Games I don’t play

It is a few evenings before Christmas and we’re in the living room of my brother’s house in St. John’s, Newfoundland.  A low fire winks behind the screen of the small coal burning fireplace and undernotes of coffee mixed with alcohol intermittently finds my nose.

I and my 19 year old boyfriend are dressed to disco – him perfumed in English Leather cologne wearing his navy blue velvet jacket and me in my shortened prom dress – a couple of sophisticates. My brother, his wife and their friends invite us to play Fictionary before we go dancing at Stanley’s Steamer. The game pre-dates Balderdash but it is the same idea. One person picks a random obscure word from the dictionary and then each person creates a bogus definition and writes it on a piece of paper dropped into a bowl. The person who picked the word reads out the definitions and everyone votes on which is the real/best one.

I excelled at the game partly because of my bullshitting ability and a love of words and their sounds, and because since I was little my mother bade me to “look it up” whenever I asked what a word meant. She was a walking dictionary, and it ticked me off when she did this because I knew she knew. But looking up the words taught me how dictionaries are written and formatted, and when I played Fictionary my answers were realistically phrased and framed. I’ve always been a good mimic.

With Fictionary I enjoyed success and felt a competence I never felt with any other party game. I won round after round. My brother, not then a world-renowned scientist but on his way, his wife a university Biology professor, one friend a brilliant pianist, the other a marine botanist, and my boyfriend a bookish Magna Cum Laude law-bound debating powerhouse, were stunned. I felt great.

I didn’t want to go dancing. I wanted to keep playing. Of course partly it was the allure of success, partly the feeling that I’d found my intellectual groove, but more appealing was the graciousness and kindness of the other players who told me how creative I was. I was unused to praise. I also liked the homey feeling in the room. The smell of alcohol wasn’t threatening, like it had been when I was a kid. The room was warm with chatter and lively with firelight and wood crackling. This gathering felt like a family – an unfamiliar feeling to me – and I wanted more.

Games are still not my forte. Nonetheless, when our kids were little we played simple games, games like Snakes and Ladders which didn’t require advanced degrees to understand or demand any strategic gifts. They relied on chance, the roll of the dice. I liked these games perhaps because they aligned with my world view and the easy rules appealed to me, black and white dice being a pleasing metaphor.

Years ago, when first married, we frequently gathered with my husband’s five siblings to play games on Friday night, something that sung to my soul. Family time! Games! Here I was with this boisterous large clan who welcomed me to their big table. My brothers-in-law, one a law student, played Trivial Pursuit as though their next meal depended on it and I, fresh out of university with a major in knowing it all tucked under my arm, argued with lawyer B.I.L. like a Tasmanian Devil mama defending her young. It was personal. I left the table angry regardless of whether I won or lost.

On a memorable visit with my brother and his game loving wife in 2014, I attempted to play cards with them and our kids and, mired in the complex rules, let my tongue loose in frustration which came out spiked with sarcasm. Our youngest daughter who was having a great time said “You don’t have to play if you don’t want to, Mom” in a manner sticky with 14 year old contempt.

So. Exposed, I retreated to my bedroom in the basement where I could hear the players hooting and laughing from the dining room as I salved the punctures to my ego and beat myself up for being a failure at family games night.

I know now my solidly entrenched antipathy towards games isn’t because I don’t like losing. Last summer when visiting my sister we played Scrabble. She always wins. The rules are clarified at the beginning of the game so there is never any need to consult the miniscule printed Scrabble legislation or burst into flames at a perceived breach of protocol.  I think one of the other things I like about Scrabble are the squares on the board. I like fitting the tiles into the squares, I like the number values assigned to the letters, the arithmetic of words. Somehow this makes sense to me. Words have value, right?

Having been beaten by my sister a couple of times, I was happy enough when a card game was suggested. A new game. We played a trial round so I could learn the rules but I could feel my throat closing and a sense of panic rising. My sister’s voice turned into that Charlie Brown teacher’s voice. None of the words made sense. I asked if we could call it a night and perceptive sister asked “Why don’t you like playing games?” and I said “Because I feel stupid and everyone else catches on so fast.”

When I think about that conversation I see that its really about me worrying what others will think of me if I don’t get something right on the first try. I’m afraid to show my underbelly because someone might bite it. It’s like I can’t give myself permission to learn in the presence of others or maybe it’s that I always have to feel smart and witty and sharp as a nail. Maybe I’m afraid that if I don’t understand something right off the bat, I’ll be criticized. I will feel less than.

A few years ago, we went to Bermuda in July for a family holiday. The buses stopped running at 6:30 in the evening and we were 20 minutes outside of Hamilton in a small cottage. With nothing else to do, we played cards – rounds and rounds of Hearts and Gin Rummy. Initially, none of us knew how to play but the Internet taught us and we figured them out together. With the aid of homemade Dark and Stormy drinks and probably as the result of spending most of the day on the beach, I was as relaxed as a bowl of soup. The exultant choir of tree frogs hummed outside and inside the drone of the air conditioner loosened my boar bristle nerves.

I wonder also was I at ease because we spent days together sharing the experiences of navigating the bus system and practiced patience waiting in Bermuda’s dense damp heat, swimming and snorkeling awestruck in Bermuda’s aquarium-like water discovering parrot fish and brain coral, walking its narrow roads evading death by scooter. I felt close and connected to everyone – safe – and a game of cards didn’t feel like an assault on what I can see now is my frightened soul. They aren’t games to me. They’re threats that people might see the real me. The dumb one. Which is of course, dumb, though I know my brain thought it was protecting me from the thing I crave because the thing I crave – connection – is risky business, especially with family members.

I’m not sure why my brain reacts this way, what experiences it filtered that this inability to play the game became a faulty defense mechanism. I’m working on it. There’s a sense of urgency to this quest because another daughter is about to leave home, albeit temporarily, and I feel these connections need immediate attention. I am frantic. Is it too late?

BermudaFrangipani_2016

Found frangipani in Bermuda

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25 thoughts on “Games I don’t play

  1. Ah, this is a sweet case of exposed underbelly. I’m sure you can see it all more clearly now, after having written this. I’m so glad for your Bermuda memories, it sounds like you all had an amazing time there. Happy work on it!

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  2. I enjoyed your writing about this topic! As an aunt I have had the pleasure of watching a niece and nephew raise two boys: one an excellent athlete-player in every sport-game he attempts and the other boy… not so much. My niece and nephew were very careful to find activities for the non-game-boy to enjoy. After reading your essay I realize (again) how essential it is to have access to all kinds of activities, not just team/game style ones.

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  3. Very self aware. Games are a topic I’ve been writing a bit about. My father was an insane game player. It colored my childhood. We called him the game master. He was a cheater, too. And sometimes he liked to pretend he cheated.

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  4. I like how this is all about trying to understand yourself better, what makes you tick differently than those around you. I think I’m like you on this topic–I like games I know I’m good at–the word games, the useless-knowledge games. Beyond that I *hate* looking foolish so I will avoid anything that i think will make me look bad to others–kind of silly, really.

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    • I found the process of digging into why I don’t like games really interesting and then recognizing why humbling and somewhat embarrassing. Still not sure I can make myself play games, either. sigh.

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  5. I don’t think it’s too late. I think it might depend on the people and the game.
    I love games and almost always played them with family growing up.
    I will say this much — My FIL seems to despise all the games we play. He truly appears to have a terrible time, and I don’t know why he plays with us. Sometimes I think he simply needs a hearing aid and sometimes I think he should just sit his cranky butt out. He goes along with us, so I gotta give him props for making the effort.
    My experience with team sports is similar to yours with games. I always think board games are meant to be fun, not about winning, but I’ve yet to play team sports with anyone who sees team sports that way. So, ya know, I stick to swimming and tennis.

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    • I like solo sports, too, except walking which I like doing with others or by myself. Same with x-country skiing. I’ve figured out why I don’t like games but I’m not sure I’m going to be able to play games ever. I may have poisoned that bed (to mix metaphors). I feel for your poor FIL and you all.

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  6. I’m trying to think of some smart and funny comment that will do justice to this piece of writing, but I can’t. I had the thrill of recognition: I do that, too! Maybe I’m not so weird. Or, if I am, I’m not the only one.

    Great lines:
    fresh out of university with a major in knowing it all tucked under my arm

    I like the number values assigned to the letters, the arithmetic of words. Somehow this makes sense to me. Words have value, right?

    It’s like I can’t give myself permission to learn in the presence of others.

    Thank you for letting us share in your brain sorting. And, no, it’s not too late.

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    • One of the reasons I love blogging is that when I bare my sad soul about something that I think qualifies me as a nutbar, I find out there are others who think/feel the same. It is enormously comforting and almost as helpful as talk therapy. So thank you for telling me you behave similarly, Melissa.

      I sure as hell hope its not too late! I needed that reassurance, too.

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  7. This is clearly a character you know well. She’s very human, very fragile, and yet strong–enough so to expose her inner soul. Such a character should play a central role in the novel of yours I’m still patiently waiting to read.

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  8. I’m not really one for these games. Trivial Pursuit bores me because you either know it or you don’t. I’ll never forget a Boxing Day game that took 6 whole hours; Monopoly with my grandmother was awful because she always accidentally knocked the board over when she was losing; no-one wants to play me at Scrabble; cards I can’t be bothered with. Yet my brother and I, as children, made our own Monopoly set from scratch, and I did like playing chess with my Dad.

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    • I understand why no one wants to play Scrabble with you, Derrick. You would be a formidable foe. Maybe you and my sister should have a game together? I’d pay to watch that match! I would be suicidal if forced to play a game for 6 hours. I just had a dreadful thought – what if hell is a custom built place where we are forced to do the thing that makes us feel the worst over and over and over for all eternity? Oh, man. Sweating.

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      • That idea of Hell is perfect. Sisyphus would agree. I used to play Scrabble on line, but when Mattel took it over and wiped out friendships overnight I went off in a huff and now play Lexulous, which is similar. I wonder if your sister would be interested?

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  9. ‘As relaxed as a bowl of soup’ — Lol! I can relate to this post as I’ve never really cared for board games (bored games). Partly, like you, for fear of not knowing and looking foolish (which happens a lot as my brain retains few details on a great many subjects). Also because, unlike others, I simply don’t care about the game. The feeling of camaraderie, the connection, the loosening up around the table — yes. The sense of world domination in winning — absolutely not. It’s just a game. Although I think I’d do well with Fictionary! 😉

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    • My husband and I were talking about this “feeling” and that it probably applies to lots of things, like trying a sport, or reading a certain type of book (eg biographies/memoirs versus a mystery). I suspect there are quite a few bloggers that would do well with Fictionary but you could do it in two languages!

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