Saturday, February 25, 2006

Trumping Your Basic Gambling Metaphor

I have always loved gambling imagery and gambling metaphors. Though they’re trite as can be, there’s something so resonant about them, and so fun about using them. For instance, I often find myself gleefully referring to myself as “holding all the cards” or angrily accusing someone else of thinking they “hold all the cards” before explaining why that is indeed an illusion. Sometimes I think it’s a shame that I don’t actually gamble or actually understand any card game. If I did, I wouldn’t be restricted to the gambling metaphor basics, which are (these appear in song and in daily life):
“Believe me, I’ve got a card up my sleeve”
= I have a hidden advantage
“You gotta lay ‘em down, boy, You gotta lay em down in this life, and go on with the game.
=Young man, you need to interact with the world and stop being a hermit, whatever the risk.
“Look, those are the cards I’ve been dealt. That’s the end of it.”
=I am a tumble weed of fate. Don’t accuse me of agency.

Of course there’s more. But in general, I used to think that all my usage of gambling imagery was bound to remain typical. What new use of gambling imagery could there be? Especially since I don’t understand Blackjack or Craps or whatever the hell people play on those tables with those great little rakes that gather up the chips. Man, if I knew the particulars of one of those games, my metaphors would be so finely shaded! I’d refer to somebody life’s situation with such specificity: “You see, you’re like a fella with an Ace in the hole who’s just drawn a two and mistakenly winked at the dealer. And yet your fixated on that little plastic rake, pulling those chips everywhere but towards you.” Oh, what help I could be to my fellow man if I had a wider vocabulary of gambling comparisons! But since I hate to have things explained to me, I knew I‘d never learn cards of any sort.. (I hate the earnestness and intensity of explanation. People love the unambiguousness of knowing the rules completely, and the brief holiness of telling those rules to the un-indoctrinated. I always want to interrupt every explanation with: ‘But you only love ‘explaining’ because its so unlike the murk of the world and your unclear purpose in it! This is no real reprieve from that!’ ) Yet…I did have an occasion to use the cards, the table, and the game in a new way nonetheless. Here’s the scene:

The other day, I was thinking of the term “poetic soul” and how much it bothered me. Specifically, I was thinking of a friend of mine who I’m sure has been referred to, wistfully, as a ‘poetic soul.’ Sickened by the thought of anyone thinking of someone else as reflective, gentle, wise and uncorrupted, I spun on my friend and blurted out: “I bet women have called you a poetic soul!” I delivered this acidly, as if he were at fault for soliciting the description, and as if the description should obviously offend him as much as it did me. Accustomed to the strange tenor of my accusations, he merely agreed that yes, women probably have called him that. Then he said: “But you don’t think I’m not a poetic soul, I take it?” At this point, I figured I had to offer my own far more profound reading of his soul to show him that I, McFawn, would never rely on anything as idealized and offensively unspecific as ‘poetic soul’ to describe ANYONE. So there I was, in the position I always want to be in: invited to sum up someone else’s soul on the spot and off the cuff.

“No, you’re not a poetic soul, you’re….”
And here I thought of what I wanted to say. I wanted to discuss his attitude towards his life and the role of his will in it. This friend of mine fluctuated on whether or not his life was a series of his own blunders or if he merely and unavoidably drew a ’bad hand.’ Now, the question of the line between will and circumstance, fate and freedom ,providence and pluckiness, has always interested me. Not because I care about it in philosophical terms, but because I think its revealing where people draw the line for themselves. “This was a mistake” they’ll say, about something that sounds like inextricable Fate. “I guess this was good luck” they’ll say, about what sound like the results of their will exerted. However irrationally people determine what in their life was luck, fate or circumstance and what was their mistake, good move, or action, many people are consistent with whatever they decide. Marriage 2, they might say, a mistake. Taking the job in Seattle, they might say, fate (in the form of opportunity.) So they are at least consistent in this pretty random divvying up of life into luck and choice. My friend, the poetic soul, was not. It seemed like he either described everything, depending on his mood, as either all choices he made, or as all the work of fate. There was no in-between. This seemed to be the best comment I could make on his soul for the moment, so I said:

“You only have two modes. You’re like someone who gets dealt a hand of cards and throws up his hands and says ‘That’s it. Nothing can be done!’ You mistake the tools of the game for the result, as if the hand you‘re dealt is the end of the game! And when you aren’t thinking that way, you’re like someone at a card table who just reaches over and tries to grab at everything--the chips, the whole deck, everything! As if you can just disregard your hand and the game itself. No matter what, either way you’re not playing the game properly!”

In reaction against the idea of a poetic soul, I had hit upon what I thought was a great new application of the gambling metaphor. On one hand, the misinterpretation of the game as being only the dealing of cards, and thus completely defeated by a bad hand (all fate). One the other, misinterpreting the game as a lawless free-for all where you can just lean over and grab all you want (all choice). After this, I tried to convince my friend that he desperately needed to draw that arbitrary line in his mind between what he could have controlled, and what he couldn’t have. That way, he'd never have to wonder when to wail at fate or chastise himself. He could then catalogue all this regrets. “Life’s all about drawing arbitrary lines in your mind” I explained, thinking to myself that the most well adjusted people are those who map out their inner self once, and just leave it at that. “Just draw those lines anywhere.”

But later that evening, I was crestfallen to hear his real response. “All that stuff about the cards you were saying was really just a clever, unnecessarily complicated way of saying that I’m a poetic soul.”
Well, maybe he’s right. I guess I’ve never been too good at just calling a spade a spade.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Me, Myself, and a Dazzling Carbuncle

There’s an article in the New York Times magazine today about lying and I read it the way I read most everything--by paragraph in no particular order. I may start with the second to last paragraph, and then read a paragraph in the middle, and then read the intro, and so on until I finish. Like most of my engrained habits, I like to speculate on why I do this. What truth am I illustrating or pursuing? Perhaps its because I enjoy reading things I don’t fully grasp. If you just start reading in the middle of the paragraph, names are dropped without introduction, the fine points of concepts are deliberated over before you know the basics, the deviations are mentioned before you know the quintessential, and all this in a tone that implies that you should be “with” the author by this point. Now, if I were Hawthorne, I’d say that reading in this manner is a fine mimicry of the human predicament. Human beings, at in any one epoch, are thrust into a world that has already been ongoing (like reading the middle of an article first) and therefore have no sense of the set-up or “introduction” that might give the present meaning. Yet we all behave as if everything could be inferred from the present moment, just as I relish getting the gist of an article by beginning at the midpoint. I like a gist that’s hard won. Hawthorne responds: Perhaps so. But mankind has never been content with getting just the world‘s “gist” as you call it, though that’s all we should expect, given we’re permitted only a partly glimpse of the design in our short lives.
Oh that Hawthorne! Sometimes I think that if ideas were buildings and avenues thoughts, Hawthorne would appear on every street corner. He wouldn’t own a particular building or dominate a neighborhood as another mind might; instead, he’d just appear as a small detail at every intersection. You’d be racing down a street, trying to flee an idea or skid into the closing doors of another, and there’d be Hawthorne, leaning against a light post, staring idly into the streets. He would turn to you with a look of amusement and gentle pity, as if to say “Why run-through all these thoughts and ideas as if one would lead “somewhere else? Just as I am, you’re already at every point. You race through the streets in the hopes that you may find a corner free of yourself--something untouched by your own mind and lacks. But no corner can be free of you once you’re there! The only way to see things clearly and fully would be to have no self at all. No self to obscure anything, but sadly no self to see anything,either.”
On to a most Hawthornian topic: lying and secrets. In the NY Times article, there was a paragraph about a women who “lied for the sake of lying.” If her husband asked who she had lunch with, she say “June” instead of “Nancy” for no reason whatsoever. She lied like this everyday, with no motive or meaning, just ‘cause. Now, why would someone do this? Obviously, she isn’t trying to hide any one thing because the lies are arbitrary and lacking the uniformity to conceal anything substantial. Yet she does it naturally. The Times article speculated that it may have been her upbringing: she was raised in a loud, competitive house where lying to get attention or preemptive lying to avoid conflict may have made sense. Maybe. But I’d always thought that liars like this probably find a great deal of comfort in the idea that no one knows all the facts on them. Not one person knows what they do during a day. So much is kept to themselves that perhaps it feels like there’s more self in which to keep it all. I figure that’s why people lie--to make their selves feel more full and definitive. “I am,” they can say to themselves “all the little secrets I keep, all the stuff that no one knows.” They furnish the self with all that they withhold.
It would be easy enough to disapprove of lying for self-hood’s sake, but why? The contrary isn’t much better. I’m the opposite of a habitual liar. I’m a habitual discloser, which certainly doesn’t make me any morally sounder or mentally healthier. I hate keeping anything to myself. For the brief moments in my life when I had a secret, I hated it. Having something “all to myself” only reminded me of how lonely having a self is at all. It was like sitting alone in a room with a perfect gem, a dazzling carbuncle. At first, you’d feel great that it was all yours, but then you’d realize it had no value--it had no meaning at all--unless someone else sees it and sees that you have it. Once you’d realize this, you’d want to display it to the world, even if it meant the possibility of having it stolen. Being alone with either something of value or something terrible strikes me as equally painful. As I like to say, I wouldn’t want to see the ideal unless I had someone with me to nudge and say “look, there it is, the Ideal!!” I suppose, for me, I want to clear everything out of the “self” to give room for someone, or something, else to move in. Unlike the habitual liar, I try to empty myself out and keep myself ready for potential tenants to walk through. But just like the habitual liar, I’m sure I’m no more successful in that as they are in building the self through omission, lies, and secrets.