Archives for category: Sports

TABLE TENNIS TRIALS & TRIBULATIONS

 

 

I arrive early and the place is empty except for two middle-aged Chinese men sitting on a bench chatting in English.   I ask if either would like to hit, but both shake their heads “no.” In Chinese, they call over a younger man who has just entered the Triangle Table Tennis Center, a 30,000 square foot facility near the Raleigh Airport.   With forty tables, ball machines, a pro shop and coaching staff, it’s the largest such center in the nation. The men converse with him for a moment, then motion to me.

 

 

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“He will hit with you,” says one, a mischievous smile crinkling his eyes.

The pained expression on the face of my hitting partner indicates a distinct lack of enthusiasm. Basically, he’s been dragooned by the older men and thinks he has to waste his time for their amusement. Without speaking, he takes his spot across the table and serves a ball. Initially, I confirm his worst fears. My first three practice shots fly long. Each time, he trudges six or eight steps back to retrieve the ball as though he is walking through quicksand carrying a boulder.   I over-compensate and hit the next several shots into the net.

“You don’t hold the racquet right,” are his first words.

“No?” I say.

He shakes his head.

“You must have just started to play,” he says, miserably.

“Not really,” I say. “I’ve been playing for over fifty years.”

“Over fifty years holding it like that?” he says. He looks disgusted.

He serves a ball and, thank goodness, I return it onto the table and begin to sustain a rally. After half a century of play, I’m categorized as an “advanced beginner;” although a star against the general population, I’m but chopped liver against “serious” players.

 

 

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*****

 

If my game lacks proper technique, the fault lies with my older brothers, Barry and David. They taught me to play in our cramped basement sometime during the Kennedy administration. Any missed shot found it’s way behind lawn furniture or plumbing like a hide-and-seek professional. Spiders lurked in the corners amidst award-winning webs.   I suppose you could say there was a strong incentive not to miss. Owing to the fact I was about a decade younger than both of them, I never won. It all sounds miserable. Yet, I was thrilled when one of them agreed to play even though they repeatedly sent me into those awful corners chasing errant shots.

 

 

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Barry had a particularly annoying style. He played with a sandpaper paddle that made an unpleasant thwack with each shot. All of his serves went down the side of the table to my backhand so near the table edge that the ball often glanced off it, untouchable. Even knowing exactly where his shots would go, I couldn’t return them. David played with a conventional, rubberized paddle and clobbered me more conventionally.

By the time I was eight they were both away at college, and I practiced alone against the wooden wall of the closet adjacent to the table. Unfortunately, the top of the closet was open for a foot at ceiling height and high shots often disappeared into it. Once inside, they nestled amidst ancient household items that NEVER ONCE emerged, such as canvas awnings for the exterior of the house. There were also paint cans that had been fresh when the house was constructed thirty years earlier, dust and, presumably, more spiders. I rarely had enough courage to open the closet and retrieve the balls. Instead, I expended some of my miniscule baseball card budget at Woolworth’s for new balls. If only I’d thought to block the opening with cardboard. My father, who NEVER played ping pong, had an expression for such a lack of initiative: “Smart, smart, smart and then stupid.”

 

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*****

 

My opponent, who still does not tell me his name, suggests we play a match consisting of best-of-five games up to eleven points. After beating me, he will then be free to play with worthier opponents. He wins the first game 11-3, and appears relieved to be so near the end of his involuntary good-deed-of-the-day.

 

*****

 

Shortly after I learned about the Center last winter, I began to attend regularly. I play one or two mornings a week against opponents of similar ability. I played in a “beginners” league one night a week and did quite well. My strange, outdated grip and one-side-of-the-paddle style flummoxes fellow bottom feeders. I enjoy playing so much I break from my usual tendency to spend no money on myself and resolve to take lessons from a pro.

 

*****

 

A J is twenty-eight-years-old. His body is lean and sinewy. He’s made for speed and precision more than brute strength. Among the highest ranked of American-born players he makes his living as a table tennis coach. How often does the IRS see THAT on a tax form? First, he examines the paddle I’d been playing with for several years. As he holds it, his facial expression suggests he’s swallowed sour milk.

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“What is this?” he asks.

“My paddle?” I say, unsure.

“What rubber is it?” he asks.

“Um, the kind they put on at the factory, I guess,” I say, trying to be respectful but wondering about how to answer such a question.

“You can’t play with this,” he says.

“It’s illegal?” I ask.

“It’s just, you know, dead,” he says.

My silence indicates to him that I don’t “know” what “dead” means.

“We’ll get you fixed up with a real racquet,” he says. “Let’s just hit a few balls so I can figure out what you need.”

As a sports participant and fan, I’ve always been skeptical of the validity of improvement via equipment. If a golfer, for instance, buys a newfangled, over-sized driver and, as a result, can hit thirty yards longer, is he a better golfer? If a tennis player buys space-age string that increases the spin or speed of his shots by twenty percent, is he a better player?

Due in part to my moral ambivalence and also to my frugality, I’ve never focused on equipment. Unlike my buddies who dissect the relative merits of one tennis string versus another ad nauseum, I’m proud to adjust to even a borrowed racquet after just a few swings. My racquets are usually bought on-line and arrive, already strung with basic material, via UPS.

But ping pong is different, according to A J: “You can keep your weird grip,” he says, as we gently rally. “It might even be an advantage against people who have never seen it before. But your skins will have to be better, as well as your blade.”

Skins? Blade? Yes, skins are what real players call the black and red rubber surfaces on opposite sides of their paddles. Before I arrived at the Center, I didn’t know that the two sides could be different. Naturally, real players don’t call a paddle a paddle but, rather, a “racquet.” And they don’t call a handle a handle but, rather, a “blade.” And when they refer to skins, they don’t mean the pimply rubber surfaces that come in a set from Walmart but, rather, highly specialized, customized surfaces that range from $50-$200 a skin. By the way, these “skins” must be replaced every several months for optimal performance.

 

 

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After hitting with A J for a few minutes, it occurs to me he never misses. Whatever random shot I hit, he calmly returns at the same pace and location. It’s uncanny. It’s impressive. I think to myself: “I’d like to be A J – still in his twenties and terrific at what he does.” At that moment, he says: “It must be great to be retired and have time to do whatever you want. I’m jealous.”

I suppose the grass is always greener….

 

*****

 

In the second game I realize my opponent’s backhand, whatever his name is, is much weaker than his forehand. Also, the new “anti-spin” skin that A J had recommended for my red side is ruining his timing, just as A J promised it would. When I remember to use it, the livelier skin on my black side creates enough spin to frustrate him. When he swings and misses for the second point in a row, I’ve won 11-9. I repeat the result in the third game. My opponent is now sweating profusely. He curses in Chinese. His friends say something to him and laugh. He is stone-faced.

 

*****

 

Ping pong actually figures in family history prior to my brothers and me. I’m told the school nurse circa 1935 thought my mother had a weak heart. As a result, she couldn’t partake in strenuous activities and spent gym classes playing ping pong. I rallied with her in my basement five years ago. She hit pretty well! And she’s still alive and well – you do the math – the nurse was wrong.

 

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*****

 

I lose the fourth game. My mind is cluttered with doubt that I can win the match against such a strong opponent. I certainly have his full attention now. “It’d still be a moral victory,” I think, as the fifth and deciding game begins. “Forget that,” I correct myself. “Don’t settle for a moral victory. Do what A J would do. Batter his backhand. Stay calm. Concentrate. Don’t concentrate too hard. Relax. Don’t relax too much. Move your feet. Follow through, etc.” The mind can harbor a lot of thoughts, some contradictory, at the same time.

 

*****

 

In an early lesson, except for my grip, A J criticized every aspect of my game. It turns out I’d been improvising every shot I’d ever hit. “You have to have a consistent swing,” he said. “Don’t worry about the result,” he continued. “Do it properly.” He’s retraining me against numerous long-developed bad habits and several habits that are good, if only I were playing tennis. It surprises me to realize that the two sports, though similar on the surface, require distinctly different swings.

At one point during my first lesson, I recall, I said to A J: “There are twenty things I have to remember on each shot. This is almost as bad as golf.” At the time, he didn’t respond. During this morning’s lesson, A J told me what I can expect after several more months of lessons and, in so doing, used the terms “hook” and “slice.” A cold shiver ran down my spine.

*****

 

The fifth game goes back and forth. I’m ahead 4-3, then behind 7-6. A late string of good luck treats me to a Hollywood ending, albeit low budget. I win 11-9. I expect my opponent to be angry. Instead, he puts down his racquet and comes to me with sweaty hand out-stretched. “Good game,” he says. “My name is James. Let’s play again now.”

I’m honored. I’ve passed a test. I can’t wait to tell A J.

 

 

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MAKING A RACQUET

tennis-ball-984611__340I  I looked forward to playing tennis at our new condominium in Costa Rica.  The sales literature we relied upon showed two courts nestled amidst tropical landscaping.   The selling realtor, a fabulously successful Californian named Brett, assured us these courts were of the highest quality and had lights for evening play when desired.  Upon our arrival, however, we realized the only thing he failed to a mention is that the courts did not yet exist.  Perhaps, after two or twenty-two or seventy-two more condominium units are sold (everyone has a different story) the two courts in our community will be constructed.

“Pura vida,” said Brett, when asked in person about the courts, using the local fits-all expression to convey ‘no worries.’

“But you told us there are courts,” I said.  “I believed that our place has tennis courts.”

“It’s just a matter of time,” said Brett, unruffled.  “There’s a court at the Coco Bay Club.  You can play there.”

“How far is that?” I asked.

“Five minutes, tops,” said Brett.

Allowing for Brett’s tendencies, I took that to mean ten-fifteen minutes.  Not as optimal as the one minute walk I’d expected, but workable.

“Is there anyone to play with?” I asked.

hotel-swimming-pool-1065275__340“There are a ton of people at Coco Bay, and a pool and a spa and a five star restaurant.  You’ll love it.”

“Five stars?” I asked, my skepticism rising.

“Well, maybe four stars.  Plus, it might not be open this time of year.”

Brett’s nickname could well be “grain of salt.”  As another example, he told me that Magic Jack, a computer attachment for low-cost phoning, is free for three years, even with the advertisement in front of both of us stating “Six months free.”   One tolerates Brett’s “reality” due to his legendary effectiveness.  Someday, if we choose to sell, he’ll convince the next owner that our unit is, somehow, worth more than rational analysis indicates.

“Alan from my office is a member there,” Brett continued.   “I’ll have him call you tonight.  He’s a great tennis player.”
“Wonderful,” I said.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t hear from Alan that evening.  The next morning, I walked over to the real estate office to see when Alan might be in and ran into him at the entrance.  He was identifiable by his appearance in tennis whites.  In the dusty hubbub of downtown Coco, that stands out.  Fortunately for me, Alan’s opponent had just canceled, and he was pleased to have a replacement.  Alan is a about forty, a Quebecois who headed off to warmer, Spanish-speaking climes decades earlier.

“Were you going to play at Coco Bay?” I asked.

“Yes, my buddy is a member there, and I was going to be his guest,” said Alan.

“Oh,” I said.  “Brett said you were a member.”

“Well, not really,” Alan said.  “But I have an idea.  We’ll drive over there and tell them you are a potential member and I’m your realtor.  I’m sure they’ll let us in.  They’re desperate for new members.”

“Hunh?  Brett said the place is humming with activity,” I said.

“Well…” said Alan.

“Anyway, the realtor idea should work,” I said, thinking that the story plausible and increasingly willing to embrace quasi-reality  .

“I just hope I can give you a good game,” said Alan.  “I’m a beginner.”

“Brett said you were ‘great,’” I said.

“Well…” he halted again, both of us contemplating Brett’s relationship with truth.

Alan drove me back to my place to change into tennis clothes and pick up my racquet.  Though disappointed at Alan’s “beginner” status, I tried to remember that playing “for fun,” not blood, is appropriate on vacation.

I settled into the passenger seat of Alan’s SUV for the drive to Coco Bay.  It involved navigating a local neighborhood.  There were few cars on the road, but tons of pedestrians and bicycles, people on their way to work and school.  Women with assorted bags walked among fruit stalls and small bodegas to complete their daily shopping.

Driving in small-town Costa Rica is a double-edged experience.  There are chaotic traffic patterns due to a lack of shoulders, curbs or painted lines and ever-present potholes.  Also, a single bicycle can be loaded with as many as three adults or four children.  On the positive side, one admires the vibrant hubbub of the community.  Children walk in groups to school, instead of being bused or carpooled as they would be in much of America.  They chatter and laugh as though they had not a care in the world.  And, though they live in homes we would consider hovels, most are dressed and groomed like fashion models.

“Do you mind if I leave off the car for a wash?” asked Alan.  “It’s just a few hundred yards from the club.”

“No problem,” I said.

The car wash consisted of a lean-two where two tattooed guys had a hose, a bucket and rags.  At home, one would no more hand over keys to them than to panhandlers on the street.  Yet, Alan chatted with them in Spanish and bade them good-bye:  “Regresamos en dos horas, mas o menos,” he said.  (“We’ll be back in two hours, more or less.”)

We walked across the main avenue and proceeded down a side street overhung with tropical trees.  The pavement became a pitted dirt road; we exchanged amiable nods and greetings with several people as we passed.  A pack of napping dogs barely raised their heads to note the two Gringos walking with tennis equipment.  Finally, we came to a guardhouse and gate beneath a faded sign:  “Coco Beach Club, Luxury Residences and Lots, Completion Spring 2009.”

“Hola,” said Alan, to arouse a sleepy guard in an ill-fitting uniform, who bore a striking resemblance to Larry of ‘The Three Stooges.’

He seemed surprised by our arrival but waved us in.  Beyond the gate, elaborately designed paving stones conveyed the aspirations of a high-end community, the effect diminished by grass growing up between them.

“This place doesn’t look very successful,” I said.

“They got killed in the downturn,” said Alan.  “But they might revive with the economy.”  He shrugged, to convey: “Who knows?”

“Does anyone live here?” I asked.

“They sold about ten percent of the lots,” Alan replied.  “Fortunately, they completed the roads and clubhouse before everything died, and the tennis court.”

We arrived at a massive stone clubhouse, where the hopes of pre-2008 bust was reduced to humidity-swollen doors, cracked tiles, and a shuttered restaurant.  The “spa,” visible through a condensation-ruined glass wall, consisted of a selection of forlorn exercise machines, many with hand-written signs indicating “no funcionar.”   No one was in the “office” to speak with us.

“We’ll play first,” said Alan.  “The court is just past the pool,” he continued, upbeat.  In spite of his good cheer, I envisioned a tennis court with cracks and grass growing in the middle.  “Stop it,” I scolded myself, fighting to prevent cloudy thoughts from darkening the sunny day.  We walked out the back door of the clubhouse and arrived, at last, at a glistening swimming pool, surrounded by palm trees and flowers.  Several other guests lolled in the water and made the Club seem alive, however iguana-1057830__340tenuously.  Insects buzzed around foliage in a riot of color. A large iguana lounged at poolside like a tourist.

“There’s the court,” said Alan, pointing to a metal gate at the end of a walkway.

I could only see the entrance as we approached, since thick shrubbery surrounded the rest.  When we entered, I was relieved to see a bright green surface and a sturdy net, a perfectly respectable tennis court, with absolute privacy.  Or so I thought.

Tennis is played in a variety of circumstances and in front of a variety of on-lookers.  At Coco Bay, however, I played for the first time before spectators who hooted and hollered after every shot.  In fact, they screamed between points and during water breaks.  The noise began with our first warm-up shot and continued.   We played not before rabid fans in monkey-624797__340Chile or Kazakhstan but rather, a troupe of howler monkeys, who’d taken seats in a massive fig tree adjacent to the court.  They found our game entertaining.  Or, they found it irritating, or amusing, or disgusting.  Hard to say.

Whenever there was a lull in the monkey symphony, we heard roosters from somewhere beyond the fence and, to top it off, cows mooed to provide the bass.  On percussion, a flock of parrots chattered as they darted between surrounding trees.

“Is it always like this?” I asked Alan, astonished.

“Not always this loud,” he said.  “There’s a hawk or something scaring parrot-807303__340the parrots.”  He motioned skyward where a massive bird I thought resembled a pterodactyl circled.

“Let me take this all in,” I said, pausing to look around.  “This is incredible.”

“Hey, there’s a reason they shot ‘Jurassic Park’ in Costa Rica,” said Alan, smiling.

Alan and I hit for an hour.  For a beginner, he wasn’t bad.  After we finished, I paid a piddling sum at the office to become a “visiting member” of the Club and walked back with Alan to retrieve his clean car.

The next morning, I saw Brett.

“Alan said you enjoyed the tennis scene yesterday,” he said.

“That’s a good way to put it,” I said.  “The actual tennis was okay.  But I will definitely remember the setting forever.”

“Listen,” he said, “there’s a few lots in there you might be interested in buying.  They can’t miss!”

“Hasta la vista, Brett,” I said, retreating.  “You’ve already helped enough!”


FIT-BIT TO BE TIED

My children were kind (?) enough to give me a Fit-Bit as an early Father’s Day gift. For those who don’t know, a Fit-Bit is an electronic bracelet that monitors how many steps one takes throughout a day. It can reflect the total on your computer screen along with numerous other tidbits of information if one chooses to enter them, such as: water consumption; caloric intake; and, how deeply one has slept.

For now, counting steps is sufficient to maintain my interest; I take off the Fit-Bit before I go to sleep. A typical target number for daily steps is 10,000. Boosted by a tennis match in the morning I managed 20,000 my first day. I’m also a Fit-Bit “friend” with my daughter and wife, so I can compare my performance with theirs throughout the day or week or month.   Time will tell if intra-family, friendly competition is desirable.

*****

Though not a social scientist, and without statistics to support my contentions, I believe the middle-aged recognize there is less physicality in life than there was a century ago. We believe our efforts to reintroduce movement and strength conditioning positively impact our health, appearance and quality of life. To that end, we PAY MONEY to join gyms, hire trainers, participate in yoga, and, yes, wear equipment that encourages these virtuous tasks.   I smile, after all, when my wristband buzzes to mark my ten thousandth step each day. It “syncs” with my computer to greet me with an image of a golden sneaker when I sit down at the end of a walk. How different from when I attended college!

*****

In the mid-1970’s, I played soccer goaltender for the glory of Dickinson College. During my first two seasons, team conditioning was sporadic. At practice, while I fielded light shots from an assistant coach and chatted with passersby, my teammates jogged a little, scrimmaged a little, and kicked the ball around in drills that lacked clear purpose or connection. It was as though our coach, Bill Nickels, a former football player, had simply copied a list of possible activities from a book. (In fact, he had).

The highlight of each day was shooting practice, where my teammates lined up to take a crack at the goal defended alternately by me and my back-up, a person without athletic skill, who had joined the team in order to recruit freshman for his fraternity. Never mind that shooting on goal is a skill rarely undertaken in a game by most defenders and mid-fielders. Twenty people stood in two anaerobic lines to await their turn to blast a ball in my general direction. Through no great skill on my part, their efforts were rarely rewarded; balls that did not go directly into my hands usually sailed over the goal or squibbed sadly to the side like popped balloons.

Our won-lost record during my first two seasons was nearly even. Apparently, in the 1970’s, other small college soccer teams also had coaches who had never played the sport, and consisted of players who were more hobbyists than dedicated athletes.

It was shocking, therefore, to arrive for my junior season and find Coach Nickles a changed man. He still looked the same, with his substantial mustache and dark glasses above a barrel chest in a too-tight tee shirt. But he had attended a seminar over the summer and resolved to mold our squad into a well-conditioned athletic machine.

“This season is going to be different,” he announced to the throng lounging on the grass in front of him. “First of all, there will be no more standing around between drills.”

Several of us looked up with mild interest.

“Second of all,” he continued, “only the forwards and halfbacks will take shooting practice. Fullbacks will work on their long kicking and heading.”

A few players raised eyebrows in surprise. A fullback groaned in disappointment.

“Finally,” he declared, “you’re going to get in shape. Two days a week, half of practice will be spent on ‘brutality drills,’ a combination of running and weight-lifting that will set us apart from the other teams.”

Now the coach had everyone’s attention.

“Weight-lifting?” said several players, surprised.

“That’s right,” said Coach Nickels, pointing to the entrance to the weight room adjacent to the locker room, an environment as unknown to Dickinson soccer players as the moon. “And the running begins right now.”

*****

True to his word, Coach Nickels cajoled the team to do wind sprints of varying lengths. Next up were calisthenics. Then an introduction to the various weights and machines from the trainer who we’d thought worked exclusively for the football team. Then more sprints, then a water break. Then, amidst looks of disbelief, he lined us up for more running.

“When are we going to use the balls?” asked one player, in a plaintive tone.

“When I’m satisfied there’s been a good enough effort in the running,” said Coach Nickels.

A group of 18-20-year-olds looked at each other like contestants at the end of a dance marathon. Lucky for me, as a goaltender, the coach sent me off with the assistant to field some shots; even under the new regime, field-long wind sprints were not deemed essential for me. From my vantage point in goal, I watched my teammates continue to run and strained to suppress my amusement.

While most of us complained bitterly and loafed whenever possible, particularly in the weight room, after several weeks, practices seemed more purposeful. And when we played our first game, the difference was clear. We knew from past seasons that Lebanon Valley College had a terrible soccer team; we looked forward to an easy game to start the season. But the anticipated 3-0 win became a 9-0 blowout. My teammates ran circles around the opponents while I stood, bored and inactive, in front of the goal.

Nonetheless, at practice, the complaints continued. Several players, who usually sat on the bench, quit the team. Soccer for them was meant to be a social experience, not a struggle. A few others begged off some of the running due to minor injuries or allergies.

We won two more relatively easy games and then lost to our only D-1 opponent, Bucknell, by a respectable score of 1-0. (The goal went in off the post; I still remember it like it was yesterday). We were a winning team. We felt strong. Yet, on ‘brutality’ practice days, we dragged ourselves to the field like prisoners approaching the gallows. To my knowledge, no one ever congratulated Coach Nickels for his initiative. No one acknowledged aloud that they could run farther without heavy breathing or that they could lift increasing amounts of weight. All we did was complain, even while compiling a record of 9 wins and 4 losses instead of the usual six wins, six losses and a tie.

*****

The following season, to my surprise, Coach Nickels returned to the drowsy routines of my first two years. Had someone complained to the administration? Were ‘brutality’ drills undignified? Un-Dickinsonian? The concept of coach/player communication had not been invented in the 1970’s. Whatever the reason, most of my teammates breathed a sigh of relief. I admit I was among them. We vaguely realized our regression to a record of 7-6 stemmed from the demise of serious conditioning. However, in our lazy, young minds, we were happy not to have to run those extra sprints, not to enter the weight room on a regular basis.

*****

Fast forward thirty or forty years. We pay to belong to a gym. We pay to belong to a tennis club. We purchase a collection of weights, bands and balls for home use on days we can’t get to the gym. We schedule walks or runs.   We own Fit-Bits to monitor our every step. All of this was free, available (not the Fit-Bit) and AVOIDED LIKE THE PLAGUE when we were young. It is said: “youth is wasted on the young.” I’m not always an adherent of that conclusion. In this instance, however, it may be true. I’m going to take a long walk and think about it.


OUT OF CHARACTER, OUT OF LUCK

Anyone who has watched a soccer game knows the goaltender’s job involves intermittent spasms of exertion followed by long stretches of inactivity. Only the goalie of a completely overmatched team is active enough to be physically worn out. Mentally, however, the position is exhausting. It’s essential to remain focused no matter how far away the ball, so decision-making and reactions are sharp, when necessary. Unfortunately, early in one particular game in my first season as goaltender for Dickinson College, my thoughts flitted like flies due to repeated fouls I endured from the opposing Number Nine. As a result, the only punch I’ve ever thrown began to percolate.
Until that fateful day, violence played no part in my life. Some credit is due my temperament, I suppose, but my parents deserve primary credit. They created a safe environment. My father, in particular, disdained physical confrontation. He most often expressed his distaste in connection with sports, a field that held great interest to me, but none to him.
“Animals,” he grumbled each time the television news showed a highlight. Though otherwise respectful and engaged in my activities, my father ignored my near-obsessive participation in baseball and soccer, and left my mother the task of taking me to and from practices and games. Football and ice hockey didn’t appeal to me, fortunately, or we might have argued. Although my father didn’t exercise a veto of my choices, if he had, I wouldn’t have played anything more physical than table tennis.
To put this in perspective, my father never saw me play soccer in middle school or high school. He saw only parts of several baseball games over the years. The only athlete’s name he seemed to know, from local news reports, was the Phillies’ 1970’s-era catcher, Bob Boone. My father liked to repeat his name as fast as possible, as though the resulting sound proved his point.

*****

The first time he fouled me, Number Nine kicked my ankle. It struck me as accidental and not extraordinary, given the context. I’d gone to my knees to gather a low shot and he arrived hoping for a rebound. He even mumbled: “Oops, sorry.”
The second time, only moments later, Number Nine nicked my nose with his forearm after I had caught a routine shot. The referee called a foul and, again, Number Nine said: “Sorry.” I glared at him as formidably as possible to try to convey: “Don’t do that again.”
Only a few minutes later, I dove to block a bouncing shot with my chest, and pounced on the rebound. Enough of an interval passed for me to stand up with the ball in my arms when my tormentor plowed into me from behind and caused me to fall to the ground. The referee ran over and showed Number Nine a yellow warning card, and said to him, “One more and you’re out of the game.” Again, my apologetic opponent said “Sorry” as he jogged away.
“Quit saying sorry and quit doing it!” I blurted to his departing back, as I wiped grass and dirt off my forehead. He turned and glared at me as though there were something wrong with me, as though I should be more understanding, as though the opportunity to be a human piñata was an honor he had bestowed upon me. I thought I detected a smirk. I recall having felt disbelief mixed with anger, my heart pounding.

*****

My consolation was that Number Nine had been warned and certainly wouldn’t hit me again, lest he be thrown out. For fifteen or twenty uneventful minutes, I focused exclusively on the flow of play. After I caught a slow, non-threatening shot, to my amazement, Number Nine ran alongside me and swung his elbow into my shoulder. Instinctively, I shifted the soccer ball to my left hand and flung my entire body, led by my right hand, at his receding head. I felt only air and a few strands of his hair on my knuckles. I nearly fell over from the effort. Simultaneous with the referee’s shrill whistle I looked up to see my father, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, standing just ten feet behind the goal, having chosen to surprise me by driving over two hours to the game.
Here I was, his son, away from his home for just one month, trying to deliver a knockout punch like Muhammed Ali, though not nearly as gracefully or successfully. The referee arrived to wave a yellow card in my face and then turned to Number Nine with a red card, ejecting him. Thus, justice was done, but my father received my explanation over dinner with evident skepticism.
“This is what they teach you at college?” he finally asked.
For certain, nothing he saw that day changed his opinion about sports.


AGING

Thursday is senior citizens day at our local supermarket, Harris Teeter, where shoppers over sixty receive a 5% discount. Fully aware that I am approaching that age in several years, I still make some smug calculations when I encounter discount day. For instance, I steer clear of the self-checkout lines, since the “seniors” are even less technologically able than I, and always seem to get stuck. I also avoid crowded aisles where the carts move more slowly than molasses. And I park in a far-off corner of the lot, since the ding potential from those beige Buick’s is tremendous. Imagine my surprise and dismay, therefore, when the checkout girl deducted 5% from my total last Thursday, without even the decency to ASK if I qualified.
“Do I look that old?” I nearly blurted, but then thought: “If they’re going to insult me by saying I look old, I’m keeping the $2.59.” Still, another milestone on the journey of life was passed.
“What other indignities are ahead?” I asked my wife, Katie, when I arrived home.
“Be happy you’re alive and healthy,” she said.
“You’re right,” I agreed, reluctantly. But I still didn’t like this small intimation of death, like a leaf falling from a tree in late-September.

I’m not certain when I first recognized my own mortality. I was probably around forty when I calculated I was at, or close to, the “back-nine” of life, actuarially-speaking. Yet, at that time, I was still intensely busy at work and ably performing in tennis, softball and soccer. At home, my children were young, and life was simply too busy to pause for reflection, especially on a topic that had no solution, no upside, and no negotiation.
Life is different now. All three children are finished with college and established in their own lives. I retired from real estate law five years ago. If I don’t make an effort to keep busy writing or exercising, reading, or traveling, thoughts of aging creep in, like the grey hair now surrounding my temples.
The realm of athletics is a microcosm, I think, for the issue of aging. There is an inexorable trajectory, from youthful obliviousness, to full-throttle power, to coasting “at the top of your game,” to reluctant recognition that maintenance is all you can hope for before, finally, slowing down.
At fifty, in recognition of the arrival of the “maintenance” period, in the form of creaky joints, I performed triage on my roster of activities. I gave up competitive soccer, softball and racquetball in the hope of competently continuing high-level tennis.
The challenge of remaining competitive against opponents half my age is not to play “their” game. Rather, I adapt to blunting their power with guile, their speed with spin. The task is made increasingly difficult due to my inability to play as frequently as before. Basically, I play “whack-a-mole” with my body. If my elbow quits aching, my shoulder stiffens. When my heels feel solid, the shrunken cartilage in my knees becomes apparent. If, one day, I think everything feels perfect, a twinge in the neck appears.

Sports have always been important to me. My earliest memories involve ping-pong in the basement of our home. When I was four or five, I begged my older brothers to play. Well before I was able to compete with them on the table, I tried to be helpful retrieving balls from murky corners behind furniture and spider webs.
I progressed at five or six to throwing rubber balls incessantly against the outside wall of our house and, as soon as possible, commenced playing little league baseball.
Soccer was added to baseball in seventh grade when I was informed at my new school the other choice was football. While I enjoyed playing catch, being tackled by people intent upon my destruction didn’t appeal. When I was ten, my sister introduced me to tennis and I have played, with varying intensity, ever since. During college, I added squash and racquetball to the agenda. As late as my mid-thirties, I was still adding, as platform tennis, a cold-weather fusion of tennis and racquetball, became a passion.
When I began the winnowing process, it wasn’t because I enjoyed playing less; it’s that my body was not able to play as much as before. I also suspected a subtle lessening of my abilities. “I may be a pretty good shortstop, but I’m no Derek Jeter; I don’t have to do this for a living,” I noted.

Derek Jeter presently is playing out his final season of a long and distinguished career with the Yankees. While his professionalism is admired, it’s impossible to deny the decline in his performance. His defense is slowed, his power hitting non-existent, and his durability is suspect. Several fans have confided they suffer cognitive dissonance when “The Captain” takes the field. They don’t begrudge him his accolades. However, they wish he would surrender his position at shortstop to a younger, more able teammate.
I’d hate for my tennis teammates to experience such thoughts when I come to play. I don’t want to out-stay my welcome. For this fall season, I’ve forsaken the “all-ages” league for the first time, in order to play against “Over-40” competition. I’m not yet psychologically able to sign up for the “Over-55’s,” though I qualify.
If the aches and pains overwhelm, I already have a plan to return to where it all began — the ping pong table. Great sport, no running, no body contact, weightless ball, and no age limits. Every day can be senior day.


MARATHON MAN

I ran the Philadelphia Marathon in 1983. In honesty, that stark statement is somewhat sanitized. There was some running involved, but also jogging, walking and some trudging. A lot of trudging.
How did this misadventure come about? Sex. I was motivated by sex. Why else does a young man do anything?
I was reminded of my marathon by a call this morning from my daughter, Kelly. She had just completed a half-marathon in New York, one of several she has participated in in recent years, along with assorted triathlons, 5k runs, walkathons, and other races “for” such causes as “human rights,” “hunger,” and “literacy.” It seems a whole industry has developed to sponsor and organize such runs throughout the country. Well-intentioned persons such as she sign up to participate and enlist friends and relatives to contribute money in support of their efforts. After costs are taken out to support the event and, doubtless, support the organizers of the event, remaining funds are contributed to the designated cause.
In 1983, things were simpler. The well-known marathons consisted of Boston, New York and the Olympics. Other cities were just beginning to recognize the tourism and publicity potential of such events, and so the schedule of marathons proliferated, pushed along by a tsunami of interest in “fitness” activities. Athletic gear companies such as New Balance and Nike, naturally, sponsored these events, as did the emerging industries of sports drinks and energy bars. I do not recall there being “half” marathons in those days. A marathon meant an unforgiving 26.2 miles.
Before the summer of 1983, I’d never considered running a marathon. In fact, I would have found the idea laughable if someone had proposed it to me. But my circumstances were the following: a twenty-six-year-old male, recently arrived to live and work in a small suburban town where I had not grown up, and where I knew no one close to my own age. As an almost non-drinker and a fervent non-smoker, I could not “do” the local bar scene. Internet dating (or the internet) had not yet been invented. I saw my only source of social life as “The Big Apple,” geographically close, but an awful train-subway schlepp away. And, considering my levels of experience and competence in striking up relationships (both very low) I perceived my chances of finding a girlfriend in New York like finding a needle in a haystack, if the searcher were blind. Thus, the surprise appearance of a trim, fresh-faced young woman one morning sitting at the desk just outside my law office seemed almost providential.
“Hi,” I said, trying to act casual, as though a female not describable as married, middle-aged and/or frumpy appeared there every day.
“Hello,” said a girl who identified herself as Kathleen. She looked up from her desk and smiled warmly.
“Do you work here?” I asked, aware the desk had been empty during my first two weeks at the firm.
“Yes, I’m working until the fall as Tom’s typist,” she said, indicating my boss’s brother.
I felt my face redden as I took in her green eyes, perfect teeth and cute freckles that evoked an Irish Spring soap commercial. If a jig had played in the background, I would hardly have been surprised.
“Um, that’s great, um, see you around, sometime,” I said, nonsensically, before retreating into my office. After all, I could not emerge without seeing her and being seen by her.
Over the next several days, I tried to concentrate on my new job representing home buyers and sellers, but my thoughts were constantly distracted by Kathleen. I acknowledge that Kathleen did not have “movie-star” looks, nor was she built like a beauty pageant winner, but for me, she was definitely the “only game in town.” Perhaps, I hoped, she felt the same about me. Gradually, I was able to converse with her without blushing and, one day, we arranged to share lunch.
Our conversation went as follows:
I: “Where did you go to college?”
She: “St. Mary’s.”
I: “Where’s that?”
She: “It’s the girls’ part of Notre Dame.”
I: “Oh, I didn’t know there was a girls’ part. I only knew about the football team.”
She: “I love football. Where did you go?”
I: “Dickinson.”
She: “Fairleigh Dickinson?”
I: “No, the real Dickinson, in Pennsylvania.”
She: “Oh, I never heard of it. Do they have a football team?”
I: “Barely.”
She: “Did you play football?”
I: (recoiling) “I played soccer.”
She: “I don’t really like soccer. It’s so boring. What did you study?”
I: “English literature. And you?”
She: “Business. My dad would never let me study something like literature, that wasn’t useful. He’s career FBI.”
I: “Haha. My dad’s career socialist. Your dad might have a file on my dad.”
She: “Hunh? What do you mean?”

I learned Kathleen had returned to her parents’ home only temporarily to await the anticipated start of a job late in the fall. I could see I mystified her when I described how I lived alone in a tiny bungalow surrounded by elderly neighbors. As I listened to her describe with too much enthusiasm the beer bashes she’d enjoyed on football (and most other) weekends at Notre Dame, I recognized we clearly had little in common besides the celibacy-inducing isolation of suburbia. Though I thought she was adorable, I couldn’t imagine how our relationship could progress beyond the office, until I heard her say:
“I really want to use this summer to train for a marathon.”
“Why in the world?” I said incredulously before recovering to say, respectfully, “that’s really ambitious.”
“But I don’t know if I can do it alone,” she said. “It’s so much work.”
“Really?” I said, my mouth moved ahead by a force stronger than rationality. “I might be interested.”
Kathleen’s face lit up. “It’d be a dream-come-true! According to the article I saw, you have to run six days a week, for four months, to get ready,” she said. “It’s like a ladder. You do one mile one day, two the next, one the third, three the next, then two, then four. After two months, you can run fifteen miles without being out-of-breath and then you just practice extending on up to 26.2.”
The concept of all that running sounded positively horrendous to me, but Kathleen was almost leaping out of her seat with excitement.
“So, like you do all that running together?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, smiling graciously at me as though I were holding the key to her happiness. “We would go for a run each day after work, then stretch, then grab something to eat. It would be so much fun! Maybe we could use your house as the base, since it’s so close to work.”
My mind was formulating how this would work. Since it was mid-July, there would be a lot of sweating, so a lot of showering, and a lot of physical exertion, huffing and puffing, and mutual encouragement, and all that. Eventually, this could only lead to one thing….
“I’ll do it,” I said.
“Really?” she said, delighted.

Training with Kathleen proceeded just as she had described and, in some ways, better than I had pictured. We actually enjoyed each other’s company, so long as we didn’t discuss politics, religion, books, the news, or basically, anything except sports, running and the weather. The hoped-for benefits of all the physicality indeed accrued; for a couple of months, I enjoyed the sort of mindless, meaningless relationship that had eluded me throughout college and law school. In addition, by September, I really could run fifteen miles without being winded, though I experienced occasional protests from such body parts as the ankles, knees and back.
During September, we sent entry forms to the newly established Philadelphia Marathon which was scheduled for the weekend before Thanksgiving. Our goal was to finish in less than four hours, an excellent result for first-time runners. And, since we were nearly below nine-minute miles in our training, the goal appeared reachable. Around this time, Kathleen finished working for Tom and departed for three weeks of training for her new job in Washington, though she was still not expected to start it full-time until months later. Curiously vague about the exact nature of the job, Kathleen assured me she would not have to transfer.
Kathleen promised to continue her training while she was away, and I pledged to do the same though, frankly, I looked forward to a break from the punishing, everyday pace of both the relationship and training. Without her there to prod me, however, it was exceedingly difficult to come home from work, lace up the running shoes, and pound the pavement alone for ten or twelve or sixteen miles. One day off became two, then three, then four. A weekend effort resulted in blisters as my tissues had relaxed, apparently, and then several more days off were necessary.
Our relationship (it had never quite been a “love affair”) also lost its momentum. Kathleen called once after several days, but we didn’t have much to say.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Okay,” she said.
“What kind of job are you training for again?” I asked.
“You know I can’t answer that,” she said.
Awkward silence.
“How’s running?” she asked.
“I skipped today,” I said. “It’s hard without you.”
“I can’t get out of activities here,” she said. “We’re scheduled every minute, so I’m losing my edge, too.”
She only called twice more over the remaining weeks. When Kathleen returned in early October, we were unable to reestablish our regular routine. We took several long runs together, but they were labored, as was our communication. Physically, we reverted to “just friends” status without even discussing it. I could still run fifteen or eighteen miles at a time, but it was tedious — early training sessions had taken less than an hour followed by fun activities with my new friend. Now, workouts required three-four hours followed by exhaustion with an increasingly distant and distracted acquaintance.
More blows arrived with November. The end of daylight savings time combined with chillier temperatures to make training runs positively torturous. We met two or three times each week but rarely completed the proscribed fifteen or twenty mile distance. Our pace was back over ten-minutes per mile.
We drove to Philadelphia the day before the race. Luckily, the weather was sparkly and clear, and not too cold. We enjoyed a pasta dinner sponsored downtown by race organizers and, when we arrived the next morning at the starting line, optimism prevailed.
“Good luck,” we wished each other, clasping hands.
We set off with a thousand others from a spot in Germantown. We proceeded towards Chestnut Hill, feeling strong and accompanied both by a crowd of runners and cheering crowds on the sidewalks. A steep hill stripped away some of our initial adrenaline and peeled us from the pack. Along with some other stragglers, we barely kept the main group in sight. After eight or ten miles, we were running largely alone along scenic Wissahickon Creek when Kathleen slowed to a walk with a stomach cramp. I stopped running also, and we fell farther behind the pack.
“Do you want to stop?” I asked.
“No, it’ll go away,” she said, looking agonized.
An arm appeared from a group of on-lookers and thrust a Coca-Cola into her hand. Kathleen sipped it slowly and the sugar or carbonation or both relieved her distress and we resumed running, but slowly.
Several miles later, with only a few other runners still in our vicinity, we reached Kelly Drive along the Schuylkill River. The sun-splashed scenery salved the pain we were both feeling. If the day were not so spectacular, I’m not sure we would have found the necessary determination to continue. We passed sculpture gardens and monuments along the road, the Victorian-era boathouses and, finally, the Art Museum. Thinking of Rocky, I noted the top of the steps would be a perfectly appropriate place to end the race. But, alas, the finish line was still five miles away at Independence Hall.
Police had held traffic throughout the course of the race but, as we entered Philadelphia’s flag-festooned Parkway, designed to match Paris’ Champs-Elysees, I could tell they were preparing to re-open the streets for traffic.
“We’d better speed it up,” I said, not wanting to be surrounded by cars.
“I can’t,” said Kathleen, as we raggedly walked and jogged. “You can go ahead.”
“I can’t either,” I admitted. “We’ll finish together.”
We saw just a few other marathoners, and I babbled cheerfully to Kathleen:
“We are like participants in a depression-era dance marathon.”
“What are you talking about?” she said, near tears. “Are you crazy?”
I realized it would be better to just plod on silently, to get it finished. When we finally stumbled into Independence Square, the organizers were disassembling their tables. Cars were already crossing the course. The clock at the finish line read 5:05. It should have been a moment of triumph and satisfaction, but I felt only a combination of relief and embarrassment as we finished ahead of only several significantly older participants. Our race, and our relationship, were over.
In the ensuing decades, though I have become an avid walker, I have never run more than a half-mile at one time. The marathon, and memories of the next day’s achy hamstrings, ankles, feet, knees and back, definitely cured me of that itch, an itch I’d never actually had. ONLY with the benefit of decades of hindsight, can I suggest the following pearls of wisdom:
1. Do not sign up for a daily, four-month activity with someone you barely know;
2. Do not join someone else’s dream with less than the purest of motives;
3. Recognize when you might be biting off more than you can chew;
4. When running a marathon, pack plenty of snacks, band-aids, and Advil; and
5. Train sufficiently to allow you to finish the race BEFORE the police remove the traffic barricades.


A WEEKEND TO REMEMBER
Jeffrey Levin wanted pants. This unremarkable fact propelled a forgettable soccer weekend into the annals of awful parenting experiences.
It all began innocently. My son, Sam, was invited to join a North Jersey-based 12-year-old soccer team. Most of the players and their families were originally from Central America and lived in and around Newark. They approached soccer with intensity far beyond what Sam had seen in our suburban community. We were delighted he would have the opportunity to experience such a level and, incidentally, be exposed to different cultures.
Though the regular season would not begin until April, the coach entered the team in a tournament in Richmond, Virginia in early March. He acknowledged the distance might present a hardship for some families and said a new player could commence playing after the tournament. However, Sam wanted to get started, and I was anxious to spend time outdoors after the long winter, so I cheerfully offered to chaperone. I expected Richmond’s early-March weather to be mild.
A week before the trip, the father of the only other non-Hispanic player called and asked if we would join them for the ride. “After all,” Steve Levin explained, “my wife and I have a large van, and it’ll be great to enjoy adult conversation. Our son, Jeffrey, will share the ‘way-back’ with your son.”
“That’ll be great,” I said, thinking Sam would be pleased to have someone besides me to talk to, and I would be able to share the driving.
“Good,” said Steve. “Jeffrey loves to make new friends. If you come at mid-day on Friday, we can get an early start. Considering the traffic, we’ll let Jeffrey skip his afternoon classes.”
“Sam will love that idea,” I said.
When we arrived, as scheduled, at one o’clock, Linda, Jeffrey’s petite, Asian mom, met us at the door with three pieces of news, delivered matter-of-factly: 1. Steve was still at work; 2. Jeffrey did not want to miss his afternoon classes; and, 3. their van was in the shop, so we would be traveling by car.
“If you want to go on ahead,” she said, “we’ll understand.”
I was disappointed, but decided to stay the course. After all, we had driven to their house in a two-seater that was not comfortable on long trips and Sam would have been disappointed, I thought, to travel without his peer. Surely, the Levin family car was large, or Linda would have appeared upset. Linda ushered us into their den and showed us how to operate their small television. Ominously, she requested that we turn it off just before Jeffrey’s anticipated arrival. “Jeffrey is not allowed to watch television except for public television programs that we have pre-approved,” she explained.
At 3:30, Steve and Jeffrey arrived home together in what appeared to be a Toyota Corolla. It was hard to tell, because the front hood was held shut by a rope that blocked the manufacturer’s logo. The color was formerly either silver or blue but had been degraded by age into a blotchy, grey-like hue.
Steve, a tall, thin journalist with salt and pepper hair, tried to address what must have been a stricken expression on my face: “It’s surprisingly roomy, once you get in.”
Jeffrey was built like his dad, with his mom’s dark hair. He appeared mature for a twelve-year-old, gravely offering Sam a handshake while his parents looked on.
“Jeffrey,” said Steve, “Gather your math and science books for the trip. There will be a lot of learning time this weekend.”
Sam gave me a “what have you gotten me into?” look.
We squeezed our luggage into the Corolla’s trunk and I was offered the front passenger seat.
“You’re tall,” said Linda. “I’ll sit in back between the boys.”
“Between?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, “so they can concentrate on their books.”
“I’m afraid Sam hasn’t brought any books,” I said, feeling like a cretin. “He takes it a little lighter on soccer weekends.”
“On any weekend,” said Sam.
I glanced at him, wide-eyed.
Steve and Linda paused for a moment, before Steve said: “That’s okay. Jeffrey will share.”
“Dad!” said Jeffrey, upset.
“Jeffrey,” Steve said, sternly, “Sam is a new friend. You need to share.”
Jeffrey rolled his eyes and plopped angrily into the back seat. I tried to imagine what Jeffrey was like when he was not trying to make a new friend.
Finally underway, we entered the Garden State Parkway in its typical Friday afternoon parking-lot mode. Steve described his parenting plan while I focused on the bouncing hood and wondered how much jostling the rope could withstand. Once, I looked back over my shoulder at Sam, who had an algebra textbook open in his lap, but his withering return stare discouraged me from doing so again.
“Jeffrey is an only child, of course,” said Steve. “We feel proper parenting can only be done with the focus that one child allows. Sam is your only one, right?”
“Well, actually, he’s the third,” I said.
“Oh,” said Steve. “That’s too bad. Jeffrey plays on this team so that he can supplement his Spanish lessons. Also, being able to play soccer at a top level should be attractive to the Ivies.”
“You’re already looking at colleges?” I asked.
“It’s never too early,” said Linda. “Harvard and Yale have top-flight soccer programs. If they are not ascendant when Jeffrey is ready to attend, his bassoon should also be attractive.”
“Jeffrey plays the bassoon?” I asked.
“And the oboe,” said Steve, “just for fun.”
Sam’s foot collided with my resting elbow.
“Oops,” he said, unconvincingly.
Afternoon turned to evening and finally to night as we crawled south. The Baltimore-Washington corridor of congestion segued into the Washington-Richmond region of construction. Steve chose to do all the driving while Linda doled out occasional portions of “healthy snacks.” My lifetime intake of baby carrots was tripled.
Steve’s voice wafted over me with explanations of Jeffrey’s interests and needs. I nodded or occasionally said “un-hunh” when it seemed appropriate, but I’m sure such social niceties were unnecessary. Steve would have told me about “vocabulary enrichment” and “biology boot-camp” regardless.
I felt electrical charges emanating from my nearly paralyzed lower back as the hours passed. It was well after midnight when we arrived at the suburban Wayfarer Inn where the coach had reserved a block of rooms. By then, the boys had fallen asleep, having hardly exchanged a word. We ushered them zombie-like into our respective rooms.
The next morning, the team met, as suggested by the coach, Giovanni, at a local restaurant several steps from the motel. Its sign promised: “Hot Dogs and Other Fine Foods.” The boys and their families were happily attacking the breakfast buffet when we arrived, and Giovanni introduced Sam around the room. I hadn’t slept well, still feeling as though I was in motion after the endless car ride. But I was proud of Sam for mixing immediately with his teammates, even though they were strangers who spoke primarily in Spanish. Sam established an easy camaraderie with them. I noticed that Jeffrey and his parents were sitting at a table by themselves, and I felt their eyes on my back, so I joined them.
After a few moments, Giovanni rose to speak, first in rapid-fire Spanish, then in halting English, for the benefit of us and the Levin’s. “We have two games today and, if we win both, the semi-final and final games tomorrow. These teams are very good, from Pittsburgh and from Boston. Juan Carlos,” he said, addressing directly one of the boys who appeared to have adult-sized musculature, “you will have to play smart.”
I looked at Steve for an explanation.
“Juan Carlos is not disciplined,” he whispered. “It sometimes becomes a problem.”
“How old is Juan Carlos?” I asked.
Steve shrugged. “His birth certificate says he is twelve. His puberty may be a little advanced.”
After breakfast, Sam and I joined the Levin’s for the short ride to the field. I was bundled in layers to protect against a chilly drizzle, the hoped-for warmth still weeks away, apparently. Jeffrey did not speak during the ride and appeared catatonic; Linda noticed me look quizzically at him: “He’s visualizing,” she explained. “It’s a technique he utilizes for exams and recitals, also.”
At the field, events proceeded as usual. The teams warmed up on their respective sides and the parents clumped together in anxious knots. Several of our team’s parents graciously greeted me, but nearly everyone was pre-occupied with what I had come to believe were the main parental concerns of youth sports, namely: what position will my child play, will he start, and how many minutes will he play?
Sam started on the bench, which was normal, given his newness to the team. After several minutes, however, he was substituted in on defense, taking the place of Jeffrey, awkwardly enough. I could not avoid noticing that both Steve and Linda were keeping track of such developments with stop-watches.
“Six-twelve,” said Steve, shaking his head.
“I’ve got six-eighteen,” said Linda, looking grim.
I edged a few steps further from them and was vastly relieved when Sam performed satisfactorily. Our team prevailed, 3-1, against the team from Boston, as Juan Carlos led the way. The Levin’s marked each entrance and exit of Jeffrey in a notepad (hand-written in those days) and conferred throughout as though they were observing a delicate operation.
The afternoon game against the Pittsburgh team was different. Their players were not supervised during warm-ups and lobbed hostile looks and remarks towards our team. Several pointed at Juan Carlos, conspicuous by his size, and were obviously taunting him. Only moments after the game began, Pittsburgh players fouled Juan Carlos and they continued to do so with dubious degrees of legality at every opportunity.
“Ref! Make it a whistle!” shouted Giovanni, calling for a penalty. Whether he was understood or not was unclear, but the referee, thin-legged and red-faced, in a striped shirt stretched over an ample belly, was disinclined to take action.
I was happy that Sam was playing a peripheral position as the mid-field action became heated. Eventually, Juan Carlos kicked at one of his tormentors, who shoved back, and shouted: “Get off of me, you stupid Mexican!”
A melee ensued, with punches delivered frantically, with Juan Carlos in the middle. “I’m not Mexican!” he shouted above the fray. “I’m from El Salvador!”
The coaches and referee ran to separate the boys. Descended from generations of Russian Jews who had observed competing bands of Cossacks, Sam was gingerly edging farther and farther from the scrum. If the fight had continued much longer, he might have been found in the parking lot. Once a degree of calm was restored, and the teams returned to their respective sides of the field, the referee pulled a red card from his pocket, and waved it in front of Juan Carlos, throwing him out of the game.
“Dios mio!” shouted Giovanni. “Eso es ridiculo!”
“I don’t know what that means,” said the referee, “but you’re outta here, too. Game’s over. You forfeit.”
He flashed a red card at Giovanni, who threw his clipboard to the ground and had to be restrained from attacking. The referee strode off the field leaving angry and bewildered parents to gather their sons.
I looked at Steve and Linda who were standing protectively around Jeffrey.
“We’re going home immediately,” Steve said. “We will not stand for this sort of exhibition. With the coach red-carded, the team can’t win the tournament, in any event.”
“Agreed,” I said. “Let’s go.”
“What else could go wrong?” I asked myself, thinking of the ride down, the poor sleep, Jeffrey’s unfriendliness, Juan Carlos’s torment, the fight and the forfeit.
As we walked towards the Corolla to pile in for the long ride home, Sam asked quietly: “Do we have to go to more of these tournaments?”
“No way,” I told him. “We’ll have a one hour driving limit.”
“Good,” he said.
All three Levin’s were silently seething about Jeffrey’s playing time, or the fight, or the result, or all of the above. I didn’t want to ask.
Just one hour into the eight-hour ride (if we were lucky) I was enjoying the fact that no one felt like talking. Sam settled into his seat for a nap, Steve stared straight ahead at the road, and I tried to relax, when Jeffrey’s voice piped up from behind, like a small bird deep inside a well: “I want to get some pants.”
“What, honey?” asked Linda.
“I want some pants,” he repeated.
Steve looked at him through the rear view mirror. “What kind of pants?” he asked.
“School pants,” said Jeffrey.
I thought this discussion was amusing. What twelve-year-old boy wants to buy pants? Surely, Linda would assure him they could go to the store at home sometime during the week.
“Well,” said Steve. “We’ll have to find a mall.”
I was horrorstruck. We were going to actually exit the highway near the start of a four hundred mile drive so that Jeffrey could go shopping.
“Ummmm,” I protested, unable to form a coherent sentence.
“It’s important to honor this sort of personal need,” said Steve. “I’m sure it won’t take long.”
Two malls and two hours later, we were back on I-95 headed north. Jeffrey held a bag with two pairs of khakis and speculated with his mother which shirts would go well with them. I wondered how much stomach acid it took to create an ulcer. When we finally arrived at the Levin’s home that night, Sam and I mumbled insincere thanks and stumbled towards our car.
“What do you say, Jeffrey?” asked Steve.
“Oh, yeah,” said Jeffrey. “I hope you’ll come to my bassoon concert next weekend.”
Sam looked at me aghast. “We’ll have to see if we’re available,” I said.
In the safety of our car, with the only alternative being to cry, Sam and I began to laugh.
“We’re not going to his concert, right?” said Sam.
“I promise,” I said.
Pondering whether this was one of my worst experiences as a parent or one of my strangest, I placed it in the top ten in both categories.