Some years, I struggle with how to lead off the wrap-up. This year, I nearly started with William K.‘s haiku (below) just to shock you all into paying attention. But 2020 doesn’t need any more shocks, and William’s writing may be a little too, shall we say, unconventional for some.
Then I came upon a comment from Jennifer Borchardt, who asked: “Have I been playing since year one? Has it really been 11 years?”
You have, and it has, Jennifer. Because without realizing it, we’ve created a tradition. We’ve been doing this a decade plus one. Only in 2020, it wasn’t just William K.’s haiku that was unconventional or unexpected. The whole damned year was one booby trap after another, and it was the tradition that helped us through it.I couldn’t figure out how to approach the write-up this year. It’s a hoot to play up the chaos, drama, and mayhem of the game. But given the last 10 months, how do you avoid blundering into the realm of the insensitive? Well, it takes some gallows humor, a wry outlook, and heart, which the people who take part in This Thing of Ours have in abundance. That’s how you confront the bruises left by the unanticipated.
“[O]ne strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early,” Ray Bradbury wrote in Something Wicked This Way Comes. For those who’ve never read that book, it’s about a surprise carnival that rolls into a small Illinois town in the middle of an October night. Once it opens for business, it becomes clear that the most dangerous fears are those you tried to bury, those that surface without warning—those that use you as a weapon against yourself.
In 2020, Halloween showed up in March. Only the masks weren’t the fun kind, and it was too dangerous to go knocking on doors. By the time The Boy came along in November, our made-up terrors were helping to distract us from the real ones. The tradition gave us something to use against the surprise.
“I usually lose at my mom’s assisted living facility because they have so many concerts during the holidays that I attended with her,” Kate Anne Canan wrote when reporting her win. “Last year I even lost there because I was playing flute for their Christmas dinner, and a sweet old lady requested it; how could I say no? My mom passed away in April at 97, and the Challenge now reminds me of all the wonderful times we had sharing music in the last few years.”
After 11 years, even something as profoundly goofy as This Thing of Ours begins to mean something despite our best efforts. It reminds Kate of her mom. It offers a hand to those who see the holidays as an annual ordeal. It allows us to concentrate on the brainless when it seems like we’re surrounded by the hopeless.
“The thing is, nobody said it was going to be fun. At least, nobody said it to me.” I quote that line from The Big Chill now and again because it’s appropriate more often than I’d like. And while it may be true, we can still endeavor to make things as entertaining as possible. The LDBC is fun, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Not even this year, when so many people thought it’d be a cakewalk because we were all sitting at home.
It was a little easier, going by the numbers. But only a little. As I recall, at least one player asked if we were going to bother having the game. Yet we only went from a winning rate of 36 percent in 2019 to 40 percent this time around. An improvement, yes, but not one that says the game wasn’t difficult enough.
No surprise, really, when you consider that in the past, nearly 50 percent of those taken down had it happen at home or in the car (29 percent and 17 percent, respectively). People spent plenty of time in both environments while sheltering. This year, automotive losses held steady, but home-front defeats jumped to a whopping 59 percent. So it’s not like home has ever been harmless. Not when The Boy appears in so many movies and TV episodes as well as on playlists your family swore up and down they scrubbed clean before you fired up the Spotify and decorated the tree.
That, again, is why This Thing of Ours is the perfect blend of tradition and surprise. The Boy has an 11-year history of showing up in the same old places, heralded by the same old villains. Bing and Bowie claim their share, though challengers such as Pentatonix are no slouches, either. Meanwhile, Carrie Underwood and her demon spawn come out of nowhere to victimize the unsuspecting. The Boy respects tradition, yet he’s perfectly happy to innovate and experiment with new attacks, too.
Speaking of tradition, this is our third year supporting Americares, so I’ll take this opportunity to put in one last call for donations. (And thank you to those who’ve already given and those who are about to.) If you’re not able to or would rather not, that’s fine, too. The game is the game, and we’re only too happy to have you join us.
Joining. The tradition of banding together, honoring the First Fallen (for Rigdzin!), and facing our foes and challenges together is what keeps me doing this. And the surprising number of you who return year after year makes it seem like it’s no work at all.
And with that, I’ll ask you to stay safe and leave you ’til next year with the Shalom-like traditional phrase that’s been hello and goodbye for more than a decade now.