Saturday, April 7, 2007

The Play Perplex

Didn't post last night because I was out playing poker. (I've been playing poker more or less regularly, and not very seriously, for something like 20 years now.) There's a regular group of players, mostly teachers at my school, about ten in all, and once every couple of weeks we get together and play for a few hours. Most nights not everyone can make it, but we usually can scrape together six or seven players, which is to my mind just the right number. We play for just enough money to make it interesting, and not enough money to cause anyone any worries should they lose. The cost of a night out, in the worst-case scenario, is about the cost of dinner and a movie.

We've experimented with the structure of the games. The trouble with low-limit poker is that there's not a whole lot of strategy involved; you can't really bet enough to bluff anyone out. And the trouble with no-limit poker, and even pot-limit poker, is that if you get mixed up in the wrong hand you can be done for the evening at 8:00. So we've invented an intermediate rule that one person can bet the pot at any point in any one hand. Which means there are lots of chances to play safely, but also lots of semi-dramatic moments when you have to make significant decisions about the odds, with everyone else looking on and giving you a hard time. It's a lot of fun, and as good a reason as any to spend the evening with friends. It's also a pretty good seminar in strategic thinking. You have to be able to read not only the cards and the amount of money in the pot and the amount of money you have in front of you, but the other people at the table, their mood at any moment, whether or not they are feeling confident or shell-shocked from the last hand, the time of the evening (people tend to play looser toward the end), not to mention whatever other karmic forces seem to be aswirl in the universe. All of which is entertaining and hard to figure. You can make all the right bets and get beaten by a fluke card on the river, and you can completely misread your hand and have it turn out to be a winner anyway. At least in our games, you can.

On nights when we play poker, we're up past my usual 10:00 bedtime, so today I spent a little time at school in the morning processing submissions for Ka Wai Ola, our literary magazine, and then spent most of the afternoon reading. There's a book a colleague loaned to me called The Gun Seller, written by Hugh Laurie, who I gather is an actor on Fox TV when he isn't churning out detective novel spoofs like this one. Or maybe he's a writer when he isn't acting. In any case, it's a book with no redeeming social value that I can determine, but it's really funny and it's had me laughing out loud most of the day. It opens with main character, an ex-Scots guard named Thomas Lang, in the middle of a fight with a guy who is trying to strangle him to death, and works with a kind of manic good humor and cheerful disregard for plausibility from that crisis situation to, well, dozens of others of increasing scope and complexity. There's intrigue, blackmail, geopolitical cloaking and daggering, all delivered in a deadpan wisecracking mode. Good for entertainment, if that's what you're after. If you're after more substantive stuff, you may want to read Darby Dixon's response to The Children's Hospital, which is one of those books that keeps insinuating itself into my consciousness as I read reviews like this. It's moving up the list of Books I'm Going to Have to Read.

I can't resist quoting, at this juncture, the wonderful section from the intro to Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler..., where he reports on the all-too-familiar dilemma of the bibliophile on the loose:

In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven't Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn't Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You'll Wait Till They're Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody's Read So It's As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:

the Books You've Been Planning Top Read For Ages,
the Books You've Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You're Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They'll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified,

Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It's Now Time To Reread and the Books You've Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It's Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.

With a zigzag dash you shake them off and leap straight into the citadel of the New Books Whose Author Or Subject Appeals To You. Even inside this stronghold you can make some breaches in the ranks of the defenders, dividing them into New Books by Authors Or On Subjects Not New (for you or in general) and New Books By Authors Or On Subjects Completely Unknown (at least to you), and defining the attraction they have for you on the basis of your desires and needs for the new and the not new (for the new you seek in the not new and for the not new you seek in the new).
My problem exactly. So many books, so little time. So why, do you ask, are you wasting that time reading a movie actor's satire of a genre of pop fiction which itself is arguably not worth reading? And while you're at it, go ahead and ask, I know you want to: why are you out playing poker when you could be correcting papers or practicing piano or Writing Something Significant or working for equal rights or global sustainability or world peace?

Ah, yes. Sigh. This is the dilemma that is constantly before us. How do we find a balance between creation and recreation? Between self-indulgence and self-transcendence? All work and no play make Jack a dull boy. On the other hand, time is running out, both on the school year and on my lifetime. Gotta get serious. Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, a good day to Turn Over a New Leaf. For tonight, I'm gonna finish this blog and then finish the book and then rest up so I can start over again tomorrow.

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