On Losing

2 Jul

fans_cubsI’ve published exactly one short story, I mean besides the book. One short story in a magazine over ten years ago. I had written a bunch of shorts and sent them out to literary magazines around the country. Every few days I’d get a rejection slip. “Thank you for your submission to American Onanism Quarterly, we’re sorry but it is not right for our publication at this time. Good luck with your submissions elsewhere.” It was formal and cold, and after a while I got used to it. I expected a bunch of rejections. After all, I was a nobody, and my writing was probably not that good. So it came as a bit of a shock when I got a call from some guy at LaGuardia Community College saying that they really liked my piece “Sundays in New York” and would like to publish it in their literary magazine, New York Stories.

A few months later, the magazine had a little cocktail hour, and I went. There I met a nice young woman who was the assistant to the professor I had spoken to (who was also the guy who ran the magazine). When she found out who I was she said, “Oh my God! I read your story. It was so funny.” She proceeded to tell me that she would read some of the submissions, and one day she read mine and couldn’t stop laughing. The professor came out of his office and asked her what was so funny. “You have to publish this story,” she said. And that’s how I published my story.

It could have been some other reader, one who didn’t find my story amusing at all. When I reread the story now, with over a decade between my writing it and my writing this, I don’t find it to be that great of a tale. It’s okay, but I know how I would change it to make it better. It probably should never have been published.

But it was. Partially because it was good (though not great) and partially through luck. The right person at the right time with the right attitude read it.

New York Stories is no more. I don’t know why or how it succumbed, but I feel bad. They published my first story and, unlike many other more reputable literary magazines, they paid me for it.

***

The U.S. Men’s team lost yesterday (or today, of this writing), and I am sure many of you are heartbroken. Not that you care about soccer, or had any realistic expectations that Team U.S.A. might actually win the World Cup. But a loss is a loss, and losing, to quote anyone with a lick of common sense, sucks.

I’ve lost plenty of times in my life. Not me personally. Just my teams. Recently it was the Blackhawks who went out in sudden death overtime in the final game of the Conference Finals. Like so many times before, Chicago sports fans were left sucker punched. Those few moments after a gut wrenching loss is a bit of cognitive dissonance: your brain is telling you that you lost, but just a second ago your heart was telling you that you would win. Not that you could win, but that you would win.

After the soccer loss, I read many tweets and posts that went something like this: “We’re so proud of our team.” “Good job America, you fought the good fight.” That’s what you say to little leaguers and Pop Warner kids. These are grown men, and to condescend to give them a participation award demeans what they were trying to do. It also diminishes what the fans have felt. I refuse to feel good about losing. No one should feel good about losing. Tim Howard, who played an extraordinary – personal – game, should not feel good about his team losing.

Because, as wise men since the chariots races have always pointed out: losing sucks.

And losing should suck. We should be disappointed that our team is out of it. Yes, part of me can be happy for the road to get here, just like I can relive the 2003 Cubs season minus those last two games and feel, um, not quite so terrible. But losing sucks, and we should accept that fact.

When the Cubs lost that playoff series, I sat on a curb outside a bar in Brooklyn and cried my eyes out. The bartender came out for a smoke and said, “Hey, there’s no crying in baseball.” I shit you not – he quoted a fucking movie, and one in which the players were castigated for crying, not the fans. I just cried harder and told him to get a beer and shot prepared for my reentry.

Of course there is crying in baseball, there is crying in all sports. Because someone’s got to lose. And whoever loses should feel sad. It makes sense. To simply dismiss those feelings of loss and say that we’re proud of our team is bullshit. Why repress it? Sadness, like all other emotions is healthy, at least in moderation. It’s good to feel sad when sad things happen. I wouldn’t trust someone who didn’t feel like shit when their team lost.

Losing sucks, and we should accept it. We should feel sorry for ourselves. We should wallow in self-pity. We should cry and bemoan the fates or the gods or whoever it was who gave us hope and then snatched it away like a fan reaching into the field of play for a foul ball.

They say that losing gives a person character. I’m not so sure about that, but it does give a person perspective. Losing on an objective level is not a bad thing. We need to lose. We need to believe in something and have it destroyed. We need to be humbled.

We ride roller coasters and see scary movies so we can experience fear, what most of us consider to be a particularly uncomfortable emotion. But, like sadness, it is also a necessary one. We need – once in a while – to be afraid. We need to feel it. We ride the coaster, and afterwards we feel great because we lived, because we survived that which made as afraid. We can see big budget Hollywood extravaganzas to escape and cleanse our mind of our troubles. We read romance fiction to feel that true love is not a myth. We watch reality television because sometimes we need to feel that we’re better than other people. We watch sad movies to feel, well, sad. Because sadness, like fear, happiness, love, anger, is important for us as human beings.

And we watch sports to be part of a community, and maybe – just maybe – win something one of these days years centuries. Sports gives us hope, hope that is usually dashed, but hope is an emotion that we have to exercise as well. The world can be painful, but at least we’ll have next year.

***

As someone who has rooted for losers most of his lifetime (notwithstanding the 1990s Chicago Bulls), winning is something I am unaccustomed to. The disappointment at the U.S. soccer loss is minor, but it is there. I can touch it, caress it, understand it like a Tom Waits song or Carver story. I’m used to losing, and while I may at times overreact (mainly with the Cubs), I consider myself a particularly good loser.

When I sold that short story, I felt like I had won something. Maybe I had. But when I heard how I was merely lucky, I felt a little off, like the ref had made a bad call in my favor. I am happy that I made that sale, but I’ve never quite felt that it was a completely valid win.

But many wins and losses are not. Sure, sometimes the Spurs destroy the Heat, beating them by twenty points three games in a row. But other times a header goes off the crossbar and all you think about for the next week is that it was “this close.” Before the loss we have expectations that tend to be illogical. “Sure,” we say to ourselves, “of course we can will beat this obviously superior team, and let me tell you how…” Afterwards, we similarly fantasize about what could’ve, should’ve, would’ve happened if only this and if only that.

Whenever a team loses the big game, they always show reaction shots not just of the winning team, but also of the losing team and the losing team’s fans. There’s never been any mockery in this. Rather, it’s the understanding that the audience – many times a neutral one who has no rooting interest in the game – is fascinated more by the emotions displayed by the losers than by the winners. It’s a unique brand of empathy to watch the anguished faces of players who came so very close. We are drawn towards their heartbreak more than we are towards the celebration of the victors. They need us to feel for them more than the assholes who actually won something.

Not that losing is preferable, it’s obviously not. And I don’t want to make losing into a badge of honor; Mets fans can do that just fine on their own. But it’s necessary to be brought low from on high. And sports does that perfectly: it’s just a game, after all. No one’s died, what animosity is felt between the fanbases is not going to spill over into war and hatred. Because of this, we can suffer with our sporting losses without actually technically losing anything. No loved one has died, no spouse has abandoned us, no blood has been spilled.

Last week I wrote about how the World Cup allows us to be benignly nationalistic, to be able to root for our country to metaphorically destroy other countries. Sports lets us be benignly heartbroken, letting us suffer the pain of loss without actually losing something of any true significance.

And besides, after losing the big game, there is always the next year. Or, in the case of Team U.S.A.: next next next next year.  

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