Playing without instructions

Perhaps you remember "Life's Little Instruction Book." A popular gift item in the 1990s, the plaid-covered paperback contained aphorisms the author had gathered over a lifetime of observation and experience.

One of the bits of advice offered was "Don't waste time playing cards."

I was always unsure of the wisdom of that suggestion. On my dad's side of the family were avid players of Rook, a four-player game that involves bidding, trump suits and winning tricks. It's sort of the redneck version of bridge. But I'll get back to that.

Dad and his siblings would gather on a Friday night, usually after a long week of farm work, and play Rook. Having an inherent familial dearth of inhibitions, they weren't big drinkers, but they smoked cigarettes incessantly and, sitting around a waxy kitchen table, raised their voices as if to cut through the cloud of smoke.

I remember the hazy scenes only vaguely. When I was young, family gatherings weren't organized around the children's interests. We had to make our own fun, and it certainly didn't involve hanging around the card table.

Besides, the grownups all seemed to know the rules of Rook already, and they weren't keen on teaching us.

Still, the card games provided an impetus for gathering, and the partnerships demanded during play forced communication between aunts and uncles who were otherwise combative. They even laughed.

As I said, the kids didn't play Rook, but I did learn to play after I got married. Phil and I made friends with a couple in Thomasville, Jean and Bobby. They were my parents' age, heavy smokers and Rook players. We instantly became like family.

Jean liked me because I had inherited my family's uninhibited, outspoken nature (which often got me into trouble at our mutual workplace). I liked her because she gave unsolicited advice and the occasional menthol cigarette. I called her "Mama Jean."

The four of us used to sit up nights playing Rook, laughing and getting loud. It didn't take long to learn the game. Despite my childhood perceptions, the rules weren't complicated; they fit neatly onto a page tucked inside the card box. And despite conventional wisdom, playing cards with Jean and Bobby didn't seem like a waste of time at all.

Of course, Jean and Bobby weren't really family. When I got married, I learned to play bridge, too. Playing with partners, bidding and winning tricks were all familiar from playing Rook. What was unfamiliar were the complex language of bidding and the comparatively formal atmosphere of play.

Instead of playing into the night in a hazy basement, we'd play bridge in the afternoon in a breezy beach house. It seemed like it was supposed to be fun - they insisted it was - and Phil's brother even made cocktails when his was the dummy hand.

But the cocktails, too, seemed more of a ritual than a social lubricant. It was all so polite. I started to understand the wisdom of "Life's Little Instruction Book."

Or maybe I was just too busy trying to remember the rules.

My experience playing Rook helped me learn bridge more quickly, and Phil's family was patient with me while I played. But what I really learned was that things can be related but not at all the same. Rook was redneck bridge, and I was a redneck.

And that's OK. Somewhere on our bookshelf, "Life's Little Instruction Book" sits alongside a thick copy of "Goren's New Bridge Complete." I doubt I'll open either one of them anytime soon. Perhaps it's a redneck notion, but I prefer to play without instructions.