Sibling Rivalry

Earlier this week I put a call out to Facebook asking for editorial help. I found myself stuck with 47 ideas in various stages of disarray — from hastily recorded quotes to nearly complete but only seasonally appropriate posts. The responses were all encouraging (variations of “Just get it out there, Mel!”) except for one. Visiting with my mom for Memorial Day weekend she summoned me urgently letting me know that my brother wanted to talk to me. “If you want something light,” he said, “write about Warcraft.”

But before I go there, you need to know why that moment matters.

My brother is three years my junior, wicked smart, and the nicest guy you will ever meet. When he was born, I immediately took on the role of wise elder, committed to both teaching and protecting the little guy I felt my parents had given me. Now, I know he could have easily rejected my mini-mothering, but he didn’t. Whether by nature or nurture, I’ve never met anyone in my life as comfortable as he is with going with the flow. And everyone who knows me knows I like to direct the flow.

We continued down that path — with me comfortably in the role of prototypical know-it-all bossy big sister — until my dad brought home an Atari.

The timeline is fuzzy, but as the golden age of video games smacked into our family, a new reality emerged. While I had an ability to quickly grasp the key elements of a game in the first handful of plays, my brother had the patience to soak in the patterns of the games. He would memorize the long arcs of the game, while I was only interested on what was on the screen in the moment. So, I would win the early games and then a switch would flip and I would never win again.

It happened head-to-head with Combat and Indy 500. It happened in solo games like Frogger and Pitfall. I was playing the game with my eyes and he was playing the game with his memory. Sometimes my window of opportunity would last for days, others for only hours, but no matter what, if I gave him time to understand the strategy and patterns of a game, it was all over. In 2019 it will be 30 years since the day I wrote “I will never play chess with him again” on a napkin, dating it and hanging it on the fridge. I haven’t.

Flash forward to a day in the late 90’s. We were both attending Michigan State at the time, me to get my MBA, him to get his undergrad in Computer Science. I’d recently done a presentation on the business principles of a game called Warcraft II and suggested that he might like it. We fired up the computers and I gave him the gameplay basics and we kicked off the game.

I admit now that it was underhanded, but at the time I honestly don’t think I realized how much of a head start I had given myself. I had forgotten how many games I had played up to that point, how many pieces of knowledge I took for granted that he didn’t have. I left so much out of my tutorial that he had to ask questions every few minutes, piecing together the gameplay on the fly. Meanwhile, I build up my resources, constructed my defenses, trained my army, and prepared to attack his base. With my advantages, it should have been a rout. Not so much. He went down with good-humor, but he didn’t go down easy.

Later that day he asked whether we were playing Warcraft again. I said no, we both knew who would win and what’s the fun in that?

I still play games with my brother. He is one the smartest people that I know and I like a challenge. We both like deep games that mix strategy with chance and we’re usually well-matched. I have an advantage in randomized games that require quick assessment and spontaneity while he is best with deep patterns and long strategies. Our younger brother is the wild card — he’s the biggest player of us all and he can beat us both if he’s on his game. In my 40’s I recognize that win or lose it’s the time together that matters, not who wins.

But I still really love to win.

Borderlands

It’s noon on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and if you listen closely you can hear the sound of football. There’s the play-by-play and the color commentary, crowd noise and the backseat refereeing. Occasionally the sound of a cheer shouted or swear muttered interrupts my thinking and makes me smile. I’m sitting at the table of my in-law’s house where my husband and his mother are garbed in their respective colors: maize and blue for him, scarlet and gray for her.

They love each other, but they are still fighting the Michigan Ohio war.

One day a year my hometown becomes ground zero for one of college football’s biggest rivalries. They brainwashed us early, telling us in elementary school that we needed to pick a side. I remember two things about being a kid heading into Thanksgiving: learning to draw a turkey by tracing my hand and celebrating Michigan / Ohio State day. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t describe the difference between a quarterback and a quarter pounder or that I wasn’t a fan of either team, it was crystal clear that neutrality wasn’t an option.

My husband is a Michigan fan who had the misfortune of being born on the wrong side of the border to a family that all supports Ohio State. I could never explain how it happened, how he managed to buck the trend and become a loyal and devoted fan of “that team up North.” But recently I watched a documentary called Michigan vs. Ohio State – The Rivalry and it all became clear. The man I love was a two-month old baby when Bo Schembechler took the helm of Michigan in 1969 and beat Ohio State, an undefeated juggernaut defending their national championship from the year before.

He has always loved a great win and his loyalty once gained doesn’t falter; mystery solved.

For someone who has been a begrudging participant in this particular tradition, Michigan football has become a big part of my life. Saturdays in the fall have a force field around them, the three or four hours of the game walled off from any other activities. I knew that I was destined to get married in the summertime, because even our wedding wouldn’t take precedence over a game. Our daughter was born in Ann Arbor on a football Saturday, arriving after a sleepless night and ten hours of labor. Exhausted, we watched the game on a tiny tv while our newborn daughter slept in a plexiglass bassinet next to us. Ask him about the day and he will share his still fresh disappointment that Tyrone Wheatley dropped the ball and cost Michigan the game in the last minutes. Ask me and I’ll bristle, reminding him that it was the best day of his life.

If you’re from the borderland, you have friends and family on each side. My best friend and her husband are Buckeyes while my husband is a Wolverine. The first fall after our daughters were born we drove to their home to watch the game with my daughter dressed up in a Michigan cheerleader outfit. A young woman that I know just had her first child and her infant son spent today wearing a Michigan shirt and an Ohio State pair of pants. When we bought our first house, I remember my husband’s feeling of relief to be living in Michigan. He was ecstatic to be in friendly territory until our neighbor hung an Ohio State flag.

In this strip of land, you never know where the loyalties lie.

I’ve spent most of my life in the borderland and this rivalry has been a part of my life for a long as I can remember. This year’s game will be over soon and it will be just another data point in a long tradition. The people I know and love will head back into their lives, some victorious and others defeated, while I sit on the sidelines wondering yet again why I am not wired to care as deeply as they do. Instead, I’ll hit “publish” on this post and head off to dinner completely unimpaired by the outcome. And, I’ll remind the people I love that there is one great thing about rivalries.

It will always be there next year.