Ken Pays Tribute to the Inner Toy in All of Us

Adults can be boring. Oops, did I say that? But it’s true—the heavy burdens of financial responsibility, parenthood, our professional lives, and whatever else take their toll. Mark Twain had it right: “The problem with adults is adults.” Okay, he didn’t say that, but he should have. Where does life’s instruction manual say “Must not be playful after age 30?”

I didn’t play often as a child, at least while I was incarcerated. I now practice law, a profession that demands discipline and focus. If you polled our significant others, most would probably confirm that attorneys can be no fun. Why? Because the truth is something is wrong with our brains. Well, mine anyway. But take note, engineers. I once deposed a woman who was on her fourth marriage; the first three husbands were engineers, the current one was an attorney. So, get off your high horse.

It takes confidence to be playful in professional settings. But I found my inner child early nonetheless. As a summer law intern in Atlanta—when I was yet to even be offered a job after graduation—I switched all of the firm name placards while working late one night. Secretaries became named partners, and named partners became secretaries. I came into the office the next morning to a buzz. Apparently, someone had threatened the social pecking order.

I didn’t understand. In my mind, I just used humor to turn “peckers” into “peckees,” and vice versa. Everyone deserves to be a “pecker” for a day, don’t they? It would seem so, there are so many in life. OMG, I may as well have written an anonymous op-ed to the N.Y. Times. The powers-that-be quickly identified the likely treasonous traitor. And they still hired me! Such poor judgment is seldom seen—by the firm, not me. But I made my social point with humor. Attorneys would be nobody without their staff.

Two years later, I was engaged in a “tit for tat” prank battle with a colleague in an adjoining office. He thought that he was funny. He wasn’t. He was young, and hardly worth my time and imagination. Even the King of the Jungle, however, has to prove his superiority from time to time. So I relented. Besides, he needed to learn a lesson after he turned all of my office furniture upside down one early morning. It required a response. I warned him earlier: “Don’t poke the bear, John.”

Proper, Southern humor is no match for pure native Pacific Northwest evil. I bided my time, and then struck with cold vengeance. His office, like most lawyers’ offices, was decorated with a collage of family photos. I waited for several weeks until he proudly announced that his very first client, a family friend, was coming to the office. I watched, and when he went to the lobby to greet his client, I pounced. Clients love family photos, especially family friends. So, I had arranged with one of our paralegals to switch out her family photos with his. Working quickly, we made the substitutions and then waited.

I listened to the introductory pleasantries next door for a minute or so, and then that sweet sound of total prank victory was heard: “Karlberg, you ass!” On his wall were beautiful photos of a wonderful black family. I felt like MacGyver—a little this, a little that, and then comedic magic. Hakuna matata! He never again “punked” me.

Throughout my legal career, I frequently put my professional life at risk for the sake of humor. I once quoted Bullwinkle in a brief to the federal court, and won. But my finest “inner child” hour was as a father to my two daughters, Katie and Jessie. Kids make the best toys. At an early age, we played wherever we went. Sometimes, the humor was simple, subtle, and silly, like when I taught them to go to the cake aisle of the grocery store and turn the boxes of pineapple upside cake upside down. They would run afterward like they stole something.

My fondest memories, however, are of playing hide-and-seek at Fred Meyer. We would play for hours with my daughters’ soccer teammates between tournament games. Once Katie was caught by store management, as she lowered herself into a large plastic garbage can on an end cap display and then put the lid over herself. But in a moment of extreme fatherly pride, her ability to improvise saved her. Without missing a beat, Katie promptly stepped out of the garbage can and declared, “Yes, that’s just the right size. I’ll take one.” My humor training was complete that day—mission accomplished. Her inner toy was alive and well.

I wish for all my readers to take time each day to play and be playful. No one will think worse of you. Make your last breath in life be the breath that you can’t take because you are laughing too hard with someone you love.

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"'The problem with adults is adults.'"