First, an anecdote-
My friend Jon moved to Australia at the beginning of 2014 to get a master’s degree. In early spring of that year, at his university’s orientation, he entered a contest hosted by the Office of Environmental Sustainability. A picture of Jon was taken for their Facebook page. He holds up a neon green and black thermos, dressed in a v-neck gray and white striped T-shirt with a breast pocket on the left-hand side, forcing a smile before the “Spin-and-Win,” a makeshift Wheel of Fortune-type construction. All of this collected imagery was probably an advertisement, but its significance was lost on me. I just saw the photo of Jon alongside a request that his friends “like” it. Whoever got the most “likes” would be awarded a metra pass loaded with $100.
I immediately reposted the photo, begging my 200-something Facebook friends to please like the picture and help Jon win. When only a few people bit, I sent out a slew of text messages to friends and family members imploring them to immediately drop what they were doing, go online, and like Jon’s photo. I then scanned my list of online contacts in Facebook’s sidebar, and went ahead and messaged anyone I talked to with even slight regularity and asked them to like the photo. I even logged on to a couple of dummy accounts I created in college and made the fake profiles like the photo. In the end, Jon did not win. Another student posed with a group of friends, giving him the unfair advantage of having multiple Facebook circles viewing the photo. The blow was all the harsher when I discovered the victor recently emigrated from China. He came from a country that blocked access to Facebook and was already better at navigating it than I was. Ouch.
I could end the story here and, if I did, I’d look pretty good. I’d look like someone who is genuinely, if somewhat absurdly, invested in assuring their friends’ good fortune, a caring friend and a nice person. As I don’t want to slip into the realm of self-depreciation defined by farce, I will note that I am a caring friend and a nice person and that I did genuinely want Jon to win the pass. My intentions, however, were far from purely altruistic.
Second, a confession-
I like to win. I am an extremely competitive person.
Charles D’ambrosio opens his essay “Whaling Out West” with a remarkably oddball observation about the functions of his penis, which spans—shockingly naturally—to a reflection on reproduction itself, how the idea of it, the idea of babies, makes him confront his own worthless legacy. It starts off grandiose, albeit grandiose in D’ambrosio’s macabre way. He speaks of how flattered he would be if his remains were used as whale remains are, to make drains, combs, toys, oils, and the marvel of holding meaning long after death in the form of a prized possession. It moves then towards a longing for immortality in a sense that is far more mundane but, for our narrator, just as unattainable. D’ambrosio writes:
Or merely to be remembered, to have told three pretty good jokes or made a funny face or cooked up a batch of pancakes in some kind of special way or done anything at all of lasting anecdotal quality. But none of that’s likely in my case, when I go. Unless the gravedigger whistles a hymn as he works, probably no one’ll even say a prayer.
I am not D’ambrosio. I have not given up on achieving something of lasting anecdotal quality. This feels doable to me, and there’s something about victories, even small ones, that make me feel bigger than myself. Standing out against a group, being slightly smarter or slightly more talented or slightly craftier, slightly quicker, or even just slightly luckier than a handful of others makes me feel less forgettable. When I go, I wouldn’t mind being remembered as the person with a knack for winning silly little things, the woman who could always guess how many jellybeans were in the big glass jar at the company picnic. It isn’t much, but to be remarkable in the plainest possible way is preferable to being outright unexceptional.
And now, the point-
The Academy Awards are coming this Sunday. I am obsessed with the show, mostly because of an Oscar Pool I enter each year.
Here’s a secret—winning your average Oscar Pool is profoundly easy. The Academy Awards are like Thanksgivings with your family. You know what’s going to go down months before the actual event, and while you might not necessarily like it there’s fuck all you can do to stop it. The Oscars are remarkably predictable. Just like that one uncle will inevitably have too much red wine and start saying that not even certified scientists accept the official report, and there’s no way those towers would have gone down that fast without an internal explosion, and come-on-wake-up-people, the victor of the vast majority of the awards will be obvious a month in advance. Best Picture usually goes—with a few notable exceptions, i.e., 12 Years A Slave—to a story that is completely inoffensive, safe choices like The King’s Speech and The Artist, or to a film that tackles a controversial issue in an irresponsibly uncontroversial fashion. The latter is known as “Oscar Bait” and a prime example is Crash, the film that half-assedely addressed racism in post 9-11 America, successfully hitting on every so-called edgy issue of the time period while simultaneously failing to say anything new or even important.
The truth is, you don’t even have to analyze it this much to win. A simple Google search for “Oscar Predictions” will yield highly accurate lists of probable winners. The problem is I am not competing with average players. I am competing with my family, a group of movie-buffs who understand the inherent predictably of the Oscars and know all the best sites from which to pull predictions. Out of all the competitors I am up against, my father is the worst. He is the most difficult to beat and the most obnoxious kind of winner. He is nearly as competitive as I am.
For a long time, I desperately wanted to win the Oscar Pool but did not put in the needed effort. I was busy with school, and then college, and then graduate school, and each year the due date for ballots would come far sooner than I had realized, leaving me little time to consider my choices. Of the thirty or so categories, I would maybe get six right while the rest of the family scored in the upper teens and twenties. My last year of college, my father did not win. He tied with my brothers, but used his own warped logic to claim victory nevertheless. He is, by profession, a district judge and seems to think this makes him authority on all matters of justice, even petty ones. Senior year, I watched the show with a group of close friends and we binge drank wine and beer and talked over almost every speech. I woke up painfully hungover Monday morning, no recollection of what had won best picture, and checked my e-mail to find this:
From: Mark W
Subject: thank you for playing.
thank you all for playing…nick and jake came close to winning–but you cant beat a champion by tying them…a tie goes to the the champ..i am singing to you..i am the champion my friends/i kept on fighting til the end.i am the champion.i a the champion/no time for losers like erin and nick and jake cuz i am the championof the oscars….better luck next year losers. m wisti greatest osar picker of all time and perennial champion.
My father, I should note, came into the digital age too late to gain keyboards skills past hen pecking. He is not inarticulate, just uncoordinated. I responded immediately with, “A tie is not winning. Everyone knows you lost.” He emailed back an hour later claiming that you cannot beat a champion by tying a champion and advised me and my friend Liz, who played with us that year and also questioned my father’s victory, to stop commenting on things “beyond yer limited intellectual capacity.” We then exchanged a round of insults, me correcting his grammar, him responding with childish name-calling. Eventually, I received this:
here is a cartoon.
1.the first panel is erin and liz riding on an elephant.
2.the next panel is erin and liz riding past 2 people. one of the people says, “Look at those two assholes on the elephant
3. the next panel is liz and erin on the ground looking up the elephants butt…the captions reads “I only see one.” “Me too”
After that, I gave up. A week later, he sent me an e-mail with the subject “last e-mail.” It read, “why didnt u answer my last e mail r u too busy walking around with yur head stuck up an elephants butt–i burned u so bad total burn ha hah ha.”
You get the idea. He is hard to beat and losing to him is a nightmare. What made all this more infuriating was that my father did not need to win, at least not in the same way I did.
My father need not worry about living a life of lasting anecdotal quality. He already has. He is funny. He is engaging. He is smart. He is sometimes witty, although the above exchange is not exactly a testament to that. Perhaps due to the combined effect of all these traits, he has the best damn stories. When he studied abroad in England, an intoxicated rugby team mistook him for tennis player Jimmy Connors and kept buying him drinks, despite his insistence he was not Jimmy Connors. When the team discovered as much, they accused him of impersonating Connors for attention and threatened to beat him up in retribution until one of the more sober men pointed out my father did, after all, tell them he was not Jimmy Connors, after which they bought him more booze in apology. He once bought Liz a DVD called All About Chimps, and then told her he was a psychic and her true love was a man named Brad who she’d one day meet at Dagwood’s Bar in Lansing. He locked himself out of a hotel room in nothing but his underwear while out of town for work. He started a rumor a fellow judge, originally from Toronto, was closing court down for Victoria Day and convinced friends to call the courthouse and complain.
Beyond simple anecdotes, he has lead an admirable life not confined to the realm of mildly amusing stories. He was a revered lawyer in northern Michigan for over twenty years, who beat cancer the same summer he ran a successful campaign for district judge. From there, he started the first drug court in the area, a legal avenue in which drug-related offenses are treated as medical problems and rehabilitation is offered in lieu of criminal punishment. In an area with a populace prone to addiction, this was a much-needed reform. My father has done things of lasting quality without the caveat of “anecdotal.” For that, he will be remembered. But what have I done? I am the kind of person who consistently falls between “pretty okay” and “the high end of mediocre,” both in terms of personal morality and career success. I’m decently well-read. I’m an okay writer. I’m not bad at grammar, and I can proof read all right. I can be a good friend, at least when it is convenient, and I have a knack for making people laugh. None of this will change the world. It will not even change, like my father has changed, a small sliver of the world. I am not a hero. My father is. He has qualities more significant than the ability to win a stupid game. I do not. Can’t he just let me have the god damn Oscars?
In 2013, everything changed.
I had a terrible year. I do not want to go into specifics here. It’s part of my life I take no joy in rehashing, not even the brand of masochistic self-pitying joy we sometimes indulge when recounting our worst times. The whole year was just—and my apologies for using such a childish adjective but it truly is, after much consideration, the best term to convey how I felt—profoundly icky. A friend once told me everyone needs to suck at life at some point, or else they become completely insufferable. Believe me—If I am in any way a likable person in the present moment, I owe that to 2013.
I become obsessed with the competition. I came to think of it as this Great Turning Point of my life, latched onto it with this half-superstitious fervor. If I could win, I could rebuild my shattered self-image. I put incredible effort into my ballot. I saw nearly every nominated film. I scoured the Internet for predictions, reading up on the Feinberg Forecast and comparing that to Gold Derby and IndieWire’s thoughts. I took to Facebook, making a post, imploring my film-savvy friends to weigh in on some of the trickier categories. I emailed a friend of a friend who lived in Las Angeles and worked in entertainment and asked for his picks. I spent, in total, about three weeks preparing.
I watched the Oscars in my studio apartment, in the company of my two cats. Like I said, bad year. I liked to be alone most of the time back then. The results came in slowly, the show stocked as always with unnecessary filler. Seth MacFarlane made a number of jokes people would be very mad about the next day. The cast of Les Mis came out to sing and I cringed when Russell Crowe joined. As winners were announced, I cheered into the empty air of my apartment. Category after category came out in my favor. In the end, I not only won. I annihilated. I set the record for highest all time score, getting only two categories incorrect.
I supposed I should end with a nuanced reflection about winning, and how I learned it does not ward off the inevitably of oblivion, oblivion not only in terms of death but also in terms of the slow erasure of one’s legacy over time. I should end with a little aphorism about how all things come to pass, followed perhaps by an allusion to the colossal wreck of Ozymandias in the desert and a cute self-mocking quip about the smallness of my achievements in comparison to the King of Kings. But that would be a lie. These things are not necessarily untrue, but I had no such epiphanies in wake of that first blessed victory. I was simply happy, and while I knew that happiness would be short-lived that knowledge did nothing to diminish it. If this life is finite, and we only get the chance to be one person—and I believe this with such conviction that when I consider the fact too long I want to scream hysterically over having not been born more magnificent—then why not at least relish in small things? We might as well take pride in that one particularly special batch of pancakes, any and all victories that might prove of lasting anecdotal quality, if the very awareness of ourselves is a terrifyingly temporary matter.