minute the baggie was ours, and I took my responsibility very seriously.
We ordered a temporary home for Marlo and Thomas: a 1 gallon goldfish bowel, water conditioner and fish food. See, you can’t just place goldfish in tap water; it should be dechlorinated. And according to my obsessive late night googling, each inch of goldfish requires at least 1 gallon of water. And a goldfish bowel is one of the worst shaped containers you can purchase for a goldfish. It’s basically a suffocating death sentence, because the water can’t ‘breathe’.
I added a make-shift lid, as a preventative measure against suicide. Goldfish are just as prone to manic-depressive episodes as humans, and will sometimes leap to their death.
This temporary abode would do until our 5 gallon aquatic paradise arrived for Marlo and Thomas on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, I crafted a whole future for our new sideshow family. I imagined them frolicking in a tank filled with hot pink gravel, led lights, and a tiki head (Priscilla Queen of the Desert meets Fantasy Island). I could pay our neighbor’s kids a couple bucks a day to feed the fish whenever we were gone on vacay; maybe get a catfish or two, or some small zebra fish to liven their world. I pictured them living as long as the longest recorded living fish in Yorkshire England, Tish who lived for 43 years after being won at a fair.
My heart actually sank. You see, I had imbued these two fish with a future. These two fucking Coney Island fish that we probably hadn’t even actually won, given to us as flash to attract more marks to the joint.
And Thomas, the white one, less than 48 hours after getting him home, was dead. WTF. I shouldn’t care. Or should I? I staged a picture in the toilet. (I can’t help it, I like clichés. It’s how I process grief). I didn’t flush it. We changed the water in the bowel, and carefully transitioned Marlo back into his temporary dwelling. He seemed quite lively. We watched him for signs of stress, and sickness. No gulping at the surface. No room-mate. He actually seemed quite pleased with himself.
His new home arrived on Tuesday.
It’s quite palatial. Marlo has done quite well for himself.
I attended 3 first grades, on two continents. I grew up in three countries. It was a disruptive experience that I actually look back on fondly. I credit this to a few things: growing up in a village during my formative years; the myriad of adults I came into contact with through school, sports, scouts and theatre; and play.
My compass was always play. I was most at ease to make mistakes and to take social risks when I felt like I could play.
I like to play on playgrounds. I like those dorky team-building games and ice-breakers. I’ve also come to dread them when they’re poorly facilitated. It’s painful to play a game under the watch of a manager, when it’s poorly designed, or poorly instructed.
When a game is facilitated with expertise you build capacity for connection. We need this capacity for connection now more than ever. When we play, we invite ourselves to encounter our own limitations. We’re gently forced to acknowledge gaps in awareness, skills, ability, knowledge.
At its core, play is about relating. How to relate better to yourself and others. What humanizes others? Encounters with people. Doing things WITH each other. What might aid the fractured discourse and the polarity of the current socio-political climate? Encounters with others that generate an expression of genuine curiosity about someone else, outside of yourself.
Curiosity will lead to empathy.
Play is a way to mobilize empathy and create joy in your life with others. When we are in control of our own joy, we are more resilient.
Play is a tool, an intervention that (over time) aids and builds resilience. Resilience is the secret sauce. If we can cultivate our own resilience, we increase our chances of thriving under adverse circumstances.
Do we really need to get comfortable with our discomfort in order to succeed? Or can we ‘play’ with discomfort in order to build the resilience and adaptability we need to navigate the future of work?
A recent Fast Company article circulating on LinkedIn proposes that the one thing holding you back from becoming a leader is your ability to navigate discomfort. Being comfortable stymies your success.
You know what makes me uncomfortable? Thought leaders who valorize discomfort.
Is anyone really comfortable?
Is anyone really comfortable?
We’re navigating a pandemic. We all have peers and colleagues navigating a lifetime of systemic racism, including underrepresented leaders throughout our organizations. Can you really be ‘comfortable’ in your role at work if discomfort is a way of life?
I attended a public speaking workshop at work. The facilitator invited us to tap into our past trauma to uncover what’s been silencing our voices, write it down and then share with each other. I barely knew the guy! And these were new colleagues! As an accomplished actor, singer and TED Speaker, I have never encountered a technical approach to my craft that required me to ‘share my truth’ with a new teacher.
I’ve also witnessed a facilitator in a company meeting invite everyone to share a personal failure. One employee was picked for a deeper dive, investigating their story in front of the team in a quasi-therapeutic group encounter…by a business coach…with no license or background in therapy.
When did trauma become the currency of professional development? Do we need to traffic in vulnerability in order to uncover meaning at work? Why do we elevate catharsis, conflating emotional release with breakthroughs?
And who gets to be ‘vulnerable’ at work? What are the professional ramifications for workers when management encourages disclosure?
I’m challenged when thought leaders champion discomfort
One quote from the article gave me hope:
“A study from Yale’s neuroscience team found that uncertainty is the trigger switch for your brain to learn quickly. This means that unstable environments, while stressful, are essential for your brain to reach its full potential in the shortest span of time possible.”
Now THIS is interesting. Uncertainty is not the same as discomfort. Would simulations and game scenarios within the workforce provide enough stimulus to create a similarly unstable environment? I’m inclined to believe they could.
What would professional development look like if we fabricated scenarios of instability for employees to test their emotional intelligence, rather than promote psychological manipulation? After all, games and simulations are a mainstay of government, defense and medical education.
When we play with discomfort, we can construct the unfamiliarity required to stimulate growth. That’s the whole point! The outcome of a game is never certain. Engaging with this uncertainty in controlled circumstances leads to change because we’re ‘practicing’ being uncomfortable.
The future of workforce development should ‘play’ with discomfort, not require it.