The Cup Of Shame

My dad taught me to play chess when I was seven or eight. We played intermittently from that day until I left for college ten years later.

(There’s a medical school-related part to this, chill out.)

I learned the game easily enough and began developing a strategy. But for four years, I never won. Not once. Not when I first learned the game at eight and didn’t know how to pack my own lunch. Not when I was failing long division at age nine. And not when I was ten and learning how to find the value of x in 2x+2=4.

Suffice to say I wasn’t the next Garry Kasparov, but it didn’t help that my dad showed no mercy. Ever.

My family is not one that looks kindly on “letting someone win,” no matter what. I recall quite vividly playing basketball in the driveway, only to have my dad brutally swat the ball into the neighbor’s yard like Dikembe Mutombo.

I was six.

When we played Monopoly as a family, he wouldn’t let me quit when I landed on a hotel and couldn’t afford rent; instead, he’d offer to “trade” my properties, a few at a time, for debt forgiveness until he owned the entire board. Only then was the game over.

It is a source of pride in my nuclear family that the East Coast Friedmans (my dad, my brother, and I) are undefeated in two-hand touch football against the California Friedmans after fifteen years of competition. Un. Defeated.

We even have an extended family card game, called Pitch. I have never met a non-Friedman who has played or even heard of Pitch. This is because Pitch is an immensely stupid game almost entirely dependent upon luck, and no sane person would opt to play it. That doesn’t stop our large family from organizing Pitch tournaments that span three days. 73-year-old uncles with pacemakers flip tables in fury. Cousins storm out of rooms and defeated youngsters cry. The winner takes home the Friedman Pitch Trophy, complete with engraved plaque and a mounted antelope horn from a safari vacation my grandparents took fifteen years ago.

Competition in my family is a big deal.

When I was twelve, I played Dad in chess more and more often, because I sensed that victory was near. I was getting close – I’d almost catch him in traps or end up frustrating him for twenty moves before he got lucky and finished me off. I prepared for my eventual triumph.

One Wednesday evening (I remember because I had an algebra test the next day, subject matter notable because my teacher had a glass eyeball, which scared the crap out of me), I did it. I set up a methodical defense and slowly ground him down until victory was assured. I was the Soviet defense of Stalingrad, slowly bleeding out the aggressors and waiting until winter struck.

I’d like to say that I was gracious and humble in defeat. That would be a lie. Wordlessly, I went into my kitchen and grabbed the oldest, junkiest glass we had: a blue, cracked plastic cup the dog had chewed a few times. Grabbing a Sharpie and a mailing label, I inscribed “THE CUP OF SHAME” in block letters.

The next step: milk, lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and the microwave. Stir and warm for thirty seconds. It smelled like the downstream effects of bad sushi food poisoning.

I gleefully carried my creation into the den and presented it to my unamused father. Sore losers beget sore winners. He drank. I reveled.

Over the next eight years and into college, the most recent loser of our game had to keep and drink from the Cup Of Shame. The last time we played was probably five years ago. But it brought a smile to my face yesterday to see an email from my mom with the subject “I found this under the sink” containing only the following:


I win.

There’s actually a reason for this story. Medical school inordinately attracts driven, competitive personalities – not necessarily because medicine or doctoring requires those traits, but because reaching medical school is a challenging, uphill struggle through hard science and sometimes-unnecessarily difficult material.

Thus the possibility for major cutthroat activity is always in the background. Administrators mitigate this by implementing pass/fail curricula and by attempting to select matriculants that at least seem to back away from the competitive edge. Even our group activities are designed to reduce student-vs-student friction.

This past week we learned in class how to describe skin lesions. “Gross” is not an appropriate term, we were told. That said, I’m pretty sure our lecturer’s main goal in the lecture was to make someone vomit. Why else would he show us, in school in the American South, pictures of a botfly infestation?

(Don’t click that link unless you have a strong stomach.)

Anyway. The experience of going to the simulation center to see various skin lesions was one of bonding – not competition. In small groups, we were singled out to describe various skin lesions. Our dermatology residents, shepherding us from room to room, weren’t evaluating our performance and explained everything we got wrong as teaching points. Collaboration, not competition – we helped each other out with descriptions. An example:

“On the left lateral thigh, there is a 5cm by 2cm yellowish-brown, crusty plaq-HURRRRRRRGARBLRRR”

Oh, sorry, that was the sound of your classmates “recycling” their lunches while attempting to maintain a professional demeanor. The resident then kindly explained that throwing up during patient presentation is generally frowned upon. Then the bell rang and we moved to the next room.

When you see ten different things that make you nauseous in an hour, competition goes right out the window.

No cups of shame in medical school.

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