How one man put his life back together with the help of an obscure Nordic game.
The clock in my office flipped to 2:30 a.m.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t an insomniac staring at the ceiling. I was still in my office working. Maybe. Whatever I was doing, I was one sleep-deprived keystroke away from completely ruining everything I’d done to that point.
I’d forgotten whether the clothes I was wearing were clean or just clean enough.
Each time my dad called, he’d ask, “When was the last time you went outside?” I’d change the subject. I didn’t know.
For too long, I hadn’t been taking care of myself. I was sick — for two decades, likely — with a mixture of low-grade depression, workaholism, and self-hate. This was my everyday reality. I desperately wanted improvement. That’s what I was working for. But I couldn’t see it.
Then, one summer day, some old friends from the other side of the world brought a traditional Nordic game to my backyard.
The Daily Grind
Each day at 7 a.m., I’d down my first pot of coffee while barking at my kids to stop making messes, to get dressed faster, to actually brush their teeth — all while reading email and overreacting to the smallest inconvenience with more yelling. Then, I’d start my “commute” down the 10 stairs into my basement office — the same one I had left six short hours earlier.
After drowning myself in email, Facebook, and Twitter, I’d simply stare at the things on my to-do list, too tired to even begin. Then at 5 p.m., as if unchained, I’d trudge back upstairs, not even caring that I’d accomplished nothing.
Listening to the panicked voice deep inside me saying that I’d lose everything — my business, my family, my house, our cars — unless I worked even harder, I was somehow able to keep enough clients happy to pay the mortgage, the grocery bills, and the healthcare premiums, and contribute to three college funds.
Teachers and parents in the neighborhood continually commented on how enjoyable my kids were. My marriage was solidly intact. I even had three part-time employees.
But I had a problem.
I assumed it was connected to my lack of sleep. I started taking melatonin to force myself to get to bed earlier, and for a couple of months it worked — I’d be asleep by 11 p.m. Then I built up a tolerance. When it stopped working completely, a combination of zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B6 also promised to promote a restful night’s sleep. Instead, it caused my already hair-trigger temper to flair more frequently. My wife demanded I stop taking it.
For Love of the Game
In the summer of 2011, my oldest and dearest friends visited from Europe. They brought with them 17 gorgeously stained maple blocks and proceeded to pound six stakes into the ground in my backyard.
They had stumbled upon this Scandinavian game called Kubb (rhymes with “tube”) in a small shop in their neighborhood — just a bag of wood on the floor below some pictures of very enthusiastic players.
Happy to share this obscure find with us, they set five blocks on each short end of a rectangle, and a larger “king” piece in the middle of it. We took turns throwing six batons underhand at the five blocks on the other side of the rectangle. We laughed at not being able to knock over the blocks. Delighted and undeterred, we continued. All weekend, we adults and our kids played together.
I spent the entire weekend outside in the sunshine with my kids, my wife, and my friends’ family, throwing blocks of wood across the lawn and laughing. No Internet, no electronics, no technological anything. Just primitive blocks of wood, grass, sun, and joy. I didn’t even care if this silly game had any rules. I was giddy in love with it.
With each baton throw, I felt closer to my family, closer to nature, and closer to my Norwegian ancestors who immigrated to the United States more than a century ago. Nordic visions filled my head, each more romantic, more comforting, more rural than the last. For one brief moment, I was living those visions.
One Baton at a Time
My love for the game — and all it did for my peace of mind — continued to grow as the seasons passed. I started spending every evening outside, using the last rays of winter’s daylight to practice Kubb in my backyard. I even convinced two friends to join me for a Kubb tournament in Minneapolis in February 2012 — before we had even read the rules.
When I struggled with a client project, I’d step outside and play Kubb. When the weather didn’t cooperate, I would meditate.
I found 20 minutes of meditation before breakfast improved my entire day. It calmed the frazzled monkey-brain ego — and focusing on my breath also improved my accuracy in Kubb.
I started sleeping better. I was easily getting to bed before 11 p.m. I stopped drinking two pounds of coffee a week. My in-laws started commenting on how much healthier my complexion looked. I started enjoying my own kids — even when they were misbehaving.
When I first started throwing wood in the backyard in the middle of the afternoon, I’d continuously be interrupted — not by my family or my neighbors, but by that panicked voice declaring there was some work I should be doing.
Then I’d remember Terry Ekelöf’s words after his Swedish team won the 12th Kubb World Championships. “Get better,” he said. And I would tell myself, I’m getting better.
If I could hold that panicked voice in my mind at bay while focusing on that wooden block 8 meters away, I knew I could topple them both.