Friday, March 13, 2009

Midnight Games

Last evening at the midnight hour
Two men, in different places,
Unknown to each other,
Sat pondering the same subject:
The significance
Of fifty-five years of life.

These are those moments
When a certain mood
Causes a man's mind to open and scan
The resume of personal existence,
engaging in a ruthless game best called

For losers, this midnight came can be harsh,
perhaps dispiriting, or even destructive.
For winners, it cam be satisfying,
fortifying, vindication to the soul.

For both men the time to play
this midnight game had come.
A strange reverie, you see, had captured the hour.
And this contest in private thinking, which, sooner or later,
almost every man plays, began for them.

See one player at a desk in a high-ceiling, paneled den.
Mozart plays softly in surround-sound, but no one listens.
The Late Night Show glares out in the dimness, muted, but on one watches.
A whiskey glass frequently "freshened" gains increasing attention.

In another location of great contrast,
a second player rests his elbows on a scratched kitchen table.
Decaf, grown cold, half fills a mug.
Here in this simple place, there is silence except, that is,
For the deep breathing of sleeping children in the next room,
and a wife humming a familiar tune
as she brushes her hair and prepares for bed.

From somewhere deep in the two players, a Voice,
Call it the Keeper-of-the Score, cries out,
"Add everything up! Compute the value of these years!
Be frank; hold nothing back,
You two men who live on different sides of the tracks,
Who are separated by square footage, horsepower, clout, and portfolios."

And so the first of two reaches for his oft-used glass and begins his private thinking.
"I can play this game," he says, "and I can win . . . BIG."

"There's my house," he notes for openers:
three garages, pool (covered), great room,
and closets large enough to be squash courts.

"I own a business, no partners, no public stock.
The four hundred-plus people on the payroll,
They're mine because I tell them when to come to work,
when to take a break, how much they'll earn,
and whether or not they'll even have a job next week.

"There's my wife, and for the purposes of this game,
I might as well speak of her in business terms.
The woman's mine; I've bought her everything.
She's mine. She owes me everything.
She can't leave; she can't change . . . Without my authorization.

"The kids are mine, too, when you add up the costs.
I've set them in motion with trust funds, abortions,
European vacations, and front-page weddings.
They do what I say, come when I call, face a future I've designed.

"What's the point?" demands the Keeper-of-the-Score.
"Yes," the first player answers, "I was just asking that myself.
If, for example, everything and every person in my world is mine,
Why am I so drained of spirit as I play this midnight game?
Why do I have this feeling that everything belongs to me . . . But my soul?

"And why do I sit here, glass in hand, wondering:
Why is my wife not here tonight,
Why do my children chose colleges and jobs a thousand miles away,
If my company will survive paradigm shifts,
If my reputation is adequately protected,
If there is anyone who like me?
Why do I brood on these things bothered by
a nagging void within, when so much is mine?"

TIME! Switch playing field, for it is
a second player's turn at the midnight game.
Leave that pretentious scene,
Cross the tracks to a block of homes as plain and indistinguishable as white bread.
Don't disturb, but quietly watch.
A second player takes his turn at play in the midnight game.
from a beaten-up thermos he refills his mug to the half.

"This house is getting old," he sighs, looking around.
"Will the furnace last the winter?" he wonders.
"I've got to paint that ceiling," he promises.
"If we don't refinance the mortgage," he reasons,
"it will be ours in six years and seven months.
"But, in away, this place really does own me; it welcomes me each evening.
Every room contains memories of Christmases and birthdays,
Crises and conflicts, giggles and prayers.
I do belong to this place; I'm rooted here.

"My job, . . Just a job.
But I might as well admit after these thirty years,
the job kind of possesses me.
I must have known a thousand people I've served.
Everyone knows that my word is my bond;
Deal with me, I promise, and I'll give you a fair price.
Trust me, and I'll never let you down.
I like what I'm doing and the way I'm doing it.

"My wife, she wasn't a cheerleader when I met her,
she didn't go to Vassar.
She's probably not going to win someone's beauty contest.
But hey, I might as well say the honest truth--I belong to her.
She's full of affection for me.
She's wise; she's sensitive; she's caring.
And she's tough, and she's smart; nothing gets by her.
She doesn't ask for much; she gives everything.
I'd give her anything she asked for,
beginning with myself, nothing held back.

"Then there's my kids, average students, reasonable competitors.
When you get right down to it, I may be their father,
but I belong to these guys.
I love being spectator to their fun and games.
I glow as I watch their hearts enlarge with insight and character.
They are mine, but my heart says that I am theirs.

"Assets? What we've got wouldn't make for a good yard sale.
The only holding of value are my friends, memories, and my faith in God.
Especially after the prostate scare."

TIME! It's past midnight. GAME IS OVER!
Count up the scores.
Who's the winner?
Are you as confused as I as we watch two men
extinguish the lights and head for bed?

Look! One reaches for the hand of his wife as they start up the stairs.
The other has nothing to hold on to.
One grins at something said by his wife and you have this suspicion
that the night is not yet concluded.
The other hears only silence a he arms the security system,
takes a sleeping pill, and lurches toward an empty bed.

It is a strange experience, this midnight game.
We thought such games were won by power and accumulation,
by beauty and skill, by being connected.
But maybe we were wrong and didn't understand that
midnight games are won most often by players whose records include:
Generosity, care,
Simplicity, love,
A full heart.

When Men Think Private Thoughts - Gordon Macdonald