I like pinball. I like pinball a lot. Which is why I know that in Fenton, MI, where I live, there are three pinball machines. The Arby’s has a Monopoly table (in good working order; the ball save is disabled for some reason, but it’s hard to hold that against it when they leave the replay set so low–3 mil–that it’s easy to play for ages on four quarters), and the Fenton House has an Addams Family (a very good game, dare I say cult classic, but this particular table is in horrible disrepair, with the flippers so weak it’s unplayable) and a Baywatch (which I haven’t been able to bring myself to play, I mean, it’s Baywatch; if the Arby’s Monopoly breaks, we’ll talk). The bw-3 used to have an Elvira, but now they don’t. Stupid Fenton b-dubs.
On days when I actually take a lunch break, it’s very often spent at Pinball Pete’s, an arcade with something-teen pinball machines in the back. (My favorites there? Pirates of the Caribbean, Spiderman, Medieval Madness. Addams Family and Elvira when I want to be a little more retro. Used to like Lord of the Rings, which is a work of art in many ways, but without padding on the out lanes, unpreventable ball loss is way too common to stay fun for long.)
Funny story: it came up once when talking to a student that I go to Pinball Pete’s. He said his friends go for DDR, and asked what I went for. I said I play pinball. His response was priceless, “Pinball?!? Like where you stand up and flip the things? Do people still play that?” I said that yes, some people do, and he said “Man, Dr. Cap, you’re like the oldest school guy I know, and you’re not even thirty!”
I like pinball enough to actually think “SDTM” when something goes horribly wrong with what I’m doing. Y’know that weird popping sound (sort of like a baseball being hit out of the park) that means you won a free game, that’s one of my all-time favorite sounds. And I try to hear that sound as often as possible. (One day I spent lunch break at Pinball Pete’s and bought one game on Pirates of the Caribbean; when I finally decided I had to get back to work, I left three credits on the machine for the next person to play.)
I think I finally figured out why I enjoy it so much, after a recent conversation (about much loftier and more respectable things than pinball, to be sure, but I try not to place boundaries on my ability to think deeply about things) with an old friend. When you’re playing pinball, you’re always in the moment. Planning ahead means planning three or four seconds ahead. Unless your reaction time is a lot better than mine, you get the information about what you need do to survive, most times, only a split-second before you need to do it. I’m a husband, a father of two, a teacher, a writer, and I have multiple active research projects. So there’s a lot of noise in my head. Now I know it’s always ideal to empty myself of other things, to be mindful in the Buddhist sense, enter fully into what I am doing at the moment. But I’m not very good at that. The thing about playing pinball is that it’s one of very very very few things I do that is completely intolerant of mental noise and stray thoughts.