21 June 2014

Strategies for Sports and Life

The only thing that ever makes me say, “I wish I could go back and do this over again” about my middle-school years is sports. I abhorred the chaos of basketball and soccer, while also being fascinated by the games in the abstract. I admired people who could ride unicycles or juggle, like my friends, or do cartwheels, like my long-limbed and slender mother, and I was curious about friends who went skiing every weekend, but for a long time I thought I had little in common physically with them.
In high school I took up running, skiing, and tennis. I loved hitting the ball around but wasn't competitive enough to become a strong player. I was not so assertive back then, either, and felt confusion about the difference between assertive and aggressive. The idea of fighting to get better at a sport was alien to me. I liked skiing because I was good at things you need time to do, like writing and reading and art. Things you could do and redo, not these we-have-to-play-the-best-game-ever-or-we'll-all-go-down-together, do-or-die contests of wiles and will.
A funny thing happened on the way to my gym classes, though. I started to notice that yeah, maybe I wasn't so great at pull-ups or push-ups, but I could ski or run or bike a few miles without feeling like I was going to throw up. And I loved that burst of energy and clarity that always occurred somewhere in my workout (the endorphins kicking in, no doubt) and felt that Aha! I'm-up-where-I can-see-again sensation.
My endurance has helped in all sorts of situations since. I tried trekking on cross-country skis, downhill skiing, and bicycling. I paddled rafts but especially loved taking a big oar boat through the rapids myself, analyzing the river to see the best path (there's that strategizing again).
But I do wish sometimes that I could go out and play soccer in a field with a bunch of people knowing what I know now. I see those But you could!s sputtering on your lips, but the problem with going out and playing soccer now is that given what I know now, I wouldn't play soccer on this set of knees. I've had surgery for meniscal tears on both knees and can just keep them happy and me fit with dance, biking, hiking, skiing and some squats. But given my current condition, soccer, distance running, gymnastics, and telemark skiing aren't going to be where I get my exercise highs. So hooray for my happy fortune in finding activities I love that literally make me leap for joy and stretch my body and soul. And hooray for the orthopedic surgeon and physical therapists who have helped me continue to use my legs for function and fun.
Recently, on my way home from my dance class, I stopped at a yard sale where I bought a tiny, intricately built cribbage set inlaid with metal strips to indicate the bounds on the scoring board. It had a piece of scrimshaw of a happy looking moose glued onto it. Last night I printed out the rules, tweaking the formatting until I could get them all on a single sheet of paper, which I completely filled with 10-point type. While the rules looked lengthy, I remembered cribbage as a fun game, even if it was one at which I often got skunked or double-skunked (I can't even bear to think about those times I was triple-skunked).
Back in about 1977, when I was about 14, my stepfather, Yankee, started me how to play cribbage. It is a game in which you set aside a couple of cards that go into the dealer's “crib,” essentially a second hand. You then take turns with an opponent laying down cards and accumulating points, to a maximum of 31 points and then you start again. Then you add up all the points for combinations of cards and runs. During each round of play, the score for the dealer's crib is added, so the dealer essentially gets to play two hands. Then the deal alternates and the new dealer gets the crib. You play to 121 points, usually, which is one point more than four “streets” of 30 points, which you score by placing pegs along a track on a board, leapfrog-style so you can see your existing score while you peg additional points.
But it all sounds more elaborate than it is, because there are limited ways to earn points. Play is fast-paced and you score points frequently. But you definitely have to think ahead about how to maximize the points, and you have to make decisions about what cards to keep when you are salting away cards in your crib as the dealer or which cards to pawn off on your opponent (the “pone” in cribbage-speak) when it's their crib. In other words, you need to strategize.
I have found learning to strategize one of the true pleasures of my life. A soccer team setting up a goal attempt a full minute before the ball is kicked toward the net, it turns out, requires as much planning and forethought as working out the details of a plot that involves multiple characters. When writing fiction, you have to be able to store things away to add later, or keep certain things out of certain characters' hands so they don't use them to hijack the story (a mistake I confess I've made more than once in my fiction).
I used to get mad at my stepfather because he knew all the cribbage scoring tricks – like getting two points for “his nobs” as the dealer when he'd turn up a jack as the top card of the deck.
My sister, my brother, and I all remember the night of the horrific carroms game with our father Steve a little differently, but we all remember it. Well, maybe my stepmother used her magical  religion's brain powers to clear that one out of her memory banks, but the rest of us remember it. It was one of those nights when my father was being a sore loser, this one worse than most. One of us was winning, and my sister and I remember differently who it was, but it didn't matter. What mattered was our father was losing, and he didn't like it. After a missed shot, he had a tantrum and threw the carroms and board across the room.
None of us wanted to play anymore (how's that for understatement?), but our father didn't want to walk away from the game because he was still losing. Emotional terrorism is what I call that now, and I had some serious unlarnin' to do when I sailed blithely and arrogantly into my adulthood.
And I wonder why I was never all that competitive. And why people thought I was.
But those cribbage games (and gin, backgammon, and pool, too) with my stepfather helped me learn so much about planning to win, not just winning. Those games challenged me enough to make me want to win against my stepfather (for once). The games were just tough enough to make me want to learn how to find the most bonus points along the way, not just when we stopped to total everything at the end. And the games were fun. He wanted me to learn well, so he would have a good opponent, not just someone he could knock down and win against every time.
While I had to discover my physical gifts on my own (yes, I can learn choreography! and bike or ski for hours!), my stepfather was the one who taught me all about grace in winning – and losing. He taught me true sportsmanship.

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