Pure risk and open-ended play

Today I turn 60.  I bow to time, to its effects, to its chanciness, and its promise of change.  With knowing smiles, my older friends welcome me to the land of senior citizens, where movies, meals, and medicines cost less.  But, I tell them: I rarely go to the movies, I mostly eat at home, and so far I have no need for the blessings of discounted medicines.

Still, I look back upon the years that have gone by and realize that I may have spent too much time calculating risk and substituting work for play. This occurred to me after I left a very public career on television. In the last five years, I’ve been trying to recover what I think I have lost: the joy of pure risk and the timelessness of openended play.  I have learned most from Julia, my 5-year-old granddaughter.

At the breakfast table, perched on her high chair, Julia pushes her knees against the table’s edge until the chair totters on its hind legs, as if suspended in the wind, and the slightest breeze can tilt it either way.  Forward, she could slam her body against the table, her little hands pinned against the edge.  Backward, she could fall and break her head against the concrete floor.  She does this every morning, an immanent ritual of sheer risk-taking, like a toy unwinding itself.  I, of course, constantly warn her of what could happen if she loses her balance.  She looks at me with great sympathy, and says she is sorry.  But if she could defend herself, perhaps she would point to my Ducati, and ask why.

I began riding motorcycles when I was 18, abruptly stopping only when, one day, my mother sold my bike as scrap.  I went back to motorcycling when I started to earn my own money, conscientiously giving it up when my children were growing up.  I started riding again in 2001, a few months after my mother died.  I sold my car and bought a Ducati S4, a high-performance bike with the legendary 916cc racing engine. This is an exquisitely crafted Italian bike, what they call in Europe a café racer. For the kind of roads we have, it is really not the most practical bike to have.  But I love it and I have kept it.  A few months ago, in anticipation of my graduation to senior citizenship, I decided to give myself an advance birthday gift – an Aprilia Caponord, a dual-purpose giant trailie with a 1000cc racing engine.  Unlike the Ducati which requires the rider to slightly arch his body like a jockey, the Caponord allows its owner to ride upright, like an armored knight on a steed.

On any Sunday, I pack my binoculars and a change of clothes into my tank bag, and soar like a rocket into the breaking dawn.  I mostly ride alone.  I like to stop and watch egrets feed on the open fields.  I don’t enjoy having to keep pace with younger and faster riders, preferring to let myself go as fast as I can when the thought strikes me.  These machines were built for speed, and I want to know how much speed I can call upon when the need arises. Yet I am a careful rider.

Too careful perhaps to be able to ride smoothly like Valentino Rossi. You need to bridge the discontinuity between man and machine, so that your pulse and the engine’s vibration merge into one continuous purr.  There are times when I sense a light stab of anxiety on my chest as I mount my bike.  What if I fall this time?  Is my back fully protected? There have been times when I have actually dismounted, taken off my helmet and jacket, and waited till the anxiety subsided.

At a certain age, one cannot be too rational about risk and play. There is no practical gain from riding motorcycles, unless you ride to work or you sell bikes.  You could hurt yourself, you could end up breaking your spine and being immobilized all your life, or you could die.  If you start calculating the risks against the gain – you would not ride at all.  To ride a motorcycle is to accept randomness and chance. Amor fati: it is to love your fate.  And, while it has many beginnings, the play has no definable end.  It has no purpose, no object, other than the motion of riding itself.

That’s exactly how my granddaughter is at play.  She goes in and out of her games; she builds and dismantles, and ceaselessly rearranges.  She spreads out her toys and packs them up the next moment.  That’s when she’s happiest – when she decides her own beginnings and her own ends.  “A child is innocence and forgetfulness,” says the writer Georges Bataille,” a new beginning and game, a wheel turning on itself, a first impulse, the sacred ‘yes’.” Nietzsche’s Zarathustra asks: “Why should the lion become a child?” Bataille’s answer:  “The will to power is the lion: but isn’t the child the will to chance?”

At a certain point in one’s life, except maybe in the case of those who have failed to grow, the will to power gives way to play.  One returns to what Nietzsche calls “the ideal of exuberant strength and childlike qualities.”

The other day, while Julia was absorbed in play, I told her it was time to pack up her toys and prepare for school.  “I’m still playing,” she replied.  “You’ll be late, your school bus will be here soon,” I said.  “I want to continue playing,” she answered back with visible frustration. “Okay, you can have five minutes more,” I said trying to sound emphatic.  “Lolo,” she protested, “I don’t like five minutes.”  Well, she has to accept the constraints of time as she grows up, just as she has to learn to give up play for school and work.  That’s what living is about.

But it is strange: we spend our lives mastering time, avoiding risk, and giving up play.  Then, when we are done, we spend the remaining years wondering where time went, why our lives seem empty, and why we cannot find joy in our leisure time.  The lion has to learn how to become a child.

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