Winning

This morning as I was driving away after dropping my kids at summer camp, I saw my son outside playing a game with a few other boys and a counselor. The boys were lined up against the wall, as if they were in a firing squad, and the counselor was standing out in the grass taking turns throwing a ball at them. When one was hit in the abdomen or in the face, the boy would wince in pain while laughing uncontrollably, and the other boys in line would howl while pointing at him. I thought about how this game would work with girls. If you tried to play this with my four-year-old daughter, she would say, “Oh hell no!” Then she would throw the ball like a missile at the counselor’s nuts and calmly walk back inside and finish her drawing of a princess standing under a rainbow.

Some girls might cry or be genuinely hurt that the ball had been thrown at them, even though that is the sole purpose of the game. I would probably be one of those girls. “I thought you liked me?” The only way I would have enjoyed such a game is if I was excellent at playing it. No matter how hard the ball was thrown, I could dodge left, dodge right, or throw my hand up at just the right moment for the perfect block. That would never have happened, though. I would have been hit in the face, probably in slow motion so that you could see snot fly out of my nose, making me pee my pants while simultaneously starting my period.

When I was a kid, I usually thought I was going to be great at sports, but I was not. I “played” right field in little league—the quotes are used because what I actually did was stand in right field, and when the ball was hit towards me, the coach would scream for the center fielder to “cover” me. Now those quotes were used because he wasn’t so much covering me as he was trying to get the ball while I stared at a cloud that looked just like a doughnut. I was also on the volleyball team for a year in middle school, but I quit because it hurt my wrists and because I never once made a serve that actually went over the net.

I had a field day experience in sixth grade that could easily be dubbed with exclamations like “BOINK!” while stars circled my swirling cartoon eyes. I did a face plant in the tires, was hit in the crotch with a hurdle, and then dragged behind my partner in the three-legged race. After it was over, I was humiliated. I wanted to get off the field fast, so I tried to jump the chain link fence and split my shorts all the way down the back.

The only place where I had any real talent was in the pool. Swimming was by far my favorite activity. I would swim in anything: the Gulf of Mexico, a pool, a drainage ditch. If it had water, I was in, usually head first. I liked to just play in the water by doing flips, touching the bottom, or diving for change, but my favorite thing was racing other kids, especially if I was sure I could beat them. I would scope out worthy opponents, and they were usually smaller and slower than me. I might ask a kid floundering in the baby pool or proposition someone as they were being rescued by lifeguards. I always won, and it felt great!

I am definitely competitive, but not the traditional type that might propel someone to strive for greatness, more the kind that just likes to show off. My son is the kind of competitive where he is absolutely positive that he is the best at everything. We played Battleship recently, and as I was setting up the game he said, “Oh, I am not going to need any white pegs.” I never thought about it, but you only need the white ones if you are planning to fuck up. The problem for him is the wake-up call that happens when he loses. Maybe I am a naval mastermind, or maybe I lined all my ships up at the bottom. Who knows, but he lost, and it was tragic. My daughter is different. I am not going to say that she wouldn’t race a handicap kid in the pool because she just might, but she seems to at least understand her limits. I can’t see her arguing that she should bring up the rear of the relay team at field day even though she has the coordination of an emu.

She isn’t competitive in the usual sense, not like my son who has the attitude that if you are not first, then you are a worthless piece of crap. I often have to convince him that it is okay to lose. At soccer, I will remind him that everyone is going to get a trophy—even his sorry team. My daughter has never played soccer, but she played t-ball one year against her will. She never wasted her time going for the ball. She was just out there, sometimes facing the batter, waiting for the game to be finished so she could line up for a snack. We are alike in this way. Life is just a series of accomplishments that lead to snacks. We are just like Scooby Doo.

For me, if you aren’t first, then there will be little opportunity for congratulations or cash and prizes. I can get just as intense about catching a free t-shirt shot from a cannon as I can about winning an award for my accomplishments. My daughter likes stuff. She has a better chance than any of us of being on the show Hoarders—she will definitely care about the prize. My son will spend an entire afternoon on the playground racing against other boys just for the reward of knowing he was faster. Unlike me, who might try to race the kid on crutches, he will try to race the biggest, fastest boy because the glory of that win is indescribable. My daughter will probably be in the bushes picking up bottle caps and cigarette butts. She is not going to waste her energy just for the satisfaction of winning. Fuck that shit.

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Nonfiction in Sheep’s Clothing

I consider myself unqualified for everything. Even as a parent I usually feel like I am just pretending to be in charge. All the other kids have real mothers, and I am just a babysitter—the kind that you might not call back unless you were desperate. The kind that will definitely eat all your food, and if you stay out late enough, she might drink that bottle of wine you bought on your last romantic getaway to Napa. I don’t have a good excuse for floundering; it isn’t like I got pregnant as a teenager or after sex-change surgery. I was 30 years old when I had my first kid. I was married, owned a home, and had good insurance. Feeling inadequate just comes more natural.

When I was single, I would think, I am probably not good enough to be your girlfriend, even if you did call back. Now that I am married, I am positive that I am unqualified to be a wife. I see all these other women with their mother-in-laws on speed dial and their genuine supportiveness, and I know they are good wives. Even the GPS lady is a better wife than I am. When my husband makes a wrong turn, she doesn’t say, “I TOLD you to go 800 more feet, jack nuts.” No. She just calmly asks him to make a series of left turns until he is right back where he started. I imagine her winking at me through the dash, “See, he doesn’t even have to know he was wrong.”

As I was reading David Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls and I noticed a trend about his fictional work, which he includes as intercalary chapters to his nonfiction essays, I thought I should write about it. Then I reminded myself that I am unqualified for such a task, but then, THEN I said, “Listen, jack nuts, if there is anything you are qualified to do, it is to write a fake review of Sedaris’s new book.” It was a good feeling—a warm blanket of useless qualification.

His fiction seems worth writing about because it is often snubbed. New York Times reviewer David Carr stated in his review of Sedaris’s new book, “His attempts to write complete essays in another voice do nothing for me,” and then he calls two of the fictional snippets, “both affected and unaffecting.” Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is the first book to include fictional essays since Barrel Fever, published in 1994. Barrel Fever includes twelve “stories” and only four nonfiction essays, but is most known as the book that includes the elf essay. “Santaland Diaries” is funny, yes. Sedaris’s perspective of his time spent working as a Macy’s elf is hysterical even. However, the fictional essays in Barrel Fever are far more provocative. (I prefer the term fictional essays because Sedaris’s fiction resembles the format of Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” more so than the traditional short story). Sedaris is much darker in fiction, and often his fiction writing is just his nonfiction cloaked in a dark veil or maybe a bloody ski mask.

One of my favorite essays by Sedaris is the fictional, “Season’s Greetings to our Friends and Family!!!” in Barrel Fever. The Christmas letter is narrated by a suburban housewife named Jocelyn and sums up a year that includes the arrival of her husband’s twenty-two-year-old Vietnamese daughter, the teenage pregnancy of her own daughter, and the subsequent tragedy that follows, including the death of the new grandbaby. It parodies the family Christmas letter and contains many exclamation points!!!!!!! By the end it seems that Jocelyn is not only narrow-minded but a maniacal killer. It is ridiculous, tragic, hilarious, and much more political than Sedaris’s nonfiction. Jocelyn is fucking crazy, but she is also a caricature of a real type of person, which makes her profoundly troubling. Jocelyn wishes her readers,

The Merriest of Christmas Seasons from the entire Dunbar family: Clifford, Jocelyn, Kevin, Jacki, Kyle, and Khe Sahn!!!!!
Some of you are probably reading this and scratching your heads over the name “Khe Sahn.” “That certainly doesn’t fit with the rest of the family names,” you’re saying to yourself. “What did those crazy Dunbars get themselves a Siamese cat?”
You’re close.

Jocelyn continues, describing Khe Sahn’s skimpy wardrobe and her failure to speak English, “She arrived in this house six weeks ago speaking only the words ‘Daddy,’ ‘Shiny,’ and ‘Five dollar now.’”

(Please read this essay immediately)

In Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, the fictional narrators (also a bunch of crazies) collectively reflect the opposition. Read as a complete book with chapters, not as a collection of individual essays (some fiction, some non), the fictional voices serve as a friendly reminder of what else is out there. A reminder that the world-at-large is not a Sedaris essay.

I like to read about the life of a middle-aged homosexual man, even the romantic parts and the parts that speak warmly of Europe. However, not everyone shares my views, maybe even readers that are fond of Sedaris’s big ticket essays like “Santaland Diaries” or “Six to Eight Black Men.” The new book has a compelling vulnerability to it. In “A Guy Walks into a Bar Car” Sedaris tinkers with romance—in his own way—by recalling a romantic encounter on a train in Italy, emotionally describing his one who got away, “Bashir got off with his three big suitcases and became a perennial lump in my throat.” The train ride with Bashir is starkly paralleled with another encounter on a train that was messy, awkward, and involved a hefty mix of vodka and pot.

In contrast, the fictional “I Break for Traditional Marriage” is narrated by a man who shoots his wife and daughter because “if homosexuality is no longer a sin, then who is to say that murder is?” And it is miraculously funny. A tender story about love on a train is the type of writing that can be taught, but a hilarious mock essay about murder and bigotry—that is just natural born talent. At one point, the narrator listens to a right-wing call-in show where the host and a caller debate whether one could now marry a pizza, “‘There’s no reason I can think of why you couldn’t marry a pizza,’ he said. ‘Hell, you could probably even marry a mini-pizza, one of those ones made from an English muffin, if you felt like it.’”

The fictional essays in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls fill in the blanks that the nonfiction, which depicts an idyllic world of success, life partners, and world travel, leaves untold. The intermingling of nonfiction and nonfiction-in-disguise gives the new book more depth than his old stuff. But who am I to say? He is David Sedaris. He can write whatever the fuck he wants. (And I can continue to like it.)

David Carr’s review is from The New York Times Sunday Book Review, online edition, published on May 17, 2003.

Sedaris’s Barrel Fever was originally published in 1994 by Little, Brown. The excerpts here are from the 2009 ebook edition.

The excerpts from Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls are from the 2013 first edition published by Little, Brown.