Fun is all in how you look at the tiles.
My loved one tried to teach me Mah Jongg the other day, and I caught on right away to the fact that this is a game that has too many rules in its instructions or too many "Gs" in its name.
Oh, and I quickly learned that you should always listen to your teacher, especially if she says such things as, "Will you stop building little houses with your tiles; what do you think you are, a third-grader?"
We were playing Mah Jongg — I was learning and she was practicing — because I had feigned interest in the game earlier in the afternoon. "That sounds like fun," I had said, after she had told me that she was playing Mah Jongg with some girlfriends later in the evening. The feeling I actually had at that moment, of course, as many other insensitive guys might already have guessed, is that it would be fun to be watching some game on television that night, instead of a sappy romantic comedy movie on Netflix, which was a thought that probably wouldn't have drawn the same enthusiastic response from anybody's loved one.
"It is fun! Sit down, I'll teach you how to play. It'll help me, too, to review. Maybe I'll do better tonight."
And from that I take away two things. One, never express any interest in anything in a loved one's life if you really were planning to go outside and wash the car on a warm and sunny autumn afternoon. Two, apparently the true purpose of gathering with friends for a pleasant evening of social interaction is to destroy them, decisively, in any competition that happens to be used as a reason for getting together with people whose friendship you supposedly cherish.
We laid out the tiles on the table, flipping them face down, so we wouldn't know what they were when we picked our share of them. I got past the moment when I remembered that the only other people I've ever known who played Mah Jongg were great-aunts I had when I was a child or neighbor ladies who had gray and blue hair. It wasn't a pleasant thought to suddenly be lumped in with these people, especially when the memory reminded me that I'm now probably older than they were back then, and I have very little hair left — gray, blue or any other color. But, I blocked it out of my mind with an observation as we flipped tiles so their blank sides were up.
"This is like scrabble," I said.
"It's nothing like Scrabble," said my loved one. "It's more like gin rummy. You've played gin rummy. You'll catch on."
Of course, that's pretty much like most of our discussions about anything in which there is even the slightest potential for contrasting thoughts. And the outcome is sort of the same as all those other mini-debates. I nod and we move on.
Next my loved one laid out racks upon which we would put the tiles we chose from the pile. There were four racks. I quickly counted both of us. Even a guy who deals in words and not numbers could tell that we were less than four.
"We're going to pretend they're here and pick tiles for them. We always play with four."
Now, I played plenty of baseball with just a handful of neighbor friends when I was a kid, so I am fully aware of the concept of imaginary men. "Imaginary man on second," one of us would shout when we needed to run to the plate to bat. I have no idea why I didn't just run with this theory of imaginary board game players, instead of speaking.
"Well, since this is the first time I've ever played, I'd have to say my experience is that I always play with two...," I said, starting to fiddle with the tiles in an architectural manner that that might have made a Mah Jongg-playing Frank Lloyd Wright proud.
That's when my loved one chastised me for my home design work, ignored my remark, and told me "You're going to be both you and the player to your right." So, you don't need a government study to see the pattern developing in conversations between loved ones.
Matters Of Rules
Quickly, I discovered that, yes, there are similarities between Mah Jongg and gin rummy. The idea was to make sets and runs from identical tiles, instead of cards, and say "Mah Jongg" haughtily if you use up all your tiles, so everybody you're playing with — real and imaginary — feels depressed, like losers.
I say Mah Jongg, but I've also seen it spelled mahjong, mahjongg, mah-jong, mah-jongg, mah jong, and mah jongg. I chose to go with the upper case Mah Jongg because that's what was on the Mah Jongg set my loved one bought, and if there is anything worse than wasting an afternoon playing Mah Jongg, it's wasting an afternoon going to defend yourself in a trademark lawsuit.
I shouldn't say "wasting an afternoon." It was interesting and challenging trying to learn that the suits in Mah Jongg aren't hearts, spades, diamonds and clubs. The suits are "characters," "bamboos," and "circles," with a few "wind" and "dragon" tiles thrown in, along with some extra "flower" and "season" tiles. And you have to learn all this before a loved one reminds you, "I just told you what that is; aren't you listening?"
I lost badly. But, I lost quickly. I lost so fast, in fact, that I still had time to go out to the driveway and wash the car, although Mah Jongg pretty much took away my opportunity to detail the interior. So, I can't open my glove compartment or things will fall out.