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.