On most days, I go camping. I bring a cooler full of Coca-Cola. The cans are bright red and stay ice cold, submerged by ice chipped and rough. I am not above risking summer frostbite when I plunge my hand into the cooler to retrieve a Coke, and I drink it while I pitch my tent on the green grass or uneven dirt. Nearby, I set the can on a picnic table, a table often cracked and splintered brown, a table sometimes chained to the Earth by a buried barrel of cement, and I sip between tasks.
I set a chess board up in my tent. It is modest with plastic pieces and a roll-up blue board scuffed with the stains of s'mores, cola-rings, and the deep scent of National Park Smoke. Outside, I may also set one up on the table, a polished, wooden set with heavy pieces. Before dark, I'm not above setting up holiday lights on my campsite, bright neon colors that glow in the darkness.
Of course, I craft a campfire too, and I have plenty of friends to go around on occasion. These people visit and help me set up the remainder of my gear. Among other chores, there are sleeping bags to unroll, air mattresses to inflate, and a camp stove with table to unpack. In time, we find places around the campfire, using stumps, coolers, or flame-retardant camping chairs to sit, and we do not drink beer, but we drink artisan sodas, glass bottles sporting attractive labels. Sometimes these folks spend the night. If they do, I arrange my chess pieces on the picnic table, and we play by the lantern night, the pawns casting mighty shadows on the ground. In the summertime, I like the Ruy Lopez best.
Other times, I live in a small house where a wide picture window with grids overlooks a wide lawn by a country road. In the winter, the lawn is a smooth white with shallow dips and wells from the uneven Earth. I have a chess set on a luxurious board set up by the window, the pieces standing at attention as ordered by Morphy, Capbalanca, or even Greco as part of my studies.
The pieces are a heavy wood, and half of them are a rich ebony. When blizzards come, I like to study the Scandinavian beside the window as the snow tumbles down. It is very Nordic feeling, and I drink hot chocolate or a good herbal tea. Sometimes, I will rehearse opening moves for hours, plunging that queen forward to capture on D5 on move 2 or shuttling the knight to F6 to play as Fischer recommenced. Meanwhile, so-called "Slow TV" from Northern Europe might play on a wide television screen, or good musical albums from the early 1990s might be heard. If it's the latter, many times it is Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville. Other times it is something else.
I must also be honest about the fall. In the village a few miles from my winter home, the leaves flutter off trees each October in pleasing shades of orange, yellow, red, and brown. They make a satisfying crunch beneath my feet when I stroll the sidewalks during the day, dodging into antique shops for a peek or browsing tattered paperbacks at a used book store I haunt.
I also duck into the small chess club on the upper level of an old building in the village, an Old-Firehouse-Of-A-Building with chipped red bricks and a charming fire-pole I keep pestering the owner to restore, but he lacks the funds to do so. However, the windows in the building have been replaced, it's no longer drafty, and of course, there is a fridge full of soda, red cans of Coca-Cola included, that can be bought for fifty cents. I often drink one while I play opponents on Tuesday nights.
As Thanksgiving approaches, the prayers of turkeys in the autumn air, I often toss around the Scotch game. I feel disappointment when this devolves into a Four Knights Game, but I don't hold it against an opponent for long. As black, I do love that obscure queen line, and I even bought one of the few books entirely devoted to the it. During bouts of sincere chess repentance, I realize I should study it more, if only for the mere Tourist Trap novelty of executing that obscure, black queen maneuver on Thanksgiving afternoons.
Now, come the spring, yes, I do enjoy the French Defense, manfully resisting the exchange variation as white and taking what comes as black, outside of my window as raindrops fall and perennials begin to bloom. There are daffodils on my property, naturally as an token for Wordsworth, but there are also tulips. From the spring rain, it may be too wet to camp some days, but I won't neglect to grill outside, even in a drizzle, a brand of cheap, generic soda in hand, a Supermarket Logo visible, while I nurse hot dogs, hamburgers, steaks, chicken, and skewers loaded with good vegetables with friends. Sometimes, these pals will play blitz with me in a gazebo on my property, the spring time rain tapping on the shingles above, and it is refreshing to break the winter slog with such quick and lithe piece movements, with the brisk tapping of the chess clock matching the rhythm of rainfall.
During the (American) football season, from the stands of one of the older NFL stadiums, silly hats mounted on the heads of my friends, I cheer for my team from the Pre-Season onward. I bellow loudly, filling my lungs with a tattered circus tent full of autumn air, in an attempt draw the visiting team off sides. If I am watching the game at home, I don't bellow as much. Instead, I might play Internet chess while These American Athletes, athletes with such impressive-to-the-science-statistics, scramble on the screen like colorful chessmen. The game is displayed on an expensive, wide-n'-curved television screen mounted to the wall near leather couches draped in seasonal blankets. At this time, I also might set up my board in front of the crashes, clacks, and clatters of football to practice opening systems during commercials. I might do this even during the game, shuttling pieces between sessions of wiping away the grease of chicken wings, pizza, and Coca-Cola from my happy fingers.
I am hesitant to mention that I also play collectible card games from time to time too. I have booster boxes displayed in my chess study, located on a nice shelf near paintings and photographs I admire, Ansel Adams and Edward Hopper, for example, and for the price of simple pleasures, I can crack a pack from these boxes to discover if I have opened any cards of value. I've learned that A good Magic the Gathering deck is like good opening preparation for the chess board. When the company releases new sets, such as Khans of Tarkir, it is like the entire game is reset again, giving you more opening preparation to make in a card game. But collecting Magic cards is just another side avenue of chess. I know it isn't as real a deal as 64 squares and majestically carved woods lovingly weighted.
Perhaps it stands to reason too that as a chess lover, I am a book lover too. I read Moby Dick constantly, and my profession states my philosophy of life according to such a rich text. If you could stack the most enriching tomes beside a polished and purple-hearted chessboard in a masculine den or library, those stately editions of books would be: Moby Dick, Bleak House, Leaves of Grass, 1st edition, and Updike's Rabbit Quartet of novels, those latter books digging deeply into the existence of the middle class American male, sensitive and intelligent enough to understand his own insignificance, through the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s, back when chess was still unsolved, a beautiful forest of trees not yet massacred by the axes of computers.
But let's get back to camping. You just can't beat it. Sometimes I sit with my Coca-Cola, Campfire, and Chess Set and marvel at how little it takes sometimes to be happy. Of course, I am versed enough in sociology to know I enjoy the simple things because I can blissfully descend downward into them, and I know I can return, kicking towards the surface, to a more secure middle class existence if I chose. Still, to have the option and the budgetary advantage of becoming rich simply through wanting little is a blessing in my life.
I also watch movies. I am fortunate enough to live in a town with a Beat movie theater that only sports a small splash of screens. However, the fixtures and carpentry are old, and when the lights are on you can see the cracks and chips in the plaster walls and ceiling. But such things to not matter when you are Awake in the Dark, as the late Roger Ebert was prone to say, while watching the flicker of silver images on a movie screen. I buy popcorn and Coca-Cola, sometimes Cherry, and sometimes indulge in Dots or JuJuFruits, the latter candy being the best because it is so vintage and simply can't be rushed thorough, gummy candies with backbone and soul that refuse to allow you to eat them all during the trailers they are so sticky and chewy. Naturally, I like it when they play chess games in the movies, and with Eagle Eyes, I attempt to spot the flaws on the board.
In a room near my chess den, I have a shelf of movie texts. The most common are essays by stronger minds about the strongest films. These texts act as a type of checklist on what to view next. Roger Ebert wrote three of them, and then died, and his friends allowed his ghost to release a fourth in fragments. Kenneth Turan, an old NPR buddy, is on the shelf too, and others. I find it's good to have a road map the Visual Arts, and this buffet of film criticism makes me feel rich.
Of literal buffets and food, I don't view myself as particularity high maintenance. I'm a guy who enjoys a frozen lasagna or frozen pizza cooking in the oven while playing games of blitz over the Internet, only cracking open the can of Caffeine Free Coca-Cola Classic when I have the "pigs on the back rank", a delicious skewer or fork on the horizon, an upcoming, critical pawn promotion, or other victory assuring move. Still, even though I enjoy those masculine frozen slabs of Italian food found at the Super Center, I enjoy cooking.
I can make my own pizza. This includes making the dough and sauce from scratch, ignoring the Sagan quip I should create the universe first to do so. I find plenty of the universe within the scents of cooking. (For example, the aroma of pizza sauce simmering is heavenly.) Naturally, cold sushi rolls are a delight, and a good evening would be ordering plenty of them to feast upon during binges of Internet chess and Netflix viewing, the bright, red logo of the streaming service soothing to me on a summer night, all while the wind rustles into my home through an open window and through a filter of green leaves.
Please do not mistake this love of food for an unhealthy lifestyle. I'm not a fitness nut, but I do strive to be healthy enough to pound a marathon or ultramarathon out on the pavement and trails several times a year. I've completed 50 mile races on three occasions. I'm not fast, but I get the job done. I think about different topics while I run.
Sometimes those thoughts are about Capablanca or Morphy, but not usually. I reflect on my opinions too while I run from aid station to aid station in marathon and beyond circuit. Some of these thoughts might be unorthodox. For example, Oprah is an Industrialist. Bill Gates is too, and both have more in common with Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford than any teacher, camp counselor, or neighborhood parent. This reality angers me. Certain chess openings anger me too, and I think about these while running and camping as well.
Yet thankfully, more often, I think of things that please me. Such items include the noise of rocks babbled over by water in a hidden creek and the illusion of fireflies and campfire sparks becoming the stars of tomorrow in the night sky.
I also listen to radio. Once, when I was a young man, I heard a fellow say he had been listening to NPR for the last 17 years. (He would have it on at work, and he said this when I asked him about it.) It seemed like a nice thing to have a loyalty to a radio station, and I started listening to NPR that very moment. I enjoy the information, although some of the personalities irk me with their subtle spin. There is one that I suspect will be off the air soon, she is so often out sick, and her theme music makes me think of grandmotherly teacups rattling. I might miss her when she is gone though, how knows?
What I do know, however, is that the sound of a tent zipper in the summertime juxtaposed with the the pop and crackle of a campfire (and the pop and hissing fizz of a Coca-Cola can) and the scent of wood smoke tinged with marshmallow are all divine. So NPR personalities don't really matter. I have campgrounds, and I can surely beat them at bullet chess, just like I probably just beat you.
But victory isn't everything to me. I mean, it does mean a lot, and that is why I rehearse those openings, but I know there is much more to life. Obviously, camping is one of those, but love it too. Hesitating Beauty from the album Mermaid Avenue Vol. 1 makes me smile. It has an outdoorsy twang and makes me think of the love of my own life.
She is swell, and she doesn't even play chess. Once, she offered to play me, and she thought intently before each of her moves looking down into her lap. Of course, she was trying to use a chess application to to help her game. It was cute, and I don't begrudge her for it. However, if I suspect you are using a type of chess engine, the story is entirely different.
On dates with my sweetheart, I don't mind the simple things. This includes a late breakfast, shopping at the mall, a rich purchase from Starbucks, hitting an afternoon movie, and finishing the evening at a restaurant owned by Darden Corporation, although other places will do. Naturally, we go camping together from time to time, joining up with extended family, massive RVs crunching gravel, my modest tent rustling in the summer air. The campfire in the evening is best after the younger ones go to bed, children and grandchildren.
I think my love's eyes look beautiful in the firelight. Yet before I met her, I still camped and played chess and enjoyed some Coca-Cola. We had the Caffeine-Free version during the holidays and that memory remains strong. I camped with dad, of course, many times in the rain, but also as a family. Yet it was probably the most frequent with the Boy Scouts.
Once, when I was a young Scout the older, cooler kid climbed out of his tent some puddle-ish Saturday morning. "How did you sleep?" Asked the Scoutmaster. "Fine," he said. "Except for the fact we had Lake Erie in our tent." At 12, I found this quip about the rain clever and funny. I even peeked inside the tent and saw a puddle of rain mopped up by corners of sleeping bags and two plastic tubs of gummy bears from the local grocery store. The Lake Erie comment and the gummy bears in the tent seemed so cool to me. He was a great Scout. He was older and kind. I never had a chance to play him in chess though. In truth, if I had, I'd like to think he would beat me. Then he would ruffle my hair and say something clever again. Maybe that person can be you.
If it's not, that's okay. I know I am still bound to meet plenty of worthwhile people in life. For example, at Friday Night Magic, particularly at pre-release events, I meet many. Forgive me, but I really do enjoy those gatherings. Cracking open brand new cards and trying to find the secret synergies between them is enjoyable until well past midnight. I strongly believe I am a better Magic player because of my chess games.
Since I adore bullet and blitz games, my mind is sharp and quick enough to assess board situations quickly. Of course, I also study the new cards for weeks before the pre-release, much like I study chess openings as I listen to the album Bee Thousand with it's basement muffles and faux-bootlegs while sipping a glass of soda.
At this point I think I should mention Coca-Cola again. I do this because there are so many different types of Coca-Cola, just like there are so many different types of people. There really is a Coke and Chess Game out there for anyone. Chess is a great equalizer...anyone can play it. And Coca-Cola is like that to. In fact, here is my favorite Coke quote by the pop artist Andy Warhol:
"What's great about this country is America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good."
Amen to that. I would even expand it to nearly every variety of Coca-Cola. Cherry Coke and Vanilla Coke are obviously the best of the bunch, as are the defunct flavors, such as Black-Cherry Vanilla. What I wouldn't give to have that purple and white can back on the shelves, Black-Cherry Vanilla Coke by the chessboard at the campsite. Perhaps you can join the fight to bring it back.
I wish it to be known I am firm believer in the value of porches and decks. My home has both of them. A porch on the front of a home provides a splendid place of welcoming, an invitation to the neighborhood if you will, and I believe it to be a sturdy symbol of hospitality. Meanwhile, a deck provides a place to relax when a campground isn't available. A fire pit can be installed, and Coca-Cola can be enjoyed.
My front porch extends the length of my semi-rural home, a location sporting an area code recognized for wide open spaces, green fields, and long roads between gatherings of trees. In the fall, I try to add a few Tokens of Autumn for myself and passerby's to enjoy on the porch. One year, this involved creating a sign from a flush picket fence that stated: Welcome Home, Autumn, in a script suited to autumn colors and breezy leaves.
In the winter, this same porch shows the muffled shapes of furniture covered in snow. There are also Christmas lights, crystal white ones happy and bright in the night, and I hope lonely travelers can see them from the road. A Christmas tree is always visible through the wide picture window, and I shuffle the color of the Christmas tree lights each season.
I also have a holiday chess set displayed that wondrous time of year. There are regular pawns, but reindeer for knights and elves for bishops. Chimneys, naturally, are the rooks, and Mr. and Mrs. Claus take the role of king and queen. In truth, I find this set up to be a bit odd. Santa's wife is really a peripheral character during the holiday season, and the Chess Queen is so central to a chess game, it feels strange to put so much emphasis on her each holiday over the chessboard. But, so it goes.
Coca-Cola, naturally, goes well with the holidays, and all chess players, campers, and citizens should know it was Coca-Cola who help solidified the image of a large and jolly man dressed in red with a white beard as Santa. Their advertisements, drawing upon that classic poem, helped cement this idea, and I don't begrudge the company for it. Nor, do I think, should you.
I also love long runs during the winter season, eight miles at the least on meandering roads. The shock of white snow and spindly tree branches tickling the brutally cold sky never ceases to stun me silent on late winter afternoons. Later, it is a delight to come home to a lighted Christmas tree in a warm home, soon showered and changed into a pajama bottoms and a hoodie with playful socks from Old Navy, listening for the kettle whistle of herbal tea, preparing for Netflix and Internet chess. I hope you and I just enjoyed a game played under such wintry circumstances.
After Christmas is over, and after the white and brutal months of January, February, and early March are retired, I enjoy watching the snow melt on my property. The bright green of wet grass and the happy clumps of melting snow remind me a quilt. It spreads across my lawn, and it makes me eager to be out and about again. Usually, at this time of a year, a fragment of a Frost poem will cross my mind, a dabble of thought about the dirt tucked away in melting snow piles being likened to the fine, black print of a newspaper I neglected to read. Such fragments of poetry that drift into my mind please me, and I count myself blessed to have thus far lived a life Well Read. Perhaps you enjoyed that privilege too.
You should read. If you don't read much, you should begin. If you read enough, you should read more. Reading is a technology, and it allows thoughts to travel through time for decades, centuries, and millennium. If this doesn't give you pause, I believe it should. Books warm a room, and the nearly-floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in my den stuffed pleasantly with chess books is a roaring fire. They are organized by opening, and since my life is short I dedicate a month or two towards developing specific openings.
This practice has made openings seem like seasons to me, and I find this delightful. They say chess is processed in the brain in the same area as music, and just as a song on the radio can take you back to a poolside so many summers ago, chess positions do they same for me as the seasons rotate through their cycle.
In truth, I hesitate to write this. If you have read this far, it may give you insight into my game. I may lose countless game for spoiling this information, but I feel it must be done, and if you have read this far anyway, you deserve a peek. So, in confession, the chess books on my shelf are organized by opening and by month. Below, you will find my pattern. I hope you enjoy it. Also, I hope you may adopt it also.
February: French Defense
March and April: The Sicilian
June and July: Queen Pawn Openings
July and August: The Ruy Lopez
September: A Grab Bag
October: The Alekhine
November: The Scotch Game
December: The King's Gambit
I also mull over dedicating similar seasonal time to Great Chess Players. Someday, I might even create a calendar of chess study for that avenue too. However, for now, in this season of my life, I only have time for one seasonal cycle, and I do strive to make the most of it. I hope it showed during our games.
Lately, I have also been enamored with the poet Donald Hall. Residing at Eagle Pond Farm deep in his eighties, a scraggly beard he has warned all, especially his undertaker, not to cut, Hall still writes, thinks, mourns, breathes, and exists. I take solace in his existence, and I will greatly miss him when he is gone. Hall states his fifties and sixties were the most enriching decades of his life, and I take inspiration from that statement.
I also feel warmth in a line of text he wrote autobiographically:
In childhood nothing happened.
I doubt that fewer sentences could be pregnant with more meaning than the one above, and I think of it often.
At this point, I feel it might be appropriate to write about the color of chessboards. I say this because during our games together, we probably did not have similar ones, and I find this thought interesting. However, if you would like to guarantee the colors of our Internet chessboards happen to match, you can observe the colors, once again ordered by month, below.
January: Blue and White
February: Red and White
March: Green and White
April: Pink and Blue
May: Purple and White
June: Gold and White
July: Red and Blue
August: Black and White
October: Orange and Black
November: Brown and White
December: Red and Green
I should add these colors match the chessboards I rotate by monthly on my coffee table, the same table in front of the wide and curved television screen that feeds a gloriously steady diet of film and American football. I had the boards custom made from wood, and the squares are a bold two inches. It is a delight to welcome each new month of my life with a new board. In time, I will grow old, and there will be a time I set out the Red and White board for the final February Studies of the French Defense time. When that month arrives, I will probably not even know it. And yet the sense of this ignorance casts its own kind of peculiar radiance.
When speaking of such things as mortality, it is worthy it to return again to Donald Hall and his Eagle Pond Farm. Hall teaches me about the depths of happiness available through simply staying put. He gave up tenure in the early 1970s to move to his farm with his love, content to have a somewhat hardscrabble life full of dates rotating soundlessly on the spokes of the year, without excessive demands. He did this to write poetry. His bride now deceased, he continues to reside where company brings gratitude and their departure brings relief.
I too am a product of my location and region, and I find joy in using it as a blanket to swaddled me from birth to death. The rotation of seasons, the familiar roads, the well trodden hiking trails and campground, all of these things are comforting to me. The patterns of my chess games, some openings lines having been rehearsed and executed for decades, does the same.
I am surprised it has taken me so long to mention comic books. I have an impressive collection of them, and they sit in long, white boxes in a well decorated room where winter sunlight shines brightly through the windows. The carpet is almost an industrial blue, but there are shelves and comfortable reading chairs. Some are large and constructed from brown leather. Also, there are displays of comic books on the walls. You can find occasional figurines too.
Like many things in life, I've seen the two choices and placed my allegiance with one. For example, you must know by now that I select Coke over Pepsi, and I heartily subscribe to DC over Marvel.
I should mention I am older enough to consider my own mortality, although I feel confident I still have decades to yet unspool. At times, though, I consider the future fate of my body, and I toy with cremations, burials, and a somewhat obligatory donation to science. And yet, visualizing the future classroom where I may lay, a discrete cloth over my face, gives me pause as I consider yet-unborn-twenty-somethings first timidly, the respectfully, then with cavalier gusto using bolt cutters on my rib cage, I rethink.