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We Can Word It Out : Brevity, Futility and Introspection Make Name Games a Playful Challenge

January 06, 1991|JACK SMITH

JAY HELLER recommends to me a parlor game that he finds tougher and more revealing than inventing one's own epitaph.

"I call it 'Describe Yourself in One Word,' " he says. "My wife and I have played it at dinner parties a number of times with very interesting results."

I don't know why civilized people would need parlor games to entertain themselves when they have company. Perhaps we are so conditioned to watching television that we don't know what to do when we are a group and can't agree on what to watch.

More than one party has been ruined, I imagine, when the host insisted on watching a football or basketball game while his guests sat around in numb isolation. Few TV shows since "Roots" have been equally engaging for a diverse party of people.

Heller's game would force one to be introspective and self-revealing--not that that is invariably a good idea. More likely, each guest would try to think of a word that represented his best qualities, or summarized some fantasy he entertained about himself.

Heller says the word he chose for himself was survivor , since he has worked for advertising agencies for 50 years. His wife, Marian, has been a registered nurse for a similar time. She chose nurturing.

Some personalities are easily encapsulated. Charles Manson, if he were honest, would describe himself as a psychopath. Mother Teresa might call herself a humanist. Jim Bakker might call himself a sinner.

Of course, most of us, if we were completely honest, would describe ourselves as sinners. That might cause the party to degenerate into an embarrassment of questions and confessions.

If that game becomes tiresome, there's another that Heller suggests: "If You Had Your Choice of Anyone Living (or dead--the next version), Whom Would You Like to Have Dinner With Tomorrow Night?"

I'd like to have dinner with Margaret Thatcher. I'd like to ask her about her husband. When she was prime minister, did he cook? Did he put out the dog? Did he decide what TV shows they watched? Did he get to talk? Did he ever advise her to cool it? Is he a male chauvinist pig?

If I could have dinner with anyone who is dead, I'd like to have dinner with Cleopatra, provided we could surmount the language barrier. I have always thought of Cleo as a whirlwind of passions. I'm afraid, though, that I would bore her. She'd always be looking over my shoulder for some new Caesar.

Next to Cleo, I might take Mark Twain. What fun it would be to bring him up to date on the follies of contemporary politics and society. Few men in history have seen the world with such common sense.

Or Benjamin Franklin. Imagine telling him what has come of his experiments with the key and the kite--the electric light, the telephone, radio, television. But then, of course, he'd ask me how they work, and I wouldn't have the slightest idea.

Or Thomas Jefferson. His views on the present state of the nation would be enlightening; maybe he could even be induced to run for President. We might have a glass of wine from Tom's famous cellar and discuss the Declaration of Independence.

There's no real point in saying what dead person one would most like to have dinner with. Realization of such a wish is out of the question, and there is no risk in revealing one's choice--unless one believes in reincarnation.

I wouldn't mind having a couple of drinks with Anthony Comstock, the turn-of-the-century reformer who made censorship the law of the land. I'd like to turn on a sex-and-violence movie on TV and watch Comstock's face as he views a man and a woman engaged in French kissing who then undressed and popped into bed.

"You can guess the next variation," Heller says. " 'Whom Would You Like to Sleep With Tomorrow Night?' "

I doubt that my group would care to play that game. One's sexual fantasies are best kept to oneself. It's too likely that one guest might confess that he'd like most to sleep with another's spouse. That sort of revelation can hardly be dismissed as amusing. But I have been avoiding the point. We started out with the game "Describe Yourself in One Word."

We are all too complex to be described in one word, but since that is the rule of the game, we must try. I think of several words that might define me to some degree: Kind. Generous. Thoughtful. Humane. Compassionate. Generous.

But essentially, I'm ignorant. I don't understand our times. I don't understand our culture. I don't understand our technology. I don't understand myself.

My word is befuddled .

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