Sunday, August 11, 2013

Yellow Car! Meditations on the Value of Competitiveness

Maire Anne and I have been coming to Nantucket for nearly 30 years. Our kids have Nantucket vacation memories woven into the fabric of their lives. About 12 years ago my brother-in-law Dan and my nieces Aidan and Guthrie began joining us. This has been a gift, as it has provided an opportunity for Maire Anne to spend time with her brother (who has evolved into my fishing buddy), and for my boys to spend time with their cousins.

And for me to enjoy my nieces Aidan and Guthrie, both of whom I absolutely adore. In the chapter in my book titled "The Bluefish Races (or, wanna drive?)" I talk about the family tradition of using Nantucket's vehicularly-accessible beaches to give my kids, and my nieces, their first driving lesson. This has been a particularly special thing with Guthrie, who is the sort of kid who knew, to the day, when she was eligible for her permit and license, and bugged her parents until she had the paper.

Driving on the beach was less important to Aidan, but the two of us have had other traditions, and some of them have brought out a competitive streak in both of us. This is a surprise to me. I'm not by nature a competitive person. Most of the time I could give a shit about sports (I'm certain I'm the only person in New England who felt a certain perverse satisfaction when the Patriots lost the superbowl at the end of their otherwise perfect season). I remember doing a team-building exercise at work many years ago where everyone had to write down their personal values, then work together to come up with group values. My boss wrote "winning" as his #1 personal value. I thought, that one isn't even in my vocabulary, much less on my list, much less the topper of that list. And Aidan is a whip-smart Mount Holyoke student, laser-focused on certain key interests. I hadn't expected her personality to manifest itself in a stridently competitive way (although I suppose her presence on the fencing team might have tipped me off).

Although Aidan hasn't participated in the informal competition for our annual family Fish Trophy, for several years we've competed in other ways. For a while, during both vacation and Thanksgiving visits, we played Trivial Pursuits -- The Lord of the Rings Edition. It was here that I first saw the fierce take-no-prisoners nature of her competitive streak. I drew the question "What language did the Riders of Rohan speak?" I answered "Ronic." The card said "Rohirric." She wouldn't give it to me, even though she was totally and completely mopping the floor with me, game after game. Of course, this set the bar for subsequent TP disputes. After that, I didn't give her an inch. And she still clobbered me.

This vacation, Aidan introduced us to the game "Yellow Car." She explained that, originating in the British radio sitcom "Cabin Pressure," the game is elegant in its simplicity. It has but a single rule -- when you see a yellow car, you yell "yellow car!" As we began to play, we learned that, in fact, there is a second rule: Taxis don't count (this because, on the show, the character Arthur Shappey blurts out "yellow car!" every two seconds when he sees the surfeit of taxi cabs in London, so his brothers impose this rule to get him to shut up). A vacation guest of ours saw a school bus and yelled "yellow car!" Aidan said "school buses don't count -- only cars." Then the same question came up regarding a yellow van. I pointed out that most yellow cars we'd seen on Nantucket were a Jeep or other sport utility vehicle, and that these are classified as light trucks, thus technically not cars. She grudgingly let the point go.

But for the rest of vacation, she was relentless in being the first to yell "yellow car!" whenever we were driving somewhere and encountered a yellow car.

So I, of course, stepped up to the challenge. Game on, MoHo girl. Whenever I saw a yellow car and called it before she did, she said "damn it!" She contended that I had the advantage because I, the driver, could see out the front window better than she could being a passenger in the back seat. I said that, no, in fact, as a passenger she had the advantage because she could look down driveways and in parking lots, which she did with cruise missile-like targeting, including remembering specific locations where specific yellow cars were parked (I will admit that I began doing this as well).

Finally, as Dan and the girls' vacation stay was nearing an end, we drove them to the ferry. As we wended our way through Nantucket center and were about to turn onto the street leading to the Steamship Authority terminal, I spied a yellow car and said, with a certain aplomb, "yellow car, and oh, by the way, probably the LAST yellow car we'll see before the ferry." I smiled, thinking that I had gotten her.

This, of course, elicited a stiff "damn it!" from Aidan. She then went into full-on focused Terminator mode, feverishly scanning in all directions as we drove the last few hundred feet into the ferry parking lot. 

Then, with some degree of triumphalism, she yelled "YELLOW CAR!" Sure enough, there in the ferry parking lot was a lone yellow car. She smiled triumphantly. Oh well, I thought, too bad. 

But it ain't over 'till the fat ferry sings.

As they loaded their luggage onto the cart, and we hugged goodbye, and they began to walk toward the gang plank to take them up onto the ferry, I looked back in the direction of Nantucket center. There, perhaps a hundred yards up the street, could it be? Yes! I said slowly and loudly "Yellow. Car. BOOM!" and pointed up the street. It was a ways away, but it was unmistakable. It elicited a final "damn it!" from Aidan, indicating that it was unarguable. If I had a microphone, I would've dropped it and engendered the loud DOOF and feedback squeal, as comedian Chris Rock sometimes does at the end of an in-your-face performance.

I can't say Aidan was crestfallen, or furious. That would be an exaggeration. It is only a game. But she was NOT pleased. My family gave me grief. "How could you have taken that away from her?" they asked.

I've thought about this for a few days. I don't think I "took anything away" from my dear niece. I think I added to our relationship. This is playful, constructive interaction. I fully expect Aidan and I to begin texting each other pictures of yellow cars.

But is this a window into a higher value for competitiveness? I'm not sure I'd go that far.

That having been said, I must admit that my final, door-closing, game-ending, microphone-dropping, soul-crushing "yellow car" was a thing of beauty. Like the Star Trek Next Generation episode where Data has to admit that he enjoyed killing the Borg, I need to admit that, despite my Zen self-image, I apparently do have a competitive streak.

Or maybe it's just that my brilliant quirky niece brings the worst in me.

So. Go ahead. Introduce "yellow car" to your family. See who plays. See what it brings out. But be prepared to bring your A-game. Take no prisoners. Expect no quarter. For none will be given.