I love a good game of rock-paper-scissors. Name me a place, any place where rock-paper-scissors isn’t fun. Car trips, waiting at the bus terminal, at dinner, at brunch, before homework, after homework. During a commercial, before you mow the lawn, or between sets at the gym. Always a good time to play.
And it’s a useful game, too. My turn to buy lunch? Your turn to buy lunch? Who knows? Rock-paper-scissors knows.
You want me to investigate the guy outside your window? Palms up!
Rarely does rock-paper-scissors get ugly, losses never critical. “Aw, shucks. Okay, you can have shotgun.” But that shouldn’t detract from the utility of this great game, either. Rock-paper-scissors (or shoushiling during the Chinese Han Dynasty and piedra, papel, o tijera in Central America), no matter your location in the world, can resolve your conflict.
Follow me now to the dusty cattle yards of Warrawagine Station in Western Australia. Two days before, we mustered a sizeable mob of seven or eight hundred cattle; we drafted bulls, steers, heifers, and cows into holding pens or paddocks. Now we were down to a hundred calves, milling about and lowing after their older companions. They all needed to be tagged and either spayed or elastrated (a tidy procedure where a little rubber band is wrapped over a young male’s scrotum, cutting blood flow to his testicles and giving them the opportunity to safely fall off on their own in a couple weeks’ time).
Calves don’t know pressure. They’ve spent their young lives wandering about with Mommy, never having been channeled or pushed into this pen or that. Calves have never been called into the yards, and thus they don’t understand that when you’re tapping them on the head or pulling their ears or twisting their tails or standing behind them, yelling and waving your arms, you want them to go through that opening not a half a meter in front of their faces. They kick, they buck, and they turn to bunt their snotty muzzles and bony heads against your legs. Calves have dealt far more damage to my body than their bulkier parents ever have. Drafting calves is a disaster, so much so that Ben—Ben the Hero, Ben who has an answer for everything—said with a slight shrug, “Just do whatever you can” when asked how we were supposed to get these cud-chewing demons through the gates.
Then came a sturdy little bull calf, a micky, who wanted nothing to do with having his jewels removed. He dug his hooves into the dirt and stood in the raceway, a narrow channel formed of five-foot-high metal gates leading from the larger pen to the smaller one, for three minutes—two minutes and fifty seconds longer than the average rebel—while we tried everything to get him moving. I loved him. He was the bull I would be. Screw you guys. You want me to move, you best go get a crane. The other calves were rambunctious and obstinate, but they were also a bit witless—uncertain how to escape the shouting banshees we’d become. This fella, though, he’d figured it out: cattle that sit motionless, calf or fully grown, lazy or defiant, stop up the whole system indefinitely. Imagine if every cow just plopped down during the muster, simply refused to go anywhere; you can bet beef wouldn’t be among the dinner choices at the next wedding reception you attend.
This guy was bigger than normal, maybe two hundred kilos, so we couldn’t just grab him and drag him out as we could the smaller ones. I stood to his right on the steel railway while Jimmy perched on the steel railway to his left. I whistled and smacked the bull’s rump and flicked his forehead. I lifted his ear and yelled, “Yeehaw, motherfucker!” Jimmy twisted his tail, up and over and to the side. A twisted tail always gets cattle moving.
“Somebody stick a finger in his ass,” Stixy said. All six onlookers laughed. I quickly offered up a not it. I yelled into the calf’s ear, “Giddy up, partner!”
But Stixy was serious. Standing with his arms folded over his chest, he acted as if he’d seen little bulls like this guy before. “It will work,” he said. “I’m telling you.” And he was probably right. Finger in my ass, you call my next move.
Jimmy, the youngster of the crew at sixteen years old, raised his forehead and looked across the gates at me. He wasn’t keen on this idea, either, though it had to be done. He called for rock-paper-scissors, and as I’d spent so much time championing this game—its honor, its entertainment value, its effectiveness at keeping peace—I couldn’t now turn it down during this, the team’s most challenging hour.
I glanced around at my audience. Ivana, the peachiest peach in Peachville, was six or seven feet behind me. Jane the Bitch, her face full of malice, stood to the right. Ben had positioned himself off to the left, smiling, his sandy hair dangling just above his eyes and the top two buttons of his shirt undone, so authentic and good-looking you’d think he’d just strolled off the pages of a Louis L’Amour novel and onto the cover of GQ.
And me, deflated, in something of a vulnerable position, with no other option. Literally standing atop this micky, I braced him so he couldn’t move backward. Jimmy had me similarly braced with a quirk of his eyebrows that dared me to rise to the challenge.
I gave a slight nod, and Jimmy and I shot on four. He threw scissors; I threw paper.
My companions’ laughter drowned out the string of curses escaping my lips. I spit on my index finger, stuck it in that little bull’s ass, twirled it around slowly and deliberately, and he jolted out of the raceway.