Snakes & Ladders


David Lodge [one of my fave English authors] begins his 1980 novel How Far Can You Go? with a 1950s university student weighing the pros & cons of attending a mid-week evening church service. Aside from the expenditure of Therbligs, and forgoing more frivolous diversions with less conscientious college friends, there is the danger that holier-than-thou self-congratulation will result in a Net Guilt Gain! The author likens this hazard to the children’s game of Snakes & Ladders. Just when you think you’re ascending to the Moral High Ground, oopsie-daisy, your Pride occasions a Fall from Grace. Nar’mean?

When he chose this metaphor, I wonder, did David Lodge know that Snakes & Ladders is based on the 11th-century Hindu game Moksha-Patamu, devised to teach children how to express the 5 Virtues (while avoiding the 12 Vices), in order to reach Nirvana? [No, not the band.] Note that in the original game, there are more than twice as many “snakes” [ways to fall] as “ladders”; whereas in the UK and American versions, the ratio of “snakes[or “chutes”] to “ladders” is 1:1. [Think 7 Virtues & 7 Deadly Sins.] Wanna know the Vices the Hindu version features? [They are listed in this order in several sources. Could it be, from venial to mortal?] “Disobedience, Vanity, Vulgarity, Theft, Lying, Drunkenness, Debt, Rage, Greed, Pride, Murder, Lust.” Guess you wanna hear the Virtues now, innit? “Faith, Reliability, Generosity, Knowledge, Asceticism.” [Reminiscent, somehow, of Jonathan Haidt’s 5 Moral Spheres model, from the post, “Crime & Punishment.”]

Now, back to real snakes. In the Fall of 1984 we were living in Holden, Massachusetts [near Worcester, about which, don’t get me started; talk about ambivalence (mine), talk about a sense of moral superiority (theirs)]. “We” being self, husband Chris, 9-month-old Baby Girl, and the gifted hunters, Stella [Ciotogach-looking one] & Stanley [with the white goatee]. Chris was off being a [jolly good] Fellow @ UMass Med Center; Baby Girl was napping; and I was doing laundry in the basement on a rainy day, with Nobody’s Fool Stella keeping me company. I gathered that Sodden Stanley had popped through the catflap, because I heard a dong! as he landed on the dryer. Also, I felt his wet tail wrapping around my bare ankles. Hang on. There he sat, staring into middle distance, on the dryer…while the black snake he had brought in ascended my leg.

So, limbic system on Full Alert, I screamed, shook the serpent off, ran upstairs and donned my Wellies, ran back downstairs brandishing a golf club [no, I am not Swedish], onto which I “charmed” the snake, and thence threw it into a wicker basket, which I deftly flipped over, thereby trapping it. Unabashed Stanley was clawing at the basket, wanting to play with his “prey,” so I grabbed him and ran back upstairs to call Chris, “insisting” that he come home “right then” and “deal with” the snake. “But, you’ve already dealt with it,” he quibbled. “Just keep the cats out of the basement, and you’ll be fine.” “Nooo!” I wailed. “I’m afraid the snake is going to get out, climb up the stairs, and hurt [the baby]!” [I may be part horse.]

Having clearly exceeded the speed limit, Chris arrived shortly, flipped the basket over, bashed the snake with the golf club, saying “There!”; hopped back in his car, and returned to the hospital.

Poor old snake! Wrong place at the wrong time. [In Stanley’s line of sight on a wet Wednesday.]

Chris and I both lost many karmic points that day. Yet, search as I may, I can’t find my crime on the Hindu list of 12 Vices. I can identify what Got Up My Nose, though. Intrusion of an unexpected creature [not even a furry one] into my home and onto my person. Fairly far-fetched fear, that the snake would glide up the basement stairs and under a closed door, to strike at my baby [even though it had been so gentle with me, that I mistook it for my cat]. But, most shame-making, the humiliation of not being taken seriously by my husband. As if I were some [gasp!] Drama Queen, or something.

Chris would no doubt say that he displaced his Rage [at my intrusion on his workday, and possibly the humiliation of being regarded as a hen-pecked husband by his fellow Fellows] from me, onto the hapless snake. No wonder, 25 years later, he helped the young snake on our driveway to live another day. After all, if reincarnation is true, that could be you or I, Next Time.

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Filed under aggression happens, gets right up my nose, lesser of two evils, limbic system

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