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Deep Playmate

I was introduced to her several years ago by a friend who thought I might enjoy her style. A Natural History of Love turned out to be love at first sight. She was open and comfortable with herself, sophisticated (in the good sense) and knowledgeable about nearly everything. The things that got me, however, were her passion and a way with words that enchanted me. Her metaphors were lavish and delightful. She saw the world in rich detail; she felt the world with a sensuousness that raised the hair on my arms. Who could not fall in love with all that?

Our affairóintermittent though it had to be, with each of us off on our own adventures and grown-up obligationsógrew more intense with each contact. I naturally had to read A Natural History of the Senses, her first best-seller, and then obsessively dug out whatever I could find that was hers, like The Moon by Whale Light. (I have to admit that I wasnít as spellbound reading that one, for some reason. Still, her perfume wafted from its pages, tugging at my insides.) I went for months without thinking about her. Then a couple of weeks ago I sought out my Diane Ackerman fix on the Internet, and ordered two more of her books (used) from Amazon.com. One was An Alchemy of Mind, and I immersed myself in the luxuriant featherbed of intellect, warmth and sense-stimulation that I had come to expect from her. Iíve read a number of authors about what we know of the mind, Steven Pinker (clear and antiseptic), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (gut-aware but sometimes academic), Susan Blackmore (good description but betraying perhaps a meager first-hand knowledge). Iím not certain that I donít give Diane Ackerman the benefit of an occasional doubtónot to say skepticismóabout some of her assertions. But, never mind. Sheís worth it.

The most recent of her books that I have read (not the most recently published) is Deep Play. The blurb on the back of this paperback says, "Ackerman illuminates an exalted state of transcendence achieved through emotionally and physically vigorous activities." I could believe that. Indeed, most of what she writes affects me that way, illuminating, stimulating an almost giddy sense of wonder, a sharing of her own passion almost to a point of transcendence.

The blurb goes on, "The ability to play is an essential part of what it means to be human. And Ďdeep playí is that more intensified form of play that puts us in a rapturous mood and awakens the most creative, sentient, and joyful aspects of our inner selves." Full of anticipation, I dove into the book.

Now, Iím the first to admit (well, maybe not the first) that play is difficult for me. I donít do sports. I hate word games. I know that crossword puzzles would be good for my vocabulary, but I find them frustrating. Playing cards, even with friends, bores me. But Csikszentmihalyi convinced me that what turns me on is related, somehow, to what the athlete feels when he is "in flow," and to why a researcher is willing to give up a big part of her life in pursuit of a hunch, and to the obsession driving a novelist or a sculptor to express something more than a superficial likeness. Csikszentmihalyi, first in his own best-seller Flow and then in his subsequent The Evolving Self and Creativity, clearly describes the urges and satisfactions that make life meaningful for those who push themselves to create and to achieve in response to their inner visions.

So I was disappointed, a little, as I began reading Deep Play. Not that it wasnít my Diane Ackerman. Her pages were full of the delightful metaphors and sensuous descriptions that have been her hallmarks. She proposes that "deep play" is something that comes out of deep inside us, something profound, something distinctly human. Itís expressed in many forms, from religion to art to climbing Mount Everest. But I kept feeling as though she were distracted as she wrote. I missed her point a lot as she jumped from example to example. Every so often she seemed to come back and insert a few paragraphs about deep play to keep the thread going. Even her chapters, I thought, lacked coherence. It was like having a serious conversation with someone while we watch television. The enchantment I had come to expect felt, well, thin.

So, the honeymoon is over, perhaps? Had I begun to notice the little crows feet instead of the lips? The mascara instead of the bottomless pools of the eyes? Okay, relax and go with it. Enjoy whatís there and donít focus on expectations. If you want information, go to the library. Soak in the warm, sensuous bath. Breath in the perfume you know so well. Anyone can get scattered now and then. Enjoy the snacks and donít anticipate dinner.

Halfway through the book, I found myself paying attention again. She is discussing poetry and how it allows us to perceive the world in more depth because it makes us stop and look around, behind and under the words, puzzle through meanings in our own minds as a poem feeds us sparkles and hints of flavor. The poet and the reader both end up sensing more than whatís there on the page. The poet is conscious of the limitations of words in expressing her insides, and resorts to touching the reader on the shoulder to make him look around, or catching his eye to flirt, to suggest, to hint about the inexpressible. Poetry is deep play.

That Diane Ackerman is a poet goes without saying. Iíve not read any of her dozen or so books of poetry. Iíve always been one of those people who see a poem as a puzzle, and Iíve already said how I feel about games. In this chapter, she stops me. I wonder what Iíve been missing. Poetry, she says, isnít a puzzle, but an invitation. I wonder, "Can I do it?" Is my crotchety mind so ossified that Iíve lost the ability to play?

I have to smile, in spite of myself. Thereís that perfume again, turning my head. She may not have her makeup on. Her clothing may be just a little rumpled. Her editor may have had a bad week. Maybe the publisher was pushing to get the thing out, and her flight to Kilimanjaro was only days away. Sheís only human, after all. Isnít that what I love about her?

Submitted to Amazon.com as book review 11/2005

November 10, 2005

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