Swift and Decisive

By far, the most effective way to eliminate Yellow Jackets is to spray the crap out of them with neurotoxins.  No question.  But if you’re in a situation where that’s not appropriate – at the lake on a sunny summer day, say – where spraying pyrethroids and pyrethrins might be considered gauche, then decisions must be made. It turns out, those decisions must be made quickly.  

Options are few.  

One can hang wasp traps, which work a little, but don’t really solve the problem.  You can just not go outside, but that’s letting the little buggers win, and is also not really a solution.  I imagine a person could sit around in personal bee-keeping attire, but that seems excessive and impractical.  

A strategy that is lore in my family comes from a time when fishing was a more common past-time for my ancestors.  Apparently, my great-grandfather and his buddies would set out a bucket of dead fish that had been sitting in the sun all day some distance from any revelry and burger consumption.  Yellow Jackets would be drawn by the odors of rotting fish like zombies to brains, and thus leave the enjoyers of marvelously mild summer lake evenings blissfully alone.

I don’t know if this story is true or apocryphal, but it is true that the problem of Yellow Jackets always seems to come up out at the lake.  They’re often not super aggressive.  Like us, they just love the smell of food.  Invariably, a few minutes after sitting down, you’ll hear the little buzz of those yellow and black suckers, or more likely, you’ll feel a thwap on the back of your head as one loses its way and its senses to the drunk-inducing aromas of a freshly grilled burger.  

I have it on good authority that my own father was one to simply brave the wasps and just endure.  This strategy would be accompanied by periodically swatting one out of the air like a giant anti-aircraft battery.  Killing wasps one at a time with bare hands isn’t super effective, but it is pretty bad-ass.  When I think of my father, I think of a soft-spoken man of great intelligence.  I do not typically think of a man who, with precision and extreme prejudice, curmudgeonly swats Yellow Jackets out of the air like they are gnats, but there you go.  You never really know a person.  

My time as an organic farmer taught me a great deal about Yellow Jackets and how to address them.  Using wasp spray would definitely be a violation of Organic standards, and so was never an option.  Wasps there tended to congregate in our high tunnels, making it impossible for anyone to work nearby.  It would invariably fall to me to remediate the situation.  

The first thing to do in this situation is to wait until it’s cold out.  Early morning is a great time.  Wasps tend to congregate on their nest and are pretty inactive after the cool of the night.  My general strategy then is to take a plastic bag and carefully encapsulate the whole nest, taking care to close off the opening after getting the whole thing.  This strategy works, but is tense.  There’s nothing in the world like holding a bag full of pissed off wasps.  But when you’re at the picnic, you can’t wait until morning.  You have to act.  By far and away the number one rule when dealing with wasps is:

Be swift and decisive.

Wasps in a bag. Gives me the willies just thinking about it.

If you fuck around, you’ll get stung.  Fun fact about wasps:  They can sting you over and over again.  Honey bees get one shot, and then the stinger pulls out of their butts and they die.  Wasps are the pain that keeps on giving.  So you must act swiftly without any indecision.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t panic.

One long-ago lake mesmerized summer evening, my illustrious cousin (yes, that cousin) and I self-appoint ourselves to be the ones who will take care of the wasp nest.  It’s late afternoon.  Everyone is sun-kissed and content.  The smells of cooking burger waft tantalizingly over gathered family and friends.  But there is this wasp nest.  

We got this.  Plastic bag – without holes – requisitioned.  Okay, I say, okay.  We creep up on the nest.  The bag is splayed over my hands inside out, ready to do its encapsulating work.  It’s definitely not the cool of the morning, and the wasps are definitely active.  They are like the workers in the Lego Movie, just going about their wasp business like everything is awesome.   They are unaware that things are about to become decidedly not awesome.

I imagine that there are rage hormones stored in some little gland right next to the little wasp brain just waiting to saturate the little bundle of neurons that controls wasp behavior.  I picture a little graphic of that brain, like a Just Say No graphic of the human brain on cocaine, all soaked in rage.  Angry Yellow Jackets are no joke.  

But we’ve got this.  Wait.  Wait.  Too many flying around.  Hold still.  Edge closer.  Hold.  Hold.  A voice is asking if this is a good idea, if there are any other ways we could go about this.  It might be my cousin.  It might be my inner voice that cleaves toward reasonableness.  No, I say with confidence.  We must be swift and decisive.  Swift and decisive.  Hold.  Edge closer.  NOW!  Lunge forward with swiftness and decisiveness and wrap the nest in plastic.  Don’t let go.  Don’t let it open.  And RUN, RUN!  Oh crap!  Now panic!

Swiftly and decisively we dodge and escape the wasps not contained by the bag – the ones who immediately realized their hard work was being taken away and crushed by some giant.  Rage hormones fully soak their little brains and no thought of size difference checks their sheer frothing anger.  Nothing in nature has ever been this pissed off, and the remaining Yellow Jackets switch their butt-doom into high gear.

But we’ve been swift and decisive!  We run and run.  We realize we hadn’t discussed what to do after containing the threat.  We decide to drown the wasps in the lake so we take the bag to the shoreline where we both drown and crush the nest.  We are safe.  The picnic is safe.  I don’t have a memory, actually, of how the rest of the evening went, but I assume it must have been mostly uneventful, as I don’t carry the memory of further trauma.  Okay, I admit that’s not a guarantee.

This memory isn’t even my most dramatic recollection of the power of swift and decisive action.  Fast forward a few years and we’re out with the boat.  That would be the old red boat, the one that lived at the lake and spent far more days on its trailer in the woods than in the water.  That boat.  I’m out with my illustrious cousin (yes, that one) and we have a boat full of children.  

My cousin is at the helm and has whispered the magic incantation necessary to get the thing to start.  Miraculously, we’re out on the water.  After a little while, it becomes obvious that something isn’t right.  We slow to a stop.  WASPS!! Shout the children.  There are wasps in the boat!  

Holy crap.  There are F’ING WASPS in the boat somewhere!  They’re coming out of the frame of it somehow.  It’s as if someone has yelled “BOMB” at an airport.  Children dive for whatever passes for safety, wherever they think the Yellow Jackets are not.  Of course, opinions differ, and so the squirmy life-jacketed bodies of children are everywhere and each of those bodies is screaming as though they’ve been captured by witches and are about to be eaten for dinner.  Chaos rules for half a heartbeat, and then years of parenting instincts kick in and my cousin bolts for the dock. 

Take the bomb away from the city.  We drop the children on the dock and then he and I courageously speed out into the lake again.  We agree that we must find the nest and dispose of it before our lives can continue as they have been up to this point.  A careful search is made and eventually the probable location of the nest is determined to be behind a panel opposite the driver’s seat.  We’ve been stopped on the open water for a few minutes now, and the wasps seem to be gathering their wits.   A few minutes ago, they were happily going about their little wasp lives innocently enjoying what to them seemed like a great little home.  Like in Empire when Han Solo realizes the cave they’re in is actually a monster, the wasps have realized their home is in the belly of some beast capable of moving at great speed over open water.  Their reaction is decidedly not to politely negotiate a settlement to resolve our differences.

Confusion, in little wasp brains, is giving way to the trigger that will flood them with rage.  Now.  Being on a boat with a nest full of pissed-off wasps isn’t a great place to be, but we have one advantage.  “Punch it,” I say.  Again, a voice – either that of my cousin, or that of the little part of my brain usually responsible for self-preservation behavior – asks if this a good idea.  We must be swift and decisive, I say.  We must.  You just can’t deal with wasps in any other way.

So now we’re traveling over the water at thirty miles an hour on a boat filled with wasps.  It’s like some kind of twisted character in a Tower Defense video game.  If you send out the Wasp-Filled Speedboat, that’ll save you.  Bracing myself against the pitching of the boat, I remove the panel behind which the wasps live, and there it is, like some kind of demented jewel of the damned.  Crawling with furious wasps, there is the nest.  

The advantage we have is that the boat doesn’t have a cover.  A Yellow Jacket pops off the nest and comes after me.  But what this little drone doesn’t know is that it is only still on the boat because of physics.  As soon as it breaks the plane of the windshield – fwiziinnnnnnng – the thirty mile an hour breeze grabs it and tosses it like a tiny rag doll to our rear and out of harm’s way.  

My cousin, who is driving the boat, and who is hunkered behind the wind-shield, is vulnerable in a way I am not.  He asks calmly if I could please hurry things along.  There are a few wasps who are looking at him like maybe they’ve been wrong all along as to who the aggressor is here.  I take a paddle – you always need a paddle in a boat – and slice the nest from where it is lodged.  More wasps attack.  Fwiip!  Fwiing!  Fwiip!  They succumb to the speed of the water-craft.  Then, in one swift, decisive movement, I grab the nest and toss it overboard.  A few minutes of fanning the boat with a towel to dislodge any remaining raging wasps and we’re back at the dock.  Thanks to swift and decisive action, the bomb, we say, has been diffused.  The city is saved.  Even more miraculously, the heroes are returned, triumphant and unscathed.  We, as they say, have lived to fight another day. 

I am thankful to the wasps, in a way.  The capacity to act swiftly and decisively does come in handy sometimes.  Most decisions come with at least a little time to cogitate over what best practices might be, but some don’t.  Sometimes you have to grab the nest with the bag and just run.

River of Fire

I’m twenty one and am laying on a Ernie Tanaka surfboard just off the coast of Oahu.  I bought it off a college student at UH who didn’t know what he had.  Some of the old guys who knew me from the before-work morning set off Diamond Head alerted me to the board’s provenance.  It was around seven and a half feet long.  Not a longboard, but not a short one either.  It was unique.  I surfed on it for a few months and then passed it on when it was time to leave the islands.  A part of me wishes I’d kept it, but it almost doesn’t seem like it was mine to own.  It fit me as well as anything has ever fit me: my first bicycle – a beat up old red dirt-bike with only coasting brakes, my first car – a beat up old 81 Honda Civic held together with caulk and duct tape – my collection of 60s era fantasy and science fiction magazines – my pair of faded black Summer Solstice Triathlon swim trunks.   I don’t have any of those things any more, either.  This surfboard was comfortable

This is my only surviving image of that Tanaka board. I found this guy half-buried on the beach one day.

It’s morning and I’m on the water with my buddy Drew between waves when not much was happening.  I’m on my belly paddling somewhere when all of a sudden the heavens open and I’m in a trough of some kind and a gentle tropical breeze like a thousand little gusts grabs the water’s surface and a billion billion little wavelets catch and release yellow fire and I’m surrounded by the warmth of a deafening chorus of light.   

In my memory I can see my hands slicing into and through the cacophony around me as though in slow motion, knowing I’ll be leaving for home in a few weeks time, knowing that my future might not bring me back again, knowing instinctively that you can’t ever tread the same path twice, knowing that there could be no way to preserve the moment other than as a memory.  I concentrate with all my will to burn the moment permanently into my soul.  There it has remained for 23 years.  It is one of my most precious and personal memories.  It is a North Star for how I experience beauty.  It is a high-water mark of my mortal experience.

And rarely do I ever come close to experiencing that degree of intense, burning beauty.  I’ve been to the tops of mountains, along coral reefs, at the edge of blooming deserts, in endlessly throbbing night clubs, at the edge of vast tropical rain forests, on the precipice of ancient ruins.  I’ve seen my own children born and held their slimy squirming bodies as they take their first breaths and held the hand of a beautiful ancestor in his last moments, feeling his pulse fade away.  These experiences have been powerful and moving, and I honor them, don’t get me wrong.  But never have I come close to the kind of transcendentally transformative experience of pure simple beauty of that moment on the water in the Spring of 2000.  

Until last weekend.

In these essays I’ve been trying to eke out some kind of truth or lesson or idea from the meanderings of my middle-aged mind.  Not this week.  This week it’s just my best attempt to describe a moment of sheer, crazy-inducing beauty.  

We’re standing on a frozen lake.  My cousin and I spent the morning fording a river in pack-rafts and hiking with full packs on snowshoes, six miles into the Wilderness.  The lake creates a long valley –  more of a canyon really, running east/west for around three miles. We made it to our camp spot in the early afternoon and spent the next few hours setting up an amazing winter camp.   The sun is setting at the foot of the lake, while we’re closer to its head on the north side.  

The mountains like sentinels.

With only a few hours of light left in the day we turn to building a fire near the edge of the lake in a spot where the snow will be thin under the fire, but a few feet away it is deep.  We dig chair shapes in the snow near the fire and place our foam pads on the cold surface like the most rugged La-Z-Boys imaginable.  After the hike that day, these “chairs” feel amazing.  We have a campfire, good company, snacks of various kinds and deliciousness, and the mountains opposite rear up, gleaming like giant knights in new armor made of snow and stone.  The moon, nearly full, rises through the spears of jagged cliffs into a pristine blue sky.  This is pretty. It’s also cozy, but it’s not the moment.  

Returning to the La-Z-Boy lounge after the sun finally went to bed for the night.

Exhaustion sloughs off us and we notice after a bit that we’re in the shade.  The sun has gone around the corner of the mountain.  But there’s a line on the lake ice, clear as day, where the sun still shines while retreating.  We decide to put down bags of trail mix and jerky and go follow the sun set across the lake.  

A few steps take us to the line.  Of course, we’ve all seen the sun set before, but this line where the switch takes place – slicing from cool blues and cold to bright yellow and warm is unusually compelling.  Day and night are in a dance – retreat, advance, retreat, advance.  It hasn’t snowed in a few days, so the ice has been blown mostly free of snow.  On the shore, post-holing into 18 inches of snow is how you get from the tent to a place to pee.  On the lake, it’s scrubbed clean with a rough wind-blown texture, which makes following the sunset easy.  It’s ironic that the very most beautiful moment of a weekend that was generally characterized by struggle is also the easiest moment of the trip.

The line between day and night. Which must be followed.

If all this weren’t enough, the ice of the lake was also singing.  We figured the ice was around ten inches thick, but the day had been warm, and the ice was cracking and shifting subtly beneath our feet.  This created periodic thwommm sounds which were shaped and amplified as though in the sound chamber of an ancient Spanish guitar by the natural acoustics of the canyon.  The effect was beyond magical.

And then we stumbled on it.  The river of fire.  Some weeks or days before a single cross country skier had transected the lake.  In doing so, they compressed the snow where their track was.  Compression made that little track both smooth and resistant to the forces which eroded the snow around it.  The sun was setting, relative to us, right at the western end of where the track disappeared into perspective.  

Two thirds of the way across the lake, already soaked from head to toe in mind-numbing beauty, we discovered the track.  

It’s probably hubris to try and describe how beautiful a moment that was, and the photos are cool, but don’t do it justice.  We’d already had an amazing day, and the night would continue to impress with giant sparks of firelight wrestling with Orion for supremacy in the cold night sky.  Later we would hear the low mournful howl of wolves echoing through the canyon from far away.  We would feed my cousin’s portable wood stove in a repetition of millenia-old night fire tending rituals.  There would be stories of love and loss and The. Most. Delicious. Ramen. Ever.  But that moment, when the river of fire overtook us as the sun raced to bed, stands out in stark relief.

It took me three days to physically recover from how taxing this trip was, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.  It stands out as one of the most personally moving times of my life.  To my dear, dear cousin who put up with my smoke-stuffed up nose – he recalls my snoring in the night was, “like I was fighting with sleep itself,” my slowness on the trail, my physical ailments, and all the other things he put up with to drag my sorry ass out there, I extend my deepest gratitude.  He is a person of such quality unlike any other and I feel truly humbled and honored to know him.

And like that morning so many years ago, I have commanded my neurons to permanently record the event.  I will hold it close to my bones and seek comfort there, and may it be my last breath that ever compels me to let it go.

All that’s left of my F&SF magazine collection. It was neat.

Fair Police

A while back, my mother made a collection of aphorisms that my grandmother knew, or had heard from her mother.  There were around two hundred of them.  They are wonderfully old-fashioned and marvelously saccharine.  I don’t know if it’s the times, or what, but I’m sure I wouldn’t know that many.  Among them, one has stuck out for me:  “If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours back.”  This feels true, but I don’t know if it is always true.  Some losses feel so potent, we’d wish them away in a heartbeat.   

What I can say is that I am a very, very lucky parent.  I know this deep in my bones.  Like any family, ours has challenges and we face frustrations every day.  And like everyone, I face a great many challenges in my own life.  I acknowledge that not every problem is a “first-world problem,” and that many which get griped about on social media truly are.  Again, I’m not here to judge.  

The following essay is an examination of one kind of frustration, and is not intended to judge, or compare other people’s challenges, or even to compare among my own challenges.  It is not my intention to indict what other families do.  It is simply something I’m thinking about right now.  Okay, disclaimer over.  Here’s the essay.

One of the things we spend the most time and energy on in my household is: The Rules.  It was many years ago that the invocation of the “Fair Police” came to be.  To the great consternation of those in charge, when the Fair Police showed up, suddenly everything had to be fair.  The Fair Police spawned much gnashing of teeth, rending of garments, terrible puns, and general discord because, of course, life isn’t fair, and no parent can dole out justice in a completely fair manner.  The Fair Police are a plague upon this house and are swatted away wherever practicable.  Yet, the specter of unfairness swirls in the hallways and corridors of this gentle domicile like the unwanted several-day-old after-smell of a dispatched skunk.   

Fairness, as an idea, seeps into every corner of our lives.  My youngest typically goes straight to pointing out things that aren’t fair.  My oldest has adopted a hyper-stoic posture about fairness in which he will routinely say with blithe matter-of-fact teenage sarcasm that, “It just doesn’t matter, it’s not fair and that’s the way it is.  We just have to accept it.”  He doesn’t yet grasp the subtlety that by saying things like this, he is in fact still invoking the Fair Police – perhaps more so than if he was just out and out whining.  

Nowhere is there more invocation of the Fair Police than around the dreaded ScreenTime.  As the kids have gotten older, ScreenTime has become an ever more urgent topic for the Fair Police to consider.  Other kids get unlimited ScreenTime, don’t you know?  It’s not fair, we got ScreenTime yesterday, but not today.  Can we pleeeeeease have more ScreenTime.  My favorite is when they offer the “carrot” that if I relent, I won’t have to deal with whining any more.  Sooooo problematic.  Recently it got so bad that my youngest, in response to a school assignment in which he was tasked with writing a short persuasive essay, wrote a whole paper on why they should be allowed 20 minutes of ScreenTime each and every day.  It was his best writing to date, and he clearly put his whole heart and soul into it.

Which isn’t to say that we’re Luddites here at Casa Cummings.  We watch movies and TV together all the time.  The microwave popcorn spawning undiscovered ecosystems in the corners of my couch are testament to the amount of time we spend watching screens.  But, in my humble estimation, there’s a difference between watching the latest Marvel movie together as a family in the living room with seltzers and popcorn and my child up in a room somewhere playing endless iterations of Balloon Tower Defense.  Call me old fashioned.

What to do?  

On the one hand, 20 minutes of unfettered (though parentally monitored) personal ScreenTime seems more than reasonable.  On the other, I think beating your head against the wall would be a better use of time than Balloon Tower Defense.  Still.  I’m no stranger to wasting time on video games.  Far from it.  When I was 14, I could beat the whole game of Metroid on the original NES in 45 minutes flat.  Is Balloon Tower Defense any worse than defeating King Hippo on Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out?  Something in me says that it is, but I can’t seem to find any logical explanation as to why…

One of the things that came with the Fair Police was a proclivity to strictly and literally interpret the Rules.  This seems to be an inherent attribute that children develop – especially eldest children.  My mother recounts that when we were kids, she asked my brother to please stop banging on the table, his reply was to immediately start banging the table from the underside.  Hilarious, I’m sure.

So the problem is two-fold.  First, do I allow the requested ScreenTime?  Okay, okay, I relent.  To my dear children, if you must waste life’s minutes defending your tower, so be it.  The bigger problem, however, is how do I implement The Rules in such a way as to avoid a visit from the Fair Police?  It occurred to me that there is a profession for which a kind of language exists to prevent just such abuses.  Why, that would be the legal profession.  

My father was an attorney, and by all accounts a very skilled one.  He was a master of language which precluded misinterpretation and accounted for all variables.  As a younger person, it was impossible not to notice the detritus of his life, surrounded as he was by briefs, discoveries, memos, injunctions, depositions, not to mention the volumes and volumes of Montana Code Annotated my brother and I moved in the days before the internet when his office changed locations.   Since I was small I have always been amazed at the language lawyers used.  It’s so . . . weird.  But also kind of marvelous.  

I’m not an attorney, and as far as I know I don’t need to be a member of the bar to attempt to use some of this language to outline the rules around ScreenTime in my house. I just thought it would be fun to try.  Also, my inner draconian loves this.

Article II

All residents not yet of the age of majority as outlined by the laws of the State of Montana and who reside at the domicile whose physical location is: __(my house)__ shall be entitled to twenty (20) minutes of ScreenTime per calendar day.

Definitions:  ScreenTime shall be defined as time spent with a personal digital device such as, but not limited to, tablets, smart phones, desktop computers, laptops, or televisions, and will pertain to any activity which engages the visual senses.  

General provisions:

  1. Homework & Studying:  Overriding preference shall be given to the completion of homework and studying for exams, quizzes, or other scholastic tests of knowledge. 
  1. Family Events:  Overriding preference shall be given to the attendance of family events.
  1. Chores:  Overriding preference shall be given to the completion of any and all assigned chores whether such chores are assigned verbally or in written list form.
  1. Privilege:  Article II is designated as a privilege and may be revoked at any time for cause by, and only by, the head of household.
  1. Screen mirroring:  Screen mirroring or otherwise projecting ScreenTime shall be allowed at the discretion of the head of household.
  1. Educational Activities:  Time spent on screens utilized for the purposes of participating in educational activities such as, but not limited to, remote learning activities, typing practice or Math 180, shall not apply to the 20 minute allotment outlined in Article II.
  1. Shared Family ScreenTime:  ScreenTime as part of family time shall not infringe on the 20 minute allotment outlined in Article II.
  1. Time keeping:  Residents of this household shall use a timer or other reasonable method for keeping track of their ScreenTime.  Time shall be kept on the “honor system.”  Abuse of the “honor system” shall result in the revocation of Article II.
  1. Transferability:  ScreenTime is available upon the day it is issued, and shall not roll over to subsequent days.  ScreenTime is issued to individuals only and may not be shared, traded, bought, sold, or otherwise transferred between individuals.
  1. Auditory use:  Auditory applications such as, but not limited to, music or podcasts will not carry time limitations.
  1. Head of Household:  Final jurisdiction for arbitration of any and all disputes regarding the applicability and implementation of any and all provisions contained within Article II shall lie with, and only with, the head of household. 

Lessons of Catan

What things cost in Settlers of Catan.

Dim yellow propane lamps bounce 19th century rays of soft light around wooden logs of the little cabin I’m sharing with four other large dudes.  The antiquated atmosphere seems to accentuate how dark and cold it is outside.  We’ve just finished a giant, thoroughly scrumptious pot of chicken chili.  A crackling wood fire sends essential heat to the occupants of this cabin, but also dries multitudes of paraphernalia hanging from well-placed nails in the rafters. Each nail holds the damp detritus of gear towed by sled over nine miles, up a thousand feet, by cross-country skis into the back country near the North Fork of the Flathead River.  The cabin is small, cozy, luxuriant.  

I’m sitting at a wooden picnic table in front of a travel-sized version of Settlers of Catan waiting patiently as our fearless leader, who brought the game – generously packed those nine miles into the wilderness – explains the rules and offers advice to the uninitiated.   The rules of Catan are multitude, but I’ve played a million, million times, and I think I probably have a good shot at taking the game.  I break into his explanatory exposition, exhorting to the noobs how critically important initial settlement selection is.  Our leader nods sagely.  He is a patient man.  He continues his diatribe on the finer points of trading sheep for wood, and etc.  The game is about to begin.  

I would take a moment to briefly, and vaguely, so as not to incriminate anyone other than perhaps myself, mention the existence of grown-up imbibements at this juncture.  This is not an aspect of the game I have ever navigated when playing with my children, but that’s the thing about grown-up imbibements, they often convince us in the moment we’re something we may not be.  Never-the-less, I feel ready.  The amber glow of everything acts like a sedative, but I’m pretty sure, given a decent set of starting conditions, I can win Catan in my sleep, so we’re good, I convince myself.

I get the roll to start the settlement selection process.  Going first isn’t great, because it also means I have to go last for the second pick.  Pros and cons flit in and out of my mind.  To this point, my own personal beliefs about Catan have been that the initial starting locations of your settlements pretty much determines the outcome of the game.  It’s generally a resources game.  More resources equals winning.

Then, just as I’m about to place my first settlement, our leader, and Catan host, says something that I will not be able to shake.  ‘Here’s another piece of advice,’ he says.  ‘Don’t fight what the game is giving you.’

He means, if the resources you’re accumulating suggest a certain course of action, follow it, don’t fight it, holding out for some resource you think you need but aren’t getting.  Don’t hold out for something you’re not getting.  Holy crap.  If I had a nickel . . .

I’m thrown back to a different time, bending low over a row of cruciferous vegetables searching for big answers and also a podcast to pass the time, and landing on an amazing episode of Freakonomics where the hosts of that show discuss the concept of the Fallacy of Sunk Costs.  Essentially, this idea says you shouldn’t evaluate your future decisions based on how much time/effort/money/etc you’ve sunk into whatever it is you’re deciding about.  Be future looking.  Be honest.  I take a good hard look at the broccoli.  

I realize that not fighting what the game is giving you is a version of this – though much more compact, more relatable as advice.  It means that if you are getting a bunch of sheep, wheat, and ore, even if you’ve invested several turns in the attempt, stop trying to build settlements (which need wood and brick) and start buying development cards (which need exactly one sheep, one wheat, and one ore).  Before this game, I would have given this line of action very short shrift.  Almost no one wins by buying a bunch of development cards.  

I slowly build my empire.  Six points, then seven, then eight.  I can get to nine on the next turn.  Meanwhile, our leader is following his own advice.  He buys development card after development card.  I think this is imprudent, but I try not to be a dick about it.  Now he has the largest army (2 points) while the thief is in almost permanent residence on my properties, cutting off my resource flow.  

I’m taken back again to a different time, when I was on the high school policy debate squad.  A few years before my time, an extraordinary duo from my high school went all the way to final rounds at nationals.  There is a legendary (apocryphal?) story of a round of debate in which this duo, arguing on the negative side, ran into an affirmative case that was so incredibly esoteric and just out there, that they had almost nothing in their toolbox with which to fight it.  Their ultimate triumph came from following this very rule – don’t fight what the game is giving you.  They ditched everything except ‘topicality’ which is an argument that the other team loses because they aren’t debating the prescribed topic.  A brilliant, if risky, move.  Also an ultimately a successful one.

All of which is much like the outcome of our game of Catan.  Whether it’s the soporifics of substance or ambiance, or whether it is simply pride, it comes as a surprise to me when our leader, who had “squandered” his precious resources repeatedly buying development cards, claims victory at 10 points.  What a great lesson.  Don’t fight what the game is giving you.

I roll over and over this now as I think about the business I’m starting – what are the skills and talents I have that I love to use?  I mull what the game is giving me as I think about my dad going into a care facility and what that means for me and my family.  I think about the relationships in my life that have come and gone – what was I holding onto that the game was telling me to let go of?   And I look at my beautiful children and wonder what I might have to offer as a parent that I can lean into instead of trying to make up for the mistakes I’ve made.  

Ultimately, I think not fighting what the game gives is about grace and bravery.  It’s about having grace for yourself and others when things don’t go how you planned/expected/hoped, and having the bravery to move into the space you do occupy. Read what the game has handed you, and fully own it – be brave enough to redefine what success actually means and to redefine the paths to that success. Then put your shoulder into that path.   In my life I’ve always subscribed to the kind of paths to success Olympic swimmers embody.  Push with relentless persistence and hope for the best.  A better way, perhaps, is to learn to pivot to something that fits better.  I’m not a great pivoter, I have always resisted change, but I’m not that old a dog – there’s always time to grow and improve.  

All of which isn’t to say that unbounded persistence is necessarily bad.  Brute force resource accumulation did get me to that ninth point, which isn’t a slack game of Catan, but not before the player who leaned into what the game was giving them got to ten.        

Receiving a fifth place medal in the 100 yd backstroke from an actual Olympic gold medalist swimmer in 1996. About the highest I ever achieved as a competitive swimmer.