Bay Leaf Game Theory (and Other Lessons from My Mother)

By Don Hall

When I was a kid, we weren't exactly flush for a lot of my growing up. Granted, I wouldn't have known it because my mother often worked several jobs to feed my sister and I. My mother would not let us wallow in the bucket of self pity that she saw in others. Whenever we started feeling "poor" she'd grab us up and spend the last of our money to take us out for a big night at Shakey's Pizza. "Poor people don't eat at Shakey's Pizza so we aren't poor," she'd demand.

It's a lesson I've kept with me all my life.

Another (of many bizarre perspectives my mother had including the idea of "adventures" that were usually dangerous and reckless but always fun) lesson was the idea that anything was fun if you made a game out of it.

She used to put a Bay Leaf in any pot of whatever she scraped together for us to eat. The rule of the game was that whomever got the Bay Leaf in his or her bowl won a prize. Sometimes the prize was just my mom applauding the non-achievement like it was the fucking Noble Prize; sometimes it was dessert or a dollar. Whatever. It didn't really matter because it made eating her Spanish rice (white rice with tomato sauce and onions) feel like a feast.

The benefit of the lesson that anything could be palatable if you made it a game is that I've never been one to hate almost any job I've ever had (regardless of the mundanity or soul sucking potential).

I worked in a college bookstore. The games included stacking books like Jenga pegs, leaving dollars in certain books in the stacks to see if anyone found them, and creating a full air band kit out of cardboard boxes.

I worked in a video store (pre-DVD). It was a pretty lonely gig. I was often the only one in the store for hours at a time. Games included watching bad porn on the TVs and seeing if you could change it over whenever anyone walked in, acting out scenes from John Hughes movies and playing all of the characters, and re-categorizing the movies into nonsense genres.

I worked in a retail tobacco store for a while. The games were myriad but my favorite was Cigar Tasting Nights. We'd invite our regulars to come out, have some food and drinks and try out some cigars that weren't moving. I'd make a pot of something—jambalaya, chili, a good hearty soup—and put a Bay Leaf in it. At the beginning of the evening, I'd pull out a brand new box of cigars and announce that whomever got the Bay Leaf won the cigars. Watching a room full of old school Chicago types—retired cops, plumbers and union electricians—checking their food for the Bay Leaf like I did when I was a kid was just an absolute blast. Inevitably, the guy who found the Bay Leaf would call it out like old ladies shriek "BINGO!" at church functions, and everyone would applaud him. Then, most of the time, he'd break out his prize and pass out cigars to the room.

The world is full of Bay Leaves. Find one and give yourself a prize.