Off the Wagon

I fell off the wagon again.

Right when I was enjoying the morning sunshine, sitting at my computer with all this time on my hands—

I started playing solitaire.


And not just on my computer but…on my phone! Within seconds I slipped into the old, familiar, cloying embrace of my addiction.

  1. Solitaire after coffee but before I do anything serious, stopping with a perfect game. Why? It can be like a dipstick for my brain: am I remembering the order of the cards? Am I sufficiently aware and awake to proceed to other tasks? Or should I see how many mistakes I’m making and either wait until another dose of coffee blasts the fog from my mind, or just give up on consciousness altogether?
  2. Solitaire as a break (or reward) after doing something especially onerous, or putting up with something (or someone) especially onerous. I can cool down after a run or bicycle ride. I should stop after a perfect game, but if perfection comes too soon, I may continue.
  3. Solitaire when I’m writing and I hit a worrisome, fretful patch and I feel an urge to distract myself and, perhaps, come back with a new or refreshed perspective. Stop with perfect game.
  4. Solitaire on the phone when I’m waiting for someone or something. Within a few deft moves of the cards, the insulting, demeaning, patronizing, not funny, sickening (especially those for drugs that treat embarrassing symptoms) and otherwise horrible commercials on the evening news, have segued into the sunset.
  5. Solitaire when my wife is watching a streaming show that isn’t so annoying that I’ll want to go upstairs and open a book.
  6. Solitaire at night, if I wake up too early with my eyes open like a car’s headlights on BRIGHT. Play until anxiety attack ebbs.

That’s a LOT of solitaire and it only leads to one thing: MORE solitaire. The buzz I get when I have a perfect game is simple and habit forming. It brings me to questions such as, do I want to commit to weeks, months and years of uncertainty and write a novel that will fulfill my childhood dream of making everyone happy, or do I want move a digitally generated card from one column to another and, perhaps, uncover enough aces to start piling them up?

And what about those moments when only a few cards remain to be turned over? It’s like everything is falling into place until…they don’t. Excitement mounts! I say to myself, when I begin the next game, I’m going to do it right. I’m not going to do what didn’t work the last time. And I’m going to do more of what seemed to work the last time. I’ll pay closer attention, or step back and consider the long view, or not take things so seriously, or trust myself, or use my psychic powers that everyone is supposed to have but have gone undeveloped in yours truly because I have yet to meet a green elf with funny ears in a swamp who speaks in enigmatic anastrophes, or put the pedal to the metal and go with the flow—

I stopped playing solitaire some time ago when I found myself in the same frantic state as Atlantic City slot machine players who won’t stop to drink water, eat lunch or go to the lavatory because they need to keep playing to win. I learned from interviewing a casino nurse that the single most common illness is a gambling hall is hypoglycemic shock. The slot junkies lose consciousness, slide off their chairs and collapse in front of their machines. Within seconds the casino’s medical staff is summoned to administer a glass of orange juice. Within minutes, the slot fanatics are back at it, yearning for that row of cherries to take them to jackpot heaven.

In Atlantic City, jackpots are advertised as a zillion bucks. But, for most slot-o-holics, it works out to considerably less cash than they put into the machine. In my solitaire sessions, it’s a feeling of having won, which we all know from our high school health classes consists of little more than a release of dopamine inside our brains.

I decided that the dopamine rush from winning a game, an argument, finding that second set of house keys that you thought you lost behind a couch pillow, getting what you think is a genuine bargain at the grocery store, finding that shirt you couldn’t afford on the clearance rack for half price—in your size!, and finishing the writing of a novel that you wish would make everyone happy but will probably bring just as much frustration and humiliation as the last one you wrote, as it struggles up the publishing stream like a salmon that wonders why it has to swim upstream when all it wants to do is make everyone happy, but incapable of changing its fate—that dopamine rush I ultimately create myself. I do it to ME, and the idea that I should spend hours wandering through a digital wilderness just to feel good, is self-defeating.

But then I fell off the wagon for every excuse listed previously, and maybe a few more. Our habits, good or bad, are familiar and comforting, even if some of them don’t do what they think they’re doing.

Which led me to ask a Big Question: is there more to live than winning? As anyone who has played it knows, solitaire isn’t so much about winning as it is about a LOT of losing until that perfect game happens. Regardless of how many times you congratulate yourself for remembering the order of the cards, working through deck so the right card arrives at the right time, calculating the possibilities from the visible cards that the one you need is more likely to turn up now rather than later, embracing the faith that what looks like a mess can be resolved by a single favorable outcome, acknowledging that seizing order from chaos is the essential structural endeavor of all living systems—you lose more than you win. In a sense, the product that solitaire provides is safe, mostly unpredictable loss that isn’t always your fault, so that win, when it happens, isn’t just a turn of the cards.

It’s special! It’s an event! It has something to do with your effort because you moved the cards. But, because the game begins with disorder, a bit of luck is involved, and everybody likes to feel lucky!

Until you ask yourself, is there more to life than feeling lucky? Why must so much of our time be based on doing things that lead to emotional, financial, social, religious or moral payoffs?

Can there be a virtue in being bored, tired, frustrated, annoyed, confused, uninspired, grumpy, not-your-best, or just plain NOT IN THE MOOD, and knowing it, and not going crazy over it, or committing yourself to the kind of behavior that seems to take you away but actually uses up time and energy that you’ll never have again?

Of course, there is. Life is a great big thing with plenty of seemingly dull, if not downright unlivable moments. Solitaire is this tiny thing that you do again and again that gives you a tiny buzz. Then you do it again.

If there’s more to life than payoffs, could there also be more to life than making so many mistakes, social faux pas, screw-ups, and epic failures that you could never possibly learn from them all? Is it conceivable that once we look past the binary structures of winning and losing, success and failure, and the resultant dopamine-releasing goal-oriented behavior, we find something else?

Something new?

Something worthwhile?

Time to climb back on the wagon.


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