Winning and other ways to lose

Winning and other ways to lose
By Laurel Droz

“For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.” — Ecclesiastes 2:26

“You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You get what you need” — The Rolling Stones

We took a family vacation last week. We went to one of those waterpark resorts with waterslides and a lazy river and a wave pool. Additionally the resort had, to the gleeful amazement of my kids, a full arcade.

The arcade was like a casino with training wheels. You would load money onto a card for credits and use the credits to play the games. If you were some combination skillful, patient and lucky the games would spit out any number of prize tickets. The tickets would then be counted by a machine and added to your account and could then be traded for prizes when you were all done.

It’s easy to get lost in a place like that. The lights flash and the sirens buzz. People squeal in joy as they hit a jackpot and kids throw tantrums as the claw machine inevitably drops the prize they thought they had won.

I’m 36 and places like that make me nervous. They remind me, strangely, of a documentary I saw once featuring a sea creature that was able to pulsate in vibrant bursts of color to attract prey. Small, vulnerable things would come to the rhythmic flashing colors and become so engrossed in the display they never realized they were in danger. That is how I feel in those situations— there is too much to get lost in and it’s too easy to lose focus.

My kids, however, loved it. They ran from game to game, accumulating modest arcade ticket fortunes. I wandered from machine to machine and looked skeptically for how each would rip me off. I did the mental math and realized the game with the best payout in the whole place was a big prize wheel you could spin. Yeah, it wasn’t fun in the way the Batman game my son was playing looked, but it made the most sense. Spin and win. Spin again, win again. So while my kids and husband darted between various machines I stuck with what worked and I won. Piles of tickets spilled from the machine. Heaps of them. Even though I thought back to that fear of losing myself I felt strangely accomplished as I collected more tickets. I thought of Scrooge McDuck swimming in his gold and felt myself the arcade equivalent. I added the piles of tickets to my account each day and on the final day I was ready to cash in my winnings. I went with my children to the prize counter and got a final tally, ready to get something from the top row of prizes. I started looking around at what all my winning had gotten me and realized that everything in front of me was…junk. It was junk.

Cheap trinkets I could get at the dollar store. Plastic baubles you’d find in gum-ball machines. Even some of the highest level of prizes were things you’d find in a 5 Below. I stared, knowing I shouldn’t be surprised but still somehow disappointed. All that effort, all that collecting, all that winning… for this.

And I hadn’t even won the most tickets in our family! For all my calculating, my kids had both amassed greater ticket fortunes while playing games they enjoyed. My husband threw a cursory look at the prizes before splitting his points amongst the kids, raving to me about how much fun he’d had playing a couple of the games he’d found there. He had also gotten more tickets than me, but more importantly had a great time getting them. Standing there in the neon lights it hit me: the reward was the experience and I had missed the experience focusing on the reward.

It’s easy to become cynical as you go through life and begin to feel like in some ways maybe nothing matters. To think maybe we should just spin the wheel, take the safest bet, and resign ourselves to the idea its all flashing lights and cheap prizes.  But that’s not it. It’s not that nothing matters, just that no THING matters.

Ok, that’s an oversimplification. Sure, some items matter a whole lot. But mostly it’s all just stuff. The time we spend, how we spend it, and who we spend it with though—that matters. Maybe we should collect moments instead of mementos. They take up less space and never gather dust. They make us richer for sharing them.

I did end up picking something from the prize wall: a couple of small ceramic collectables my kids liked. I put them on a shelf, and I hope every time I see them I remember—it’s not about what you get, it’s about how you get it. It’s about how you spend your time along the way.

I earned that lesson, and it only cost me 2,617 tickets.