I have a thing about the horse races with my oldest daughter, who is an attorney in Santa Monica. Whenever our schedules permit, we spend an afternoon at Hollywood Park, poring over form charts that might as well be written in Sanskrit for all the hard information we glean from them. But we perform this ritual with enthusiasm, making our bets as if we know what we are doing.
We would probably do just as well by closing our eyes and jabbing a pencil point at the program. But that wouldn't be nearly as much fun because when we win, we can--and do--claim it happened because we cleverly interpreted past performances.
A few weeks ago, my daughter--after the usual seance with her form sheet--plucked out a long shot that won, and we exulted together over her good fortune. In the middle of our celebration, she stopped, looked at me with a kind of wry wistfulness, and said: "Most fathers want their kids to be successful doctors or lawyers or scientists or writers. But I swear, the thing that turns you on the most is when I pick a winner at the race track."
Admittedly there's a little hyperbole here. But there's also a fair amount of truth. I didn't reflect on it much at the time, but I was reminded of her comment the other day when I was reading the New York Times Magazine. It carries a weekly essay called "About Men," in which male writers probe their own psyches in various introspective ways. Sometimes I relate and sometimes I don't, which is par for the course, but I find the areas in which I relate the least are the anti-macho--or down with Vince Lombardi and full speed behind--school of modern male thought.
Lombardi, of course, is the late Green Bay Packers football coach who is alleged to have said, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." Variations on this theme have been around for a long time, usually associated with American sports or Western movies and in the genre of Leo Durocher's comment that "nice guys finish last."
Although this kind of primitive macho talk had its genesis in what is now the senior generation, I don't buy much of it. But over the years, I've discovered that a subtler, even more insidious new approach has crept into our culture. It is roughly identifiable as the "wanting-to-win-is-emotionally-and-intellectually-stultifying" school of thought--and I have a lot of trouble with that.
That's what the New York Times piece was about: a youngish professional man discovering what a glorious emotional release it gave him to openly acknowledge that he didn't care whether he won or lost a racquetball game. After this revelation, he was able to enjoy to the fullest a bad beating.
Now that may be all well and good for the writer, but I couldn't help thinking about his opponent. When you have two people of halfway equal competitive skills playing a game and one approaches it with an "I-don't-care-if-I-win-or-lose-because-that's-the-healthy-way-to-feel" attitude, it isn't going to be very much fun for the other player. How devastating it must be to say, "If it was important to you to win, I'm happy for you." I think I'd wrap a racquet around the head of anyone who said that to me.
All this made me realize that there is--as there should be--a middle ground between winning at all costs and not trying. Can't we set winning as a goal but not an end-all? If I've passed anything useful along to my children, I suppose it would be that point.
I have what for me, anyway, is a healthy desire to win any contest in which I get involved. When I played games with my children, I didn't go in the tank. I adjusted my skills to their level, but then I played to win. When they got skilled enough to beat me, they knew the victories were legitimate and they felt good about them. In the process, they learned both how to lose and win gracefully.
There's an enormous difference between playing to win and being destroyed if you lose. Losing to a worthy competitor after giving your best effort can be highly satisfying. So can winning. But I don't know of any way of achieving this satisfaction without going into any contest wanting to win.
So I chose to accept my daughter's comment as a high compliment. And the next time we go to the races, I plan to pick more winners than she does.