…life on the synaptic firing range

Location: Los Angeles, United States

Bent but unbroken Southern California native seeks understanding, companionship, and resonance along and off the beaten path. Teresa plays well with others and makes every effort to perform to her potential. Usually. *processed in a facility that processes nuts and nut products

Sunday, February 05, 2006

sports, being bad at them

So I'm in the backyard picking undersize oranges from our dwarf tree—for a time I was leaving them attached in hopes they would attain their proper orange size, but they've now started to leap from the tree en masse, indicating a certain ripeness that forestalls any plans for future growth—while my partner is playing ball with our dog, Biscuit. This is how that goes: My partner lobs a tennis ball with a thingy called the Chuckit, a curved piece of plastic with a cup on the end that not only sends the ball sailing with precious little effort by the thrower but saves her from having to bend over and pick up the increasingly slimy ball with her bare hands. Biscuit takes off like a shot and tries—oh, how she tries—to track the ball and catch it before it lands and rolls to a stop. She never achieves this goal. Instead, she most often gets the ball tangled in her legs as she overruns its rolling trajectory and kind of stops it with her body as if she's throwing herself on a grenade. Then she picks it up in her mouth and trots around the yard with it, generally dropping it 20 feet away from my partner to segue into chasing her tail or scratching an ubiquitous itch, quickly forgetting that she was playing a game she enjoys.

It strikes me from my vantage point high on a ladder that our dog is not good at sports. There are breeds of dog, of course, that take no interest in playing ball, but judging from Biscuit's appearance it's in her genes to retrieve: Our best guess is that she's the product of a cocker spaniel–golden retriever love match. And she certainly seems to be attracted to playing ball, but her enthusiasm greatly exceeds her talent.

It makes sense to think that there are dogs possessed of natural athleticism, just as there are people who are paid millions to play sports and millions of less talented people who'll pay to watch them. Of course, less athletic dogs could give a fig about watching their superstar peers on Purina's Incredible Dog Challenge—a televised event my partner has been known to watch, you know, casual-like, maybe when she's waiting for me to finish showering and getting dressed so that we can begin our Saturday errand spectacular—but I think the corollary holds nevertheless. There are sporting dogs who outrun Frisbees and twist 180 degrees as they leap to nab them in midair with every bit as much grace and skill as Willie Mays* in his famous over-the-shoulder catch. (*I had to ask my partner whose catch that was, she being the baseball historian in the household.) Then there's Biscuit.

I can relate. I've never shown a lick of talent for sports. I was the last one picked in P.E. throughout my school career. Been hit in the face by just about every kind of ball there is, usually while trying—and really, really wanting—to catch it. I'm not sure why, of all my failures, I should remember this one the most clearly: I'm in the 7th grade, playing flag football, and the ball is coming right for me. I watch it sailing through the air and I think I have a bead on it; somehow it seems so catchable even though I've never caught a football in my life. I'm backing up, practically tripping over myself to get into position, and my teammates are screaming at me—I'm not sure what they're saying because I'm in the zone, right up until the ball glances off my nose and I fall at the feet of Kristin Yamamoto, who was right behind me, who was good in sports and would undoubtedly have caught the football had I not gotten in her way, which is probably what the other girls were screaming at me, to bug out. I probably remember that moment because it was the last time I thought I could be the hero; afterward I knew that I was just the easy out, the warm body taking up space on the field.

In the 8th grade I went out for cross-country running, largely because it would get me out of P.E. While the other girls played volleyball and softball I ran around and around the perimeter of the schoolyard. I wasn't any more talented at running than I was at other sports, but I had decent endurance. I could push through pain, and I always finished my races, even if I never placed better than average. Best of all, there was no one relying on me to catch or hit a ball to help the team. There was no one screaming at me.

As an adult I discovered cycling, first as a way to get in some kind of shape, then as a way of being in touch with my physicality in a positive way. I'm not a fast cyclist, and I'm not at all competitive. The one time I tried riding with a cycling club I drove to Pasadena to meet with a group called Different Spokes, a gay and lesbian cycling organization, for a ride listed on their website as "easy," a level they described as maintaining a "social, conversational pace." I arrived at the meeting place early and rode around the parking lot at the bottom of the arroyo until I saw bicycles start to arrive. I went to greet them and received a lukewarm response. The ride started on an incline out of the arroyo; the group took the hill with more verve than I was accustomed to, but I hung in, huffing. As the ride continued I felt panic setting in over the pace they were keeping, and seven miles into it I bugged out, feeling like a miserable failure as I retraced my tracks to the arroyo and my car.

Since then I've ridden alone, always alone, just as I had ridden before the cycling-group debacle. I'm happier that way, I think, with no one pressuring me to take the hill aggressively or keep up with their pace, with no one making me feel bad for not being able to do more than I can do. I've found that, just as in cross-country, my legs will take me far when I value distance over speed, when I take in the scenery instead of leaving it behind in a blur. My cycling style will never put me on a podium, and that’s fine by me.

Maybe Biscuit has the right idea, then. Run after the ball if you're so inclined, but don't forget to chase your tail when the mood strikes. Let all those type-A dogs on the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge soak up all the glory. Biscuit and I think it's a shame they'll never know the private joy of aimless distraction.


Blogger treecup said...

Not being an athlete in even the loosest definition of the term, and not usually being even a spectator at such events, still I must ask: Did you catch the "Puppy Bowl" on Animal Planet today? The half-time show was kittens. We tivo'd it if you didn't.

7:25 PM  
Blogger sporksforall said...

You underestimates yourrself. Remember when I bought you your mountain bike? The first day you go off and ride 15 miles. I thought you and I might be able to mountain bike together, but you'll be spinning along, I'll be totally out of breath and wanting to stop. Cycling, your good at.

10:24 PM  
Blogger bryduck said...

In re: your cycling group. "Pasadena". Do I need to say anything else?

2:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this post. Not only for the accurate rendering of doggie behavior, but also for the incredible insight offered in the last para.

Good girl! ;p

1:01 PM  

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