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Be Sweet
by Roy Blount Jr. (Knopf)

Be Sweet From Chapter 11, "Attitude"

"Be sweet, now," my mother would tell me when I was little and she wanted me to sit still in some lady's house while she and the lady talked about curtains. Or, "Behave." That's a great one, isn't it? "Behave." What that meant in fact was, "Stop showing any signs of human behavior for a while." Why didn't she just say that? "Negate yourself." That would have been interesting, I could have gotten into that. "Be a zombie now, son." Cool. But no, it had to be "Be sweet."

There was a story in the paper the other day about a man who abducted a seven-year-old girl. While he was fleeing police in a high-speed chase (she told her rescuers later. You notice I don't leave you worrying about whether the little girl was saved. Because goddammit, I'm nice! I'm a father! I'm a human being! Okay?), he had a gun to her head, telling her, "Behave." He was telling her that.

Oh, I know, I know, I've been a parent myself. "Be sweet" just means "Please let me forget for a moment or two that I am a parent so I can be a human being." But children don't know that!

I want to be sweet! Maybe nice is the enemy of sweet.

I am myself one of the nicest people in the world, except when someone tells me to have a nice day. When someone tells me to have a nice day, I say, "Thank you, but I picked up some kind of tropical parasite on my last trip abroad, which has already grown to the size of a mature Chihuahua, I'm told, and which may burst out through one of my orifices at any moment. Incidentally, I exude its spores, so if I were you, I wouldn't take a breath for ten to twelve minutes after I leave. That's what the experts recommend, the ones who haven't died horrible, retching deaths in the course of their research into this thing, which . . . Oh, look, sticky buns. I didn't notice those before. Could you wrap up a dozen of those for me? And a bottle of soy sauce. No, on second thought, I'll eat the buns here, and just go ahead and pour the sauce over them. I seem to have these cravings lately. Let me dig out my charge card again, n'tou'ouaaaa'unh-aunh-h'munh, oh, rats, now I'm beginning to speak the parasite's native tongue. I try to be a gracious host, but--oh, speaking of tongues, you should see what's happened to mine. See, looghk 'ere baghk inna . . ."

At all other times, I am one of the nicest people you would ever want to meet, and where has it gotten me? Every single person I can think of who has gone farther in life than I have is pronouncedly less nice than I am. Martha Stewart? Please. Gennadi A. Zyuganov? Please. The latter would never even have been able to forge the coalition that nominated him for president of Russia if he weren't as mean as a rock-quarry snake, and when Boris Yeltsin beat him in the election, Zyuganov's critics said it was because he had abandoned the class struggle. As for Yeltsin himself, please.
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I abandoned the class struggle myself long ago, because I had to admit that capitalism was too rough an eye-gouging, price-gouging competitor. My dream of universal income parity or at least government-supported equal access to video rentals for all Americans regardless of credit rating just couldn't hack it: too nice.

What is the most dominant team in sports? The Chicago Bulls. Are they nice? Michael Jordan is so competitive that he tends, I am told, to win more money from his security guys on the golf course than they make for protecting him. The only Bull who has ever been called nice is the center, Luc Longley, who is widely regarded as the team's weak link. Of Longley, the Bulls' Dennis Rodman -- who is himself such a virtuoso of the flagrant foul that he gets away with flaming transvestitism -- says condescendingly, "He wants to burst out and be a mean and vicious center in this league, but he can't. It's not in his nature."

Ah, nature. Do you know why I will almost certainly never achieve my lifelong dream of making the Baseball Hall of Fame? No, not because my father never played catch with me so far as I can remember. Because I lack, in honest, hale, masculine competition, a killer instinct. In Little League, I once took such pity on an enormously fat boy who had hit a little dribbler to me at third base that some demon took hold of me (perhaps my mother's voice murmured, "Aww, look at that little enormously fat boy's little dribbler there, poor little thing") and I couldn't pull the trigger on my throw to first. The fat boy ran, and ran, and ran, and paused to catch his breath, and ran some more, and my teammates were screaming at me. . . . By the time the fat boy reached first safely, his entire family was sobbing and hugging each other. And there I stood....

And today that Little League fat boy whom I allowed to reach base for perhaps the only time in his life -- he gave me a "You pussy" look when he finally got over his astonishment -- probably makes ten times what I do. My coach never forgave me, and no doubt passed the word along through the coaching grapevine, because every single coach or manager I have ever met since then has looked at me askance.

One of those was Leo Durocher, the late baseball manager who will go down in history as having said "Nice guys finish last." When Durocher was manager of the Cubs, I approached him for a routine interview. It was a lovely spring-training day in Scottsdale, Arizona. Durocher gave me one look, curled his famous lip, cursed inventively, and stalked off, saying over his shoulder, "And you know why, too."

The Little League thing was the only explanation.

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Excerpted from Be Sweet, by Roy Blount Jr.. Copyright © 1998 by Roy Blount Jr.. Used by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. All rights reserved.

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