Sunday, October 31, 2010

Chess Lessons

My son Max is learning to play chess, so I'm playing again, after thirty years' absence. Chess teaches me important lessons, rank amateur though I am. 

The most important lesson is to focus on a goal. The rules prevent an easy win by accident. You must plan ahead and avoid distractions. This is hard to do. It's much easier to keep the false score: how many pieces have you taken? Once you start paying attention to this side issue, it's almost impossible to remember the goal. The goal is to pin your opponent's king, not to take his other pieces or protect your own. A good player projects his mind to the end of the game, then calculates backward to see which move, now, will get him closer to victory. 

Life is even more distracting than chess. We find ourselves planning just to get by. We only want to keep our job or get a promotion, without thinking of our longer-term goals. Where do we want to get in life? Will this job will take us closer or further away? What will keeping this job cost us, and what do we plan to do with the time, energy and money we have left?


Chess also forces the player to act. You can't stand still and hope for the best. You may not be able to think of a brilliant move, but you will move, brilliantly or not. 

This part of life is tough. Because mistakes are costly, we learn to fear them and hold back from acting. Is it better to move forward, even if your actions backfire? In most cases, I answer "yes." Often the only way I can come up with the right plan is to try the wrong plan first. 

I had a friend who didn't like her job, or the city she lived in. She got an internship in another city, moved there, and hated it. She worked through her contract, thinking hard about where to go next. She ping-ponged between coasts, and today she lives in New York and loves it. She might have ended up where she started. She might have discovered that her dissatisfaction had little to do with the place she lived. But in my experience, there is no discovery without action. 

You shouldn't rush in blindly, of course, but make the smartest moves you can. And yes, doing nothing can be the best option, but make it a conscious choice, not a surrender to fear. If you move and your first move turns out badly, realize it was probably necessary, nonetheless. In the long run, doing the wrong thing is usually better than doing nothing.

The last important lesson I get from chess: almost every position has unique advantages. Even a weak position can be worked to enormous advantage. This statement is counter-intuitive, but the game demonstrates its truth continually. If your opponent stomps across the board and takes half your men, he often opens up a corridor to his king. The king is now easy to pin, because his escape routes are blocked.  

In life, a weak position enables a bold move toward your goal. I can't stop myself from quoting Kris Kristofferson here: "Freedom's just another word for 'nothing left to lose.'" My country, the United States, owes its success to our ancestors' bad luck in their mother countries. If the Puritans had prospered in Europe, they would never have braved the long journey and harsh conditions to settle in the New World. 

I was able to move to San Francisco because I failed to get a life together in Dallas. That failure made it a reasonable risk to leave, even though I had no job, no apartment and almost no contacts here. If I had landed a good job in Dallas or bought a house there, I might never have risked giving them up, no matter that I liked San Francisco better. 

Benjamin Franklin wrote about the game of Chess:

The game is so full of events, there is such a variety of turns in it, the fortune of it is so subject to vicissitudes, and one so frequently, after contemplation, discovers the means of extricating one’s self from a supposed insurmountable difficulty, that one is encouraged to continue the contest to the last, in hopes of victory from our skill, or, at least, from the negligence of our adversary, and whoever considers, what in Chess he often sees instances of, that success is apt to produce presumption and its consequent inattention, by which more is afterwards lost than was gained by the preceding advantage, while misfortunes produce more care and attention, by which the loss may be recovered, will learn not to be too much discouraged by any present successes of his adversary, nor to despair of final good fortune upon every little check he receives in the pursuit of it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Farm Life

I lived in Kansas in 1974-76. Our tiny town floated like a ship on an ocean of wheat and corn. You could walk from one city limit to the other in fifteen minutes, and when you reached the last street, you faced an endless, flat horizon of grain. Despite the isolation, I liked the town and the school I attended.

A young farmer hired me to help with his operation north of town. His name was Don and he lived in a trailer on the flat land, with no cover from the vast Kansas sky. He was married to a pretty woman named Rosa, so they named the place RosaDon Farms. I usually worked at Don’s paired up with another boy from my high school. Don treated us with respect and paid us well, far above the minimum wage at that time.

It was hard, physical work, exactly what you’d expect on a farm. At that time, I had spent most of my life in rural areas, but as things turned out, Don’s was the first and last farm I’d work on. We cleaned up his pig pens, sweeping and pushing their poop down a trough toward a drainage pond. Pig poop has a very distinctive smell. It nauseated me at first, then vanished. I no longer smelled the pigs and their wastes, only the grain in their feed troughs, which smelled delicious. I was reminded of Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son, who got hungry for pig feed while similarly employed. 

A less agreeable task was cleaning out a long, low barn where the baby pigs were born. Baby pigs need shelter. On the other hand, putting a roof over blood, water and poop has predictable results. This biomass attracted thousands of flies who multiplied furiously then died. The floors were covered in heaps of dead flies. We aimed a high pressure hose at them to help sweep them out. The smell those fly corpses gave off when the water hit them is the foulest vapor that ever entered my nose. As I type this, I’m still gagging thirty-five years later.

Don came from a farming family, but he did a lot of things that were, well, um, unskillful. Obviously so, even to 15 year old boys like us. There was no shelter for his vehicles, and he left his car windows down, so the dirt blew in. When we went to get seed or equipment, Don left his pickup’s engine running the whole time he was loading.

Most of his irrigation was accomplished by pipes along the ground with spout holes where the water came out. To be effective, he needed to plow in a specific pattern and line up the spout holes so they faced down hill. Gravity ensured even water distribution. But Don often got it backwards, so the water puddled around the pipes.

One night as the sun was setting, my friend Paul and I were ready to go home. We walked back to Don’s truck through a wet field. Don had pumped way too much water into the field, and we sank down to our calves in the mud. Don drove for the house, and asked us if he should take a short cut across the field we’d just walked through.
“Do you boys think I can make it across that field in this truck?”
“No, Don, there’s no way you’re going to make it. There’s too much mud.”
“Paul, do you think I can make it?”
“No, Don, don’t try it. You won’t make it.”
Don revved his engine until the pickup was doing about fifty down the dirt road between fields. Then he hung a sharp left across the mud. The momentum carried us about twenty-five feet before I felt the tires go squishy and heard the whirr, whirrr of their futile spinning. We opened the doors of the cab and saw mud all the way up to the door frames. Don was a faithful Christian man, studying for ministry, so he breathed a sigh and said, “shucks.”


Tired and dirty, Paul and I were not in the mood to deal with this situation, but we had no choice. Don tried to pull the truck out with his standard red tractor. The tractor got stuck in the mud also. In the darkness, Don went balls-out and came back with a giant green John Deere tractor. Its wheels were tall as I was. Even these enormous wheels spun a little in the mud, but eventually pulled the red tractor and the pickup out. I laugh hard every time I think of this story, but I liked Don. He was a wonderful guy. He gave up farming, became a minister and died many years ago. Today Paul lives in a huge house on Highway 83, directly across the road from the land we helped Don farm in 1975 and, of course, the place we got stuck.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

More Drawings

Or as if I do not secretly love strangers! (O tenderly, a long time, and never avow it;)

—Walt Whitman

I've drawn people while on the bus, in restaurants and bars, at performances and during jury duty. It's like hunting; any place I can corner them for a few minutes, I must take a chance. I don't do this now, because my life does not contain the kind of time and space necessary. If I outlive the present project, I may return to the drawings. I'd like to observe the human figure again, after many years of concentration on other subjects.

The big constraint in this work is time. I almost never asked someone to sit still for me; I didn't want them to know I was there. I knew they would get up and go somewhere else in a few seconds to a few minutes. The challenge was to steal as much of their visual soul as I could in the time available. Predictably, much of what I produced was really terrible, but occasionally I got lucky.

I especially liked drawing on the trains in Tokyo. Japanese people usually ignore others deliberately, so I had more freedom to work without drawing any attention to myself. It also helped that I couldn't speak the language, so I never worried what they were saying. 


Riding a bus in San Francisco can be a similar experience; almost no one speaks English here either. This young woman became my favorite model several years ago, but I never spoke to her. I imagine a tense dramatic scene, as in a movie: "A model on the bus, is that all I am to you? Do you think you can just draw me for twenty minutes and then walk out the back door?" Yes, I do.