Playing the Silver Ball

PinballIn the late 1970s during my last couple years in my hometown of Ann Arbor, inspired by that song from the Who’s rock opera “Tommy”, I became a pinball wannabe wizard, making time each day I was on campus for my college classes to drop a few dollars worth of quarters in the slot and transcend my muggle life into the world of metal spheres, plastic flippers, bumpers, targets, spinners and those accursed ball-eating gutters. Inspired by reading Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine some years earlier, it was a time in my life where I was experimenting with living in the moment, at times aided by smoking marijuana, and beginning to wrestle with life at a more metaphysical level.

It was a profoundly simple and dazzling universe of exotic noises and lights highlighting the spectacular laws of kinetic physics guiding that iconic silver ball on its course (whoa… way too many adjectives!), a compelling game of skill that required a calm mind, hyper focus, extreme sensitivity and the ability to meld with the machine and bring it alive.

It was almost an erotic experience to drop a quarter in the slot, bringing the machine to life, and with skillful fingering of the buttons, urging the flippers to propel the ball ever upward to drop all the targets, find the right slots, holes and spinners to rack up your score till you cross that point threshold and the machine makes that great knock noise and racks you up a free game, the climax of your wizardry. There is also the interesting aspect of actually shaking the machine in an attempt to control the ball, without shaking it so hard that you trigger the mechanism which ends your game with a “tilt”.

I played mostly at a pinball arcade on Liberty Street in Ann Arbor called “The Cross-eyed Moose”. It was maybe a twenty-minute walk from my house and located in the midst of the campus part of downtown between the several buildings where I had classes and just a block from the Cottage Inn where I worked cooking pizzas on Friday and Saturday nights. Entering the threshold would bring that unique acoustic environment of boings, dings and clinks to my ears and I could feel my mind start to relax and reorient. It was the perfect visceral counterpoint to my college classes spent mostly sitting in seats taking notes and pondering abstract concepts in history or society outside of any real context.

The late 1970s was when the video arcade games began making their appearance to compete for quarters with pinball. First the minimalist Pong and then the more complex Pacman and Ms. Pacman, Donkey Kong and then generation after generation of more sophisticated games. As these electronic games entered the pinball arcades, with their simulated rather than real physics, I began to play them as well, find my favorites, and getting intoxicated (at times aided by marijuana) in turn by each of their simple and visually stunning worlds. I have always been enough of an adventurer and never been enough of a purist to reject the new, even though the silver ball and solenoid game has a sensual physicality that I can’t imagine an electronic screen game ever equaling.

It is interesting how a graphically stunning game environment for a quick-paced game of skill can focus and calm ones mind. My partner sally currently plays a game called “Minesweeper” that can be found on most PCs. Your virtual game board is a grid of boxes, some concealing mines and others a number between one and eight (or blank for zero) indicating how many mines are in the eight adjacent squares. The goal is to click on all the squares in the grid that are not mines. If you click on a box with a mine the game ends. For me, playing Minesweeper is a slow deliberate exercise in making the logical inferences, based on the number of mines adjacent to each revealed square, to determine which still unrevealed squares cannot be (or at least are probably not) mines. My partner Sally, on the other hand, seems to get into an almost meditative state when she plays the game. She picks the squares without consciously thinking about the logic of her choices, and can clear a board in a minute or two that would take me ten or twenty.

So back again in the late 1970s, embracing the “Zen” of pinball was a small but important step for me in beginning to acknowledge a subtle, deeper level of meaning in everyday life. It had been years since I had read Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, but the main premise of the book had stayed with me, even as all the details of the story dropped away. I found I could play better pinball if I communed with the machine, treating it like a sentient being that wanted to be engaged, honored, and played well. It would be silly perhaps if you took this sort of thing literally, but I was exploring the subtle world of the efficacy of metaphor.

You can look at a pinball machine, or any machine, organism or system, as just the sum of all its parts, working together and obeying the laws of physics. All its outputs are predictable based on understanding its parts, processes and providing the appropriate inputs. But the complexity introduced by putting all these elements in close proximity to each other in a closed system, makes it very difficult to grasp how best to interact with this system. How could I provide the right inputs to the pinball machine in front of me, including pushing each of the flipper buttons at just the right time and giving the machine just enough of a nudge at the crucial moment to keep the ball in play and continuing to score points?

So what I found worked best for me, to maximize my time on the machine with a minimum of quarters, was to employ a metaphor and cast the machine, as I said, as a sentient being. With a machine I had not played before, before dropping in my first quarter, I would carefully read the instructions to understand the “rules” of this particular game, including the implications in terms of bonuses, scoring multipliers and extra balls of dropping all the targets or getting the ball up into that little hole in the top right corner of the machine. Given that understanding, that honoring of the machine’s “rules”, I would begin to play. I would learn to master the trajectories of the different rebounds off the bumpers and use of the flippers to give the ball direction and velocity to hit and drop a target or throw the ball through a gap up to the top of the machine where it was not in danger of guttering out or falling between the flippers. I would learn to catch and control the ball with a flipper, so better to aim it. I would experiment with what sort of bump of the machine’s chassis would change the balls motion sufficiently to keep it out of a gutter or to increase the action as it rebounded between close set bumpers. I would learn to bring the machine to its most intensely alive state, a metaphorical orgasm of sorts. And acknowledging my skill and wanting me to continue to honor and interact with it so, the machine would give me free games.

Trying to live viscerally in the moment, I began taking greater notice of the plants and animals that inhabited my home town, giving them metaphorical sentience as well, touching the plants, inquiring into their health and acknowledging the squirrels, crows and other critters. I became very cognizant of the weather, which became the metaphorical communication and commentary of “Mother Nature” with me and my fellow Ann Arborites. Walking across town, in the humid heat of summer or the biting winter wind, became a journey with a host of friends and acquaintances, going through the cycles of their existence. I imagined the big old trees advising me. In summer I would often walk across town barefoot, feeling all the sensations of pavement, asphalt, wood, grass and bare ground and the subtle messages implied metaphorically in each.

Still at this point, if asked, I would call myself an atheist and not acknowledge believing in “God”, particularly the version with the capital “G”, but enjoying my relationship, metaphorically, with Mother Nature, a more relaxed deity, with less of a need to be explicit.

It would be years later that I would read Karen Armstrong’s The History of God and embrace her theory of the metaphorical power of “God” in the development of Western culture. She explored the loss of the power of metaphorical deities and scriptures with the reductionism, scientism and literalism brought on by the Protestant Reformation and the Abrahamic religions trying to stay relevant in the Modern World where they were being challenged by the compelling dogmas of science. In my always evolving cosmology, “God”, “The Goddess”, “Mother Nature”, “Gaia”, or any other deity is a metaphor for our attempt to grasp a deeper level of existence that will never be completely graspable.

We all find or invent our metaphors that help us live effectively in this very complicated world we have created. Not sure I have settled on mine yet, but I am certainly enjoying the process of trying various ones on for size.

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