Losing & Learning—poker and writing

You are going to lose.

At some point, you are going down the tubes, over the edge, off the rails. You may have something to do with the inexorable demolition of your temporary hopes and dreams, or a house may fall on you from out of the sky, while you are in mid-sentence about to say the most profound thing anyone has ever heard. Or not. You may be doing nothing more than mowing the lawn and wondering why it has gotten so dark so suddenly.

What prepared me? Nothing. I led a life of easy glory. Success came without consequence, well other than the third grade geography teacher who told me that my coloring was atrocious, or awful, and I wondered how the other kids filled in the map without the striations of crayons. So what, I won the class spelling bee. I sang in the chorus and joined the math club. Years passed, achievements accumulated.

I sat in my car after the first night I played in our local poker game in Pittsburgh. My heart pounded wildly in my chest, and my hands shook too much to take the wheel. I had lost sixty dollars, which was, at the time, the most I had ever lost at cards. I had played in a casual game in graduate school, and rarely lost, and when I did, it was the cost of a couple of cups of coffee at the local diner. And my winnings were rarely more than a few plates of hotcakes. Sixty dollars hurt. When I returned the next week—it was an amiable bunch of guys, and I sought their company as much as the play of the game—I played to watch and learn. I did.

Over time, I earned back my initial loss, and rarely lost in that group of players. When I sat down to play, I sat down with a plan, and with the hard-honed anger that allowed me to focus on the task. One player’s wife remarked that I had more testosterone than anyone else at the table. It was a back-handed compliment. She was—still is—a feminist, and masculinity, even back in the nineties, was out of favor, especially among academics.  Which we were. The game was made up of Ph.D. candidates and recently minted Doctors, along with a few locals (a movie reviewer for a local paper, a former Priest turned pharmacist, a former UPS worker, a purveyor of goods imported from South America and Southeast Asia). We played the gamut of Friday night neighborhood poker games—all sorts of strange and changing wildcards. Maybe that was why I lost the first time I played. Probably not. Later, when Texas Hold ‘Em became de rigueur, the table talk abated. Most games are quieter now. I miss the conversation—it took the edge of the testosterone. But I never forgot that first night.

We don’t learn from losses unless they hurt. A short sharp shock teaches better than a slow accumulation of pain.  Maria Konnikova includes an early chapter on loss in her book about poker, The Biggest Bluff.  She writes, “After all, losing is what brought me to the table in the first place. It makes sense that learning to lose in a game, to lose constructively and productively, would help me lose at life. Lose and come back. Lose and not see it as a personal failure… When it comes to learning, triumph is the real foe. It’s disaster that’s your teacher. It’s disaster that brings objectivity. It’s disaster that’s the antidote to that greatest of delusions: overconfidence.”

Later in the book, when she begins to recount the disaster that ended one particular tournament to her mentor, Eric Seidel, he tells her, “Stop… Look, every player is going to want to tell you about the time their aces got cracked. Don’t be that player. Bad beats are a really bad mental habit. You don’t want to ever dwell on them.” This may seem contradictory. Learn that losing is part of the game, but don’t talk about them. As long as you made good decisions, the outcome does not matter. Win or lose.

But, you say, don’t we play for an outcome? No. We play because we love the thrill of sustained focus. Making precise, intricate, and meaningful decisions allows us to shine. Define “shine” as you will. I recall Baudelaire’s poem, “Get Drunk”—“With wine, with poetry, with virtue, as you choose!” Choose where you will shine, and focus furiously. I stopped playing poker, saving my focus for what brings me back to the world. I write.

In my classroom, there are a series of posters proclaiming, “Think like a poet,” “Read like a poet,” “Write like a poet.” They were there when I arrived, and I left them up. The joy of writing (and yes, here’s where this comes back to writing), is the simplest of pleasures—making decisions, and learning as you go. You learn the process when you learn to read. (Or not.) You approach the text as a series of branches. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” Why the tripled “tomorrow’s”? Why the “and’s”? What comes next? (Creeps…). If you learned to read like THAT, then you have practiced how to write.

And losing? What is the bad beat in writing? Rejection? Better writers than I save rejection letters; there are even books full of them. A book of bad beats. Why? Writer’s block caused by what? A lack of simply sitting and scratching out a few words on unproductive days? Hardly. Turn on the music and write about that. Watch the news and write about that. Talk to your friends and write about them. Walk and write about what you saw. Just write.

The bad beat is the loss of faith, in the belief that your vision is enough. I don’t know what caused it for you, or how to restore your loss. Follow me, let me be the Virgil to your Dante. Imagine that—me, Virgil. You will lose—midway on life’s journey, the right road lost. But there is a way. Follow.

Horses: Memory and Inspiration

This past fall, I went horse riding for the first time since I rode at a neighbor’s farm when I was 6 or 7. I rode on a horse named “Old General,” a sleepy footed follower of faster horses, but a step up from a rocking chair. Or so I was told. At one point in the ride, our trail guide asked if we wanted to run. It was actually the second time she had asked us; the first time I had gotten my sense of it. The second time, I was ready. Old General and I dashed, finding speed where it had not been before, and we covered the field ahead of my riding companions. Yes, I am competitive. It was one of the best days I had had in a long time.

Deborah Butterfield, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Deborah Butterfield, Smithsonian American Art Museum

The horse made it into the book. Lots of horses made it into the book. I find inspiration where I can, and the museums in Washington DC (the National Gallery of Art and The Smithsonian American Art Museum) include sculptures that snuck into my work. At the very least they gave me ideas that acted as guideposts for the work.

I’m sure that there is some significant invention in this book. I am also certain that I used as much as was provided, whether it was experience or image from the world around me. As far as invention, I recall someone making the claim that all we experience in the first years of life is enough to fill several novels. Perhaps all invention is simply reforging those first few years—shifted through fractured memory.Alexander Calder, National Gallery of Art

Alexander Calder, National Gallery of Art

And, perhaps, there are deeper memories, deep from within our genes, stored among things like eye color and height. I know the Celts came from Central Europe and further South in Asia Minor. I wonder what they brought along in their genes, in their deep memories. I wonder if these stories are just what were, once, somewhere. For now, here is the horse, and a ride I will not forget.

“The horses flew through the forests without urging. With no path to follow, they crashed through low hanging limbs of trees, over bushes filled with thorns, and in and out of muddy streams. Their riders crouched low in their saddles, reins held close to the great sweating necks of the stallions. They rode like that, blurs against the dappled light, until the sun had set, and the sliver of the moon had risen, and the lead horse had slowed, finally, to a mere gallop. What pace they had been keeping has no name.

“Behind the other two riders, Thomas rode on the balls of his feet, crouching forward as his companions had done, but lifting himself out of the saddle by inches. The black horse beneath him felt him there, out of the saddle, and remembered a journey made by such a one as this, when she had run eastward toward the sun, when the sun would not rise. Then the rider had guided her to the edge of the world, and with a rope made of salamander skin, impervious to fire, had pulled the sun into the sky, and started the day. After that, it always rose, bright and warm in the east. When Thomas reached down to stroke the neck of the speeding mare, the touch of his hand confirmed the horse’s memory. ‘He has returned.'”

Writing, Purpose, and Masculinity

I have been struggling with masculinity as of late. Which is to say, struggling with ambition. Or struggling with my career choices. Or struggling with relationship choices. Or, simply struggling. Because I am a man, I am struggling on the somewhat closed field of masculinity. I haven’t always thought of it that way, and yet, there it is. I have avoided masculinity for dozens of reasons.

I have seen more examples of toxicity and hypocrisy among men than anywhere else.  Maybe these are not inherently male traits, but I grew up in a male-dominated environment—which is to say, the world—including four years in an all-male prep school. I have been bullied and been a bully. I have seen puffery masquerade as accomplishment. I have seen might valued over intelligence. I have watched as surface characteristics outshone deeper wells of strength. In To the Lighthouse, when Woolf takes Mr. Ramsay to the cleaners for failing to see the world outside of his carefully constructed “a, b, c…” hierarchy, I knew of what she was writing. But that came later.

After college my father brought me to his company once, to ask his colleagues what career path I should pursue. One of the men counseled, “Don’t go into business.” This was a man my father had often spoken of as one of his few friends at work. This man did not offer an alternate suggestion, just “Don’t.” Then he spoke of a working world in which the soul found no home. That resonated with me. My father was often unhappy after a day of work, and I had seen that unhappiness first hand.

I drew a line between the life of the soul and the world of business and ambition—the world of men.

I spent a number of years in career limbo and ended up managing a restaurant and working 80 hour weeks. Ambition always finds a way, even in limbo, even when one says, “No.” Part of being a man, I suppose, at least this man, was finding my way into positions of authority. During this time, I started writing—the very definition of authority—something I had done in fits and starts in high school then in college. I applied to graduate school in creative writing and was accepted.

So in my late twenties, I became a student of writing and literature. I went all in.  I was never interested in “finding my voice”; I was interested in hitting the metaphorical home run, of, and pardon me for this, catching the big fish.  There was always a bigger fish in the ocean.  Joyce, Woolf, Dickens, Marquez, Dickinson, Whitman, Marquez, and Calvino were among the literary fish that pushed me forward. The critical fish were there too.  Each set out a mark and said, “Meet me here.” And, right or wrong, I chased that mark.

I sought work that broke the hierarchies and offered more possibilities to all. Brilliance the only goal. Brilliance the reward. I reveled. My classmates often complained of this course or that course, or of school altogether. I did not. There was no class—even bibliography—that did not unlock some possibility. My purpose, clear and simple, was to learn and to write.

I was at graduate school at a time when feminism was fully asserting itself, and I allied myself with that movement, in part under the guise of being a creator, which I identified as a feminine act. I was full of it. In the end, I divided the world not between men and women, with all the problematic tangle that came between those energies, but between writers and non-writers. I saw a kinship between Charles Dickens and Jane Gallup. If you know the work, you know what a leap that is. Or, and this is easier, Hélène Cixous and James Joyce. Words held a primal energy for me, an energy that bridged gender and sex. The only ones who could experience jouissance, truly experience it, not simply having it happen, but calling it forth, meeting it, urging it on—if they could—were writers. And so I wrote fervently, seeking a pleasure beyond limits. And I found it.

Now, I realize that I had harnessed a most basic form of male sexual energy, of masculinity. If I had classmates who imagined me in black leather pants, well, there was a reason. I chased something bigger than me, something vital. And chasing is what men do—secretly or not. Part of our deep-seated masculinity drives us to seek—“to bear it out,” as Shakespeare writes, “even to the edge of doom.” What keeps us from doom, from becoming an Ahab (there’s that big fish) is not avoiding the sea and the hunt, just putting up the harpoon and dreaming of what might have been. We must learn to integrate the hunt with the world. We must listen to the world and find an honorable way forth.

I did not. I stopped. I did not stop all at once, but over a series of years. I let more temporary ambitions, often driven by temporary monetary concerns, take precedence. I grew nervous, even cautious. I stepped off the stage. I continued, as I had when I was younger, to find outlets for ambition. They were circumscribed by my career choices, but they persisted. I became principal of a school and, during a crisis at my church, helped hold a congregation together. But I was not doing my life’s work—the thing that brought me joy, even if it did not pay the water bill.

And, as a man, a life without a driving purpose withers. I’m sure this is true for women too. Finally, at 58, I made a change. It was not an easy, nor a secure choice. It is not the final choice I will make along this way. But it is the first step. And I realize that even though I have been writing—fervently, discovering along the way—that I also have things to learn. About me. About the world. And as a man.

Play time

I’ve been sucked in. It’s true. I have played an inordinate amount of Pokemon Go, although “play” seems like an exaggeration, since all that the playing involves is taking walks and swiping or tapping incessantly on my phone screen. Strategy? Pidgies: collect them, evolve them with a lucky egg when you’re ready to level up (but only in the 20+ levels). The game is gleefully simple (and relatively stupid): collect stuff, collect more stuff, and then collect even more stuff. The player is “rewarded” with greater strength and ability as he or she “levels up,” but let’s be honest: the stuff and the rewards are imaginary; the only thing real is the time one spends playing. So, why do we play?I explained the old rat-reward experiment to my daughter while we watched people paw at their screens. B.F. Skinner showed in an experiment with rats that variable interval reinforcement leads to a higher rate of response than constant rate of reinforcement, and that both were significantly more effective than punishment (which, it turns out, swiftly ends the impulse to work—or play). Well that’s a lot of mumbo jumbo. Here’s the skinny: rats work (or play, for the purposes of game play) harder when rewarded; they get turned off by punishment; and they work hardest and longest when the rewards come consistently but unpredictably. Surely, rat brains and human brains are different, but just try to run such an experiment on people. Wait, let’s track all those Pokemon Go players and see what that tells us about how they play.

Short story long, we are built to be frustrated. The brain likes rewards (and hates punishments), but only so often—too many and it gets bored. Of course our complicated brains find connections and correlations around causes and consequences. So, it’s not a surprise when my brain gets caught up in figuring out if I received that reward for bringing my girlfriend flowers, finishing my annual report, or catching a wild Gyarados, and that’s just if I got a reward for doing something in the first place. My rat brain tells me: just keep working and something will come.

The cool thing about being human (and not a rat pressing a bar in a cage) is that the rewards come in all shapes and sizes—M&Ms, Mazda Miatas, sailing ships in bottles, shoes. We can turn those cash/work rewards into whatever we like. And I will not overlook the reward of the view out my office window, or the company I keep at work, or at home. The world seems designed to reward us—all these surprises. The Clash sings, “I fought the law!” That’s right brothers!

I do believe–and when I started writing this last week (before I reminded myself of all the rewards that I have strewn before me, like a reverse trail of breadcrumbs into the future) I believed it a little more—that games like Pokemon Go offer a fairly consistent diet of rewards, and that in spite of their frustrations (and because of them too), they are bright little respites from the “thousand shocks that flesh is heir to.” If we lead, as Thoreau asserts, “lives of quiet desperation,” we lead them because too often we think that our human brains need punishments to convince and cajole them into agreement or good behavior or harder work. We beat ourselves and each other like mules bound to work until they stop. We preach about “tough love” and manly determination as values that have meaningful positive consequences. My rat brain says, “I’m done.” My human brain says, “No thank you. I’m off to play.”