A Perfect Assortment

ee4557f0-f92e-4888-9251-de3eda0ad3ed-Robot

Soon your Festivus list will include “Robot”.

Oh, the quandary!

Which piece will you choose to add to the Monopoly cast? Now’s the chance! Hasbro, in a rare combination of profit-mongering and democracy, is steering its monkeying of a venerable game through public demand. Your vote decides which of the five contenders is added. Will you choose the guitar, the robot, the diamond ring, the cat, or the helicopter?

No contest. The robot wins. Look at his little mustache!

Alas, there is a balance to life. With birth comes death, and so the public faces a far more torturous decision: which distinguished piece will, ahem, make room for the addition?

Oh, Monopoly!

The problem in choosing to kill off a piece is that it’s hard to know what merits elimination. The eight classic Monopoly pieces show no pattern or system; it’s hard to fathom what made the original game designers choose these things from all the objects in the universe. The battleship, the car, the Scottie dog, the top hat, the old shoe, the iron, the wheelbarrow, and the thimble. A perfect assortment of whatever. None of them belong together, so I could never see them apart.

I never chose the wheelbarrow as my piece, especially as a kid, because its three-pointed stance makes it the most difficult piece to keep upright and pointed down-range. (I demanded a certain order to the world as a child. Still do, really.) But my peculiarities are hardly reason to vote for axing the little pewter drunkard. I kind of admire its happy-go-lucky, lay-here-if-I-want-to approach to traversing a square, square world. It’s as good as any other. The wheelbarrow, that is, but maybe the approach, too.

The thing about Monopoly is that it’s an inherently cruel game, so tempers are bound to flare and passions are going to swell and strong memories will most surely attach to the pieces rammed into family members’ eye sockets. In college I learned about so-called European style board games–like the Settlers of Catan–where all the players remain in the game and competitive until a winner is decided. They’re a ton of fun, and I’m glad they’re catching on more in the States. I majored in drinking and playing Settlers one semester. Monopoly is a decidedly American game. Only one player can emerge victorious, and to do so requires crushing the other players with real estate savvy and fortunate dice rolls. C’mon, folks, that’s guaranteed to hurt some feelings.

It’s American in another way: there are always unwritten rules. Every house plays with a slightly different set of rules, like whether you pay the fine before or after rolling to get out of jail, and when properties can change hands, and how quickly the next player can roll if someone should be demanding rent from the next player but that someone is in the kitchen making nachos for everyone. Every game is as much a political battle as it is a board game. Ah, America!

What, you say your family played it with smiling faces and a rule book handy? Bullshit.

We called it Family Game Night. This was back at the first house I can remember, the house on Greenwood Drive. With the enormous trees in all the yards; a glorious place to be a kid. I suppose we’re talking third grade, give or take. On alternating weekends Mr. Rick and his kids would come over and the dads would watch football or do whatever dads do while Ben and I would talk Orioles and compare baseball cards. Ben’s parents were the first I knew who divorced. And on the other weekends, on Sundays, we’d sit down and play a game together. Those game nights are the last memory I have of my–there should be a word for this, maybe “birthfamily”?–of all the people in my immediate family when I was born–sitting together, trying to love each other.

Sometimes we’d mix it up, a couple rounds of Mall Madness or a spin at The Game of Life. But for the few months Family Game Night lasted, the game of choice was Monopoly. $1500 to each player, choose your piece, roll the dice to see who goes first. Simple tasks on paper but far more difficult in execution. Who will give out the money? One of the players, one of those money-hungry, real estate-snatching, hotel-slavering players will sit in front of all the money in the game world, and he won’t occasionally slide a third hundo into his hands when he passes Go? Bullshit. Getting the banking job can set up a player for an easy victory in the right hands, so it’s not to be given up lightly.

I recall my brother Joe wanting to do the fun things that older brothers do on Sunday night, and hating being forced to play games with his dorky family. My parents would appease him by making him the banker, and I’ll be damned if he ever finished below par in a game. Just sayin’. He would choose the race car, I think because he wanted to get away.

Gamesmanship runs in the family. Back in high school I would carry Monopoly money in my wallet. It came in surprisingly useful. I never needed to tap into it while playing Monopoly, but I probably played a much bolder game with the safety net.  And it had plenty of other purposes. My junior year I ran a brisk exchange in souls, and Monopoly money with a name penciled in made excellent vouchers for the hereafter. The gambit was simple: I’d offer some small but significant sum for someone’s soul, no more than a buck, and we’d create a bearer instrument on the Monopoly bank note–to the holder goes the soul. Free chocolate milk money, right? But nine out of ten would have trouble sleeping that night knowing they’d signed away their possible heavenly future for a song. (My sales pitch might’ve been a tad over the top.) The kid would come back, dollar in hand, asking for his soul back, but the soul market is volatile. They always trade higher the next day. I’d demand a fiver. I won’t say how many ponied up.

Gamesmanship, unfortunately, must’ve come from my mother’s side. My dad called it “playing cutthroat,” as in, “It’s no fun when you two play all god damn cutthroat,” referring to me and Joe. Like I said, Monopoly is a cruel game.  To eventually get a winner, people have to start losing. It’s a basic principle of business: you must crush your competition and steal their assets to take on ever-larger competition. Halliburton, at least, but I dare you to call them unsuccessful.

My sister, usually playing with the dog, would invariably waste her money on low-percentage properties. She always liked the Chance card that read “Take a ride on the Reading!” so she’d buy up all the railroads she could, never learning they’re poor investments. She always lost, but we were awful to her. We’d try and encourage her to trade away the properties we needed to complete a set for a random sets of shiny bullshit and cash, knowing it was never enough to make up for what we’d steal back in rent on the improved properties. She, just in fifth grade, had a little trouble seeing as far through the game’s sequences as the boys. Gamesmanship!  But then she’d start losing, tears would start flowing, and my dad would be furious. Those days he was never far from fury. I blame the DC commutes.

It didn’t help that our family rules created wild swings of fortune. Free Parking, by the rule book, is simply a place to rest your piece for a turn. Some houses like to put the fines paid from Chance and Community Chest cards into a pot in the center of the board, the proceeds to whoever lands on Free Parking. That wasn’t nearly enough for my family–What if you hit Free Parking on the first turn? So we’d sweeten the pot with $500. Every time Free Parking was emptied. Sometimes the pot would swell to more than the starting money, once players started building improvements and getting hit with taxes. A pauper to a prince with a roll of the dice. Whoever hit that kind of windfall could build hotels and squeeze the other players of every white and pink dollar. Strategy didn’t mean bupkis when piles of Monopoly money were involved. A very American game.

I feel the worst for my mom about the whole thing. I think Family Game Night was her idea, and she really wanted it to be a success. We’re all really interesting people, we five, and I think my mom hoped it would come out in us about a decade sooner than it did. At the very least, she wanted Family Game Night to be a lasting memory. That’s probably why we kept trying as long as we did. I can’t remember a pleasant round. I’m sure there were some nights that didn’t end in tears and accusations, but those two things are most of what comes to mind, and I wasn’t trying to remember.

Sold in China under the name “Stress Spike”.

A year later, sitting on couches in the family shrink’s office, we three kids would play Topple. It’s a balancing game. A five-by-five grid stands balanced on a post, and the players add chips to the grid until the whole thing topples. There’s some sort of point to it, but I don’t remember that part. What I remember is Joe and Emily putting their chips on extreme edges, trying to overbalance the thing. I’d use my turn every time to undo their damage.

At 9 years old, I didn’t get why they would play that way. Why try to ruin the game? Why did I have to waste my turn just so these jerks could keep screwing it up? It never occurred to me that I’d become the game. In family sessions, when we were supposed to talk about the game and other things, I’d pull my sweater over my head and ignore what was happening. Tried to, at least.

The family was breaking up over those years, although it took its sweet time circling the drain. It wasn’t until just after Christmas in seventh grade that the parents pulled the plug on their marriage. We reacted to the news more honestly than we will react to anything else in our lives. Joe stormed down to his room in the basement and punched a hole in his door. Emily shut herself in her bedroom and called her friends. I sat exactly where I was for the rest of the day and into the night. I just didn’t feel like getting up anymore.

The family market is as volatile as the soul market, forever inflating. One ended. More began. My dad lives alone, but he’s not lonely; he’ll be fine. My mom remarried and seems to have found some measure of peace. Emily married Jesus. Joe found himself a wife and started a little family; my niece is adorable. I’m immensely happy for all of them. It’s making the holidays a little challenging though, especially this year.

I was born into a family of five people. One by one they drifted apart and found new people to make memories with and find comfort in; this seems the way of things. I’m still on the market. I haven’t found a new family yet, and the family I love the most, the family I remember best, has been gone for more than half my life. And what’s more, I can’t change. When I think family, I see five faces. And my last memories of that family together are these memories of us playing games.

The problem in killing off a family is that it’s hard to know what merits elimination. Our lives together show no pattern or system; it’s hard to fathom what made the Original Game Designers choose these things from all the objects in the universe. A perfect assortment of whatever. None of us belong together, so I could never see us apart.

Ah, hell with it. Get rid of the wheelbarrow.

“Men advice – w4m – 29”

I work second shift, which means most nights I’m kicking off my shoes around midnight-thirty. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for hanging with friends, but it does allow me a few quiet hours at night to contemplate the deeper mysteries of life.

Or, as is more often the case, I reply to random ads in the Strictly Platonic section on craigslist. Like this one:

I am trying to avoid a messy situation. I talk to 2 men…one is an ex and that I use to date long ago that I was in love with but we were young and he was an asshole so we broke up we were together off and on for 4 years. The other person is someone who was my frd ard the sme time and always liked me. He is a good guy..the type of guy that will marry you and treat you good. But I am not physically attracted to him…he is cute but no chemistry. My ex..is the opposite I really want to have sex with him which is the only reason i contacted him to be honest but then he stated he wanted to be with me. I dont want to hurt my frd I really want to be with my ex but I dont know if a guy that can get soooo many girls is ready to settle down…and I want to give the nice guy a chance bc I have never dated nice guys…both are 30 y/o. Any advice

Well color me interested. I opened a beer and offered this horrible advice:

Hi! I think it’s astonishing that you’re asking for advice on craigslist, and I can’t imagine the range of replies you’re getting, but the idea was too intriguing not to play.

So, again, hi. I’m Dan. I’m a lawyer, philosopher, and pickler. None of those lend me any skill for helping you out, but I’ll give it a try anyways.

Let me see if I can sum up the problem: Two guys. One you’ve got history with and want to fuck senselessly. He wants to “be with” you. He’s of questionable moral character. The other guy is really into you, has been waiting for a while, but he doesn’t make your nether bits tingle. An outstanding gentleman. Two immediate questions: What does “be with” mean–are we talking just sex, or sex plus relationship and commitment? And the nice guy, have you, um, given him a test drive just to be sure?
Those are my uncertainties before I dispense advice. I’m also gathering from your age, your mention of marriage, your implications of settling down, and your rather random cry for help on craigslist of all places that you’re the honest, commitment-before-humping sort. I’d like to discourage you from this. Don’t think I’m advocating random slutting, but more a limited easing of restrictions. Sleep with the good guys. You pick which are the good ones. What’s a relationship anyways, when breaking one’s as easy as never calling again? Men are always liars where women are concerned. Forget calling it anything; you feel how you feel, and that’s that, even if you sometimes feel like doing things your mother would disapprove of–that’s called having fun.

You’ve known this gentlemanly guy for years and think he’s cute and he’s totally into you. GET WITH HIM! but don’t get clingy. The only way to know if it’s any good between the two of you is to have an honest look. And, in the words of Outkast, sex is always better when there’s feelings involved. So give him a shot. Let him show you his A-Game, and let yourself enjoy it. Guys like taking beautiful women out and showing them a good time, I promise. Be decent; only make out on the first date, but give it up on the second (time’s a-wasting, right?). Then you’ll know.

As for the sexy bastard, well, you’ve been on and off for years. You can be off a little while longer, undoubtedly, and still pick right back up where you left off at your leisure. In the meantime, if he’s the man-whore you describe, I don’t see why you couldn’t call him up before midnight some random night, head over to his place, and ride him until you can’t breathe anymore. That’s assuming you’re not all picky about having to be his girlfriend first.

One other argument for sleeping with everyone in this story: Sex is a whole lot of fun. And I think you agree. Why not do it often then, especially with good people? I suppose you’re worrying about hurting people. I don’t fully understand this objection. Let’s play the worst-case scenario out–you go out with the gentleman; hell, you sleep with the gentleman; it doesn’t go well; he wants to keep trying but you’re disinclined to continue. Well, that’s exactly how things are right now, isn’t it? Follow through with my advice and you’ll at least get a couple nights out and another excellent reason to keep it just friends. We’re all adults here, right? Sticking one dirty part into another doesn’t magically erase friendships; being weird about it does that.

As for the sexy bastard getting hurt? Sister, players done get played. Worst case scenario: he’s devastated to hear you’ve been around with another guy, then gets crazy jealous and weird. Well, if he’s truly a decent guy–and I’m being Ricki Lake serious here, by the way–he’ll drink a beer, smoke a bowl and have a long talk with himself about how it feels when the one he loves messes around with other people. And maybe be less of a man-whore for it. Otherwise, if he just stays a dick, he’s better off relocating to the Jersey Shore.

There were two pop references in that last paragraph. Forgive me; I think I do it because I’m getting old.

I imagine this was of little help. Here’s hoping you got some benefit from it. Good luck, brave little viking! Write me back if things turn out interesting.
With kind regards,
Danderson.
Hi Mom! I love you, you did a wonderful job, and I’m not your fault.
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Mona Lisa Paint-by-Numbers

According to the site stats, at least a few people check here every day, presumably looking for something new. Whoever you are, thank you. It’s nice to be read. I’ve added a button to the top of the page; my contact information is there. If you feel inclined to write, I welcome the correspondence.

Also available on a velvet backing.

Lately I’ve had a sort of thought experiment running in my head. I call it Mona Lisa Paint-by-Numbers. Mostly it’s just a series of questions; pinning down the answers is the experimental part, I guess. It goes like this:

The Mona Lisa has been called “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world.” It’s a masterpiece, and Leonardo da Vinci is rightly lauded for creating it.

Let’s say on a trip to Venice you come across a small shop selling paint-by-numbers recreations of the old Italian masters. The merchant’s kits are remarkably authentic. The Mona Lisa kit, for example, contains a poplar panel and early 16th-century paints and brushes, and the kit-maker religiously numbered every hue and shade to be used and where. You buy it, take it back home to Peoria, and devote the next six years of your life to painting the Mona Lisa.

You now look on your creation. The results are pristine. The casual observer can’t tell the difference between your painting and the original, and even the experts have trouble without a microscope. Pop the champagne and put on your party hat; it’s time to celebrate. You’ve created a masterpiece. But have you?

I suppose passages like this are the philosophical equivalent of the Sanskrit om. It’s not internally meaningful (Just about anything can sound pseudo-philosophical if you ask, “Or is it?” at the end. Try it at cocktail parties!), but the act of bringing it to the front of your mind gets your head in the game. So let’s get our heads in the game.

I’m pretty sure the answer here is “No.” Recreating the Mona Lisa with a paint-by-numbers kit does not create a masterpiece. There’s a number of different reasons why that’s so, but I think the most compelling is the lack of originality. It’s why ghost writers don’t take credit for the books they write, why Milli Vanilli had to give back their Grammy,  and why we haven’t started religions based on Xerox (otherwise those damn copiers would be art machines). Sorry, man from Peoria, a copy of a masterpiece is a copy, and copies are cheap. Agreed?

Agreeing with me here is dangerous. We need to tweak the facts a bit to show why. Let’s keep the conclusion: copies are cheap. But let’s talk about climbing Mount Everest instead of painting the Mona Lisa.

Climbing Mount Everest was originally a team sport. For example, John Hunt lead the 1953 expedition which first reached the summit of Mount Everest. If that name sounds unfamiliar, it’s because Hunt never made it to the summit. He was a logistics man, more concerned about portage and provisions than sticking his head through the clouds. But without his contributions, the expedition likely never would have left base camp. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, members of Hunt’s team, were the first to reach the summit, but they weren’t the first pair from Hunt’s expedition to try. Two days before, Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans came within 100 feet of the summit before they had to turn back. When Hillary and Norgay ascended, they followed the path the Bourdillon and Evans used.

The brush strokes of climbing Everest: Hunt, Hillary, Norgay, Bourdillon, Evans, and twice again as many names history has forgotten. Each man contributed to reaching the top, even if only two men stood on the summit that year. And Hunt’s team’s efforts were not singular; they were able to succeed because they trod where others failed. All the previous teams which had tried to climb the mountain laid the groundwork for Hunt’s successful expedition. When Hillary placed his foot on the summit, every man who set foot on the mountain before him could smile.

Nowadays climbing Everest has become an individual achievement. Hikers still ascend in teams, but they are no longer drawn together by nationality or common background. Professional outfitters will, for the right price, oversee every step of the ascent. They arrange for provisions, equipment, and permits; hire sherpas to set guidelines to the top and back; and hire guides to show novice climbers the way. The combined knowledge of Hunt and his brave companions can be purchased with a check. The climb is still grueling, but the way is known and paved with creature comforts. If people fail nowadays, it’s not because they can’t find the way up (it’s marked with ropes); rather, it’s usually a personal setback, like cerebral edema or cowardice.

What, then, does it mean to summit Everest now?

I don’t ask that rhetorically. A little subtraction, I think, ought to do the job here. Let’s start with a hiker who has paid for an outfitter to take him to the top of the world. Now subtract the Hunt team’s accomplishments. Take all their knowledge, experience, and bravery, compress it into a discrete amount, and subtract it from the hiker. What remains? What has our hiker achieved? All that remains is what the hiker carries up with him. He, personally, has achieved something, but what should we care? The way our hiker measures himself isn’t how I measure myself. What he can do says nothing about what I can do. He wrote a check and did what another guy told him to do. An Everest paint-by-numbers, if you will.

Copies are cheap. Danger, Will Robinson!

Perhaps the greatest tragedy here is that it can no longer be meaningful to summit Everest. As soon as the weather clears and the summer climbing season opens on Everest, sherpas ascend the mountain and lay guide ropes for the expeditions that will bring paid hikers up the mountain. There are only so many days the summit can be reached, so the teams all pile onto the mountain as soon as they can. Traffic jams are common at bottlenecks, like the ladder below the Third Step. (Can you imagine climbing five miles up from the ground only to have to stand in line?)  Just below the summit there’s only two ways to the top, the north ridge and the south ridge, and hikers swarm both sides when weather permits. Even if you blaze a completely new trail up the mountain, you’d still have to wait for the tourists to finish on the summit before you can take a peek. If you want to see the view from the top, you have to put up with the attendant bullshit. By taking up space for personal gains, each man that pays to “achieve” something up there only makes it harder for any of them to achieve anything beyond themselves.

And while we’re dancing with ideas in rarefied air, let’s spiral this thing out of control. I’m not just talking about Everest here. How many ventures do we humans undertake strictly for personal satisfaction? Ventures that should feel meaningful, but are really as vapid as the next Kardashian reality series? I’m looking at you, cruise ship passengers and safari-goers, “eco-tourists” and “volun-tourists”. I’m not saying going on a cruise is a bad thing; just don’t confuse it for a meaningful thing. The only things you stand to gain are a tan, a gut, and duty-free liquor for your friends back home.

Maybe this is why we become so obsessed with firsts. We all intuitively recognize the subtraction as it happens. We achieve something, then think about how little that differs from someone else’s doing that same thing, and we can only wonder, “What new thing have I done?” A Danish triathlete, Mogens Jensen, spent two years trying to be the first asthmatic man to climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. As if climbing Everest with asthma wasn’t difficult enough, he wanted to handicap himself further just to prove it could be done (he failed both times). But if he ever gets to the top under his stipulated conditions, when he does the subtraction at the summit he’ll at least know something remains. He has done something new. But it’s still a personal achievement–a thing done in the face of an artificial disadvantage. I can’t regard it as a brave or adventurous feat, any more than I’d be inclined to pay for a Mona Lisa painted in Peoria.

History Lessons

My eleventh-grade history teacher was a man named Steven Sawyer. He was unique among my teachers; he was retiring soon, with a fully-vested pension, so he had absolutely nothing to lose. Maybe I got lucky; maybe he was usually a close-to-the-vest, straight-laced guy until that year I found myself in his class. Maybe he was always a bit of a rabble-rouser. What I do know is that he, more than almost any other teacher I’ve ever had, was an educator. He took it upon himself to teach the truth of the world to his students, even if that oftentimes took a peculiar form.

I remember one lesson on the Revolutionary War. He was trying to explain to us how a bunch of under-equipped, poorly-led farmers and slackers in the Hudson River Valley could somehow outfox the British infantry, the most professional fighting corp in the world at the time. He posed the problem to us, then fussed around at his desk for a few seconds pulling something on behind his back. We were stumped; the Yanks should’ve lost, we all figured. Then he stood up, wearing a hunting vest in blaze orange upon which he’d written, “SHOOT ME. I’M BRITISH.” Aha! As quick as lightning, we all understood how the Redcoats lost the Battle of Saratoga.

Eleventh grade started in 2001. You don’t need me to tell you what September felt like that year.

When school reopened, we all did our best to resume life as normal, but there were little changes–longer lines at the airport, American flags on every bumper, and a Ben Franklin quote that appeared on the side chalkboard in Mr. Sawyer’s room: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Over the years I’ve learned that the biggest moments never feel big when you experience them. September 11th felt like any other day where we got sent home early; 24/7 news coverage of a pile of New York rubble quickly desensitized me to the gravity of the day. Terrorism didn’t mean anything, at least not right after it happened. Now, more than a decade later, I see no shame in tearing up when I think about that morning, both for the lives lost and for the way the world changed in its wake. Which makes me even more amazed that Mr. Sawyer picked that quote to put on his board.

He never talked about the quote. He was kind, delicate even, when we first started class; other teachers were borderline mawkish, talking the Twin Towers into the ground again. As it happened, we had been in his class when the announcement about the attacks came overhead. So he looked at us–and I mean looked, taking a good long time to meet eyes with everyone in the room–and said that we would remember exactly where we sat when we heard that announcement for the rest of our lives. I was two rows from the front, first seat in the row, sitting next to Ashley Borgess and her school-renowned whale tail. Someone in class asked, “What happens next?” He pointed to the side board, waited a proper minute, then started class.

Like I said, it’s hard to know you’re in the middle of something big when it happens. A century from now, September 11th will be reduced to a single date in the history books. But we that lived it know that we’re still living it, still coming to grips with the world that came after. When Mr. Sawyer picked up the chalk, he couldn’t know what was about to happen, from two wars fought on credit against an ethereal enemy to the largest restriction of civil rights since our country’s founding, before anyone but Afghanis could pick out Kabul on a map, and before a bipartisan Congress passed the Patriot Act. When we still looked to institutions of public trust with trust. Mr. Sawyer was a smart man–one of the smartest I’ve met–but he couldn’t know all that would happen because a few assholes with guns and planes didn’t like us. Except I think he did, or at least he was smart enough to know we should be more worried about our reactions to jihad than to jihad itself. And he tried to tell us the only way he knew how: through history. 

But this isn’t really a post about September 11th; I only bring it up to bolster my assertion that Mr. Sawyer was a damn fine educator. What I really wanted to write about was something Mr. Sawyer said a few months later.

I can’t remember exactly when or why he said it; let’s just assume it was some time during February (sometimes called “Black History Month”). That’d be fitting. But it may have been January or March or any other month (“White History Months”). There must’ve been some news event which made him speak up, but I can’t imagine what. It must’ve been a first of some kind. The way they measure them–the first black president, the first female executive at a Fortune 500 company, the first legless Indonesian man to summit Kilimanjaro–there’s always firsts. Well, Mr. Sawyer hears this information, gets that same gleam in his eye as when he pointed to the side board, and tells the class, “You know, I dream of the day there are no more firsts.

But that’s all. No explanation.

I gave his words as much thought as a hormone-filled teenager can give when the girl next to him is constantly bending forward and revealing her thong. Besides, there was a certain obviousness to Mr. Sawyer’s words so that it didn’t take much thinking to get to the bottom of it. I, too, dreamed of a day when there were no firsts. We’ve made great strides in the past decade, between electing our first black president and sending the first person to the bottom of the Marianas Trench; not bad for a generation of slackers, right? Keep it up long enough, and we’ll be well on our way to an end of firsts. After all, as Tenzing Norgay and Buzz Aldrin can tell you, no one gives two shits about the second guy to do anything. I used to think, particularly because of Mr. Sawyer’s words, that we humans ought to be proud of all that we’ve managed to achieve in firsts. 

Except now, a decade later, I’m pretty sure I got it completely wrong. He wasn’t talking about spreading achievement across broader demographics; he was really trying to convince us to stop counting. There will always be an unachieved first. As of this writing, there has never been a Chinese man on the moon, a female American president, or an arm-less handball champion. Doing these things, alone, will not make the world a better place. (And before you feminists get up in arms, I ask you–what if John McCain had been elected, then died, and Sarah Palin took his job? Could you really call that an achievement? At the very least, you’d need to create am unfilled category for first competent female president.) Diversity is just an idea. It’s neither good nor bad. There’s no reason for this to become the guiding principle of our civilization, except right now it is. 

I’m passing on a lot of important questions here. If diversity isn’t worth much, what should we strive for? Hell, I don’t know. I could write volumes about achievement but never come to any conclusions. But if you ask a Mr. Sawyer, either Tom or Steven, I think he’d give you the only answer possible: It’s whatever. Strive for something. It doesn’t matter what, so long as it’s something you picked for yourself. It’s when we let other folks tell us what’s important that this whole train starts to leave the tracks. 

Of course, in another decade I may flip again and hold with my original interpretation. No matter. What does matter is that I think about it. That you think about it. See, that’s what great educators do–they make us think, about ourselves and our values and how all that fits in with the larger world.

With two sentences, Mr. Sawyer brought my entire world into question. Even more to his credit, he never tried to supply answers to my questions. He was an educator, one of the finest I’ve known, and for that I remember him here. The world could use a few more Sawyers, whether Toms or Stevens; I don’t see much difference. 

This I Pray

Well, I just finished the Virginia bar exam. It took eight years of higher education and a summer of studying to get there, so I suppose now’s as good a time as any to gather my wits and take stock of where I am right now. So I’m going to write about something I don’t often talk about–prayer.

A few weeks back I told my confessor–that’s Hillary, by the way, and it should be recorded somewhere on the Internet that she is wonderful–that I only had one prayer. Now that I count them all up though, it turns out I have three.

Growing up, particularly before my folks split, we made an effort to have dinners together as a family. There were five of us, my parents plus me and my brother Joe and my sister Emily. Ours was an old-school situation: we kept no TV in the dining room, and the kids were expected to ask permission before leaving the table. My old man did the cooking, largely because my mom worked nights as a psych nurse. And whether dinner was fish sticks, Hamburger Helper, potato soup, or hot dogs, we’d offer up a prayer before eating. (This was back when we all went to mass at the Catholic church on Sundays.) Our nightly pre-meal prayer was the Serenity Prayer.

We called it “saying grace.” As in, “Dan, will you say grace before dinner?” Years later I would learn the Serenity Prayer is the preferred prayer of recovering addicts, but for us five Andersons, it was our daily moment of grace.   I repeat it here for posterity, plus I imagine typing a prayer’s just as good as saying it or praying it:

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Your will, not ours, be done.

That last sentence is an Anderson family addition. The original prayer, I believe, contains a second, more florid stanza that talks about submitting to the will of God and all that. We Andersons were always a more direct sort so we summarize it in six words.

Our family grace, well, it wasn’t much like the grace I heard other families say before meals. I’d dine with friends from the church and hear all kinds of varieties, from the profane (“Good food, good meat; good God, let’s eat!”) to the venerated (“Bless us o Lord, and these thy gifts…”), but I never heard anything like ours. Our grace didn’t even mention food. As a painfully self-conscious kid, I was distinctly aware that our words were different from their words. I’d get right embarrassed when friends’ parents would ask me to say grace before dinner, always worried that our prayer devoid of food would be thought inappropriate. As a kid, how could I know just how beautiful our family prayer really was?

Hear something enough and the words have a way of sticking with you. My old man used to always tell me I was smart enough to be anything I wanted to be if I put my mind to it. Maybe he was right, maybe he was wrong, but now as an adult I’m convinced that nothing is beyond my capability. It may be folly, but it’s folly I embrace. Every night of my childhood, we sat at the dinner table and asked The Great Whatever for serenity, courage, wisdom, and humility. Some of it might’ve stuck.

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I also pray to a saint, Saint Joseph of Cupertino. Wikipedia notes that St. Joe was known to have been “remarkably unclever,” which in turn has made him the patron saint of test-takers and made me take an immediate liking to the ‘tard. See, old St. Joe had some sort of learning disability (he lived in the 17th century, before they learned to spell dyslexia), and it made his theological studies awfully tough. So when he studied, he’d focus on a small portion of the text and pray that’s what he was tested on. The story, as I learned when I was a kid, was that on the day of his examination to enter a religious order, he could only remember a single verse of the Bible from nerves and difficulty learning. But when the head of the order picked a verse for St. Joe to recite, he picked the one verse St. Joe knew.

Take it all with a grain of salt, of course. Saints need to perform several miracles to be canonized, and Saint Joseph’s other miracles included being able to fly whenever he was overcome with religious fervor. So he may have just been a lucky nutjob for all I know.

I don’t have a particular form to this prayer. I just close my eyes, think of what I know, and ask that the test be a fair assessment of it. Occasionally I’ll mention St. Joe by name, but I get the feeling it doesn’t matter all that much. I mean, I’m not Catholic anymore, so it’s at least odd to pray to a Catholic saint still; I’m not certain he’s even taking my calls. Hell, lately I’m not even sure it’s possible for God (if we want to put a name on the Whatever) to directly interfere with an already-created universe and not, in some fashion, completely break the laws of science. As they haven’t been abrogated just yet, I doubt we’re likely to see God’s hands on the controls.

But here’s the thing: I believe miracles are possible. Science has made incredible progress in charting the complexities of the universe and describing what we know in quantitative terms. But if you add up everything science can tell us, we’re still ignorant of vast areas which, with current means, simply cannot be explained. I have questions that defy rational explanation, like, “What happened before the Big Bang to set our universe in motion?” and “Why do all my exes decide to call in the same three-day span?” Until science steps up its game, I’m comfortable permitting and encouraging the role of the divine in our universe. I just don’t know how it works.

So when the pressure’s on, I throw one up to St. Joe. It might be enough to steer the universe in a different direction, or I may just be wasting my time. But I can’t deny one thing: I’ve had a remarkable run of luck over the years.

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My last prayer, well, it’s my own creation. I don’t know if that makes it an awful prayer or the best prayer; I rather like it.

I like to think of myself as a man of faith, even if I’m not sure how faith works. Maybe I’m a man of faith because I’m not sure how faith works. No matter.

What I’m getting at is, it’s difficult to know where foolishness ends and heartfelt belief begins. Old Faithful, I’m told, erupts every 91 minutes. If you put a timer next to it that dinged every 91 minutes and waited a century, it’d be hard to remember that one doesn’t need the other. But you’d still be a damned fool for thinking the alarm clock’s ring made the geyser erupt. Belief can’t fix stupidity.

And yet I’m guilty of the same sin. I have one genuine belief in my heart: You will always find what you need. I don’t need much to be happy, but I’ve been astonished to find that it’s almost always readily available. Jobs, homes, food, friends, sometimes it’s as simple as asking the universe for what you want and the universe provides. That’s not to say I’ve been spoiled with wealth or fortune in recent years. My plans never work out the way I intend, but I usually achieve what I set out to do or else find a better goal. When I need just about anything but good sense, it finds me. So I keep believing.

That’s enough preamble. My third prayer is simply this: May I never want more than I need. 

Reminds me of a joke I once heard. A concerned woman goes to her rabbi and says, “Rabbi! My husband is shrinking! He was five-foot-ten when we married. Now after thirty years of marriage he’s only five-foot-three. Can you say a blessing for him?”

“Of course,” says the rabbi. “May he live to be four feet tall!”

Beginnings

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Here’s a thing I’d like to remember:

Back when I was twelve I got some of my best advice yet from a guy down the street named Carl. This was in seventh grade, but let’s flash back to sixth grade. My school had a legitimate homeroom–twenty-five minutes at the beginning of the day to do administrative tasks or, usually, bullshit. We played a lot of chess in my homeroom, and I was the king. I could beat the pants off those kids and still have time to brag about it before the bell rang for first period.

But between sixth and seventh grade my family moved across town. Carl lived down the street with his new wife, Shazia, and their two little dogs, Oscar and Felix. Carl was downright smarter than me. When we played chess, he said almost nothing except maybe to ask if I’d like more water. He was silent, pondering, and brutal. We played dozens of times; I never came close to checkmating him.

Then one day we’re playing, and the game, maybe six moves in, is looking like every other game Carl and I had played. I was trying to mount some clumsy offense, but there was nowhere to attack. Carl would get the better of any exchange. I could spend a few moves shuffling my advance to a different diagonal, but Carl had a way of seeing these things ahead of time; he’d shift accordingly and have his knights threatening my queen before I could begin the attack from the new line. And already I was feeling the heat of his own advance–he had an uncanny knack for getting knights and bishops into controlling spots on the board. I was stumped.

I’m about to make my move. It wasn’t a fantastic move, but it wasn’t an awful move either. I wasn’t sure how Carl was planning to attack, so I figured I’d at least move forward with my own plans. Once my bishops crashed into his second row, I’d have him pinned. I move my piece, but keeping my fingers on it. No move is official until you let go of the piece completely. Just as I’m about to take my hand off, Carl says, “Wait.”

I’m not sure why he chose that moment to say something. I can’t remember the date; maybe it was Cinco de Mayo and he was drunk on tequila. Maybe his wife had yelled at him to let me win once, as a confidence-boosting measure. Or maybe he’d just had enough of winning without having to try that much. For whatever reason, he said, “Dan, you probably thought that was a good move. Now ask yourself: Is there a better move?”

I thought, Hell, I don’t know.

I thought some more, then took my hand off the piece. Carl’s next move came quickly after and left me in even more dire straits than before. How the hell did he pick his move so assertively? It’s like he knew what I was going to do before I did it. We played the game out, and he beat me without much trouble. Some advice, old man.

The weeks passed. We played more games, Carl always winning. I kept thinking about his advice. How was I supposed to pick a better move when I didn’t know what Carl was going to do? I knew I had to do something different, because Carl had no trouble predicting my game, but how did he know my moves before I did?

Sometimes answers takes a little time to ripen, like a tomato. All day I kept my chess questions in my paper bag of a brain, letting the summer sun warm them, until one day the answer hit me like a produce truck: Carl knows my moves because I play a predictable game. From the first move of the game, he’d see my move, consider how best I could continue that strategy, and adjust his to counter it. I never responded to his adjustments until it was too late, and I lost every game.

It took a while, but eventually the games got closer. It took me a long time to realize the best move against Carl was often the one that lead to the greatest uncertainty. My strategies changed slowly to adopt this principle. Before his advice, I’d often try to send enough pieces against one side of his defense to eventually take more of his pieces than I lost, hoping this would give me an upper hand in the later game. But now I realized Carl would see this kind of attack coming turns in advance, and simply swing around the open portions of the board to a quick checkmate. My new attacks became devious. Rather than pick one attack, I’d push the early stages of the game as long as possible, setting up as many attacks as I could, keeping Carl guessing about which route I might eventually take.

Forcing Carl to retreat was one of my proudest achievements in middle school. I don’t remember the details of the game, but I remember, at last, thinking I had the game under control. I wasn’t sure what would happen in the next few moves, but finally neither did Carl; he had to abandon his own strategy now to deal with my weasel-like moves. Before I made good moves. Now I sought the better move.

A year or two after high school, I’d learn the proper word for Carl’s advice. The Japanese have a game we Americans know as Go. It’s a game of territory, with stones marking yours and your opponent’s. There’s an area on the edge of your territory, always shifting but forever important. It’s not truly your territory until you fully connect stones to it, but it’s where the game changes. It’s known as “moyo“, which is Japanese for framework. The expert Go players know that it doesn’t matter if their territory shrinks or expands; it’s their moyo that truly matters. The present is important, yes, but it’s the future, the soon-to-be-arriving future, that dictates how the game will develop. Carl might not have known it by name, but in asking about the better move, he was teaching me to develop the best moyo, the best framework from which to effect a plan.

The guy who taught me about Go told me I had good moyo. But then he also thought my name was Marty.

Now looking for the best means–maintaining good moyo–just seems like good policy. I’m 27, with a law degree and a boatload of adventure under my belt, and it’s never served me wrong. But perhaps not everyone learned the same lessons I did growing up. I think of my classmates in law school who spent so much time outlining, which on that planet meant retyping half the words in your textbooks. I don’t deny that it worked for them, but I wonder if those classmates of mine ever asked, “Is there a better way to do this?” I don’t think many did.

I skipped the outlines and did just fine. Thanks to excellent moyo, no doubt. And for that, I owe a great thanks to Carl.

This is the first post on this WordPress blog. I write because, like the first line here says, there are some things I’d rather not forget. I’m going to keep adding ideas here until I’m satisfied.