Friday, May 12, 2006

The Shell Game

Last week I had the great fortune of hosting Mister M, a very dear friend of mine from down South. We talked about politics and religion, about weather and economics and geography (namely, the difference between his and mine). We toured a great old Victorian house-turned-restaurant in a quaint little town nearby, walked through several of the downtown districts, lunched and supped with some local friends of his, went to a small downtown theatre, and generally were out on the town for five days straight. It was wonderful.

I have to say, though,that by the time the week was out, I was ready for some down time. Ready to curl up in a wing chair with a book and my cat with the dog at my feet. Ready to sit and do nothing. Ready for silence. As beautiful and wonderful as Mister M is, five days of (rather intense) 24-hour interaction was nearly overwhelming... nearly.

He called this afternoon to check in, thank me for the "lovely time" and generally shoot the breeze. I could hear it in his voice, that strained, impolite, but very real: - I had a great time, but man am I glad to be home! -

Mister M and I are what he calls "solo acts". We're both reasonably used to being the center of attention. We're both used to shining in public, both used to practicing and enacting the emotional shell game. You know it, you probably do it, at least to some extent, but there are those of us out there who have crafted it into art. Those of us who have let it become more than a first line of defense, and slipped into an entire lifestyle of it, where
everyone is on the outside.

You're the street-gamer, hiding a ball under shells and flipping them around on the table. "Guess where it is and you get a prize!" All along, the sucker feeding you dollars thinks that somehow, if he tries hard enough and is patient long enough, he'll find it. You, of course, know there's never any danger of that. The ball isn't even on the table any more; it's tucked safely away in your pocket. You're at no risk of losing, so it's easy to play on and on. It isn't difficult to put all your money down when you know the deck's stacked in your favor.

Until you get bored with it. Until you're ready for the next mark, the next person you can suck in, the next person to play along. Tam calls it a drug, that euphoria associated with a new interaction. And he's right. A lot of the behaviors associated with it are those of an addict. Riding the wave long enough to convince yourself you don't need it, don't want it, and it isn't long before you get that itch, before you go sniffing around for your next fix.

So what happens when something inside clicks, when a switch flips and the lights come on and you can finally see? When, in the harsh light of day, you don't like what you're looking at? When you don't want people to be disposable, and you're tired of life being transient? When you'd really like to be able to make a real connection with some one, but you've been so far removed from it for so long that you don't even know how to begin?

What happens when you've been operating on auto-pilot for a seeming eternity, and you don't know how to turn it off and actively engage any more?

It'd be nice, I think, to do that. To be able to pick a would-be mark and say, "You know what, man? Keep your money. The ball's right here," and hand it to him. I'm not quite sure how to get there. I'm making the first steps, though. I've upturned all the shells and emptied my pockets. Nothing in my hat. Nothing up my sleeves. Nothing to hide.


Real Mac Daddy said...

My favorite saying that I've come up with, is this. It applies primarily to office politics, but the more I think about it, it's a decent philosophy for life, too.

"The best way to play the game, is not to play the game."

As long as you're in the game, it's just that, a game. Sit back, enjoy, take yourself out of the "game". Then it's not a game anymore, so you can't lose. In fact, you're a winner every time!

Anonymous said...

First, to Mac,

Your analogy is flawed.

We're accustomed to dichotomous, false-dilemma thinking in this techno-savvy day and age. You're either happy or depressed, a winner or a loser.

The situation is almost never that simple.

Specifically, if you're not playing a game, then you can't win, the same way you can't lose. It's this way by definition. At the risk of torturing yet another innocent metaphor, it's like saying that not playing the lottery makes you a winner. It doesn't; you'll never throw a dollar away on a 'wasted' lottery ticket, but you'll also never walk away with a jackpot, no matter how small.

And in terms of office politics, your analogy isn't just flawed, but misleading, because publicly asserting that one isn't 'playing the game' of office politics is itself a strategy in the game of office politics. And it isn't a particularly good one, either; I've worked in enough corporate environments to know that the people who refuse to play the game of office politics are the ones who most consistently wind up with scut work, and who end as sacrificial lambs when someone needs to cut headcount or restructure.

Now for m,

You're a smart girl, so very little of what I'm going to write is likely going to be new or surprising to you. Still, as someone who's been through the process of trying to re-invent a long-standing personal identity, I feel I should at least point out some of the pitfalls, if only because misery loves to be shared.

First, it's going to be hard to keep close with the people you've known from 'before' - identity is never solely personally defined; there's always a social element involved as well, and the people who knew/know you as an emotional three-card monte player (to use your own analogy) are always going to have that at the back of their minds. Many of the memories you have with them, be they good or bad, will be memories that in one fashion or another reinforce that old identity.

The good news is that this gives you the justification to end relationships and friendships that have already become awkward or difficult. And it isn't even bad news that you'll have to leave some good people behind; be reminded that all the good people you've found thus far aren't anywhere near all the good people there are. In a sense, good people are like Doritos - you can crunch all you want, and they'll still make more.

The bad news is, if it should happen, that the new people you've found, without any prompting or communication from the people you used to know, start behaving in ways that suggest they think of you the same way the older acquaintences do.

If my own experience is any guide, it's actually pretty danged likely. After all, to some degree, behaviors are shaped by conditioning - behaving in a certain way seems 'natural' because it feels natural, even if you intellectually identify it as something ultimately harmful, it'll still do something good for your emotional state. And the emotional brain is much more primitive and less amenable to reason that most folks imagine.

If you reach that point, how will you react? And while it's good to think about it and come up with an idea of how you think you'll react, again, my own experience is that you don't really know how you'll react until you get there - just as you don't really know what you're like in a crisis until you find yourself in one.

I wish you the best; reinventing yourself is long, hard, grueling work. Probably the toughest work there is. Here's hoping you come through on the other side shining.


Real Mac Daddy said...

It's not an analogy, it's a philosophy. And you've waaaaay overthought it. C'mon, be a little more zen about it!

Mouth said...

Mac: My dad told me that about a decade ago, when we'd moved for the sixth time in five years and I was tossing about, friendless, lonely, and very, very angry.

At that point, I remember looking at him, palms up, face pinched, mouth open, thinking, "Didn't you hear a word I said? I'm hurting, and you're spouting some nonsense you picked up off the back of a fortune cookie!"


Mouth said...


"You're a smart girl."

Thank you.

"First, it's going to be hard to keep close with the people you've known from 'before' - identity is never solely personally defined;"

I'm aware. I never kept a broad range of friends, but it's been shaved to the bones in the past 18 months. The only ones left are the ones I intend to keep around. People I feel can grow and change and adapt with me. People I feel will accept that I'm not the same person I once was, and in another 18 months I'll likely no longer be the same person I am now. Hold on tight, darlin... it's gonna be a bumpy ride.

"The bad news is, if it should happen, that the new people you've found, without any prompting or communication from the people you used to know, start behaving in ways that suggest they think of you the same way the older acquaintences do."

I know for a fact that I'm capable of changing my behavior through sheer dint of will. It isn't new ground for me. Even so, this isn't something I saw on the horizon and decided to walk towards. I don't know any way to explain it other than that I just FEEL different.

The things that used to satisfy no longer do. The things that drove me no longer do. What I was doing before isn't working now because something in me has changed. It doesn't feel good or right any more to let people wash in and out of my life. There's something else there, and that's what I'm moving towards.


Anonymous said...


Ah, Zen. I like Zen. In fact, there happens to be a Zen story that fits, if not this specific post, at least something with respect to m. Let me share it with you:

Twenty monks and one nun, the latter of whom was named Eshun, were practicing meditation with a Zen master visiting their monastery.

Eshun had recently arrived at the monastery, and was young and beautiful. Despite her shaved head and simple dress, several of the monks secretly fell in love with her. One of them even went so far as to write her a love letter asking for a private meeting, leaving it secretly in her room later that evening. Eshun did not reply to the letter.

The next day, following the visiting master's lecture to the group, Eshun arose holding the letter. Addressing the writer, she said, "If you really love me so much, come and embrace me now."


My bad. I read your essay exactly backwards - instead of making a rational decision to change your emotional life, it seems your emotional life has changed and now you're exploring the rational expression of that change. That's a good and fine thing, to be sure.

All I can say in response is that I wouldn't be surprised (and I doubt you would, either) if you find that, instead of leaving that portion of your emotional life behind, you've circled around and returned to it at some point. It's still a part of you, after all.

As for 'bumpy rides', I'm quite used to them by this time, as any of my local friends can attest.



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