A Mistake I Was Prevented from Making
About 12 years ago, I played in a chess tournament that was held in a hotel in Las Vegas. After my Saturday morning game (which I won!) I felt very sleepy. I didn’t have a room at the hotel; my buddy and I were renting a house some miles away for the weekend. But he had the keys to the rental car and anyway I didn’t want to drive.
So I found a small grassy spot outside an inconspicuous side door of the hotel, put my backpack down as a pillow, lay down, shut my eyes, and drifted off.
I slept for some minutes. Then someone kicked my feet, hard! I woke abruptly and blinked up at three husky security guards who had taken me for a transient. They spoke harshly and I don’t remember exactly what was said but I know I told them I was with the chess tournament and one of them said gruffly that if they caught me sleeping there again they’d have me arrested. Then they strode away.
It took me a minute or so to gather my wits. And then I was furious! I started walking quickly after those guys to give them a piece of my mind! What the f—? They were gonna have me arrested for SLEEPING? Nobody could have even seen me where I was; it wasn’t a public entrance; I wasn’t blighting their damn hotel … And what if I HAD been a homeless person?? Would they have had me arrested immediately then?? How sick is that?
Just then the side door of the hotel, out of which I’d exited, opened again. In retrospect, this was a little odd, as this was not a widely used exit. It was some kind of little-used utility door. But the door opened and it was my third-round opponent, who’d lost a game to me just an hour or so ago.
It’s not easy to lose a chess game. I’ve been to many chess tournaments; it never feels good to lose, and it’s not easy to be particularly gracious about it either. But this guy had been extremely gracious, analyzing our game with me in the “skittles room” after our round, complimenting me on a number of my moves. In fact, he was an unusually nice guy. A religious fellow, as I recall. His energy was very serene.
He could not have been aware of what had just happened; he hadn’t seen me sleeping, nor had he seen the security guards. And so, apparently unintentionally, he arrested me (in the informal, non-coercive sense of the word) with his casual conversation, outside that side exit of the hotel, and I was frustrated because I really wanted to go vent my righteous anger at the security guards. But I didn’t want to be impolite to this guy, so I just felt stapled to the spot for a minute or two … after which the beefy boys were out of sight.
I don’t know what would have happened had I fulfilled my mission of confronting those strapping gentlemen with my steaming indignation but looking back, I’m kind of glad that I didn’t get a chance to find out. This was after all Las Vegas, not Berkeley or Portland.
A Mistake I Got Away With
Some months ago I was walking in Tabor Park after midnight. I often do that. But this was a particularly dark night; there was a solid cloud cover. I began walking up a little dirt hill, a side path I often take.
The ground was sloshy and I lost my footing. I did not fall; I quickly regained my balance by swinging my arms. However, there was a problem. My hands had been in my pockets, and so had my keys. When my hands flew out my pockets to swing round and save me from falling, the keys flew out too.
I did not have a cell phone with me. I did not have any way of getting back into my house without those keys. And it was a freezing night.
I couldn’t see a thing, so I gingerly squatted and started sweeping my hand across the path, where I thought the keys might be. I eventually lay prone on my stomach, just in case I might inadvertently slap the keys downward. For about five minutes I just slid around, a bit upwards, a bit downwards, a bit sideways, all the while slowly, slowly, slowly sweeping my open palm across the ground in front of me.
Then I glanced behind me and saw a light bobbing up and down. It was a runner with a headlamp! This was a first – I’d never encountered a jogger in the park after midnight before, and I’d taken night walks there dozens of times.
I shouted: “Excuse me! Can you please help me with your light? I’ve lost my keys!”
He came right over. And, using his headlamp, he located the keys within seconds, on the ground right next to where my pant pocket was in that moment! (This was a rather striking coincidence given all the sliding I’d done.)
Forgive the Last Mistake
I have a little note to myself that says, “Forgive the last mistake.”
I don’t know about you, but I give myself a lot of trouble about perceived “mistakes.” And it’s always the most recent one that looms largest. If only, if only, if only … I hadn’t made that LAST mistake, that last wrong choice or wrong word spoken. THEN things would be okay now; everything would be in order; my life would be felicitous.
Hence the little note to myself, a reminder that I always blow the most recent “mistake” way out of proportion.
Some eminent chess grandmaster – possibly a former world champion – once said that in chess, the winner is always the one who makes the second-to-last mistake. Ha ha. Get it? Because only the last mistake loses the game.
That’s not even really true though. Some chess mistakes are costlier than others. Sometimes, in a superior position, you can afford a few inaccuracies and still win the game, even if your opponent makes no further mistakes.
Anyway, life is not really like chess. You don’t win or lose. You just keep on playing and the board keeps changing. Sometimes what appear to be “mistakes” are actually fortuitous maneuvers, in retrospect.
Recently I’ve had occasion to reframe what I’d long thought was a life-changing mistake. For over two decades, I’d seen it as a pivotal misstep I’d made at a critical moment. Today I think it was a brilliant stroke of genius. Not my genius – the universe’s sly genius, in inducing me to commit this “error.”
So much to say on the topic of mistakes. I believe in free will, but I also believe that everyone is doing their level best at every moment and though, looking back at the past, we sometimes think we COULD have done better or chosen more wisely … I believe that’s a delusion.
So that’s a paradox – free will, but no mistakes. And ultimately we can’t mess things up too much.
And yes, I read the news, and I know some history … and yes, I said what I just said, and I believe it.