Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Just Over Nine Months: Solitaire

The real Queen of Hearts: she never ran around crying "Off with their heads"
but she did have the same silly smirk throughout the years.

But he don't care what most people say
Through eighty-six years of perpetual motion
If he likes you he'll smile, and he'll say,
"Jimmy, some of it's magic, some of it's tragic
But I had a good life all of the way"
                                                                        Jimmy Buffet "He went to Paris" 1973

I am a "sometimes" fan of the singer Jimmy Buffet; I love his serious ballads like "A Pirate Looks at Forty" and I can take a pass on his more whimsical songs such as "Cheeseburger in Paradise". It also helps if it is a sunny, warm spring day and I am cruising in the rag top Mustang pretending I am still young enough to have most of my life in front of me.  Mr. Buffet's songs speak of a lifestyle I can only dream of: carefree, living on the beach, the warm sand between your toes, glowing tan on your face and the only choice you need to make is "shirt or skin". I could dream of such a life, but I could never actually do it; I would feel like I was wasting the only truly valuable commodity: time. Like it or not, I am not, nor will I ever be, a carefree type-B person.

The above quote is taken from one of Jimmy's early songs: it tells the tale of a man who travelled the world, married, had a son, lost all his family (and one eye) in the bombing of London in World War II, and ended up, at the end, alone, drinking his beer and fishing, in the Florida Keys. "Some of it's magic, some of it's tragic" is his take on his life at the end of the trail.

Rob Barton, my first university room-mate from way back during my years at Simon Fraser University, contacted me just the other day. We had not spoken in nearly thirty years and, through the magic of Face-book, Rob tracked me down just out of the blue. He had no idea what I was up to, he did not know that I had ever had children, much less the fact that I had lost Calista. Rob was distraught to say the least when I told him about my life. Rob has a fifteen year old daughter, his only child, and he actually felt my pain in the way many parents can; they step into my shoes for just a moment and let the terror wash over them. We had a long conversation about living, dying and life in general. It was Rob that got me thinking about that old Jimmy Buffet song. Rob's own version was "Some of it's good, some of it's bad, but in the end it's all life and you just have to take it as it comes."
Ok, it's a shameless plug for my old Alma Mater. Simon Fraser is
a great university and those years swimming with the Clan will be treasured.

Rob was always one of those guys who never seemed to sweat the small stuff; he just had an easy way of shambling through life and getting amazing things done without any apparent effort. It helps that Rob is a giant of a man; I barely come to his shoulders and when I knew him he was over two hundred pounds of imposing muscle. I'm not sure how he is now, but beach-boy good looks, a ready sense of humour and overwhelming congeniality made Rob a hard guy to share an apartment with; his presence pretty much created an instant cloak of invisibility for all other men in the room where women were concerned. I doubt things have changed much in the thirty years since he had to tolerate a young room-mate who managed to combine an intolerance for alcohol with an apparent inability to find the washroom on his first freshman night in the University residence.  I do thank him for not killing me right there on the spot. The friendly level headed approach he had three decades ago was still obvious in the long call we shared last week.  His advice was sound, but, again, it is advice that neither Roni nor I are quite ready to take. Life may indeed be wonderful, both the magic and the tragic, but all we see these days is the tragic.

I have developed a really deep spiritual streak since Calista died. Prior to her death, I was interested in spirituality only so far as it developed the story line in whatever book I was reading or movie I was watching. Life after death was something Hollywood fiction exploited and that was pretty much the entire depth of my belief system.  I still scoff at any concept of "heaven" or "hell", but I am more open to the general idea of the immortality of the spirit (soul?). I might even accept some limited form of reincarnation. I have an issue with the idea that good little souls get to be reincarnated as a "higher species".  I have yet to be convinced that there is any such thing as a "higher species". Certainly humans have learnt to make and use all sorts of  clever devices, but on the other hand, we still have problems not crapping in our own bed. I personally believe whales to be far more advanced than us: they don't make war, they all seem to know how to play, and they are smart enough not to swim into their own feces.

South of Quadra, East of Cortez and free to roam the high
seas. No fear and no worries, but you have to like sea-food.

Three surfacing and circling. Something was holding them
in the area. Was it a school of fish and were they schooling
their young in the skill of hunting?

I mentioned, some months back, that we used to read "Waiting for the Whales" to Calista many evenings when she was a wee child. While the author has stated clearly that the story is about the "circle of life", I have always preferred to interpret the story as being about an old man who gets to be reincarnated as an Orca whale.  When Calista died, for many weeks after I had this bizarre day-dream: I would be cruising the Straights in a boat and, out of the blue, a young Orca would breach to the port bow, eye me up, spit ice cold salt water in my face, and then playfully circle the boat just to thumb her nose at me. The idea that my girl would come back as a whale and tease me as she did her whole life pleased me very much. 

They don't make war and they know how to play. And they swim
away from there own feces rather than soil their own bed like us.

I bet their family, all teeth and fins, get along better than my
family. But they probably can't shop worth a bean.

There were two baby Orcas spotted in the local waters this summer, something that has not been seen here for many years. One of the whale calves was born in the "Resident" pod which patrols the local waters terrorising the salmon while the other calf was born to a "Transient" pod which passed through here hunting for seals and other marine mammals.  I half wondered which calf would be the best fit for my Calista but KAreen, her college friend, helped remind me that Calista had little use for sea-foods (and had a knack for hunting down curios and nice shoes).  The common sense vote had to be the Transient red-meat eater.  Now there is an oxymoron: common sense and reincarnation appearing in the same paragraph. (Now I need to find a boat, track down that migrant Transient pod and give that little fool a clean shot at teasing the old man just one more time)

No doubt, this guy was eyeing up
the photographer here. Hmmm.
wonder if we taste good? I doubt it:
too many trans-fats stored in our butts.

A virtual banquet for the Transients. Hundreds, maybe thousands
congregate each year along the stone break-water of the old plant.

Orca version of mooning us humans? I would bet Calista will
moon me every chance she can get when I find her.

There is a branch of mathematics called "game theory" where the corporate and personal interactions within society are broken down into mathematical equations which balance the probabilities of a predicted set of outcomes against the relative value of each outcome to the parties involved.  I actually surveyed an introductory course on "game theory" once; I understood less than half of the material and slept through much of the other half. I am not sure at all if life can be broken down into equations and numbers; all of us have so many emotional motivations behind our actions that often we act based completely on our momentary impulse without consideration for any outcomes. On the other hand, philosophically, there can be some analogies made between games and life.  For example, the classic card game "Klondike Solitaire" could be a model study for the goals and meaning of anybodies life. Crazy? Let me explain.

Klondike Solitaire is the classic game of cards most of us know. The game is played with one pack which is divided into two basic groups. The "tableau" is dealt onto the table in seven progressive piles of one to seven cards with the uppermost card face up while the rest of the cards remain hidden. The "talon" consists of the remainder of the deck which will be dealt out as the game progresses. I personally deal out the talon three cards at a time, all face up. The goal of the game, eventually, is to separate the deck sequentially into each of the four suits building from the aces in a third division called "the foundation". The flow of play is from the "tableau", where cards are grouped sequentially descending from the four kings alternating from red to black, up to the foundation where the stacks ascend in suit from the ace. I won't belabour this description since, unless you were raised in a bubble, you have played or at least seen Klondike Solitaire.

Cult classic, easy reading, new-age
religion simplified to foolish levels.

The very nature of any solitaire game is immediately comparable to any life. Despite all impressions, each of us are wholly responsible for our own happiness and satisfaction throughout our life.  Richard Bach, the author of the best-seller "Jonathan Livingstone Seagull", covered this ground in his follow up to the seventies cult-classic, the short novel "Illusions".  In his typical, new-age mystical way, Bach suggests that all the universe is just a big illusion and we all live the life we choose to live whether we know it or not. The corollary to that idea is that each individual is truly the agent of their own destiny. If we want to be happy, we merely must choose to be happy. I'm not so sure I agree with Mr. Bach; if wishing alone could bring my Calista back I would have had the original and ten clones living at my house by now (all happily teasing me and eating all my chocolate). I do agree that life is a solitary existence though; in the end I am the only one responsible for my personal happiness.
Live any way you want or
dream because it's all an illusion

Looking at "Klondike" specifically,  my mystical take on the game goes thus. Each card in the deck represents a life opportunity. Perhaps the 4 of diamonds represents a good education, while the Jack of Spades represents a good job. Within the deck, all the cards are of equal value; miss any one of them or expose them in the wrong order and the game cannot be completed. The same could be said of life: one can never say that one opportunity is of greater value than the next simply because not one of us knows where our final destination might be. Perhaps an excellent education is of great value if your true calling is brain surgery, but it is not of much worth if you were meant to be a world-famous surf-board shaper. It's not the education that makes the man, it's what the man does with that education that really counts. Furthermore, opportunities are much like playing cards; they need to appear in the right order to be capitalised on; it's hard to take a great job offer if you have yet to complete the required training (but that doesn't stop many people from doing so).
Some people are born with all the cards in their favour.
Some of those people still fail despite being born sucking a silver spoon.

Many of games offer us only one opening move.
Many people are born with nothing more than their health and
through determination, ability and luck, succeed regardless.

The first deal of each game of Klondike, the original tableau, represents birth. The exposed cards on the tableau are those natural attributes each one of us are born into. Good health, a supportive and loving family and financial stability might be some of the immediate benefits you may enjoy at birth. Such a tableau may have four aces that can be moved to the foundation immediately accompanied by matching duces to immediately expose 6 hidden cards in the stacks. Such a hand, while possible, is highly unlikely, but then very few of us are born into a wealthy, stable and loving family.  That original tableau is simply the creation of random shuffling and pure chance; we have no control over it; very much like where we are born.

From the "talon" we play, face-up, three cards at a time (some crazy people play one card at a time, but then are restricted to a single pass through the deck). They are a known commodity; we know where they are and that they might, along the way, come into play. All of us have exactly this in our life; we are faced with foreseeable opportunities throughout our lives, some of which might be immediately available, while others are just potential futures that we can anticipate. Sometimes, through strategic card playing, we can selectively access certain pivotal cards we need from the talon. Perhaps we need a red king to fill an empty row on the tableau, allowing us to shift a black queen from her stack and expose another unknown card. If that were so, we might ignore the black kings as we worked through the deck in anticipation of finding that key red king. That strategy may frequently work very well, but we need to remember that by following that path, we are foregoing other opportunities that might be revealed by the play of those black kings.  Such is true in life; often we pass over the immediate opportunities in life in hopes of something bigger coming down the pipes in time. Sometimes that pays off while other times it merely leads to disappointment.  Anybody that has ignored the lonely wall flower at the school dance while lusting after the perky cheer-leader understands this dilemma; often that wall flower is a rose just waiting to blossom.
I know it's late and you're already down
You ain't ready for people around
I'm gonna tell you something I found out
Whatever life may hold in store
Things will happen that you won't be ready for
"for a rocker" Jackson Brown 1983
written as a tribute to a friend who died of heart disease at 25.

On the tableau, the hidden cards are the great unknown. We have no idea what lies within those stacks or in what order they lie.  Sometimes, as each card is exposed the play just flows like a line of dominoes falling; red leads to black, king leads to queen.  Sometimes the exposed card is nothing but a dead-end; yet another red 5 when you really needed a black 7 to break an impasse and keep the flow going.  Those hidden cards are analogues to the unforeseen future; those things that happen in life you just can't be ready for: the lottery win, the sudden job offer from an new acquaintance, love at first sight, unplanned pregnancy or the sudden death of a loved one.  Each of us have those stacks of hidden cards in our future; some of them will open future doors while others will trap us in the past. I personally understand that last card; Calista's death, no matter how we play out the rest of our life, has trapped Roni and I in a game with no hope of pulling off a win.  Our red queen sits atop our hidden black king, trapping each and choking off any further play.

Choices of nearly equal value. Play the ten in the talon and it frees up the ace of hearts
and the 2 of diamonds. Seems like an obvious move.But remember that ten on the
third column may be hiding the real card that will win the game. Those unforeseen
mysteries in life: some of them are magic....and some are tragic. Tough choices.

Sometime, the tableau can force us to choose between two plays of equal value.  Perhaps we expose a red jack but we have both black tens available, one in the tableau and another in the talon. We can play the closest black ten and expose yet another hidden card. Or perhaps we play the black ten sitting atop the talon which will open up a red Ace below if we use it. We need to make choices: which do we play and will that play advance our game? Everyone of us has had to make choices in our life, recognising the truth that sometimes choosing one opportunity over the other could be the turning point in our entire life.  Sometime the choice is simply a matter of random selection and hoping for the best, while other times we can predict the outcome (ie: playing the black ten from the talon will expose the Ace of Diamonds and allow you to move a 2 of Diamonds up into the register).  Consider career opportunities; none of us can really predict how a job may turn out; some jobs lead to a glowing future, some to dead-end boring careers, while others are merely place holders until other, better jobs come along.  As much as I always loved Calista's photographs and art-work, I am not sure she  considered photography to be anything more than a stepping stone to other, more lucrative and challenging opportunities.

The goal of Klondike is to eventually move all the cards up onto the "foundation", sorted into four tidy little rows based sequentially from the aces. The game is considered "won" when the entire deck has been moved up onto the foundation. Having said that, we all know that there are all sorts of different ways to lose Klondike.  I have dealt games where I had perhaps only one viable move after the first array of the tableau, while I have dealt many other games where I came within three cards of winning, finally reaching a dead end when I could not move one more card out of the talon or expose one more hidden card on the tableau. Certainly the second example represents a more complete game than the first. Much the same could be said about our lives.  Some people fill their life with travel and adventure, experiencing everything this world chooses to throw at them. They fill their foundation, sometimes borrowing cards from a second deck. On the other hand, too many of us, either through life being cut short or simply being too fearful to live barely get a single ace onto their foundation. Many of us finish our "game of life" having barely shuffled the deck.
Sometimes we deal out a perfect tableau, we smile in anticipation,
and then a cat runs across our board and reshuffles the deck.  Of
course it was the red devil..Calista is laughing somewhere.

My solitaire analogy does not comment on the length of the game, nor does it discuss the wealth one might accumulate by end of the game. The goal of life should never be length or wealth; it should be all about living a full life. Go have exotic adventures in foreign lands, eat gourmet meals on all seven continents, never settle on "just a job" and find a carreer you live for and love.  No matter how long you live, your life will be too short;  just try to play all your cards. My daughter Calista barely got to shuffle her deck and yet she saw more of this world than I probably ever will. I have shuffled the deck several times and yet my foundation is barely more complete than Calista's end game.

Perhaps my analogy makes sense, and perhaps it's pure nonsense. Certainly there are many deeply held belief systems throughout this world based on far less sensible processes. Of course, it certainly is a sign that I have spent far too much time thinking about life lately, trying to find some meaning to life in a world turned treacherous.  If nothing else, Calista should have taught me to just put down the deck of cards, stop playing at life and start living.

Sorry honey, I just can't do that yet; I need to work hard and fill that scholarship fund.

I have no idea what she was contemplating, but it surely was not Solitaire.
Maybe she was considering the tastiest parts of the seal when eaten alfresco.

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