Come play!

I was walking through Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library at 42d and Fifth, on a glorious September afternoon when I saw a table piled high with board games, and a man and woman playing one I’d never seen before — Bananagrams, a word game that requires players to think really fast and make words with their letters. First one done, wins.

English: The game Bananagrams, showing pieces ...
English: The game Bananagrams, showing pieces and banana-shaped carrying container. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Can I play, too?” I asked. I hadn’t asked anyone that question in decades. The woman’s job was to wait for people to come along — and play, with her or with others, part of the park’s new initiative to make it even more welcoming.

“Sure. Have you ever played before?”

I hadn’t, but am a fairly decent/quick Scrabble player. Within minutes, we were laughing and hooting and shouting “Dump!” (turning in your letters for new ones) or “Peel!” forcing us to pick up another one.

The winner gets to shout “Bananas!”

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had such free, spontaneous, joyful and social fun. In New York City, where status and power and owning costly real estate are the usual measures of human value, laughing my ass off with two smart strangers was the best.

It felt so good to be five again!

I love to play. Raised as an only child, trolls and Legos and stuffed animals were usually my companions. In boarding school (from the age of eight), every day and every hour was structured, lived by a schedule.

I love my work as a writer, but every word, literally, is worth money. I’ve bought groceries and gas and rent and clothes and acquired savings for decades — thanks to my ability to conjure up enough words, in the right order for the right people.

To simply play with words is a great luxury!

In my teens, I spent many evenings in front of the fire with my Dad, drinking tea and eating chocolate cookies, whipping one another at Scrabble — unless Jack, the big fat tabby cat, prowled right through the board, scattering our hard-won triumphs.

Scrabble game
Scrabble game (Photo credit: jcolman)

My weathered Scrabble board still bears the hand-written notations of my highest score, and my Mom’s — we played for hours while visiting Costa Rica and Fiji. On one of my trips west, to Victoria, B.C., where she now lives in a nursing home, she taught me to play gin rummy.

Before my left hip was destroyed by arthritis-plus-steroids in May 2009 — and has since been replaced — I played co-ed softball most Saturdays in a field near my home; here’s an essay I wrote about it for The New York Times. I plan to be back at it this year.

Our players are people who spend their worklives practicing law and medicine, singing at a synagogue, teaching high school, representing authors. Heavy responsibilities. There is something so deeply restorative in just playing, for its own sweet sake, where all we really need is a triple or a great catch from the outfield.

Jose and I don’t have children, nor any nieces or nephews, so we (sadly) have no chances to play with kids. I really miss that! We often play gin rummy, Scrabble and now, Bananagrams. He plays Tetris on the Iphone while I play Scrabble on the Ipad — cursing the bloody, stubborn algorithm for using words I have never heard of.

Do you play games — with your sweetie or friends or kids or grandkids?

Which ones do you enjoy most and why?

Libraries Matter!

English: A panorama of a research room taken a...
Image via Wikipedia

If you’ve never visited the magnificent 101-year-old library building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42d Street, the one whose wide entrance is guarded by two enormous stone lions, Patience and Fortitude, you’ve missed one of the world’s most beautiful spaces devoted to  books, reading and learning.

The library is going to get a $1 billion facelift thanks to British architect Norman Foster:

With the expansion the main branch will become the largest circulating library in the United States, Mr. Marx said, with publicly accessible stacks. “We need to provide the opportunity to browse for books at a time when bookstores are closing,” he said, adding that “scholars and researchers should be able to enjoy the serendipity of what they find on the shelf.”

But some patrons fear crowding at the main branch, where annual attendance is expected to rise to perhaps 4 million, from 1.5 million. “It won’t be O.K.,” said Donald Jones, 55, a Manhattan resident who uses the computers at the Mid-Manhattan branch several times a week. “One problem I already have is crowding with the computers.”

The plan also calls for turning second-floor offices in the main branch into workspace for as many as 400 writers and researchers and for keeping the library open until 11 some nights. (The latest it stays open now is 8 p.m. two days a week.) “We want this to be Writing Central for New York,” Mr. Marx said.

I confess, I haven’t spent a lot of time there, mostly because I work from home (as a writer) in our suburban apartment; I can’t justify the $15 trainfare and two lost hours commuting to go sit there, although it is truly a spectacular space.

I did spend a week or so there a few years ago working on a specific, fascinating and highly unusual research project for a fellow writer. He had discovered an amazing true story on a remote and distant Pacific island, Mangareva, about a crazy French priest who subjugated the natives and created a bizarre and highly punitive penal system using his own religious followers as his enforcers. Seriously.

My role? To translate original French documents — stored in Australia — into English so we could re-create and understand this story. It was utterly extraordinary. Reading the 150-year-old reports felt like opening a reporter’s notebook, so filled with specific details they were — from the narrow, muddy paths across the island to the huge piles of coconuts stacked aboard their vessel while in port. It was riveting reading and one of the most fun freelance jobs I’ve ever had.

Day after day, I’d settle into my seat at one of those long wooden tables in the glorious Rose reading room, my dictionary and laptop close at hand, disappearing for hours into a world thousands of miles away and decades distant. By day’s end, weary, I’d share my head, as if awakening from a delicious dream, walk down those wide marble steps and re-enter the riparian sidewalk on Fifth Avenue.

Here’s a fantastic trend already in 28 American states and worldwide, small boxes that resemble birdhouses or mailboxes called Little Free Libraries. The idea is to spread a love of books and community:

The idea has mushroomed.  Bol now encourages people to visit his website for suggestions on how to build their own library.

Today there are Little Free Libraries in at least 28 states and six countries including Ghana, Australia and Afghanistan. And people from more than a dozen other countries have expressed interest, Bol said.

On Bol’s website he offers suggestions on how to build the libraries and sells kits for a fee starting around $100. Money donated to his non-profit helps build libraries in needy communities and developing countries. The website says, “If you need help let us know.  Don’t let money get in the way.”

You can find the little libraries not just in front of homes, but also outside of health centers, coffee shops, bike paths, bus stops and store fronts.   People are encouraged to send in a picture of their library so it can be posted on the website.  In return they get a “Little Free Library. Take a Book, Return a Book” sign to post on what they’ve built, as well as a Little Free Library Charter number.

Do you have a Little Free Library near you?

Do you use (and love) your public libraries?

What New Yorkers Owe The Beaver

A European Beaver
Image via Wikipedia

Quick, name three things you know for sure are Canadian symbols. Beer, hockey…and…and…beavers!

The beaver is on the Canadian nickel, is the name for the group of Canada’s youngest Boy Scouts, ages 5-7, and a workhorse bush plane made by DeHavilland, whose sturdy little machines are found in military use from Peru to Uganda. For some of us, it’s a verb meaning to work at something persistently. (And yes, I know there’s a salacious meaning too.)

The American Museum of Natural History is showing a famous film about them, until January 2010.

As a proud ex-pat whose country, when not invisible to Americans, is ignored or derided for being booooooring, I’ve decided, from time to time, to add a little Canadian content to T/S — Can-Con as we call it.

On a visit home to Toronto last year, walking along the shore of Lake Ontario in one of my favorite parks, I saw a beaver swimming past me. In New York I’ve spotted all sorts of celebrities, but seeing a beaver from barely six feet away, studiously ignoring me as any celebrity would, was cool. Even after years of canoe trips in northern Ontario, I’d never seen one before, although you know they’re nearby if you see a dam or the gnawed-off trees in their area. Most people are lucky to ever see one, as they’re pretty reclusive.

The only place I normally see beavers, living near Manhattan, is in the friezes at the Astor Place subway station, a reminder of the enormous fortune made selling beaver fur by John Jacob Astor, who in 1822 created the American Fur Company. When he died in 1844, leaving an unimaginable fortune of $20 million, he gave $400,000 of that to help establish what became the New York Public Library at 42d Street and Fifth Avenue.

Thank beavers!