Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Solitaire--More Than You Probably Wanted to Know

1:30 a.m.  Two days after my daughter's wedding.  My father gets up to use the partially painted bathroom, tries to steady himself on the stepladder I've neglected to remove, and crashes through the glass divider next to the toilet.  My mother summons me to the scene.  His arm is streaming blood.  "I just need a band-aid," pronounces the man who has performed hundreds of appendectomies, though none recently.  

Four hours and nineteen stitches later, we return from the emergency room to find my mother losing at solitaire.  She was concerned for my father, but almost as distressed at her unusual bad luck with Klondike.  On a hunch, I counted the cards.  Fifty-one.  She had been, literally "not playing with a full deck."  For Christmas that year, I gave her a shiny new pack of Bicycle playing cards.  And some other nice stuff, too, of course.

The very same father, in the hay days of his small town medical practice, would periodically slump into depression, signaled by days spent in his bathrobe at the kitchen table, playing solitaire.  Minus the bathrobe and the kitchen table, I took this habit to college with me.  When cramming for exams, last-minute paper-writing, and quasi-virginal sex weren't keeping me up, the wee hours were for solitaire.  Hunched over the cards on my dorm room floor, I would play until my back ached and my eyes were bleary.  

With the digitalization of everything came computer solitaire.  I, too, was seduced by the come-on of the cascading cards, the audio of applause so rare in my regular hours.  And I caved, too, under the onslaught of ever-new versions of this daddy-of-all-time-wasters.  Still hunched, but now over a laptop screen, I have played until my back ached, my eyes were bleary, and I began to develop carpal tunnel syndrome.

Computer solitaire has become the dirty little secret of millions of us, especially in the workplace.  One Mahjong solitaire program I've seen has a built-in "Boss Key" that 
[h]elp you quick hide the game when your boss coming in. Press the Space, the game will disappear from your screen, and press Space again, it can turn up.  
Such a feature might have helped Edward Greenwood IX, famously fired in 2006 from his job as a state lobbyist for the city of New York by Mayor Bloomberg, who caught Greenwood playing solitaire "on city time."   No notice, no severance pay, and the end of six years of cushy public employment at a non-Bloomberg salary of $27,000.  For playing solitaire.  In point of fact, Greenwood was not at his desk, or even in the office when his offense was detected, but away on city business.  Bloomberg Law professor and blogger Ann Althouse's post on the Greenwood affair prompted these comments:

Goesh said...
Hmmm - one would think some less harsh disciplinary action would be in order first, like a written reprimand and warning, possibly a day or two suspended without pay. What's next, doodlers? I wonder what his employee evaluations were like? I got a crisp $20 says he was doing satisfactory work. This won't garnish him many votes from government workers, that's for sure.

Freeman Hunt said...

That's pretty harsh. If we fired all the employees who we ever saw playing solitaire, I think we'd be left with only the warehouse staff because they don't have desks and computers. 

Clearly, if we're starting to jeopardize employment here, it's time to talk about addiction--something we seem to be addicted to talking about anyway, what with the sex addictions, shopping addictions, exercise addictions, etc.  And rest assured, this one hasn't escaped the attention of addictionologists.  The conversation has even trickled down to the Nickelodeon set, who have spawned a handy-dandy, if misspelled,  little
quiz we can take, to assess our problem.  Or we can check the following, from a solitaire game site  :

Here's a shortlist of solitaire addiction signs you can use to make sure you or someone you love isn't becoming a solitaire addict:
  • Getting an excited or "rushing" feeling when playing Solitaire
  • Feeling guilty about playing Solitaire but continuing to play
  • Not being in control of the amount of time spent on playing solitaire
  • Lying about the amount of time you spend playing solitaire, thinking about solitaire, or even dreaming about the game
  • Playing solitaire to deal with feelings of sadness or anxiety
  • Becoming angry when your "real life" interrupts your solitaire time
There are also a handful of physical signs that solitaire addiction could be present. These include the onset of carpal tunnel syndrome, dry bleary eyes from staring at the computer screen, recurring headaches and back pain, trouble eating, and ignoring personal hygiene.
Wheeewww!  I'm not addicted.  I never dream about solitaire, I eat regularly and with no difficulty, and I am not ignoring personal hygiene.   And thank goodness, I don't have anything remotely resembling a "workplace."

In defense of solitaire, a cause to which legions have risen in the wake of all the faint praise, some refer to it as a meditative activity.  Others claim beneficial effects including time-saving, since solitaire breaks are taken at one's desk, unlike coffee breaks which are often taken elsewhere, and lead to bathroom breaks; some kind of mystical mind-meld thing where higher order problems get solved while the brain is busied with low-level card manipulation; brain stimulation in playing of more complicated games, which can stave off Alzheimer's; and anxiety-reduction. 

Josh Levin's 2008 Slate Magazine piece (in their special edition on procrastination), entitled "Solitaire-y Confinement: Why we can't stop playing a computerized card game," is a useful compendium, part history, part analysis, part light-hearted examination. He makes the point that solitaire put-downs have become a throwaway barb because so many of us hide this part of our lives.  And he admits that he struggled to quit playing solitaire long enough to write the article.  He credits our common preoccupation with the advancement of computer familiarity and usage, and pacification in the modern office.

I have often wondered, in between games, what I might have gotten accomplished had half of the hours I've spent on these games, once dubbed "patience," and also referred to as "kabal," been spent more productively.  What might we as a society have achieved?  It boggles the mind.  Although, if I get to count those hours as meditation time, I'm already Buddha!  From a long, proud line of Buddhas.

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