I was sitting in class the other day in a particularly unimportant lecture. The professor was recapping the homework, and as this particular homework was not of any issue to me, I had little interest in going over it again. Instead, I pulled a piece of paper from the lecture packet she had handed out, and began folding a paper airplane.
I used to fold a lot of them in my childhood. My brother and I would try out different folding techniques and see which ones flew the farthest. Most of our attempts were unmiraculous, the planes flying a few feet before crash-landing on the carpet. But a select few were revolutionary. You’d get the folds exactly even with each other, there’d be enough weight in the front to carry it, and the next thing you know you’re taking it to a bigger room to try to get an accurate measurement of just how far it went. I never thought about how all those paper airplanes I made might contribute to a career in aerospace or origami. I just liked throwing paper airplanes.
The abomination I was folding in class wasn’t matching up to those precious few perfect planes of my childhood. I tossed it into my backpack, tearing another page from the lecture packet.
“You should make a cootie catcher,” the girl next to me suggested.
The cootie catcher is a peculiar object. It loses all of its proper mystery around the age of ten, when one finally learns to game the system. The first step was useless, you only needed the last two steps to guarantee the number you wanted. If you saw the one you wished to choose after the first round of shuffling, you’d simply pick an even number so that after the second round of shuffling, you’d end up right back where you started. And if you didn’t see it, you’d pick an odd number, and sure enough after the shuffling there it would appear, the number you’d wanted all along. The whole mess seems rather drawn out and unnecessarily complex; it would be much more efficient to write down 8 random phrases, have a friend choose a number, and read the corresponding sentence aloud.
But it wouldn’t be the same, would it? The magic in the cootie catcher is the ritual. The illusion. All the purposeless choosing and shuffling, it brings life to an otherwise lifeless leaf of paper. It encourages play, joy, mystery and laughter. It doesn’t get you anywhere in life. It doesn’t provide any special insight. It’s nothing but unnecessary steps to a purposeless conclusion. And yet, whenever you see one, you’re compelled to pick a few numbers and pretend for a moment that your fate is no longer in your hands.
Naturally, I filled my cootie catcher with a bunch of crass jokes and monkey-paw fortunes. I nudged the girl who’d recommended this new direction for my art and pushed the cootie catcher in her direction.
“4,” she whispered.
One. Two. Three. Four.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight.
I open the flap. Your wish to have a million dollars finally comes true, because you robbed the World Wildlife Fund. Pandas are dying because of you. You monster.
She laughs, mouthing “oh my God” and covering her mouth. She’s paying attention to the lecture, though, and I don’t want to take away from her learning. My mind begins to drift to all of those childhood rituals we’ve all grown out of.
It used to be my brother and I would come to a consensus on a difficult decision the same way most children did. We knew we’d get an ass-chewing if we fought, so we did the next best thing.
Eenie Meenie, Miney, Moe. Catch a tiger by his toe. If he hollers let ’em go. Eenie Meenie Miney Moe.
That worked for awhile, but sooner or later one of us figured out the trick. All you had to do was pick the one you didn’t want as your starting point, and the nursery rhyme would always land you on the other one instead. The ritual we had relied on for so long was finally made clear; it obfuscated, it didn’t randomize. And so we came up with new methods, flipping coins, throwing playing cards in the air and seeing which face they’d land on, rolling dice. Still deterministic methods, but far enough removed from our ability to predict the outcome so as to serve their purpose. I guess that’s all you really need to feel like you’re throwing it all to the winds of fate: something to surprise your passions.
We would often hold dunking contests in the basement. We had a small workout trampoline and a plastic fisher price basketball hoop set up where we could jump and do tricks before slamming one home. Sometimes we would judge each others’ tricks. If one of us accomplished something really cool, like a 360 spin, or the coup de grâce – an alleyoop – we’d scrawl a 10 on a piece of paper and prepare for the next dunk of our own. We never really thought of it as competitive. We’d give each other mulligans, we’d grade each other justly based on how cool it was, and every score was up for revision if one of us thought it was cooler than the other did. We’d still tally up the scores at the end of course, but that was because we had learned every competition needed a winner, not because we cared about winning. We kept score much like Drew Carey on Whose Line is It, Anyway? The show was made up, and the points didn’t matter.
One of our favorite things to do as children was to go outside after a big rain and play around in the street gutter. We’d dam up the works with rocks and twigs and try to create the biggest pools of water we could. Sometimes we’d make a few of them and then release some leaves a bit farther up, one for each of us, and watch them race.
One time, during a particularly heavy rain which hadn’t turned into a thunderstorm (a rarity in Colorado) our mother let us play outside in our rain gear. We filled bucket after bucket and dumped it into the wheelbarrow, only to empty it and watch as the water rushed down the driveway. This was very serious business. We’d do similar things at our local reservoir, digging pathways and lakes in the sand so we could watch the water run down it. Always very managerial: dig here, dig there, go get that shovel, we’ve got to strengthen this wall, I’m going to go get some water, where’s the big bucket? Real, important shit.
The girl that was sitting next to me prods my shoulder and gestures at the cootie catcher. I hold it out for her again.
“1,” she says under her breath.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six.
I open the flap. In an unforeseen turn of events, you win the Republican Party Presidential Nomination. Unfortunately, it’s because you blew Ted Cruz in a back alley.
She smiled again, trying to stifle her laughter so the rest of the class wouldn’t hear it. I laughed too, not because I found the fortune I had written particularly funny, but because she was laughing. It’s contagious, after all.
We do very little without a purpose, these days. Our actions are calculated to produce specific outcomes. We spend hours every night doing homework to procure a degree. We spend years in a cubicle, taking calls or filling in forms to bring home a decent paycheck. Even our leisure time is purposeful. We play video games to win, we read not for pleasure but because it will make us smarter. We eat kale. We run. We don’t like it, but we do it because we want to be thinner, healthier, sexier. We eschew passion for productivity, we justify our actions not because we enjoy them, but because they are prudent.
And all of this is well and good. Life without purpose is directionless.
But so is purpose without life.