Wednesday, November 26, 2003
Bridging the Generations
Last weekend I went to visit my grandmother in Northwest Alabama. My mother drove down from Maryland on Wednesday evening and left Saturday night for the 13 hr return trip. This confirms her need for treatment of a serious mental illness. But, the three of us had a pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving because somehow this worked into everyone's schedule better than the 4th Thursday of the month. Kind of like having Christmas on Christmas Eve or five days later when that weird friend of your family arrives who you only see every other Holiday season and you pretend it's Christmas all over again.
The weekend was nice nonetheless. The highlight was when I asked my grandmother to teach me how to play bridge. I can't believe I never asked this sooner. I've known pretty much since I hit double-figures in age that she played bridge regularly. It's like she had waited her whole life for me, or anybody for that matter, to take an interest in the game (or was it her?).
So, after my day at the Alabama Music Hall of Fame (a subject for a future post [Ed: No, I haven't forgotten the Reno information, thank you. I'll get to it.]), we settled in for the lesson. We ended up playing with all hands visible, and she showed me the basic principles of bidding, and after 4 hours I had finally if not mastered at least comprehended the basic strategy for playing.
It's probably the most continuous conversation I've had with my grandmother at once, including the time we made the 13 hour trip to and from Maryland together. She learned to play in 1941, the summer before her junior year of college. She went in for a job interview at TVA for the secretarial pool, and the first question was not, "How many words can you type?", "Where do you see yourself in 10 years?", or "How would you handle a conflict with a co-worker?" The first question was, "Do you play bridge?" And so my grandmother played for an hour at lunch every day for next thirty-odd years.
She told me her regular game has been playing together every week for about forty years, which sounds impressive until she tells me a group at her country club has been in continuous operation since 1943! It's hard to imagine doing anything sixty times without interruption, much less 60 consecutive 52 week meetings. And to see the same people for that long? I only like about a half dozen people, and what keeps them liking me is rationed contact with me.
The lady who leads that group is 93. My grandmother was invited to join the group about fifteen years ago after they had kicked out one of the regulars for teaching bridge lessons for a fee at the country club. "That just doesn't sit right with us," the mother hen had said. Granny chose not to become embroiled in the politics, but she sits in with them occasionally. She also plays in a monthly bridge tournament at the country club, what she calls "Party Bridge." She has been the top player for the past two years. The bridge and the wisdom to stay above the fray probably explains her good health at the age of 81.
In fact, Granny had missed this month's Party Bridge to host my mother. We had lunch at the club, and while I choked down chicken-shrimp-and-tuna salad sampler--I was with a bunch of little old ladies after all--I watched as these eighty-something women recounted the previous night's bad beats. After watching and reading all my gambling movies and books, I wanted to hook them on Texas Hold 'em.
Granny said they're social now, but at the table it's all business. They're playing for points and other intrinsic rewards, but they're also playing for pennies, and they're serious about those pennies. There's no, "I'll owe you" or "Carry it forward to next week." You pay each penny, and they take losing each penny quite hard. Imagine if they were this hard nosed with telemarketers and scam artists.
In fact, it can be so hard core that sometimes nobody is allowed to talk at all. Apparently there is a silent bidding system often used in Bridge tournaments so that other tables cannot hear what you are bidding, and I guess to prevent your voice from becoming a tell.
Saturday we forced my mom to play with us for a few hours, and Sunday Gran took me to get a good intro book to cement my knowledge. She also gave me my own starter set of bridge cards from sets she's accumulated through the years. It took a while because each set she came upon was one that she really, really liked and didn't want to give away. The family resemblances reveal themselves eventually, don't they? We settled on a twin pack featuring the Mission at Santa Barabara.
There's something very civilized about the idea of playing bridge. It's simple, and it's cheap. The previous weekend I had gone with my girlfriend to Smith's Variety in Birmingham which features all sorts of crazy kids games, toys, baby stuff, and so on. It's where I got my Pocket Electronic Yahtzee. But, while we were there it was a demonstration day, and the salespeople were hawking the latest board games for grown ups. All the crappy games you only get out at the Holidays or on family vacations or when your relationship is so desperate for outside social contact that you subject yourself and your significant other, not to mention some other equally desperate folks, to the ignominy of a game night. Like Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary, Taboo, and Cranium. I don't even know this year's $30 thievery. Maybe Ghettopoly will catch on?
I'm not sure what advantage these games have over Bridge. Bridge may have ruined many more marriages than Pictionary, but only because it has been played longer and by more people. Pictionary ineptitude kills much more quickly and efficiently, and it usually has a bigger audience since people only play with groups of six or more. Trivial Pursuit? I guess this lost fascination for me when I spent a whole summer reading the whole deck of 1000 cards. Knowing the distribution of cards, not the content of the cards, is what makes Bridge perpetually interesting.
All you need to kill 3 or 4 hours is a deck of cards, a flat surface, and your own wits (snacks optional). Sounds like a winner to me. Thanks, Gran.
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