By Steven Gimbel
The chub around the middle was something new for me. I had been a division I scholarship athlete in college, always in top shape. But by the end of my career, I was convinced that the competitive drive that was an inextricable part of elite athletics was pathological. It was impeding my development as a full, deep, and caring human. So when I stopped playing, I decided to stop competing. I took to hiking, something that would keep me active and that could be done either solo or with others in a way that was mutually enriching. But the rigors of grad school left little time for walking in the mountains, and imperceptibly the weight began to make itself at home on my midriff.
And then he appeared: my boyhood best friend, the first person to ever pronounce my name backwards, who accompanied me on family vacations, who doubled over in laughter next to me on a street corner as we read a (now very long out of print) book called Scrambled Chickens to each other in fourth grade. He was not only at the same university for graduate studies, but the writing program in which he was enrolled was directly beneath the philosophy department that had become my home. We were back together.
He introduced me to racquetball. It seemed like a fantastic idea. I needed the exercise. It would assure us that we would spend a couple of hours a week together. The game looked fun. At first, it was lopsided. I had never held a racquet before, never having played any sport that used one. I knew nothing of the fundamentals of the game, the strategies, or the little tricks to be on guard against. He had been playing long enough that I was easy prey. And I was intentionally non-competitive. It was just goofing around with my oldest pal. It was play time… at least for a while.
One thing my friend and I have always shared, however, is a love of excellence, either our own or that of others. We loved great science, great writing, great athletic feats: you name it. As we continued to play together, then, we tried to make impossible shots or perfect shots and we admired them when they happened. And as a result, we got better. I got better. The games became competitive.
Maybe even too competitive. He was the racquetball player; losing to a newbie was embarrassing. I was the one for whom being a top-flight athlete was a part of my essence; losing to someone who was not was embarrassing. The friendly competition slowly began to take on an edge we both felt. On the one hand, it meant more strenuous exercise, which we both needed. But, it also felt like a bitterness slowly seeping into the twice weekly games.
Another thing we both loved — a great turn of phrase — proved to be our salvation. When we were young, we were forever in competition to be quickest with the wittiest pun. In the context of racquetball, scores began to take on their own names: 11 serving 11, for example, became The Three Musketeers Score, since it was “all four ones.” Similarly, 12 serving 11 became The Snickers Score because Snickers are better than Three Musketeers. The Convenience Score was 7–11; the Inconvenience Score was 11–7; and so went. Virtually every score acquired a name, and when one of us devised something wittier, we declared a winner and changed the name immediately.
Our playfulness with the scores led to a creative malleability with the rules and ultimately with the entire core of the game itself. “Okay, so now you have to bounce it twice and serve it off the side wall, but the return has to hit the floor and two walls, unless you can hit it between your legs, then it only has to make the front wall…” Suddenly, we were both novices because we had never played that game before. The freedom we gave ourselves, the lack of enforced strictures and authoritative rules, turned us back into children. We whooped unselfconsciously as we made amazing shots or failed spectacularly and giggled as we so rarely do anymore. The intensity and effort were every bit as whole-hearted as before, the t-shirts as drenched in sweat, but instead of bitterness, we felt the kind of delight you can only get from being with your childhood best friend. We were perfectly — cooperatively AND competitively — free.
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Steve Gimbel occupies the Edwin T. and Cynthia S. Johnson Chair for Distinguished Teaching in the Humanities at Gettysburg College, where he is chair of the department of philosophy. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he grew up. He’s the author of Einstein: His Space and Times, Einstein’s Jewish Science: Physics at the Intersection of Politics and Religion, and The Grateful Dead and Philosophy: Getting High Minded about Love and Haight. Gimbel’s research focuses on the connection between scientific evidence and explanation, interpretations of the geometrical aspects of gravitation theories, and the development of 20th century analytic philosophy. He has also been interested in questions of sportsmanship arising from the Kasparov/Deep Blue chess match, the geometry of M.C. Escher’s art, the environmental ethic of the American Nazi Party, and Dr. Seuss’ non-trivial use of tautologies. Most recently, he has been working in the philosophy of humor.
Winners and Losers (October 27 — November 22) opens today at Woolly! Tickets: www.woollymammoth.net/winners-and-losers