At the Right Time

Is it possible that some things really do happen to us at the right time? In theory, it is, though exactly what this “right time” is may be confusing.

One of my afflictions, or predilections, is for the game of solitaire. It is the only game in which I indulge: I normally shun board games, computer games and all competitive sports.

I don’t remember who taught me to play. I felt the first addicting compulsion of the game when I was a child, about seven years of age, staying with my grandmother in Brooklyn, New York. She set me up with a card table (what better place to play cards?), a chair and a deck that was probably a red Bicycle. Hours later, my brain fuzzy from simple task of selecting, arranging, discarding and shuffling, I found myself dreaming of cards in columns and rows.

What I don’t remember clearly is winning. Most solitaires (as well as single player computer games) are like slot machines: you lose more often than you win so that when you’ll win, the competitive juices that pushed you to such intensely focused behavior will inspire you to continue. Winning may be an end, but the means of solitaire justify…what?

I stopped playing after a while, my attention drawn by science fiction and the mating dance. Then–miracle of miracles–I got published and my dream of surviving on my writing was realized! I learned the peril of self-employment, the giddy balance between having too much work and not enough, and waiting until publishers pay you. Like winning at solitaire, seeing my work in print was always a mixed blessing. The obsessive juices (which take over after you discover that winning isn’t as important as survival) kept me cranking out articles and books. The frustrations piled up and I discovered on my very first Windows computer–Microsoft Solitaire!

What an improvement on cards! You just click the mouse and it shuffles and lays out a new board! You can choose card decorations, backgrounds and (in later editions) more complicated games. I was hooked again, and so MUCH time was spent watching cards flip and slide across my screen that I invented a Solitaire playing club (the Patience Society) in a fictional Atlantic City, and a hero carried a deck with him just so he could fill those idle moments with card play.

In my unfinished novel about the hard-drinking, forensic accountant-turned professional poker player Osiris Jonathan Murphy, I have a scene where Murphy, a member of the Patience Society, is asked why he plays solitaire all the time. Like a true addict, he has a different answer every time: it keeps him sharp, it reminds him how easy it is to lose, it helps him remember the order of cards, it keeps his fingers warm, etc.

Then he reaches a point at which he simply can’t understand why he’s been playing solitaire for so many years. He realizes that, with some things, you win when you leave the game.

This was a reversal of Atlantic City Police Detective Louis Monroe’s mantra for survival in Atlantic City: whatever happens, you stay in the game. Monroe was my first published hero: a naive but stubborn cop who loved the city and couldn’t help but ask why didn’t people just play by the rules?  Murphy loves the city, too, but he’s stuck in a complicated situation that is giving him everything he needs but nothing that he wants.

He stops playing solitaire and figures out how to leave.

Just this morning I had a Murphy moment. I fired up the computer, went to the solitaire page, and started a game and asked myself, what have I been doing all these years if not putting myself in a situation where I lose more often than I win? Would it be better if I won more often than I lost or, better yet, didn’t need to win anything at all?

Because winning–which seems to be an obsession of our current President–typically requires that you get into a game in which you focus everything on the game. In most competitions, the result isn’t a singular achievement, but a series of emotionally compelling activities that result in nearly everyone losing.

What good is that?

So, maybe, at my advanced age, with my body reminding every day that things ain’t what they used to be, and my brain’s search engine slowing down (I’ll want to remember a name or a date or a TV show and it will be “on the tip of my tongue” but I can’t quite dredge it up until, four hours later, I’m doing something completely different and I remember, “GREEN ACRES!”), this happened at the right time.

I still play solitaire, but, now, when I ask myself why I’m doing this. I think of all the time I’d have if I could just get out of the game.





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