Aching For Relevance

Prager_HeadshotI was aching for relevance, plain and simple. At bridge tournaments, where the supermajority of participants are drawing Social Security, people would ask, “Where are you from?” – a ritual ice-breaker, along with “What did you do?” Having my worth relegated in that manner to the past tense, I tended to get defensive. “You mean before I ceased to be a productive member of society? Before I became a coupon-clipping fiscal drag and a stealth contributor to the national debt? Is that what you mean?”
My patient, good-natured spouse, bless her, would run interference, trying her alchemist’s best to transmute curmudgeonly sarcasm into defanged humor. “Oh, don’t mind him, he just can’t get used to the idea that he’s…” And then Jo Ann would utter that accusatory R word, retired. Retired from what? From the vital arteries of commerce? The company of colleagues and clients who valued my thoughts and lauded my deeds? The exquisite delusion that mortality was a comfortably distant, eminently postponable tomorrow?
Duplicate bridge tournaments are like speed-dating where the goal is for you and your partner to outthink, outmaneuver, and vanquish cycle after cycle of pairs who are dedicated to doing the same thing to you. Every twenty-some minutes, after a set of three or four hands, there’d be a new set of opponents, and the perfunctory greetings were almost always the same. “Where are you from? Are you staying here at the hotel? How did you all do yesterday?” And then the dreaded “What did you used to do?”
“I was a lickspittle lackey of imperialism and a capitalist tool of the haute bourgeoisie.” That was my favorite retort, borrowed from an early Soviet Union era denunciatory epithet that I proudly boasted as a badge of honor. That and “I was the Wrath of the Lamb and the Angel of the Bottomless Pit.” Only once did someone recognize the reference to the deranged Dr. Drummond of Paddy Chayefsky’s The Hospital — and even that player failed to distill so much as a dram of fruity jocularity from my tart reply.
Why do they care where we hail from or where we’re staying or how we did so far? The short answer is that they fundamentally don’t. They come to the table to outperform their duplicate bridge counterparts at our expense. Their pleasantries are a sly form of deception. Beguilement. Anesthesia. That’s how spiders and army ants do it. They inject their prey with a paralytic poison. Disarming cordiality, whether or not extended in good faith, is a toxin, too. A relaxant. A sedative. “After all, it’s just a game,” say the dulcet tones and saccharine smiles. “We’re all here to have fun. That’s the main thing.” Jo Ann echoes such sentiments. The main thing, my eye!
We’re their enemy, and vice-versa. As soon as the cards are withdrawn from their respective slots in the game board, it’s gloves off. Drub that foe. Annihilate them if you can, because the worse they do in comparison to their same-direction pairs at the other tables, the better our result. You want to know where I’m from? I’m from Nobody’s Fool, Missouri! That’s what I really want to say, but then there’d be hell to pay later with Jo Ann.
She knows exactly how I feel about the hurried hi-there-new-neighbor chit-chat before the next set of boards is played. “They’re only being nice,” she says. “You could try being nice once in a while, too, you know.”
Yes, I know. But all I can think about is how rock hard and uncomfortable the seats are, how sharply my knees are barking at me, and the utter piggishness of my left-hand opponent, who’s broadcasting orangey cheddar-dyed Lance Toastchee cracker crumbs onto the playing surface from his protruding lower lip and whose convention card is sticking out of his designated corner of the table into my space. My space! Not yours, Mister!
Jo Ann reads my face. “It’s your bid, Gordon.” Translation: button you lip, forget about all that, and concentrate on your hand. “You’re the dealer.” So I am. The dealer, on a rotational basis. One of twenty-five percent of the people populating an ocean of spindly four-legged rafts stretching across a windowless, air quality challenged three-ballroom expanse deep inside a fully booked downtown Chicago convention hotel.
There’s no mistaking a bridge tournament for any other mass gathering of card players. The grey heads (for those who still have hair), canes and walkers, garish displays of jewelry, and rampant corpulence are the giveaways. The dead giveaways, one might say, given that the average age of today’s U.S. competitive bridge player tops 70  and continues to rise, seemingly inexorably.
I’m okay with that, though, being a stat myself. After all, I’m re – scratch that. I’m over sixty-five and no longer pulling a regular salaried paycheck. It was a conscious decision that I made to leave the formal workplace and become a consultant. To give up my apartment in New York and work from home in Maryland. The winters and summers in Gotham had become more and more insufferable. There’s only so much Amtrak, subways, cacophony, jostling, foul odors, and streetcorner falafels one can take, after all, before becoming completely numb or gaga.
There was no hint, not the slightest trace of an ominous scent in air, to portend that my quest for milder climes and less frenetic times could prove to be my undoing.

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