Monday, December 28, 2009

Creation and Recreation

As the New Year approaches, I've been thinking, and writing in my journal, as I generally do at this time of year, about how things are going and what resolutions I might be inclined to make if I were the sort of person who believed in making New Year's Resolutions. It's not that I'm irresolute; it's more that experience teaches that New Year's resolutions are no more likely — indeed, probably less likely — to "take" than resolutions made under less arbitrary circumstances. If as a result of the fact that I a find myself short of breath one day I resolve to eat more and exercise less, the logic of that resolution is surely more compelling than the logic associated with turning over a new leaf simply because of a calendrical change. Or so I suspect.

But the process of reflecting upon what changes might be warranted at any given moment is surely a worthwhile, value-creating exercise. And in attempting it this year I have found myself thinking about derivations, specifically about the relationship between the words "creation" and "recreation," insofar as they apply to the larger ethical and philosophical question of how we (I) might best spend our time on any given day, or hour. I'm old enough now to sense that my time is running out. I've already outlived my father, who died of a heart attack at 61. I lost a friend and colleague at the start of this school year. I've been really lucky these last ten years in Hawaii, and I know that my luck won't hold out forever. So as I approach the new year, and even as I approach each new day, I've got a voice in my head saying, "What are you going to do with this day." And often, it seems that the question of what to do with it comes down to a question of balance: what proportion of the day for creation, what part of the day for recreation.

I look at work as value-creation. In work, whether it be the work I do at my job or other kinds of product-generation like writing or drawing or painting, I am trying create something of value, something that be a source of benefit or pleasure either to me or to somebody else. Play, on the other hand, is not directly oriented toward production, but toward immediate enjoyment. For example, I play a lot of online chess. Over the past few months I've average perhaps an hour or an hour and a half a day. I enjoy it, I really do. I sit down at the computer and the time just flies by. But it's pure recreation. It serves no purpose; it creates no value; it gets nothing done. Granted, practice has made me a better player, and perhaps by myelinating those neural pathways I'm making some little contribution toward forestalling the early(er) onset of Alzheimer's. But even if I were to become a grandmaster, what good does that do anyone? And once I am dead and gone, how will that particular accomplishment have added in any way to the quotient of value and happiness in the world? And so every time I fire up the computer and sit down to play, there's this Puritanical little voice in the back of my head saying "Don't you really have anything better to do?" And the answer is, "Sure." Almost anything I might choose to do would be better than playing chess, if the criterion of judgment is productivity.

Fortunately or unfortunately, there are other voices in my head as well. Like the one chirping variations on the theme of "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." We can't all be productive all the time, right? Isn't there room in every well-governed life for a judicious mixture of creation and recreation? Sure. So how do we do the math? What's the calculus of productivity? What's the ethics of recreational responsibility?

And then there's the derivation question. The root form of "create," it turns out, according to dictionary of Indo-European Roots in the back of my trusty American Heritage Dictionary, is "ker," which means "grow." It comes from the Latin Ceres, who was the goddess of agriculture, responsible for the growth of grain. Cognate words include cereal, increase, and crescendo, and more distantly, adolescent and sincere. So that's a nice little cluster of words with positive connotations. But how do we get "recreation" from re-creation? Perhaps there is some sense in which making something the first time is work, but "making it again" is just for fun? Is "recreation" somehow therefore a mere shadow or vestige of "creation?"

All of which puts me in mind of the last stanza of Robert Frost's Two Tramps in Mud Time:

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.
And now that I read and re-read those lines, I'm conscious of the cognitive dissonance they create in me. I find myself gritting my teeth and resisting, in the reptile part of my brain, the forced logic of these lines. Frost sounds here like a scold, like a schoolmaster. He's going for profundity, but, but you can't get there if you leave out the "fun." In his best poems his playfulness and his work do balance and reinforce one another. This poem, on the other hands, feels too fully willed, too self-consciously worked out, for me. I hear the words, but I'm not convinced by them. But I can still relate to what he's trying to examine here: Avocation and vocation. Love and need. Work and play. Creation and recreation.

I'll spend some time the next few days thinking about the role that chess is going to have in my life during the New Year, whether I should perhaps give it up on the grounds that it is insufficiently creative, or whether I should set some sort of arbitrary limit upon my time playing on the grounds that balance is a good thing, or whether I should just do what I feel like and to hell with it, on the grounds that life is too short to worry about it.

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