The Cost of Winning
“Hi. We’d like some drinks, please.”
The man behind the table with all that booze gestured to the man sitting behind a smaller table with a cash register and five or six rolls of tickets. “I can help you,” the man at the cash register said.
“We have to buy drink tickets?” I asked him.
The menu, in a clear plastic stand, as I now remember it, listed the options:
Premium Cocktails — $14
Wine — $15
Craft Beer — $9
Domestic Beer — $8
I had grabbed $200 in cash from my Secret Cash Hiding Spot in my apartment just before leaving. I always like to have a little folding money at events like these — awards dinners. I was nominated for the Peter Lisagor Award for Best Sports Story in the Non-Daily, Newspaper, Magazine or Newspaper Magazine section. I pulled out a fifty. “Let’s start with fifty dollars’ worth of tickets.”
“You know what you want to drink?” the man asked me.
“Don’t I just buy the tickets?”
“Tell me what you like to drink, pay here; tickets go to him,” he gestured back to the first man behind the booze table. “He makes your drink. I’ll give you change.”
“Oh. Uh, then, a Crown Royal on the rocks, a vodka and Diet Coke and a craft beer.”
The man handed me my $13 change, and the bartender three tickets, each one signifying the individual drinks. I moved back to my left where the first man served my drinks. I handed my wife, Katie, her vodka drink, I picked up my whiskey, I handed Don Hall his craft beer — a bottle of Amstel Light. Who knew?
My face gave me away. “What’s the matter?” Hall asked me.
“I’m so confused. You have to buy tickets but not like at a street fest, which would seem to make sense, but from one guy so he can give the tickets to the other guy and… Why are they so expensive? And why is Amstel Light a ‘craft beer?’”
“Dunno. Fuck it. Cheers!”
“But wait. This doesn’t make sense. I mean… Why are the drinks so expensive? I paid over a thousand bucks for this table. This isn’t a cheap night. It’s a room full of journalists — people with little money and heavy drinking problems. It doesn’t make sense.”
“I don’t know,” Hall said again. “Fuck it. Cheers!”
“It’s an honor to be nominated” is a lot easier to say after you’ve won. Still, it’s true. I was honored, and still, I really wanted to win. It’s why I bought a table of 10. I know that sometimes, the difference between a great story and a winning story is a greasing of the palm through Eventbrite. Though, I won’t say that’s why my name was announced as the winner, there’s no real way to say it didn’t help. That’s my insecurity talking. That’s all it is. Insecurity empowered because I wanted to win that award.
Winning feels good. Being recognized for your efforts and talent on occasion is necessary to fuel your tank to keep going when the struggle begins to feel like too much of a struggle. The grind of a writer can be tough and lonely and thankless. And then you get a nod in your direction and they hit you up for a nine-dollar Amstel Light.
Sometimes the life of a writer feels like the Universe is dressed in a gimp suit and has you bent over a hobbyhorse, threatening you with some violent prostate massage. It can be thankless, bad pay, who knows who’s reading or even if they like it. If it’s online, you can track clicks and all that and read the comments, and sometimes, that just makes matters worse. Sometimes the life of a writer feels like the fastest way to self-destruction. But you keep doing it because you’re a self-loathing lunatic with something to prove to yourself or your wife, friends and family, and probably a few exes and grade school teachers. Publish or perish. And sometimes living the life of a writer feels like you’re doing both.
But then a journalist friend sends you an email congratulating you for your Peter Lisagor Award nomination, and you think, ‘Huh. That’s kinda cool.”
Yeah, I wanted to win because winning feels good. But I also wanted to win because I didn’t want to embarrass myself or waste my friends’ and family’s time. My table of 10 included, me, Katie, Hall and his wife, Dana Jerman, my father, both of my grandmothers, Frank Leyden, Megy Karydes and Kate Silver. (Silver won a Lisagor last year for her story "Be the Death of Me," about the heroin problem in Illinois for Chicago Health magazine.)
I know that no one would think less of me if I had lost. I know everyone would still have a nice time drinking “craft beer” and eating banquet food and listening to my dad’s stellar brand of comedy, but that didn’t stop me from worrying about it. I didn’t want to feel as if anyone had wasted their time driving in from the south suburbs or sacrificing a quiet Friday night at home for a long-winded awards dinner of journalists honoring themselves. I didn’t want to waste the $1,000 per table ticket price to lose, even though my father was generous enough to pick up that tab. I suppose it’s because he was proud of the nomination.
“Fuck it,” Hall kept telling me in the week leading up to it.
“Fuck it,” I told myself when Hall wasn’t around.
“Besides,” Hall said, “If you lose, I’m going to make a scene. I’m going to Kanye West–Taylor Swift that stage.”
Don Hall is a good friend, and the inspiration for a Garth Brooks song.
Winning things like this may not change the course of my career. Random House has not called me yet offering a book deal, and The RedEye still hasn’t apologized for stealing my pitches and farming them out to staff writers 11 years ago. But winning things like this remind me I don’t completely suck; that I’m not wasting my time hunched over a keyboard every day. Winning things like this inspire me to keep going, and in the darker times, remind me to do so.
The first award I won for my creative efforts was in college. I entered the university’s film competition with a film called Regents, which showed the governing body of the Nevada System of Higher Education as silly fools making silly decisions that negatively impacted the state’s universities and colleges while patting themselves on the back. Every decision I showed in the short film was an actual decision made by the regents. I used six G.I. Joe figures to portray the elected officials, and filmed the script, which I had scribbled out on a dormitory cafeteria napkin in pencil, in stop motion. My friend and roommate, Jon Apisa, lent his voice to three characters alongside mine to the other three. We used some pretty bad accents, which only made the thing more absurd.
It was just a college film competition but I have kept that trophy with me ever since. It’s been in every home office/workspace I’ve had. It’s not a laurel I rest on. I don’t begin conversations with it or have it as a line item on my resume. Right now, it’s sitting on a high shelf collecting dust. But I can easily turn my head and see it, and I’m instantly reminded of that feeling of surprise when the dean of the UNLV Film School called my name. I remember my friends erupting in cheers. I remember the high I felt that night — it was enough to give me the guts to finally talk to that cute girl I liked with confidence. (We made out in her car three years later.) I’m reminded that I don’t always suck at what I do for a living. And I’m encouraged to do it again. Keep on keeping on. Publish or perish.
And so I do, and I have, and I’ve won a small handful of other recognitions in the form of certificates and plaques. Winning feels good. And it’s humbling. And being humbled feels good, too. Because winning with humility begets confidence. And confidence begets success.
After the Watchdog Award, the Lifetime Achievement award and the Anne Keegan Award were handed out and the speeches were given, the list of this year’s Lisagor Awards was rattled off. It began on page 11 of the program. Small type. My category was on page 15. Halfway through page 14, the projection screen crapped out and there was a delay, which made the anxiety in my guts ever more anxious. After a few minutes of vamping, the presenters continued on without visual aids to show the nominees and then the winner. The moment they announced my name, the screen kicked back on and there it was. The table cheered. It was loud. Hall didn’t have to pull a Kanye, which, honestly, I was looking forward to. You know, as a consolation prize.
It’s hard to find a refrigerator with magnetic doors anymore, and I don’t have any new construction paper artwork my grandmothers can hang on their fridges, so receiving this award with both of them in the room, right next to me, was about as close as we can get to that sort of thing. My father often says that he doesn’t understand what I do for a living. Now, when his clients or friends ask him, he can say, “I don’t know, but apparently, he won an award for it.” And when you’re with someone long enough, like the way Katie and I have been together almost six years, it gets hard to continue to impress them. I don’t think I’ve impressed Katie since before we moved in together. I don’t know… Maybe I have. I probably have somehow. But being recognized with an award gives some credibility to those hours I spend in the home office, locked away from whatever the hell goes on in our apartment when I’m not out there.
It’s been two days since the awards dinner and the plaque is sitting on a shelf near that UNLV Film trophy collecting its own dust. It’s time to move on. Let’s go get the next thing. Let’s go get that book published. Let’s go get Literate Ape some Lisagor Awards.
That’s all I have now. After winning, I have a plaque and renewed determination, and the memory of a knot of anxiety Hall helped me cough up and spit into the dumpster in the alley behind my apartment. And I have confidence, and even legitimate expertise. Because as an award-winning sports writer, and former editor in chief of a health magazine, I can now say with absolute confidence that the movie Rookie of the Year is overflowing with wild impossibilities.
Winning feels good. And it’s still an honor to be nominated. It would have been nice, however, if the system for ordering drinks made a little more sense. After thinking about it, I assume the prices were so high in an effort to prevent a room of 300 journalists from going completely off the rails. Thing is, the Society of Professional Journalists and Chicago Headline Club — those behind the Lisagors — don’t know me yet. I had $200 cash, and there’s a rule in writing: If you put $200 cash in your wallet in the first act, you damn well better spend it by the third.