How Kubb Saved My Life

In the summer of 2011, my third child had just turned a year old. I was just beginning to feel reconnected with the world and something approximating normal. My business was having one of its best years, in no small part to my part-time assistant. Yet, despite the optimistic signs all around me – I was still selling and working as if the world would end tomorrow. Projects I wanted to forget for clients I wanted to ignore. My regular exercise routine was pacing between my 30″ monitor and the coffee pot. I wouldn’t leave my house for days at a time. I couldn’t hide it behind my computer any more – I had lost count of Days Since I Last Shaved. My temper was getting short. The slightest inconvenience would set me off. I was making my life and my family’s life worse. Not better. I didn’t know how to stop. I was convinced that if I just worked a little harder, a little faster, held my breath just a little bit longer…everything would magically stabilize and I could exhale.

In early August, two of my favorite people in the world came to visit and set up this strange game in my backyard. A simple game of 11 square wooden blocks and 6 wooden sticks. They were a little unsure of the rules – though they knew that 5 of the wooden blocks were placed on opposing sides, the larger king – placed in middle, and each side took turns throwing the sticks at the opposing sides blocks. The other parts of game play weren’t as clear. – It didn’t matter, we played game after game for was seemed like hours. The futility of throwing wooden sticks at wooden blocks 20 feet away was rewarded by the timeless, satisfying ‘thwak’ when they met.

Kubb – they called it.

Days later, my friends continued on their journey and took their Kubb with them. Kubbless, I returned to my unhealthy downward spiral. Yet, Kubb kept whispering in my ear. A few weeks later I purchased my first Kubb set. It sat mostly unplayed, whispering to me, until my 37th birthday. Where in the middle of a mild, Minnesota winter, I invited a bunch of friends over to play. And we did.

We joked about taking this silly wooden game seriously.
We joked about playing competitively.
We joked about making team shirts.

Then, I found out City of Lakes Loppets hosts a Kubb winter tournament that’s considered the start of the competitive Kubb season. Outside in February – in Minnesota. I pulled together two friends and we entered. Walking into the tournament I remember saying to Jim, “there’s this one part of the gameplay I don’t quite understand.” He shrugged and we waited for our first game.

That first game lasted no more than 5 minutes. Same as the second. In those 2 short games – Jim, Jamie and I got just a faint whiff of the strategy permeating the game and the bowling-esque short game it can create. We tried to apply what we were learning as quickly as we could, clawing our way into the championship bracket.

After that tournament, I set up that pitch in my backyard and practiced. The long game, the short game, everything. The 3 of us would play at lunchtime downtown. It quickly became clear that we needed to hone our game for the U.S. Nationals in July. And we did.

This past summer, when I had a hard problem on a client project – I’d step outside and throw some wood. Sometimes I’d play against myself, other times I’d practice one or two aspects of the game. I found that, in pure Buddhist tradition, a successful practice required no thoughts in my head. A clear, focused mind brought a hit every time. Any single thought guaranteed a miss. It would feel like hours melted away. Yet the clock would say only 30 minutes. Sometimes 45. I was always refreshed.

I started sleeping better. I stopped drinking 2 pounds of coffee a week. My inlaws started commenting on how much color was in my complexion.

At U.S. Nationals – we thought we were ready. We weren’t. We were ice cold. Couldn’t hit anything. But we could hold on. If we didn’t lose immediately, we could drag the game on for a hour. A slow painful slog only relieved by the tournament organizer calling time. Again we clawed our way into the Championship bracket. Again we lost immediately. Two long days in the heat of the midwestern sun. I felt we should have done better. I went home – and didn’t touch my set for a week.

When I set it back up, I found a comfortable throwing style and some new delightful aspects of the game I overlooked before; there’s no technology in Kubb, no internet, no inbox, but it does have lots of friends.

But most importantly – it’s just throwing wood across the lawn. A simple game. A simple game that saved my life.

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