It comes in different colors. It’s soft and squishy. You can make things out of it, or just squeeze it in your hands. It’s Play-Doh. You might remember playing with it as a kid.
That’s why I was surprised to see it, of all places, at a very grown-up training session I just attended. About twenty-four of us were assembled -- mostly co-workers of mine but also a few people from around the country. We had come to learn the serious business of labor market analysis, but after we entered the room with its long tables, I noticed a yellow can of Play-Doh at each place.
Our instructors welcomed us but never told us what the Play-Doh was for. I assumed it would be used in some future exercise, since the training was to last three days.
The lid color matched that of the clay-like material inside. Many colors were represented; blue, yellow, red, green. Mine was white.
I couldn’t resist. I reached across the table, grabbed my can and popped the lid open. Several of my fellow attendees did the same.
Within seconds, there it was. That smell. Sweet and pungent -- just the way I remembered it. I held out my left palm and let the pale blob fall into it. I looked around to see if anyone was watching. No one was. I squished it as hard as I could.
Ooh. Ahh. It felt cool and clammy, but nice. Each squeeze made a weird and unique shape. Suddenly, I was six years old again.
I put the stuff away. The meeting continued, and actual training did take place. But as our instructors droned on about the Consumer Price Index and the Import/Export Quotient, I’d get a little restless and found myself reaching for that foolish can over and over.
I glanced behind me to find a middle-aged woman rolling a green log between her hands. We made eye contact. She seemed embarrassed, as if caught in forbidden activity. I smiled and turned back to my own white mound.
By the end of the second day, the instructors still hadn’t mentioned the Play-Doh. Its purpose remained a mystery. But slowly, interesting Play-Doh sculptures began to emerge. My co-worker Lisa made a blue dog, cat, and mouse. Another woman made a pile of fall leaves, all fire engine red. An entire table of four decided to pool all of their Play-Doh to create a multi-colored dish of bacon and eggs. It looked good enough to eat.
On the third day, I wondered. Could I make something too? I was surely past the mindless squishing stage by now, and everyone else seemed to creating like crazy. One guy made a collection of yellow balls of various sizes.
“What exactly are those?” someone asked.
“Yellow balls,” he said seriously.
It was my turn now. I opened my can yet again and held the whitish goo in my hand. I puzzled over it for a moment, and then... yes! Sweet inspiration took hold, and I tore the mass into three hunks; large, medium, and small. I rolled them into balls and fashioned them into a snowman.
Beaming with pride, I nudged my nearest neighbor, Anita. She looked at my man and seemed impressed, but decided he needed a top hat, broom, and buttons. She grabbed her own can of blue Play-Doh and went to work.
Our finished snowman looked okay, but something was missing. He was a bit wobbly and threatened to tumble at any moment. During a break, Anita left the table for a bit. I stared at the snowman, and then... more inspiration. I carefully removed the hat, buttons, and broom, then ruthlessly squashed the snowman flat with my palm. Then I replaced the hat, etc.
I smiled. The snowman was now a melted snowman.
Anita returned and, once she got over her shock, admitted it was an improvement. She pointed to a table across the room. “Look, everyone’s putting their stuff over there. We asked the instructors to be judges. You should put ours there, too.”
I did, and later, the judging took place. Bacon and Eggs took third place, Pile of Leaves took second, and Dog, Cat, and Mouse came in first. The rest of them, including Yellow Balls, got honorable mentions. One of our instructors, an attractive young woman from Nebraska, studied our odd snowman with curiosity.
“Now let’s see,” she announced. “It looks like... uh-oh. Frosty’s not happy.”
Everyone got a shiny new pen for participating, and the meeting closed to waves of laughter and good feeling.
Sure we learned a lot, because the training was very good. But the Play-Doh added something, too. I can’t imagine who thought to bring two dozens cans of kid stuff to our serious, adult forum, but whoever you are, I raise my yellow and white can to you.