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?

Ten Mid-Winter Cheer-Ups

NYC: Porto Rico Coffee Reflection
One of my favorite NYC stores! Image by Professor Bop via Flickr

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere and are heading into our fourth month of cold, snow, ice and short days, it’s time for a cheer-up!

Here are ten ideas:

Spend as much as you can afford on fresh flowers. Even $20 or $30 will fill several containers with living color, scent and beauty for a few weeks. I snagged $16 worth of white lilies from the supermarket last week and they’re still blooming and fragrant in the bedroom and dining room. So lovely to open the front door to a hit of scent! If you have nothing to put them in, check out your local thrift shop.

A long walk, preferably with a camera in hand. Snow and ice transform the landscape in unexpected ways. The jagged stone walls surrounding our apartment building, covered with snow, look exactly like a row of teeth!

A long talk with someone you adore. Make a phone date  — or face to face, better yet — and settle in for a good 30 minutes or more. Forget email and Facebook.

Bake! This morning I cranked out blueberry/banana muffins and spice muffins. Easy, fun, something nice to look forward to every morning for a week or more. If you haven’t replenished your pantry, make sure you’ve got the staples on hand for when inspiration hits.

A small pretty treat for your home. Check out the sales at old favorites like Pottery Barn, Home Goods, Crate & Barrel, West Elm, Anthropologie, Wisteria, Sundance — a few of my on-line favorites. For even $20 or 30, you can enjoy a new set of hand towels, a few new dishtowels, some pretty candles, a 2 x 3 foot cotton throw rug from Dash & Albert, some fresh pillowcases. Check out Etsy for affordable and charming choices. Here’s the Dash & Albert rug we ordered for our living room.

Make fresh tea — in a teapot. Enough with this awful Americanism of “tea” being one sad teabag stuck in a mug of hot water. I think not! You need a proper china or pottery teapot; here’s one shaped like Big Ben! Some lovely teas, maybe a few you’ve never tried before. I love Constant Comment (with orange and spices), cardamom/chai, Earl Grey and even (wild stuff) Lapsang Souchong, whose smoky, tarry flavor makes me feel like I’ve been licking the deck of some 17th century frigate. If your local store doesn’t have these, order from my favorite New York purveyors, both of which are more than 100 years old, Porto Rico Coffee & Tea, (try their pumpkin spice or chocolate raspberry coffee), and McNulty’s. Even better if you’ve got a lovely bone china teacup with saucer; check out this one, in blue toile, for a mere $9.75. Aaaaaah.

Something cashmere. A pair of socks, or gloves, or a watch cap or scarf, or a turtleneck sweater. The sharp-eyed can always find one affordably in a local thrift or consignment shop.

A massage. If you’re really lucky, your sweetie knows how and is happy to provide. If you can afford it — usually $65 or more — a scented rubdown is sheer bliss after months of being swaddled in wool and rubber, our chilled muscles stiff and sore. My local drugstore sells a bottle of eucalyptus scent for a few dollars…add it to some light oil and you’re good to go.

A stack of library books you’re dying to read. Make them two-week returns so you won’t procrastinate! I recently read, and totally loved, “The House in France” by Gully Wells, a memoir.

Get out your pens, pencils, watercolors, oils, paper, wool, threads, fabric, dye….and create! Borrow your kids’ Legos or Barbies or trolls. Turn off every single electronic “toy” and use the best one of of all — your brain!

Bonus: Paint something: a bathroom, a funky chair from the thrift store, a bookcase you’re sick of, (one of ours recently went from deep olive green to pale yellow/green to match the walls. Big difference!) A fresh coat of paint in a new-to-you color is a guaranteed happiness-inducer: quick, cheap, eye-opening. Here’s a $10 guide from House Beautiful magazine with some wonderful choices. The British company Farrow & Ball makes the yummiest colors ever. They’re expensive, but even a sample pot will give you enough to re-do a lampshade or lamp base or a small table top. Here’s a sample of Straw, a great neutral mustard tone which we chose for our very small (5 by 7)  and only bathroom; two years in, we still love it.