March 24, 2015

My Checkered Experience with Bridge, the Card Game

Last week, I saw an article in the March 2015 issue of the AARP Bulletin titled “Fringe Benefit of Bridge? Brainpower.”

The author cited the two benefits often mentioned in commentaries about the card game:
  • It enhances mental sharpness, especially in seniors, and 
  • It creates opportunities for life-giving socialization.
I’m aware of both benefits, especially the second. Mostly, the AARP piece made me think about my own curious history with the game… a game that brings four people -- two sets of partners sitting opposite one another -- together at a card table.

It All Began in Ithaca
I started playing bridge at Cornell Law School. At noon, I’d find a game in the “men’s lounge” while we waited for afternoon classes to begin. Yes, the men’s lounge. As I recall, we had three women in the class of over 100. 

During my 40 years with the Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) in Washington, DC, many of my colleagues there got bridge games going during the lunch break. I missed those games, because I used the time in what I thought a more productive way: taking a siesta on the couch in my office. I was ahead of the curve, I guess; only decades later did I hear about the benefits of “power-napping.”

There was no way we’d ever get a game going at home, because my wife hated bridge. For several years, she worked in a small office at BNA, and every Monday her boss and another editor would discuss ad nauseum the many fascinating bridge hands they’d played over the weekend. That was more than enough for her.

Then, the Make-Believe Games
For many years after those law school games, I didn’t play at all. In fact, the next games I played were actually “imaginary” games.

These make-believe games took place during a very tumultuous time in my life. Thanks to therapy, I was ready to come out of  the closet and be open with family and friends about my sexual orientation. But this occurred at a time when other family members were dealing with even more serious issues. I talked with my therapist and with the professionals who were dealing with the other family members and they all said the same thing: don't rock the boat and jeopardize the recovery of others by injecting your issues at this time.

I could see that this made sense but I was anxious to begin exploring the world of gay bars and gay life. So I arranged for a weekly night out on the town by inventing a weekly bridge game. This continued for over a year before the health care professionals we were dealing with said it was my time to come out. In later conversations, my son said he'd always suspected the bridge games since they were scheduled sometimes on Friday nights, sometimes on Saturday nights.

But within a year or two, I was playing bridge for real. Living on my own for the first time in 20 years, I was lonely at times. My almost daily attendance at AA meetings helped deal with this. Hanging around gay bars was a mixed bag. I made some new friends but I often ended up feeling even more lonely. (I would not recommend a recovery from alcoholism that mixes AA meetings and bars but, thanks to the Antabuse, I somehow remained sober.)

Gradually I constructed a new life that proved to be very satisfying and filled with friends. I joined St. John's Church at Lafayette Square. I became actively involved in the Whitman Walker Clinic, which had been serving the gay and lesbian community for many years but, at the time I joined, it was just beginning its transformation into the leading institution in the Washington area dealing with AIDS.

And I found a group of bridge players among my coworkers at BNA. Another bridge playing group evolved out of my friendships as St. John's. As it turned out, this group of about a dozen players included a number of recovering alcoholics like me.

Out of this group and my BNA group a regular quartet of players developed. For about a year, we played every Saturday night. During the warm months, we ate and played on my back porch. We were all competitive and took the game pretty seriously. But we also enjoyed the good-natured bantering that accompanied the game. It was NOT tournament bridge.

The Nantucket Nightmare
In the summer of 1995, the four of us went to Nantucket for a week of bridge.

I found a nice house in Siasconset – on the island’s beautiful eastern edge --  and booked it for two weeks. I had what seemed a smart plan. I would invite the family for the first week. Then my three bridge friends would join me there for the second week. This seemed perfect. First a week of family togetherness. I love my family but I sometimes get uptight and anxious with extended togetherness. So, I thought, a recovery week with good bridge and good  friends would be a welcome antidote. 

Oh boy, how wrong I was.

That first week with the family was fine. The next, with my little bridge group, was not the idyllic experience I had anticipated. 

We played hours and hours of bridge. Little by little, tensions built up. Finally on our last night and our last bridge game (forever as it turned out), the volcano that had been building up erupted.

No need to go into details, but the next day when the plane from Nantucket landed in the Boston airport,each of us scurried off to find a private hideout in which to spend the hour wait before the Boston-Washington plane took off.

Time – the great balm -- has allowed us to laugh about it now. But whenever we want to conjure up an image of conflict and discord, we only have to say one word: Nantucket.

Bridge as Cognition Measurement
My bridge game helped me get a handle on health problems I was having at the end of last year. It turned out that my neurologist had me way overdosed on levodopa. But at the outset I just felt something was awry mentally.

I wondered if my malaise might be related to the changes in my medication. But I also wondered if I might just be imagining the whole thing.

One of the things that had concerned me was my feeling that I'd been really out of it in my bridge playing recently and that this coincided with the change in medication. I decided to ask a regular partner who knew my game well… a person I could trust to give me a forthright, honest answer.

She said she had noticed a deterioration in my game. I asked if she saw this as part of a long gradual deterioration or as a sudden and recent development. She said it definitely was something that began about three weeks earlier  -- soon after I'd started the increased levodopa.

With this reassurance that I wasn't just imagining things, I got myself checked out by two different neurologists, both of whom agreed that I was seriously overdosed on levodopa

The dosage was reduced, and my game soon returned to “normal.” As did I.

And On It Goes
During the past few years, I’ve played bridge once a week at the local Iona Senior Center. I also host a game with dear friends once or twice each month. I look forward to all these games, and the hours they bring me into contact with people whose company I enjoy.

Bridge. It beats playing computer games by myself.

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