I have two hobbies I seem unable to stop doing. Despite changes in location, situation, despite job and marriage, two addictions I fight with, succumb to, loathe, and enjoy. Neither seems to have any hope of bringing me any money, and both, in their current technological incarnation, require me to sit in front of a computer for hours with an obsessive level of attention, blocking out all others. When I tell people at parties about one they are excited and interested. When I tell them about the other they give me a lilting “Ooohhh,” like I have just suggested I am a proctologist or a garbage man.
When I say I am an online poker player no one says, “I love poker. I used to play it in high school. But, you know, you grow up and life just gets away from you. I wish I still played.” When I tell people I am a poet no one says, “Like the guys on TV? Do you make tons of money at it? My co-worker has a cousin who goes to Vegas once a year to write poetry and comes back with ten grand in profit.” I am neither of these things.
On both tables I am a small time gambler. I’ve had minor successes. I have spent most of my time angry and frustrated. I see each as a struggle against reason, mysticism, and luck, as managing everything you can in this little universe, and then being held aloft at the whim of fate. Both are a fight, a duel, a match with something that others do way better and with way less effort. If I am to be honest, both are a waste.
What no one has been willing to say to me– or at least not follow up saying after the first intellectual parry which most addicts have at the ready, perfectly logical reasons why this thing I have given my life over to is not awful– is that these are not equal addictions. No one has been willing to delve into the question of why people love and miss poetry, and lament and fear poker.
There is the pedestrian part of it, the worry about losing money or time. But I have seen friends who collect action figures, or those who attend cosplay events and comi-cons, or those who run triathlon, or those who collect art or travel the world, spend thousands of dollars and thousands of hours more than me on their addictions. See the addict’s justification.
The real difference, the real distinction no one seems to highlight is the impulse behind each. There are better and worse jobs in the world. Better or worse professions. And they have nothing to do with time, or money, or work-life balance. They have to do with the sum of your efforts and what you create. They have to do with what slim chance you have at your job to raise consciousness, ease other’s pain, lift up our species, and save the planet.
There are jobs you can do in this world, hobbies you can have, that will make only your own life better, that will improve the safety, security, and fashion sense of your family and friends. They will get you a house in a good neighborhood and ensure your kids go to great colleges. Poker has that potential. I could go on one run, one summer at the World Series of Poker and make what they call, “Life changing money.”
Finance, Wall Street, Patent Trolls, Hollywood Producers. Anyone who claims that their risk, and the reason they need the lion’s share of any reward, is putting up money has never worked a good job a good day in their life, has never really risked anything. Never made anything. They have never put their very being at risk. They have no chance of helping Jane get us off this crazy thing. We’ll never get off this rock led by a poker player, a money changer, a speculator.
And maybe I have no chance either. But the stand-up comedian, the folks who build houses, the doctors, and the coaches, and the teachers, and the artists who do their art with only the smallest hope of any reward; they have a chance. They have this small slim chance to be the ones who open the epiglottis of the world just enough for one good idea, one new thought to get through. Everything else is fear, protection, and self-indulgence.
Knowing this will I stop playing poker? Of course not. That’s not how addicts work. I am convinced in my limbic system that I am trying to solve something, that there is a puzzle there worth wrestling with, though my reason knows that’s wrong. It’s not even a little about money. I will continue to try and hack this matrix. And poetry, I hold out hope there too, fanned by the flames of myself and others who believe in its worthiness. Maybe that idea is out there, the new one, the one that will save us all. Or maybe, that too, is just projection and illusion. Perhaps poetry is also passing around worthless chips.