May 2018 Fiction Feature: Catherine Aitken

May 2018 Fiction Feature: Catherine Aitken

Coming To Terms; The Play Deficit Disorder, Peter, and The Men With Book Necklaces

By Catherine Aitken


“I was on my way to the National Association of Children’s Play Annual Conference in San Diego when it happened. It was hot and dry, and the wind was sweeping my hair back and forth across my forehead like a broom, my Pomade hair mousse wasn’t holding. I’ve been balding for years now… Anyways, I was rehearsing my lecture about the importance of play, imagining the audience’s reaction, preparing myself for my last line—then I woke up on the ground, four men looking over me, books dangling from their necks like necklaces.”

            “Did you recognize the books or the men?”

            “No and no. But I’ll tell you this, those men were mesmerizing, like modern and flashy versions of Christ’s apostles. I wanted to touch them so bad.”


            “I couldn’t reach. Maybe I was in shock or something, I don’t know.”

            “What else.”

            “They said it was urgent. They said I was needed.”

 I woke up a cat’s tail length above the ground, my bald spot glowing. The wall behind me shimmered with specks of dust, blue and gold. And I could hear the air between me and the ground as it regarded my body, consenting to the whims and conditions of this event.

When I was returned to ground, I was confronted by a sheet of paper that bore the instructions: “Stay for two days. Wait for the artifacts to appear. Collect the dust from the wall as it falls. When you know something, remember it knows more.” I folded the instructions into a boat a faced the wall. And when my bald spot ceased glowing, the dust fell in heaps, dumping like sheets of snow stacking on top of my head, upside down snow-cone style.

When it eventually stopped falling, I tipped my head forward, piling the blue-gold dust in the paper boat. “There,” I said, “one done.”

The now dustless wall marked a sort of book-end to a flat, bare landscape expanding in all directions. No trees, just the smell of them. No mountains, just the sound of them. It must have been daybreak because the sun sat to my right, modest, waiting to distribute its warmth. As far as I could tell, I was alone in this place with this boat and this dust. Exhaling audibly, I rested my back against the wall. “One done,” I repeated.

“I need to know exactly what happened, Peter. This is serious. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t.”

            “Then I’ll repeat: They said it was urgent. They said I was needed.”

            “But where did you go? How long were you there?”

            “This is the worst part about it: I missed my lecture, didn’t get to deliver my tagline, watch the audience react, recede from the stage confident. A damn shame. Let me tell you what it is.”

            “What what is?”

            “The tagline!”

            “Ok, but then we’ll continue.”

            “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

I waited the way people wait for movies to start. I waited for the artifacts to present themselves. But the task, to wait, was difficult. The sun kept its warmth to itself, sharing only its brightness, and the dust kept jumping ship, sharing itself with the ground the way best friends share secrets. Over and over, I got up, shivering, and piled the dust in the boat, speck by speck.

I was excluded in this place with this boat and this dust. The trees smelled promisingly gigantic, but provided no shade; the mountains sounded clever and intricate, but provided no views. By the end of the first day, no artifacts had presented themselves, and I grew impatient.

So I explained it to myself this way: I am here to find two artifacts. I can use the dust to find the artifacts. This is how they will appear.

 Pleased with my explanation, I grabbed the boat and sprinkled handfuls of specks across my body. Availing nothing, I re-piled the dust in the boat, speck by speck, and submerged my hands in it. When this too availed nothing, I tried alternatives: I rolled in it; I threw it in the air and caught it with my tongue; I counted it, blue speck by gold speck by blue speck; I built an altar out of it and prayed to it; I rubbed it on my bald spot; I inhaled and exhaled it. When these too availed nothing, when no artifacts appeared, I leaned against the wall, dizzied and frustrated, mumbling to myself, “One done.”

              “One of your best lines yet, Peter. Now let’s get on.”

            “Yes. The men, the book necklaces, and the event, oh my!” Peter chanted, finger snapping and whistling.

            “Cut it out.”

“because, because, because, because, because…because of the wonderful things he does! Where are we off to, Dawson? ”

“Enough. I’m not one of your protégés and this isn’t one of your lectures. Let me show you something.”

 Peter’s smile flattened, “Ok, but you would benefit from my lectures. I can see old-ageness imprinting on your face now,” he said, perking up. “You think I’m a con-artist, but this play stuff is important, it changes people’s lives. I’m so excited just talking about it, I think my bald spot’s tingling,” he added, winking.

“Sure. Now, have a look.”

The dust was scattered on the ground when I woke up and I was still shivering. The sun was still bright and unwarm. The trees still shadeless; the mountains still viewless. I was more impatient but less determined today, day two. I chose not to re-pile the dust, speck by speck. “Stay,” I said to it.

And explained it to myself this way: The dust must stay the way I stay. The dust must wait the way I wait. The dust must stay on the ground; the dust must wait until I decide to collect it.

Pleased with my assertion, I left the dust scattered on the ground—I cackled at it; I danced a jig around it; I flicked it at the wall; I cried pitying tears for it; I stomped on it. Through this it stayed, it waited. “A damn shame,” I murmured. “Only one done.”

And then. That’s when it happened. That’s when they appeared. One, two, three, four men, wearing books around their necks like necklaces. They looked at the dust. They reached for the dust. They had come for the dust. And whispering, chanting, screeching, I know what nothing means, and I keep on playing, they took the dust, my bald spot glowing.

“What is it?” Peter asked. The computer shimmered blue and gold.

“This is your Play Chart. The blue and gold show the presence of the Play Deficit Disorder.”

Dawson continued.

“It’s a new diagnosis. One in every fifty people have it, globally. But it’s spreading and we don’t know why. That’s why I came to ask you about the men with book necklaces. Everyone who has the Play Deficit Disorder has experienced them,” he said, fascinated and smiling.

Dawson continued.

“The symptoms are strange—early balding, unrelenting jokes, inability to play normally. Some people have reported levitation, but that seems far-fetched.”

“Woah, did you feel that?!”


“I felt air under my feet. Shit. Thank you Apostle-like men with book necklaces, you’ve made me a Saint!” Peter said, raising his hands above his head in prayer, laughing.

“Peter,” Dawson paused, “we are just beginning to learn about this disorder and it’s imperative that I get as much information from you as possible. I am going to ask you one more time, what happened?”

“They said it was urgent. They said I was needed.”


January 18th, 2018, 10:30 a.m.

I first encountered the term “play deficit disorder” in 2014 when I was working for the National Association of Children’s Play. At the time, the term was being used by play scholars, advocates, and programs to diagnose what happens when children do not spend enough time outside, playing freely with little adult interference. I had mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it was raising awareness about the importance of play in children and young people’s lives, on the other hand, it categorized certain children as ‘playful’ and others as ‘unable to play’. Maybe my past interest in the “play deficit disorder” is why I am here, why the National Association of Children’s Play re-hired me to investigate this story.

My job is simple, but not easy. I have been asked to examine the contents of the story for clues that may (or may not) connect with the contemporary use of the term “play deficit disorder.” I don’t know why the story has received so little attention. The archivist said it was most likely written in the late 70s, but as far as I know, the “play deficit disorder” didn’t exist, as a term until 2012. But here it was.

The story is perplexing and non-linear, and it is not clear who, if anyone, we should trust. Peter dodges questions with jokes. (According to my colleagues, Peter was an amazing play scholar—playful, engaging, aware. He cared a lot about his students and always made classes fun, yet critical.) Dawson is suspiciously persistent and serious. And the third character, the one in the place with the boat and the dust, is enigmatic to say the least. To sift through my confusion, I think I’ll focus on the parts in the story when the word play appears.


January 19th, 2018, 3 p.m.

The first time the word play appears in the story is when Peter describes his lecture “about the importance of play.” Peter never details what this means in the story, but mentions it again later on when he tells Dawson “this play stuff is important.” My first question is this: how has play, for Peter and for me as a reader, become important? And, playing with dichotomies, what needs to be understood as unimportant in order for Peter to say that play is important. When I first read this line, it made sense to me, but why?

The first clue the story gives me is Peter’s bald spot. The two times he mentions the importance of play, he also talks about his bald spot. The first time, he says he’s been balding for years, the second time, his bald spot is tingling. These comments seem tangential, they don’t appear to add anything directly to the story, but I think they may be, in subtle and partial ways, advancing a definition about play that depends on a lack.

If play is important because it does something, like Peter says, “it changes people’s lives,” and a bald spot represents a lack but also a change for some, then perhaps the story, by placing baldness alongside the importance of play, reminds us that understanding the importance of play already depends on what it is not.  The importance of play, for Peter and for me as a reader, depends on knowing that somehow, somewhere there is a lack we can base definitions on—in this story, baldness.

Next, play appears in Peter’s slogan, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” The phrase’s repetition is “catchy,” and I understand why he’d use it as a tagline. Its meaning, however, doesn’t reveal itself immediately, especially in relation to play.

The two halves of the sentence depend on each other to create meaning, and the semicolon acts a gatekeeper between what isn’t true, the first sentence, and the (supposed) truth, the second sentence. As a whole, the phrase makes play—what it is, what it isn’t, how it should be, how it shouldn’t—a universal issue by using the word “we.” Then, it tells us what we do; all of us, at some point, in some way, stop playing.

The phrase’s lesson is in the word don’t, “we don’t stop playing because we grow old.” This phrase presumes that we, everyone, believes that playing stops, that we stop playing, because we grow old. In other words, it assumes that the reader believes that play is for those who have not yet grown old, children or youth. Once we move past this, we pass by the semicolon-as-gatekeeper, where we are told that “we grow old because we stop playing.”

In this statement, age and oldness have to do with play. But how? The phrase uses metaphor to explain. “Growing old,” in the second half of the phrase, is a metaphor for a way of being, a way of relating to yourself and the world, not literally aging. So, we can always keep playing if we don’t grow old, metaphorically.

Yet, there is something closed-off about the phrase’s use of metaphor, or my initial interpretation of it. Reading it, I am reminded of how Western thought—cue Descartes—understands metaphor as a lie, which fails to prove the “reality” of human existence. But if human existence depends on human beings to decide what metaphor means, or fails to explain, then its supposed shoddiness is a necessary ingredient for Western thought, or any one, really, to claim they can prove what and why reality is.

Metaphor and “proof” rely on each other. So, when “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing” gets interpreted as, “play can prevent us from growing old, at least figuratively,” then what understandings about oldness, growing, and play did we, Dawson, Peter, and I call on to construe this phrase as good or true or, in the very least, as “making sense.”

Speaking for myself, I live in culture that tells me, over and over, through advertising and medicine and stigma, that to grow old is bad, that it should be hidden and dismissed. This being so, then perhaps the “oomph” of the phrase, what makes it “catchy,” as Peter would say, depends on imagining oldness as the undesirable antithesis of play, stripping “growing old” of its productive potential. How might we understand play differently if it didn’t hinge on a metaphor that values certain ways of being, i.e. youth, over others?

January 20th, 2018, 7:22 a.m.

 I re-read the story five times last night and I am beginning to grow suspicious of Peter and his taglines. Is he the third, enigmatic character? If he is, what does he have to hide—why doesn’t he tell Dawson?

During my second reread, I skipped the dialogue between Peter and Dawson, I wanted to experience the dust, the boat, and the enigma uninterrupted. What I found was surprising: it inspired me. Maybe it was the repetition that drew me in, an incantation of sorts that I wanted to emulate. Or maybe I thought I could get the men with book necklaces to appear, ha.

Either way, I decided to read the story three more times. I read it laying down; I read it as a sing-along; I read it at dawn. And unlike the enigmatic character, it availed me two insights. First, the bald spot glows when the dust is given by the wall and taken away by the men with book necklaces. Second, the character’s ruination seems to begin with the words, “I explained it to myself this way.”   

Not yet sure what these insights offer my investigation, or how they relate to the “play deficit disorder.”


January 20st, 2018, 5 p.m.

The third time the word play appears in the story, it’s the men with book necklaces who whisper, chant, and screech, “I know what nothing means, and I keep on playing.” In the context of the story, this line is eerie. There is an omnipresent tone to it, a decidedness, which makes it difficult to tease out what play means in relation to nothing. Maybe this is the point, to confuse and disorient, but I’ve been hired to probe so I will investigate.

This line is very different from Peter’s. For one, it’s in first-person, which strikes me as odd because four men utter it at once. Who knows what nothing means? Do the four men, collectively, create an I?

Also, understanding play in this line does not depend on a dichotomy the way Peter’s did. This is in part, I think, because the grammar functions differently. The comma combines “I know what nothing means” with “and I keep on playing.” It represents a continuation, not a change.

Knowing what “nothing means” flows through the rest of the sentence because the word “and” signifies that the men with the book necklaces already knew what nothing meant before they kept on playing. The line would be very different if it read, “I know what nothing means, but I keep on playing.” This would evoke, for me, a decision to keep playing despite knowing what “nothing means.” Yet playing, in this line, does not depend on what “nothing means,” it just continues anyways.  

 Unlike Peter’s tagline, which debunks and cautions, this line suggests itself. It says, “Now that I’m here, what will you make of me?” Reservoirs of knowledge about nothingness and play are no use in answering this question. It’s personal. Perhaps it’s suggesting that play is always already in process, not to be found anywhere or taken away by anyone, but here now, imbuing the hands I use to type this investigation, letter by letter, in search for answers.


January 21st, 2018, 12 p.m.

 Last night, I sifted through articles I wrote about the children’s play in 2014, scanning for connections between contemporary uses of the “play deficit disorder” and this story. I found this statement:

Left unquestioned, the “play deficit disorder” risks, at best, becoming a fashionable marketing tool for play programs and advocates, and at worst, reinforcing systems of oppression that ceaselessly order and categorize children’s behavior based on a set of standards which, socially and historically, intend to exclude many.

This line struck me because it seemed so sure of itself, debunking and cautioning, like Peter’s tagline, and so sure of what the “play deficit disorder” was, why it is, and what it does. I don’t disagree with this statement, I’d back it up today, again and again, because it was (and is) an aspect of my resistance to and political orientations towards the “play deficit disorder.” I’ve included this statement here to compare it with how the “play deficit disorder” appears in the story.

Towards the end, Peter’s been diagnosed and Dawson is explaining to him why. Agreeing with Dawson, I would say that Peter exhibits symptoms of the “play deficit disorder,”—balding, unrelenting jokes—but this seems hasty. Instead, I’m curious about why Dawson is enthralled by the “play deficit disorder.” Plus, the symptoms Dawson describes differ from the 2014 symptoms I am familiar with, except the “inability to play normally,” which exists today and are backed with ubiquitous “evidence” from science, health and medical institutions.

Like the story, the “play deficit disorder,” is a perplexing term. Through it, the words play, deficit, and disorder coalesce in such a way that they create meaning different than the words play, deficit, and disorder can produce on their own.

The term, like Dawson explains, is a diagnosis. It describes someone or something who/that is deficient in play because they/it do not have enough of it (deficit) and who/that does not adhere to the systemic ordering, or the typical arrangement, and is therefore disordered.

Normative assumptions abound within the term—about what it means to play, what it means to be a “normal” player, what this should be and look like, and who decides these meanings and appearances. From what I know of the term, it is used to diagnose those who play alone, play “aggressively,” and refuse to play.

It is one of those terms that has, as I’ll call it, a backwards effects. What I mean by this is that the “play deficit disorder” gains its diagnostic meaning by wrapping itself on top of circumstances and actions that took place in the past, like cellophane. It isn’t until the cellophane’s been wrapped that we (those diagnosing and those being diagnosed) can imagine actions, bodies and circumstances as deficient and disordered. And once the cellophane’s there, and its capacity to preserve and protect has been agreed upon, it becomes, for the diagnosers, difficult to imagine otherwise.  

Dawson is the diagnoser unable to imagine otherwise. But still, there is something different about the “play deficit disorder” in the story. It appears to be an experience rather than a list of behaviors, like the ones that are used today to describe children who are played deprived—narcissistic, lack of social skills, anxiety. Its existence depends on the men with book necklaces. Is it the men with book necklaces? Maybe. Is it a thing—the dust? I don’t think so. Is it the enigmatic place with the enigmatic character? More likely so. But I can’t let go of my suspicions of Peter. Three times he repeats: “They said it was urgent. They said I was needed.” Trance-like, no elucidation. He must be involved. Who was summoning him?

I am mired by the term “play deficit disorder” in the story. Its context, or cellophane, if I may, is ungraspable. It is not, entirely, a marketing tool nor, entirely, an oppressive ordering system for children’s behavior. Could it be, in this story, something else? There are no answers, just the shape of them. No facts, just the clothes they wear.


I just got a call from the Association, they think they found another story about the “play deficit disorder” and are waiting on confirmation by a historical archivist. This is great news! The story may provide more insights, clues and information into the existence of the “play deficit disorder” pre 2014. I am going to put this story on hold for two days while I meet with my boss and colleagues in New York.

They say it’s urgent. They say I’m needed.

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