At a weekend barbecue, I overheard a conversation in which folks jokingly tried to come up with some type of activity that their friend Tom wasn’t great at. I don’t know Tom all that well but I know the type of person they meant: that guy or girl who seems to excel, naturally, without effort, at every sport or athletic endeavor they undertake. Running? Practically elite. Swimming? Dolphins would be envious. Basketball, softball, Frisbee golf, golf golf, if there’s movement required and speed, strength, agility, and hand-eye coordination involved, these people bring the awesome. I don’t know what answer the group ultimately came up with, but I’m guessing it was probably something like “making sure to affix the postage stamp exactly within the rectangle on the envelope to pay the utility bill.” Thank goodness for online payments.
And then there’s me, pretty much the opposite of all that. The list of sports and activities I suck at is damn near endless. Anything that involves stuff being thrown is out; I can’t throw worth shit, and when stuff is thrown at me I duck and cover. (I’d have been great during the Cold War, but atomic bomb readiness is not and has never been a sport.) Anything that involves hand-eye coordination won’t go so well either; I have hands and eyes but they don’t tend to sync up much (except when something is being throw at me; then as soon as my eyes perceive the thing coming at me, the hands go up in a sort of protective surrender pose). You’d think, having grown up in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, that I’d at least be a good swimmer, but I’m not. I learned to swim the way a lot of kids in Hawaii do, paddling about in the shallows of the beach, gradually going out farther until my toes couldn’t reach, and then kind of improvising movements that would keep me afloat and generally propel me in a forward direction. I’m not afraid of water, at least, but my form is godawful. (And please don’t bring up surfing. I doubt I could stand on a surfboard on dry land without falling off.)
“But what about running?” you ask. OK, I asked it, not you, and I’ve been asking it a lot lately. I like to think I’m good at running, but this year hasn’t exactly substantiated that belief. There was a time when I would regularly place within the top three of my age group at local 5K and 10K races. Indeed, at the 5K race the BF and I went to before the barbecue, I would easily have come in second in my group by a couple of minutes. Yes, I took note of my hypothetical competitors’ times. It’s what you do when you think you’re finally good at something athletic after a lifetime of wimpitude. Because of my injury, however, I didn’t run the race, though even healthy I doubt I’d have done it. I haven’t run a 5K, a 10K, or even a half marathon in years; I don’t run anything less than marathon distance these days, which sounds snobby and braggy but honestly isn’t. Truth is, the distance thing hasn’t been going so well; instead of finishing in the top three, I’ve finished near the bottom—or not at all—in every race I’ve done this year.
Yeah, yeah, I know, just doing it at all is a victory, just getting out there and trying it shows strength of character, yadda yadda blabbety blah. Please. Given a choice between first place and the good sport award…well, is there really any choice? Everyone loves a good sport but no one wants to have to be one, because we all know what that often means: Good sports = bad at sports.
Case in point: the softball game we played after stuffing ourselves on barbecue. I’d only had two margaritas but somehow found myself heading out to the diamond with the others, a fielder’s glove in hand. (The glove was pink and tiny, belonging to my friend’s young daughter, but pretty much the only glove that fit me even though it was barely big enough to contain the softball. That hardly mattered, as there was no chance of my ever catching a ball anyway.) You know the cliché about being picked last for softball? Not a cliché. Truth. That person was me many decades ago, and I’m not afraid to admit it, nor was my friend Dorothy, who told me she joined marching band to get out of high school P.E. Dorothy and I set ourselves on opposing teams as the bottom of our respective lineups so that we would balance not only each other but the athletically overachieving Toms that made up the rest of our teams.
I’ve fictitiously named her Dorothy because of Dorothy Hamill. My friend ice skates, you see, and by that I don’t mean she goes to the rink, rents skates and wobbles around in circles for an hour or two. She’s competitive. She has outfits. They are sparkly and look all flashy when she does cool spinny stuff on the ice. Ice skating is maybe a few notches better than surfing on my list of things I suck at, but I can confidently state that if I live the rest of my life without ever strapping on skates and stepping out in a rink, pangs of regret will not assail me upon my deathbed. Dorothy didn’t have much luck at the plate, but crust that plate over with ice and watch her twirl—and watch me duck and cover. That pose is good even when things aren’t being thrown at you.
And then Dorothy’s team retired and it was my turn at bat. Time, once again, for things to be thrown at me.
What makes a person do something she knows is going to be painful and humiliating when she’s an adult and can say “no”? You don’t have a choice when you’re in P.E., but when you’re several decades removed from P.E. and have had a couple of margaritas, a burger and a brat, what’s stopping you from declaring “oh hell no” when someone hands you a bat and says you’re up? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the knowledge that even if you suck at this,you are confident enough in yourself to realize that you’re plenty good at other things that truly matter to you, be they skating or running. But what if that’s rationalization and I force myself to recognize that I’m not necessarily exceptionally good at anything? Somebody has to be average—lots of somebodies, by definition. I’m not going to pretend it feels just as good just to finish as it does to finish well—really well, award-winningly well—but maybe my brief flirtation with athletic ability did me more harm than good. My taste of success was admittedly miniscule; coming in first in the female 40-49 age group in a small-town holiday-weekend race impresses almost no one other than the two 40-49-year-old females you beat out. It certainly doesn’t assuage the intense, déjà vu-like dread you feel as you stand in the batter’s box.
The bases were loaded and our team was down by, I don’t know, a thousand runs or so. On the first pitch I tried to bunt. Why not; at least the bat would actually touch the ball that way, which it might not if I took a real swing. Predictably, the ball went foul. Bunting, in case you thought of it as dainty and wimpy, is hard. I didn’t bother trying to bunt after that; who was I kidding. I might as well swing away and get this nonsense over. I fouled a couple more balls weakly off to the left or behind the plate—they really ought to make fair territory a lot bigger, maybe even include the first couple rows of seats, don’t you think?—before finally getting it in the infield. Wonderful, I thought with relief, gamely running out the throw to first. I can pick up my little pink glove and wait for our side to be retired.
In the meantime, the batter scored from third. RBI, me.
Yeah, we lost, and I didn’t catch, throw, or hit anything again for the rest of the game. But I didn’t completely suck. Can I say I’m proud of that RBI? Can I say I’m prouder still that I faced my fears and played the good sport even though every fiber in my body wished to sit in the shade on the sidelines and marinate in margaritas? I could, but that wouldn’t be completely honest. In the end I think what makes a person voluntarily do something they know they suck at is a complicated mix of insecure rationalization (I may suck at this but I came in first at the Mattoon Run for the Bagel 10K in 2009, dammit) and shrugging acceptance of the self. I know I suck at softball, and swimming, and ice skating, and given this knowledge, another demonstration of my suckness can hardly demoralize me. Sucky things are going to happen in life, and at least softball sucking isn’t going to matter too much in the grand scheme.
That said, I’m happy to retire on my RBI success and get back to running, so that the next race I do, someone else will get to experience the joys of being a good sport.