My teenage son is a gifted athlete.From basketball to baseball to his beloved soccer, he's a natural who has worked hard at "getting it just right."He's also modest about his wins and accepting of his losses. Why, then, when it comes to a little one-on-one with me, does he exhibit such swagger?
I presume it's because he knows he can get away with it.When I engage him in some post-supper b-ball on our backyard court, he is the master of trash talk. ("Gonna take you to the hoop!") When we go to the batting cages, he watches with something resembling anguish as I swat miserably at the incoming pitches. ("You're supposed to hit the balls, Dad!")Tennis offers me no respite. ("Now, hit the ball over the net!")
Although I am no match for Alyosha at "standard-size" sports, I have slowly come to learn that I'm pretty good at their miniature versions.In fact, I am able to give my son a real run for his money.Actually, I often beat him.
Take golf, for example.Last summer, I went with my son to the local municipal course to play my first-ever, regulation-size, 18-hole game.I watched as he set his tee, fidgeted into the correct stance, practiced his stroke, and struck the ball with a flair and accuracy that might make Tiger Woods lift an eyebrow. "On the green," my son murmured, as if fulfilling the lowest of expectations.
When I stepped up for my turn, it suddenly occurred to me that I really didn't know what I was doing.I didn't even know how deep to set the tee.And when I finally swung my club, I cut a divot the size of a welcome mat.
To make a long story short, I don't know if there's a golfing term for shooting 40 over par.
However, shortly thereafter, we spent an afternoon playing miniature golf.I suddenly felt that I was in my element, that I had found a suit that fit me just right.I was on or under par on every hole, while my son struggled to keep up with me.I had, in short, found a world small enough to feel big in.
It was much the same with small versions of other sports, as well.I am totally outclassed when I go up against my son in basketball, but I am skilled at a little hand-held game in which the players try to catapult a tethered ball into a small wooden basket.
My son does not understand this discrepancy in our abilities, and I have to limit the time we spend at this game, lest his frustration get the better of him.
As for soccer, I wouldn't even try to get a ball past my high-school varsity player on a regulation field.Soccer is his point of honor, his kingdom, his sine qua non.
However, on the so-called "foosball" game we have at home, I seem to have found my groove, spinning those little plastic glued-in men on their steel bars with an abandon and skill that makes me wish for an audience.
Ping-Pong has become my ersatz for tennis.In tennis, Alyosha has developed an eye for an accurate lightning serve that is increasingly making it futile to play him.But in Ping-Pong, I am able to get my mind and body around the little green table and become a winner.
During one recent game of table tennis, my son's exasperation grew as his serves and returns consistently missed the edge of the table. "I don't know what's wrong," he lamented. "I mean, I'm putting English on the ball."
That's when everything became clear.The problem, as I saw it, was that my son was overeducated for small sports. Overqualified. At some level, this knowledge, however subconscious, was wreaking havoc with his ability to do well at such a diminutive scale.
In short, my son's athletic ability is something like wet cement:On the grand scale it flows like a river, but when you try to pour it through a kitchen funnel, it gets stuck.
I didn't know how we would ever reconcile our differing abilities. But my son believes he has stumbled upon a compromise.The other night, I heard him up in his room, humming to himself as he worked at the computer. He finally called to me.
When I opened the door, I found him sitting in front of his machine, the monitor aglow with state-of-the-art graphics for a baseball game.The players moved with a realistic ease and spontaneity not far removed from the real thing.
Alyosha looked over at me and lit a winsome smile."Now we'll see," he sang as he beckoned to me."Now we'll see."
I gulped and went in.