Here’s another piece — not that anybody asked for it, as Kurt Vonnegut once muttered in opening a collection of essays called Fates Worse Than Death — that now sees the light after nearly a decade in the electronic cellar. When I wrote it, I was in Ottawa, not yet in my 50s. Five years in China are in the rear-view now; we’re back in the same house, and visiting the same local complex for its library, pool and workout facilities. For reasons mainly organizational, this one never got posted, but despite the years that have passed, it’s nearly as true now as it was when it was fresh. And hey, how are you doing?
“Well, this sure isn’t Monday Night Football,” I thought. It’s been a long while since I was twitching and “ready for some football!” that late on a weeknight, anyway. But on this particular Monday, I was in the St. Laurent recreation centre getting ready to put the ol’ bod through its paces.
Now, I have spent more pigskin hours in front of the Sacred Tube than I care to remember, but Monday nights weren’t always about a football broadcast. They never are, now. Even as a kid, there were hockey practices, and from about age 15 on, the squeak of sneakers and the pounding of basketballs were the soundtrack to any given Monday (Tuesday, Wednesday…). Even in my increasingly clumsy thirties, as the rim somehow felt higher with each jump-shot, I could still be found running around on my wife on a winter evening. Nope, not a romantic betrayal, but another doomed attempt to outrun a bunch of teens and 20-somethings. The dream was dead, but I could still fool myself for minutes at a time.
It seemed, back then, that my competitive fever had finally broken. A successful night had come to mean a few jumpshots, a good sweat, a few laughs and no icepacks. (Well. I tried to define success this way, but I was chronically annoyed with my uncooperative hands and reluctant legs.) But there I was last Monday at St. Laurent, taking advantage of the facilities in my new city. I pulled off my boots outside the gym, assessing the lean young men, mainly black, who leaped and spun for “winners” and the right to stay on the basketball court. A dozen or more waited for their turn to challenge. I wondered if I would be able to hang in there with them, weighing my muscle memory and years of coaching against their hard bellies, quickness, and trash-talking intensity. Heck, would anybody even pass the ball to a chunky forty-something white guy? If he did, would the ball do what I told it to? And how many days would it take before I could start walking normally again?
And then my wife smiled knowingly and took my hand. “Okay, superstar, it’s time to go.” She walked me into the next room, full of sheepish men and expectant women, mainly white and middle-aged. There was a mirrored wall, a stereo unit, and a young woman warmly smiling. An Introduction to Ballroom Dancing.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here not to praise the athletic life of a man but to bury it, to lob it (with that necessary bit of backspin) into the Official Wastebasket of Jockdom Unlamented. I must admit, though, face a bit red not from fatigue or frustration but from slightly embarrassed delight, that in spite of being somewhat willingly dragged to ballroom dancing class, I kind of liked it. It was no sweat. Shyness aside, a jock can actually pick this stuff up pretty quickly. There were learning curves, but no turned ankles. My bride couldn’t stop smiling, and neither could I. There were small victories of the musical and marital kinds, and brownie-points by the bucket. I win!