If we always laugh at ourselves, we will certainly never be out of material.
“The Art of Seeing” by Michael Milton
Watching as my cousins’ kids negotiate their late teenage years – filled with humorless angst, lacking perspective and, at times, demonstrating downright hostility – makes me tremble on the edge of voicing a negative judgment or two. Then, I remembered something from my own post-puberty past that snatched those judgments away.
And I realized that I needed to come clean about my own dark teenage memory.
I don’t like balls.
It’s true. I’ve never had a good relationship with balls of most any kind.
Hmmmmm. Perhaps I ought to begin at the beginning, which Maria van Trapp always insists “…is the very best place to start.”
The list of things for which I have little or no aptitude is almost endless: math, chemistry, other languages, knitting. But the crowning jewel in my tiara of failure is athletics. And I am willing to bet that no one in the history of high school athletic programs has ever gone to the extent I did to avoid embarrassment in physical education.
See, my particular lack of expertise as pertaining to athletics revolved around balls; catching them, throwing them, smacking them with irons or woods, making them go through hoops, kicking them through goal lines, getting them to connect with rackets.
And it’s not as if my Dad didn’t try to teach me. He did. He got me involved with Little League. Big mistake. The left field, to which I was assigned, is traditionally reserved for the less talented players. The teams we played took little time in figuring out that the kid practicing his pas de barres half a mile out in the field guaranteed them a triple play. By the time I took off my headsets or stopped belting out I Could Have Danced All Night and sashayed over to where the ball had landed and attempted to get it delivered – usually by me just running, ball in hand, to the closest base – well, let’s just say these were not my glory days.
But by high school, I had begun to come out of my shell; after years of overweight gawkiness and a penchant for showing off my advanced vocabulary for anyone and everyone who would listen, I grew quieter, taller and thinner. I started caring about what I wore, I was polite, I constantly chewed breath mints, I danced. Voila! I was popular.
And the year that this magical fact dawned on me was also the year we had to do a physical fitness test – government-mandated – an inquest exploring not only our abilities as swimmers, runners, tennis players but also to discover how many sit-ups, push-ups and pull-ups we were capable of. And the grand finale of the testing was finding out how far we were able to throw a football and a baseball.
My hard-won popularity, I knew in an instant, would go down the drain when dozens of my classmates bore witness to me trying to elevate a football into the atmosphere or when they caught a glimpse of my waayyy too wrist-y baseball toss.
How to avoid this test became my sole goal.
Oscar Wilde once said, “It is a curious fact that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves seriously.” Ok, most teenagers DO take themselves too seriously. And I was definitely no exception.
The ball test was in January, right after the Christmas break. The plan I conceived was, to me, flawless. I would ride my Raleigh three-speed up into the mountains, I would pluck a leaf off of a poison oak plant, rub it on the back of my hands, a mild rash would appear -hence making me ineligible to handle balls of any kind and, ‘tah dah!’ I would have removed myself from the ball part of the testing.
I got up to the mountainside gardens and lo and behold, I could not find any poison oak. I was frantic. It was there last summer!!! I spied a gardener, composed myself and asked with as controlled a voice as I could muster, “Could you point out the poison oak to me, please?” He pointed to many places. I saw nothing. “They lose their leaves in the winter, sonny. They’re just the branches now.”
Just the branches? No leaves? Dejected beyond all words, I still decided to break open one of the winter twigs. The sap was thick and milky on my fingers and I figured, what the heck? After all, I came all this way, and maybe I could still coax a few red bumps on my hands. Then, for good measure, I also rubbed a bit of the secretion on my face. With that, I rode home and began counting the hours until I would most certainly humiliate myself in gym class.
As it works out, the sap of the poison oak plant is far more dangerous than the leaves. Who knew? Next morning I awoke to a face swollen beyond recognition and an itching misery which extended from my feet to the top of my head. I was feverish. I was nauseous.
I was elated! It had worked! Sadly, my poor mom became collateral damage in my ruse. In taking care of me, she too contracted the rash. She and I together looked like leprosy victims sent to rot on Hawaii’s Molokai Island.
It was raining the day school started up again in January. It was still raining three weeks later, the same three weeks it took me to recover from my self- inflicted rash. And on the day I went back to school, the sun finally burst forth and, yes, the coaches made us do all the ball throws that very day.
Is there a moral?
Try not to take yourself so seriously. If I could have seen the humor in my complete inability to put balls into the air, everyone else would have laughed, too; would have laughed with me, not at me.
I learned an important lesson that day, a lesson that would probably still be met with deaf ears by an average American teenager. If we always laugh at ourselves, we will certainly never be out of material. And chances are, we will also be the funniest and best-liked person in the room.
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