So, Donkey Ears

I got such pleasure from playing Pictionary with four ESOL students last week.  It wasn’t the pleasure of playing Taboo, which gets everyone excited, energized by competition and the pressure of a three-minute timer.  And it wasn’t the pleasure of playing Apples to Apples, which gets everyone feeling silly, trying to be clever.  It was a quieter pleasure, and it felt special, out of the ordinary, even intimate.

We played our own version without teams or time limits, each of us taking a card and drawing on the white board, trying to get anyone else to see what we saw in our minds’ eyes.

It’s a curious process.  You go to the board with a vague image of, say, a donkey.  You see a pair of nostrils, hoofs, a tail.  You start with the head, and as you draw, you find your hand making those pointed donkey ears you hadn’t pictured along with the nostrils, hoof, and tail, but which are suddenly materializing as if from the drawing itself.

I suppose it’s like how words beget other words, like how, when I worked at the Library of Congress as a writer and couldn’t think of a word, I’d call my mom and say, “Help me with a word, it’s like . . .” and as I tried to put words to the idea, I would inevitably remember the word.  So, donkey ears.  It was like my hand knew what to do before I did.  Actually, I think it’s just a super-fast process of responding to the line as it’s traced on the board with a new thought of what to do next that comes so fast we don’t catch it.  It’s such a fast thought, yet so still and calm we hardly notice it.

Sometimes when you see a great movie, you exist in its afterglow for the rest of the day, maybe the next day even.  This game of Pictionary was a bit like that.  It gently haunted me.  Why was it so special?  Was it because we weren’t competing, just enjoying the act of drawing, the fun of guessing?  Was it because we’d given up the pretense of competition, admitting to ourselves and each other that these simple things gave us pleasure, that these frivolous things were worth doing?

Maybe I’m making too much of this.  Maybe to the students we were just killing time and taking a break from the text book.  But the drawings.  I feel like if I’d just taken a few pictures of the drawings, they’d speak for themselves.  There was a stunning deer with muscley legs, a triumphant entrance to the magic kingdom, a cute piranha, a mountain landscape, a jungle, an ape, a flying monkey.

But I didn’t take pictures, though I kept thinking about it as we played.  I didn’t have a blog post in mind, was just enchanted by the drawings.  But I told myself to just pay attention and enjoy the game.  Maybe it was the right call.  Maybe taking pictures would have changed the experience, made us self-conscious, when the beauty of the drawings was their complete lack of pretension.  Direct and fresh, the drawings were not actually an attempt to communicate so much as an act of conjuring.

I’m reminded of the cave paintings in Lascaux. I remember being told in an art history class that the Paleolithic painters depicted animals to conjure them, make them present, maybe in the cave or maybe later, for dinner.  I always struggled to wrap my head around that idea.  But comparing Taboo to Pictionary, I begin to get it.  In Taboo you try to get your audience to think of a certain word.  You throw associations at them, trying to push the right button.  It’s a manipulation.  In Pictionary you turn your back on your audience and just try to do justice to thing itself—to that deer or donkey.  You try to bring it into the room.  This also reminds me of children’s drawings, which are tributes to the big blue Earth and all it contains, to cousins Sun, Sky, and Moon.  Maybe the intimacy is between the drawer and the drawn.

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