Monday, October 29, 2007

Passing Time

There is a part of me that longs to be a conservative. Not a conservative of the type that presently occupy the halls of power in Ottawa, but a conservative in the sense of a person who thinks that change for change’s sake is not necessarily a good thing. Of late I have been thinking that there are a number of things that I see as dying arts whose loss will really change our society. Sadly their passing is largely going unmarked and they are going un-mourned for they are each passing quietly by fading out of our lives.

I am going to (eventually) comment on four of these: playing cards, baking bread, making music and conversation.

The first of these is a trivial matter, the art of playing cards. When I was growing up for reasons that do not merit going into, I often (very often) found my self at school early. We were not allowed into our classrooms and the library (despite the legend of the school library, it was pathetic) was out of bounds, so the early birds were gathered in a foyer to kill time under the occasional supervision of the custodian. To pass the time we played cards – a game called 120’s or auction.

Auction is a game that is not played (except by expatriates) west of Cape Breton but amongst Newfoundlanders of my parents’ generation and above, it (and its variants) was one of the leading social pastimes. Played in fours or sixes with partners it was a whist-like game that was simple enough to allow for drinking, eating and loud conversation during play. It also had a body of informal rules of play superimposed upon Hoyle’s rules (it is in Hoyles under another name) the failure to follow marked one as either not attentive or a novice. Daring not to play trump (if you had one) as the last member of the defending team on the first round was a crime that would bring mild rebuke in the afternoon, loud condemnation in the evening when the kids were asleep and the alcohol out.

In university I played less auction – there were more mainlanders around who did not know the rules – and played more hearts, sergeant major, whist and bridge. At Memorial the main venue for this was the Physics Societyor the Chem Cafe. In two years at Memorial the only discernable connection between the Physics Societyand physics that I could find was the location of the room and the fact that the children of the physics professors seemed to all be members. Otherwise the only physics that was studied or discussed there was the fluid dynamics of liquids with high ethanol content. The Chem Cafe was also a locale named food service centre, although perhaps more aptly named given some of the peculiar colours, scents and flavours that would emerge from the kitchen. It was likely the only place where French fries could be considered a healthy choice given the relative dangers of the alternatives.

On any given week day one knew that a stroll to the Physics Society would find a group of people around the table in the centre of the room playing cards and discussing (generally in a heated fashion) some topic or another. The group would very quickly accommodate a new arrival finishing whatever game was at hand posthaste and moving on to a game that could accommodate the arrival of an additional person. When time for a class came (provided that the student was inclined to go) the game at hand would similarly be re-arranged to accommodate the loss of a player and the games would carry on. Except for the mandatory Sunday closing and the occasional Saturday night drink fests, I expect there was always a card game in progress at the Physics Society. It was there that I learned bridge and hearts as well as numerous interesting facts about the denizens of St. John’s (there are number of now doctors, lawyers and politicians who would not necessarily want the gossip that was passed around at the Physics Society in the mid-1980’s to make the streets today).

The great card game continued through Grad School and Law School – my roommates and I played cribbage and there was a grad school crowd who played hearts and bridge. The last great hurrah of my card playing career was at the Bar Admission Course. This was a program administered by the Law Society of Upper Canada after the completion of Law School and the articling year. It was six months of tedium and ha snow largely been abolished. However, it only took half days and the study was not that difficult (it was a true study-to-what-will-obviously-be-on-the-exam type of course), particularly given that it was marked on a pass/fail/honours system and there was no benefit to getting an honours. For most of the course there was a group of four of us who would get together at least once a week in the afternoon and play bridge. Again, we shot the breeze, although now the topics became more serious and more obviously linked to the beginnings of our real lives. We ate a lot of good food (my father went through a period of making dill pickles which exactly corresponded to this phase) and drank better grades of alcohol.

Then it ended. Our foursome went its separate ways (first to big firms, then to separate cities – two in Ottawa, one in Toronto and one in Victoria) and for some reason I never really found another card playing clique. At first it was easy to chalk up to being too busy but as time has gone by it seems pervasive. I know no-one in my circle of friends and colleagues who plays cards of any sort on a regular basis. There are no regular foursomes for bridge. The weekend auction sessions do not happen. No-one plays hearts, whist or cribbage except on an occasional nostalgic basis. A number of us have talked about getting together to play but it never seems to get organized and there do not seem to be enough players around for it just to happen.

Busy-ness is one thing which has killed cards but I do not think it is the only thing. At a very deep level the blurring of lines between generations and the diminishment of admiration for older generations is a major factor. Growing up in Newfoundland, and I think other places, card playing was seen as an adult activity. Being invited to join the adults to play auction meant that you could be trusted to sit still, know the rules, concentrate and play. You had to earn your place, literally, at the table by showing the maturity to not whine, need too much help or to suddenly leave the table.

Another thing is the growth of computer games. Even without a handheld computer game as long as you have a laptop you have an instant amusement centre which does not require the trouble of organizing a group of people or committing a block of time. Indeed, on my own computer there is a game of hearts which effectively changes one of the most social of games (e-mail me if you want to know our off-colour name for hearts) into a type of solitaire.

Finally, and this ties to my next blog posting on this topic, there is the death of the art of conversation. Playing cards was typically not and end in itself. Instead it provided a pastime around which a social gathering could be constructed. The real centerpiece of that gathering was the conversation that ensued before, during and after play. These conversations ranged from pure gossip to wide ranging discussions of politics and religion (which could sometimes end the games with a fight) but they were an essential part of the play at whatever level they were pitched. For some reason now it seems that we do not desire – or rather pursue -- that kind of conversation in our lives anymore on a regular basis and without that the type of cards I played until my late twenties has no reason to exist.

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1 comment:

Die said...

When I read this, I was most amused that you associate playing cards, making music, baking bread and engaging in conversation particularly of the type regarding politics and religion, with being a conservative. I say this because 90% of the people I know who engage in these activities are social democrats or socialists. You might think this is related to the fact that 95% of the people I know fall into one of those two categories, but that is not, in fact, true. I have many friends/acquaintances from a completely apolitical part of my life: knitting. And yet even the knitters who are great bread bakers, preserve and jam creators, musicians etc are left-leaning. I think the death of much of what you describe is related to consumer culture, to people working longer work hours and to television. Take a look at the Stats Can reports on the number of hours per week the average Canadian spends watching TV and you have your answer to where the time goes. Watching TV is an extremely passive activity. My mother did not refer to it as the "idiot box" for nothing.

To your four activities, I would add reading books for pleasure and dancing. Few people read books for pleasure anymore. Again, most of the people I know who limit the amount of time their children are allowed to spend watching television, playing computer games and fiddling on the Internet are left-leaning, NOT conservative. They all also read to their children and hope to instill a life-long love of reading in those children.

However, I must say that my own social circle is an anomaly. Filled with people in book clubs, scrabble players, card players, cooks, dinner party hosts and people who debate politics long into the night...