Thursday, October 14, 1999

A lesson in tough rules of a new game

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        I am driving to Mount Washington to watch a game of Mexican Train. “It's catching on like wildfire,” the woman on the telephone said. “You've got to see this.”

        Wildfire? A new game?

        This was making me nervous.

        Who owns the franchise? Do we have to build somebody a stadium to keep it?

        The woman laughs. “Come and see for yourself, kid.”

        Kid? I like the sound of that.

        Do you need special equipment?

        “Just your thinking cap.” she says.

        Perhaps I can borrow one.

An exhibition game
        My new friend, Helen McCartney, sets up an exhibition game. Players, ages 67 to 86, were already gathered around a table in the lounge at Sutton Grove Retirement Community when I arrived. In the middle of the table were a pile of dominoes, some pennies and a nickel.

        Do you play for money?

        “Oh, Lord no,” Helen says.

        The coins are part of the game strategy. The nickel designates a row of dominoes as a Mexican Train. The pennies are a signal that nobody can make a play on the dominoes in that row. Or maybe it's a signal that everybody can make a play on that row.

        I am very confused.

        Perhaps I missed some of the instructions when I was digging into my Krispy Kreme doughnut. Or when Helen, a Rosie Red and former housemother for a fraternity, was telling me about the time she told Marge Schott to fill her medicine chest with marbles to discourage snoops. Maybe I was inattentive while I was wondering how Bev MacDonald can qualify for residency (you have to be 65) and still have no lines in her face.

        “It's tricky,” Helen says kindly. She means the game.

        Maybe if you played a round and I could watch, I suggest.

        “That's why we're here,” Bev says.

        And why, I wonder, am I here?

The Golden Years
        I think I came because I want to win a bigger game with higher stakes and tougher rules. I want to know how to play during those Golden Years we baby boomers hear so much about. Life after hot flashes. Life with Attends and a truss. Life after the house where we raised our families.

        We don't want to just get old. We want to be Golden Girls. And boys. We don't want to stop feeling alive just because we have our pharmacist on speed dial and our children no longer need our help with their homework.

        So, I am watching the ones who seem to be good at getting old. Thinking I might learn something I can use later.

        A couple of weeks ago, I visited some residents at Marjorie P. Lee Retirement Community in Hyde Park. They were lively and funny and curious. They have scheduled lectures from financial planners and health professionals. They take notes and ask probing questions.

        The week after that I met with a continuing education class at the University of Cincinnati. Several of them wanted to know how to get their books published. Most are retired, but not idle. Some travel. Elderhostel takes them to exotic places. Some just get in the car and go.

        This is the game I want to learn. This is the game with the really hard rules. No do-overs. You have to play every single day, whether you feel like it or not. Your equipment gets old and leaky. Some of your favorite players leave. Forever.

        So I watch these women. And listen. They help each other. They read the newspaper. They laugh. They try new recipes. They ask questions. Discuss grandchildren. And politics.

        Meanwhile, somebody plays her last domino and wins the round. I think. Really, I haven't a clue.

        I will never learn how to play their Mexican Train game. I'm sure of it. But I don't care. I'm really there to learn the secret of that other game, the big one, the one that Verna and Helen and Shirley and Bev and Hilda and Dot are playing so well.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears on WVXU radio, NPRs Morning Edition and Insight's Northern Kentucky Magazine.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. E-mail her at