Unemployment Diary: thousands to his bidding speed

. . . But patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, ‘God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts. Who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,
And post o’er land and ocean without rest;
They also serve who only stand and wait.’

The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose of John Milton (Modern Library), Sonnet 19: On his blindness

March 30, 2009

Jack and Peter (especially Peter) have lately been fascinated with playing hearts. Peter is starting to catch on to the strategy of the game, and he mumbles under his breath, Rain-Man-like, as he figures out what cards to play. He takes it very seriously, and asks me lots of questions when I beat him (I never let them win at games, if I think it’s a game they can master).

Using card games as a metaphor for life is generally a bad idea; it leads to things like Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” I once tried to write a short story that revolved around a strange Wisconsin trump game, “Sheep’s Head,” that involves a truncated deck, a “blind,” and the strategy of “burying Schneider,” but it didn’t work out, largely because I didn’t understand the game. About the only time I’ve seen it successfully used was in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court, when the Yankee uses a poker metaphor–”a new deal”–to describe how he plans to reorganize King Arthur’s feudalist society, more than forty years before FDR resurrected the image.

Still, I can’t help but get a little philosophical about hearts. I had a double major in college–English and sociology–but I minored in hearts. More nights than I care to remember, I sat at the Country Kitchen in DePere, Wisconsin, with a giant sweet roll, a bottomless pot of coffee, a deck of cards, and three friends. I got pretty good, but I was never as good as Bob Kennedy.

Bob was a naturally gifted poet–one of those people who could turn a perfect image or a stunning few lines with no apparent effort. But I was always critical of his lack of follow-through, his refusal to edit, his reliance on a big personality when there was so much else he could bring to a poem. He didn’t seem to care, though, and when I was editing the college literary magazine I couldn’t help but take most of what he submitted, even when he submitted it under a pseudonym and never admitted to it (more about that some other time). I sweated and toiled over every syllable, and buried most of what I wrote in tattered notebooks that I never showed anyone; Bob shouted out imperfect but evocative jumbles and seemed pleased with the rough drafts.

There was more under the surface, though. I remember one day Bob asked me if I had ambition. We were reading Milton, I think, the most ambitious of English poets–he was going to out-Homer Homer, out-Virgil Virgil, and write the epic poem to end all epic poems. And he did, I think, though maybe there are no great epics after “Paradise Lost” (except maybe “Moby Dick”) in part because the epic fell out of fashion.

Of course I had ambition, I said; I was obviously going to be a great poet. I read Hopkins, Eliot, Yeats, I had huge ambitions. That I knew those ambitions were out of proportion to my talents, I never admitted, even to myself. Bob just nodded, seemed a little sad, and said that he didn’t have any ambitions. And then we went to Country Kitchen and played hearts.

Twenty years later, Bob and I are at roughly the same place. He’s married, has two kids, lives in Green Bay, and from what I can tell is happy, and funny, and as full of life as he was in college. And I’m married with two kids, living in Minneapolis, and still wondering if ambition is a useful virtue or one facet of the deadly sins.

What does this have to do with hearts? Not much. There may be some lessons in the game, though. It’s a loser’s game–avoid taking any tricks, keep your head down, play from the bottom of your suit, and you’ll do well. That’s my strategy. And if you do have ambition, the best you can do is lose big, “shoot the moon,” take all the hearts and the queen of spades, too, and share the suffering with your opponents. I rarely try to shoot the moon, preferring the slow and steady accumulation of nothingness.

Bob was a moon-shooter, and a good one. He knew how to flame out in style, and that one small victory, one slip of letting someone else take the fall on a trick, is the path to ruin.

In The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere on Earth, Bill Holm writes about Lángavitleysa, “The Long Craziness,” an Icelandic children’s card game that resembles the American game “war.” There are no winners possible in “The Long Craziness,” just a stalemate in the trenches ending in exhaustion–it’s the perfect bedtime game, sure to wear down the toughest little player. But I suspect, given his celebration of the Icelanders who failed on the prairie, that Holm was a champion hearts player, and bold moon-shooter.

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