Level Up: Play’s The Thing

We take a break from the run of news items with a fresh installment in the new Level Up category, in which I share my articles on becoming not just better dressed, but a better man. This piece just came out in the latest issue of Forum, a privately circulated men’s lifestyle magazine produced by the publishers of MR (Menswear Retailer), for which I’ve written essays for over a dozen years.

If you’re stuck in a mid-life slump — as I’ve found out many of my acquaintances are — one of the many keys you’ll need to pull yourself out if it is recapturing your sense of what psychologists call “divine play,” which emanates from the “divine child” within. Basically, it’s the sense of joy and wonder that you had as a boy, before the complexities of adolescence and adulthood set in. The book mentioned herein — “King, Warrior, Magician Love: Rediscovering The Archetypes Of The Mature Masculine,” by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette — I cannot recommend highly enough. There are also some related lectures on YouTube.

Above, for our purposes here, is a shot from Ralph Lauren. The layout features Fred Astaire in flight and a rather daring outfit by the Duke of Windsor, and below is my extended “director’s cut” of the text. I hope these words will inspire you to get outside and have some fun this weekend, and peace be with you. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

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The Play’s The ThingBy Christian Chensvold
Forum, Fall 2018

Like most New York City neigborhoods, my slice of the Big Apple has a martial arts studio on almost every block. Not long ago I passed one with large windows, and inside saw a pack of parents filming with their smart phones, which gently bounced in their hands as they laughed. I stopped to peer inside, where there were two boys in the middle of the room sparring away — with headgear and pillowy gloves — like a couple of tousling puppies.

Here’s the twist: one kid was the archetypal fat bully, towering six inches over his opponent, the archetypal scrawny pipsqueak. It was a David-and-Goliath matchup straight out of Hollywood (and perhaps your most traumatic childhood memories). But there was the tiny one doing flying Superman punches and taking knocks on the head like it was just a game of tag. Having taken up boxing myself and begun to spar — coincidentally, with one partner six inches taller and another six inches shorter — I found the little one’s courage astonishing and admirable. Not only was he fearless, there was no anxious adult ego holding him back. He simply did what kids do when faced with any activity: he played.

With a silent salute I dubbed him my hero for the day. Actually more than just a day, since here I am writing about him.

Learning through fun, spontaneous play is a vital life energy that kids (and puppies) are masters of. In a cruel ironic reversal, the more we mature in other aspects of life, the more we lose that precious key we had as children: the ability to learn and experiment in a judgment-free state of mind. When we take on new skills as adults — either for work or play — too easily we succumb to paralysis by analysis, berating ourselves with self-criticism fueled by an insecure ego terrified of how we appear in the eyes of others, and, more importantly, ourselves, since we are always our toughest critics.

This carries over into every facet of life, for better or worse, including how we clothe ourselves. And the best-dressed men in history all stayed closely in touch with what psychologists call the “divine child” within, experimenting their way to quirks that became part of their signature style — opinions of others be damned. Throughout his life the Duke of Windsor braved sartorial excommunication with his innovations, which only served to strengthen his legacy. From the brown suede shoes he paired with town suits to the Fair Isle sweaters he incorporated into a gentleman’s golf wardrobe, and all the peacock colors and patterns he mixed in his resort wear. And what about Fred Astaire with his necktie improvised as a belt, or blousy oxford buttondowns that could have fit three of him inside? And Gianni Agnelli with watch worn over shirt cuff, and necktie outside of sweater (!). Of course, in the end the line between individual quirk and contrived fashion statement (say, double-monk straps worn sockless with a suit in winter) largely depends on execution, including whether the gesture is original or not.

Divine play is the primary energy of the “divine child,” the most important energy driving boyhood, according to Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette in “King, Warrior, Magician Love: Rediscovering The Archetypes Of The Mature Masculine,” a fascinating classic from the so-called men’s movement of the ‘90s. “The Divine Child within us is the source of life,” they write. “It possesses magical, empowering qualities, and getting in touch with it produces an enormous sense of well-being, enthusiasm for life, and great peace and joy.” Losing touch with it, on the other hand, blinds us to the possibilities of life, so that “we are never going to seize opportunities for newness and freshness.”

The way that little David was facing Goliath was how we should all deal with the bully within that tells us to sit down, shut up, and follow the rules. Whether its simply getting dressed in the morning or something greater, like pitching a crazy idea at work that might just be brilliant, allow the spontaneous sense of play to come out. From the mouth of babes comes great wisdom, as the saying goes. And sometimes in their actions, too.

14 Comments on "Level Up: Play’s The Thing"

  1. The Italians are masters at Sprezzatura, a way of having fun with clothes that translates into “studied non-chalance.” Little things like leaving button-down collars unbuttoned or wearing one’s watch over the shirt cuff instead of the wrist.

    Sprezzatura is the result of having a relaxed, playful, devil-may-care attitude toward life.

  2. Or at least appearing that way. Ars est celare artum.

  3. Robert C. Haines | September 21, 2018 at 5:11 pm | Reply

    It curious. I’m friends with a certain Italian man who is an expert on the history of men’s fashion, and is frequently pointed to as being an exemplar of personal style. He tells me that “sprezzatura” is bunk; that it’s just a gimmick that the media promotes.

  4. @Robert: Your friend may be right.

    As Christian astutely observes: “in the end the line between individual quirk and contrived fashion statement (say, double-monk straps worn sockless with a suit in winter) largely depends on execution, including whether the gesture is original or not.”

    It appears to me that all gestures in the direction of sprezzatura are contrived since there aren’t any original fashion novelties for men left anymore. Popped collars and sweaters worn over sport coats look so stale, derivative, and uninspiring in 2018.

  5. @Robert

    Regardless of how the term is currently employed, it’s a 500-year-old historical concept. Have you read Castiglione? I finally got to him this spring.

  6. Sprezzatura: Let’s ponder the definition:
    Studied carelessness, especially as a characteristic quality or style of art or literature.

  7. Sprezz is, for the most part, beyond contrived. However, it was always meant to be. Another weapon in one’s Machiavellian armoury. When I was at medical school, a friend and I ended up on the firm (team of doctors) of a well-known ball-breaker lady surgeon. My friend was very nervous indeed but I told him not to fear, took one collar tip and tucked it into the loop of my tie as it passed around the neck. “What are you doing?” he asked in alarm. I simply winked. As we joined the rest of the team for the start of the ward round, the great lady stopped mid-chastisement, look at me and then proceeded to untuck the collar point from my tie and smooth down the lapels of my white coat. My friend’s face was a picture to behold. Needless to say, I became the favourite student – because the maternal instinct was triggered. It was sprezzatura, aimed at disarming an opponent of one sort or another…

  8. Two words: Toy soldiers. The painting and collecting thereof. A rewarding and relaxing hobby. Road bicycling and cross-country skiing (weather permitting) too. Life-long interests that keep the boy in me alive at any rate, and the latter two hobbies are something our family of three does together depending on the season.

    Best Regards,

    Heinz-Ulrich von B.

  9. Toy soldiers. Churchill had hundreds and hundreds. Helps to have a separate large billiard room to spread them out. And somebody to dust.

  10. “The way that little David was facing Goliath was how we should all deal with the bully within that tells us to sit down, shut up, and follow the rules.”

    “Little David.” Oh Lord.

    One of the most misinterpreted stories–ever. The author’s audience would have known full well that Goliath was defeated well in advance of the showdown. “Little David” was a shepherd, which means he was a superb shot with the sling (used it to protect the sheep from predators)…which means he was the equivalent of a sniper. Deadly aim.

    Goliath, massive and clumsy and loud and the embodiment of empire, had a snowball’s chance in hell of surviving a smooth pebble to head. The helmet was pointless. The armor and heavy sword weighed him down.

    The story, interpreted rabbinically, is a reminder that the power of God, when put to action, isn’t big and boastful and ostentatious. It’s graceful and nimble…and clever.

    And it turns out divinity doesn’t run counter to ambition. David doesn’t agree to fight until he confirms the reward for killing the giant.

    “Tell me again. What is the reward?”

    Reply:
    “The king will give great wealth to the man who kills Goliath. He will also give him his daughter in marriage and will exempt his family from taxes in Israel.”

    We’re free to read David’s virile mind:
    “Uh, I’m all in. Now, where did I put my sling?”

  11. …oh, and then there’s this.

    Goliath didn’t see the sling and stones. David revealed only right (moments) before the act of slinging. Before that, Goliath is convinced that David plans to challenge him with the shepherd’s staff:

    “Am I a dog,” he roared at David, “that you come at me with a stick?”

    Thus another lesson for the challenging and slaying of bullies. Keep your intentions and weapons hidden. The element of surprise and all that. “He never knew what hit him” applies to the death of Goliath. Another victory for sneaky; another (predictable) loss for bravado. Keep the bully convinced of his (inevitable) victory … until it’s time to bring out the sling.

  12. Important to remember the context here is military sanctioned warfare. In all other arenas of life, I advocate peace, nonviolence, and as much avoiding of conflict as possible. Diplomacy in all things.

    “Bring out the sling” is figurative and thus not to be taken literally.

    Still, a wonderful story.

  13. @S.E.
    Absolutely superb. I wish I could learn something new like that more often.

  14. …”terrified of how we appear in the eyes of others”…

    Bubba, ain’t that the truth! It helps an awful lot if we choose better “others” to associate with.

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