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.