of cake. I could have stepped over it, but I jumped instead. And fell
flat on my face. What I projected was not what happened.
I thought of that incident last Saturday as I hobbled off the tennis
court. My game doesn't exactly match that of Pete Sampras, but I've
always had two strengths that kept me reasonably competitive in good
company: a strong forehand and speed. Saturday I just had the strong
forehand. Lobs and drop shots that I used to run down routinely were out
of my reach, even though I strove mightily to get to them.
I've been weighing this performance ever since while I nursed the
aches and pains in its aftermath. I could scale down my expectations,
look for a slower game or turn to some other form of exercise. None of
these options have any appeal to me. The first two turn a form of intense
competition into exercise -- a change of which I suspect I'm incapable.
The third is a kind of discipline I've always rejected and have no
stomach for now.
Maybe this dilemma grows out of my Midwestern upbringing. From the
time I was a scrawny kid in elementary school, I've hung out with friends
who were highly competitive in a social environment rewarding to that
frame of mind.
I knew the pain of reading a list outside the coach's office that told
me I had been cut from the basketball team -- and the joy of seeing my
name there another time. My high school friends and I played poker for
pennies and nickels that didn't come easy and competed fiercely for prom
dates with the beauty queen.
There was a strong bond between us, but we only played keepers. No
soft touches. We neither gave nor asked concessions.
It was a lesson that helped me through four years of military service
in World War II. Navy Preflight, designed by Gene Tunney to make supermen
out of soft college kids, was a case in point.
This was accomplished by playing highly physical games with a kind of
competitive intensity that sometimes approached life and death. If we
lost that competitive edge, we might find ourselves in some other branch
of service -- a specter that hung over us constantly.