I suck at a lot of things. I am sure there are whole email chains about it. But, here’s a story about my life I sometimes tell: I am a winner. It sounds obnoxious, I know, but what I also know is that the universe both listens and delivers. I know this because it nearly always makes sure that my winner prediction comes true. So even at risk of being labeled a braggart, I guess I keep telling that story so the universe will keep listening. Today, I feel like a loser. Sometimes stories backfire.
Some of the things I have won in the past are simple pleasures: a couple of bean burritos to share, some good coffee, a mug, an organic cotton pillow, some delightful bits of dark chocolate here and there. Other winnings, not so tiny. I once won a party for me and up to 30 of my co-workers to enjoy a fun-filled Mexican restaurant-hosted happy hour, full of appetizers, margaritas, and dancing. That was fun, and certainly cemented my place as a valuable employee who could give back to the company.
Other wins have included romantic candlelit dinners, weekends away at resorts, days at the spa, and one of my most unexpected wins, a semester worth of coursework at a top-tier university where I was just looking for something to do that lonely evening and spontaneously dropped into a lecture. What I learned that night is that you should always stay until they draw the last name from the hat.
A win I totally love with every bit of who I am is the woven camel hair carpet that sits in the entryway of my house, welcoming visitors into my little collection of gathered memories from adventures around the world. In a lot of ways, I feel like that carpet is the map of who I am on a soul level. It’s full of little arrows pointing perhaps symbolically to all the directions of a well-lived life, images of unidentifiable animals, and patterns of various shapes that seem to echo a landscape of a tapestry of still-undiscovered experience. When I walked into the hotel one night in Bangkok, the volunteers selling raffle tickets hit me up. I said, “Sure, I’ll take one” and held out my Thai baht like it was Monopoly money and I was about to pass Go. “For every 10 you buy, you get 2 free,” she tried to ‘salesperson’ on me. “Thanks, I only need one,” I smiled. Because I really only did need one raffle ticket. I have the treasured floor art to prove it.
One of my favorite “luxury” wins like this was a weekend at an eco-resort in Greece. The place was simple, but elegant, donned with smooth beeswax candles, colorfully embroidered organic cotton pillows on the lounge furniture, handmade decorations made from sustainable products, delightfully simple, fresh food sourced from the resort’s garden, beautiful gentle souls. My kind of place. It landed in my life during a stressful time when I needed to unwind and get into my head and heart a bit. That is where my intention was when I bought that raffle ticket. I remember waking early one morning during the stay to some green parrots nestled into the orange tree, deep into their morning chatter just beyond my balcony. They made me feel full with a deep gratitude for the blessed life I had lived so far. I was able to head back into my work the next week renewed and refreshed. Winning happens for me when, and in the ways, I most need it.
I once won a year’s supply of soap. It seems weird, but it definitely came in handy. We all need a little laundry soap every week, and how wonderful when it lasts all year. One thing I recall at the time is that I definitely wanted to do without all those annoying trips to refill my pantry with mundane things like toilet paper and soap. So, I guess the universe delivered.
The time I was contemplating wanting my career shifting into a higher gear, I remember spending several mornings as I packed my things for the day, running my fingers over the worn nylon of my early motherhood years backpack. I felt grateful for all the adventures that little pack-turned-diaper bag had seen. Ultimately, as I packed for a conference that week, I decided I was ready to trade my old backpack for something a little more professional now. Not really being aware of the array of prizes available, I entered a drawing at the conference and won a faux-leather briefcase from Islamabad. I loved that it was a deep earthy red color as I was right smack in the middle of a place in my career when I was starting to identify what I was passionate about, and pretty intentionally using red as a signature color. I’ve since moved on from that as a color of choice, but it certainly served me well then. So did the briefcase, which I have also allowed to now move on.
And then there was that fall when my communication took its cue from the universe. I was sitting in a bar in Istanbul with a colleague I had just met and connected deeply with. We were contemplating all the ways we might be able to change the world together when her phone rang. She had the latest iPhone that had just been released that week. I don’t often feel jealous, but the feeling certainly ran through me that afternoon. “I definitely have to get one of these,” I declared to my new best friend. The next morning, I dropped my business card in a fishbowl while chatting with a vendor about their new learning management software. I smiled, thanked him for the chat and information, winked, and said he should definitely let me know when I win. A few hours later I got an email from the company’s representative letting me know my card had been drawn and the prize was the latest iPhone. My faith in the universe as a listener was further strengthened. But later I would learn that there are intricacies to its listening ear.
One sunny spring Saturday morning, we were at the farmer’s market in the small town we lived at the time. The next day was Mother’s Day and they were doing an enormous giveaway of all the cool handmade products from around the market. A lineup of unique paintings, beautiful local photography, handmade jewelry, blown glass, treasures from some of my favorite local potters. My husband at the time said, “I’ll buy the ticket. Since you always win, go choose the prize you want.” I took my time reviewing all the options, carefully looking over all the prizes lined up on the stage. An amazing collection, and I would have been happy with any of it. Well, most any of it. In the end, I came back to where my family was sitting and said, “I’ll take anything but the t-shirt.” Holy mother of god, I won the fucking t-shirt. Astonished, we laughed and agreed, the universe is definitely a listener, but sometimes it only hears certain words. So, I started being more careful with my language and what I was requesting of the universe.
Last year I took my daughter to a BINGO game. As we walked in and settled ourselves among the other thousand or so players, I tried to model to her my “winning strategy” and asked her what of all the prizes she wanted to win. “The Smart Watch,” she said with emphatic glee. I nodded my head, picked up my handful of transparently colored bingo markers, and said “then we will win the Smart Watch.” We played for an hour, and then we won the Smart Watch. She became a believer in winning too.
I’m not lucky. Winning is a skill I have developed, over many years. I didn’t do it by myself. I was taught to win.
When I was 5 years old, my Grandma Carlson taught me to win at one of my first card games: poker. We would play with 5-year-old currency, pennies and rocks, and sometimes even little pieces of ripped up papers doubling as chips. It was the only thing I ever remember connecting with her over.
Grandmas are supposed to smell like grandmas, not ashtrays. Since she was a chain smoker from the age of 13 and I was born with pneumonia, leaving me lung deficient and easily prone to severe asthma attacks, we could only spend so much time around each other before we each needed to go our separate ways. A poker game was the perfect length of time.
Even in the limited time I ever saw her, I got really good at playing Five Card Stud. I would learn later that Grandma wasn’t as good as me apparently, and a lifelong love for playing cards for money didn’t really serve her well at the casinos. She died penniless, with what I remember to be a cruel heart, and what I hear were lungs so full of cancer that her toes turned black and shriveled up like raisins in the sun. I understand that her hospital room reeked so bad that it made Dad gag to be in there. I am often plagued with the guilt that I am a horrible person because I never went to the hospital while she was sick. Let alone her funeral. I feel like I should have played with her until the end.
My dad fared better in the casinos than Grandma. He did always seem to win. Win, as in, Lots and Lots of money. That’s the kind of winning I wanted to be a part of too. When I was a little girl, he would pick us up from church and take us to one of the casinos for Sunday brunch. I was sure my god-fearing mother felt it was blasphemous on a Sunday, but she seemed to suck it up every time. They always seemed to make concessions for each other. We would pass through the slot machines, cutting through the thick clouds of cigarette smoke that caused my lungs to nearly collapse but that I knew Grandma was right at home in. We would make our way to the casino restaurant for a long afternoon of Dad paying for our Keno games while Mom and him would get in some much longed-for chatting time. We often won, sometimes enough to go see an afternoon show in one of the lounges. So, I learned to have some lucky numbers, that I still use today.
As I grew, Dad taught me to play blackjack. I got really good at adding numbers to 21 in my head, fast. I couldn’t wait until I could sit with him at the tables and play for real. Once I was old enough, shit got real and, by his side with a drink in hand, I learned the art of betting big to win big. I also learned an underlying and make-or-break truth about setting limits for yourself about what you are willing the cost of the entertainment to be.
Before there was blackjack, there was Memory. Maybe it wasn’t a casino game, but it was our first real competition. Dad always called it Concentration. I loved those casino games, but Concentration was the game we really connected over. Because Dad had lots of friends who owned, operated, or built casinos, we always had the red and blue casino cards in our game closet, the kind with the hole punched into them to make sure they didn’t get circulated back into the decks at the tables. Every night after my dad would walk in the door smelling of asphalt, he would go take a shower and then meet me at the dining table for a pre-dinner game of Concentration. I won, and I won, and I won. Every time. Until I didn’t anymore.
One night, he just started beating me. I racked my brain every night for what seemed like weeks trying to figure out how my luck had turned. I practiced during the days while he was still at work, trying to recall where each match was as I flipped the cards over and over. I started to get better and better at making matches on my own, but he still always won. One night, as he was now typically slaughtering me, I looked at the cards carefully as he made his matches. I realized there were little black dots on many of them, and I started noticing the patterns. A little mark in the bottom left corner of one card and an identical mark on another card. My eyes grew a thousand times and I quickly slipped the rest of the deck over in pairs, and loudly announced, with a finger pointed at his face, “You marked the cards!” My winning streak was back. He smiled his big mischievous smile and announced, “You will always win because you will always figure out the trick, Ginger.” And I usually did, with any kind of game he tried to beat me at using his wily ways. I didn’t care what game it was, and at the core, I didn’t even care about the winning, I just always cherished playing games with Dad.
Recently, after a holiday dinner, we were playing a game we’ve played as a family for years. At first, I thought it was the freely flowing alcohol at the table, but then reality set in. With each round, we had to explain the rules again. And again. And again. At first it seemed funny, but it didn’t take us long to all realize what might be happening and the rule reviewing got old very fast. We all hit varying levels of frustration, and eventually walked away from the game. I don’t think I have quit a game with my dad since the time when I was six years old and threw the Monopoly board and all my practically glowing white one-dollar bills and thoroughly mortgaged properties went flying with it. He was furious with me for throwing that board that night, but he stayed there with me while I picked up every last piece. My heart ached when I realized that we had all just left him with all the pieces to pick up on his own.
Several years ago, I noticed my parents starting to say to each other in strange moments, “You’re winning” with a tilt in their voices and smiling that same goofy grin from my childhood.
“I don’t understand, what you are winning?” I asked my mom.
“He who loses their mind first is the winner, Ging.”
Ten days ago, Mom called to say that the doctors are ready to call what is happening with my dad Alzheimer’s disease. My dad is “winning.” I hate that he is winning. Fuck you, Winning.
Tonight, I went to a BINGO with thousands of other people. It was loud and overstimulating and at first all I wanted to do was push away from that table and leave. I didn’t expect to have fun or win a thing, because “winner” doesn’t mean the same thing to me today as it did ten days ago. But tonight, I had a blast: I won a gift certificate for pizza. And then an overhead lamp. It is supposed to be energy efficient, save me tons of money, and emit a beautiful, soft, calming light. Anyone who knows me knows I try to work on the calm part, without great success, the most.
But don’t worry. This is a story of winning. This is the story of finding a beautiful, soft, calm light in the dark places. This is the story of the long, hard road to preparing to win at losing this crazy game we call life.