Serious Fun: An Excerpt


“There are some things so serious, you have to laugh at them.”
Niels Bohr
“Be joyful although you know the facts.”
Wendell Berry

On the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago of relatively recent volcanic islands in the remote ocean off the coast of Ecuador, an odd array of plant and animal wildlife has adapted cunningly to the harsh conditions of bare volcanic rock of the islands. The species that have managed to survive are those that have been ingenious about making use of the conditions in which they found themselves. There are cormorants with stunted wings who swim instead of fly; iguanas that feed on algae in the sea; huge, hulking tortoises foraging in extinct calderas and finches whose beaks are shaped to take advantage of every kind of seed and insect in their environment. Even tomatoes have found a way of taking root in tiny cracks in the bare lava! As Darwin recognized, these islands are a laboratory for evolution.
It is also a known fact that amongst wolves, the pups with the lowest resting heartbeats are the ones who initiate play the best and these are the wolves who tend to be the leaders in the pack. Imagine, the relaxed rascal is the one identified as “wolf most likely to succeed!”

Being playful and adapting to new and possibly harsh conditions is how Nature evolves, and what this little book is about. It will look at how the natural world works, and try to find the patterns by which nature continually creates and sustains life, as it cycles, flows, balances and forms networks of all its systems. As in the natural world, having to adapt in new ways to harsh conditions seems to spark creative new possibilities and unleash an unlimited array of responses we had no idea we had. We have energy and enthusiasm and wit, and our daily tasks can get done in surprising ways we had not thought of before. Creativity is an antidote to despair, and ultimately is what heals us.
In fact, our physio-chemical response to fear differs only slightly from our physio-chemical response to curiosity, so it is a tiny step from terror to wonderment and ingenious fun. I believe making this shift can help us survive and even thrive in the times ahead, and so I offer here a compendium of stories, facts and figures, low-tech ideas, anecdotes, antidotes and cunning innovations to tickle your imaginations and get you dreaming up your own. There are a myriad creative ways to approach the everyday dilemmas we all face, and even more ways to delight ourselves with the beauty of our creations while having the best possible time. As Gretel Ehrlich says about the Inuit, “Despair is a sin against the imagination.”
This book, ideally, is for everyone. It takes no political sides, has no religious agenda but is about the everyday choices we all have to make in the course of living; in it I will suggest alternatives to some of the either/or choices we may assume are our only choices.
“Paper or plastic?” we are asked in the grocery store. What a pleasure it is to reply,
“Neither, thank you,” as we reach for the basket, or cloth bag, or recycled paper bag we’ve brought to the store with us. And if the bag is embroidered, or decorated in crayons by the kids, all the better. And if we are given a discount for bringing our own bag, better still. And if a smile is exchanged in the process, well then, that’s best of all.
It’s that kind of simple thing I want to address here: the little low-tech, amusing games we can all dream up; the ideas that catch our fancy, get a small job done well and lighten us up. And perhaps change our expectations of what is possible. These are tough times we’re living in: the bottom is falling out, money is tight, society is coming apart and people are frightened and anxious. Things are changing rapidly and we are in the midst of a “Worldshift,” as the futurist Ervin Laszlo calls it. It’s not easy to stay positive, but to the extent we can do so, I believe we must. As Rick Ingrasci has said, “If you want social change, throw a better party.”
I learned about this when I was young from a Czech refugee I met traveling in Europe, a fellow who made me laugh constantly. He taught me how to fly a kite in the rain, to make meals out of roots we found in the woods, to enjoy a hot cup of coffee with unbelievable relish. I loved being in his company – with him, everything was vivid, alive!
When we talked about our lives, he told me his parents had conceived him in a concentration camp, just at the end of the war. When he was sixteen it started all over again with the Russian invasion and he and two brothers walked out of Czechoslovakia to a Swiss refugee camp. Since then, he had been virtually homeless. Yet, I have never known anybody who had as much fun as he did. When I asked him about it, he replied seriously,
“Would it be better to cry?”
I still thank him for that lesson.
This book focuses on five basic issues we all have to deal with:
Money, Food, Waste, Water and Home. I have chosen five topics for no reason other than I love the shape of the number 5. Many issues are not covered in this book – energy and education, for example - but I hope you use the ideas here as “indicator ideas,” or ways of thinking, living and being, and then improvise your own. In the end, the book is about improvisation and delight, despite whatever else is happening in your life.
You will find that the topics overlap and dovetail with each other, because that’s the way Nature works: everything is interconnected with everything else. So the chapters will, in certain ways, melt into one another - as they should. The lesson to learn here is that we cannot tamper with one system without affecting every other system, because together they form an interconnected Whole.
It’s time to change how we understand this gorgeous miracle of a world we are born into, and enjoy it to its full extent while using it well and consciously. Our celebrity culture of profit and endless growth, rugged individualism, competition and muscle-bound super-heroes doesn’t work for most of us, really. It especially doesn’t work for the planet. Our waters are polluted, children are going hungry, and half of us are on anti-depressants. We’ve collectively helped make the mess we’re in, so if we’re worth our salt we can darn well help heal it. Nature knows about balance and we are part of nature, so presumably we know it too.
The world wishes us to reflect its beauty – to “feed it with beauty” as the Mayans say - and we are designed to do this. We’ve got the imagination, the courage and the intelligence to be creative citizens of the larger world, to become as wise as we are clever. We have yet to learn that mature wisdom involves learning how to lighten up, to relax and play - like wolves, like children. As I once heard troubador David Grimes say, “If we’re not having fun, we’re just not being serious enough!”
“SHIFT HAPPENS” read bumper stickers I have seen around town. Each day we move closer to December 21, 2012. Things will not stay the same, whatever we do. We are as likely able to stop this inevitable shift as we are able to stop the waves from rolling in and crashing onto the shore. What we can do, though, is to grab a surfboard, paddle out to beyond the breakers and when the big wave comes, crouch, straighten our knees and balance like mad as the surge lifts us up. And then ride the wave, our spirits lifted by the thrill and adventure of it, even as we’re scared out of our wits.
This collage of stories and creative ideas – many of which are taken from my own life - is the product of a multitude of gifted people sharing with me their wisdom, their ideas and their company. The medium has been the message from the start and I have had a wonderful time playing and dreaming with them about how to survive beautifully in this crazy world of ours.
Old friends and new, we are improvisers together, and I bow to them with gratitude and friendship as we all try to find the most elegant path through the turmoil and angst of this time of tumultuous Worldshift. The world, whatever we do, shall inevitably evolve – with or without us. I’d like to be there if possible, with beloved friends and having a blast.
Please join us!

“The way I understand things, the deeper you go into anything local, the more you find the global.” Yo-Yo Ma