Unraveling the Mystery of Sports Fanatics

My younger brother Brian and I are two years apart. When we were growing up, this made us great candidates for both friendship and rivalry, depending upon what time of day it was. As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, I grew up in the countryside of Northern California and my childhood home is situated on five acres of land, which—in comparison to all of our neighbors’ plots of land—was rather insignificant. The people directly across the street had forty acres, and the neighbors next door to them had a whopping two hundred. That would be the Cain’s property: Bob and Birdie Cain, the elderly couple that had lived on Gautier Drive since before the street even began. When my family and I moved there in 1989, I remember considering the Cain’s to be “old.” That was my 8-year-old perception of them, although I had no clue what age they actually were. All I knew is that they would wake up around 7:00am every day and go walking down the country back road past all of our houses, and I could always see them coming with their matching white hair and their shiny smiles. Fast forward twenty-one years later and you will still see them walking every single morning: smiles, white hair, and all.

To this day, I have no idea how old they are and it almost seems irreverent to ask the question, as if the Cains simply don’t age; they just remain as they are, the proprietors, the hallmarks of our little street.

When I was about nine years old and my brother was seven, we would call up the Cains and ask them if we could “go exploring” around their two hundred acre parcel. They always said, “yes,” as long as we promised to stay way from the Bear River that was rushing through at the base of the hillside. We would happily agree, and then head out on our quest for bones of wild animals that had died on their property. I know this probably sounds disgusting, but we were kids imagining ourselves to be on an archaeological dig. We would bring gloves and backpacks to collect all the bones in, and sure enough, we would always find them—the ribs of a deer that had been wasting away, the tailbone of something indistinguishable, part of the skull of what we assumed was a cow. We would bring them home, hose them off, and examine them in our hands, sometimes pretending they were dinosaur bones from prehistoric times.

Those were the friendship moments between my brother and me. The rivalry moments looked a little something like this:

I would be sitting at the coffee table, dutifully completing my homework assignments while watching The Disney Afternoon, and Brian would be running around the house making machine gun/explosive noises—for whatever reason. I could never quite fathom why.

In the midst of his distracting me, I would start taking a mental inventory of his afternoon activities since we had gotten home from school, and note that he had still not completed a single bit of his homework. This realization, combined with his disruptive behavior and blatant disregard for learning would begin to irk me, and I would find it necessary to lecture him on the importance of doing his homework.

On one day in particular, he listened to my lecture, glanced down at my math homework, and then said, “Even if I don’t do my homework, I’ll still be better at math than you.”

I put down my pencil and looked up at him. “So what,” I retorted, “I’m better at reading than you.”

“Well, I’m better at sports than you.”

“Well, I’m better at spelling than you.”

“I can draw better than you.”

“And I can write better than you.”

“Well,” he said—and this was the kicker, “I’m better at all the cooler things.”

I opened my mouth and just glared at him. How dare he. There was no arguing with that because I knew he was right. And I wanted to punch him for it.

I hadn’t yet become the school spelling bee champion three years in a row, and even if I had, leaning on that knowledge still wouldn’t have appeased me. In the harsh realities of life, academic intelligence simply wasn’t cool, and I knew it. Sports, however—as my brother so aptly pointed out—sports were cool. And so I spent years trying to be good at them in a veiled attempt to raise my personal coolness factor.

That usually didn’t work.

The thing is that I’m not the most coordinated person on the planet when it comes to hitting baseballs and catching footballs and making baskets. Throughout my entire public school career, P.E. was always the bane of my existence. Especially when we had to play volleyball. On a scale of 1 being the least torturous and 10 being excruciating, I would rate games of volleyball during elementary and middle school P.E. classes to be about an 8. I really despised volleyball because it had the inescapable habit of putting every player on the spot by making each of them rotate and—horror of all horrors—serve the ball. In middle school, I always approached the serving mound as though I was walking to a death sentence. On the rare occasion that I made the ball over the net, I always felt it had more to do with luck than actual talent. I assumed that God had been answering my pleas and sent an angel to give the ball an invisible shove.

This was also why I very quickly grew tired of trying at sports. No matter how much effort I put in, it never seemed especially rewarding. So, on those glorious days when the P.E. teacher actually gave us the option of choosing which sport we wanted to engage in, I developed a new strategy of only playing sports that involved running around a court or a field in herds of people. These herds that are often referred to as teams in games such as basketball, football, and soccer, always found favor in my uncoordinated eyes because they enabled me to be anonymous. In a game of basketball, for example, I could simply run around the court in whatever direction my teammates were going, and it would look like I both knew what I was doing and was making a solid effort.

Of course, neither of those things could be farther from the truth. What I was actually doing was glancing at the clock in the gym every five minutes and hoping that the ball wouldn’t get thrown my way. However, the beauty of basketball was that any number of my classmates were always wanting to prove that they were the next Michael Jordan, and I gladly encouraged them to go for it. It was my gift to them.

I, on the other hand, played by one important rule that many P.E. teachers had shouted at me over the years, and that is “Keep your eye on the ball!” I learned that this was good advice because in doing so, I could aptly avoid it by making sure that wherever the ball was, I was a sizeable distance away.

Similar to volleyball, baseball also has an affinity for putting people on the spot as they go up to bat, but unlike volleyball, we lined up for bat in the dugout—a covered and somewhat obscure little area where I could employ my craftily plotted strategy of continually moving to the back of the line. I would get up to go to the bathroom and “forget” where my place was. Sometimes I would flat out offer to let other people go up to bat instead of me, but this was only when I knew the coach wouldn’t catch me.

The other great thing about baseball is that I could always volunteer to stand in the outfield where the ball rarely came and where I could entertain myself by contemplating all the many wonders of life. For example, when I was six or seven years old, my parents signed Brian and me up for t-ball. During each game, I would make my way to the outfield, and while all of my other teammates were thoroughly involved in who was on base, how many outs there were, what inning it was, etc., I was always engaged in a little game of my own. It was called make believe.

This game began in the inner recesses of my mind and enabled me to travel to far away places and to ponder more important ideas, like what it would be like to hear the English language and not understand it. At the time, it was a brand new, mind-boggling realization that there were billions of people on this earth who heard people like me speaking in English, yet when they heard it, it sounded completely different to them than it did to me. In fact, it probably sounded like a bunch of incomprehensible sounds and mumbling, much the way Chinese sounded to me when I heard it being spoken. I was completely fascinated by this notion and it left me wondering, What does English sound like to them? I want to hear English the way they do!

So, for a long time I tried. I gathered up every ounce of my focus and concentration and tried to watch television shows without understanding the characters when they spoke. I would try to distance myself from the English language. Pretend you don’t understand, I told myself. Just focus on the sounds and don’t apply any sort of meaning to them . . . I was always sorely disappointed when my efforts proved unfruitful. Yet, I would still try and imagine what it would be like to hear and not understand English while I was standing in the outfield.

Another of my favorite subjects to ponder during t-ball games was the mystery of what it would be like to be pregnant. One of our family friends had just given birth to a baby and they actually videotaped the delivery with one of those 1980s camcorders that was the size of the state of Texas. After careful consideration, my parents had decided they would allow me to watch this video, and it grossed me out to the tenth degree. Yet, at seven years old, most little girls also feel that being pregnant and giving birth is an inevitability of life, so I knew that one day when I was a grown up, that is what I would do too. It was horrifying, but also mysterious.

One day during a game of t-ball, the sun was setting, the bases were loaded, and I was standing out in left field, likely daydreaming that I was a pregnant woman who didn’t understand English, when something miraculous happened. I felt a thump in my left hand and looked down to find that there was actually a baseball in it! The ball had somehow managed to land directly in my glove without my even trying to catch it, as if there was some sort of magnetic force propelling it there.

I looked up to see all the parents in the stands, cheering and shouting—my parents cheering loudest of all—with looks of shock and delight on their faces. By catching the ball, I had likely struck someone out while he or she was running to base, but in all honesty I couldn’t tell you if that is what happened because in my mind, I was a million miles away.

Everybody thinks I meant to do this, I realized. They think I meant to catch the ball. I considered this for a moment longer and then decided that what they didn't know couldn't hurt them. I sucked up the praise and acclaim I got for all that it was worth. It was my one moment of glory in t-ball.

Decades later, I was 27 years old and was sitting in my office at Cal State Long Beach, going through the roster sheet for the English 100 class I had been assigned to teach that semester. The class roster consisted of the students’ names, campus ID numbers, and intended majors. As I was glancing over their majors, I noticed that over half of them were studying Kinesiology or Physical Education, which meant that I would be teaching a classroom full of jocks and future P.E. teachers! How is this supposed to work? I wondered. I’m not going to have a thing in common with these kids.

How it worked is that over the course of the semester, they taught me a little bit about why they loved sports so much. When I gave them the “Failure” essay assignment and asked them to choose someone they admired and write about how that person had failed leading up to his or her success, they chose to write about Olympic gold medallists and their high school soccer coaches. They wrote epic tales of sweat and determination. They described the agony of defeat, and how it felt to experience the sweet glory of pushing oneself to the limit and finally achieving an elusive goal.

I was baffled and somewhat touched by their papers because I had never viewed sports as being anything but boring and torturous. I failed to see any redeeming value in them, and as I got older, I even decided that I would accept my uncoolness so long as it meant never having to serve a volleyball again.

In all the hours I had spent in left field, gazing out into space and trying to comprehend the mystery of people who saw the world differently than me, I had failed to recognize that for me, the biggest mystery of all wasn’t what it would be like for women to carry babies in their stomachs, or what the English language would sound like to someone who didn’t speak it. No, the biggest mystery for me was why anyone on earth liked sports in the first place.

Twenty years later, I got my answer to that question. Now I just need to work on finding out the other two. As a matter of fact, this semester I do have a student from Vietnam and one from Yemen. Maybe they can tell me what English used to sound like from their perspectives before they started speaking it fluently. Hmmm, this is looking promising . . .