“Life is crap, and it’s full of pain and suffering, and the only thing that makes it worth living — the only thing that makes it possible to get up in the morning and go on living — is play.”
Brian Sutton-Smith (1924-2015), developmental psychologist
who studied play, games, toys, organized sports, playground
sports, computer games, stories, riddles, jokes, daydreaming
In my retirement years I could be a case study for those behavioral psychologists who advocate play and daydreams as activities crucial to maintaining a healthy mind and a positive attitude. Much of my day is spent in play with dogs and toys, and my imaginary adventures make it possible for me, as Brian Sutton-Smith so aptly observed, “to get up in the morning and go on living.”
Playtime for old curmudgeons is just as important as playtime for school age children, for many of the same reasons. Those boys playing a pickup football game in the vacant lot are imagining themselves in the state university stadium with 85,000 fans cheering them on as they drive down the field to score the winning touchdown. They come home exhilarated, feeling like champions, ready to go forth tomorrow and take on the world.
I am doing more-or-less the same thing as I set up a steel silhouette target at the 50-yard mark on my backyard rifle range and shoot at it with an old .22 caliber rimfire rifle. Plink! A 10-point mule deer buck tumbles to the unerring shooting eye of the aged but crafty master hunter who has spent two days stalking it through the rough and rugged Rocky Mountain wilderness.
There is little probability our play will become reality. Although the boy’s prospects of playing major college football are considerably better than mine of hunting mulies in the wilderness, we are both spinning one-chance-in-a-thousand scenarios. But that is not the point. These daydream games do not necessarily have to come true, they just need to light up an hour of our lives with a “what if” story that makes us feel better about ourselves by imagining we are capable of great and heroic accomplishments.
These playtime flights of fantasy do have some immediate practical benefits. The daily rehabilitation exercises prescribed to improve my injured shoulder’s strength and range of motion are bothersome, boring, and a bit painful and would soon fall by the wayside were it not for the weekly “ghost hunt” of a trophy whitetail buck. With my old compound bow set at reduced draw weight I peer down from a hillside ground blind overlooking an arrow target block 15 yards below, using all my powers of imagination to conjure up a big-necked, heavy-antler buck walking stiff-legged through the woods – although it can be difficult to suspend reality far enough to believe he would have a 9×6 inch paper target taped just behind his shoulder, or that he would stand motionless while I shoot four arrows. But when I see the arrows strike the center of the target, these “hunts” prove that the rehab is working and motivate me to keep doing the noisome daily routine.
Similarly, stuffing a couple snap-caps into the chambers of my shotgun and playing “ghost skeet,” “ghost trap,” or “ghost clays” in the back yard does maintain tone of the muscle groups that perform the curious step-swing-mount-shoot cadence of wing shooting. I would be embarrassed to tell you how many 100-straights I have run in ghost skeet.
Sharpening riflery skills is another practical benefit of my imaginary “hunts” because the absolute best practice for the rifle shooter is plinking several dozen rounds each week at silhouette targets with a .22 rimfire rifle. Old coots do not practice with our deer rifles very often; a .30-06 hammers us with that punch-in-the-nose dizziness and copper-penny-in-the-mouth taste that make us aware we no longer enjoy recoil, and we will soon be flinching and squinting as we pull the trigger.
Also, tossing a feather buck into the weeds for a young dog’s daily retrieving lessons is much more fun if you can imagine that lump of soggy feathers is a gaudy rooster pheasant, a ruffed grouse, or a cock quail. Before my French spaniel Abbey and I begin our morning games of pitch-and-fetch I insert primers into several shotshell hulls so I can load them into a shotgun, toss the retrieving dummy high, and “shoot” it with a satisfying “pop.” Not only is my wing-shooting incredible on these imaginary birds, it’s also good training for Abbey.
But those tangible benefits are decided secondary to the real purpose of play. The most valuable aspect is the psychological lift it provides to help us through life’s daily struggles, the bouts of sadness and depression, the hard times of loss and failure and despair – all that pain and suffering that the psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith identified as the “crap” that would take the joy out of life if we did not have the graces of play and imagination to overcome it.
It may seem ridiculous, but there are days when getting out of bed in the morning is possible only because I look forward to an afternoon of skeet shooting – real or imagined – that will release a surge of endorphins in my brain and make life fun for a few hours. Let’s face it: we old coots are long past the time of life when we will have any more great triumphs, achievements, acclaim, reward, or even gratification for a job well done. These are the years when, as a friend of mine observed, “My mind keeps writing checks that my body can’t cash.”
We are just getting by, and if it were not for play and imagination that would be a dismal way to live. So cut us a little slack if we seem to be daydreaming away too many hours of the day, hunting elk in some Rocky Mountain wilderness or lions on the East African veldt. Without our playtime we would be even crazier than we are. Besides, having acquired such wonderful toys over the course of a life of “someday” pipedreams, why not play with all this cool stuff at every (imaginary) opportunity?