February 18, 2019
Kirk, a friend and fellow member of our THuGs running group, took me to my radiation session Wednesday. The routine: the techs block me onto the platform, I blink at the spinning lens for 20 minutes, get my weight recorded, then get out of there. We then stopped at Starbucks, a THuGs post-run tradition.
Sitting among the laptops, we talked about roots, experience, work. Kirk grew up in Chicago. After high school he got a union job with a company that dug deep sewage-line tunnels hundreds of feet underground, using giant boring machines. It was good for a while. He joined the Army and made it a career, then went with big federal contractors for a few years. He worked hard, did well, made good decisions, and bailed at the right time.
By coincidence, another friend just this past week celebrated his 15-year anniversary with the same company. How often do you hear of that any more, especially in the D.C. area? At the tail-end of my work life I put in 13 years as a contractor for a Navy agency. That was enough.
That’s work. We all take memories, lifelong priorities, and habits from it. The baseline for most of us who aren’t in the top job at the organization is ambition to move up. The longer we work, the more we feel we can do better—more money, better opportunity, more satisfying work, easier commute, maybe. We’re supporting families, most of us, but also are pushed by professional pride, confidence in our skills and experience, the sense of contributing value to the organization and, writ large, to the nation. Work brings relationships and friendships that may last lifetimes.
But eventually we want to get out—to sit in the sun, go fishing, start a business, run for office, volunteer at a charity, visit our grandkids.
Or play bingo, which is what Sandy and I did Friday night. Millions play, and not just seniors. Bingo raises billions, or probably could. We had nothing else to do, so we thought why not go to the church seniors’ group, have a potluck dinner, and play bingo. Sandy says she went with her mom many times. Many, many times. I never did.
So she made some chili, our contribution to the potluck, and we went and forked over our $10.00 each. We got a short laugh when the woman taking the money asked Sandy if she is 55, the age minimum for the club.
We didn’t know anyone, so we shook hands and chatted. Then the bingo cards were distributed. We played and played, more than two hours, 12 games, two cards each game. People around the room kept yelling “Bingo!” We never did. Neither of us won anything but splitting headaches. Which is strange, for bingo truly is a mindless game. Maybe that’s why it’s so popular.
Yet knowing it’s a mindless game—as we cleared our cards to start each new game and the caller started yelling numbers and letters, we still had this vague notion that maybe this time we’ll get all five numbers across the card, vertically, horizontally, diagonally, or the winning wide or narrow numbers pattern or whatever. And win our $10 back. Playing bingo, we still felt the urge, however faint it became, to keep trying. It was the task at hand. It was, in a bizarre, surreal way, work.
I was surprised by the deadly seriousness of our fellow players, people who do this all the time. Ferocious would be a good word. Claims of winning cards were scrupulously checked, several were disqualified for errors. Jumping the call, I guess. Arguments broke out. Towards the end of the evening every holler of “Bingo!” was met with groans. After all, $10 was at stake at every round. Ties split the prize–$5 each.
In keeping with our promise to each other to keep our minds open to learning from new experiences, we thought hard about this one. You really can’t compare determination to win at bingo with your personal ambition to make a million bucks by thirty, to cure cancer, to get elected President.
Yet for the regulars, the bingo sessions have authentic meaning. They offer the opportunity for a comforting conversation among friends about health or other deeply personal problems, or happy things—a new grandchild, a planned vacation. Like work, bingo, and similar pastimes that don’t seriously stress brain cells, meets some mysterious human need. The sympathetic human contact is close to what that is.
We pursue excellence at a job or career for 30 or 40 years, or more, to validate our life’s purpose at the end of each day to ourselves and to others, to seek to fulfill our destiny. Bingo doesn’t exactly rise to that standard. But if we play, it can engage us, point us to a goal, force us to pay attention to others, and to our surroundings. Sure, lots of things do that. But with bingo, fill five spaces, you win.