Play is the root of everything. Every relationship begins with play. Play is the beginning of trust.
These are among the lessons you learn when you hang out with Gary Auerbach, otherwise known as The Frisbee Guy. Gary’s life work is play. In 1995, Gary and his Frisbee partner won the World Championship in Freestyle Frisbee. Gary has been promoting Frisbee, and play in general, ever since.
He travels the country from the Mid-Atlantic and North East to North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and New Orleans, showing folks how to catch and toss a Frisbee and introducing people of all ages to his favorite sport.
I first met Gary in 2012 through my husband, who is also a performer and has attended many showcases with him. The Frisbee Guy stayed at our house last summer as he passed through town for a show. In gratitude, he brought a fresh berry pie. While my daughter and I served up the dessert, the Champion of Play told stories about his travels. I admired how sure he was of what he loved to do and his complete lack of pretense. While we talked, he brought out a handful of little plastic pin-wheel toys called Flarbles. They reminded me of the winged elm tree seeds I remember tossing in the air as a kid, to watch them twirl back down. “These are helicopters,” I said, reminiscing.
Gary showed my teenage daughter and me how to hold the stem of the plastic helicopters between our ‘snapping fingers’ and how to give a quick flick and watch them go. At first, I fumbled my Flarbles; they repeatedly refused to launch. I laughed as they bounced off the table and hit the floor. But within a few tries I had the little pink and green tops flying across the room. So did Carolyn. I was surprised at how amusing this was and how it immediately put us all at ease.
Gary is an unfailingly kind and patient person and I’ve only ever seen him in a cheerful mood. Think of an extra-energetic Mr. Rogers with curly auburn hair. At 47, he carries himself with the agility of a much younger person and with the centeredness of a studied guru. His message is simple. Play a little more. Stress a little less. Here’s a Frisbee. It’s easy. Let me show you.
At his shows for schools, camps, corporate and family events, Gary combines athletics, story-telling, a little juggling and a few tricks — like the one where he tosses a Frisbee across the full length of a basketball court and sinks it in the opposing basket. These days, his demonstrations are less about showing-off his skills than they are about helping folks in the audience discover what they can do. “I want to show people what they can learn in an hour or ten seconds, not 10,000 hours,” he says.
At a typical summer camp demonstration, I watched the kids lined up in rows in a gymnasium to practice the crab catch and alligator catch, following The Frisbee Guy’s example. Then he taught them to toss a Frisbee in the air and clap their hands before they caught it again. For the older grades, he explained the wide array of newer Frisbee sports, from Ultimate Frisbee to Frisbee baseball, disc golf and Frisbee bowling. For the littler ones, he took the time to let each child spin a Frisbee on one finger. For this, he used a ‘trainer Frisbee’ called a spinjammer with a place-holder on the underside, making it easier to learn. One by one, the tots watched in amazement as the spinning discs on their fingers seemed to balance in mid-air.
In addition to winning the World Championships in “freestyle”, Gary has been to several world club championships in Ultimate Frisbee. While he could focus on competitive play, he prefers his traveling, interactive shows as a way of connecting with people. “Even though I am absent at each year’s World Championships, I am still promoting the sport. I would like to reach thousands and thousands of people. Put a Frisbee in their hands. And you might say, Oh, no, I can’t. But in a few minutes I can show you that you can,” he says.
Gary points out that when people play together, they start connecting. They smile. Laugh. Let down some barriers. They relax a little more. Stress a little less.
The world could use a little more play. Most of us as adults make a point of scheduling our lives around work, taking care of home and families, maybe the occasional night out, some creative projects, reading, maybe exercise. But fun for the sake of fun? Come to think of it, I run out of day before I get to that part. I bet most of us do.
Fortunately, according to Gary, our nation is in the midst of massive movement bringing people back to a community of play. In August, Pittsburgh held its annual City of Play Festival, one of many national conferences discussing play and introducing new games. At the Come Out and Play Festival in New York, one group invented a game called Bicycle Opener, a team sport with hula hoop goals attached to bicycle helmets. These are grown-ups we’re talking about. Gary’s favorite play conference is the US Play Coalition in Clemson, South Carolina, where he has presented sessions on “Hands-On Play,” and plans to again.
Whether it’s a team of co-workers or a congregation or a family, the way to build relationships is through play, Gary says. “Play together at least once a week. Play something new. When you see what makes your peers laugh, you see what makes them tick, what motivates them. And that’s some deep insight!”
Gary has lots of new ideas for promoting play. One of these is to present himself as a Playcologist, a guy in a labcoat with a booth like Lucy with her psychiatrist booth in a Peanuts cartoon. At your appointment, the Playcologist will run some stress tests and give you a play prescription. He might prescribe you to skip around, or stand on one foot and make silly faces. Or he might get you to spin a Flarble in your kitchen.
I happened to find one of the little helicopters while cleaning my living room recently. I wondered where the rest of them disappeared to and I thought about tossing this one out before it jammed the vacuum cleaner. But instead I shut off the machine. I picked up the pinwheel, pinched it between my snapping fingers and set it loose in the air. It hit a wall. So I tried again. It spit straight to the floor. So I gave it several more goes.
Well, waddya know. There’s hope for me, yet. Eventually, I got that little toy to fly again. I set the gift aside in a safe place. And with a slightly brighter heart, I went back to my cleaning.