Archives for category: Sports

YOUTH WILL NOT BE SERVED

The morning loomed cloudy and cold which might have darkened my mood if the day’s activity was scheduled outdoors.  Luckily, I was entered in a ping pong tournament (what serious players call “table tennis”) inside a local sporting goods store.  Though there were only ten participants, an impressive cross-section of the population was represented, from age ten to seventy, with players born in, or derived from Korea, China, Japan, Russia, Egypt and Nigeria.

Ping pong has been an interest of mine since childhood when my older brothers taught me the game in a densely-packed basement.  The limited space helped me develop a style steeped in spins and angles rather than power.  I spent more time working on my game during college and law school than on several academic subjects.  Fortunately, except for the recurring nightmare that I am playing a match when I realize that a final exam has taken place without me, passion for ping pong no longer adversely affects my life.

Most of my ping pong existence continues to take place in the basement of my home.  My son, Sam, can now beat me, but my subterranean record against non-family members is dominant.  It is a mixed blessing to have a talented child — a source of pride but, also, a source of defeats.  Since Sam was out of town on the day of this tournament, the chance to play for prize money without him was appealing.

Unfortunately, this being ping pong, the prizes were not provided by a corporate sponsor or a wealthy benefactor.  Each player put $20 into a pot with the winner slated to take $100 and the second, third and fourth place finishers receiving lesser amounts.  As they warmed up and stretched, I observed the competition:  there was Moustapha, a teenaged lefty; Scott, a forty-year-old dentist, who I learned was the defending champion; two retirees best described as old and older; a ten-year-old from China and his older brother; and, three middle-aged men who I learned work in various scientific labs at local universities.  The youngsters, in particular, were of concern.  It was clear their classic, smooth strokes were honed by professional instruction, not from merely avoiding the washer and dryer.

My first round match was against Jin, a post-doc at Duke, recently arrived from Seoul.  He said he hadn’t played competitively in twenty years, as subsequently verified by his shaky performance.   Next up was the older guy, a crafty player, but he, too, succumbed to my twists and turns.  The third round was against the older Chinese youngster, who turned out to be surprisingly weak.  After three comfortable victories, the dentist loomed.  Can I say that playing him was like having root canal?

Scott could spin and Scott could slam.  Scott could serve and Scott could trash-talk.  Who would have thought?  He looked like an ordinary, mild-mannered guy, but he hooted and hollered with each triumphant swing, and asked if I wanted to concede after warm-ups, before we played.  Somehow, his delivery of such lines with a smile was disarming.  It was apparent that it was “all in good fun.”  Yet, there can be a value in placing doubt in an opponent’s mind, especially in a sport that requires deft touch and fast decision-making.

I stayed close to Scott, and even won one game in the best-of-five match, but Scott’s victory was never in doubt.  He was simply better than I was in every aspect of the game, and I despaired of ever beating him.  On the strength of my 3-1 match record, however, I finished second in my flight and qualified for the semi-finals.  I expected that, if I could beat the first-place finisher from the other flight, I would lose honorably to Scott in the final.  It did not occur to me that someone else could beat him.

We played our semi-final matches on side-by-side tables, Scott against Moustapha, and me against the ten-year-old named Xiao.  How was it that a person barely taller than the table had finished in first place in the other flight?  Apparently, he earned his spot by surprising Moustapha in his first match, when Moustapha was over-confident, then clobbering three grown men with superior strokes.  I gazed at him with confidence – I can hit the corners well, and his reach is minimal – but, still, I was concerned.  Xiao was TEN, and losing to him would make quite a story (though I cannot promise I would write it).

As the match proceeded, I was increasingly impressed with the youngster.  Not only was he “cute” in his little red tee-shirt and glasses, but his strokes were pure.  His attitude was positive, even when the tide turned against him.  I realized Xiao was more mature than I when it came to adversity and I was ashamed of my comparative churlishness.  I decided to emulate him.  If I missed a shot, instead of grumbling and groaning or mumbling a barely contained profanity, as is my tendency, I tried to remain calm and to look forward to the next point.  Xiao was an inspiration.

Gradually, I confirmed that, despite his talent, Xiao was not able to reach short shots.  Also, he preferred to hit hard and straight.   Accordingly, I offered him diagonal spins and hit slower and slower.  I won three games in a row despite of a cohort of eight-year-old fans that gathered to watch and root loudly for “the little kid.”  I rationalized my victory as a learning experience for him and, for a while, I did not feel badly.  After all, he will have many decades of victories – he didn’t need one against me.  When the match ended, he graciously reached up to shake my hand and appeared to have accepted defeat with composure.  A few minutes later, when I saw him being consoled in his mother’s lap, I felt a pang of remorse, but turned my attention to the neighboring table.

Somehow, Moustapha was polishing off a victory against my nemesis, Scott.  I wish I had seen how he did it, but regardless, I was relieved.  Opportunity was knocking!  I was going to play another youngster, albeit a full-sized one, who hit hard and liked speed.  “No problem,” I told myself.  Having learned from playing Xiao, I suspected that Moustapha might not like maddeningly slow shots.  I am not afraid to admit that junk shots are a major part of my repertoire.  Add in a few head-fakes and mid-point hand-changes, both rarely seen in ping pong, and Moustapha was mine.

The match was not as easy as implied above, but I prevailed in five games.  I am delighted to report I have forfeited my amateur status. $100 will buy a lot of ping pong balls.  Thank you, Sam, for being away;  thank you, Moustapha, for beating Scott; and,  thank you, Xiao, for showing me how to behave.


TAILGATING

 

Certain parts of the American experience have eluded me.  One such element was the “tailgate party.”  Having attended a small college whose football team struggled against Quaker schools, and a graduate school that did not have a football team, I never attended a tailgate party.  And, while much of my adult life was spent in northern New Jersey where the Jets and Giants are known to attract partiers to their parking lot, I was never tempted.

This hole in my resume of life was recently filled when my wife’s employer at North Carolina State University decided it would be a good idea if the Chinese students she helps to acculturate attended a tailgate event preceding a football game.  Always marginally willing to experience something new, I volunteered to go along.

The day loomed sunny and hot, a final scorcher squeezed into the last week of summer.  I thought I would help at home by offering the bit of football-fan knowledge I had, namely:  one is supposed to dress in the color of the home team.  In this case, that would be bright red.  I looked in every closet and every bureau.  I ran up and down the stairs.  Unfortunately, other than a long-sleeved platform-tennis shirt and a souvenir Panama national soccer team jersey, my wardrobe is devoid of bright red.  My wife also was unprepared in this regard because her employer, an independent affiliate of the University, directed its employees to wear company polo shirts; they are blue.  Luckily, the shade of blue is not close to the “Carolina Blue” of the detested rival, the University of North Carolina.  Still, blue is a long way from red.  I opted for what I hoped would be an inconspicuous white shirt.  After all, I thought, there could not possibly be absolute adherence to this custom.

I had several other pre-conceived notions.  Naturally, the tailgate party would feature food.  I anticipated this food would likely be served from coolers stored in people’s trunks.  I surmised it would have been made at home or purchased from a fast-food place along the highway.  I even predicted some celebrants would have some form of barbecue sandwiches, since barbecue is the much-ballyhooed local obsession.  There would also certainly be beer, perhaps a six-pack for each car-load, maybe two.

Finally, as to my expectations, large sporting events engender traffic jams.  However, since the game was not scheduled until six o’clock and the tailgate event was to start at two, I did not expect crowding to be an issue.  After all, how many people would be at a tailgate party in the parking lot four hours before game-time, perhaps several hundred?  I groused we were going too early.  “What if the parking lot is not even open?” I asked.

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

We exited the highway about a mile from the stadium and immediately fell into a massive traffic jam.  Pick-up trucks festooned in red flags and banners predominated.  As we crawled towards the stadium, the challenge of locating our group’s designated location, “Space 2675,” became apparent.  Hordes of fans holding plastic cups walked back and forth across the six-lane highway, seemingly oblivious to traffic.  Music blared from speakers set up along the road by fraternities and sororities vying for attention from unaffiliated freshmen, like politicians looking for the last undecided voters.  Everyone was shouting or laughing or throwing footballs or playing corn-hole, a horseshoes-like game indigenous to North Carolina that involves the throwing of beanbags.  Each entrance to a parking area was blocked by a barricade indicating what sort of permit one needed to enter.  There were alumni parking lots, season-ticket-holder parking lots, booster parking lots and staff parking lots.  There did not appear to be any “regular people” parking lots within hailing distance of the stadium.

After fifteen minutes of circling, we were spun out of the main stadium area like satellites shot into orbit and alighted upon an open area abutting railroad tracks that was attracting random attendees like ourselves.  After parking amidst the weeds, we asked several students and security officials about the elusive “Space 2675” and received looks blanker than an empty canvas.   We started to walk towards the now-distant stadium, all the while receiving text messages and phone calls from bewildered Chinese students who were also somewhere in the vicinity.  My wife tried hard to convey confidence that we would all eventually arrive at Space 2675 a confidence that she did not actually feel.

First, we walked through a dusty, unpaved lot that was staked out by student-aged revelers.  Since they were uniformly dressed in red, we felt conspicuously out-of-place, both old and discolored.  Food was not a major element among these participants, but beer certainly was.  There were no six-packs in evidence – more like six kegs in the back of each pick-up truck.  The guys were mostly dressed in T-shirts and shorts; the girls all wore cowboy boots.  “Are we in Wyoming?” I wondered.  I am still seeking an explanation.

As we reached the next level of parking lots grass and dust gave way to loose gravel, and the population changed.  Vehicles were not mere pick-up trucks but resembled military-grade assemblages.  They had tires appropriate for the lunar module.  Others could certainly have towed airplanes.  We were now amidst the Greek community at ground level.  Nineteen-year-old boys were wearing white buttoned-down shirts with red ties over plaid shorts and sailing shoes.  They smoked cigars and held plastic cups with alcoholic concoctions beyond mere beer.  Every twenty yards or so, another tent was set up to house a booming stereo system and bar.  Girls draped themselves over the boys and tried to out-do each other with enthusiastic, attention-grabbing gusto.  Whose legs were longer?  Whose shorts were shorter?

We rushed to move beyond the cacophony but still took time for a photograph or two, just as one would if surrounded by amiably oblivious, wild animals on a safari.  Finally, after at least a mile of walking, we scurried across a highway to where paved lots began.  The population shifted again.  Here were alumni and boosters, the highest order of tailgating civilization.  The music was quieter, the imbibing more dignified, but the infrastructure was amazing.  As we rounded a corner behind the stadium, there was a sea of red tents as far as the eye could see.  There were hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand North Carolina State-branded tents.  Each was surrounded by a circle of support vehicles.

Several of the tents held a mere card table and chairs with some fast-food boxes.  However, the overwhelming majority harbored folding tables with red table cloths, over-stuffed lounge chairs, flower arrangements, and massive barbecues aflame.  The smell of sizzling meat competed to overload one’s senses with the noise of stereos and the sheer blaze of red bunting.

We must have looked conspicuously clueless because a kindly lot attendant in a golf cart pulled up and asked if we needed help.  Actually, what he said was:  “D’ y’all know whe’ ya goin’?”  We gratefully sputtered something about space 2675 and he told us to “hop on in.”  We hopped.  Our savior chatted the whole time he drove us.  We understood very little of what he said due to his thick North Carolina accent and the wad of tobacco contained in his cheek, but we were so grateful for the ride that we nodded and smiled encouragingly at every opportunity. At last, he deposited us in a relatively quiet outpost in the far reaches of the lot.  A tiny sign informed us that we had arrived at the 2600 area, where non-regulars can set up a tailgate.   Several of my wife’s co-workers were already there, looking exhausted.  They gaped enviously as we departed the cart and casually bade our chauffer good-bye, as though our good fortune had been arranged on Expedia.

The company tent was modest and only a few students were present when we arrived.  But staff and students alike were busy with cell-phones directing a far-flung Chinese diaspora to our location.  More arrived every few minutes, appearing as though they had just crossed a desert.  Culture shock was combined with shell-shock and provoked the inevitable question of whether we could/should provide the students something stronger than soft drinks and water.  The answer was “no.”

The company van contained coolers of soda and ice water and several interns unveiled the feast that doubtless made our tailgate unique among its surroundings and, possibly, the history of tailgating – dumplings.  Students and several employees had spent the morning shaping, filling and boiling vast quantities of pork, chicken and beef dumplings.  A sign was unfurled to advise our neighbors, who were already amazed at the sight of fifty or so Chinese students in their midst, that we had dumplings to spare.  When several sidled over to sample our dumplings and share their spicy boiled peanuts (definitely an acquired taste), our tailgating experience was underway.


SPIN CLASS

 

A recent phenomenon since the new millennium is “spin class.”  When the term first appeared, I thought it had to do with dancing or fast-paced calisthenics.  Not being particularly interested in either activity, it took me several years to learn that “spin” is actually performed on a bicycle in a health club.   Despite having several friends and a spouse who are spin enthusiasts, I spent several more years picturing spin as akin to riding a bucking bronco.  John Travolta came to mind when I learned there is a musical component.  I maintained that image in my mind until today, when I made my spin debut.

“Spin” was not on my agenda for this morning.   Instead, I awoke anticipating my usual weekend tennis game, while my wife headed off to her spin class at “the gym.”  However, the weather dawned wet and wild, so there would be no tennis.  Always practical, my wife suggested I accompany her so that a subsequent trip to the hardware store could be accomplished together without the need for an extra car ride.  “You can hang out in the weight room for an hour,” she suggested.  However, in my new occasional openness to new things, I volunteered to finally experience “spin.”

The first revelation was that we had to arrive early to stake out bikes.  Even though it was barely past dawn on Sunday morning, “spin” is somehow popular.  People pay to pedal!   Skeptical, but compliant, I joined the rush into the room at 7:40 for an 8:00 class.  Remarkably, the room was nearly full as we staked out two of the last available bikes.  I examined mine to see if there was any special feature that transformed this humdrum piece of hardware into a calorie-collapsing powerhouse.  Nope.  The bike looked notably pedestrian.  In fact, it was less elaborate than most bicycles I’ve encountered since there are no gears and no brakes, just a round control in the middle which adjusts the resistance.   “So far, so good,” I said to myself.  “This looks easy.”

While my wife chatted with several friends, I tried to wrap my mind around the popularity of spin, which I understood from our ride over, would involve being led through a regimen of sweat-inducing pedaling challenges by a loud-music-inspired taskmaster.  The “spin” aspect refers to the wheels, I suppose, indicative of slick marketing,   since it sounds significantly more satisfying than “stationary bike class.”  The class component means that, instead of just taking a difficult bike ride, if one is so inclined, one pedals, sweats and grunts in close quarters with twenty or thirty fellow non-travelers.

The class was comprised of a mixture of participants ranging in age from the mid-twenties to the outer limits of what can still be called middle-aged.  There were about twenty women and three or four men.  Though the population of any such exercise class is self-selected to be fairly fit, this spandex and tee-shirted crowd was not notably attractive.  In suburban North Carolina, perhaps, unlike in Hollywood, glamour is left at home on rainy Sunday mornings.

At the appointed hour, the instructor, Charles, swept in amidst our bikes and took his place on a platform in front of a mirrored wall.  He gazed out at us and shouted with unnerving cheerfulness:  “Is everybody ready to sweat?”  He then turned on some throbbing rap music and led us into a “warm-up.”  “Wow,” I thought.  “I am subjecting myself to this noise when I could be at home listening to Vivaldi.”

I tuned out the sound as much as I could and focused on the physical activity.  We pedaled slowly, mostly, and stretched our arms to the sides and above our heads.  It felt good.  From my spot in the middle of three rows I felt good-natured solidarity with those around me as we cheerfully set off on our ride to nowhere.

Directly in front of me, however, I noticed a young man pedaling furiously, as though he were racing up a mountain in the last stage of the Tour de France.   He was the student from central-casting who embodies the expression:  “there is one in every crowd.”  You know who I mean.  It is the guy who always sits front and center in class; the guy who always raises his hand to answer questions; the guy who dominates the instructor’s time.  This was a young man in an unnervingly bright orange cycling outfit who felt a need, during a short lull in the music, to announce to the instructor and everyone else:  “This is my first class!  Make it a good one!”

I rolled my eyes and attempted to focus on my own activity.  My wife warned me to react to Charles’s frequent exhortations to “turn it up” by moving my resistance dial in tiny increments.  Otherwise, I would find myself working harder than my legs could manage.  It was not clear, however, what she meant by “tiny.”  Is that an eighth of an inch, a quarter of an inch, or what?  I realized that there would be an unexpected moral element to this activity.  How hard one works is entirely up to oneself.

At first, as we progressed from warming-up to climbing an imaginary mountain, the activity was easy.  I moved my dial a modest quarter-inch and still did not feel much resistance.  Charles then instructed us to alternately stand and sit while pedaling.  This required a fair amount of concentration, particularly given that male anatomy is not ideal for rapid placement on a bicycle seat.  My haunches began to feel challenged.  A bead of sweat emerged on my brow.  Still, the exertion was manageable.

Misty memories of soccer practices emerged in my mind that I had not pondered for decades.  My college team had “brutality day” once a week, a practice that consisted almost entirely of conditioning.  We ran, then we did exercises, then we ran again, then we went en masse to the weight room that the football team grudgingly vacated for thirty minutes.  On those days, in the flush of youth, my teammates and I obsessed with avoiding exertion.  Each person dogged it as much as possible, oblivious to the counter-productiveness of our lassitude.  We all knew that better conditioning would help us win our games.  It was definitely a case of youth being wasted on the young.

I pondered the irony of how much more my youthful body could have endured while the college facility was free.   Now, I found myself paying to participate in a fitness activity; yet, once again, I was not working to full capacity, though I completely understood the importance of promoting good health.  The philosophical implications of effort and reward and the passage of time weighed on my mind.  These profound ruminations helped me ignore the loud and ostentatious exertions of the fellow in front of me.  I ultimately rationalized my sloth with the conclusion that I wanted to be able to walk the next day.

Another of the random thoughts that floated through my mind during spin, like flotsam and jetsam, is that one cannot know how much resistance one’s neighbors are imposing upon themselves.  The only objective marker of a spinner’s work habits is the puddle of sweat accumulating on the floor around their bikes.  In this category, I was failing.  I noticed that the guy in front was sweating so profusely that I was certain he had spilled his water bottle.  Not to be outdone, I turned my dial a half inch, with a flourish!  After all, I figured, we must be nearly done, and I needed to appear fully perspired when the class ended.

At that moment, Charles announced that we were halfway through.  “Halfway?” I gasped.  The guy in front of me shouted to Charles to “make it more challenging!”  Feeling my knees begin to wobble, I pondered if Alleve and Preparation H can be combined.  I relished a minute devoted to stretching.

The second half of the class proceeded like the first.  I found it harder because my legs were undeniably fatigued.  Yet, I was also more comfortable handling the frequent ups and downs, and I was now thoroughly “warmed up.”  I glanced at the earnest participants around me, including my wife, and admired their dedication.  Thus inspired, I turned the dial another quarter inch and tried to appreciate some aspect of the rap music that was reverberating in my skull.  I could not find any, but at least the misery in my ears helped me to absorb some of the misery in my thighs.

Sunshine emerged through the windows and brightened the room and the mood.  “Isn’t that nice!” shouted Charles, over the music.  “It’s going to be a beautiful day!”  Several classmates whooped and cheered.  I was still pedaling slowly, feeling as though my kneecaps were turning to jelly.  I leaned forward over the handlebars to relieve the tension in my back.  This enabled several drops of sweat to fall from my forehead to the floor and added to my sub-par collection.  When I sat back again I saw that Lance Armstrong in front of me was now swinging his arms to accompany his furious pace.

“Last mountain!” shouted Charles, as he adjusted the music even louder.  “Turn it up!”

I took a deep breath and contemplated my choices.  I could turn the dial just a little; I could turn the dial a lot and go out (or down) in a blaze of glory; or, as a devil-like figure seemingly whispered into my ear, I could act as though I were turning the dial without actually turning it.  No one would know the difference!  This was entirely my own choice and my own consequence.

Except me.   I would know the difference!   And that would not be good.  I have, at least, made some progress since I was twenty.  I adjusted the dial a moderate amount and pedaled through some moderate discomfort.  When the music finally ended, and Charles declared:  “See you all next week!” I made sure I kept pedaling until after the guy in front of me came to a halt.

 


Skiing is an activity that I scrupulously avoided while growing up. Nothing appealed to me in regard to an activity so cold and costly.  Schoolmates and siblings extolled the virtues of the activity and its attendant excitement, camaraderie and joy.  I pictured frozen toes and a runny nose.

I’m not really as wimpy as the foregoing would indicate.  I have excelled at many sports and even enjoy ice skating.  It’s just the thought of pushing off at the top of a mountain towards an uncertain descent that turned me off.  Oh, and did I mention that ski-lifts are terrifying?  I had the dubious opportunity to ride up a mountain on a Colorado ski-lift during a summer-time visit once and felt an inexorable temptation to just let go and slide under the bar to an end that would have made CNN.  Hmmmmm. Perhaps I need professional help on that one.

In any event, I was around 37 and well on the way to a ski-less lifetime when I was informed that it would be a wonderful thing to learn ALONG WITH my then 5 and 3-year-old children.  After all, blithely intoned my tormentors, skiing is one of those life skills/activities that every child should have.  And, just incidentally, the kids’ couldn’t go up ALONE, and the 450 foot ski facility near our New Jersey home would be really BORING for an adult who knows how to ski, etc.  But, for a beginner….

The logic seemed unassailable.  The hill was only minutes away.  The expense was relatively negligible — a lot worse than tennis but somewhat better than golf.  However, I still was not comfortable.  It struck me as akin to teaching my children to drive —  a mandatory rite of parenting passage — but in this instance, I did not know how to drive myself.  Seeing no alternative, I agreed in principle and then had a chance to experience a two-week build-up to the scheduled event.  This period provided much anticipatory hilarity on the part of friends and relatives near and far.  A ski jacket was purchased despite my personal aversion to wearing bright red and yellow at the same time.  Skis were borrowed and fitted.  Boots were installed on my feet that were less comfortable, I imagine, though quite similar, to wearing concrete.  Gloves were purchased that did not allow me to open a door handle.  An instructional manual for walking with crutches was left ostentatiously on my bureau.  As the day approached I was asked to make sure my insurance card was up-to-date.

Finally, it was the eve of the big day.  I lay awake with modest anxiety but confidence that it could not possibly be as bad an experience as I expected.  The childrens’ cute little outfits were outside their doors.  My garish ensemble filled the closet.  At some point, I drifted off to sleep.  When I awoke, something was wrong.  I felt as though I had been shot in the back.  I lowered myself out of bed and crawled to the bathroom.  My wife was alarmed that I appeared ashen.  I asked what childbirth had been like and she told me I appeared to be much worse off than that.  I had never, ever experienced pain so acute.

Every story needs a denouement and here is mine — while my conscious self had agreed to ski, some combination of my sub-conscious and my body apparently decided it was appropriate to have a herniated disk instead.  The two activities are about as mutually exclusive as possible.  Thus, after the ensuing two months of agony, a surgery, and nine months of rehabilitation, when the next opportunity to learn to ski was presented, I unhesitatingly said “NO” and that is how it is.  I will live my life ski-lessly.