Shuffling the Deck

My friend Van and his wife Trish have been married for 27 years and have amassed over 240,000 gin-rummy points between them. Van knows this because he keeps score on special tally sheets he created on his computer.

At last count, Trish was ahead by 430 points, which seventy-four-year-old Van is quick to point out indicates a difference of only .002% of the total. “She’d been behind me for months,” Van told me with a slow shake of his head over our regular Tuesday dinner. “But this week, she surged ahead.”

There are only two rules Van and Trish follow: absolutely no cheating, which means that even if you accidentally see one card in your opponent’s hand, the game must start again. And secondly, you have to keep playing; there is no giving up, whether in the middle of a hand, a bad night, a particularly difficult week, or, generally, in life. They’ve committed to playing until they literally aren’t able to anymore.

This bore itself out when Van suffered a serious seizure last Christmas, which was linked to a brain aneurysm he experienced many years ago. Van spent eight months in a medical facility, and there was no question he was deeply affected: his speech was slurred, he had trouble walking, and he didn’t have his usual sharp wit. And yet the gin games continued; Van says Trish was particularly dismayed to lose several weeks in a row to a man who could barely walk on his own.

Listening to Van, I wondered what shared diversions Annie and I have to get us through our days. We have a lot of interests in common: we both lived in South Africa and have it deeply under our skin (Rio’s middle name ain’t Mandela for nothin’); we both are passionate about social and racial justice; we love good writing and photography; we like hosting dinner parties and house guests; we both find our church in the trees. But I’m not so sure we have an equivalent to Van and Trish’s gin-rummy game.

Annie and I do have our rituals: we love to lie in bed on Sundays reading the New York Times, trading sections until I lock into the crossword and she takes apart Style. We have our spots on the couch where we watch documentaries together, discussing the finer points of storytelling afterward. On winter evenings we often sit in the living room and watch the fire.

But just as often Annie and I go our separate ways. I drink coffee; she likes tea. She’s a wake up and cuddle and chat kind of person; I like to get up and start my day on the go. I sometimes crave the kind of constant diversion that Van and Trish have found. Annie and I have discussed meditating in the morning together, but this has never really taken hold. My friend Bruce once encouraged us to integrate “talking rounds” into our week, passing a beautiful object back and forth and speaking our deep truths in turn.

It’s easy for me to romanticize what Annie and I aren’t doing, or what other people are doing, but when I asked Van about his game last night, he shrugged and said, “Hey, it’s a way to pass the time.”

For now I’m happy spending my minutes on “26 down” while Annie types away at her laptop across the couch.