Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sam Does Sports: A Spiritual Journey

Whichever deity divined my ability to get lost multiple times in my own neighborhood, also provided me with a penchant for non-manly activities. Like wrapping a towel around my head and referring to myself as Victoria, watching Spice World on loop, and tennis. Depending on which parts of the world you're in, tennis is the least offensive of these three to the brotherhood of man. However, in my hay-day as a bumbling middle-schooler, it was not so great to be interested in batting a fuzzy ball back and forth with an object that looked like something Strega Nona would use to beat dust out of a carpet.* That is to say, an object of housewifery. Anyone caught on the tennis courts actually playing tennis was deemed nothing less than a "faggot-bitch."

Very true, according to middle school polls.
The same deity that planted such un-popular seeds in my soul-fabric also neglected to weave in any interest at all in subjects that would not get me beaten up or called a pussy. Like burping into the nostrils of a baby, hating my teachers, and baseball. Granted, I played baseball in elementary school, but only because my uncle Paul said I was a fast runner, and there was something satisfying about hitting a ball that was flew toward my face (insert Freudian slip about tea-bagging here**). I enjoyed the competitive nature of team sports, sure, but baseball eluded my complete attention, as did many things that didn't (don't) involve a gospel choir or a key change. Many times I walked on to the diamond, as they say, I struggled to, well, care.

One time, my gym teacher made my class play a game of softball for funsies. I was only fully present when I was up to bat and running the bases. Running was fun, hitting the ball was even more fun, but standing anywhere, like, anywhere at all in the outfield was mundane and exhausting. It also nearly took my life

As my team took to the field, I vaguely remember being assigned to short-stop, but I may have been put in right-field and simply wandered toward shortstop, and decided to just stay there. It didn't really matter since the batters kept missing or only half-hitting the ball. The majority of my classmates were not athletic, so there were many foul balls in between strikes. Each time the ball met the bat, the smacking sound was merely a tease, signaling yet another foul ball. I practically re-imagined Cinderella with a armadillos instead of mice until something actually happened.

As a girl named Leslie stepped up to bat, I assumed the position of uninterested-tween: jutting my hip out, while rendering one leg limp, studying the contour of my nail bed. Not unlike this helpful stock photo of a sweeping tweenager:

Cut the hair, nix the broom, and make the skirt three inches shorter, you'd recognize me from a mile away.

In a twist of karmic fate, I suddenly imagined that Leslie might be a sleeper and smack a drive-line ball right into my mouth. I heard the ball meet the bat and looked up lazily. Lo and be-god-the-fuck-damn-hold, I stood in shock as the softball's size grew from minuscule to gigantic, flying right at me. I shrieked and did everything with my gloved hand except for position it in front of my body to catch it. So, the ball collided with my sternum. And it hurt--more emotionally than physically, I'll admit, but shit! What kind of awful sport bores you to death and then bruises your chest plate?? I was done-girl-done with baseball, but still felt a social responsibility to sport. I would sport among the best of them, but at what????

Enter, tennis. I hate to disappoint you, but my affair with tennis was actually quite pleasant. I took lessons over the summer, performed competently, and even taught my German classmate the words to 5, 6, 7, 8! the most obscure pop song ever invented. The problem with tennis remained that all the boys at school thought it was for pussies. The lessons were with kids I had never met and would never see again, so I was off the hook in the bullying department. After that summer, I tried to test the waters with an acquaintance that I often sat with on the bus home. He was a beefy, black haired, man-boy named Eric. He treated me fine as far as fellow bus travelers go, and sometimes, I sensed he even looked out for me. Sort of. One day after school, he rushed into the adjacent seat to mine and turned to me, fanning a handful of baseball cards between us.

"Oh my god, Sam. Sammy, oh my god," he sputtered, cheeks red and forehead full of sweat. "Sammy, I just got three holo-foil cards of John McBlablabla and Seth von Yadawhatever for only one card of RANDY SOMETHINGOROTHER!!!

"Oh," I said, "Uh..w-wow, wow! That's really great... I'm sorry, what?"

"Oh my God, Sammy. This is terrible. Sit back, I'm gonna learn ya some baseball."

He was right, this would be terrible. Eric went through each card in his hand, informing me of their stats, achievements, and horoscopes, but I didn't absorb any of it. When he started to calm down, I brought up tennis to gauge his reaction.

"Nah," he said. "Tennis is lame. You can't try too hard."

"What?" I asked. I struggled to understand his comment, since trying too hard was one of the many unforgivable tenants of being a nerd.

"You can't hit as hard as you want," Eric continued. "If you hit that fuzzy piece of shit ball too hard, it flies out of the court. It's stupid."

Had I known that professional tennis involved serves and returns that clock in over a hundred miles per hour, I might have said something, but I had nothing to defend my stupid (sic) sport with. In my sophomore weeks of tennis lessons, I had sent many a ball soaring out of the court and into various cars, rivers, and foreboding wooded areas. I was bummed out about this, because I felt I had no choice but to give it up. If someone who was nice to me would call it stupid, the hybrid psychopthic assholes that bullied anyone without a parole officer would be merciless. I had to figure out which sport landed between the life-threatening boredom of baseball, and the froofy reputation (sic) of tennis.

It was a couple of weeks later that my aunt Nanette recommended running. Why don't you do track? She asked. She recalled a day on the beach where she took me and her toddler sons out to run along the ocean. As she told the story, I remembered it surprisingly clearly. I trudged through the sand, barely getting tired for what might have been 20 minutes, thinking all the while that my aunt and cousins were right behind me. I stopped to look back and saw Aunt Nanette waving with her whole arm, a small figure about half a mile away. I could hardly make out that it was actually her waving, but I knew it was her, and I knew we were both impressed. "You'd be great at that!" She said. "Go our for track!"


I took up cross country to get in shape during the Fall, and when Spring rolled around I joined the track team. What I loved most about track and field was the options. We could jump, we could throw, we could relay and we could hurdle. Hurdling soon became my obsession. I watched the eighth graders leap over them like humans who had been infused with gazelle DNA. They were graceful, yet powerful, and they maintained their popularity. I found what I was looking for! Despite the amount of finesse and kinesthesia required to do them, hurdles landed in the sweet-spot between fatally boring and social suicide! I wanted to be a gazelle; a really fast, really fucking cool gazelle. The only problem was that, where the eighth graders resembled African fauna, I resembled a turtle with really long legs.

For whatever reason, I could not bound over them in the way one was supposed to. My feet stuttered as I got near and leapt straight up with only a slight arc that made every hurdle-jump an edge-of-you-seat nail biter that caused onlookers to gasp, WILL HE MAKE IT?? Eventually, I became so frightened of them, I lost the ability to go over the hurdles at all. Within the three weeks before our first meet, I had come to a complete halt before the hurdle more times than I could count. The act manifested itself into my brain so deeply that I began to lose my mind.

One night, the night, the night before the meet, I woke my mom twice due to a subconscious anxiety attack. The first time, around mid-night, I apparently walked right up to her sleeping face and asked her "Excuse me, but where is Kate sleeping?" Kate Labelle was a classmate and track rockstar. She knew almost everything about how the race would go down, and proved to be a reliable source of information, and comfort when she felt like it. My mom gasped as her eyes slowly opened to a close-up of her son's deranged eyeballs and said, "She's not sleeping here! Get back to bed!" And so I did. Minutes later I dreamt of the hurdles. The gun sounded and I ran. My feet practically levitated off the track and just as I leapt toward the first hurdle, I snapped out of my dream and watched the edge of my bunk bed pass beneath me as I sailed over it. I crash landed into a chair beneath me, crumpling into a tangled mess of limbs. Mom, awake for the second time that night, rushed in to my bedroom.

"Wha-tha hell happened??" She whisper-shouted, eyes slightly crossed.

"I... jumped... apparently."

"Well," she said, "are you okay?" I nodded yes. "Okay then get back to bed and... stay there."

The next day I was a damn mess. All day, my mind was absent, re-living my dream of the first, wretched hurdle. I was surely going to die. This was it. If the hurdle itself didn't end up decapitating me, the shame would be enough to make me drop dead where I stood. By the time I was on the field, Kate Labelle and some other teammates tried to console me.

"Don't worry," they said. "You'll be fine." When I didn't believe them, they upped their sincerity and got other kids to try to convince me I would definitely at least jump the first hurdle. "It's all gravy from there!" One of them said. I felt slightly better, but my nerves were still on high alert when it came time to line up for the race.

"Seriously, dude, you got this," one boy said wearing an orange t-shirt and white shorts. He stood next to me in a four-abreast line of the kids who would race with me in our heat. "Okay," I said, mostly unconvinced there was any way this would end well. As our line came up to the start, I placed my feet in the pre-run position, left only with my own brain to fight, not flee, from this diarrhea inducing race. I looked to the side and orange t-shirt smiled. I can do this, I can do this, I can do this. Can I do this? Fuck I fucking hope so, I thought.

"Runners set..." the starter shouted, and raised the cap gun. Bang.

As if fleeing from a man with an actual firearm, I bolted from the starting line. The first hurdle grew larger and larger, and the past month of stutter-stepping and bunk bed diving flashed before my eyes. In the largest burst of adrenaline I have ever known, I felt my right foot lift from the turf and jab toward the hurdle's top edge. In another burst of rapid after-shock adrenaline, my left foot launched my body up. For a split second, I felt elation. I did it. I was flying, I was going up, and up! Okay, woah, still going up. Where is the ground. 

Uh-oh. I was going too high. After cock-teasing my muscles with the possibility of jumping over a hurdle for 28 days, they had overcompensated now in this explosive moment and sent me in a flying arc that was so high, my body began to spin forward. Somehow, I caught myself before face-planting, and landed on my feet with my knees up by my ears. By the time I looked up, the other runners had already cleared the second and third hurdles. I lurched forward, moving purely on shock motor skills, with little coordination happening between my brain and legs. But I was so elated that I had cleared the first hurdle, I didn't even care I would finish dead last. I lobbed my frail body over the subsequent 7 hurdles and my friends cheered from the sidelines.

"Runn fasterrr, Saaammmmm!" They yelled.

No friends, I thought with a smile, I cannot. For you see, my body has gone numb, and I am moving purely on relief and fear-based adrenaline. I felt like a deer who'd been love-tapped by a speeding car. Except, instead of bounding forward like a panicked, yet graceful forest creature, I bumbled my way toward the finish in the fashion of a startled new-born cow. By no means was this a pretty sight, but I refused to feel self conscious. I lost against every other student who competed, but I conquered my fear of the hurdle, an inanimate object that stood no taller than three feet.

Three years later, I came in first over all at that very same race, and my coaches strong armed the state to allow me to compete in finals. "He may not have qualified," they reasoned, "but he's come a long, long way. Like, really long. Cut him a break, eh?" They agreed, and I ran the 80 meter hurdles with the best pre-teen runners in Rhode Island. And since I was not qualified to compete at that level, I came in last overall. Again. But this time, I looked good doing it, which is what really matters.


The making of this post involved several Google searches. One of which was "Gay tennis," which led me to this gem:
I have several questions about this, but do I want the answers?

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