Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Wishing We Could All Be Winners

I hate contests. It's a problem. Life, as it turns out, is a contest. Competition is something we face at every turn. But at least most of the time, it is a little less obvious when you are a loser.

I made a pie for the pie contest at the Fall Festival at the kids' school. I couldn't decide between pumpkin or pecan, so I made a pumpkin pecan. It sounded really yummy, made with sour cream and corn syrup and plenty of butter and lard for the crust. Perfect for a crisp fall day. I bake a lot for the school bake sales, cookies and breads and cakes I can usually be found carrying down my street, toward the school. For the festival, I also made a refrigerator roll, a delicious concoction of chocolate wafers and whipped cream that makes me (and plenty of others I've encountered) nostalgic for my youth.

I had thought the contest would be judged by eaters, by the common man, like the chili contest, but no. There was a Supreme Judge, the owner of a local bakery, Sweet Melissa's. It was very official, with Melissa taking a small slice of each pie. I kept running over from the bake sale where I was working, watching regular folks decide on their own what was best, (the owl cupcakes were a runaway favorite!) to check out her progress. Had she tasted mine? I had never made it before. I was curious if it was good, was dying to try it. That's why I had made it: it sounded good to me.

Finally, the announcement was made. I missed all but the winning pie, a double-crusted apple. I didn't even know there was second, third and honorable mention until later. Oh well, I thought, I didn't win. I raced over to the table, though, to get a piece of my own pie. The hubby wanted one too. So, apparently, did a lot of people. Mine was one of the first to go and I have to say I thought it was darn good. But was that what mattered to people? No.

They didn't ask if my pie was good, if they might enjoy it, they just wanted to know if it had won.

There was even a rumor spread that I had placed third, though that was really a chocolate pecan with bourbon. Maybe that's what made my pie sell well...

As I went to retreive my pie plate at the end of the day, licking bits of buttery crust and filling from the bottom fiendishly, a fellow parent at the school looked at me, smiling: "Was it a winning pie?"

I smiled back. "No," I said, "it was a loser. But it was really good!"

It reminded me so much of school, like of the time a journalism professor at Medill gave us all A's when we turned in an assignment and one girl in particular was miffed.

"I would have gone out, not worked so hard if I knew we were all getting A's," she'd said. Nice. The assignment, though I can't remember it exactly, had been really interesting, thought provoking. I remember being excited when I finished it, just before I went out. The professor had intended that, realized that just by doing it, we had learned what he hoped to teach. We were all winners. We all got gold stars, just for trying. I loved it, loved the professor for his bravery. But it usually, sadly, doesn't work that way. People don't expect that, don't particularly like it. Our society is predicated on the concept that not everyone can always win.

It's why I hate sports. I hate winning, because I feel bad for the losers, but I hate losing, because then everybody on my team is bummed we lost. It's a no-win situation, for me.

I realized as I walked off with my loser-pie pie plate that the reason I bake is to please people. I enjoy watching people enjoy the food I make. That is why I love standing behind the bake sale table. I sell someone a little bit of joy and watch them partake of it. It makes me happy. No offense to Melissa, but I don't really care what she thinks. She is just one woman. I don't read reviews, usually, for this reason, unless I have a long history with a reviewer so I know enough to trust that their opinion somewhat resembles what I myself might think.

I began to realize that the pie contest was an easy metaphor for my writing. I love writing because I hope, in doing so, to reach people with a resonant message like so many writers have reached me. But, as a professional writer, you are basically competing in a contest every time you submit something, asking that an editor might like your piece better than the countless hundreds of other writers who are also submitting.

It is why I started a blog. It is hard to build up your confidence to face the countless rejections inevitable in submitting work without first having a little success, even a few readers who enjoy one's words. I had to start doing what I wanted to do without the harsh judgment of a contest in order for my own true voice to emerge. I'm not sure, though, that I'll ever get used to submitting my work to the scrutiny of a winner/loser setup. I know, going forward, that I can just place my baked goods on the bake sale table and let the "judges" be the people who decide whether they want to buy it or not rather than submit to a contest. But, with my writing, if I ever plan to publish, to gain a wider audience, I have to submit myself to judgment, to many judges' individual opinions, ones I might not even agree with. I know, I know, you're saying, "That's life, baby. That's life."

I wish it wasn't that way. I wish everyone could get a gold star just for trying.

There was a woman working at the dressing room at Daffy's yesterday who, kindly, brought my aging, complaining father a stool so he could sit down as I tried on clothes. He laughed, suggesting to her, suggesting to me, that she should get a gold star.

She sighed. "I wish," she said. Suddenly, a quick reach into my bag, and her wish was fulfilled. Voila, it was that easy. Aaah. I wish it was always that easy.


  1. Ha! Loser-pie is a great name for your new pie invention! and for the record, i am one of the many who would choose your loser pie over anyone else's ribbon winner!

  2. Of over 400 families who go to the school, only 12 submitted pies. For that you get a gold star. You took hours to lovingly prepare a pie to help raise money for the school. Another gold star. You delivered a pie which was both beautiful and tasty. Another gold star. Your pie sold faster than all of the other pies. Another gold star. You participated because you like people to enjoy your efforts. Another. Maybe no ribbon, but look at all of those stars! julie