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Saturday, August 22, 2009

Not so Friendly Competition

This year at the fair, I controlled the energy bicycle. Dawn, one of my co-workers, gave me a quick demonstration when I took over for her.

“Flip on the fan first,” she said. “Anyone can get that going.” The idea was to peddle the bicycle to generate enough energy to light up a series of items. “I do the florescent light next, because it’s easy too.”

I gave it a try. I got the fan going and the florescent light flickered feebly. Then, the bike felt like it hit a brick wall—and I was done.

I felt like a Carney beckoning people to step up and show their skill. Most people could start the fan, a lamp, a teensy TV, and the florescent bulb, but when I switched on the 25 watt bulb, the game was over. Another loser! Five bulbs remained unlit.

My boss dropped by the Co-op Building and hopped on the bike to show what he could do. He pumped away without showing any exertion—ah, to have the energy of the young again. I flipped switches working my way from bottom to top. He began to breathe harder and with only two switches left he couldn’t budge the pedals.

About an hour later a teenager wanted to ride the bike. Her mom signed the permission slip, and she hopped on. She peddled, and I flipped switches. Her face turned red, but she kept on pumping. She stopped at the same level as my boss.

“You’re tied for first,” I told her. Her mom immediately signed a slip for herself and tied the daughter. Not to be outdone, Dad straddled the bike. He peddled until his face was beet red, but he slightly edged out his daughter and wife by making the last light burn brighter. I really hoped he wasn’t going to have a heart attack on my watch.

“You must be a competitive family,” I remarked to the mother at their not-so-friendly competition.

“Oh, yes, we definitely are!” she said.

“I understand,” I said. “I come from a competitive family too.”

Could that be an understatement? I thought Jim and I were going to come to blows a few times over cards. He and Aunt Nita were the most infuriating pitch players I ever saw in my life. Uncle Johnny and I couldn’t seem to beat them very often. They bid like lunatics. “I’ll bid eight, on my partner’s hand,” Jim would say. Then he would toss a small card out, but if I put a point on it, Aunt Nita would throw a bigger card on. The next thing you knew, she would dominate the round with all the big trumps.

When Jim developed dementia, he became confused about which cards to play. His mom helped him. He was competitive enough to bid. From the look on his mom’s face, I knew he was still bidding his partner’s hand. From experience, I knew it would work most of the time.

Jim was always competitive with his Uncle Vic and Uncle Orvie. They played checkers at a furious level. The bet was the checkerboard itself. The loser had to sign away his championship and give the board to the winner. Uncle Vic had possession of the checkerboard when he died unexpectedly. He left the checkerboard and the championship to Jim.

Jim and Uncle Orvie were Mario Karts aficionados. Uncle Orvie’s rheumatoid arthritis twisted his fingers into odd shapes. You would think Jim would have cut his uncle some slack due to his handicap. No way. Those two played game after game. “Let’s go for the best two out of three,” the loser would say. “Now let’s play for the championship—the best nine out of ten!” On and on they played. Each wanting to win the fierce, not-always-friendly competition.

In “You’re Going the Wrong Way” published in A Cup of Comfort for Families Touched by Alzheimer’s I describe my dismal Mario Kart experience. I not only couldn’t beat Jim, I couldn’t keep my kart on the track going in the correct direction.

“I don’t know how to play,” I would tell Jim after I lost another game. “Which buttons do I push?”

His aphasia had limited his communication skills and he couldn’t explain the game to me. “I have no idea,” he would say, using one of his stock phrases.

Right before he zipped Toad across the finish line, he would remind me, “You’re going the wrong way!”

He would tell me how to play if he could, I always reassured myself. Surely that was not the gleam of not-so-friendly competition in his eyes. Or was it?
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