Master Players

by Bernie DeKoven on March 16, 2012

Many people have come into my life, played with me, and left me happier, healthier and wiser.

There’s Bill Doran. (Skip this if you’ve heard it or read it before. It’s one that I’ve repeated elsewhere – and every where else I had the opportunity about our game of ping pong):

There we were, up in the barn, playing with our brand new, thoroughly researched, ultimate ping pong table. That barn was the center of what we were calling The Games Preserve. We wanted to fill it with not only every game on the planet, but the very finest manifestation of each. And Bill chose that particular table, and those particular paddles and balls, and installed that particular kind of lighting for precisely that reason. It was not just a ping pong table. It was table tennis.

Bill knew that I couldn’t really play ping pong. And I knew that he could really, really play. And because we wanted to play together, we just more or less volleyed (he more, me less). After a while, Bill suggested that I just try to hold my paddle still enough so that he could get the ball to hit it. Apparently, that was more than challenge enough for him. And for me, every time the ball actually crossed the net, hit my paddle, and got back to Bill was sheer magic. After a while, we managed to get an actual volley going, Bill exercising the depth and fullness of his ping pongly skills, me magically holding my paddle where it needed to be. And after a longer while, we got a very, very long volley going. And during that volley, the ball seemed to take on its own, almost internal light, as if it were inhabited by our spirits, Bill and mine, combined. And it was, for an instant, as if we were seeing God. Honest. When we left the barn, we were like two Buddhist monks having just achieved enlightenment.

Then there’s Mick Greene, one of the two playful brains behind Streetplay.

I had led a brief session of tabletop golf for about 150 teen-agers and associated adults. For some reason, it just didn’t work. (These kinds of sessions, the ones that don’t work, have proven very formative for me, in hindsight. Unfortunately, when I receive that particular gift, I am generally too shaken to acknowledge how much I have profited from it, even when I do get paid.) I had invited Mick to come see me at play. And, clearly, what happened was not what I had wanted to share with him, or anyone. I looked at Mick. He at me. And the next thing I knew we were walking out of the conference room, meandering into the parking lot. We didn’t talk much. He understood that I needed quiet and space. As it happened, the parking lot was almost empty.

As we were walking across the clearly delineated parking spaces, Mick produced one of his favorite therapeutic devices – a spaldeen. “Hey, Bern,” said he to me, “ever play fivebox?” I didn’t remember the game (you can read the rules by clicking the link). And my interest was significantly piqued. So we started playing. Just like that. We stood five parking spaces apart. He bounced the ball into the space closest to me. And I tried to bounce it into the space closest to him.

It was another ping pong-like experience for me, given the difference between skill sets – he clearly proficient, I vividly not. And, like my friend Bill, Mick managed to get the ball to bounce right into my hand. Having accomplished that, it was my turn to throw into the space two spaces in front of him. Eventually, I found myself playing at a level that appeared to me as something approximating competence. And the more we played, the the more distant the disappointment of that tabletop golf game became, and the closer Mick and I came together, and the more vivid the fun.

Then there are kids. Not all kids, but some certain kids who seem to understand exactly what they need to do to keep other kids, and even adults, in play.

In all cases, there’s a sensitivity, an empathic connection, a deep understanding of the game, and, even more profoundly, of the connection between players. In every instance, there’s a willingness to adapt the game to the players – to let go of things like having to win, having to demonstrate your competence, having to keep to the rules – so they can hold on to the spirit of play, share in the playfulness of the spirit.

I’ve decided to call people like Bill and Mick “master players.” They are skilled in the game, and they understand, at a deeper level that a game is for keeping each other in play.

And here’s what brought all this to mind, and now to yours:

My therapist daughter arranged for me to give a presentation to some narrative therapists in Jerusalem. During the presentation, as I learned more about narrative therapy, and liked what I learned, I understood more clearly why she wanted me to share my work with them. There was something there, very close to what I was calling “fun therapy,” only, of course, not. We played, we talked, we laughed, we played more deeply, we talked more deeply, we laughed more deeply.

One of the highlights was a brief performance of a game I call “Kvetch Kakaphony” (click on the link for more). The game was derived from a wonderfully silly event called Complaints Choir. Because this was a group of deeply observant Jews, men and women couldn’t sing in a mixed group. So, instead of singing, we spoke our Kvetch, and instead of a melody, my daughter suggested we speak a limerick – ad hockily, of course, without knowing what we or any one else was going to say, and without achieving any consensus about what exactly a limerick was. We appointed a conductor (who turned out to be inspired and inspiring). And afterwards we laughed together, almost musically.

The next day, a young man who had been at the session asked to meet with me to talk more about what he had learned from my presentation. We met, he bought me a coffee (my standard consultation fee) and after awhile we got around to how he might use the Kvetch Kakaphony experience (we decided not to call it a “game”) with one of his clients. After some excited probing, it became clear that we were thinking of two completely different kinds of experiences. He was thinking that his client would be a one-person Kakaphony, and he would be the therapist, carefully listening. I was assuming that it took at least two, a Kakaphony to make.

He was concerned that if he, the therapist, joined in, he would lose control, contaminating his client’s stories with his, blurring the boundaries of what he understood as therapeutic relationship. I was concerned that if he didn’t play too, that he’d miss the opportunity for healing that the game presented. It would be, instead, separating, embarrassing. For both of them. I imagined myself as the client, singing my complaining heart out, improvisationally, atonally. I imagined him having to witness this.

I was surprised at the distance between his assumptions and mine. I found myself thinking about the powerfully therapeutic relationships created by master players who can transform a game like ping pong into an encounter with the All One, or a game of catch into a moment of shared, loving, healing peace. And I couldn’t understand how he could not have understood.

Near the end of our conversation, I discovered that he had in fact come to understand, but needed to, as he explained, “put a lot of thought and experimentation into the combining of our two ideals.” He goes on: “I have been thinking a lot about how to introduce these play techniques, to get to the therapeutic value of ‘Master Play,’ without the client feeling that his or her problems are being trivialized. I have a feeling that once I am able to figure out a way to approach these subjects, I will be able to play, (pun intended,) with the format, and still cover both of our points of view.”

I am eager to learn what he creates out of those experiments.

And so, I found myself sharing these stories with you. Narratives, you might say. And as I near the conclusion of these stories, I’m concluding that this idea, this term “master player,” is a very useful one for us to share. And I further conclude that you, yourself, could be such a master player, or have in any event played with one or several such. And that you might also find yourself with the time and the inspiration to share your stories, here, in the comments section, because you, also, realize how valuable it might be to think even more about the healing value of being such a person, or playing with such a person, or child, or pet.


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