I went to high school with this guy named…I’m going blank. Bill? Bob? Something like that. Bill/Bob was in the class ahead of me, 1974, but finished in 1975. In his senior year, he started playing euchre in the student lounge and smoking area. (Yes, smoking area. Hello, I am old.) And he started down a dangerous path, paved with 24 cards, the 9 through the ace. He couldn’t stop.

He started skipping class to play euchre. The players came and went, but he would deal and play with any and all comers. I played him many times, but I never skipped class to do so. When players left, others would take their place. To say he was single-minded about it was an understatement; he just dealt and played, dealt and played, until the final bell rang.

I don’t know why someone didn’t stage an intervention with him. Maybe someone did, but it didn’t take. When he showed up for class in the fall, months after he was supposed to graduate, I asked what happened.

“I got euchred on my last trick,” he said.

Those of you reading this outside the midwest may not understand the lure of euchre, but trust me, it is strong. It’s a simple game that anyone can play, but rewards experience and a certain amount of strategy; in other words, perfectly suited for a 17-year-old mind. You doubtless have something like it in your part of the country, but that’s not what I want to talk about today. I’m thinking about addiction, and the computer’s role in it.

Many years later, there was a woman at the News-Sentinel who couldn’t stop playing Windows solitaire. Two women, actually, and one of them was me, but I was limited by not having it on my primitive, DOS-based computer. I had to go to Leo Morris’ office to play, but play I did. Both of us did. When I quit smoking, it replaced cigarettes as my favorite tool of procrastination. In the old days, I’d write a few grafs, lean back and light a cigarette, regarding my prose through a few puffs, then stub it out and write some more. Replace the cigarette with getting up and sauntering down to Leo’s office, where I’d wave him aside — he’d usually go outside to smoke, having failed to conquer that addiction — and play until he came back, sometimes longer. We’d run up the wins/losses in dollar figures and pretend we were getting rich off our mad solitaire skilz. Eventually, though, he’d have to write an editorial, and I’d go back to my cubicle and feel grateful my computer didn’t have Windows, because that’s some dangerous shit, that solitaire.

The other woman had Windows, and lo, she was weak. She played for hours, and I know because I could recognize the telltale mouse movements, the way a junkie knows which guy in the park is the connect. She had an office, too, and could angle her screen slightly so no one could see just how many times she was dealing herself a new hand, except of course everyone knew. (Her output didn’t match the keyboard hours she was putting in.) When the time came for the newsroom to lose an FTE, the editor in chief chose her department to take the loss, and further decided the solitaire addict was a fine candidate for the copy desk, a plain and humiliating demotion. It did cure her solitaire problem, but it sort of wrecked her newspaper career, although she landed on her feet in local government, where for all I know she’s still playing.

Procrastination is one of the two great temptations for writers. (The other: Alcohol.) Go have a cigarette. Make a phone call. Take a walk around the block. Feign writer’s block. Anything but confronting that blank screen. I once read someone’s theory about why the O.J. Simpson trial got so big so fast, and it was refreshing, having nothing to do with brown skin or blonde hair. The writer speculated that the case built buzz because Los Angeles is full of screenwriters avoiding their work, who instead expended their energies watching the trial, e-mailing one another about the trial, spinning alternate theories about the culpability of the various players, etc. It made perfect sense to me.

But computer games may be the stickiest quicksand of all. Almost all writers work at a computer. Almost all computers come with some sort of game. It’s like holding AA meetings in a bar. When we had our first iMac, it came with a game called Bugdom, and Kate and I played it together. When I started it in the presence of John and Sam, our friends from Atlanta, both shuddered and turned away. “What’s wrong?” I asked, only to be told that the music had bad associations for both of them; it’s “the sound of Sammy not writing her dissertation,” John said.

(She got her dissertation written, but it went down to the wire. She’s Dr. Sam now.)

Anyway, I guess my point is, I’ve been thinking about how quickly any behavior can become compulsive, and why it does. I suppose Bill/Bob was using euchre as a way to avoid the rest of his senior year. I know I was using Windows solitaire to avoid writing. I’ve noticed that even when I have a deadline, I rarely miss a day of blogging, so blogging is obviously a replacement for solitaire — it’s writing that allows me to avoid other writing, and isn’t that quite the trick.

In getting to know the iPhone, I’ve downloaded two games from the App Store — Jawbreaker, a form of Bejeweled/Bubbles, where you pop contiguous circles; and Peg Jump, an electronic version of the golf-tee game in every Cracker Barrel on the interstate. Neither one is addictive. Yet. Jawbreaker is my favorite, but so far it’s no Windows solitaire. I limit myself to 10 games at a stretch, and so far have kept my vow. But you never know. There are times I think I should just start smoking again; maybe I’d get more work done.

A bit of bloggage:

Observers of the hackneyed prose style of Mitch Albom know one of his favorite tricks is the Dramatic Repetition, singling out one phrase and repeating it every five grafs, usually set off by itself. It’s an old trick and not a very effective one, but he’s very proud of it, and uses it in most of his columns. When I saw he was writing about Michael Phelps yesterday, I imagined, Carnack-like, what the phrase would be, and whaddaya know, I guessed it on the nose. See if you can, too. No fair peeking. I’ll post the answer later in the day. P.S. It’s an obvious one.

They say the days after Halloween are battle-stations, no-vacation-days-for-anyone times in orthodontists’ offices, when kids who promised not to endanger their braces with taffy and chewing gum come a cropper. In the UK, something called the Gadget Helpline is dealing with a number of calls (story’s unclear on how many, the sure sign of a b.s. trend story, but what the hell) from people wanting to adjust their stationary bikes and ergometers — rowing machines — to match the pace of Great Britain’s Olympians. Of course, the story winds up with the duh quote, from a physiologist from the English Institute of Sport:

“It’s great that people are being inspired by the Games and the performances taking place across different sports, but each individual needs to know their limits. To avoid injuring yourself by overstretching, setting smaller targets for performance improvements in your fitness regime would be the best start in improving your exercise rates, whether that’s on the rowing machine, bike or on the treadmill.”

And don’t forget the sunscreen. Come back later and see if you scored in the Write Like Mitch competition.

Posted at 9:17 am in Current events, Media, Same ol' same ol' |

27 responses to “Procrastination.”

  1. brian stouder said on August 18, 2008 at 9:32 am

    I got it, right on the nose (and it made me laugh, because I was sure it wouldn’t be THAT!)!!

    I could “write like Mitch” – WooHoo!!

    (but note, guessing the stuck-Albom’s catch-phrase dates a person every bit as much as referring to ‘the smoking area’ in a high school!)

    277 chars

  2. Mindy said on August 18, 2008 at 9:43 am

    Oh, please. That piece made my teeth ache. Good thing I got it without having to read the whole thing because I just ate breakfast.

    133 chars

  3. coozledad said on August 18, 2008 at 10:29 am

    It’s minesweeper for my wife. She could enter a tournament.
    Fortunately, I lack the cognitive skills that would enable me to play those games. I feel the same way about intravenous drugs: I was very fortunate not to have been in the crowd who used them.
    My mom smoked while she was carrying me, and the first cigarette I tried was like touching the face of God. I was finally able to quit by replacing them with alcohol and food. Appearancewise, I went from David Bowie to Buddy Hackett in the space of about a month.

    520 chars

  4. Julie Robinson said on August 18, 2008 at 10:32 am

    Actually, the aforementioned solitaire player is no longer in local government, having resigned to take another position. It was the old “have to support my family” line. Maybe someone else can remember where she went–a non-profit, if I recall.

    247 chars

  5. Marie said on August 18, 2008 at 10:52 am

    “Almost all writers work at a computer. Almost all computers come with some sort of game. It’s like holding AA meetings in a bar.”

    Truer words…

    My husband has an XBox360 that he plays now and then — not quite the level of addiction he had during college (thank God). He was considering buying Guitar Hero, but I told him it was a bad, bad idea. (I would never accomplish another single thing in my life. At least for the next six months.)

    449 chars

  6. LAMary said on August 18, 2008 at 11:07 am

    Our office computer system protects me from Solitaire. You can’t even download a game. On the other hand, the home computer has solitaire. It’s a sickness.

    156 chars

  7. Peter said on August 18, 2008 at 11:13 am

    1. Oh yeah, Daddy’s played solitaire way too much. There was a Letterman ripoff site once that did their daily top 5 lists – one was Signs That Your Office Is In Trouble – number 2 was: Good News: No one in your office is allowed to play solitaire. Bad News: Management just won second place in Worldwide Minesweeper Competition.

    2. I read an article on online porn sites (sure I did…I buy it for the articles) and a pyschologist was quoted as saying that as long as it’s under 90 minutes a day, it’s not an obsession. My first reaction was – 90 minutes? (insert joke here). Then I found out that psychologists consider spending more than 90 minutes a day on anything outside of work/school/sleep is a warning sign of obsessive behavior.

    748 chars

  8. Dorothy said on August 18, 2008 at 11:41 am

    I do the Solitaire thing at home when I need to go to bed – it makes me instantly sleepy (well, “instantly” means after 4 or 5 games). I’m up to the 50th percentile for wins!

    175 chars

  9. Danny said on August 18, 2008 at 11:45 am

    I glanced at the last thread. Wow, chippy blog y’all run here!

    Hey, we took the nephews for their first surf lesson Saturday. It was like totally no problem, Dude. They both got up their very first try and probably caught over a dozen waves each. My friends who were helping teach them were absolutely blown away. The conclusion is that the boys are actually chimpanzees with Super Glue on there feet.

    416 chars

  10. whitebeard said on August 18, 2008 at 11:57 am

    To unclog writer’s block, I play six games of Solitaire (Klondike for me, my wife plays Spider) then one game of Canasta and one game of Criibbage.
    When I was working at my newspaper full time, I played real face-to-face Cribbage for half an hour (lunch break) with my computer programmer friend each day for 18 years (less vacation time, election nights and severe trauma in computer room)
    I do spend more than 90 minutes a day surfing the Internet because I am a news junkie, but then I compile a weekly free-lance newspaper column of auto industry news, so I guess it can count as paid work as well.

    605 chars

  11. Andrea said on August 18, 2008 at 11:58 am

    Nancy, is Kate in to Webkinz or is she too old for that fad? My six-year-old is and I play the games during my lunch hour to win her points to spend in the store. They have three different versions of solitare that keep me busy, but I’m usually able to quit after my hour is up. Most of the other games require using the arrow keys instead of the mouse and I’m not any good at those.

    383 chars

  12. nancy said on August 18, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    She was huge into Webkinz about a year ago, but that fad has left the building. Now it’s Stardoll, where she crafts a version of her perfect self.

    146 chars

  13. brian stouder said on August 18, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    Like Dorothy – before bed I play Free Cell – and the thing keeps statistics. The devilish part is – every game is winnable. Usually I’ll play two or three – but if I have an overall winning streak at, say, 9 games – then I’ll play another to get the tenth

    My win-percentage is 95 – and I HATE losing!

    Then there’s Hearts – which places you against 3 other ‘players’ (really it is you versus the computer) – the fun part is naming the other players (up ’til recently my opponents were Rooney, Moe, and DeeDee)…and the computer cheats! It keeps stats, too, and I never can get better than a 50% win-rate.

    If I’m tired of Free Cell, then a game or two of Hearts; and if I’m tired of both of them, then maybe a game of chess…but only maybe; that game makes me cranky.

    The computer allows you to set the difficulty level that it will weild against you, from a low of “1” to a high of “10”. I can win easily on level one – while level ten is unrefined HELL!! On that level, the computer will hunt you down like a rat in the barn, and blast you without remorse.

    I play it on level 4 – and win one game in 8….and only because it allows you to ‘take back’ bad moves (after you see the disaster they lead to). I HATE the opposing knights – those things are EVIL!!

    1282 chars

  14. Sam said on August 18, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    Sudoku is my current computer distraction/procrastination activity of choice, sad to say; previously, it was Spider.

    116 chars

  15. Catherine said on August 18, 2008 at 12:37 pm

    My addictions are confined to Sudoku on my smartphone. That is, since I deleted the entire game folder that came with my laptop.

    As for my kids: Stardoll… Club Penguin… Webkinz… How can I filter these sites? And, how do I get Charter Cable to get rid of Nick and Disney Channel, while leaving HBO and Showtime? Also, how long till school starts?

    371 chars

  16. MichaelG said on August 18, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    Anybody notice that the L.A. Times hired a former DirecTV boss to be publisher? He has zero newspaper experience. I’m sending in my resume. I can strike out as well as anyone.

    178 chars

  17. Danny said on August 18, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    Here’s a link to a funny article in the San Diego Union-Trib about the resurgence of old beers like Pabst Blue Ribbon, which our fathers used to enjoy after mowing the lawn wearing shorts and sandals with black socks.

    The writer, Michael Stetz, is from Baltimore. I enjoyed his cultural references and have emailed him to let him know.

    411 chars

  18. brian stouder said on August 18, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    Also, how long till school starts?

    Today was Day One for Fort Wayne Community Schools – and the day that we put our ‘baby’, Chloe, (4 years old) onto a big yellow school bus for Pre-K at Bunche Montessori….the moment was more than a little wrenching….


    302 chars

  19. nancy said on August 18, 2008 at 1:19 pm

    When we went to Theater Bizarre a while back, PBR was the draft they were selling. I immediately thought, “because it’s the cheapest,” but remembered reading a similar story about its newfound hipness.

    Man, I just can’t keep up. But I will say this: If PBR drives those twee artisanal brewhouse choices out of the bar — and yes, I’m talking about you, raspberry-wheat lager — then good for PBR.

    I’ve just about made peace with being a thoroughly dull American when it comes to my taste in beer. I’m pretty much stuck on the Canadian lagers that are so cheap around here, Labatt’s and Molson, but I’m equally happy with a Budweiser. Blame my early modeling at a large Midwestern university, but to me, that’s what beer is supposed to taste like.

    753 chars

  20. Jeff (the mild-mannered one) said on August 18, 2008 at 1:34 pm

    Would you believe writing and tweaking Wikipedia entries? Not quite crack, but still a compulsion that needs serious managing. Especially when i ought to be writing for pay . . .

    Bob Greene cured me for reading Albom, so add that to his short list of good deeds done right (as opposed to dirty deeds done dirt cheap).

    I don’t want to guess for fear i used it myself in the last month.

    392 chars

  21. Danny said on August 18, 2008 at 2:04 pm

    Sorry to sidetrack again, Nance.

    Great article at ESPN about Usain Bolt’s 100-meter sprint world record. For those of you who may have missed it, this guy ran an astonishing, stratospheric 9.65 world record even while slowing up at the end and show-boating a little. From the article:

    How cool was Bolt? His sleek, aerodynamic shirt was untucked and his left shoe was untied. It’s surprising he
    wasn’t wearing a beat-up pair of Chuck Taylors. Or flip-flops. He was so relaxed that he said he prepared for
    his record-setting performance by sleeping in, not eating breakfast, watching TV, eating chicken nuggets for
    lunch, napping, eating some more chicken nuggets for dinner, and resting. He devoured some snack cakes
    during the postrace news conference and said he might also go to Burger King.

    Which, oddly enough, is the way most Americans spent their Saturday, as well. Except, you know, for the
    part where Bolt ran faster than anyone else ever had, won a gold medal and then took a call from the
    Jamaican prime minister smack in the middle of the mixed zone, while answering questions from hundreds of

    1148 chars

  22. Gasman said on August 18, 2008 at 3:03 pm

    Nancy, Nancy, Nancy. The beers you named are passable (or should I say, pissable) at best, with the exception of Bud, which I reserve exclusively for my composter. I have been a home brewer for about 13 years now and it definitely changes your perception of what good beer is. A trip or two two Britain and the Czech Republic also helped to show me what real beer can be like. For my money, the Belgians have the best selection of all styles of beer, by far. They also have about a zillion different styles of beer that predate any trendy American yuppie beer fads. In Belgium they are and have been working class brews. They have regional beers the way the French have regional wines and cheeses.

    Almost all American beers – as well as the Canadian beers you cite – use cheap fillers like rice flakes or sugar to boost alcohol content. The problem is they produce little flavor and leave a thin watery mouthfeel to the beer. Give me a Budvar (the REAL Budweiser), Pilsner Urquell or a Stella Artois for lagers, or better yet a good stout, porter, a Trappist ale, or a red or brown ale. The all grain beers are kind of like single malt Scocth; the alternatives rarely compare favorably.

    Fortunately for me, New Mexico and especially Colorado have great regional micro brews to keep me happy. So many beers, so little time.

    1339 chars

  23. Dexter said on August 18, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    I should feel blessed I never even cared enough about online games to have ever even tried one…but I never was a card player, and gave up board games when I entered high school.
    Quitting never really helped channel me into greater things; it never helped me, to each his own.
    It’s easy to get addicted to habits, though; I have never been in a casino (drove by them , never had the urge to go inside)but I have spent many thousands on lotto tickets over the past 35 years or so, never had a joyful return , and I was hooked on smokes until age 31 and booze & beer until age 43. I enjoyed pub crawls and visits to breweries; now in retospect I see why my kids and wife were so bored by the brewery tours, why should they care?
    Some people damn-near die before they can quit booze and some sense they are craving a second drink and head for AA…I suppose many have lost their jobs wasting time on computer games at work, and many more can manage it nicely. C’est le vie.

    985 chars

  24. gena said on August 18, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    when it comes to procrastinating, works for me!

    54 chars

  25. Halloween Jack said on August 21, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    Nancy, have you ever read “Hearts in Atlantis” by Stephen King, in the novella collection of the same name? (Not to be confused with the movie of that name, which is based on a different story in the collection, confusingly enough.) It’s about a dorm at the University of Maine where a number of young men flunk out, or come very close to it, because of their common Hearts jones. King has mentioned elsewhere that he was hooked on Hearts (not to mention alcohol and a buttload of different drugs, before he cleaned and sobered up), so I’m assuming that it’s based on his real-life experience.

    As for me and computer games… in terms of repetitive games, my personal jones was Tetris on my first Palm. I ended up deleting it because I noticed that, after a month or so, the smooth glass screen had a couple of wear marks where the onscreen controls for Tetris were. Nothing matches the addiction that some people have for MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, though. A friend of mine recently complained that more and more people that he knew–people who previously were outgoing and social, including his ex, a psychiatrist–were spending six to eight hours per day immersed in WoW’s dungeony-dragony world of Azeroth. And if that sounds improbable, contemplate the recent report that some Final Fantasy players spent eighteen hours in an attempt to bring down a boss villain in the game. (They failed.)

    1411 chars

  26. ROgirl said on August 23, 2008 at 8:36 am

    This is my first comment, even though I’ve been reading your blog for a while (discovered through the link from Lance Mannion, via Wolcott). Anyway, as a metro Detroiter, I have been exposed to Mitch’s columns for many, many years. At first I was drawn in by his reputation (he must be good if he’s that well thought of), but over time I would glance quickly over his columns and cringe. The cliches, the soppy sentimentality, the sameness from one column to the next (overcoming adversity, pondering a deep subject at a superficial level, a heartbreaking loss or heartclenching victory), the banality and blandness, there’s nothing new. Is it just me, or did he actually used to be better?

    690 chars

  27. nancy said on August 23, 2008 at 8:57 am

    People are always telling me he used to be far, far better, but is the classic victim of his success: More opportunities to make money means he’s spread thinner, which means less attention to all of them, which means, etc. Bob Greene had the same problem, although he started from a much weaker place, talent-wise.

    314 chars