Winners and Losers, or: Sports are Good (!)

As I’ve been watching the Olympics this year, I’ve been struck by three realizations:

Getty images

Getty Images

1. Athletes like tattoos.
2. Flag-themed nailpolish is trending.
3. Competition is a beautiful thing.

The first two observations aren’t very earth-shattering. However, the third one made my 16-year-old self die of shock. I never had much, if any, affection for sports when I was a kid. I was the ‘easy out’ on the recess kickball court. I was the kid who swung like an idiot for the badminton birdie, only to miss it by four feet. I was the kid who sunk the basketball into the other team’s net. You get the picture.

So, in the blazing tradition of all teenagers everywhere, I dismissed that at which I sucked. English class? No problem. Gym class? Genuinely terrifying. Therefore, English must be valuable, and gym must be a waste of time. Right? During high school orientation, the athletic director introduced himself by saying, “Welcome to high school and the other half of your education: Athletics.” I think my derisive snort is still echoing in the auditorium.

(I may or may not have been something of a pain in the ass when I was fourteen.)

Meanwhile, in an Olympic-level contortion of cognitive dissonance, I happily went out for swimming in the winter and track & field in the spring (though, granted, I was only interested in track because the hottest guys in school were on the team). While I was mocking sports as activities fit only for meatheads, I was also participating in them. I didn’t go out for team sports, but that was largely because you had to try outto be on those teams. By contrast, anyone willing to wander around in a bathing suit could swim, and anyone willing to wear teeny tiny yellow shorts in front of all the hot boys could run track.

Me on the high school track. I didn’t have any tattoos or fun nail art, but I DID have pink hair.

Sign me up!

It never ceases to amaze me how glad I am that I played those sports in high school. I wasn’t very good, and I didn’t always take it that seriously, but I did experience the thrill of seeing my times improve, and I did learn skills that I’d never have even been exposed to in the classroom–for instance, how to laugh it off when you attempt the high jump and end up landing on your head on the track, having jumped in the wrong direction.

One thing that always strikes me during the Olympics is that losing is harder than winning. All the athletes have dedicated, at the very least, large portions of their lives to an event that happens once every four years. In many, if not most, cases, their families have sacrificed a lot to give them the chance. If they blow it, they let down their team, their family, and their country. And millions of people watch it happen.

And yet, even though many of them do blow it, they all keep on trucking. Yes, it’s hard to win gold in Women’s Gymnastics. But how much harder is it to fall off the damn balance beam and then get back on it and finish the routine? Holy crap. Or to fall off your bike in the middle of a road race and then get back on it, literally bleeding from the elbow, and keep riding? These aren’t just dream-crushing mistakes; they’re frakking embarrassing.

Worse, perhaps, is that it doesn’t take a huge mistake to lose. Sometimes you are at your personal best, and the people around you are simply… better. Maybe they worked harder or smarter, or maybe they’re just better.

Some people don’t like competition because contests can only have one winner, which means everyone else has to lose. I used to agree with that sentiment. I’d cry when someone fell off the balance beam, no matter which team they were on, and hate the winner just a little bit because they’d won on the back of everyone else’s loss.I don’t feel that way anymore. Yes, my heart went out to the Russians last night. But that doesn’t mean I begrudge the American’s the win. They were better, and they won. And today is a new day. The loss only ruins someone’s life if they let it. But the attempt–that’s where the beauty lies.

Now, when I look back on high school and “the other half of my education: athletics,” I’m still not willing to concede that sports are 50% of education. But I am willing to concede that they are a legitimate–nay, an important–part of education. That they are a good use of taxpayer dollars, that they benefit a huge percentage of teenagers, and that they are important even, or perhaps especially, because someone has to “lose.”

Oh, I’ve also learned that, just because someone is good at something I can’t do, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are a meathead.

The Beat Post

Jack Kerouac

Kerouac in a characteristic mood. Photo by Tom Palumbo.

We writers are hard on the people who love us and who make the mistake of trying to live with us.

We work all the time and when we are working we exist on some other plane, unreachable by phone or fax. Even when we aren’t technically working, we continue to inhabit the world we have created on paper. Because all art is some form of self-portrait, those we love inevitably find that the lives they thought were being privately lived are actually fodder for our imaginations and have turned up, sometimes with hardly a veneer of disguise, on our pages.

And that’s when things are going well.

When things aren’t going well—say, for instance, we spend a day (or several days or a month) staring at a blank screen, or we receive (another) rejection letter, or we make the mistake of doing the math and realizing that we earn about a penny an hour (if that)—well, then our loved ones have to scrape us off the floor, tell us that we are geniuses, that we are not wasting our time and that we will find a way to feed everyone in the house this month.

We respond to their kindness by making them swear that we are neither ego maniacs nor self-centered asses.

That they are able to swear to this without laughing or killing us is proof that they love us despite our flaws.

Of course, some writers are worse than others. Many authors, once they are making an actual living and can quit their other three jobs, get up and go to their office every day. They write for six hours and then go pick up their kids at school. They make dinner and, presumably, pay the mortgage.

But then there are the real offenders. The writers who don’t apologize for their distraction, or for their BP-oil-spill-sized egos. Or for the fact that they patently and proudly refuse to write anything remotely marketable or, in some cases, even readable.

To me, the most quintessential example of this kind of writer, at least of modern American authors, is Jack Kerouac, who famously typed On the Road on one long, homemade scroll. According to legend, he wrote non-stop for three weeks while living with his second wife, Joan Haverty, in Manhattan.

I can just picture the scene, can’t you? There he is, playing with his tracing paper, painstakingly cutting it and taping it back together like the world’s first scrapbooker, all while taking himself very seriously and refusing to take any pleasure from his crafty pursuit. Then, just when his poor wife thinks that maybe he is done with the insanity and they can go for a nice walk in the park, he sits himself in the corner at his typewriter, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, and starts a typing frenzy that, as far as she is concerned, may never end.

Imagine the smell that emanated from that corner of the apartment by the end of those three weeks. The ungodly mess of cigarette ash, butts, apple cores, coffee mugs, chicken bones, and dead skin cells that must have littered the floor around him. At least, that is what it would have looked like at the end of those three weeks if I had been his wife. Minus the chicken bones, of course, because I would not have cooked for him and I doubt seriously he would have managed it for himself.

But maybe Joan Haverty both cooked and cleaned. Maybe she reminded him go to the bathroom and maybe, if she was very skillful, managed to get him in and out of the shower once or twice during that time.

I like to think that she had an affair with the grocer or the mailman while he was lost in his self-imposed, self-consumed insanity, but then I’ve always been optimistic.

Regardless of how she got through those three weeks, by the end of it, she must have been breathing an enormous sigh of relief. No matter how bohemian she was, no matter how much she believed in her husband’s literary genius, as he finally sat up, rubbed his eyes, and said, “I’m finished,” I can’t believe that she thought anything other than, “Thank God, now maybe he can sell this damn thing and then we can move to a place with a cross breeze.”

But no. After that three week marathon, which itself came after years and years of planning and working, it took him another nine years to perfect his manuscript and finally sell it.

How much money Kerouac made from On the Road during his lifetime, I do not know. I do know that by the time it was finally published, Joan Haverty had wisely left him (while pregnant with his child, whom, incidentally, he refused to acknowledge as his until a paternity test proved it nine years later). When that damn scroll was sold in 2001 for almost 2.5 million dollars, his kid should have received every penny. Sadly, she was much like her father and had died five years previously.  His estate is still being contested. Such is life, I suppose.

To hear most people tell it, Jack Kerouac is a great American hero who wrote a beautiful book that is true art and that influenced literature forevermore. But if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a city and a wife to raise an artist. The difference is that someday the child will grow up.

So I raise my coffee mug to Joan Haverty, of whose personality and hopes and dreams I know nothing because they were not the subject of Kerouac’s fascination.

And I raise it to anyone who has ever loved a writer.

Though, to be honest, I hope you have something stronger than coffee in your mug.

(This post was originally published on my first blog, Loose Leaf Writing, which has entered the retirement phase of its life cycle.)