Friday, December 6, 2019

Play It As It Lays

Me at Spring Lake, NJ

In Joan Didion's 1970 novel, "Play It as It Lays," lead character Maria is slowly losing her mind and unraveling through flashbacks told in very short chapters. According to Google, the term "Play it as it lays" means: "Take what you get, and figure it out, and make the best of it so that you can move forward." I'd never heard the expression before, so after reading it, I came to my own conclusions about what the phrase might mean, and that is: "Take it as it comes, just let each day unfold the way it wants to, and make no plans." Unlike Maria, who recalls several tragic events throughout the novel, my interpretation of the phrase is more suitable to mundane, everyday life.  Letting each day unfold and making no plans is a chill way of living.  I never followed it in my youth. I always planned, and waited, and definitely tried to control things. But these days, I realize how little control I have, so I find myself "taking things as they come" more often than ever before.

Me, Poolside in Canada   

"In Maria's own garden the air smelled of jasmine and the water in the pool was 85°. The water in the pool was always 85° and it was always clean."

Now that I'm older,  I never go to bed early enough. I guess it's because I'm more aware of the passage of time and how quickly it goes. It's like I don't want to miss anything. I stay up until midnight watching "The Twilight Zone" and "Alfred Hitchcock Hour," then have to wake up at 5:30 a.m. for work. I can fall asleep easily but often wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble getting back to sleep. My solution to daytime sleepiness is napping. First, I nap on the ferry on the way to work, then once at home, I nap anywhere I can think of. I used to sleep on the couch a lot, but now that I have my two-year-old Shih-Tzu, I can't because she won't let me. She seems to think it breaks routine,  so she paws at me and at the pillow as if to say: "You are not supposed to be sleeping on the couch!" So I try and sneak a nap on the recliner when she isn't paying attention. In "Play It as It Lays," Maria has trouble sleeping and finds that she can only fall asleep, and stay asleep, outside beside her swimming pool, lying on the lounge chairs along it. I think that in a larger sense, Maria has a feeling of unrest that goes beyond not sleeping. She doesn't feel comfortable anywhere and is unable to relax or let her guard down in order to enter a proper sleep. The act of sleeping outside on a pool chair resonated with me. I hate not being able to sleep, and if I found that sleeping on a chair in my backyard beside a swimming pool was the only way I could get some sleep, I would do it too, just like Maria.

                                                                                      Me and my Shih-Tzu

"Maria was listening to someone talk and every now and then she would hear herself making what she thought was an appropriate response but mostly she was just swaying slightly with the music and wondering where her drink was..."

We all, at times, find our minds wandering off when people talk to us. Often, I'll find myself drifting into different thoughts while someone is telling me a story. But suddenly, I'll see their animated expression or I'll notice a slight pause in conversation, and I'll usually respond with a "Wow" or an "Oh that's crazy." Otherwise, I'll just nod my head in agreement and hope my response was not way off. Maria has lost control in this scene and can't plan her responses as people often do in social situations.  Throughout the book, she is increasingly unable to adopt a persona, and by this point in her life, she is tiring of "the game," and through no other choice, she is only able to be her authentic self. She is real, but it is killing her. Throughout the story, she can only "play it as it lays," just like in this party scene, until she can escape with her drink.  It's exhausting trying to live as your truest self in a world where so many people work hard to perfect their outward personalities and control their responses, and you're over there taking every statement at face value and missing the inside jokes and the hidden innuendos. People don't want to take themselves as they are. Instead, they want to create the kind of person they think they should be. I think it's exhausting on both sides.

"Always when I play back my father's voice, it is with a professional rasp, it goes as it lays, don't do it the hard way.  My father advised me that life itself was a crap game: it was one of two lessons I learned as a child.  The other was that overturning a rock was apt to reveal a rattlesnake."

Me and my Dad. He used to love gambling on the horses.

Maria's dad is the one who advises her to "play it as it lays" at the end of the book. He says life is a crap game. He keeps on investing his money in shaky business deals, and keeps on losing, but he never loses his positivity and optimism. He advises Maria to relinquish control.

My assessment is that life can sometimes make you messed up like Maria:  There are times you only want a drink, and other times, you have insomnia because you are aware of the passage of time and how quickly it all goes.  But you have to realize you can't control these things. You have to learn to "play it as it lays" and do the best you can with what you've got because, really, you have no other choice, and most of the time, that's perfectly OK.

“I am what I am. To look for reasons is beside the point.” 

Joan Didion (

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