competitive streak

I was walking to the post office this morning, briskly. Bag slung from my shoulder, package under one arm. Suddenly, maybe 20 paces ahead, a guy turned the corner from one street onto mine, heading the same direction as me. The streets of downtown Santa Barbara aren’t exactly teeming with people at that hour on a weekday. Aside from the elderly lady I’d just passed, we were the only two people on this block.

So I studied him, as one does when one can’t be caught looking.

He was young — probably in his early 20s. His hair was so blond it looked white. He was wearing slouchy jeans, a light gray checkered shirt, and a shockingly aquamarine blue Stussy cap, the brim pointed just so.

I’m guessing you know the type.

He gazed around as he walked, glancing behind him once (at which point I pretended to be utterly fascinated by a tree). He didn’t so much walk as he ambled. He had a gunslinger’s stride: everywhere to go, nowhere to be.

I was moving faster than he, and was about to pass by when he abruptly veered towards a concrete block half-wall separating the sidewalk from a parking lot. In one smooth motion, braced his hand on the wall and swung his feet over, clearing it easily. Just like that, he was gone.

Somehow, I almost felt stung. Could I have done that as convincingly as he did? Well, of course not, not with the package I was carrying and the heavy bag on my shoulder. I would have to put those down first. And I am shorter than he was, so I would have had to put a lot more jump into it to make sure my legs got over. Plus I might have to stand back and eyeball it for a minute to get the angle right, and think about my approach, and look around to see if anyone was watching, because god, how embarrassing would it be to go full tilt at a wall in full view of an audience only to smack into it?

Yeah, I could jump it.

But not like he did.

I’m shocked by how comfortably, how effortlessly, men seem to live inside their bodies. Me? It’s a struggle to remember how to move. I keep having to remind myself to relax. Unwrap my arm from its awkward post around my waist, like I’m trying to cover myself up or hold myself in. I walk with purpose, but I don’t move with ease.

Time out for a caveat: 
Physical ability is not true for all men, just as physical inability it is not true for all women. In this space I simply speak from personal experience.

Now, time out for a confession:
I get angry at my husband a lot because it seems like he is so goddamned good at everything. Like it comes naturally. Like when he was born, a light shone down from the skies and and bathed him in a golden glow. Yes, a voice said, this one. He shall be blessed with a halo of curls, eyes as blue as dusky mountains at sunset, a smile as wide as prairies — and he shall never know the shame of failure.

This is, of course, patently untrue — well, maybe except the part about the hair and eyes — but that doesn’t seem to stop me from railing against the vast unfairness of it all. Once, I got so mad after he won a game of billiards that I actually kicked him in the shins. This was maybe 23% the alcohol talking, and 77% my private horror, agitation, and disquiet at being confronted with my own limitations. At any rate, I was wearing jellies at the time, so my blows were about as effective as a butterfly landing. See? Another thing I’m apparently bad at.

I should clarify: when I say that the beau is good at everything, I’m specifically talking about sports and other physical activities. Which is just about anything that seems to matter in our social world. Gatherings with friends are always centered around some kind of performance, whether playing ping-pong or shooting pool or throwing darts. Just recently we met a large group of people at a bowling alley. Now, the beau and I have approximately the same amount of bowling experience under our belts, so the playing field was level. I didn’t do too poorly — I was probably among the top five scorers of our group — but the beau was superlative. One game he managed to get five strikes in a row, and the rest were all spares. I managed to choke back my latent rage long enough to ask him how he did it. “I just got lucky, I guess,” he mumbled, shuffling his feet sheepishly as the flashing black light cast a halo around his head and angels sung faintly above the thrumming bowling alley club tracks.


I’ll level with you: I don’t need to win at everything, but I live in utter fear of losing. I suppose that makes me competitive, yes. But over time I’ve come to realize that most of my competitiveness stems from an irrepressible desire to prove everyone wrong. Thanks to gender programming, I knew from an early age that girls weren’t supposed to be good at physical activities, and even at that early age I hated that expectation. The fact that I could throw a ball reasonably well became a point of pride for me, because I thought it would help me show them. Show them that girls aren’t bad at as many things as they think we are.

And then I grew up, and I met someone who moves as confidently as that tall stranger I saw jumping a wall on my way to the post office. And since then every trivial activity in which we engage has become my own personal life-or-death challenge to make that same metaphorical jump. If the beau closes out the bullseyes on the dartboard, I have to close them as well. If he knocks a ball into the billiards pocket, I have to knock one in as well. If he decides to run one more mile, well, I have to match him stride for stride.

And if I don’t, well. That’s on me. They were right all along. I’m just a helpless, hopeless, incapable girl.

I never, ever, not for one second thought I was competitive before I met the beau. I guess I still don’t, because the very thought of having to compete at anything makes my heart beat so hard I can hear it in my ears. But the blind anger I feel at not matching “the boys” at every step betrays me. I understand that I cannot singlehandedly reverse gender stereotypes, but that doesn’t seem to stop me from trying.

And failing, more than I’d ever care to admit.

I don’t know why I feel this way. I suspect that the answer lies somewhere along the indeterminate spectrum between my personality and my feminist ideals. And I don’t honestly know how to deal with it. So I want to ask you: have you ever felt pressure to meet or beat the boys in your life, whether they be your family members, your friends, or your partners? How do you cope with the sting of falling short?

And perhaps more importantly: how do you separate the concept of failing as an individual from failing as a woman?

Is that even possible?

11 Responses to “competitive streak”

  1. I am criminally uncoordinated. I have broken the same arm three times and my parents thought I was going to end up on the At Risk register after I fell down the stairs for the hundredth time and ended up in the children’s hospital, AGAIN. So competing against ANYONE, male or female, at sport is something I have simply written off. No thank you. I’ll just whip your ass in a pub quiz instead, if you don’t mind.

    Having said that, the one sporting activity I *can* do well is ski. And it pisses me off no end when I’m being all graceful and doing swishy turns and then some a*hole man goes bombing down the piste past me with absolutely no style or skill whatsoever, and thinks he’s better than me just because of the impact of gravity on his big fat body mass.

    Not that I’m competitive, or anything. Ahem.

    (Awesome post, by the way.)

  2. My husband is also a Chosen One when it comes to any vaguely physical or sporting activity. I spent years humiliating myself in softball games and he masters the game without breaking a sweat and drunk. They don’t even bowl in New Zealand and when he plays it’s like all my years of Cosmic Bowling never existed. But then, the gods decided he was getting a little too cocky and I kicked his ass in shuffle board.
    Nevermind it’s the sport of pensioners. I’m working the long-game.

  3. I also get irrationally angry at John for being SO DAMN GOOD at everything, not because he tries but just simply because. It’s not really about sports for us though – I have never tried to compete with him there – I’ve sucked at most sports from the moment I was born and I accept that. But everything else. We did practically the same degree in college – physics – and he just got everything so naturally, while I had to painfully CRAWL towards some understanding of what I was doing. Meanwhile the BS that men are better at physics kept buzzing in my ear the whole time, taunting me. He also beats me at nearly every game we play, he can remember the most obscure facts you could ever imagine including the plot of every movie he’s ever seen since the beginning of time, and he can fix things around the house while I just try to drill the wall with the drill set in reverse mode (this past weekend actually). I get really ragy over that one. I really want to feel like I could take care of myself and that I don’t need him to fix things for me.

    But I guess we should consider ourselves lucky… or something. (holding back a kick)

  4. Really interesting post, definitely something I struggle with and think about so thanks for posting this today. Giving me lots of food-for-thought (which may produce a useful comment later, but in the mean time:) thank you.

  5. Forrest is damn good at all things practical: driving a car, fixing the sink, taking care of ALL THE THINGS. What’s the only thing we fight about? How I can’t seem to intuitively know how we’re going to lift heavy thing #40292 from the truck and move it into the shop without killing ourselves. I don’t really have that piece of gray matter I guess. And it DOES feel like like I’ve failed as a woman AND as an individual. Is the more important question how do we separate a single event failure from a more global failure as a person?

    I just have to remember that when it comes to the not so real world practicality of chemistry or remembering of the random fact, I win. Oh yes, and the prettiness. I’m not good at that, but I’m better than him.

  6. My husband is also the best at ALL THE THINGS.

    However, I have decided that I win. Why? Because I have noticed that he only does things on a regular basis that he is Very Good at. Whereas I do things that I am Very Awkward at all the damn time. QED, I win… because I am willing to lose.

  7. Tony is a better dancer, and it pisses me off. He tries to say that he is a better bowler (he claims that he “threw” the games that I won on our second date, but that’s because he can’t stand that I beat him at a sport when I am criminally uncoordinated). It’s a lie, lie I tell you. I beat him at Wii bowling every time. So there.

    Honestly, neither of us is particularly sports-inclined, a fact that I attribute to our continued enjoyment of one another’s company because we’re both competitive; we just like to compete at different things (thankfully).

  8. As someone who exclusively had guy friends right into her twenties, I get this. Especially because I also have the competitive streak.

    I mostly just practiced a lot. Still need to learn how to play pool.

  9. Yes. Just yes. The Husband is a hockey player, manages to walk on ice all winter long, and can also fix our shower. It makes me so angry b/c I’m embarrased – that I can’t do those things, that he’s better at it, etc. But, I’ll never forget him having kittens on our honeymoon when I beat him at checkers three times in a row. He actually walked off, and then came back to apologize. He said he was sorry he was angry b/c I’m always so much better at the things that take brains (he’s never beat me at dominos). So I suppose as angry as I get about him never falling down on the ice and my continually bruised hiney, he’s got a sore ego b/c of the checkers. :)

  10. Yep. Husband is a physical demon. Anything athletic. And still has the body of a 25 year old at 38. people often ask if he is a surfer on airplanes because of the way he moves. It has happened an unbelievable amount of times. Im just jealous.

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