The Fox, the Chicken and the Rowboat
The ongoing riddle of my daily life.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the fox and the chicken.
Perhaps you’re familiar with the scenario, or some variant of it; versions of it have been around for centuries, sometimes with other animals or entities swapped in. Regardless—it’s a logic puzzle that seems simple, but can be tricky to solve without careful consideration.
The premise: you are a farmer who has to transport a fox, a chicken, and a sack of corn across a river. Now, as a non-farmer myself, I can assume some reasons why you might need to transport either a chicken or corn somewhere—you’re taking them to market, I guess?—but I’m not clear on why you’d be carrying a fox anywhere.
That’s your business, not mine; I’m not the farmer here.
Anyway, you’ve got this fox, a chicken, and that sack of corn. Did I mention you’ve also got a rowboat? You’ve got a rowboat too, and you’re going to use it to get all three items across the river. It’s not a very big rowboat—I guess you’re not the most successful farmer, what with your inexplicable fascination with transporting foxes; maybe if you focused you could afford a nicer boat—and so you can only carry one of the three items (the fox, the chicken or the corn) across at a time.
But wait, there’s more!
You can’t leave the fox alone with the chicken. I shouldn’t have to tell you that, but then, warning labels exist for a lot of things that seem obvious to me. You shouldn’t microwave a Pop-Tart without removing the foil first, and you shouldn’t leave a fox alone with a chicken. The fox will eat the chicken, and the Pop-Tart will explode.
You also can’t leave the chicken alone with the corn. It’d be less grisly than if you left the fox with the chicken, but it’d still be devastating to your small, confusing business’s bottom line. Don’t leave the chicken with the corn.
Now, it’s not all bad news!
You can leave the fox with the corn. This particular fox is like one of those fancy dogs that only eats the organic grain-free dog food that costs $73 a bag and has a picture of a bison on it. The fox hates grain. Only eats fresh, organic meat. Like chicken!
Do not leave the fox with the chicken. I can’t stress that part enough.
Anyways, time’s ticking. You’re already late for market—you really shouldn’t have stopped for coffee—and if you don’t get there soon, your prospective fox-buyers might change their minds and realize they don’t have any legitimate use for a store-bought fox after all.
What do you do, hotshot? What do you do?
The answer, if you can’t work it out on your own, is in a footnote1 below, but that’s not really my point here today.
Every day since I first became a parent has felt like a Ph.D-level variant of the rowboat riddle; every day I’m juggling conflicting obligations and competing interests, but every day I have to get across that river.
One child must be dropped off in a car line at school between 8:00am and 8:15am; the other child is set to be picked up by the school bus at 8:32am back at home. The first child has Tuesday off school for parent-teacher conferences, but the parent-teacher conference is in person and the child is not supposed to be there for it. The second child has soccer practice at the same time as the first’s ballet lessons, but somehow also at the same time as the swim lessons both are supposed to be in, and of course, there’s the birthday parties to consider. Lots of birthday parties.
Oh, but what about the adults?
We haven’t even gotten to the adults yet!
One parent has meetings all morning on Tuesday, while the other parent needs to be at an off-site by 11:30am. Next week, one has an after-work event while the other is scheduled to be away on a business trip, and oh—I forgot to mention this—both kids’ schools are closed next week.
Also, the dogs both need to go to the vet, and the little one hates riding in the van with the big one. (In fairness, the big one’s a huge dummy. He would eat the bag of corn without even opening it.)
There are days where I pine for logistics as simple as that original riddle. I devote a huge portion of my daily mental energy just keeping up on where my chickens and foxes and corn sacks are and what side of the river I’m on; it’s like bloatware that constantly has my CPU running at 78% and my cooling fan desperately whirring away to prevent a total meltdown. I often feel like I’m neglecting all sides, from my parenting to my work and everything in between. I’m either arriving to work late or I’m leaving early and I’m either rushing the kids out the door in the morning or showing up to get them at the last possible minute and I’m always, always convinced that I’ve forgotten something or someone somewhere along the way.
Just the other day, I was completely fried. I’d worked straight through lunch so that I could leave the office early enough to run to the grocery store before I picked my daughter up, so that we’d have the things we needed on hand when family arrived for a visit that evening. She bounded from the school to the car, happy to see me and excited to head home. She requested her favorite Spotify playlist, and I dutifully obliged, mentally kicking myself for not having created a separate profile for the kids before my personal algorithm was completely corrupted by their preferences.
I slid back into my fugue state as I drove us home, thinking of all the things I’d left undone that day, when a tiny voice from the backseat snapped me out. We pulled up to a red light, and I looked back over my shoulder.
“What was that, honey?”
“I was just singing along.” She smiled. “I love this song.”
I smiled back, then squeezed her ankle. She squealed with laughter.
“I love you, kiddo.”
There are days where I feel like I spend more time crossing the river than I do on solid ground, days where it seems like all I do is row it seems like I’ll never land.
Sometimes, all I need is a moment like this to remind me to look up from my paddle.
The water’s beautiful.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
The solution to the original riddle:
Take the chicken across first, leaving the fox with the corn.
Drop the chicken on the far bank, and return to the first side alone.
Take the fox across next, depositing it on the far side and collecting the chicken again.
Take the chicken back with you on your return trip, and apologize to the chicken for jerking it around like this.
[Clemenza from The Godfather voice] Take the corn. Leave the chicken.
Drop the corn with the fox on the far side.
Return alone again. Take some time to ponder your choices during this trip. What are you doing with your life?
Arrive on the original shore and marvel that, somehow, the chicken that you left alone on the first side has just stayed put. I don’t think that’s really that plausible, given my limited experience with chickens, but hey, I didn’t create the riddle, Alcuin of York did. We’ll just assume this is an especially docile and compliant chicken. Collect it and complete your strange and arduous journey across the river.