Tuesday, September 2, 2008
[Insert Poker Pun Here]
He wasn't much of a gambler. That isn't to say that he didn't like gambling, if you speak in terms of games of chance. He was always up for a good game of poker. The thing is, he wasn't very good at the game. Well, at least he wasn't very good at winning the game. If he was lucky he'd win an early hand and take a fairly noticeable lead, gain a little confidence. But slowly, surely, he'd give the money back a little bit at a time. A small blind here, a big blind there, an ill-considered bet made on a called bluff that wasn't actually a bluff, all of it drained the money away a little at a time. Now there are worse things in the world to be than someone who isn't much of a gambler. Someone who gambles too much, for instance, is constantly running up to the highest heights and dropping to the lowest depths. A non-gambler may never win, but he never loses his shirt, his car, or his home. Still, he probably doesn't have as much fun, either. The interesting thing about games is that they tell us pretty much everything we need to know about those who play those games. Look at the animal kingdom, specifically the mammals. Baby animals play games, often in imitation of their parents. Predators tend to play at stalking and fighting, good preparation for when the chase and the kill are the way to get food. Prey, on the other hand, tends to play at foraging and hiding. Which brings us back to the more sophisticated -- but really no more evolved -- games played by humans. Children aren't limited to the games based on their parents, yet they still play at adult games. House. Cops and robbers. Doctor. And although few play that ever so excellent game of frustrated underemployed clerk or middle manager or career bureaucrat, they're still working out those dreams, those hopes, those things they'll become upon reaching adulthood. It's the games adults play that tell us the most, however. This brings us back to that star-crossed gambler staring at his dwindling stack of chips. Because, you see, that's how it works for the one who isn't much of a gambler. The focus isn't on what there is to win, but how much there is to lose if he's wrong. And whatever that amount is, it's always slightly more than the amount that can comfortably removed from the stack. That calculation works its way in to the rest of the world, as all lessons learned from games do. So when that poor soul who's not much of a gambler steps from the table, turns around, and sees, say, a beautiful woman, well... Such is the tragedy of those who always wish to play the game, but are too timid to look up from the stack to the rest of the table. The stack is always just a little too small for the greatest endeavors. Oh, it's big enough for small victories here and there, but never for the important ones. I had an interesting series, I guess, of realizations over the last couple weeks. For one thing, I discovered that I don't want to do anything when I've just woken up. It really doesn't matter what the thing is or how long the sleep period is. I'll even get all existential about it, inventing things to get pissed off about and things to worry about as I'm making that transition from unconsciousness to consciousness. In any number of ways, I'm waking up right now. As one of those self-decided special class of people who write and tell stories, I catalog the way I feel, the way I think, the way I am. It's fascinating on some level, but probably not to anyone but me. Still, I figure I need to explain what it is I'm waking from. The short hand is Christianity, but the long explanation is far, far more complicated. The particular variety of Christianity I woke from is devoid of any recognizable form of self-determination or, for that matter, responsibility. Any activity had to be preceded with a long time of prayer to make sure that it was, truly, god's desire. If something bad happened, then, it was a lesson from god. If something good happened, it was a blessing. That oft-used image of shepherd and flock was well worn in the world I once occupied. My goal in leaving that world, however, was to leave without bitterness. I didn't want to become an angry atheist, as hidebound and imperious in my insistence on being right as the opponents I would have made of those I once considered friends. This isn't to say, though, that I wanted to be able to unconditionally accept all Christians, either. It was more that I wanted to be able to like those who were likable and dislike those who were assholes regardless of their beliefs. And, hell, as a life-long White Sox fan who has any number of friends who are die-hard Cubs fans, it's possible to do. But what does this have to do with an afternoon nap or, for that matter, a night of Texas Hold 'Em? I spent the last two days on an island in the Fox River at the Fox Valley Folk & Storytelling Festival. For the past couple weeks I'd been dreading the experience. I'd wake up in the morning or from a nap and think of how much I didn't want to do it, this in spite of the fact that not so long ago I'd been looking forward to it, excited, even. But here I was, grumbling, thinking of quitting entirely. Sunday I told a story during the first set. It wasn't so good. Yeah, technically speaking it was okay. I remembered all the points, I said all the right words, I told it, but I didn't really bother to give it life. It was the only story I told all day, so I had plenty of time to think about it. At least I tried to think about it, in between talking to other tellers and listening to other stories and remembering why I love the odd little world I've found myself in. What I realized, though, was that I hadn't bothered to prepare myself. Yeah, I knew my story. I'd written it myself, after all. But just knowing it wasn't good enough. Monday I told another story. At the guild meeting last Tuesday I'd told it because I suddenly realized that I hadn't actually told it in months. Somehow, though, until I dropped my Sunday story, I figured that all I had to do was show up and remember that Monday story and all would be good. So Sunday night I sat up late and played with that story. I told it and listened to myself, found words that fit better. I told it while timing myself. And on Monday, as it came time to tell that story, I was nervous, far more nervous than I'd been on Sunday morning. As I took the stage my left leg began shaking and for the next twelve minutes I couldn't trust my weight on it. But in the end I told it as well as I ever have. Afterwards Jim, a veteran teller I deeply respect and one of the first storytellers I met, who was there the first time I ever told a story to a crowd, told me that my pseudo fairy tale I made up nearly a year ago and which started as this odd, ungainly, twenty-minute colossus was becoming quite a story. In that story there is a little boy who grows up to be the knight in shining armor and is the hero, but not for slaying the monster. He understands the monster, and in doing so he restores hope. Jim pointed out that one of the things about that story is that in the little boy there is a message of being able to grow up to be anything. I'd never thought of it that way. I'd barely even noticed the character, focusing instead on other parts and using that device because it made the most sense. But I realized he was right. Later on I was talking to Sue, another teller I deeply respect. She asked me what I'd learned over the weekend. I told her that I'd have to think about it, but I'd already learned that I had to practice. Still, that odd shaking in my leg confused me. I'd never been nervous like that before. A few hours later I realized what had happened and from that drew my second lesson. More than being prepared, I had to care. That was the component that was missing on Sunday. I could have failed miserably in the middle of the story on Sunday and I probably would have shrugged it off. If I had failed in the middle of the story on Monday I would have been crushed. I've been in this odd state of not caring for the past few months. Maybe the last couple of years, even. It wasn't that I didn't pay attention or wasn't diligent. It wasn't that I didn't try. It was that I looked at any situation and figured that it could end well or it could end poorly and either way I'd be fine with it. I'm not a very good gambler. I'm too conservative, too unwilling to take a risk. In the world I once occupied it didn't matter. Gambling simply wasn't an issue, since with god there was no such thing as a risk. There was only listening and trying to suss out the meaning in the results. In my odd little limbo world there was no such thing as a gamble. To do nothing was the same as doing something. I just shrugged and moved on to the next thing, not really wanting to invest in anything, anyway. Now I guess I have to learn how to stop looking at the stack and start looking at the table. For I am cursed with the desire to sit at that table. And if I don't learn how to take risks I'll just be miserably handing chips to everyone else. Where's the fun in that?