Monday, May 31, 2010

Misfit, and mostly proud of it--a long and personal rumination

A few recent things have converged to set me ruminating today.

First, while visiting my wonderful friend Cardgrrl last week, we got talking about bad-beat stories and why people tell them when they know that nobody--themselves included--likes to listen to them. Cardgrrl tends to be patient and longsuffering with them. I try to either actively cut them off, pretend I don't know the person is talking to me, or give absolutely blank-faced feedback, so as to dissuade the storyteller from continuing.

Cardgrrl analogized the situation to baboons who, after suffering some minor injury, will make hooting sounds to call attention to their pain. Other baboons will then come over and make sympathetic hoots. It doesn't do anything to actually heal the wound, but it strengthens the tribal bonds. She sees bad-beat stories as the human/poker equivalent of this ritual. She figures that listening for a minute and making some appropriate responsive comment such as, "Wow, that really sucks," costs her nothing and makes everybody involved feel like part of the clan.

I bristled at that. I don't ask for sympathy for my bad beats, and don't like people trying to manipulate me to evoke sympathy from me on account of theirs.

Cardgrrl suggested that my aversion to participating in such exchanges might be due to not feeling like I'm part of the tribe. Damn, that woman knows me well! I wouldn't have thought of it in exactly those terms, but she's right on the money. In many important ways, I have always felt quite apart from the rest of humanity--sometimes because I perceive myself to have been excluded by the tribe, sometimes because I have exiled myself.

Second item. I was preparing another batch of "Guess the casino" posts. This involves looking through the hundreds of photos I've taken of our 60 or so local casinos that have poker rooms. In doing so, I saw some of the oldest ones--taken over a year ago--that still haven't been used in that series of posts. I saw in them something that I hadn't noticed until Cardgrrl (herself a skilled photographer) pointed it out a while back, though now that I'm alerted to it, it's embarrassingly obvious: They all tilt.

It isn't random tilt; it's the same amount and in the same direction every time. Basically, the culprit is that I hold the camera askew--rotated maybe 5 degrees clockwise--because that's what looks normal to me. Since she pointed this out, I'm a lot more careful, and most of the time I manage to remember to check the orientation of the frame with respect to some vertical or horizontal marker in the shot, so the pictures I've taken in the last eight or nine months (since she alerted me to this problem) will look more normal to everybody else.

This isn't limited to photography, either; it's how I actually see the world. If you've spent any time around me, you've probably noticed that I tend to have my head canted to the right. I've known about this since I was a teenager, when my barber, with a bit of frustration, asked me, "Do you always hold your head that way?" She was considering whether to cut my hair a little asymmetrically to compensate for it if I did. I had never noticed anything was wrong before then. So I've long been aware of it, but I mostly ignore it as just part of how things are.

It was just over a year ago that I bought a cheapo webcam for my computer so that Cardgrrl and I could have video chats. We talk a few times a week now, so I see myself in the little inset shot. As a result, I get reminded a lot more often than has ever been the case before how I look to the rest of the world--and it's tilty. It matches how my photographs turn out when I'm not paying attention. I know that my right ear is a little higher than my left, so maybe my right eye is a little higher, too, and I have to be slightly cattywompus for the retinal images to match up. I don't know. The point, though, is that I genuinely see the world slightly off-kilter.

As you might guess, that literal fact makes a nice metaphor for other stuff, because it's not just a visual thing, it's a matter of what I notice and attend to and think about. They're all a little--sometimes a lot--different from how it seems that everybody else sees things. I'm on the verge of flooding you with examples, but this is already getting too long. Just take my word for it: my life history is chock-full of instances where what seems to me an obvious inference or interpretation or preference is 180 degrees out of phase with how everybody else is seeing things, and it has caused no end of trouble and misunderstanding for me.

Some things get me all sappy-feeling, and one of the most consistent triggers is the old "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer." One of the themes running through the show is that of being a misfit. There's Rudolph himself, of course, with that shiner of a nose. There's Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist rather than spend his life making toys in Santa's workshop--much to the outrage and scorn of the other elves. There's Yukon Cornelius, who obviously doesn't mesh well with polite society. Even The Bumble (the abominable snowman) can be seen as a misundersood outcast who just needs friends.

Saddest of all, there is the Island of Misfit Toys. I have often thought that if were ever to get a tattoo, it would either be the single word, "Misfit," or maybe an image of the train with the caboose with square wheels--my favorite of the toys that nobody wants.

Everything works out well in the story for all of the misfits and freaks, which is nice, but not how the real world always goes.

The final thing that set off this navel-gazing was Cardgrrl, who understands me about as well as anybody ever has (and, bless her heart, still seems to like me in spite of that), forwarding to me today a lovely extended quotation from Salman Rushdie's novel, The Ground Beneath Her Feet:

For a long while I have believed - this is perhaps my version of Sir Darius
Xerxes Cama’s belief in a fourth function of outsideness - that in every
generation there are a few souls, call them lucky or cursed, who are simply born
not belonging
, who come into the world semi-detached, if you like, without
strong affiliation to family or location or nation or race; that there may even
be millions, billions of such souls, as many non-belongers as belongers,
perhaps; that, in sum, the phenomenon may be as “natural” a manifestation of
human nature as its opposite, but one that has been mostly frustrated,
throughout human history, by lack of opportunity. And not only by that:
for those who value stability, who fear transience, uncertainly, change, have
erected a powerful system of stigmas and taboos against rootlessness, that
disruptive, anti-social force, so that we mostly conform, we pretend to be
motivated by loyalties and solidarities we do not really feel, we hide our
secret identities beneath the false skins of those identities which bear the
belongers’ seal of approval. But the truth leaks out in our dreams; alone
in our beds (because we are all alone at night, even if we do not sleep by
ourselves), we soar, we fly, we flee. And in the waking dreams our
societies permit, in our myths, our arts, our songs, we celebrate the
non-belongers, the different ones, the outlaws, the freaks. What we forbid
ourselves we pay good money to watch, in a playhouse or a movie theatre, or to
read about between the secret covers of a book. Our libraries, our palaces
of entertainment tell the truth. The tramp, the assassin, the rebel, the
thief, the mutant, the outcast, the delinquent, the devil, the sinner, the
traveller, the gangster, the runner, the mask: if we did not recognize in them
our least-fulfilled needs, we would not invent them over and over again, in
every place, in every language, in every time.
This may all sound like I'm feeling morose and sorry for myself. I'm not. I can get that way from time to time--and one of the things most likely to spark that is when I am once again confronted with some stark example of how much of a "fish out of water" I am. (Again, I'll spare you the painful personal stories.)

Fortunately, I have, over the years, come to understand that being the oddball has its virtues, too. If I notice things that nobody else notices (like that "Bad Beat on Cancer" sign at the Rio the other day), I get the pleasure of being the first to point them out, rather than just jumping on the bandwagon. To the extent that others listen to me, they gain a perspective that they otherwise would have missed out on.

I remember long ago seeing some TV show that featured the late, great Stephen Jay Gould. He, too, had a decidedly odd bent to him, but found a way to use it to enlighten millions of readers in both technical and popular publications. What I remember from this particular profile of him was his account of discovering an obscure species of mollusk (probably a snail, since that was his area of specialty, though I don't remember for sure) and realizing that it was one that had never before been described in the scientific literature. It's hard to relate the sheer joy on his face as he recalled the sensation of seeing something and knowing that nobody else in the world had ever seen it before.

I doubt that there's anything I can claim to have observed with that degree of exclusivity, but I am able, at least at times, to take pleasure in my perspective being different.

On my first day in Washington, D.C., recently I was alone the whole day because Cardgrrl had a prior commitment. I went for a walk in her neighborhood. Without planning it in advance, I started noticing unusual little things--exactly the kinds of things that I have made more or less habitual to watch for in casinos as fodder for "Guess the casino" posts. I decided to take pictures of some of them and make a little visual quiz for Cardgrrl, to see if she would recognize the things she walks by all the time. The first in the series was a close-up shot of a flower design on a bench just a block away from her apartment. She didn't recognize it.

I was delighted when yesterday her own photograph of the same bench was posted as her "Something Beautiful" of the day, along with a bit of philosophizing about how easy it is to overlook bits of beauty, especially those that are so familiar that we stop really seeing them. (See here.) She is usually the one pointing out to me things that I overlooked because of my tendency to have blinders on, so it pleased me no end to have been able to return the favor for once.

Of course, as regular readers will recognize, usually the things that I notice that nobody else does (or at least few others) are not small items of beauty, but rather criticisms, problems, flaws, mistakes. That's not exactly finding hidden loveliness in the world, but it does have its useful place. I've mentioned here once before that I have some irregular consulting work. It involves scouring medical records for mistakes and inconsistencies, and writing reports about them and their significance. My weird, Rainman-like talent for spotting imperfections actually turns out to be fairly useful and lucrative when channeled in the right way. (One of my favorite characters on Star Trek is Nomad, the powerful but slightly misguided space probe in "The Changeling" whose mission was to find and destroy imperfections. Too bad he self-destructed in the end.)

I hope that my quirky way of noticing all of the things, both little and big, that I think are amiss in the poker world opens the eyes of others who are in a position to set them right, as well as at least occasionally providing insight and amusement to my readers. I was tickled pink, for instance, when one poker room shift supervisor told me that she had collected my stories of bad dealers and ran off copies to pass out to her staff, with the instruction, basically, "Don't do this stuff!" The Nomad in me was happy that I didn't have to annihilate that poker room for being flawed.

It pleases me that virtually everything I write about here--nearly four years' worth now--is original thoughts and observations. If I see something interesting that somebody else has written, I'll just post a link to it, rather than trying to be a copycat writer. After all, if somebody else has already had a thought or observation, I don't add anything to the world by saying the same thing again. (This attitude is also a large part of why I'm so quiet both at the poker table and in other social settings: I'd rather keep my mouth shut until I have something to contribute that is useful and/or funny, and is unlikely to be said by anybody else.)

It has been enormously rewarding to write up my odd perspectives, throw them out into the ether, and have so many of you react enthusiastically. It is gratifying that I have a small circle of people who have befriended me and either overlooked or actively celebrated my peculiarities. It way more than compensates for the times that those same traits make me feel like I'm not part of the tribe. They--and you--notice that I'm a little off-center, that I have some strangely square wheels, and are not only OK with it, but seem to want to share in what it is I'm seeing with my crooked eyes. I definitely march to the sound of a different drummer, but I find that others sometimes want to listen in. (Exactly how many metaphors can I mix in one paragraph?)

It all makes me feel, well, almost human. Not quite, but almost.


Arthric (stars) said...

Look up schizoid personality traits. The way you write about things, your way of dealing with life in general reminds me of me.

Anonymous said...

Well, this baboon is tired of bad beats. Trips are killing me in cash games! I have $400 in 1/2 built up and see a flop of 983 with two diamonds. Place goes crazy and there are four all-in's before it gets back to me where I am holding 99. Had to call. Others held TT, KK, AQdd, and 76. Of course diamond comes and board did not pair (lost $240 after winning side pot). Then today, playing 1/2 and I am at $140. Have K9 and see flop of Q99. Two all-in's, I called. Others held Q7 and JJ. Of course, Q on turn and I lose all of it. So yes this baboon wants to whine and evoke sympothy but it is more wanting to vent. Just like a person that enjoys criticizing others I seem to enjoy venting. Please, vote me out of the tribe!!!!

BTW, while I don't always agree with how you tell someone they are wrong (even when you are right), I do appreciate your posts.

Memphis MOJO said...

They all tilt.

There is free software for photos and many of them include the ability to straighten crooked photos. (Picasa and the free online Photoshop are two of them.)

buttnugget said...

All the story of Rudolph teaches kids is that it's OK to ostracize someone with a handicap until you find a way to exploit it. Then you bring them back and pretend that they are your friend.

Santa (the great Hitler in this story) is the worst example of this. Even when Rudolph returns and tells Santa that his parents are missing and possibly in grave danger in the blizzard all Santa cares about is, "Yes, and I may not be able to get my sleigh out tonight!" Yeah, Santa it's all about you and your ability to get to work.