"An empty man is full of himself." -- Edward Abbey

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Match for the Ages

      I have one more item that touches just tangentially on the subject of race. But this story is really about a sports match-up.

     I've lived my life in mostly segregated circumstances -- not by design, but because I live in the suburbs. I had a few black acquaintances in college and in the workplace. But these days when I go into town, or to the nearby mall, I rarely see people of color. Even when I travel to New York City, it seems the crowds on the train, in midtown and in the theater district, are primarily white.

     But I myself have come into contact with a more diverse group in the past year, through two completely unrelated activities. One has been volunteering as a tutor at our community college. The other, the one I speak about now, was joining a table tennis club.

     My club is located in the mostly white suburbs where I live; yet the membership is very diverse. It's the one place I go where people of my skin color are in the minority – and many of the people who do share my skin color speak with accents. Yet in this environment, skin color and speech characteristics are irrelevant. What matters is not the color of your skin, but the content of your table tennis game. There's a ladder; and there are teams. The teams are mixed by age, color and gender (although we could use a few more female players); and people play one another based on competence alone.

     Or, pretty much so. There's one fellow, I must admit, who bothers me a little bit. He is black. He's in his 40s, probably about 20 years younger than I am. He is also a decidedly better player than I am – although he's not completely out of my league. He's about eight or ten spots above me on the ladder.

     The problem? He will not play with me. Oh, he doesn't actually say that. He just tries to avoid me. Several times I've seen him around and asked him to play; and he's begged off almost every time. He's tired; he has another match to play; he's getting ready to leave. The few times I've gotten him to play -- he'll practice with me, but never play a game -- he always acts like he's doing me a favor.

     If I were black, and he was white, I might think he was avoiding me because of my race, that he is a racist. (He could be avoiding me because I'm white; there certainly are some black racists -- except I've seen him play with plenty of other guys who aren't black).

     Sometimes I think he might be avoiding me because I'm too old, that he is an ageist. But here's what I really think: He's avoiding me because he's afraid I might beat him, and he'd be embarrassed by losing to an inferior player. By losing to an old white guy.

     Well, last week there was a league competition at the club, and the way things worked out, he and I were matched up. So he had to play me.

     He's a quiet guy; doesn't say much. And so he just gave me a nod and a rolling chuckle, and we started to warm up. He was hitting them past me quite a bit, as both he and I expected, and I figured he was going to school me. I thought there's no point in delaying the inevitable, so when he asked, "Are you ready?" I nodded, and we started playing.

     A ping pong match is the best of five games; each game goes to 11 points; but you have to win by two.

     He won the first game pretty easily. But in the second game I somehow jumped out to a 4-0 lead. It happened fast; I don't even recall how I got those points. Then he won a couple of points, before I got a lucky shot, and he went on to make a couple of mistakes. And so the second game went to me.

     He laughed; I laughed; in acknowledgment that sometimes the inferior player wins a game. But that doesn't change the dynamics of the match. He and I both still fully expected him to win.

     However, by this time there were a couple of fellow players who had caught what was going on, and they stopped to watch our match.

     The third game started, and he served up a couple of weirdly spinning shots that I couldn't handle. Then I tried to hit a winner and missed. I made a few points, but he won he game handily.

     He was ready to finish off the match, I could tell. He took the lead in the next game; but then he tried to show off by hitting a couple of spectacular winners – which missed the table. Then I had a couple of lucky shots. Suddenly it was 10-10. I won the next point. My advantage. Then I missed hitting a winner. Back to deuce. Then he missed a serve. My ad again. And he made a mistake on the next point. I won the game, and suddenly the match was tied at 2 games to 2.

     The players watching from the side of the court were now very interested. Was an upset in the making? One game left would decide the match.

     Again my opponent took the lead, 2-0. Then it was 3-1. Then 5-3. I made a couple of good shots and evened up the game at 7-7. He took the next point. I took the one after that.

     Then the last few points went true to form. And he finally beat me 11-9.

     He was very gracious. He smiled, and we shook hands, and I made a joke about how I at least made him break a sweat. But I know one thing – he's not going to want to play this old guy again anytime soon.


DJan said...

Well, congratulations, Old White Guy. You certainly showed him that you can keep up. I wonder what his reason is for not wanting to play with you; it might be as you think, or it could be something unrelated, like you remind him of somebody he doesn't like. That happens to me sometimes. :-)

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this post, which was full of suspense. I wondered how it would end. I dated a couple of black men when I was in my twenties. Actually, I dated a few Jewish men, also, but who cares. Lol.

Linda Myers said...

Good game, Tom!

Olga said...

Wow, your description of the match had me on the edge of my seat. You could be a sports writer.

Kirk said...

Oddly coincidental lost for me. I have a friend who's the same age as I, or a little older (mid-late 60s). He's become a table tennis fanatic and also joined a club. He has a table in his basement with an attached robot that can be programmed to send one ball after another over the net with varying speeds and spins.

I've been over to play with him a few times, the first table tennis for me in about 40 years. Good fun and exercise. He beats me, but I have won a game or two.

Tom said...

I've heard about those machines, but don't have one because a) I hear they break down a lot; and b) Maybe that would be taking it a bit too far. We do have a table in the basement, but right now B has a mattress on top of it that she's storing for a friend (another reason I joined a club). Maybe we can move it somewhere else when a few people come over for the holidays.

Went to the club to play last night. My scores:
I guess I was getting tired as the night wore on.

stephen Hayes said...

You may have lost but you played your best and that's all that counts. Take care and Happy Weekend.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps he did not want to play with you because he knew you were a tough player. Anyway, sometimes we read too much into why folks do what they do.

I didn't have your experiences in life. I have always lived with or near Black folks. Heck, we attended the Black Catholic Church in our town (Yes, even the Catholics were segregated.). Being Yankees (Republican, Catholics from Wisconsin), my parents ignored race, although I found many Southern Whites were much less opinionated about Blacks as another race than Dad and Mom.

I find the whole notion of race ridiculous, in fact. It's purely a social construct.


Douglas said...

Did it ever cross your mind that he didn't want to beat up on an old guy? I understand the other reasons and they may be valid (assuming he is a proud man) but there is also the possible thought in his mind that he had too much advantage over you. There is also something else, something intangible and hard to explain. Have you ever met people that you knew right away that you would not get along with? And so you avoid them? These feelings seem real but may not be reflective of the kind of relationship you might actually have with those people, yet it is difficult to shake and adds an awkwardness to any interaction with them. We used to call them "vibes, man."

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth, there have been people avoided by me because I didn't care for the way the smelled. Sometimes it is BO, but usually it is some cosmetic or soap to which I was sensitive (as in: it gave me a migraine!)
Cop Car

Rita said...

Hi Tom,

I really liked table tennis as a kid. I'll have to look to see if there is anyplace to play in my community.

My family used to play on the dining room table. One time I was playing my dad, and I remember how mad I was when the ball hit the rolled edge of the table and I couldn't get it.

b+ (Retire in Style Blog) said...

How I loved to play ping pong...I am a woman that had the same experience as you. I always wondered if the men were afraid I would beat them or afraid they would beat me. I suppose the pleasure of playing means different things to different people. Winning is nice but it is not everything.

I could picture this game from beginning to end. Thank you Tom.


Friko said...

Aw come on, are you sure? He did win, after all. There should be a return match, just to even things up.

It’s called ‘revanche’ in Germany.