Playing Pinochle with Pete


This post is going to get a little more personal than I usually get, so if you’re just here for the movie talk or whatever check back again later.

In the spring of 2007 my maternal grandmother died and left her husband a widower. They had 11 children and nearly 40 grandchildren and a whole mess of great-grandchildren. That’s a lot of people. Still, it was kind of easy to forget at that time that my grandfather, Pete, was a person. I was finishing up my freshman year of college and had by then figured out that engineering was not my major of destiny and I was pretty focused on my own issues. Grandpa Pete had always helped me whenever I needed to build something for a school project but our interactions beyond those fun building times were limited. He was more of an idea of a grandfather than a flesh and blood person. He had already had a multiple bypass heart surgery and cancer and was in the process of coming out the other side of that whole ordeal. His sadness at the loss of his wife was palpable but it was clear that he would last at least a few more years without her. The family rallied around him and continued a kind of meals-on-wheels service where the eleven children (or in-laws or respective grandchildren) would bring over a dinner or lunch every day on an 11-day rotation. I would often go along with my mom during that summer between freshman and sophomore year and it was nice to visit but it never something I really looked forward to. That is, until we started playing pinochle.

Pinochle was, aparently, a game he and his wife had often played with their friends. It’s a team game where four players pair off and are dealt a full deck of cards (two copies of the four suits but only from the nine through the face cards and the ace for 48 cards total). After the hands are dealt there is a bidding process which starts at 25 points and increases in five point increments until the highest bidder is decided. At that point the winner announces which of the four suits will be “trump” and is given four cards (hopefully in the “trump” suit!) from his partner’s hand. He then puts down his meld, which includes any run (all cards in the trump suit except the 9), any marriage (king and queen of any suit), any four of a kind in the face cards or aces, the nines of trump, and the pairing which gives the game its name, the jack of diamonds and the queen of spades. These are all worth varying amounts of points but the most points would come if you happened to get both of the pinochle duos available, both jacks of diamonds and queens of spades. That double pinochle combination is worth 40 points on its own and in a game which is played to 100 points it’s kind of the nuclear bomb of points. But that’s only half the game. The pair that didn’t get the bid also has the chance to get points from the cards in their hands in the meld phase and the winner of the bid must return four cards of his choosing to his partner so everybody ends up with the same number of cards as the tricks phase starts. In that phase the bid winner starts by laying down the highest card (9′s low, aces high) of trump they have and the person to their left (one of the other team’s players) puts down one of their cards, then it goes around the table until each player has put down one card. The highest card in the suit that started the trick (always trump in the first round, but it can be any suit later on) takes the four cards and lays down whatever card they want. The play continues with the winner of each trick starting the next one with the caveat that a card from the trump suit, uh, trumps any other suit and is an automatic winner. At the end of the tricks when all of the cards have been played the two piles are counted for points, but only aces, tens, and kings count as a point. The winner of the last hand also gets an extra bonus point for an nice 25 points available in every trick round. Since the minimum bid is 25 points it is possible to not have a single point in the meld and somehow run the table in the tricks round and win your bid. If you get the amount you bid or more, you get to keep the points you won. If you don’t reach your bid you’ll end up losing the amount you bid which can often send you into the negative point range. The first team to 100 points wins. Not too complicated, right?

Pete on a scooter

Well, it was to us. When Grandpa Pete first taught my mother and me how to play it we were absolutely horrible. Over- or under-confident on our initial hands, we’d also have to check our cheat sheets to see which combinations were worth what in the meld. And let’s not even begin to discuss our terrible choices for our partners when they won their bid and we had to send them four of our cards. It was a long and painful process, but we learned the ropes slowly and surely. Soon we were at least passable as players. Of course, pinochle is usually a four player game, so there was usually an extra aunt or two that would come in to make the numbers work. We quickly became a core group of me, my mother, my aunts Karen and Susan, and my grandfather. The three women would switch out among themselves on a game by game basis but I was always Grandpa’s partner. Always. His premier pinochle skills were intimidating at first and I was always afraid I was doing it wrong. He’d never say anything about it, though, other than in a sweetly funny aside if I later played a card in the tricks section that he could have used earlier in the meld. It was at this card table – nearly every Saturday for the last seven years, first in his house, then his old-folks home, and finally in the last year or so in the nursing home – that I learned how life really worked.

It’s now the time when I make the strained connections between a card game and life lessons. It’s sappy and cliched but I don’t really care. I believe it and it works. Let’s start with the basic setup. Unlike poker or most other card games, pinochle isn’t strictly adversarial. The team aspect is key and a bad partner will sink you just as fast as a good partner will keep you afloat. We quickly learned to just hold on to the nines of trump unless you had absolutely nothing else to give your partner when they won the bid. Those nines weren’t going to do much good and it was better to send an ace of another suit or the jack of diamonds/queen of spades in hopes that they’d have the others and maybe achieve that pinnacle of point prowess. Other people matter, pinochle says, and they’re not all out to get you or get theirs. We’re working towards a common goal and we can use a friend to help get there. The help continues in the meld as your partner should try to feed you as many points as they can while you keep your own trash cards for the other team. It’s something special to see a pinochle team work together for fifty or sixty points in a single hand.

Pinochle also tells us that perfection is something to strive for. If your team takes all of the tricks in that phase of the game you not only get all 25 points but you also get to steal the other team’s meld points for yourself. It doesn’t happen often and it takes a special hand with a special partner to help you along the way to get there, but it feels so good when you do. I think I was the first to achieve that perfection in our little group and actually had an adrenaline rush as I realized it was going to happen. The other team can’t even get angry about it because it’s so rare and impressive that they just have to laugh at the whole thing. In work, at play, on this blog, I strive to get that kind of feeling from whatever I do. Doing something really really well is one of life’s best pleasures, one which is often only possible through a dependence on family and friends for support.

Grandpa pete

Life isn’t always so accommodating, though, and we’re rarely dealt hands that might work out to be perfect. Probably the best lesson I learned from playing pinochle was to play the cards you’re given. Life is weird and things out of our control are the norm. Sometimes your score says you should bid but your cards don’t have any potential to be a winning hand. When that happens you can only hope your partner is one card away from a run (worth fifteen points, good for 3/5ths of the minimum bid) and that the queen of clubs that does nothing in your hand will be that card to complete his run. It’s ok to let others take the lead, and it’s ok to play out a hand that doesn’t have much real value to you because there’s always another hand to be dealt next time around. The cards don’t change but their arrangement does. With a pinochle deck there are 12,413,915,592,536,072,670,862,289,047,373,375,038,521,486,354,677,760,000,000,000 (62 decimal places!) possible orderings of the 48 cards. I’m pretty sure that we didn’t get to all of those in our 7 years of playing, but we probably put a sizable dent in it. Life is almost infinitely unpredictable, so you better be ready to play whatever hand you have.

If that’s the best lesson I learned the most important lesson is that my grandfather wasn’t just some abstract concept. He was a real person, a man of hidden cleverness with a 90+ year bank of stories to tell. He grew up in my home town so we took a drive by his old house one day. It’s fascinating to see how places have changed and it’s important to remember that the world didn’t start when we were born. I heard about his time in World War II as he was part of the force which went into concentration camps (Buchenwald, if memory serves). His experiences humanize the larger-than-life death tolls and stories from WWII in a way that even movies don’t often do. Grandpa Pete died last night, at around 7 ‘o’ clock. It was clear that he was going down hill in the last few months, but even with his flagging health we continued to play pinochle. We last played three weeks ago and although we didn’t win either game I will hold that memory for the rest of my life. Grandpa Pete was a special man because he was so human, so normal, so nice, so funny, so smart, so real. I am eternally grateful that pinochle introduced me not to my grandfather but to the man who lead my giant family and myself. It’s no coincidence that his progeny includes just around 100 people, that winning number in pinochle. Over the course of our card sessions I graduated college, floundered around without a job, and began to discover what I really want to do. Hopefully by this time next year I will be hearing from graduate schools where I’ll learn even more about how literature and life works. I’ve had a lot of good teachers over the years whose methods and ideas I will pull into my own teaching career, but none will be as important as Grandpa Pete because he didn’t just teach me how to play pinochle, he taught me how to live.


My Fair Lady (1964)

large_my_fair_lady_blu-ray_5I don’t know why I do this, but I do. I always think that musicals, especially these older, mid-century musicals, should have a lot of dancing in them. I don’ t think that’s an actual requirement, especially since probably my favorite musical of all time (Once) doesn’t have really any dancing in it. Still, I count it as a demerit that the second biggest dance scene in My Fair Lady involves an older gentleman kind of shifting his weight around as he and a bunch of people sing about drinking a lot. That’s not too spectacular. Especially in a movie this long, a nice dance scene or two might have enlivened the proceedings a bit. That’s not to say that there aren’t fun or entertaining things happening, it’s just that there might have been more.

large_my_fair_lady_blu-ray_6And the movie doesn’t really help its case when it features Audrey Hepburn squawking constantly for the first hour of the film’s three hour run time. Is the first version of Eliza Doolittle the most shrewish character in movie history? Potentially? You do get a hint of her humanity through “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” as she dreams of a better lot in life, but she also won’t get out of her own way to beat a path towards that lot. Instead, it must be beat into her through a brutal regimen of vocal exercises and propriety classes. Of course, it leads to a pretty monumental change and the later two versions of Eliza are both more tolerable and even root-able once her voice loses its bluster. In fact, the middle version, where she speaks properly but uses her street vernacular at the horse race, is probably the best version. Really funny scene there. Unfortunately, the movie also kind of loses her after that happens. It takes the climax of her achievements out of her hands (or mouth) and puts it into Rex Harrison’s Henry Higgins’ post-victory song. Ugh, it might have been nice to see it happen rather than hear him sing about it.

Though the movie is called My Fair Lady, Henry Higgins is its main character. Harrison performs him superbly, slyly, as a genius with little regard for those around him. I loved the opening song as he places random theater-goers within the town of their residence just by listening to them talk. And later, he does dedicate himself to helping Doolittle, an admirable task. But he still often treats her as an object rather than a real person. This is, then, a movie of self discovery as Doolitle realizes she has worth and Higgins realizes other people can be valuable, too. A nice message, it just takes a little long in getting there.


That isn’t to say, though, that the movie is poorly made. In fact, it’s kind of a wonder, visually speaking. There are a few times when director George Cukor stops his actors in mid stride and composes them in the frame as if it were a painting. Once, towards the beginning after the first night in the film, he has a kind of opening up shop sequence which begins with a few people entering the frame and then freezing in place while still others enter and then freeze and then the whole thing happens once again. I’m not sure what’s going on there, other than maybe that Cukor is calling attention to the artifice of social stratification or maybe to the fact that we all play our own roles in life, even as we go about our chores or jobs. It happens again at the horse race with all of the ritual and formality that such an occasion demands. In that way Doolittle provides a tonic to the stuffy nature of the upper class. If you don’t agree, she’ll do you in!

What I write about when I write about movies


I can’t have been the first person to use that title, right? Originality is not something I concern myself with, a truth which you will see in just a moment as I attack the question of how to write about movies a full week after everybody else has had their say. Deal with it! Anyways, last week Matt Zoller Seitz wrote a blog post at imploring film critics, especially those on the internet for some reason, to write about the formal aspects of filmmaking in their reviews. The whole article is interesting but if you’ve already read it or don’t want to, allow me to remind you or inform you about the two most relevant quotes.

[I]n criticism of every kind there is appallingly little careful consideration of form. I see a lot of writing that describes what a piece of art is about, not so much about how it is about it.

Movies and television are visual art forms, and aural art forms. They are not just about plot, characterization and theme. Analytical writing about movies and TV should incorporate some discussion of the means by which the plot is advanced, the characters developed, the themes explored. It should devote some space, some small bit of the word count, to the compositions, the cutting, the music, the decor, the lighting, the overall rhythm and mood of the piece.

Otherwise it’s all just book reports or political op-eds that happen to be about film and TV. It’s literary criticism about visual media. It’s only achieving half of its potential, if that. And it’s doing nothing to help a viewer understand how a work evokes particular feelings in them as they watch it.

Aha. Interesting stuff there. A few misconceptions about how literary criticism works (or, how it should work), but some insightful critiques about modern film writing. Except, of course, that it’s kind of baloney.

While I agree with MZS’s premise that movie writing could have more technical discussion overall, I don’t think that everybody necessarily needs to write about shots or whatever. A favorite blogger of mine, Jessica over at The Velvet Café, doesn’t often write about shot length or editing techniques, but she almost always captures the way the plot and characters interact and become living people in the two or so hours of a film. That’s what film can do and she captures it in her writing. I’ve never regretted taking time to read her reviews, even if it’s not a film I’m interested in.

Another blogger I enjoy, Martin Teller, has a different reason to read his reviews. He does often talk about structure and form in his pieces, but he also brings a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of film history (especially in film noir) to bear in most of his reviews. I’ll often end up adding more than just the film he’s writing about to my ever expanding list of movies to watch. In fact, he was the reason I finally got around to Fanny and Alexander, which turned out nicely for me. And his site collects all the reviews he’s written over the many years he’s been writing about movies, so it’s a fantastic resource for reading up about a movie which will delve into both thematic and formal considerations.

And yet another blogger has yet another approach to film writing. Melissa at A Journal of Film writes these giant reviews that pull in literary analysis and references (her day job is as a college writing and literature teacher), formal observations, and a superb writing style the rides the lines between blogging and academic writing (see her amazing review of We Need to Talk About Kevin for an example). She’ll explain how a shot or use of color or sound is used to further the theme of the film and that’s exactly what Matt Zoller Seitz was imploring us to do.

And now to turn these ramblings inwards. What do I write like, what do I want to write like? Well, let’s start with what I used to write like. Here’s my first written review, as far as I can find.

I just watched The Chronicles of Narnia: TLTWATW. I liked it a lot, but I also liked the book a lot, so I might be biased. There were a few pluses and minuses though. The bad: I didn’t much like the child actors. I’m sorry to be mean, but whoever played Lucy really got on my nerves. Also, I didn’t like that they started with (to me) the second story. The order my set was in started with The Magician’s Nephew. While I agree that Wardrobe is probably the better introduction to the series for non-readers, I prefer it the way I read it. Now on to the good: I really liked the way that the filmmakers captured the feeling and look of Narnia. This is exactly how I pictured it as a kid. It was awesome seeing Aslan being the big boss lion. I liked the choice of Liam Neeson as Aslan, I think his voice suited the role perfectly. Ditto with Tilda Swinton as the evil White Witch. I knew from the moment I saw her that she was the perfect embodiment of evil in Narnia. And finally, the battle scene. While it was a different kind of battle than the ones in LOTR, I liked it just as much, and possibly better. This was the kind of thing that you can’t quite get from a book. It was the kind of battle that I always wanted to see, with all the animals and creatures fighting each other. It was awesome. That’s about it for my review. I give it an A-.

Hmm, not exactly high art there – in the film or my writing. That was from the end of 2006 and I like to think I’ve gotten at least a little better since then. 7+ years will do that to you. So will a demanding teacher. I went to the University of Connecticut (go Huskies!) and had a fantastic film professor there. Bob Smith liked to give us these giant scene analysis assignments where we would have to describe a scene from a film we watched in class shot by shot. It was an exhausting exercise but it did give us the tools to describe what was happening on screen in simple and straightforward terms. It would also train us to see repeated setups or times when the director would change his shot. We learned to spot composition and framing and shot length and important props and all that jazz. And that was only half the paper. The other half, which had to be at least as long as the first part, would be an explanation of why the scene was made that way. Since the assignment required us to watch the scene over and over again, we got to know it quite intimately and after the tedium of the description, the freedom of the interpretation meant that the words often flowed out of me and onto the page. It was obvious why John Ford shot each of the sons standing up in the How Green Was My Valley dinner scene from below. Not only was he calling attention to the fact that they were standing, he was painting them in a heroic context. They were defying their father who had, until recently, lorded over them like a sometimes-benevolent dictator. Their refusal of him broke the family so John Ford broke the normal compositions he was using until those instances. It all made so much sense. Bob Smith was teaching us how to watch movies and how to write about them intelligently.

how green was my valley 1

I hope you’ll notice an improvement from that horrible first review to my most recent two, those of Noah and Mistaken for Strangers. I don’t put all of my reviews here, any movie about which I don’t have much to say will stay over at my Letterboxd page where they belong. But if I think I can find something really interesting to write about it’ll come here. I named this site Benefits of a Classical Education for reasons beyond just using a fun Die Hard quote (surely you knew it was a Die Hard quote), it’s because I feel like I genuinely benefited from my near-classical education. I like thinking about thinking, and I like writing about the things that I see or read or listen to. I am intensely interested in the way movies are constructed, so I’ll often write about a shot or sequence which caught my eye, like the creation montage in Noah. In that I think I am fulfilling Matt Zoller Seitz’s demands for more formal discussion in film reviews. Of course, that sequence served a thematic purpose in the film, furthering its half-biblical half-humanist vision of the Noah story, so it wasn’t just pretty pictures. I hope I captured that. I didn’t do much formal discussion in my review of Mistaken for Strangers because it’s pretty much a standard documentary for the majority of its running time. The relationship between the two brothers at the center of what started as a typical rock doc, though, was really really interesting to me. And I guess I did write about “the most euphoric credit card I’ve ever seen,” so that’s something formal. I guess what it boils down it is that when I feel compelled to write about a movie here it’s because I’ve found something in it that speaks to me in some kind of way, and it doesn’t have to be formal or thematic or character based, but it can be any of those and an combination of them. All those bloggers I talked about earlier do the same, I believe. That’s why they’re all so interesting despite (because of?) their different approaches. I still have a long way to go. I think I talk too much about plot and I am super self conscious about my propensity for lengthy sentences split up, seemingly at random, by commas. But that’s miles better than where I was and that’s good. I’ve dedicated myself to a career in the classical education system, so I might as well embrace it here and now. I hope you get something out of it.