The card game called Spoons is a family tradition. We played it from my earliest memory at all Shepard get-togethers, no matter the season or occasion, along with other card games, like Go-Fish and Old Maid, but also on occasion ‘board’ games, like Monopoly and Yatzee.
No cyber world back then, no cell phones or Gameboys or X-Boxes, lord only knows how we managed to plow through the boredom, with only things like cards!
Grandma told us that she was forced by Grandpa to leave the Ice Follies at age 17, where she clearly had an illustrious career in the make, in order to become a respectable wife to him, and honorable mother of his progeny. It was all pretty cool to me, because she was even in the papers, and I had my own aspirations of dancing back then.
Respectable women with families are not show-girls. This was to my grandfather an automatic given.
That’s how I heard the story, when I could first understand it, wearing my favorite t-shirt that summer of about age 11, with a billboard sprawled across my still-flat chest: Anything boys can do girls can do better.
There was this grandfather, highly concerned about the respectability of his wife, and then the one who played Spoons with the family.
These were quite large gatherings, at least compared to what I knew from my mother’s side of the then-divorced families. The game of Spoons is very simple, all the players sit in a circle, 4 cards are dealt to every player, the dealer who passes the contents of the deck to the player to one side attempts to move with a high enough speed as to confuse and disorient the one picking up the discarded cards after him. The goal is 4 of a kind. If achieved, at that moment you silently strategize alone, as there are a line of spoons in the middle of the circle, enough for every player but one. So, once you have 4 of a kind, you grab one, or, you slyly sneak one, or you wait and watch as an opportunist of sorts, or, well that’s about all the strategy I was ever able to garner from this game, besides Grandfather’s.
The strategy my grandfather played was no doubt, by any set of rules, cheating. He would collect a pile of cards next to him, feigning slowness or incompetence, and turn them over in chunks, hoping to collect pairs more quickly, then the 4s, winning the position to select the first spoon. He would play this routine regularly, but we as children would forget, it was only a time or two a year we got together, after all. But after a hand or two each time we’d remember this trick, and rail on grandpa that he was cheating, which only made him and everyone else laugh, to the end result that everyone on the floor would start using (t)his trick.
It’s a very old and simple trick after all. There’s many names for it, but in these parts they call it country dumb, that is, shrewdly playing innocent. The old tricks are the best tricks. When we take even a cursory look at the culture we can see it clearly still works.
There’s a long precedent for this sort of player, most notably from the classic Czech work, The Good Soldier Sveik by Jaroslav Hašek, certainly the predecessor to the Hogan’s Hero’s character called Schultz, celebrated for his classic line, “I know NOTHING!”
There is always a healthy level of doubt as to whether Sveik’s actions are feigned well-executed sabotage or authentic (idiotic) enthusiasm, that’s essential in the classic fool/magician archetype.
“Hasek was a comic genius . . . his message was that war is not merely cruel, unjust and obscene, but ludicrous” Sunday Times
The Good Soldier Svejk is the classic novel of the ‘little man’ fighting officialdom and bureaucracy with the only weapons available to him—passive resistance, subterfuge, native wit and dumb insolence.”
If you were a corporate or military strategist watching our family play Spoons, you might recognize this as a somewhat sophisticated case of sabotage, a sort of coup d’etat, no doubt, because when the patriarch begins to openly cheat and play dumb, you’ve just opened up the entire troupe to the same acceptable level of behavior. Cheating, it seems and many have noted, is contagious. And that’s just how it happened with our family game of Spoons as well. Aunts, uncles, cousins and parents become instant co-conspirators with youngsters of all ages plotting against them, or sometimes, on their behalf.
Is this a ‘good’ lesson to teach children, or a ‘bad’ one?
I thought of this question again when I heard this recent interview with Sarah Westall and Nick Jankel. In it they discuss a bit the importance of “trauma” in a child’s upbringing and the ways this is both under-rated and over-utilized. In my opinion they broach the cutting edge question we now face in the so-called ‘Western modernity’–obviously to bubble-wrap our children is not working, but to go back to old ways of discipline is no longer acceptable either—how can we find the most fertile middle ground?
No doubt as youth we need to be taught to not only deal with, but also to survive and then to thrive within the existing culture, but not to the point we have come now, which is blind obedience, acceptance and acquiescence, generally speaking.
It’s very easy later in life to point fingers at Grandpa and condemn or condone the unhealthy moral principles he was manifesting to his progeny at those cheating moments, especially considering he was clearly loving it.
Did we learn a valuable life lesson, by overcoming a certain level of ‘trauma’? I hope that was his unconscious agenda. Because make no mistake, to learn as a child that your grandfather willingly cheats against you, and the entire family, and then laughs about it, is not an authentic happy moment in a child’s life.
I saw him differently, call it what you want, but ultimately it’s a loss of innocence, if you can bring it to consciousness. Whether conscious or not, Grandpa taught me in that moment about the real world. Whether we are 7 or 17 when that happens, is it better it happens where one has a soft place to fall, or with random strangers in a proverbial strange land?
I don’t know. I want to stress this fact, I really don’t know. This to me is a pivotal social question. Why are we not discussing it at the dinner tables and the board rooms and the political arenas is beyond me.
Is it better to learn your 60 year old grandfather would cheat against your 6 year old nephew, and embrace that as a valuable familial tradition, and then by extension to learn that is how the world actually works?
Or, would you rather learn it when you get blindsided by crooks out to steal your successful business when you finally wake up to reality at age 47?
Could it be that Trump is brilliantly playing this archetype now?
And what about all the shades of critical social gray there might be in-between that our progeny might need to learn? Are we learning how to create a better world with these life lessons, or are we learning only how to successfully play along?