Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Write Your Own Bumper Sticker

A couple of days ago, one of our bosses — who happens to be a staunch Republican and unabashed George Dubya idolizer — tacked the following bumper sticker up on the bulletin board:

“I’d Rather Hunt With Dick Cheney Than Ride With Ted Kennedy.”

That perhaps is in slightly questionable taste and a bit of a cheap shot at our senior senator from Massachusetts, but you have to admit it’s pretty funny. Well, that got both myself and fellow blogger (and coworker) John H. to thinking: what would be a good response to that?

Here’s mine:

“I’d Rather Double Date With Bill Clinton Than Tour The Middle East With George Bush.”

John H. came up with one that could fill up the backside of a trailer truck:

“I'd rather get a blowjob from a fat chick than let 3,000+ people die under my watch in the worst act of terrorism in American history, which I use as an excuse to go to war with Iraq, sending thousands of patriotic young people to their deaths, souring relations with just about every other country on the planet, plunging the nation further into debt, and otherwise completely ignoring the man who actually orchestrated the attacks, only to drop his name every couple of months when people start to question my policies, which include illegally spying on American citizens, and watching as hurricanes rip through the Gulf and waiting for days before doing anything about it.”

Whoa! Mama mia! I think I’ll just let that lay there and smolder for a while.

Anyway, I put it out to both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans alike (and all parties in-between): can you come up with a good response to that bumper sticker? Whose will be the funniest? Whose will be the most thought-provoking? Enter as often as you like.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

A Story in Which the Author Does Not Appear Very Mature

Oh, I am a bad blogger! A bad, bad blogger! I’m not posting and I’m not commenting other people’s blogs. Listen everybody, this is the truth: I just this minute smacked my nose with a rolled up newspaper. Don’t wince . . . it’s the only way I’m going to learn. I’ll never be a good blogger if I carry on this way. It’s really for my own good.

I’ve been busy lately, you see. By “busy,” I mean I have actually been earning my paycheck. I’ve been putting in full days at the office, taking moments here and there only to make a move in the latest office Scrabble game we play on our computers. During lunch, I have just enough time to scan the headlines of The Boston Globe’s website and afterward read my three favorite comics: For Better or For Worse, Get Fuzzy and Monty. Then it’s back to the grind. Man oh man oh man . . . all work and no play makes Schprock a dull boy all right. Momma never told me there’d be days like these.

But speaking of the office Scrabble games, I must confess I’ve allowed myself to become a little too wrapped up in them of late. It seems that underneath my calm, passive exterior, there lurks a slightly obnoxious, rabid competitor. True, we don’t play for money, my family’s health and safety does not ride on the outcome of any game, and surely the future of the free world does not hang in the balance in any of our contests. Whether or not I can stretch a word to hit a red triple word square, or get double credit for placing the “X” or “J” on a triple letter square, will not, nor ever will, lead off a network news broadcast. But to see how I act sometimes, you’d sure think so. Maybe this has something to do with not being breast fed as a child. Or perhaps it dates back to the time I lost the final round of the Dan Quayle Invitational Spelling Bee when I forgot to add the “e” at the end of “tomatoe.” Of course, we mustn’t forget the nights I went to bed hungry because my father refused to allow us to eat any foods we couldn’t spell at the dinner table (thanks, Mom, for serving us spanakotyropita, aubergine, pflaumenkuchen, and tarte aux fraises frangipane). Whatever the reason, sometimes your humble servant takes his Scrabble game a teensy bit too far.

My latest excess involves accusing a coworker of cheating. Now, as I explain this, don’t let me off the hook simply because he really does cheat — I can assure you that’s beside the point. I’ve known he cheats all along and I should have accepted it. It’s like losing your patience with a duck for quacking because you really wanted it to moo like a cow. Ducks don’t moo, and this guy, 80 Hour Man, doesn’t always play fair or tell the truth because it’s not in his nature to always play fair or tell the truth. He’s really a good person; I consider 80 Hour Man a friend in fact. But sometimes, God bless him, he just can’t resist telling a fib or stepping outside the bounds of fair play for the advantage it gives him. The temptation is too great. We all have our faults — Lord knows I have mine.

But to really understand how everything came about, we need to go back to the year 2001…

(commence squiggly flashback effect)

(echoes) . . . 2001 . . . 2001 . . . 2001 . . .

(resolve squiggly flashback effect)

Ah, there we are, in the loft of the old office! See, that’s me, working at my Mac G4 tower and quoting from the latest Austin Powers movie, Goldmember, to the distraction of my fellow coworkers. My, how young and innocent I was back then! “Mojo” indeed! Ha ha! And look, across the way! Why, it’s Last Female Coworker in all her loveliness! She would leave the next year and we’d never have another female coworker again. Oh, how it does my heart good to see LFC back at her old computer with her headphones on, completely not hearing a word I’m saying. And in the far corner? It’s . . . it’s young John H.! There he is, tapping away at his keyboard with his headphones on just as he does today, completely not hearing a word I’m saying either. How the young man could block me out! (How he still can!) My, my! And who is this sitting at the desk nearest me? It’s Moonshadow, of course, alternately talking to his computer and singing snatches of songs in his “rock and roll voice.” And, finally, who is that man sitting opposite LFC? Who is this fellow with the loud voice? Can you not tell? Can’t you guess? It’s 80 Hour Man as he appeared in 2001, back when he wore those Hawaiian-style shirts. Everything is exactly as it was that day.

Now we descend the corkscrew loft stairs to the first level. Like a ghost we float through the reception area and then through a short corridor to a large open area with four cubicles. What is this sitting atop a high counter? It’s a travel-size Scrabble board with a game apparently already in progress. Behind the board are four tent cards with our names written on them. See? This one says “80 Hour Man.” Next to it is “Mr. Schprock,” and then there’s “Moonshadow” and “John H.” Each tent card conceals our letter trays, you see. Whenever it’s your turn, the idea is to come downstairs at your earliest convenience, uncover your letters, and spell a word. Ingenious, eh? Puts a little amusement into our dreary workday. But our little tableau is not yet complete: there is another element that sits to the right of the Scrabble board. It’s the Official Scrabble Dictionary. Mark its presence well, my friends.

Now some time passes. It’s the same day, but later on in the afternoon. LFC has a technical question to ask me, so she’s over at my desk. When the discussion ends, she inquires: “Is it against the rules in Scrabble to check a word in the dictionary before you play it?”

“Of course,” I reply.

“Then I think you should keep an eye on 80 Hour Man,” she warns.

She leaves and I ponder what she says. I consider the question of how someone with such a limited vocabulary as 80 Hour Man could know all those obscure words that come in so handy for him and score him so many points. “Hmmmmm,” I say to myself.

Now we’ll let some time slip by. It’s the following week. We are all up in the loft as before. The Scrabble board is downstairs as before. But the Official Scrabble Dictionary is not by the board! No, it is quite gone! Where is it now, you may ask? The Official Scrabble Dictionary is safely with LFC. She had graciously accepted my request to be the Word-Checker, or Challenge Mistress. And during the last week we have witnessed a strange thing. Those wonderfully arcane words that have always magically come to 80 Hour Man’s aid seem to have deserted him. Occasionally he has even spelled a word wrong. His scores, in general, have trended downward. It is really quite a mystery to him and to everyone else…

(commence squiggly flashback effect)

(echoes) . . . else . . . else . . . else . . .

(resolve squiggly flashback effect)

In our new office here in the year 2006, we now play internet Scrabble. For 10 bucks a pop we all signed up to a site where we can play against each other on our computers. We receive email notifications of each move and, like in the old days with the traditional Scrabble board, it helps break the day up. The one thing about this site that I don’t much care for is that it provides a dictionary right there for you — in fact, the managers of the site encourage players to verify words before playing them to avoid challenges, as challenges, while possible, often lead to confusion and a less satisfying game. Before we started playing Scrabble in this new format, we all agreed to not look up words by using the honor system, and, as it turns out, the guy who follows me (Moonshadow) is quite adept at making challenges and wiping my phony words completely out of existence anyway. The games tend to go smoothly. So even though there’s a dictionary right there, we don’t use it.

The amazing, albeit brief, facility 80 Hour Man showed in 2001 for supplying words you never heard of at just the right time has suddenly reappeared. One time, when he used the word “kae” to score 36 points, I asked him where did he ever encounter such a word and just what the hell did it mean? I think his response was something like blah, blah, blah . . . or at least that’s all I can remember. As with this Scrabble site you can challenge words with impunity, it has become a very remarkable thing that of all the 25 games we’ve played, not one word of his has ever been shot down by the dictionary. They all check out. Meanwhile I have become famous for the gambles I’ve taken, only to have Moonshadow wipe away the fanciful words I try with a such dispatch that I am convinced he actually enjoys it. I’ll never forget my use of “pueling,” for instance, a variant, if you will, of “puling.” By God, that should be a word!

Well, last Friday I had a bingo in my tray with no place to play it (a “bingo,” by the way, is playing all seven of your letters and earning an additional 50 bonus points over anything else the word may have scored). The word was “glitter,” but there was no place where I could fit it. Feeling desperate, I hooked it onto the word “bane” to make it “baner,” thinking, what the hell? it might be a word.

Of course “baner” wasn’t a word. Moonshadow unceremoniously wiped it away and play continued.

Eventually, it came to be 80 Hour Man’s turn. He was able to play “daring” by transforming “bane” to “baned.” And, of course, it checked out in the dictionary like all his words do. But feeling perhaps a bit cheated that I couldn’t play my precious bingo, I snapped at him.

“How the hell could you have known that’s a word. How is it that none of your words are ever wrong?”

He glibly explained to me, as he did before, that he plays online Scrabble at home and has learned all sorts of words. They just stick with him.

“I just think it’s amazing how you have this vast fund of words at your disposal all of a sudden. When we played conventional Scrabble you didn’t know any of them and you used to spell a lot of words wrong.” Which, of course, was another way of saying “you’re a goddamn cheater!”

“Well, look,” he said, getting quite hot, “after this game I won’t play anymore. How’s that?”

That shut me up. We didn’t say much after that. The main impression I had from that exchange was: we’re both 50-year-old men, not fourth graders, for God’s sake! And this is just a game!

After 80 Hour Man left (he always leaves early, despite stories of how he routinely worked 80 hour weeks back in the day), I discussed the situation with John H. and Moonshadow. I have to confess I felt like crap. In the end, we came around to deciding that the only way we could continue playing with 80 Hour Man required a rule change, that checking words before playing them could now be legal. That night, I nearly called him up to apologize. Whether he cheats or not, a stupid Scrabble game should never lead to this. Save your emotion for more important things, I say.

But it does help to always play fair.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

A Few Marketing Gems for You

Well, here I am, toiling away on the weekend. Don’t feel sorry for me — at least I’m home sitting in my jammies and sipping a Swiss Miss and Café Bustelo mocha from the big Guinness Stout beer mug. If you want to know what I’m up to, well I’ll tell ya: I’m formatting text for a schoolbook publisher’s catalog. Very technical stuff this. So technical that super-intelligent apes are the only other species on this planet — on this whole damn planet, mind you — who can do this work. We’re talking nearly Planet of the Apes kind of intelligent. That leaves out all ordinary apes and the guy who sits on the stool down the far end of the bar at the Olde Shamrock Saloon. Sorry Koko. Sorry Stumbles MacSlursalot. You can’t do this — lucky stiffs.


Soooooo, who wants to make a million dollars? Anyone? You over there, want to make a million? I will give you this idea, free of charge, on condition that you follow through and actually produce this sure-fire, money-making product. Are you ready? Here it is: The Smart Guy’s Dictionary. It’s a dictionary for people who are so smart they can read at or above the sixth grade level. It’s for people who already know what “barn” and “snow” and “bird” means, for instance.

See, the portable paperback dictionaries seem to lack many of the words the big hard-bound ones have. Nine times out of ten, when I come across a word I don’t understand and go to look it up in one of the smaller dictionaries, it’s not there. The other day I came across the words “dudgeon” and “saveloy” while reading a book at the local Au Bon Pain. The little dictionary I had with me contained neither of those words; I had to wait until I got home to look them up. Now, it seems to me that if someone published a portable dictionary that left out the words educated people know and filled the void with more of the obscure words that never make it into the smaller dictionaries, well, that would work out pretty well, wouldn’t it?

So someone take this idea and run with it. And don’t be too long about it either.


Here’s another idea for some enterprising lad or lass: Ceiling Books. The basic idea is a computer-run projector which is easily mounted to a bed headboard (or comes with its own stand) that projects the entire text of novels onto your ceiling for the ultimate reading-in-bed experience. The format can either be page by page or scroll; the reader has a light-weight, easy-to-manipulate remote control device so he can read at his own speed. The LX model comes with a dictionary feature: you highlight the word, double-click, and a new window appears with the word’s definition. And for a hefty price, the customer can buy Master Ceiling Books, which comes packaged with a scanner used to scan in whole spreads from real, three dimensional books. Think of it: you check a book out of the library, devote an hour of your time scanning it in (or train a super-intelligent ape to do it for you), and then you’ve got God knows how many hours of leisurely bedtime reading!

Whoever takes this one, please have it ready by Christmas. I want to see that sucker under my tree this year.


Consider this scenario; it’s a hot, muggy day. You hate to leave the air conditioning of your office or home, but you have no choice. What do you do? You slip into a Cool Suit, a completely transparent, air conditioned suit that looks exactly like the one Dr. Evil wore in either the first or second Austin Powers. It has a special “AC Pak” that resembles a tiny backpack equipped with a whisper-quiet fan. Sure it looks a little dorky, but baby, dorky never looked so cool. Cool Suits can come in either Clear or an assortment of designer tints, such as Honeysuckle, Mist, and Sea Foam. And, for a limited time, the Special Edition iCool Suit can come with 3,000 songs!

(Note: Victoria’s Secret models are eligible to receive Cool Suits free of charge.)

I’ll need one by July, so someone better get cracking on that now.


Last on my list: the Hip Hop to Old White Guy Translator. Remember when Three 6 Mafia won Best Song of the Year at the Academy Awards? Remember their performance? Remember their acceptance speech? My God! I couldn’t comprehend a single word! I turned to my wife and remarked, “Say, dearest, do you understand those fellows? My! Perhaps I should telephone our physician and schedule an appointment to have my hearing examined. What say you to that, honeybunch?” Then I shut off the television and put on a Perry Como record to calm myself down.

The Hip Hop to Old White Guy Translator would come with a discreet, tiny microphone that clips onto any tie or lapel, and a virtually invisible, inside-the-ear translation unit. Translations would be done in the voice of either Andy Griffith or Angela Lansbury. If I had a Hip Hop to Old White Guy Translator the night of the Academy Awards, I perhaps could have understood DJ Paul to say, “My associates and I would like to thank the Academy for this prestigious honor” instead of whatever the hell it was I really heard.

Well, that’s all I’ve got. Have a great week everybody!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Mr. Schprock’s Day In Court

Perhaps you regular readers may remember my two ex-tenants, Guildenstern and Rosencranz. If you don’t or need a quick refresher on how they enlivened my otherwise humdrum life, or if you’re not a regular reader and want the full scoop, then here’s the main story. If, on the other hand, you’re in a hurry or not much into links, I’ll sum things up for you quickly: we had two guys in their late twenties living in the upstairs apartment of our two-family house. One of them, Guildenstern, didn’t want to follow our rules and took liberties. He met stiff resistance from my wife. A cold war ensued, resulting in both of the roommates breaking the lease and moving out. During their final two months living in the apartment, Rosencranz the Good faithfully paid his half of the rent while Guildenstern the Bad did not. Eventually we had a constable serve them a notice to quit and then I filed a claim against Guildenstern in housing court to recover the lost rent. The hearing took place last Monday, on March 6.

Let me begin by saying that taking someone to court is a gutsy thing for a shy guy like me to do. I’ve never been much into confrontations — after all, I’m more about peace, love and understanding. But in this instance I felt duty-bound to not let this guy go without some resistance; my pride wouldn’t allow for it, and the Universal Fitness of Things dictated that a person who acted the way he did should be called to some account. So at 1:30 in the afternoon, on the fourth floor of the Edward R. Brooke Courthouse just outside of courtroom 14 and a full half hour before the session was to begin, I seated myself on a bench in the hallway and nervously thumbed through my papers, ever conscious of the violent beating of my heart and the clamminess of my hands.

In small claims court here in Boston you appear before a clerk magistrate; there is no Judge Judy or Judge Wapner. The towering judge’s bench, which dominates the room and is constructed of impregnable paneled oak, remains conspicuously unoccupied during these sessions and no court officer will ever announce the arrival of such an esteemed, black-robed personage to mount its steps and preside from up above. Before and below the judge’s bench rests the clerk’s desk, at floor level and given no prominence at all, and there an ordinary person, someone just like you or I, sits. This person wears no special garment; indeed, the woman I saw seated there when I entered the courtroom took no more care of her appearance than most people would. For all the world she could have been just another person on the bus or another pedestrian crossing the street. And she was short.

But she had an authoritative manner and, after it turned 2:00 and the courtroom doors were closed, she explained the rules in a no-nonsense way and suggested that many of us would probably be better off choosing mediation rather than rushing headlong into a hearing. Some followed her advice, but when it came my turn to declare which way I wanted to go, I opted for the hearing.

So after a while Guildenstern and I were conducted to another courtroom where there sat another clerk, a woman also. This second courtroom was a duplicate of the first one; like the first, facing the judge’s bench and the clerk’s desk stood a wooden witness stand which was flanked by two tables. Guildenstern took the table to the left and I took the one to the right. I noticed the leather chair I sat in was very comfortable and slid easily on its casters as I organized my papers on the table’s surface. I tried to appear calm and I believe I succeeded — I don’t think anyone would have known that underneath my combination knit sweater and turtleneck the underarms of my T-shirt were sopping wet. The clerk, a woman in her late-fifties with short, iron-grey hair, seemed friendly, and the atmosphere didn’t feel oppressively formal. Besides the presence of an intern, a young, athletic-looking guy in a shirt and tie who sat silently off to one side, we were the only ones in the room.

The clerk was acquainted with why we were there and asked me some preliminary questions: my address, what kind of apartment was involved in the dispute, what I charged for rent and so on. I handed over the first lease and the current, broken lease for the intern to make copies of. Then I explained very briefly that the start of the trouble began with an incident involving Guildenstern’s brother, Horatio; things took on a life of their own after that and could never settle down. I suggested Guildenstern could describe the events from his point of view and then I could comment on them when he finished.

Readers may know from previous posts that I am a stutterer. In general, it’s a mild stutter — some days are better than others, and the really bad days are counterbalanced by those when my speech appears virtually free of the defect. Happily, I was in fine form as I spoke then and this blessed fluency continued throughout the rest of the proceeding. Every word came out straight and true and I said exactly what I wanted to say. However, my opponent, Mr. Guildenstern, is a salesman; he earns his living by his wits and by a considerable gift for oratory. He is also quite skilled in the fine art of “slinging it,” a mastery of telling things that are intentionally misleading but seasoned with just the right amount of logic and facts to give his bullshit the flavor of truth. He knows how to look you straight in the eye, smile a disarmingly sincere smile, and make you feel like you’re his best friend; you wind up sure you couldn’t meet a nicer guy. And he always has an answer for everything; explanations for this or that leap to his tongue as if unbidden and of their own accord. He’s sharp, I have to give him that. Sometimes, in spite of myself, it’s almost fun to watch him.

To recap just a little bit, Guildenstern’s brother, Horatio, who plays no small role in this melodrama, was literally run over by a truck 13 years ago. He has (or so the story goes) since been hospitalized many times over the years and requires medication to manage his pain. On the night in question, Horatio flipped out while on the phone to a hospital pharmacist who wouldn’t give him the emergency medication he asked for at 11:30 at night (his painkiller kit was stolen). He shouted every bad word in the book both to her and, after hanging up the phone, to his brother. He stomped about and slammed doors and generally put on a very scary performance, one that was transmitted with perfect clarity to our part of the house. This led to a row between Guildenstern and the missus and resulted in a lot of bad blood.

In court, Guildenstern chose to spend ten minutes describing his poor brother’s plight. We heard about the filter that was installed in Horatio’s heart; he spoke of the medical specialists who were flown in from all over the country to save Horatio’s life and reconstruct what was left from his crushed skeleton and traumatized organs. He acquainted us with the emotional and physical disabilities that were the result of such a tragic accident. On and on and on, blah, blah, blah. And the clerk encouraged him all the while, wanting to know more, hanging on his every word. His speech lasted so long it had me drumming my fingers impatiently on the tabletop. When he was finally through, I swear Guildenstern had transformed his brother into a veritable Tiny Tim complete with the little crutch and stool by the hearth. God bless us everyone! Oy!

Now, something I could not say (nor can I tell you how I know) is that Guildenstern’s poor, crippled brother — who, by the way, appears perfectly normal if you ever met him — has a police record as long as my leg and, on top of that, his own mother has filed a restraining order against him. He’s recently divorced and has two children (that last part did come out, and when the clerk inquired more into it, Guildenstern waxed poetic on what a miracle it was that Horatio could father children). Folks, believe me: Horatio is no Tiny Tim. He’s a criminal.

Without boring you with specifics, my main contention wasn’t so much Horatio wigging out that night, nor was I insensitive to his physical and mental infirmities, but I strongly objected to his apparently moving into the apartment, particularly as his name does not appear on the lease; all that blather about his brother’s condition was beside the point. Guildenstern disputed my assertion, and on we went.

Two things I quickly learned during my little foray into the judicial process: you can say anything you want in a courtroom and a smooth presentation can be better than the truth. No matter how good a form I thought I was in, Guildenstern’s glib and practiced tongue outpaced me; I simply couldn’t stay up. I was handicapped by honesty. As a debater, I must have appeared as something of an oaf; I just couldn’t parry all of his jabs. Throughout most of the exchange, I moronically put down most of his aggressive massaging of the facts as simply “his version of the truth.” I thought in many instances Guildenstern was merely mistaken when he stated things not precisely as they occurred. Timelines were changed and he quoted me saying things I never said, or least not in the words he chose for me. Inexpert liar that I am, I assumed he wasn’t so much dissembling as merely getting the facts muddled, a natural thing to happen when you mean to be persuasive.

However, right at the very end, Horatio said two blatant lies. When he uttered the first one, I immediately asked myself, “Did that really happen?” Then, after puzzling over it for a moment, I wondered, “Is he mistaken?” And then, much later, I determined to my dawning amazement: “Why — he was lying!”

Well, duh!

The second lie I disputed without quite calling it a lie; I weakly countered that I “didn’t recall that ever happening.”

When I left the courthouse and cut through Boston Common and the Public Garden as I walked back to the office, my impression was that Guildenstern, with his superior communication skills, held sway, but I scored my share of points and might have impressed the clerk with my complete lack of guile (my wife calls me “an open book”). I was proud of myself; I didn’t let Guildenstern get away scot-free; I dragged his ass into court and made him answer for his actions. If I didn’t receive a penny from any of this, at least I had the satisfaction of knowing I put him to some trouble. This attitude buoyed me up and I arrived at the office in fine spirits. I knew I did the best I could. Nobody could say I didn’t give it my best shot.

As the week wore on, however, and as I replayed everything that happened in my head over and over again, I thought of a million “shoulda saids.” I regretted not being quick enough and letting him get away with so many half-truths and outright lies. As I recollected this and that, I came up with several clever ways in which I could have exposed him as a liar and thereby thrown discredit onto everything he said. But there was no longer any clerk to hear such witty repartee; my time was past. My effort in the courtroom, however valiant and earnest, had to stand with all its imperfections. The more I considered things, the more I despaired of recovering any of the rent Guildenstern owes me and attaining the feeling of vindication that would come along with it.

Last Friday, a letter from the Housing Court Department arrived in the mail. Here’s the important part:

“I [the clerk magistrate] find that he [Guildenstern] is liable for 90% of the rent due for December and January, $1620.00. Accordingly, judgment shall enter for the plaintiff in the amount of $1620.00 plus costs of $40.00 for a total of $1660.00.”

In other words, when all is said and done, Guildenstern saved himself exactly $140.00.

That means he lost.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

It’s In the Cards

Well, I’ve been a pretty good blogger up until now, but the posts won’t be quite so frequent for some time to come. Lots to do, little time to do it in. As a matter of fact, here it is, Sunday morning, and I’m at work making PDFs out of huge Quark files to send to the client. I’m not complaining — better to be employed and working my way toward a bonus than the alternative. But I do enjoy blogging and I already miss not being able to write or comment as much as I’d like. Oh well…


Okay, I want you to pretend you’re one of my kids. It’s not hard to do: simply stand there, wait exactly 10 words into what I’m about to say, start rolling your eyes and take a few of tentative steps toward the door. That’s easy, right? Good — let’s begin.

(clears throat)

There was a day when there were no video games. There was no television, nor were there movies for that matter. There were no iPods, no cell phones, no Internet, and no instant messaging. There was even a time when there was no radio. Just consider that for a moment: none of those things existed. What did people do in that bleak, cheerless world of yesteryear? How could they have possibly kept from being bored senseless in such a featureless, tones-of-grey existence? How could they have lived for God’s sake?

Well, one of the things they used to do was get together and play games. There were, for example, parlor games of all kinds, games for children, games for the young ladies and the young men, and games for the older adults. Quite a few of those games involved a deck of playing cards, a mere stack of 52 die cut pieces of pasteboard (54 if you count the jokers). Four suits of 13 cards each, so simple, so elementary, yet each stack provided the foundation for innumerable games of all levels of difficulty and skill, from Go Fish! to Bridge. If you ever care to consider it, an ordinary deck of cards is your best entertainment value. It’s true. For two or three bucks you hold in your hand an infinite number of diverting possibilities, from solitaire games to heady contests of skill involving intricate partnership play. And the amazing thing is you can obtain a pack of playing cards anywhere.

But here was the best part: people would sit down together at a table and exercise both their minds and their social skills. They actually talked with one another. They criticized each other’s play, they discussed local and world events, they told jokes, they used their intellect. They strategized and employed all their cunning and skill. Actual emotion came into play, such as the elation you felt when you made your bid with a neat finesse, or the agony of losing the pot when your full house, all aces and kings, fell to a seven-high diamond straight flush. The next day, as the players went about their daily business, whether it was threshing the fields, carrying shopping baskets to the local five-and-dime, or steering backfiring, smoke-belching horseless carriages into town, they thought back on the previous evening’s games. If only I had led with the queen! one might think. I should have called clubs as trump that time! remembered another. Oh, the look on Harrelson’s face when I slapped the ace on his king! gleefully recalled a third. For many, playing cards was a great source of entertainment and social interaction. It gave them happiness.

People still play cards today of course, but you don’t hear of couples getting together for Bridge parties like they did back in the old days. Who even knows how to play Bridge? Do you? Or any of the many forms of Whist for that matter? How about the great rummy game of Canasta? Anybody know how that’s played? With so many other entertainment options around today, I think people who would otherwise have found immense pleasure in playing cards have been denied it because card playing seems so stale compared to all the other ready-made choices out there to beguile one’s time. It’s a shame really.

I never gave a hang about card games of any kind until one memorable time in my late twenties when I was marooned on an island with three other people. Well, okay, not exactly, but it felt that way. I was certainly on an island — Martha’s Vineyard — and it was during the wintertime when the popular tourist destination was virtually shut down for the season. We were there working an out-of-town job as housepainters. Earlier that year I had (finally) graduated from college but still hadn’t taken step one toward starting a career, so I found myself part of a crew of four painters working in a rich guy’s house in the middle of winter on a sleepy, picturesque island. The rich guy wasn’t around naturally — he was someplace warm no doubt. But we had the run of his house. I slept in one of the rich guy’s sons’ bedrooms. We woke up in the mornings, strapped on our overalls, ate a bowl of cereal in the kitchen, and then stepped into the next room to begin work. In the evenings there was little to do. After six or seven o’clock “they rolled up the sidewalks” as we like to say. There was one nightspot to go to in Vineyard Haven which I quickly tired of, never being much of a nightclub guy. In the neighboring towns, there were perhaps three or four restaurants that remained open. Most of the streets were unlit at night and your headlights seemed a poor defense against the pervasive darkness as you drove from nowhere to nowhere. During the daytime the island was stunningly beautiful, and you felt like one of the select, the initiated, who had been given an insider’s glimpse of a peaceful island the mainland populace were ignorant of. On a sunny day in winter the seashore can be a very nice place to be; it’s restful in a not-unpleasant solitary way and seems to encourage a welcome introspection.

The rich guy had satellite TV and one of the Richards (there were two of us named Richard), after an hour’s hard work, located the Playboy Channel and that kept us amused for a couple of nights. Regular TV, however, held little attraction for me, so I started spending less and less time in the den; it turned out the rich guy had a fairly interesting library and during my stay I read Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather, The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino, Deadeye Dick, by Kurt Vonnegut, and A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. And that’s the way it went: we worked, we ate, they watched TV, I read, then we slept.

The Richard who found the Playboy Channel knew a lot of card games and suggested one day that he teach us all Pitch. Pitch is a simple trick-taking game that involves bidding, the calling of trump, luck, and a lot card-sense. It can be played either cut-throat or with partners. Each player is dealt six cards and the hands are quickly played; everyone has a turn as dealer as the deck gets passed around clockwise. I suppose we consented to learn out of sheer boredom, but the game quickly took hold of us and we wound up staying up past midnight playing it. The next day that was all we talked about and plans were made for a solid night of card playing after dinner. Then we played more Pitch and Richard later on taught us Hearts.

Well, that’s all we did for the rest of the evenings during our stay there. It was all we needed. Mix a few drinks up, rip open a couple of bags of junk food, shuffle the deck and deal ’em out. Naturally there was a lot of playful banter going on; at my best I was merely a competent card player and endured my share of badinage each time I fumbled away a winning hand. But I sure did have a lot of fun and it relieved a certain measure of the tedium and, quite frankly, the loneliness.

My love for cards then went into incubation for the next 15 years. Perhaps two or three times a year I might have gotten together with a couple of friends and play a friendly game of something or other, but, for the most part, I played Chess or Scrabble if I played anything at all. Then, about eight or nine years ago, a divorced friend of mine who had his two young sons over for the weekend called to ask me if I wanted to learn Bridge with them. Sure, I thought. What the hell? I had nothing better to do.

I should take a moment to explain my friend and his two boys. Sri, the father, is a seriously intelligent person. His IQ can bench about 230 pounds. I think his professional designation might be something as vague and inadequate as “software consultant,” but that doesn’t quite do the trick. Indian-born, he came to the United States as a young man and excelled in every academic endeavor he chose. He has two PhDs, which I think makes him a doctor times two. Sri’s boys inherited their old man’s smarts. Just consider that the youngest of his two sons, a second grader at the time, was learning Bridge, the chess of cards for God’s sake. I think when I was in the second grade I maybe could have played Crazy Eights with supervision. And the older son, who I believe was in the fifth grade, was an equally bright lad.

Sri actually designed a Bridge program for the PC and he and his boys practiced on that. The first night I sat down with them to play, he went over the basic rules and we just kind of faked it (you can actually have fun playing Bridge without knowing all the bidding conventions, styles of play, etc.). But that was enough to arouse my interest. The next day I ordered a Bridge program compatible for a Mac and straightaway applied myself to learning a truly fascinating game.

For the next couple of years I was a frequent visitor at Sri’s on the Saturday nights he had the kids. We often played until one or two in the morning. We all got better and better — hell, I was actually beating my Bridge program at Duplicate Bridge. Finally feeling my skills were ready for the prime time, I looked up a local Bridge club through the Internet and decided to show the world what a genius I was.

When you think of a game of cards, don’t you picture people relaxing around a table, bowls of pretzels and peanuts nearby, a small bar set up in the corner, with lots laughing, talking and joking going on? A game of cards seems to imply a casual atmosphere, does it not? Not so at the “Cavendish Club.” These people were serious; they had their game faces on. It wouldn’t have surprised me if some wore eye-black. The president, a thin, middle-aged, academic-type named Carl, started off the session by writing on a chalkboard a hypothetical Bridge hand and lead a 10 minute discussion on how to play it. Heady stuff. Then a partner was chosen for me and we proceeded to move from table to table during the course of the evening. I think the way it worked was North and South traveled in one direction around the room while East and West went the other way. Each numbered table had four hands locked in a metal contraption, so by the end of the evening every team played the same deck found on, say, Table 4 or Table 13. The bidding was done by using of a set of bidding cards; that way, no one could pass information about their hand to their partner through inflection of voice. Also, the “history” of the bidding could be glimpsed at. At the conclusion of the night, the scores were tabulated by computer and the winners were those who, according to the numbers, outplayed everyone else. That’s Duplicate Bridge, a very effective system for isolating and identifying the accomplished along with the incompetent.

If those weren’t the most painful two hours of my life, I’d like to know what were. As my father would say, I played like a rummy. Of course, I didn’t much care for how things started off. At the first table, I shook hands and introduced myself to one of my opponents and mentioned that this was my first time playing any kind of formal Bridge. He told me he could tell as much. The mere fact that I showed friendliness toward him indicated my level of experience. In other words, I was supposed to shut up and play cards. So the night wore on. My partner, a kindly old lady resigned to carrying me around with her, demonstrated great patience as I blew one hand after another. I couldn’t wait to leave. I didn’t even bother wait to see our score.

Yep, no more of that stuff for me. Not much fun.

Nowadays Sri lives in Florida and his eldest son is off earning perfect grades at Worcester Polytechnical Institute. But I have my “game nights” to live for. Every month my father, brother and one of my sisters and I get together to play Pitch, Rook and Wizard. At work we’ve started up Wednesday game nights. At five, we knock off, order a pizza and sit down to to play Wizard, an utterly addicting game. You should try it.

Whoops! This sure got long! Is everyone still here? Thanks for stopping by. I hope to come visit your blogs real soon.