By Bruce Jacobs

Pop in boatThe language between fathers and sons can be a code for disaster.  Conversations opening with simple questions too often only go bad:  “How’s the job?”  “Is that your third beer already?”  “Are your kids working this summer?”  “Did you light the grill yet?”  We don’t talk much anyway, but Father’s Day brings us together in the limelight in a way that carries more dread than ebullience.  Is it any wonder that we seek out private activities which have their own language to share with our fathers or our sons?

Sports seem to be a place where talk is safe.  Each game has its own unambiguous lingo and protocol.  Low score on the previous hole has honors on the next tee, where the younger of us is always swinging hard to let out shaft.  A home run can be many things, but preference goes to big tater and going yard or downtown.  For the more fit among us, shooting pill at the garage mounted hoop is the place to go all net.   And speaking of net, fishing also has its place in the sports tent where too often one of us throws a big bird’s nest when trying to cast his string into a bed of lunkers.

When I planned a weekend getaway this year with just my Dad and me, these options ran through my head.  I was leaning toward a drive to northern Wisconsin where I could manage the boats, tackle, bait, and cooking; but what of all the down time?  After all, Dad is a chip shot from 90 years old, and fishing day and night was probably not going to work.  Then it came to me:  the fishing was a useful lure to get him on board for the trip, but the real connection was going to come from that drawer with twenty years worth of playing cards.

The best and safest conversational activity between fathers and sons is a good long game of gin rummy – perhaps even while watching one of those sports on TV.  The patter never changes over the years from the inevitable opening question “My discard?” to the frequent mid-game dispute about whether boxes will be counted in the final scorecard tally.  We talk about dumping the big ones with early discards of face cards, or deking with a salesman (an off-suit Jack, for example, in order to elicit a Jack discard back to fill a run), or throwing an early low card gift at the discard pile, or maybe offering a mid-range Eisenhower.  When our hand fills out, we snap a discard facedown to declare gin…or knock with nine.

Gin rummy jargon doesn’t just track during the playing of the hands, but goes to the shuffling and dealing and scorekeeping in-between.  We exhort a better shuffle to the cards after the easy knock the hand before.  We demand a good cut this time.  We double check the addition by the scorekeeper to be sure each street is true.  We endlessly discuss the quality of the deck:  too new, and therefore difficult to shuffle; too old with torn, marked corners; too sticky to deal easily or spread the hand; short a few cards from the kids last “go-fish” game..

The easy portability of a deck of cards has always made gin rummy a travel diversion.  Like today’s ubiquitous electronic gaming devices, cards can be a solo activity with solitaire, a paired activity with gin, or even a group activity with poker or bridge.  Frequently electronic gizmos are even compared in size to a deck of cards (it being no longer acceptable to compare size to a pack of cigarettes).  However, unlike electronic connection, card playing is done face to face and requires conversation.

Just as electronic talk has its own vocabulary and shortcuts, gin rummy too has its jargon; but it creates a safe conversation.   If the game helps fathers and sons survive the annual Father’s Day pressure, think how useful it can be for spouses on one of those romantic, just-the-two-of-us trips.

Come to think of it, there are countless opportunities for a couple of hours of gin rummy to ease tension (although apparently the frequent Bush-Cheney games didn’t stop any foolish wars).

In the case of my dad and me, this year’s weekend was a big success partly thanks to the hours of playing gin rummy.  It is not the game itself, which is neither complicated nor particularly demanding, that brought us together, but the familiar language of the conversation.  So go ahead:  cut the deck, spin the cards, fill the runs, knock with nine…and if we can’t get world peace, at least we can keep the family wheels on track.

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