Odds

Let me tell you about a game called Odds, and the way it rules my family’s life. 

At base, Odds is a simple betting game that we made into a familial battle about who can think of the most ridiculous propositions. It is not about restraint or filtering your ideas by how they may be received. You must create an environment where any thought can at least be entertained. That’s probably why I love it so much – it is the blankest slate to receive and be received. No matter the situation, you must bring your whole self, and nothing but the self. 

The game does not require you to actually sit down and play it. It doesn’t begin or end; it’s a state of being everyone has agreed to. When you and any members of this club are together, you simply let loose with any situation you wish to speak into reality, influenced by your surroundings or not. It is, I suppose, a version of Truth or Dare, but more explicitly a part of the gambling world. The general outline:

  1. Think of an experiential bet – something someone else will potentially do for you to witness. For example, let your siblings buy you a complete outfit and wear it for a full work day. 
  2. Propose your bet to your target, along with the odds – introducing the element of chance. “Odds you’ll [action]?” Continuing the example: “Odds you’ll let your siblings buy you an outfit and wear it for a full work day?”
  3. The target fills in the odds: 1 in X. The more adventurous and/or generous they’re feeling, the better odds they’ll give. This is one of the more revealing parts of the game (beyond the bet itself). It’s clearly much more fun if they give you a higher chance of actually having to carry out the bet. Caution is not a virtue here.
  4. Begin the countdown: 3, 2, 1 and you both say a number in the stated range. If you both say the same number, the target must do the action you dreamed up. If not, keep on odds-ing. 

There is such an exhilaration to saying the number number as the other person. I for one can’t keep from screaming and wantonly gesticulating. It’s as if a wondrous door has opened in the universe and you get to go through it. You’ve altered fate somehow, no matter how small a way. You found that world oyster, and the pearl awaits.

Odds dictates how being with my immediate family unfolds. Especially with my siblings, any moment could explode into a series of Odds. Even the most mundane of car rides can turn lethal. Recently, three blocks from my parents’ home, we caught sight of a house under construction. My brother said to me, “Odds you’ll go in the biff [porta-potty] for five seconds?” It was on. I gave him odds I can’t remember, but we said the same number. My dad had to stop the car so I could carry out the bet. As my family watched and documented, I had to run across the street, up the driveway, past the dumpster, and open that nasty, nasty door. Plunged into a hot, cramped darkness, I held my breath and counted. After an eternity, I kicked that door back open and launched myself down the driveway and into the car. My brother and dad had been yelling out of the car at me the entire time.

Not seeing the possibilities of the format yet? Forthwith, some Odds my family has engaged in:

-In an Embassy Suites in Lincoln, Nebraska, we came upon a bevy of beverage bottles. It was the morning after a big football game, and the entire hotel had imbibed heavily in celebration. My brother, perhaps the most watchful for Odds ideas, saw a nearly full wine bottle (Barefoot Moscato, naturally), and Odds’d me that I would take a drink from it. I am normally an enthusiastic good Odds giver, but…the cornfed Midwestern germs on that thing! My brother won out in the Odds declaration, and I had to do it. I hefted that giant bottle, swallowed my pride, and swallowed the wine. Then I ran. Both in case any housekeeping staff saw me debase myself and to go gargle with Purell. 

-During a family trip to northern Minnesota, I became particularly inspired to do an Odds around the Ben Franklin, an eclectic, hyper-local general store-type establishment that once sold slivers of wood with renderings of holographic Jesus on them. In my most epic Odds idea, I asked my brother whether my sister and I could pick him out an outfit from this store, and that he would wear it for an entire day at work. This was enhanced by my dad offering to make sure the boss enforced the full day policy. (They text about cars, you see.) My brother gave his insane Odds: 1 in 3. I prayed to holographic Jesus and we said our numbers. When we uttered the same one, my soul leapt out of my body and I ceased to exist for a moment. I probably yelled, though we were in a restaurant. We headed straight to the Ben Franklin for outfit picking time. The good old BF is like a north woods Walmart – items for everyday life but also camouflage for any and all occasions. My sister and I had some tough choices to make. After combing through every option on those clothing racks (and making my brother try on some camo coveralls with no shirt), we settled on a black t-shirt with three deer on it that said “Survival of the Fittest” and a camo hat with a zippable front flap. (We were nice and let him wear his own shorts). The next week, we woke up to texts with photos of this outfit in action at the air traffic control tower. Perfection. He did have to wear the hat with the face flap unzipped due to work necessities, but it was still a masterpiece I brought into the world. Not to mention revenge fuel for my brother…

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The outfit in action around 5am

-Some Odds involve dredging up old memories the betting club shares. When my siblings and I were all home for some holiday, my sister got the idea to Odds my brother if he would go to the concessions stand at a hockey rink she used to work at (it’s Minnesota, okay), buy a hot dog (we call them rollie weenies), and eat it. My sister had described these rollie weenies made by apathetic teens in great, disgusting details many times before, so this was not an especially appetizing prospect, even for your average hot dog appreciator. Once again, my brother lost at Odds, and we got in the car to collect my sister’s reward. Sadly, I had to stay in the car while he purchased the rollie weenie, so I did not witness whatever happened inside the hockey rink, but the bet dictated he couldn’t actually eat the thing until we got back home. We bore the special weenie back to the house like a tubular king, blessed as it was. Then my brother broke out the ketchup and went to town. He survived, having eaten a piece of history for his siblings’ giggling enjoyment.

-Too many episodes to recount involving flights of disgusting shots.

As you can see, my brother and I are the hardest core Odds players in this family. Everyone else plays it safe and is much less fun. 

Odds brings with it ascendance or humiliation, and a foundation of communal weirdness – you are continually spurred on, whether you are basking in your good luck and seeming power or serving the whims of your fellow bettors. You have all entered this pact and you are all witnesses to a ridiculous reality you’ve created.

I’m sure sociologists have found humans have been doing some form of Odds since the dawn of our time on earth. Society in general is a collective gambling agreement, weighted more towards some than others. But Odds has shown me so much about my human bonds. We push and pull, and a Newtonian relationship ensues. You give and you get, and no matter how crazy things become, you really never know what will happen next. I now realize what those nice British ladies meant when they sang about spicing up your life.

In my family, in our endless Odds, we gamble on each other, pull the slots on our own bravery/stupidity. We elicit the crazy in each other, all within a world we made and continue making. We are communicating desires and testing each other – with a touch of Schadenfreude, perhaps, but it’s more about enabling creativity and giving carte blanche to each other’s weirdness. When else can we be so ourselves? 

Odds is exhilarating, embarrassing, revealing, bonding, all the -ings you’d want with the people you think you know the best. Everyone is large, and everyone contains multitudes. Odds is a rare window into that. I hope you can take these instructions and these stories and go forth and place fun bets with your friends and family. May the Odds be with you.

 

Seventy-Two

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Earl and Ruth Brindley on their wedding day – July 20, 1947

They were 23 and nearly 23. Young but already lifetimes into life. 

Two years before, he had come back from 25 B-17 combat missions over WWII Europe, and was training to go to the Pacific theater. Death was behind him, but silently crouched ahead. Thankfully, the war ended, and he came home. 

She walked in a commanding fashion. She didn’t have to say anything, but she did when she wanted to. That was the contained power she wielded all her life, in a place that stretched far and wide but was still nowhere. 

At some point, their paths crossed. She walked in her arresting way, across a street he was driving on. The vectors, though exact and easily missed, were joined. Though he was at the steering wheel, she was in complete control. Their horizons merged but expanded. 

Words and rings exchanged in a backyard, among the trees. Both in suits, hers skirted. Fully suited to each other, but each with their own constellations. Later that night, those stars appeared in the sky. They would see them on their honeymoon, driving out west among the natural stone monuments. 

In the decades to come, she would guide both of them. He could build things and fix them, and so could she. 

July 20, 1947

 

Earl, Aerial

He was a boy in a plane.

It was 1945, and Earl Brindley took pictures in the sky. Of factories and formations, groups of hulking but graceful planes and the patterns of buildings they flew over.

My grandfather was a member of a ten-man crew flying B-17s over Europe in the last, bitter winter and spring of World War II. He was the radio operator, communicating the location of both his plane and the others in the formation. He would also have to man a rear-facing .50-caliber gun, and take photos on missions. So it was part of his job to document this war, and a changing face of combat.

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Earl’s outfit, the Eighth Air Force, was a new kind of operation. Instead of carrying out bombing missions at night, as was standard, they were to attack Germany during the day, open to counterattack by the Luftwaffe’s deadly forces. The B-17 was a new kind of bombing aircraft designed for these missions, meant to carry heavy loads over long distances. Boeing had worked to create this aerial battleship – its Vice President, Clairmont L. Egtvedt, described “searching for a flying dreadnought.” Upon seeing the B-17 on one of the first flights, a journalist dubbed it the “flying fortress.”

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Attacking by daylight would allow bomber crews more accuracy on their targets – railways, factories, and other war mechanisms of the enemy. To avoid the anti-aircraft guns, the B-17 had to be able to fly into the stratosphere. At these heights, crews endured combat conditions both common across military situations, but ratcheted up by the rigors of flight: extremely high altitude, cold like nowhere on earth, bombardment from all sides (fire from both anti-aircraft guns on the ground and fighter planes in the air), and incredible noise: all rammed into a reinforced steel cylinder rocketing through the sky. They flew into the unknown.

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Obsessed – Part 1: The Peculiar Magic of George Washington Memes

There is so much weirdness I think about all the time, varied and seemingly disparate things running through my mind. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)  I’ve always been inclined to dig further into the shiny bits and bobs that catch my eye, but what about when those things are…not too deep to begin with? For example, what stupid phrases could I caption every medieval painting in this gallery with? What happens when a stalagmite would rather be a stalactite? Why does pro tennis player John Isner appear both extremely boring and also evil as he is tall (6’10”)? I don’t shy away from this, as anyone I’ve ever talked to has learned. I’ve embraced the shallows. I’ll forever be drawn to what are perhaps life’s dumber moments, its lower brows, its cruise ship-caliber offerings. And I need an outlet for these preoccupations. To borrow from one of my first obsessions, what follows the first in a series of dispatches from the Mixed-up Files of Ms. Claire G. Brindley.

I can’t learn about history without trying to insert a voice into historical figures’ heads. I can’t go to museums or landmarks without wanting to know what all the people involved were really thinking. Take when my sister and I recently went to Glensheen in Duluth, MN – we lost our minds making up things for the people in the old mansion’s paintings to say. (Try it sometime at a historic estate near you; it’ll really spice things up.) We probably remember so much more about the place’s history than we would have otherwise, albeit through a crazy lens of our own imaginings. This is why George Washington memes are so amusing and absorbing to me.

The internet tells me that these words in Comic Sans imposed on historical renderings of a certain Founding Father are called “Sassy George Washington.” Not what I’d prefer to call them – I like to think that these are the kinds of thoughts that went through the man’s brain as he commanded forces in the Revolutionary War, crossed the Delaware on a fancy barge, and struck epic poses for history. Through it all, he gets annoyed at his coworkers, has mad donut cravings, and he just wants to dance. So more like “George is just like us.”

In this world, Washington is a crabby man-child who would like some animal crackers and some peace. A vaunted figure is brought down a few pegs, but not to any detriment. (You can read more about how many enslaved people lived at Mount Vernon over the years for that.) Far from an idealized figurehead, he’s way more fun in these memes, a flawed human who could use a nap after ushering a new nation into the world. Midwifery is hard work, George would like you to know.

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Lightning: After-image

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It’s funny which things from the past are embedded there, like moths in amber, visible but immobile, and which things jump out and demand to be known again.

The spirit of this photograph is strong as ever. It is mysterious and commanding, with lightning strikes of memories. It houses an ectoplasm that keeps it moving through realms.

I fully believe this spirit is there. It breathes. When I look at this image, its motion captivates me. My grandpa Earl dashes forward, his arms wide, beguiling a jumping dog. Another dog leaps down from a tree split in half, the trunk bent and the blond wood exposed. It appears lightning-struck, a sudden change in form. The photo’s simple mysteries unfold in a long-forgotten summer day. Handwriting on the back indicates it’s July 1984, and the feeling of wonder from that day is preserved.

The dogs and Earl are in the backyard of my grandparents’ house in Atlantic, Iowa. The scene emanates the ghosts of a heated thunderstorm, the morning after a heavy rain and lightning fest ripped the night open. I’m not sure who took the photo – perhaps my aunt, as those are her dogs frolicking around the frame. The lens captures such a sweet ceremony, a joy that Earl bestowed on the things he loved. That joy streams through the decades, the love sustaining a family.

This image is a window I frequent – its energy is still strong, it depicts a realm I want to embody. The ectoplasm inhabits the photograph, manifesting a spirit I am always trying to conjure. I want to know how the lens came to freeze this particular moment, limbs and paws midair, the tree’s raw insides opened up. The person on the other side of the camera somehow knew.

The spirit dances inside this photo, just as Earl did that day in July. The storm’s energy is still in the air, and the dogs nip it up, reveling in Earl’s presence. Maybe I put as much voodoo in this image as I believe is there, but it still holds power.

A Suitable Wedding

She stepped off the curb on Main Street, walking with her friend to the Spot for lunch. He was at a stoplight in his Dodge, his brother riding shotgun. Earl saw Ruth, and knew.

It was summer 1945. Half the world was still at war. Ruth Palmer was a few years out of high school in Atlantic, Iowa, working at the telephone company. She knew how to wear a suit. Earl Brindley was back at home after completing 25 combat missions as a radio operator in a B-17 Flying Fortress. His geography had been madly expanded in his months of training and service, flying over a continent tearing itself apart. Ruth had stayed in the same grid of streets, but held a whole cosmos in her head.

These small-town citizens had gone to the same high school, but their paths didn’t cross until she walked the hypotenuse in Earl’s field of vision that day. She was three months older, with a round face and a ramrod build that radiated confidence. He was a skinny farm boy who looked to the skies. Once they met, their eyes fixed on the same horizon.

Earl saw Ruth through the windshield as she walked across the street and turned into the Spot. Away from him, but still electrifying. A heavy heat gripped the afternoon. Ruth shook a current back into things. Earl had to talk to this woman who could command such attention. After his combat tour in Europe, he was set for another in the Pacific theater, but for the moment, Ruth knocked that uncertain future away. They were barely a year past 20 years old, but several lifetimes in.

Earl was just on leave, and would return to flight training later that summer. His older brother Leo had been a prisoner of war in Germany until mid-May. On different ends of an Allied prisoner airlift rescue mission, the brothers shared airspace that month but did not confirm the other’s continued existence again until home. They drove that Dodge around town, having already seen more of life than they ever thought possible. Nothing could stop them again, until Earl went back into service. These were important days, as they may have come to represent a drawn-out wake for one of the men.

Ruth was no stranger to death, either. Her younger sister Leah Mary had died unexpectedly in infancy. Her older brother John was a Marine, still somewhere in the Pacific, and each day brought the chance of a telegram carrying bleak news. Her father was the town pharmacist, making potions against pain and suffering. But Ruth kept going along her own path. In photos, she finds the lens and defies definition. She is, in whatever moment caught on film, calmly standing in her own time.

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Ruth Palmer, date unknown

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Sweetness

Every Halloween, my dad conducted a trick-or-treating candy roundup of our pillowcase hauls and shipped it to Iowa, giving my grandpa Earl a healthy supply of chocolate for the year to come, which he kept in the freezer. He especially liked Snickers. He did not practice moderation when it came to sweetness.

Earl put sugar on everything. If it was not already candy, it would be made so. He would fix us bowls of strawberries, cut sharp against his rough thumb and dusted with a generous layer of sweetness. He made us milkshakes by hand, carefully mixing until reaching the perfect consistency. He would spend hours in the driveway churning ice cream. Any amount of effort was worth it for the sugary reward. When he owned an auto body, he made Christmas baskets full of oranges and gave them out in his small Iowa community. This was all his infinite kindness.

Earl came from a family that farmed for larger outfits. Born in 1924, he grew up in what must have been a long strand of near-deprivation. His father worked constantly, and did not let the family go hungry, but there was not room for much else, let alone pleasurable tastes. Earl worked for the family, too. The first time he would have had reliable access to any form of sugar was once he joined the Army Air Corps in 1943. Rations of humble Hershey bars introduced a new palate and a new sense of possibility.

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Earl, mid- to late 1930s

Earl never lost that sense of wonder about sugar. It brought out his own sweetness, and he kept his hand outstretched, always with a pile of sugar cubes. He had seen wartorn Europe from the air in 1945, and knew what death looked and smelled like. His war was unprecedented in American aviation, and the destruction he witnessed could have turned him against people forever. But he found that sugar was its own kind of language, one he quickly learned how to speak. It was a frosting for all the things he couldn’t forget.

Everything Earl built was tinged with this sweetness, too – little cars that could really be driven, for his kids and grandkids to race around, model airplanes that called back to his time in the air, even a riding mower and a back porch. He was always creating something. There was nothing this man couldn’t make, and his creations were full of kindness. All of it – the slow-churned ice cream, the contraptions – could have been produced in other forms without as much effort on his part, but that didn’t matter to him. He was putting a little sugar into his people. He was a giving tree with a cherry on top.

After he died, people showered his family with sugar. I remember a kitchen full of other people’s baking dishes, cakes and pies, and a Willy Wonka factory of chocolate. Someone brought monkey bread, and there was ice cream at his funeral reception. Sugar was really a form of love. Once he discovered the possibility of sweetness, Earl decided it belonged everywhere.

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Earl with grandson TJ, early 1990s