Thursday, October 4, 2007

First Place, Last Place

Has there been a more competition-obsessed culture than that of the U.S.? Probably. But I can't think of one. Horses are allowed to win, place, or show, and gamblers are allowed to attempt to make money (the track always makes money) on place and show, not just win. But otherwise, we seem to be a culture obsessed with the celebrity of first place or the ignominy of last place, although the real gamblers out there bet on the points by which team X beats team Y, so in that instance, the importance of place, of coming out ahead or standing atop the heap, has shrunk. Nonetheless, gamblers are led by the phantom of winning.

Is there much doubt that George W. Bush is at once the biggest winner (two-time president, in a manner of speaking) and the biggest loser (what project or response of his has succeeded?, and this is not a rhetorical question--I do wish I could name one success) in American politics in recent memory? Hollywood screenwriters could not have created a better parody-president. The president in Dr. Strangelove, played by Peter Sellers, seems more authentically presidential than George W. Bush; please know this is not a political statement--I am speaking strictly in terms of art. The real guy is a better parody of the president. George W. Bush is a performance artist. Did you see/hear his latest speech? What satirist could have written a more successful satire?. . . .

. . . .We've all won something, I suppose--some little competition. A card game. A foot-race. A contest in which two people try to throw a wad of paper into a waste-can. Poems of mine have won a couple of competitions, but from this vantage point, I have to wonder by what criteria my poems came out "ahead," in "first." My poems have also "lost" competitions, meaning they received no mention. They were ignored. They do not seem to have taken it personally. Good for them. As a friend once said, "One may not, strictly speaking, be offended; one may choose to take offense--or not." Thank you, W.T.H.

. . .As a low-level mere high-school athlete, I was a member of a basketball team that tied for first place in the league and therefore was "co-champion." Did we come in first? Yes and no! I still have a little plaque somewhere that commemorates the event. It's hard to believe that anyone cared enough to create the plaque or that I have held on to it. In college, on an intra-mural flag-football team, I was part of a "championship" team. Ha! What I love most of all is our name: the Moke-Hill Gophers, after a town called Mokulumne Hill in the Sierra Nevada. It is in Calaveras County, the site of Twain's famous frog-story. The team was composed of cowboys, literally, from that town; and me. I also took first place in a dormitory ping-pong (table-tennis) tournament, strictly because of a) my unorthodox style and b) defense. Incredibly as it may seem, I "earned" a trophy. So there's some evidence: a dormitory at a community college in the United States held a ping-pong tournament, for which the winner earned a trophy. Yes, the U.S. is obsessed with competition.

I do fondly recall Robin Williams's having won an Oscar and saying, a few months later, "Don't worry, folks, the Oscars aren't rigged," meaning: of course they're rigged. I liked him more for his having said that. "Best supporting actor." Best acting, or best support? In what sense "best"? What are the criteria? Who are the judges? Who votes, and who counts the votes? Whatever.

In high school, I did not compete in track-and-field, but I remember watching track-meets, and there was a class-mate of mine, Phil, who competed in a long-distance event. I think it was the three-mile race. I'm not sure they even have such an event even more. Phil always came in last. But I remember watching him finish the race, calmly and nobly. That may be my most vivid memory of watching sports in high school. Last place. The nobility of it. Phil, wherever you are, the official records say you didn't win, place, or show. But as far as memory is concerned, you came in first. Well done.

So here are poems about a) first place and b) last place.

First Place

The figure on the trophy
lifts its arms for as long
as its soft, shiny metal
will last. It doesn’t know
what it celebrates. Trophies
are good that way—entirely
disinterested. They’re
unambitious, manufactured.
They weren’t able to hear
the cheers. At landfills they
break apart gracefully.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom

* * *
The Last Place

Not long from now
nor far from here's
the place where all
that matters now,
even if it matters then,
must matter to
somebody else.

To anyone who finds
this note: good luck
and look ahead
to your last place
not far, not long
from when and where
you read this--your
eyes, your mind
alive and quick
and liquid, not
concerned with doom.

Ah, bless you on
your way to where
what matters now
must matter to
someone besides
the one your are,
the one I am.

Copyright 2007 Hans Ostrom,

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