Packing = Play. For some.

This post marks the first in a series of stories about our post-retirement van adventure from Ohio to Alaska and back in summer 2018. By the numbers: 13,016 miles. 118 days. 19 states. 3 Canadian provinces. 2 ferries. 0 motels. And only one marital spat. (But that’s a story for a later post.)

Packing. Some people’s idea of play. Me, not so much. So it’s a good thing that my husband, Jim, loves to. He retired from his nursing job a month before I was done teaching, which gave him time to pack and repack our 2007 Chevy van a dozen times before we hit the road. He tucked toothbrushes and toothpaste into Styrofoam by the sink. Created a snug spot for our favorite grill pan for sourdough pancakes above our bed. And hung the broom and dust pan near the door. In short, one OCD packer in the family is a good thing when preparing for four to six months van camping.

On the other hand, I had maybe a day or so after turning in grades to toss my clothes into my allotted 1 ½ x 2 x 3 foot compartment. The key was to take fast-drying multipurpose items. I recently found my packing list. Honestly, what was I thinking when I packed four jackets and a down vest? I never pulled out the long underwear, wool hat or sundress. As photos will show, I apparently wore the same hoodie and shorts all summer. But I’m glad I took Gore-Tex pants, which saved me in a day-long, cold rain in Seward, Alaska.

One major planning oops: A good roadmap of Alaska. But, come on, we’re not dinosaurs. Old people use printed maps. But we soon realized that we would rarely have cell service in Alaska, and thus no Internet to plan routes or Google Maps to get us there. Good thing there are not that many roads in Alaska but there are lots of visitor centers offering free maps. I remember the shock in a fellow camper’s voice in Smithers, BC, a launching point for travelers heading to Alaska: “You don’t have Mileposts?” she asked, pulling out her highlighted Bible of all travel planners. But I don’t like travel guides, specially not ones that have mile-by-mile entries for some 15,000 miles.

If this journey was to be about anything, it was discovery. Studying what I was about to see outside the van windows sounds like work. Not play.

So, off we went to Alaska, via Boulder, Colorado, and Sante Fe, New Mexico. I told you we needed maps.

Want a tour of our van and how it’s packed? Check out Syd and Macky’s YouTube video here.


Ah, the life of an Italian street dog

Beach tag

Street dogs have all the fun. Or so it appeared when I watched four dogs splashing in the sea and playing tag along a beach in Sicily. I wasn’t in Italy to study canine behavior. Though, as it turned out, it was hard not to.

Small dogs darted underfoot as my daughter and I walked the narrow streets. A scruffy sheep dog snuggled into the dirt of a tree bed as we sipped cappuccinos at an outside café. We were passed by a few pooches riding shotgun on their owners’ scooters, noses lifted to snatch passing scents.

At the beach, one pup was obviously the play instigator. He had brown merle hair on top and a concrete grey belly. He nipped at the others’ necks and enticed them toward the surf. When his playmates’ enthusiasm began to wane, he circled around to bite their heels until they picked up the chase. A big yellow lab mix called the timeouts. Hearing a short throaty growl from him, the others would back off. One by one they plopped onto the sand to rest as if someone had hit a pause button.

I was struck by their joy — and their rules. The dogs understood how rough they could tussle, which pup would be content to follow the others, and which dog called the shots. It’s clear there were right and wrong ways to behave, and they knew them. Play unfairly, and the group will ostracize you. Get a little testy, and things might escalate to fighting.

I later read that non-human primates are pretty savvy about keeping the peace in their social groups. Research in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 2005 noted that 90 percent of animals’ social interactions lean toward cooperation, not competition. I want to believe the percentage for people is at least that high.

But on that particular sunny day on the Mediterranean, I was not having profound thoughts about the human race. I was happy seeing silly dogs at play.

Win some. Lose some.

My August goal was to bring a spirit of playfulness to situations that normally make me want to curse, cry or cringe. Here’s how the month went.

Grocery line five deep. I strike a conversation with a fellow in the next grocery store checkout line about how tough it was to find a parking spot in the crowded lot. Turns out we’d both moved several construction cones to create a parking space. A friendly banter follows about whose checkout line will be fastest. The customer ahead of me has arugula that requires a price check. I roll my eyes. His cashier is too young to scan his wine. Ha, got him. Score this good.

Travel delay. My plane for a trip from Columbus to Eugene is broken. Hours pass as United scrambles to find a working plane in this hemisphere. The chance to make my connecting flight in Denver is evaporating and my two protein bars are gone. Another passenger shares some trivia: pilots don’t get paid during delays, only when flying. Oh, great, angry pilots. After two and a half hours, we board and when we arrive in Denver, I have three minutes until my connecting flight departs – some 40 gates away. Oddly enough, I feel challenged. It’s a game and I’m a distance runner. I tie my shoelaces tightly, though as it turn out, in a granny knot that comes loose. Passengers seated near me agree to be defensive blockers. Off the plane, I sprint the half-mile to my gate only to see it closed. Panting, I think I might cry, but the door opens and the flight attendant says, “There you are.” I am giddy with happiness. Score this very good.

Camping overnight in park-and-ride lot. The sun was setting over Lake Champlain in Vermont, we were tired of driving, and the campground shown on our map didn’t exist. While I’m usually cool with pulling the van into a park-and-ride lot for a night’s sleep, not so this evening. I cannot reconcile being this close to beauty and waking to the roar of some guy’s diesel truck at four a.m. Score this total fail.

Clearly, in the last example, I was not in the flow. That’s the non-scientific term researchers sometimes use to describe the mental state of play, a time when your mind is alert, in the moment and not stressed by the fear of failure or other distractions. But I am not daunted. If you can find lightness standing in the grocery store line or going through airport customs (see previous post), there is hope.

How hunter-gatherers helped me get through customs

It’s hard to feel playful when going through customs. On a recent trip to Montreal, while shuffling along the ropes of the airport’s customs line, I could think only of the 1978 movie Midnight Express. In its tense opening scene, Billy Hayes tries to leave Turkey with 2 kg of hashish strapped to his chest. Okay, transporting a package of trail mix from the U.S. to our northern neighbor is comparably small stuff. But still, one worries.

I was determined to bring to the customs line what I’d recently learned about hunter-gatherers. In Free to Learn, Peter Gray wrote of hunter-gatherers’ capacity to remain cheerful when faced with hardships. One researcher who lived among the Tauripans in Venezuela watched men of two different cultures handle a stressful canoe portage. The Europeans cursed and lost their tempers as the native South Americans created a game out of the stuck canoe and laughed heartily.

Gray theorized that hunter-gatherers gained their capacity for self-control from extensive childhood play. And he wrote that in difficult times, composure can keep things from going downhill even more.

However, I doubted that customs officials would find a loud belly-laugh amusing. So I smiled. I smiled with empathy at the Canadian woman who was told she was in the wrong line. I shot an I’m-a-mom-too smile at the parents behind me whose child had just jammed her suitcase into my heels. And for that nice fellow in the blue uniform who was telling me in French to do something, well, that was my dumb smile.

Hey, this is working, I thought. I approached the passport-stamping-man in the booth with eagerness. Did I imagine it, or did the sides of his mouth twitch when I declared the trail mix in my suitcase? Obviously, honesty was not enough. He asked what type of conference I was attending. “Journalism professors,” I replied. “It’s a lively bunch.”

That did it. He smiled, and he let slip the tiniest of laughs.

Spoiler alert: In the movie, things do not go so well for Billy.

Get giddy. Every day. (the goal for August)

At a campground in West Virginia, I chatted with a mountain biker who had just returned from a day of riding in the mountains. The fifty-something fellow said he and his friend flew down a muddy trail over gnarly roots and rocks, hooting and hollering: “We were just giddy, like a couple of kids.”

Mix together speed, mud and a little bit of terror and you end up with exhilaration. Not everyone’s recipe for achieving that I-don’t-have-a-worry-in-the-world feeling, but it works for me. I thought of other times when I achieve the giddy feeling he’d described. On long runs, yes. Writing, sometimes. Grocery shopping, not so much.

The nation’s play guru (my title) is Stuart Brown, a clinical researcher who has studied human and animal play for a number of years and founded the National Institute of Play. (Some of his early work took him into Texas prisons to study murderers, whose childhoods not surprisingly were short on play.) Brown writes of the “transformative” power of play and tells of waiting with others at a long line at the pharmacy, and the growing irritability of all involved. He decided to take a playful attitude and joked about what a great place this was to hang out. Before long, everyone was cracking jokes, and Brown left with a light feeling.

The idea of achieving a spirit of playfulness intrigues me. Clearly, the endorphins of exercise can get me to giddiness. But perhaps mundane everyday things can, too. And if the flipside of all this is being a play killer, well, who wants to be that person? Much better to be the one who makes standing in the bank line fun.

So this month, I try my hand at bringing playfulness to situations that seem dire. First up: Customs at the Canada-USA border. Stay tuned to next post.

See Blitz bow. See Ellen text.

Our border collie-beagle mix Blitz is a ham. Years ago, he learned a crowd-pleasing party trick. Say “ta-da” with a sweep of your arm and he quickly crouches down on his front legs, sending his back end and white-tipped tail high in the air. In large part, he figured out how to get treats for something he was going to do anyway. It’s called a play bow, a dog signal that evolutionary biologist Marc Bekoff, now professor emeritus at the University of Colorado at Boulder, first wrote about in the seventies. Think of it as the canine equivalent of “I am soooo ready to play.”

Blitz shows off his play bow.

True, Blitz loves to demo his play bow — it’s his go-to move inbetween spins, give-me-a-paw and other tricks – but he also bows when waiting for me to attach his leash before a walk or when trying to encourage our sulky female dog Halle to tussle. Both his canine buddy and I understand the signal.

There are embellishments to the play bow. Blitz paws and nudges. He takes short bouncy strides across the room. Sometimes Halle responds with playful bites on Blitz’s neck, but more often she answers back with throaty growls. Blitz understands a yes-growl from a not-now growl. For Halle, play involves something in her mouth (toy, sock, anything will do) and lots of ruckus, with a how-far-can-I-rachet-up-this-game edge to it. It’s clear when Halle is not interested in play. She flattens her ears, looks sideways – not a soft, inviting look at all – and turns away.

Dogs have a wide range of play signals, including ones that keep rough-and-tumble games from escalating. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bite your neck so hard,” or “I’ll take a turn on the bottom now.” Research by Bekoff and others points to a moral code underlying dogs’ play, with traits such as honesty and deceit evident. David Grimm, author of Citizen Canine, describes in a Washington Post article some of the recent research. Also, check out Bekoff’s Animal Emotions blog at or one of his books, such as Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed. (How can you not buy a book with that title?)

Bekoff believes that in studying the play of dogs, we can learn about ourselves. Which brings me back to how I communicate to my human friends that I’m ready to play.

I ask my husband, Jim, what signals he’s noticed I make.

“A text message?”

I vow to call my friends next time.

For Blitz, bath-time is definitely not play.

Bears at play and why I’m skipping the gym

Some photos just stick with you. Like the one on the front of the New York Times Science section that I saw almost a decade ago. Two adult polar bears stood on their hind legs, with huge paws locked on one another, their nostrils flared wide. But what looked like real fighting was just play. Researchers had watched as the adult male bears played for hours on end. Apparently the bears had time to spare in Churchill in the fall while waiting for the sea ice to form. In pairs, they wrestled, locked jaws and hugged until so tired they plopped down for a rest.

Another scientist, also in Churchill, observed as a curious polar bear investigated a camera lens cap that had fallen out of their all-terrain vehicle. With the slap of a paw, the animal skidded the cap across the ground like a hockey puck. Soon the rest of the bears there joined the game. As scientists puzzle out why polar bears play, they also question what seems to be bad timing from an evolutionary standpoint: At the end of a months-long summer fast, the hungry polar bears should be conserving energy, not horsing around. Sometimes play is that important. Check out Built for the Arctic: The Polar Bear’s Splendid Adaptations.

I found myself collecting stories of animals at play. Fun-loving seals. Sparring pronghorns. Sassy squirrel monkeys. I learned bison prefer late afternoon or early evenings for playdates. In short, I was hooked. As I began to read about human play, I noticed play pundits were espousing that we adults trade in our gym workouts for down and dirty, unstructured play as a cure for anxiety and a host of other ills. Well, I thought, I’m in for that.

Hence this blog, Prof at Play: It’s part exploration of the science of play and part personal. Follow along as I begin a journey to add more play in my life. But first, being the methodical journalist that I am, I’ll begin by observing animals and humans at play. (But, geez, that’s not much of a playful start; should I go paddleboarding instead?) In any case, I’m not ready for play fighting. Yet.