Turning Old Cliches into New Maxims:
Work Before Play

By Richard Eyre

Part Five

Read Part One Here
Read Part Two Here
Read Part Three Here
Read Part Four Here

Note: This column appears every two weeks .with an old clich replaced by a new maxim each time.  Click here to read the full introductory column.

You guessed it – my mother!  This one is an all-time favorite of mothers everywhere, and naturally so – it couldn’t be any other way.

In my boyhood, in the vacant middle of our city block, my neighborhood friends and I created a baseball diamond.  The back screen consisted of two discarded old sets of bed springs, bases of big flat rocks (tough to slide into), and the field itself of tall grass cut down by my best friend’s new power rotary mower (the first on the block).  The base paths were made simply by so many sneakers running them so often.

Anyway – I was always trying to get to that ball field and Mom was always saying, Work before play.”  And there was some work to be done.  She could think of a hundred ideas for work without a moment’s notice.  Doing some more work somewhere was always my “ticket” to go and play.

Looking back, of course, I know I learned that the lesson of work is the lesson of life, and my mother, partly with her three-word clich, taught it to me.  I didn’t need to learn to play – I had natural aptitude for that.  I needed to learn to work.

The interesting irony of today is that many of us are extremely good at work, and disciplined and dedicated to it – and very bad at play.  We have little aptitude for play, little ability at it, and we need to relearn the joy, the refreshment, the relaxation and the restoration of play.

We spend some family time each summer at a pristine mountain lake.  The kids love the beach and the water, and we love the peace and the quiet time to write and to read.

Most of the beach houses and cabins near ours are frequented by their owners only on weekends.  People drive in on Friday night and leave on Sunday.  What’s interesting to observe is how hard it is for most of them to start relaxing.  We see them up early on Saturday – painting, clipping, mowing, or polishing boats that too often never even get put in the water.  Many enjoy this work – since it’s a change from their usual weekday work – but there also seems to be a certain habit in their labor, a pattern and a certain comfortable familiarity in working and an awkward unfamiliarity in any kind of play.  Once in a while you see someone working at play, trying to remember how to do it and how to enjoy it.

Another thing that happens at this summer place is my own interaction between work and play.  With my mother’s motto still in my ears I often get up and, since writing is my work, resolve to finish a certain number of pages before I go to the beach or to the tennis court.  Or Linda reminds me that there is a fence to be mended or a deck to be painted and that I ought to get it done.

But an interesting element enters the picture.  There are certain brief periods, often early in the day, when the lake is as still and perfect as a piece of glass – times when water skiing can take on an almost mystical quality of smoothness and beauty.  And there are other moments when an offshore breeze sweeps gently across the lake, making it perfect for wind surfing.  The kids say, “Dad, we need to go now!”  And if I say, “Work before play,” they say, “We’ll miss the moment.”

What is playing anyway?  A form of learning?  An avenue of pleasure and joy?  An exercise of body or senses?  Is there something inherently inferior or less noble in play when it is compared to work? 

In today’s world the nature of work and play have changed.  Much of our work is mental work, and it is enhanced and improved by intermittent periods of rejuvenating play.  It used to be that most work was physical and tiring – so play was often passive and physically lazy.  Now our work often leaves us mentally tired and physically unused, unstretched, unimproved.

And the aggressive, competitive, comparative nature of our work lives puts us in a work habit that clutches us and compels us to be doing some kind of “productive work” even when we’re “relaxing.”  We relegate play to too late in the day, when we’re too tired, when the glass is gone off the lake and the chance for real spontaneous fun is gone.

When we lose our ability to play, we also lose our playfulness and a certain amount of our humor, our flexibility, and our spontaneity is sucked away with it.

Perhaps, in this work-oriented, work-obsessed world, we need a new maxim:

Stale Work is Renewed by Fresh Play

We took a business associate to our lake for a long weekend one summer.  He spent the first day worrying about the calls he couldn’t make since we had no phone.  The second day he gave in a little and started relaxing and enjoying himself.  At the end of the third day he said, “You know, I think I’ve forgotten how to play.”  Then a pause and smile.  “But I’m starting to think I have a natural aptitude for it and can relearn it if I just apply myself.”

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