Monday, August 11, 2014

Solitaire (in Retirement)

The New York Times just ran a piece on retirement coaches, professionals who help retirees figure out what to do with their lives now that they don't have work to take up their time. Their example retirees are chosen from among professionals who, we assume, had satisfying careers. But what about them men and women who just worked fort a paycheck? 

One issue, of course, is relating to other people. Work gives you a circle of people who interact with day in and day out. When you're retired, that's gone, especially if you move away. But there's another problem; it has to do with what I've been calling behavioral mode. Work requires and supports a certain ecology of tasks, an economy of attention. You train your mind to it – though you might want to think of breaking a horse to saddle. When the job's gone, that economy is rendered useless. But you've devoted so much time to it that you don't know how else to deploy your behavioral resources.

And so you sit and twiddle your thumbs. Or, as in my father's case, play solitaire. I'm republishing the following note from April 15, 2011.

* * * * *

One scene that’s etched deeply in my mind is what I saw the first time I visited my parents after my father had retired. My father was playing solitaire hour after hour, day by day. Reveal a card, look at the table, place the card on the table. Reveal a card, look at the table, place the card on the table. Reveal a card, look at the table, place the card on the table. Reveal a card, look at the table, place the card on the table. Repeat.

Why? Why play solitaire when his time was his own? Who stole his life that he no longer had it?
My father was a brilliant man with many interests. We was a superb craftsman. He made my sister a play-pen for her dolls. He made if from wood, and made it so you could fold it up, just like real playpens. It was, oh, 30 to 36 inches square when opened up. The real marvel was that he’d cut the letters of the alphabet, and the numerals 0-9, into the slats on the sides. He outlined each letter on the slat. Drilled a hole inside the letter. Put the blade of a coping saw through the hole and then reattached the blade to the saw frame. Then stroke by stroke he sawed out the letter or number. When that was done he used small pieces of sandpaper to finish the edges.

Now, I didn’t actually see him do that, or, if I did, I don’t remember it. But that’s pretty much how he would have done it. Just which coping saw he used – he had several – I don’t know.

But that’s only one of many things he built down in his workshop with more tools than he had time to use.

He collected stamps, thousands upon thousands of them. The sale of his collection (after he’d died) was a minor event in the stamp-collecting world.

He played golf, a game he loved deeply. He like music, liked to read, and was a good bridge player.

But when he had his time back, when he didn’t have to go into work five days a week, he filled these blocks of time with solitaire. Not with those other things he used to do only on evenings and weekends.

In time, over the months and, yes, years, he cut back on the solitaire. He never did much, if any, wood working; the tools in his shop lay dormant. He played more golf, spent more time with his stamp collection. And bought some records.

The solitaire never left him. Always the well-worn decks of cards. Hours and hours.



  1. Your father is hardly unique in this. The solitaire program in Windows probably sold more copies of Windows than anything else.

    We used to laugh at cheap sci-fi plots in which the hero tricks the computer into calculating all of the digits of pi, and yet, here we are, solving the same puzzle over and over again.

    A computer security expert describes Sudoku as a "denial of service attack on human intellect". It has to make you wonder what glitch in our own programming it is exploiting. There's so much we don't know about ourselves.

  2. Heck, Rich, I've played many a round of Wintel solitaire myself. And then I graduated to mahjong.

  3. I think that solo games with a highly mechanical, tactile element are a form of meditation. That's how I always consider them anyway; my latest is an iOS game called "Threes" where you slide tiles around to combine them into larger numbers (the game "2048" is a blatant and poorly done imitation of Threes).