Friday, October 7, 2011

The Competitiveness Gene

Many people have told me they are amused by my “coat of arms” and its heraldic saying: “Insufferable in victory, surly in defeat.” I’d like to take credit for that, but in fact it was my father who came up with it. 

My father was a tough competitor. He hated to lose, and rarely did. He grew up in a farm community in Northwest Ohio and, while very good at several sports, was even better intellectually. He told the story of how he was given scholarships at a multitude of schools, including Ohio State and Harvard. He wanted to go to Ohio State, because several of his friends were going there, but that’s when my grandfather stepped in and said, “Guess what? You, son, are going to Harvard.” This was back at a time when upper-crust families tended to get their smart kids into Harvard and smart middle- and lower-class kids would have to really stand out before they would let them in. The Ivy League schools were not as generous with aid back then….

But he did stand out, and then later he went on to Harvard Medical School—not that he wanted to…. The day after Pearl Harbor, he and many of his Harvard College classmates stormed down to the Boston recruiting office for the army and demanded to be let into the armed services immediately. Many were let in straightaway, but they first interviewed everybody, and when they asked my father what he was studying at that fancy college, he said he was a premedical student. “Forget it kid,” the interviewer said, “something tells me we’ll need you more as a doctor than a soldier.” So he trudged on back to Harvard, and then on to medical school. He eventually headed up the burn unit at Fort Sam Houston during the Korean War.

Once there was a strike at Harlem Hospital, where he briefly had admitting privileges (most of his patients were at Columbia Presbyterian) and where he had a very sick patient. That patient was getting worse, but the strike had turned ugly and there was a barricade of hospital workers surrounding the hospital, refusing to let anyone in. This pissed old dad off, in a big way. He went down to the door and started jaw-boning the head union guy and his minions, who in turn argued that the patient would be alright, there were other doctors inside, and he couldn’t go in. His response: “Oh realllllly?!” he yelled, and socked the union guy in the mouth. He then ran into the hospital and took care of his patient. The union members left him alone, figuring he was nuts.

One more story to tell you how competitive and intense he was: My wife and I were visiting my parents in suburban New York many years ago, and that Saturday night we decided to play a game of Trivial Pursuit, that once very popular game in which arcane facts are answered, helping you move a game-piece around the board. Before the game, which pitted my parents vs my wife and me, my father warned that all answers had to be exactly correct, precisely as they appear on the game’s answer cards.

It wasn’t long before the level of precision was tested. We were asked a question whose answer was JESUS CHRIST. It was obvious, a slam-dunk, and I was already reaching for the dice to roll again. “Hold it!,” he said, a bit too loudly, “that’s wrong, it’s JESUS CHRIST OF NAZARETH.” I stared open-mouthed, but knew my father well enough to know the man was serious. My wife was beside herself, not being able to believe this was happening.

But later we got our revenge. My father rolled and was asked a question whose answer was the REVEREND MARTIN LUTHER KING. My father thought about this for a minute, because he remembered there was something tricky about King’s name…. What was it? Oh yes, he had a doctorate in philosophy and included that in his name. He answered “THE REVEREND DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING.”

I studied the answer card, pretending to read it carefully, all the while knowing what I was about to say would cause quite a big kerfuffle. “No! Close but not quite right. It’s THE REVEREND DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JUNIOR!” At which my father got up, steaming, and marched out of the room. (This is where the “surly in defeat” part of the motto comes from.)

Ah, family…. The memories….

My father was actually a wonderful influence, and that extended to my interest in squash. As a family we would always play tennis, but my speed, which was never a problem, often seemed to outdo my stroke mechanics. I would be immediately on the ball and then naturally undercut it, since I had found through experience that in my verve I tended to overhit unless I undercut. When I was in my mid-teens I was about to go away to a school where squash was offered as a sport, and I remember my father strongly advising I should check squash out right away. “You’re a natural, trust me.” He had played it while at Harvard, and he was right; I loved it from the very first second, and love it still.

Later on in his life we would occasionally still get to play tennis when visiting on weekends. Despite being into his senior years, he was still pretty good, and always very wily. My full-time focus on squash had meant that my tennis game really amounted to squash shots played on a tennis court, so my father would regularly win these matches. Up to a point. But one day we were out there and I realized he had slowed, and that his shots weren’t coming so hard anymore, and that I would win. But towards the end of the set I started thinking that this competitive man would be truly aggrieved to lose, and it seemed almost unfair of me to go through with it. So I didn’t. A couple of theatrically placed shots that were just wide, some heart-breaking shots into the net, and a double-fault or two, and there it was, a victory for dad. 

I guess the competitiveness gene runs a little weaker in my DNA. I never ever let myself beat him in tennis.

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