Thursday, April 8, 2010
I've always had a fucked up view of winning. As an awkward kid with twiggy legs and spindly arms, I played team sports and almost always on the best teams. Unfortunately, however I was typically among the top three worst athletes and most of the time, the coaches were cliche assholes (if you are reading... well... you were) so even when the team celebrated a victory, I found myself on the outside of the victorious dog pile, closer in feeling tone to the losing team, but without a team to lean on.
As a result I hated teams. Still do. I would no sooner play on a basketball team than pursue a career in aerodynamic engineering. On the rare occasion that I'm forced into something where I have to rely on someone else's athleticism or intellect to win something, I almost feel my weight plummet, my legs shrink to pencils and my ability to contribute wane to almost nothing. I go from a fit, confident guy with grand ambition to a tea cup poodle.
With team sports out of the question, I played games like tennis. This seemed like something I could do well. I was on the court alone, so there was no one to compare myself to physically. Tennis players were typically alienated kids so I found myself in the company of other loners which was nice because I could be around people but didn't have to actually talk to them. The really great thing was that I was actually good at tennis. I could spend hours at a time hitting a ball against a backboard or hitting serves and in my mind was a champion every day. When I lost, it was my battle to lose but at least I didn't have to have be the worst guy on the winning team. When I won, I won.
My social insecurity carried from the basketball courts and school into the rest of my life and it was no different in Oklahoma City than it was where my family spent their summers in Northern Michigan. The only difference was that in Michigan, given the town's country club pedigree, individual sports such as tennis among good athletes were encouraged. At this club, we were forced to play in all white clothes as our parents watched our practice over a club sandwich and a cocktail under a pool side umbrella as they discussed the stock market and their golf game.
While I hated being back amongst judgmental piers, the good news was that at least when it came to tennis, I could hold my own, though it didn't allow me any social graces. A strong serve doesn't put hair on your arms and a good forearm doesn't mean make you appealing to the opposite sex. Basically I was back to feeling like shit about myself.
Most of these club members were millionaires many times over and though they owned fortune five hundred companies, for whatever reason, nothing was bigger (or so it felt) than the summer tennis tournament. Most summers, my family had returned home by the time this massive event rolled around but one summer I was there for it and among the most likely to win. That didn't speak well. Especially to parents who put great expectations on their children. WInning every year, was Alexander, cliche-ly nicknamed Alexander the Great.
I have never wanted a victory so much in my life. While most kids lived on the water, my family was up on the "Bluff." which to me was like the hood. Alexander being the cool kid, had all his buddies to hit with and I had my dad or a wall. I felt like Rocky in Rocky Four when all he had was a barn and the Russian had machines, coaches and medicine. Much like Rocky, however I had the unconditional love and support of my family who wanted me to win perhaps more than I did.
I easily made it to the finals and it was me verses Alexander. Word got out that it would be a good match and suddenly the court was surrounded by upwards of 100 people which felt like the entire world. In my own insecure head, I was certain that spare my own family, NO ONE, especially my piers were cheering for me. Luckily, my mom, dad, sister, and grandmother there. Also in attendance, was my grandfather, a war hero and the only person that I genuinely wanted to impress.
We played two out of three sets and Alexander won the first easily. Half way through the second, I was losing steam and it was assumed that he would win. Used to losing, I felt at ease resigning myself to a silver. with one point left to win the entire match, I began to come back. Before long I had won the set. I will never forget winning it and hearing the majority of the kids my age collectively cry "shit!" as their hero lost the set. For the first time I was angry at their discuss and so I fought back.
I came back with a strong game and beat him up until finally I won. I couldn't believe it. I made my way to center court as my piers scowled at me. Mike, the affable tennis instructor smiled and gave me my trophy to some good applause from the parents and then I made my way off the court and as I did, every single kid my age walked past me without so much as eye contact. I found my parents and asked where my grandfather was and they told me he had given up on me earlier in the match and gone home. My parents were then leaving to drive back to Oklahoma City, leaving me there for the rest of the summer.
They took off and I walked to my bike alone. Around the corner, I heard Alexander's mother screaming at him and calling him a loser. I watched this kid who had always been so popular get crucified by his mom. I listened to what she called me and what she called my family and I thought, I should have just let the kid win.
I rode home and as I passed one kid's house, they threw a football at my bike causing me to almost drop my trophy. i remember wanting to just give it to them. I walked into the house where my grandfather had just woken from a nap. "I'm sorry you lost," he said. I told him I had actually won. His face spoke of profound disappointment and though he was disappointed in himself for having given up on me early, that is how I read it. Somehow in the convulsion of my mind, even in victory, I had been defeated.
That night, I lay in bed and listened to kids play tee-ball and read a manuscript my grandfather had given me about his experience as a Prisoner of War in Japan, my trophy on the wicker table next to my bed. I thought about how his hope had left the world with such a powerful story about making it even when everyone had given up on you... About how victory is internal and in that moment, I won. I wanted to write like he did. I just needed to live a life telling about.