Patriots
New England Patriots

    People in stressful situations usually see only a couple solutions to their problems.  Often they pick the nearest solution even if they know it is a bad one just to drive down their anxiety, which they find more obnoxious than a bad outcome. 
    Case in point: The New England Patriots were 12-0 going into a Monday night football game.  For the first time in twenty-six years, a team had a shot at winning every game in its season.  They were playing the second best team in the league.  With two minutes left, New England trailed by four points, but had the ball.  On fourth down they had to either punt the ball back to the other team and probably lose or go for the one yard they needed for another round of downs.  The game, the season, and swaggering rights were all on the line.  They chose to go for the one yard, creating a classic stressful situation
    On the field the Patriots had one of the most potent combinations of offensive intelligence, muscle, and talent ever assembled.  All season long they had gallivanted up and down the field as if the players of the other team were made of smoke.  Of the scores of plays that had succeeded in the past, the play with the lowest probability of success was to give the ball to the quarterback Tom Brady and ask him to take two steps forward and put the ball backdown onto the ground.  It was the worst choice, the kind that the Minnesota Vikings would have made, because every human in the cosmos knew that that was the play the otherwise crafty and intelligent New England coaches would call.  And what's more, everybody knew that everybody knew.
 

Bushman
Bushman Color Commentator

Here's what I expected to pop up on the screen: An ESPN color commentator, mike in hand, on the Serengeti Plain asking a Bushman what he thought the Patriots would do.  (I can't account for why an ESPN color guy is six times zones and a hemisphere away, but go with me on this.)   "Okay, Mr. Bushmen," he asks.  "What are the Patriots going to do?"  The four-foot tall Bushmen sits in the dirt and looks skeptically at the ESPN guy.  He rolls his eyes as if to indicate to the commentator what a moronic question he has just asked.  The color guy holds the microphone down into his face, lined by sixty years in the sun.  The bushman's nappy hair has never been washed with shampoo.  His toenails on toes splayed wide in the dirt look more like pebbles than toenails.  Behind him in the door of his hut stand his four wives, their little breasts pointing straight down to the dust.  A dusty child peers out from behind his mother's skinny legs.  Everybody but the ESPN color guy is naked.  In the background a vulture pulls its bald head out of a dead gnu, looks at the camera, and screeches.  Both the camera man and the ESPN color guy jump.  The little Bushman looks at the color guy for a moment to let him regain his composure and consider asking a less ridiculous question.  He looks into the camera and speaks in a high-pitched voice using clicks and consonant combinations not heard in any other language.  A translation crawls along the bottom of the screen: "The Patsies are going to do exactly the same idiotic play the Vikings always, always, always attempt in this situation: straight up the middle.  "That's it from the Serengeti.  Back to you, Al."
   Since everybody knows what the play will be, when Brady receives the ball and tries to survey the field, he can see about one yard in every direction.  Below he can see two square feet of ravaged earth, above a little patch of the distant sky.  Otherwise his whole field of vision is filled with jerseys, helmets, and two tons of hairy, sweaty, stinking, flexed, trembling, male muscle.  As he is buried in an avalanche of athlete, he thinks, "What a stupid call."  When he can see light again, he discovers that he failed to move the ball forward one inch.  They give up the ball on downs.
    The Patriots go on to win anyway, but the point is as the importance and the urgency of a choice goes up, people can see only a couple of the hundreds of options and make their choice not based on the probability of success, but on what will drive down their level of anxiety.  No wonder we elect people like George W. Bush.  

    On the way to my writing desk at 4:20 a.m. this morning, I paused by the window that overlooks my backyard.  Often as I look out of a window at that time of day, I imagine that I see things: dinosaurs skittering across the yard, a man in a long coat leaning against the shadowy side of a tree, strange animals sniffing about, or UFOs blinking at me.  The visions dance across the screen of my still somnolent mind overlaid upon the backyard.
    This morning I saw something strange.  The day before, Kai had left a small plastic swimming pool in a crumpled heap in the middle of the yard.  Needing to paint the house, he had dragged the pool away from the house into the yard where I could see it before dawn on that cool September day.  The pool I expected, but not the two black things next to it.  What were they?
I was certain from the moment I saw them.  Two young black bears rested in my back-yard.  They sat very still, close to the heap of pool, facing each other.  Ridiculous, I thought.  Still groggy from sleep, I rubbed  my eyes and tried to imagine what else they could be, even as I knew they were bears.  They didn't move.  I wondered where they had come from.  I previewed the call I would make to the police station.  All the while I looked and looked.
    Then came the moment of disillusionment.  My eyes cleared.  Kai had left the light on in the bathroom, creating shadows beside the pool.  My mind, not expecting shadows at night, had done the best it could and had seen two black bears huddled by the heap of pool.  But I preferred bears to shadows.  How much more dramatic, meaningful, and unexpected bears are than a bit of lawn the bathroom light can't shine on.  Here was a story, something to impress my friends, and mark the day for years to come.  But now that I had a more plausible explanation, I was a little sad.  I wished one of those shadows had licked the other, and, together, they stood up and ambled across my yard in the moonlight under the cottonwoods.  But they didn't.  As shadows, they didn't even sit up any more.  Now they lay resolutely flat on the ground, nothing bear about them at all.I thought about shutting off the light to free the shadows.  I thought that maybe the light, the pool, and the ground had frozen to the spot those poor bears.  If I turned off the light,  they would scamper off into the woods and go about their snuffling way.  But I knew that the light, the pool, the ground, and my mind had called those bears into my backyard, not trapped them there.
    I left the light on.  It was the least I could do for them.  They continued to huddle together by a crumpled up pool in somebody's backyard and listen to the hiss of the cottonwood leaves moving in the wind overhead.  The frogs have quit singing for the season, but the reeds and cattails still rustled quietly under the silent moon.  I left the light on.  I would not interrupt a sweet moment like that.  I would rather have two black bear cubs resting quietly, affectionately, together in my backyard by the swamp under the stars than just another patch of darkness.