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He’s published nine novels and five books of poetry. In 1962 he helped found The East Village Other, a landmark underground newspaper. He’s been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, has written two librettos and numerous television scripts. Since the late 1960s, he’s been a popular lecturer at UC Berkeley. His latest book of essays, The Reed Reader (Basic Books), hit bookstores last year.
So what does Ishmael Reed do for fun?
'I guess I have what you’d call serious hobbies,' Reed says from his home in Oakland, California. 'For the past 10 years, I’ve been studying two languages—Yoruba and Japanese. It came in very handy when I went to Japan, and in Nigeria I was able to read some of my work in their language. With the help of a tutor, I’ve been translating The Force of God, the epic of the Yoruba culture, into English. In my spare time, I study jazz piano.'
So is it fair to assume that for Reed, play is serious business, rigorous exercise for a complex mind—not cerebral R&R?
Not always. 'I also watch television too much,' he confesses, somewhat guiltily. 'But then again, I’ve been able to translate some of that into my work. I’ve become a bit of a media critic, writing and publishing pieces about things I’ve watched on television. So maybe that could be considered a serious hobby, too.'
Though it seems that he treats fun like a job, Reed insists he’s actually quite a playful guy. You see, for him, thinking is fun. He follows his natural intellectual curiosity wherever it leads, whether it’s to flights of fancy, new languages, or beautiful music. He thinks everyone should live this way.
'The ideal would be for more Americans to have more time to follow their passions, for more people to work fewer hours and to make time for themselves to get involved in some serious fun,' he says. 'I know I’m lucky that I’ve been given the time in my life to really pay attention to what feeds my brain. I think everyone else should have that opportunity, too.'
Knit, Purl, Grrrl
They used to say the revolution will be televised, but if you ask Debbie Stoller, editor of the Third Wave grrrl zine Bust, these days it’s more likely that the revolution will be knit, sewed, and tied up in a funky-colored bow. Speaking from the magazine’s office in New York City, this mouthpiece for the New Girl Order says today’s most explosive revolutionary act involves knitting needles, not Molotov cocktails. And while vibrators are still popular among her set, even hotter items are a good crochet hook and a crazy-cool pattern.
'In the ’90s, I felt like my friends and I—and everybody else we knew—were busy getting in touch with our inner grrrls,' Stoller says. 'Play and fun were a rebellion against adult ways of living, a feminist response to a male-dominated society. Now I think play is all about getting in touch with your inner grandmother. Most young women I know are getting pleasure these days from stereotypically women’s-sphere kind of activities like knitting, cooking, quilting, sewing. It has a soothing effect. And most of us didn’t learn about this when we were growing up, so it’s nice to learn something new as an adult.'
Stoller and her cohorts are so sold on handwork as a feminist phenomenon that they’ve even added to Bust a do-it-yourself column called 'She’s Crafty' featuring projects (like a skimpy crocheted bikini) guaranteed to keep readers busy during long nights that used to be spent jamming to the latest indie rock band.
Stoller, for one, is totally sold on the meditative, therapeutic power of handcrafts, even if it does make for a tamer social life. 'After a hard day at work I can’t wait to get home and watch the Nature Channel and knit,' she says. 'Right now it’s my perfect night.' What’s wrong with this picture? Has Martha Stewart claimed Stoller’s spunky soul, or is there a deeper meaning buried under those mounds of yarn?
'I host stitch-and-bitch evenings with my girlfriends,' Stoller says. 'Now I understand why women used to be so into quilting bees and sewing circles. When I’m hanging out with women and we’re talking and laughing and knitting, it feels totally feminist and uplifting.
The Joy of Stress
For more than 30 years he’s made a living making other people laugh, so it only makes sense that for comedian and author Paul Krassner the line be-tween work and play is more than blurred—it’s invisible.
'One of the few things I remember from my college education is the time somebody described happiness as, as little separation as possible between work and play,' Krassner recalls. 'I’m lucky enough to have a profession where my work is my play. I honestly don’t seem to be able to make that separation, and I’m glad about that.' Krassner lives in Venice, California, not far from the beach, which helps as well.
Still, stresses and strains do arise, and Krassner responds by turning to something physical, as different as possible from writing, which is his most constant daily task. 'I like to do something that involves my entire body, not just my hands and fingers,' he says. After a moment, he adds, 'This is going to sound crazy, but for me, dealing with the thing that’s stressing me out is fun. Solving life’s problems is an interesting challenge and meeting that challenge brings me great satisfaction.'
Revolution for the Fun of It
There’s been a lot of talk about the new, employee-friendly workplace: casual clothing, free soda, neck massages, company softball teams. Suddenly, your job is no longer a place of drudgery—it’s a place to have fun—and satisfied workers are happily putting in longer hours for the sake of the New Economy, happy to play and be productive.
Hogwash, says Thomas Frank, editor of the Chicago-based social commentary magazine The Baffler. Those who buy the line that the new, playful corporate environment is the answer to workers’ dreams have been spending too much time watching their bottom lines or burying their noses in 'corporate propaganda rags' like The Wall Street Journal or Fortune.
'The truth is that the concept of play at work is the sport of capitalists, a way to trick workers into thinking that they’re having fun while they’re actually working their souls away,' Frank says. 'If you ask me, this is pure propaganda, especially in an environment where management has all the power and workers have none.'
So, if work isn’t the place to turn, where does Frank find his fun?
'Well, being at The Baffler is fun,' he says, suddenly awash in contradiction. 'But putting the magazine together is more of a hobby than a job. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. For instance, we’ll be doing layout and playing a video game at the same time. And besides, our workplace is not a capitalist institution. Obviously it’s not the kind of place that would please shareholders.'
So maybe the answer isn’t dumping the idea of play at work, but rather changing the way work works. In the right environment, play doesn’t have to equal profit.
'I’d like to refute the idea that play is a libertarian ideal,' Frank says, suddenly excited by the idea. 'Maybe the left should claim play for itself.'
Playing Outside the Box
Don’t ask Ira Glass, host of the National Public Radio show This American Life, to tell you what he does for fun. Fun just needs to happen. If he spends too much time thinking about it, it isn’t fun any more.
'What’s fun?' he asks. 'You’ve got to have time for fun, if you’re going to take it all that seriously. In my life, there are periods where I’m working 70 or 80 hours a week, and during that time I’ll get home at 10:30 or 11:00 and all I’ll do is watch television, but I’m still having fun.'
When he’s got some official time off, time he knows he should devote to relaxing and just having fun in his Chicago home, it can take him awhile to decompress.
'Usually I’ll spend the first day thinking about what I’ll do to have fun,' he says. 'Maybe I’ll pretend to finish the Dave Eggers book, or maybe I’ll look at the bills and then open one or two of them. It’s not working, exactly, but it’s not having fun either. It’s a response to the pressure I feel to have fun when I’m not working.'
Once he’s in full-fun mode, what does Glass do? 'I’ll go to a movie, I’ll read something. Recently I got a laptop computer, so I got a computer game.'
Maybe the problem is focusing on fun as an independent activity, he says. 'If things are going well in your life, there isn’t the fun part of your day and the not-fun part,' Glass says. 'Some of the most fun or playful times I have are making small talk with my co-workers when we’re supposed to be doing productive work. Focusing on play is like saying, ‘The fun is over in this box, and the serious, meaningful stuff is over in this box.’ In reality, the two should be on speaking terms—the fun and the serious.'
Moments of Wild Abandon
If you think Europeans get a lot of vacation time now, you wouldn’t believe what life on the Continent used to be like.
'Right into the late middle ages, Europeans spent on average one day out of four in some sort of festivity tied to the church calendar,' says Barbara Ehrenreich, political essayist and author of Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting by in America (Metropolitan Books, 2001). 'There were saints’ days involving drinking, dancing, costuming, going door to door. It was a huge part of people’s lives.'
Ehrenreich, who lives in the Florida Keys, has been studying play habits of yore for her next book, an investigation into what she calls 'collective ecstasy,' or pleasurable communal rituals like festivals and religious rites. Slowly crushed by religious reformers, feast days have gradually disappeared over the centuries, Ehrenreich says. Today, few people have the opportunity to take part in moments of wild abandon. Our play has become strictly regulated. 'The idea that people might spend a good part of their time having fun together has become almost completely foreign in our culture,' she says.
While spending more time working and less time playing may make us richer, more efficient, and ever more awash in products and play equipment, it doesn’t make us any happier. So a long time ago, Ehrenreich decided to put less emphasis on productivity and more on doing work that she loves. 'I am one of the rare lucky people who is a freelance writer, knock on wood, so for me there is not a big distinction between work and play,' she says. 'My work is often playful. Research is a game for me.'
But there are times when she’s not thinking about work. Then, she says, 'I love to be outdoors. I love riding my bike. There’s nothing like being out in the fresh air.'