Zap Oracle Card #440
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Card #440 – All Work and No Play Make Johnny a Dull Boy

  text © Jonathan Zap

It just occurred to me that this might be the first Zap Oracle card, created long before the oracle came into being, and also probably my oldest surviving art project. I was probably in first or second grade when I made this card, probably six or seven, and I remember the moment — I was sitting in front of my father’s open bedroom closet and there was a pile of leather shoes at the bottom of the closet lit by a very yellow incandescent light. I was filled with a primal feeling of rebellion from mundanity, from boring, uncreative homework and school and an unnecessary visual blandness and monotonous aspect of the Babylon Matrix, a quality that was personified in this annoyingly conventional, excessively posed publicity photo I had found somewhere of Carla Thomas, a meaningless celebrity as far as I was concerned, and who was posed with a pure persona face, a dressed up doll’s face that had no mutant individuality. I felt a primal realization erupt in me and with it the will to turn this offending object into an image and word artifact. A will to mock and mutate the reigning reality welled up, and I found myself defacing this artifact of mundanity with red and blue markers, rageful annoyance with reality becoming gleeful abandon in the opportunity to mutate it a bit. I turned the card over and, summing up everything I was feeling in very childish handwriting, I wrote: “All work and no play make Johnny a very dull boy.”

Creative, imaginative play is necessary to being human, and is close to the core of being a mutant. We have been conditioned to think of play as frivolous, and work as virtuous. But play can be life-saving and life-creating, and work, in so many cases, in so many parts of the world, can be a debilitating hardship; a twelve year old sewing sneakers for fourteen hours under flickering florescent light. I made this card as an act of rebellion from the genuine oppression of mundanity. My psyche was not wired for P.S. 86 (Public School 86) in the Bronx where we lined up in rows and recited things in unison and did busy work on sheets of white loose-leaf paper always with the same holes on the side, the same red margin, the uniformly spaced faint blue lines. Of course, from a larger point of view, this was exactly where I needed to be to strengthen my will to rebel and so forth. But as an environment to encourage psyche, and the growth of creativity, the reality I found myself in was organized all wrong, or mostly all wrong, because there were nurturing and abundant elements in my childhood as well.

Elementary school is in the past for most of us. The question is what is our present relationship to work and play? Using myself as example, at the present moment I feel both play and work strongly engaged as I make this card. The play element is delight in the spontaneous and exhilarating relationship to the creative muse, a rediscovering of this little oddity from the past, cataloged in memory for decades, but only in the last hour becoming numinous and radiating shimmering waves of realization. Playing with these realizations, the card comes into focus as the artifact of a signature moment almost defining the myth of my childhood, perhaps of my incarnation, a low-pixel prototype for a mutant manifesto.

The card was a crude map of my incarnation situation and my response to the myth I was living out. The response was perfectly characteristic for me, and for the mutant path in general — willful play that is also a form of spontaneous ritual magic, creating an image and word spell calling for the fall of the Babylon Matrix. So that’s the “play” aspect of the present moment. There is an ecstatic engagement in what I am doing; it is challenging, but I feel up to the challenge, and I feel confident that I will find the right words and stream of ideas. My narcissism is inflamed, and I’m still in the triple espresso high of that inflammation. I am also in that highly desirable state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi called “flow.” But the obligation and the act of writing that last sentence was almost completely work. I knew that thoroughness demanded that I include something about flow, because it so related, but there was no newness in this realization for me, just a slightly grim laboriousness to dutifully explain flow for the sake of some oracle readers. (I do so, below.) Working on this card mostly feels effortless and flowing, but at the same time, waxing and waning, an effortful feeling of will and energy is being summoned, edge-of-the-seat focus to get it right, so it is not relaxed and casual play, not like finger painting after a good lunch with rose and orange colored sunlight streaming through the windows. Working on this card is a bit more edgy and high adrenaline, an intense play, the sort of play any athlete has experienced, any musician or artist of any kind who gets into a zone of flowing intensity. That state of flow is the ideal melding of play/work for many of us.

In a more casual type of play, I can be entertained and sometimes enlightened by thoughts and intuitions appearing on my inner stage, I’m not laboriously working them, though I may occasionally note them in a little digital audio recorder I keep at hand. While this is happening, I could very contentedly multi-task, and do an easy mechanical task such as laundry or dishes. The mechanical tasks are just a form of light exercise while I am mostly playing within. During much of multi-task time I am in headphone world, listening to podcasts or audio books — nonfiction, novels, great works of fantasy. Sometimes there is real participation mystique with a novel or great fantasy work, and I am far more in the world of these subcreations than the world of the laundry or dishes. Work with absolutely no play to it is, for me, a vision of hell. It is a hell that exists for so many factory and cubicle workers, the fate of billions, work done with no enthusiasm, no creative engagement, disassociated mechanical work that may still require a lot of attention. There is a way to bring creative play into even such a situation of grim work, and that is to engage it with obsessive enthusiasm to perfect your relationship to the work, approaching the task as an Olympic athlete approaches his/her event. With this warrior stance you bring a Zen discipline to the task, performing the task, tea ceremony like, as an impeccable act done for its own sake. Acts done with a high degree of impeccability are likely to be developmental as well.

flow is the ideal state which melds play/work. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (and the spelling of his name is not an example of a flow) grew up in Czechoslovokia during World War II and in its aftermath, and most of the people he knew were very, very unhappy. As a psychologist, he became very interested in discovering what makes people happy, and that led to his designing an elegantly simple and powerful experiment. He gave people from all walks of life — executives, street people, etc. — pagers, and at random intervals a computer at the University of Chicago sent out pages and the subjects had to stop what they were doing for a moment, rate the activity on a scale of 1 to 10 based on how happy they felt, and write a bit about what they were doing at the time. Mihaly wanted to see if there was a characteristic state associated with happiness, and he discovered that with remarkable consistency there was indeed such a state which he called flow. Click on the word to read the full Wikipedia entry, but here is an excerpt:

“Csikszentmihalyi identifies the following as accompanying an experience of flow:

1. Clear goals (expectations and rules are discernible and goals are attainable and align appropriately with one’s skill set and abilities).

2. Concentrating and focusing, a high degree of concentration on a limited field (a person engaged in the activity will have the opportunity to focus and to delve deeply into it).

3. A loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, the merging of action and awareness.

4. Distorted sense of time, one’s subjective experience of time is altered.

5. Direct and immediate feedback (successes and failures in the course of the activity are apparent, so that behavior can be adjusted as needed).

6. Balance between ability level and challenge (the activity is neither too easy nor too difficult).

7. A sense of personal control over the situation or activity.

8. The activity is intrinsically rewarding, so there is an effortlessness of action.

9. People become absorbed in their activity, and focus of awareness is narrowed down to the activity itself, action awareness merging (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975. p.72).

Not all are needed for flow to be experienced.”

One of the people Mihaly studied who was most reliably able to get into flow was an Hispanic guy who worked on the assembly line of a movie projector factory. He approached his task as a game or sport and with the perfectionism of an Olympic athlete. He worked on the efficiency of his movements so as to bring his average time down for his assembly task. Eventually he got an assembly task that took most people two and a half minutes down to thirty-eight seconds. After that he plateaued, so he asked for another task on the assembly line so that he could have a new challenge. He reported that he was never bored at work, for him it was a game or sport, the time at work flew by and before he knew it it was time to go home.

Depending on the position of this card, consider this a propitious moment to consider your relationship to work and play.