Winning, Losing, and How You Play the Game

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“It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game!”  Uh huh.  Ten out to ten people polled have heard that expression.  Zero out of ten believe it!  The expression makes sense existentially, but it doesn’t jive with the western yardstick.  Winners take the trophy, the ring, the money.  Losers take the agony of defeat, the shame, and the debt.  No one hits the singles scene on a Saturday night looking for a loser.  No one interviews candidates for a job position hoping for less than a “winning” hire.  Stats are easy to digest, easy to access and to use in the making of decisions about a person’s value.  Is judging a life really that simple?

Winning is glamorous, glorious, and more importantly ephemeral.  Losing too has no set anchor in perpetuity.  How many “rags to riches” stories have we heard?  How many “lost it all” stories follow?  If we’ve spent time on top, we know it feels good.  If we’ve lived long enough to feel our position threatened by time, rising challengers, or failing health, we know the true essence of being a “winner.” That essence is fleeting.  

Losing is ass!  It feels like the world is crashing in around us and that as the weight bears down our strength wanes.  If we’ve spent time on the bottom, we know it is the shits.  We feel trapped, desperate, and we question our self-worth.  The human spirit, however, is a resilient force, and so most often we lift, we reach, we find the strength to rise.  Most of us have had our time of doubt, our time of loss, and somehow we’ve overcome.  If we’ve lived long enough to feel our circumstance changed by effort, patience and time, we know the true essence of being a “loser.”  That essence is one of painful, but passing misery.  

So it is that the measure of a life well lived may ultimately comes down to “how we play the game.”  Of the three concepts, it is the only one that escapes the temporal trap of the ephemeral.  How we play the game isn’t about moments, win or lose.  It is an ethos.  No one can truly count on a continuing steady state of outcome from either a “winner” or a “loser”.   We can only count on those for whom we have respect based on their philosophy concerning “how to play the game.”  I’ve been on top, which is fantastic.  I’ve bottomed out, which is the shits.  I’ve stood on the podium, then fallen to the poor house, only to rise again.  The same ethics and approach lead to each more and less desirable destination.  Why?  Because, and I’m guessing here, that’s the game!  

Trophies often become paperweights or doorstops.  Failures many times lead to stories of the rise of a phoenix. These are moments in time of victory or loss are fleeting states in a short, though sometimes seemingly endless tale that will ultimately vanish with our passing.  So it is that the wisdom of “it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game,” comes into focus.  Unlike winning or losing, consistency of mind, fortitude, and focus on a life well lived escape the transitory black hole of “results.”  And unlike titles, these qualities cannot be taken from us.  More importantly, they are ever-present, awake and alive, truly defining each of us as the people we are every moment of our lives.

Broken Things

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Broken things, some we are quick to cast aside, some are not so easily released.  A Van Gogh, a toy doll, a locket, a person; all come into existence with the sheen of shiny fresh brand new ‘here I am.”  Over time that bit fades, ultimately replaced by the thing that most often happens to things that persist in the act of existence, some sort of brokenness.  A locket or pocket watch have sentiment on their side. If these become broken a fix of some sort is possible if the owner is sufficiently motivated by emotional attachment.  What of broken people?  As I glance to my left wrist, I see my great grandfather’s watch.   He, a broken thing that ultimately could not be “fixed’ left this working timepiece as a memory.

Hearts are regularly broken; so are bonds of friendship, vows, and refrigerators.  The casting aside and replacing of broken things happens when we lose faith, often rightly so, in the possibility of repair.  Other times we simply must do the work of restoration or so parish, as with our hearts.  I have a sentimental streak that has caused a light hoarding behavior at times.  I hold onto my collection of five old runner sleds even as the warming of the earth no longer offers winter in my part of the world.  The sleds aren’t broken.  However, their usefulness is but a memory.  Still, like a locket bearing the picture of a loved one, in my case winter, they hold value, hope, promise, or nostalgia, that I am reluctant to release.

I’ve walked some of my days with a broken heart, many adult humans do.  Fill in the blank as to the details with your own experiences, and we will likely be in understanding of one another.  It is a scar, or a badge, or a shitty outcome that clings to the soul like a limpet to the hull of a sailing vessel.  It by itself will not plot the course of a journey though it may slow the runnings.  So it goes with we who have minds made of chains that rattle and dance each morning when we decide to once again rise and face the day. 

I learned yesterday that my best friend of thirty-eight years, Dr. David, (mentioned in a previous Random Fiction blog post “Free Fall,” irony included) has acute leukemia. He has passed, at least temporarily from the realm of shiny new things into that of the broken.  He wore a brave face Thursday as he entered a month of hospitalized solitude to face down his indiscriminate adversary in a firestorm of chemotherapy.  

Interestingly, several months ago, before this category 5 shit-storm reared its ugly head, Dave and I spent a weekend visiting the college town where he and I met. Our in the moment state of unbrokenness found us commenting that we both felt as though we were still the same boys that had made acquaintance there those many years ago.  Alas, as some friend of Anne Lamott’s said, “we are all born astride the grave.”  Acknowledging that fact is ultimately both a curse and a relief… at least for me.  That said, I will give any and all of my time, money, and bone marrow to fix this particular broken thing.  Love to you my dearest friend.  My heart is with you all the way.

Sailing Upwind

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Tacking hard back and forth across the teeth of the wind.  Spray filling my eyes as the bow plunges into wave after indifferent wave.  The imprint of rope on my clenched fingers may by now be permanent.  The going is slow and my destination still so far off that I’ve almost forgotten its original allure.  All I know is that the safe harbor I’ve been seeking seems to lie at the birthplace of the relentless headwind.  “Perhaps it is time to choose a new course,” I think as another wash of spray wipes my brow.  “Perhaps.”

The stories any of us can recall about sailing downwind are few for their lack of incident, even scarcer if one has never actually sailed, but let’s say its national metaphor day and roll with it.  For most of us, our many days are marked in turn by periods of smooth runnings, threatening waters, and periods of the listless, anxiety-provoking doldrums.  Each it seems has their time and place on the nautical map of our journey, and I imagine a reason they’ve found us, or we’ve found them.  Few milestones rise up in monolithic fashion while we are enjoying the momentary gift of easy passage through this life.  It may be that the cursed wind, or lack of it, thwarting our efforts at any given moment is also the very gift that aids us in the writing of a story finally worth telling.  

Night Light

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Absolute darkness is hard to come by in this modern world.  Light leaks through nighttime windows from streetlights, headlights, searchlights, the moon, lightning storms and even fireworks on the occasional holiday.  Electric clocks, power strips, TV and stereo power lamps come to life in a ghostly glow once the sun has gone down.  For some such lights are a nuisance, for others these dim reminders of day are insufficient.  There are those who are uncomfortable in the dark and those for whom the realm of sleep cannot be deep black enough.  Which are you?

I believe, and say “believe” because I cannot remember for sure, that as a boy I favored the company of a night light.  Things that go bump in the dark might have been, at that time in my life more manageable when seen rather than merely heard.  Now I find that the best sort of night is one in which I can find nothing; no shapes, no glimmer, no semblance of the living world.  Perhaps the days are now so full of goings on that the only way to achieve true respite is in the nothingness of absolute black.  Odd because nothingness is a constant topic of internal dialogue that I bandy about in the face of the ceaseless onslaught of is-ness that has become the definition of this modern life.  

Fear of heights, fear of snakes, fear of the dark, fear of anything, all, in my opinion, are the children of the fear of death; fear of that which we cannot avoid no matter how we twist and turn.  I like the dark, I actually like snakes, but I have a dizzying visceral breakdown when faced with heights.  That last issue must be the reason I learned to skydive.  Interestingly when one falls from umpteen thousand feet the prep time between plane and landing allows for some free will and planning.  As I write this I’m happy to say, though clearly it needn’t be said since here I am, that the process has been survivable.  Its been amazing actually.  I like-ish facing fears; it’s fascinating, life-affirming and potentially boundary, if not leg breaking.  But what if I were afraid of something as unavoidable as the dark.  

A power outage leads the prepared household to a closet stocked with flashlights and candles, perhaps even a battery powered radio.  For the well-to-do who’ve prepared for The Purge, it may even lead to a generator or a full-on panic room.  I like a good power outage, except for the havoc it may wreak on whatever frozen food I’m hoarding at the time in my ancient fridge.  I even have a few decent flashlights and a couple candles hidden away just in case.  I still have kids at the house, so I have to be ready to turn whatever happens into an adventure that isn’t entirely lived out in abject what-the-fuck blackness.  

But back to night lights for a sec.  They do serve a purpose, for some, for a time.  They may alleviate fear; affording calm to those needing a tinge of day in their night.  The also can make it possible for a nearly comatose person to reach the fridge for that super unnecessary midnight snack, without breaking a toe.  Not my thing, but to each his or her own.  Have your night lights if you will, and may they bring peace and restful sleep. I’ll be the one dancing with my vertigo, dizzy and sweating on the ladder in broad daylight cleaning a gutter, hoping I’m able to make it back to earth alive.

Lester McClain and the Bear – III

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“No fucking way!” Les blurted, staring through the passenger window at the sitting Grizzly.  During his time in the mountains, he had only had two encounters with bears, in as many days, yesterday and today.  A wave of uneasiness swept over him with the intensity of a mountain storm, swift and ominous.  Deciding that McGee Creek would not be his fishing destination de jour Les turned the key to fire up the Cruiser.  The always reliable starter whined, but the engine did not catch.  

“Shit!” he exclaimed, “Not Good!”  Les released his twisting pressure on the key momentarily then tried again glaring imploringly at the ignition.  The starter whinnied on for seconds like an anguished electric horse, but the familiar roar of the engine did not come.  

“Slam” something hit the driver side window with such force that Les closed his eyes, certain that he would be covered with broken glass.  His right hand shot to the passenger seat wrapping his hand around the grip of his pistol.  As he took up the .45, he saw through the passenger window that the bear was no longer on the river bank.  He whipped around to face the driver side window weapon raised.  A surprised Shash took a step back, showing a mix of amusement and concern in his dark eyes.

“Jesus!” Came Lester’s muffled voice through the closed window, “You scared the shit out of me!”

“My apologies,” offered Shash, taking another step away from the Cruiser to allow room for his enormous frame to execute the slightest of bows.  “Sounds like you’re having engine troubles.  I knocked to offer my assistance.”

“Knocked?” Lester thought, “The blow Shash had landed could have crushed a lesser car!” Les’ mind was swimming.  “Bears, giants, dead engines, what the fuck?  Did someone drug my Bourbon last night?  And what the hell happened to my truck?”  

He laid the Browning back on the passenger seat and unbuckled his seatbelt.  He reached for the door handle then hesitated.  What the hell was this Shash doing here and where the shit-hell had he come from?  Les hadn’t seen anyone, other than the Grizzly when he’d pulled to a stop here in the middle of nowhere, and there were no other cars at the turnout.  

“Pop the hood,” Shash commanded in his deep rumble of a voice, “I’ll have a look.”  

After a pregnant moment of consideration, Les smiled weakly and complied.  As the giant made his way to the front of the Cruiser Les noticed that he appeared to be wearing the same oversized mad-max, bounty hunter regalia that he’d worn last night at the Sierra Springs.  Les glanced at the Browning resting on the seat beside him, considering the bizarre, disconcerting nature of his current situation, then decided to leave where it lay.  He took a deep breath, wiped the sweat from his brow, opened his door and stepped out onto the dusty gravel ground of the turnout.

Shash had opened the hood and reached into the engine compartment with a mechanic’s confidence.  “Try it now” he bellowed not realizing that Lester had left the cab and was now standing two feet from him.  Les jumped, “Jesus!” He exclaimed.  

“How much coffee have you had this morning friend?  You seem a bit edgy.”  Shash grinned.

Lester looked up at him with a mixture of indignation, awe and thinly veiled alarm.  Without saying a word he turned and marched back to the cab.  

“I’m definitely taking a nap today” he muttered to himself.

Les swung into the driver’s seat and turned the key.  Sweet internal combustion music sprang from the now purring engine.  Shash closed the hood.   “Loose spark plug connections.  All good for now, but you may wanna look at replacing them before winter.”  Les, sitting in the driver seat with a bit of a glazed look on his face nodded slowly. “Safe travels Lester” Shash said.  Then he turned and strode across the road.   

“Thank you,” Les yelled at the closed window, his words bouncing loudly throughout the cab.  He fumbled for the window switch, but by the time the window was opening Shash had crossed the road and was heading for the woods.  Les watched mutely as the giant made his way into the beginnings of a cedar grove and vanished.

Lester McClain sat motionless gripping the steering wheel; feeling the gentle vibration born of the purring engine on his damp palms.  Eventually coming out of his stupor he turned his gaze to McGee Creek.  No sign of the bear.  Releasing the wheel, he ran his hands through his hair leaning back with a long exhale.  “Jesus!” He exclaimed for the third time that morning.  He put the cruiser in gear.  Fishing was no longer on the agenda.  No, if fact Les was suddenly and overwhelmingly motivated to pursue indoor activities for the rest of the day. With a spray of gravel, he wheeled out onto the road, made a hurried U-turn and headed back down the mountain.

To Be Continued

#fiction

Lester McClain and the Bear – II

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Days can lose their given names when one has no particular thing that must be done or no particular place to be.  Every day can be a Saturday or any day for that matter.  Lester McClain had managed to put himself in a position where the names of days had little relevance.  He had been unlucky in love, a story for a later time, but lucky in the realm of finance and so he had opted for an early escape from the American grind.  

Overlooking his remaining days from a fiscally secure vantage point, Les had decided to liquidate most of his holdings and deposited the substantial proceeds into a low-risk mutual fund.  He then sold most of his possessions, keeping only what he could fit in his silver 1996 Toyota Land Cruiser and moved from San Francisco to Lee Vining California to take up a quiet life in the mountains.  The ghosts and demons that followed him were unwelcome, so as most of us do he relegated them to the dungeon of his mind and went about his life as though they had never existed.

For several years now his routine had been simple, probably deathly dull to most, but mostly satisfying to him.  Hike, fish, read, avoid dealing with any personal issues, hike some more, have a drink or three in the evening, sleep, repeat.  That much time alone will make a man his own best friend, trusted confidant, or his own worst enemy.  And so it was the case that Lester McClain had the habit of talking to himself out loud on a regular basis.  

Les sat up blurry eyed on the old brown leather sofa opposite the kitchenette in his tiny cabin.  The summer sun had demanded his attention at 5:30am.  At that unreasonably early hour, his reluctant body rose to the ritual calling of his morning routine.  

“I need some fucking curtains!” he muttered to himself.

Cold, fucking cold, water splashed on his face, mostly to force the eyes into focus.  That focus revealed bloodshot blue eyes with a faint ring or yellow around the iris, greying, unkempt blond hair falling in tangles to his collar and a three-day beard.    Having finished the unpleasantry of cold water coupled with a mirror prior to 6am Lester commenced a staggerer’s walk toward the kitchen to start the coffee.  As he sat on the sofa waiting for the percolation to complete, he found himself regretting that last glass of bourbon, five drinks were not his custom.  

“Nice to see you?” he remembered.  “Who was that…guy?”  Les had, by his own choice embraced a life a relative solitude.  He had not, to his recollection, ever met this Shash who joined him last night at the bar, yet the giant had seemed to know him.  “Ugh,” he thought, “I need coffee.”  He made his way back across the spartan cabin floor, smooth worn pine boards seamed loosely to allow for the breathing of the seasons, to the kitchen counter and poured a tall cup of deep black waking.  His hand rested on the chipped white tile countertop as he took a deep, tongue scalding gulp.  “Ahh!”

The Land Cruiser engine roared, 6:15am time to be somewhere that was not here.  “What day is it?” He thought.  “Ah, does it matter? Nope.”  He said to the steering wheel.  He guided the shift lever into reverse and backed down the driveway.  The sound of off-road tires on the gravel had become music to Les; the soundtrack to his comings and goings.  

As he drove toward the Narrow Canyon, he remembered the bear.  It had appeared way up river as he hooked the last of his three trout the day before.  As he worked the line, he had seen out of the corner of his eye the massive shape of an upright full-grown Grizzly bear.  He reeled the large rainbow hard but not so hard as to break the line then let it run a bit under the deep bend of the graphite rod, keeping an eye on the fish, using his peripheral vision to monitor on the bear.  Les had seen bears before on the river and did not take such encounters lightly.  As the fish fought for its freedom, the bear seemed only to watch.  Les’ mind wandered to the holstered Browning .45 on his right hip.  So fixated did his thoughts become on the gun and bear that he almost lost the fish.  

When the fish finally surrendered, he looked directly at the bear.  The bear too seemed finished and stepped away from the river, vanishing behind a stand of pines.  Les netted the fish and turned downstream.  He creek hopped thirty yards or so in the direction of the Land Cruiser then turned to scan for his possible pursuer.  Nothing but water, stone, forest, and sky.  He took the fish from the net and quickly ran his knife through to end it’s suffering.  

“I’m sorry I made you wait” he whispered to the now at peace fish.  “Thank you for the gift of your sustenance.”  

Les checked again for the bear, no trace.  He placed the third rainbow in his creel, secured his fly to the rod anchor and made for the safety of his truck.

Les, not being a superstitious man had not attributed anything to the incident with the bear other than a man and a bear happening by chance to be at the same place at the same time.  Following that logic he decided while driving to change course, abandoning Narrow Canyon for a morning at McGee Creek.  “No need to go where the bear is fishing,” he said to the dashboard, averting his eyes from the blazing morning sun that careened down the slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains.  The Cruiser slowed to a stop at a small parking turnout adjacent to McGee.  Les turned the key and was about to pull it from the ignition when he saw it,  the bear.  A huge Grizzly bear was sitting by the river, pensively watching the water play across the rocks.  As he watched, stunned, the bear looked up.  Les thought he saw the faintest hint of a smile on its face.

 

Continued in Lester McClain and the Bear – III

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The Crushing

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Sometimes things feel so spot on, so figured out.  Other times things feel so fucked!  Honesty is both beautiful and ugly, so here we go.  Glass half full, glass half empty, glass whatever until shit hits the fan.  You’ve had a bad day right?  You’ve had some good ones too?  I’ve had both and can unequivocally offer my opinion of the difference between them; I don’t dig the darkness.  It’s easy for me to be up when I’m fortunate enough to awaken on the right side of the bed, if something truly wonderful has happened in my life, or if I have an audience to entertain.  It’s also easy for me to find the shadows when the hall is empty, or the vicissitudes of fate choose a game of random misery.

Spirit, soul, perspective, blow with the wind when no one is looking.  We’ve all likely found darkness shrouding our path at some point.  We’ve also probably been fortunate enough to know lightness.  I experience both in a relatively favorable measure, but today it is the darkness that accompanies me as I make my way.  Odd that a life I feel to be so fortunate should seem so dismal at this moment.  History tells me it will pass.  And thank god!  A funny expression emanating my lips “Thank god,” as I do not currently ascribe to conventional western religious doctrine.  Still, I feel it, the meaning of “Thank god,” balls to bones because I have faith.  Faith not in books, nor figureheads, but in “It!”  The “It” that binds us all together in this life.

How are your dark days?  Mine are daunting.  Sometimes I feel fearful in my solitude.  Afraid that I will fail those I love.  Worried that I will fail me!  Ha, shouldn’t I have included myself in the numbers of the former?  How will I fail?  By not showing up, not delivering the promise of optimism and perseverance to which I have committed?

Depression is the antichrist to hopeful endeavor, and some days when I feel it’s weight bearing down on me I find no solace, no sense of possibility for escape.  For context, I do not suffer from the type of debilitating depression that some struggle with.  Fortune smiles on my brain chemistry in that regard.  I am talking about run of the mill, “get over yourself” feelings of depression.  The emotional state one simply has to face, and vanquish.

It is to a great extent the way in our culture to have ears only for, “Fine” or “Great thanks,” in response to the question, “How are you?”  Who has time for the real answer right?  To avoid pariah status, when I find my soul cloaked in crushing darkness I lie, “Doing well, thanks.  You?”  Perhaps being born in the United States where the concept of “Rugged Individualism” is a historical cornerstone, this automatic response is coded into my DNA.  Though from what I’ve read, Rugged Individualism is a walk in the park relative to the DNA encoding that the English have saddled themselves with!  Interestingly, my genealogy leads in no small way to that tight-lipped isle of rain-soaked woe.  Not super surprising that an occasional down day should find me.

Today I listened to a Tim Ferris Show podcast featuring the renowned psychologist Jack Kornfield.  Jack’s career began in the jungles of Thailand where in his twenties while serving with the peace corp he decided to become a Buddhist monk.  As he explained, it was a painful but enlightening (pun intended) journey that lead him to new perspectives on self, self-hatred, and self-love, compassion, and empathy.  I bring this up because his words struck me hard.  Hard as in repeated blows of a mighty love hammer.  Multiple times while listening I spontaneously began to weep.  Something in his message hit trigger points over and over again.  This experience crescendoed during his closing comments which left me clutching my heart, crying full voice on the futon in the family room.  Futon?  What am I, a college student?  Whatever!

Jack’s wisdom and his message of loving-kindness (insert “snowflake quip here) touched me deeply.  It afforded me a window through which I saw metaphorical rays of sunlight.  The darkness that had enveloped me for the last few days seemed to cower and then diminish.  Tim’s conversation with Jack somehow pierced the black veil of my personal manifestation of Rugged Individualism.  It reminded me that we are not, or do not have to choose to remain alone in our struggles.  Jack’s words reasserted the possibility of choosing to breach the norm of, “I’m fine.”  The chance to reach for connection, and more importantly offer connection, with compassion to those we find wrapped in the solitary binds of darkness.

If you struggle alone with your demons, you can share that burden.  You have options.  Check out Jack’s thoughts on the subject via the link provided below.  Write a comment.  Please share your story.  Together we are strong enough to shed light on the darkness.  Together we can create brilliance!

Tim Ferriss Show: Jack Kornfield episode: