Monday, May 10, 2010


A few weeks ago I lost an online chess game to one of those guys who reminded me why so few people play chess. I told him that chess teaches a lot but did not teach him manners. He did not like that.

"Shut up and play me again," he typed. I tried as hard as I could to make him poop his pants but failed in the last second. I know conversing with this guy was pathetic, but I could not help myself. That poor bloke had not learned by his 20s or 30s what I learned when I was 4. I figure I earned some sort of moral credit to spend on myself since I lost 20 minutes of my life interacting with the guy.

I started to think about how I approach different types of competition. I coached junior varsity baseball for two years and took a laid back approach to the game. The head coach, Roddy, contrasted my style. He understood how to prepare boys to play like men every day. I marveled at the terrific lies he told the players.

"I hate Carrboro more than any other team," he said with his signature composed intensity. "We will not lose to Carrboro tomorrow." Carrboro is a town of granola eating, bike riding, modestly overachieving hippies. I might have liked Carrboro's team even more than our own if I got to know them, but I kept my mouth shut. Twenty-four hours after Roddy's pep talk, our team notched a 30-run win in three innings after we declared our own run rule. Nobody hated Carrboro anymore, and our kids forgot that their coach said he did. Kids are funny.

I would be a terrible head coach because I would tell the kids the truth that I wanted them to play hard all the time regardless of the opponent. Sometimes I did not even know who the opponent was until the middle of the first. Coaching with Roddy showed me that saying what was on my mind was not nearly as important as saying what was not on the team's mind. I never had anything on my mind anyway.

To me, individual competition is more personal than being part of a team. I cannot blame anyone but myself nor credit anyone but my opponent when I lose a chess or disc golf match. I am addicted to that challenge. The one exception to this rule is doubles table tennis, which became a problem for me at Miami University. I learned to never upset a teammate with a paddle in his hand. I will tell those stories some other time.

One of the algebra teachers in my department will leave this summer, so the rest of us will take his classes in the fall. When we heard the news at our daily department lunch, I turned to Jennifer, the other algebra teacher.

"Paper-rock-scissors for the algebra class," I said instinctively.

"How about we run a triathlon instead?" she asked with imposing confidence. Jennifer once qualified for the Hawaii Ironman.

"Nah," I said.

"Why don't you two have a peanut butter and jelly eating contest?" another colleague suggested. The department convinced me that Jennifer would beat me at anything except a sandwich eating contest or paper-rock-scissors, in which I figured to be a 40-60 dog. My instincts were almost right.

"How about a pull-up contest?" Jennifer asked. The three passed minutes had not changed my mind about a legitimate physical challenge with a world-class athlete.

"I'll bet you can't do 10," my friend Seth said. Now that I could not let slide. I started to prep for an after school date with the high school weight room by pounding two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Protein, sugar and a bit of water, I thought, was all I needed to beat an iron bar that was not a triathlete.

I was wrong. Once I got to three, I knew that 10 was impossible. My penalties were a sore abdomen and Thursday departmental tutoring for the rest of the semester. I will live.

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