Monday, May 3, 2010

The Garden and the Game, Part III: Mimicry and Vertigo

When she came for a visit not long ago, our friend Hillary gave me a great piece of information. I was asking her about the key to being a happy ex-patriot in France, as opposed to a half-hearted one, a mere tourist who loves the landscape and the food -- this great big lovely blooming Garden -- but hates everything (and everyone) else French.

Her answer was swift and sure: to love France, one must enjoy playing the game of France, and be a good sport. I trusted her opinion on this, as she is the most successful ex-pat I have the pleasure to know personally. We were on a long car-ride, without any responsibilities aside from alleviating her daughter Stella’s carsickness, so we had a long time to talk. She told me about game theorist Roger Caillois and his definitions of the different kinds of games people play. After she left, I couldn’t get her idea out of my mind as I thought about our experiences this year, the books I have read, and the people we have met.

Parts One and Two of this little muse discussed the first two categories of Caillois’s games, but in case you’re in a hurry, here’s the gloss. To enjoy the adventures that came your way, you could play against France (and its waiters and weird schedules and odd bureaucracy) because you like the competition. An ex-patriot could also relish the element of chance in the game of France, the element of Alea, reveling in its many oddities and surprising twists and turns.

But there are two other kinds of games in his schema. For example, lots of games depend on mimicry. These are the favorite sorts of games in the Pre-Kindergarten where I used to work, as the children would play by demanding imagination from one another, again and again: “Pretend you’re a baby. Pretend I’m a fireman. Pretend we’re in Alaska and this is my monkey.” Games with a strong element of mimicry require a suspension of disbelief, a willingness on the part of the spectator to allow the player to become something else. To quote the theorist, in a game requiring mimicry “the subject makes believe or makes others believe that he is someone other than himself. He forgets, disguises, or temporarily sheds his personality in order to feign another.”

What better way to play at mimicry than to shed one's own language and take on somebody else's? As one friend pointed out when he came here, "Geez, they have a word for everything, don't they?" But as I have discovered, language is a lot more than putting one word behind another. To be a true ex-pat, you need to take on the facial expressions, the little turns of phrase, the very way of being that the French language encourages. Watching our friend Mary fall effortlessly into French was just like that. As a matter of fact, she even fell into British English when talking to Jessica. Once again, that girl was born to live here.

Julia Child strikes me as the best possible literary example of somebody deeply at play at the game of pretend French. As she describes in her memoir, My Life in France, the whole first part of her life was sort of one long flail, before she discovered the real purpose of her life: mimicking the great French chefs.

Importantly, she was not one of those awful snobs who actually believe they can somehow become French with enough affectations. In her funny asides in her cookbook, as in her television show, she always maintained a sense of humor. Caillois again: “The pleasure lies in being or passing for another. But in games the basic intention is not that of deceiving the spectators. Instead, Child constantly relished the ways in which being here – and puzzling through the game of France – could be fun. (And watching Streep mimic Child mimicking France? Priceless.)

According to Caillois, a central quality of games of mimicry is the requirement that the actor “fascinates” the spectator. However, it seems clear to me that many of the successful ex-patriots I know who are cooking like the French, dressing like the French, decorating or swearing or shrugging like the French, are also hard at work fascinating themselves. If you’re looking for a country to go and play house, this is a great one to choose.

So to enjoy one’s ex-patriot French experience, you can like the competition, the sense of chance, or the fascination of dressing up and using different words for everything.

Or, perhaps, say, if you’re nothing at all like me, you are the sort of person who enjoys games involving Ilinx. This term can be translated literally as “whirlpool,” and refers to any game that induces vertigo. These games turn on the feeling of falling free, on the pleasures of disorientation, on the way one’s mind tends to swirl in the face of being upended. If you’re that sort of good sport, you find your fun in leaping from high places, speeding down hills in cars or on skis, or in being utterly turned around and lost and then suddenly finding yourself righted. All things that leave control-aholics like me white-knuckled, panicked and sobbing, or simply very, very carsick.

I’m with Hillary's girl Stella when it comes to long car trips and windy roads; I almost can’t bear them unless I’m the one driving. But Hillary herself, the woman whose quick answer to my question about expatriots got me puzzling about these different kinds of games, has been happily falling into the abyss that is France for twenty years now.

When we first met her, back in college, she was the school’s champion high diver, literally hurling herself into a whirlpool at high speeds to win games. Her hair then, as now, fell in lush corkscrew curls, as if to advertise how much fun it is for her to twist her way through life.

And ever since she decided to come here, she’s been doing just that. She threw herself into the task of mastering French, then she fell from one challenging, interesting sort of work to another. She has leapt from project to freelance to company to art installation, making her choices fit her circumstances. Right now she’s balancing raising her two tiny children (both absolutely delicious little human beings) with a photography exhibition planned for a public park in Paris and a dance project with a choreographer in Berlin. She has enjoyed the freedom of an artist and the freedom of an entrepreneur, learning to work with photographs and computers in highly complex and sophisticated ways. I know that she has had decidedly dark days – just like the rest of humanity, and sometimes perhaps a worse. Yet because of the way she plays the game, because of her way of being in this weird world, she’s never fallen victim to that lurking fear that things might not work out.

When you like to dive from high heights, spinning all the way down, you have to have a little more faith in the unknown than an ordinary dogpaddler. France has just given her a higher platform from which to execute her more impressive leaps.

Somehow, despite all this leaping, she’s not the least bit flighty. Instead, she’s an awfully grounded and solid person. Over the weekend she and her kids were here, we talked about the ways in which she’s recently tried to become more systematic, more deliberate, more careful in her choices. Having little kids can do that to you, I guess. The more they spin and dive and leap, the more we have to stand firm, becoming the solid ground from which they fly.

But to me, even with two little kids to worry over, Hillary seems utterly fearless. Me? I hoard my own fears as though they are face cards in a poker game. I feed them and keep them alive, despite the greedy way they tear at me. In contrast, she sees a situation where she might be a little out of control, and tries to find ways to make it even more interesting and compelling.

France also seems to make her laugh. She loves everything worth loving here, but she also sees the country’s ridiculous side, and she relishes the opportunities to face down its strange quirks. When she switches into French, her whole affect changes, and she she’s diving headlong into whatever comes next. Living here has become her life’s big adventure – so far. Who knows what spin might come next.

Hillary’s fearlessness reminds me of Bill's. Back in college, Hillary founded the school’s Outing Club, and Bill was one of the first to join her merry outdoorsy band. (Bill and Alain had one of their first brushes with outdoor disaster as a result of this club. When they left to take twenty new members on a pre-freshman multi-day canoing trip, they left school without any tents, and found themselves having to hire a wedding tent to keep all those poor new first-year students dry. He also finished the weekend with a bruise on his face in the exact shape of the gunnel of a Grumman canoe.)

Ilinx, like the great outdoors, is meant to be thrilling and disorienting, rather than safe and secure. Thus these games require a wholehearted willingness to fall wherever you land. As long as I have known Bill, I have been watching him plunge headlong into things. I’ve admired it – either from afar, or from alongside – but have never quite been able to share his joy in the speed and the slide.

Back in college he threw himself into political theory, or theater, or dangerously masochistic sports. Before too long, it was teaching, and travel. Eventually it became love. He has taken me camping during several hurricanes, striding purposefully into the heart of a thunderstorm just for the rush of it all. I used to think he was heedless of danger. Now, thinking about Ilinx , I can see that to him, disorientation and chaos just make things a lot more fun.

This trip has been no exception. While I held back all last spring, clinging tightly to the familiar, despite its difficulties and frustrations, he plunged us forward and onward. I sat immobile in my brown chair, wishing days away, while he packed the house, made arrangements, set events inexorably in motion. He started diving forward, and dragged us all along over the precipice, confident that we would land on our feet. Or, if we didn’t, that he’d find some way to rent us an oversized tent.

Over the summer, he took a Rassias Method intensive French course based on all sorts of vertigo-inducing games. During the 100 hours of instruction, over ten days, he was plunged into French. The Rassias method works on the basis of disorientation. Using theater games and heightened emotion, it seeks to get to the part of our brains that is less guarded and controlled. To Rassias, foreign language is like a game of pick-up basketball. You can’t learn to speak by doing endless drills in a quiet room. You can only learn to play by playing, and the program he has created forces you to do just that. According to Rassias, if you’re still in control, you’re not learning much. We speak foreign languages not to get all the grammar in order, but rather in order to communicate, to love, to play.

Bill’s French was always good, but this injunction – to wade in without fear – has been invaluable to helping him to really relish this year. He has faced down bureaucrats, he has gotten into debates with his French teacher, he has bought and sold a car. (Farewell, sweet Liesel.) He has sought out conversation and connection at every turn. Thus of all of us, Bill has loved this experience the most. This year, I have often sat just off to the side, listening and watching as he spins his stories and dives into situations that leave me frozen. Marveling at him. Proud of him. And so very in love with this magical person, who is so different from me.

Me. Ah yes, by the way, me. Where do I fit into this schema, I keep wondering. What kind of ex-patriot am I? Well, I certainly like all the playing house we’ve been doing this year, although I find I turn to the Joy of Cooking more often than a real French cook would ever deign. Not that I am trying, but nobody would mistake me for a French person, (it’s usually Swedish, or Dutch.) Chance makes me nervous if the stakes are higher than your typical game of Yahtzee, and vertigo’s even worse. As much as I like competition, I haven’t seemed to find many games I could even enter here, much less win. I've been much more of a spectator than ever before in my life.

Instead, I think I’ve seen France this year as a great big puzzle. A French Sudoku, perhaps, boxes numbered un a neuf in impossibly complicated patterns. I've taken pleasure in trying to take things apart to figure out how they fit together, through thinking and wondering and musing. To the extent that I’ve been able to get myself in the game, rather than hanging back in the hammock, it has often been through writing this blog.

As I sit down to write, I step back and puzzle through our time here – the successes and failures, the mysteries and mistakes. In retrospect, in words, and in pictures, I feel like I can enjoy it more – I can find more of the joy of play. So perhaps my joy is in discovering the rules behind the game – or in fact making them up when I can’t discover them. Writing this all down, and making meaning in the process has been one of the things I’ve found most intriguing, engaging, and fun.

But any writer needs a reader, even if I just have to imagine you're still there finding all of this entertaining.

So those of you at home? Thanks for playing along.

1 comment:

  1. Well as the time winds down, I wonder if you will continue to de-puzzle right here at home and if you will continue to blog about it.
    I've enjoyed the reading in many a Trader Joe's check-out lines carting 12 items or less! Time well spent!