A man with one good eye has no business playing ping-pong

As a kid I great hand-to-eye coordination, probably honed by the long hours of throwing a rubber ball up against a wall — any kind of wall; short walls, high walls, whitewashed walls. Didn’t matter. My peripheral vision was terrific too. I remember intercepting a playground pass, my back pretty much to the quarterback, and the kid I was defending exclaiming: “How did you even see that ball coming!” I shrugged. Truth is I probably didn’t see it coming as much as knew it was coming and knew when it was coming — things being so in synch in those apple green days. I’d have twisted and reached and there would be the ball and there would be my hands and that would be that.

I was also deft at snatching dropped things out of the air. A piece of paper falling from a desk had only a 50/50 chance of ever hitting the floor. More than once I caught something someone else had dropped. Which startled the hell out of them. Me too.

I associate that now lost knack with the sport of chasing leaves. In late October the sugar maples along the farm driveway would shed their bright leaves by the dozens as gusting winds coursed down the valley. And I’d chase them.

The trick was to pick one out, the higher up the better, and head off in pursuit. They’d really be sailing and you’d think you’d never catch up, but as they lose elevation they also lose momentum and a kid in sneakers is almost certain to arrive in time.

One of the rules was that you couldn’t take your eye off the leaf because there’d be a bunch of them up there all sailing in the same direction and if you keyed into one and ended up catching a different one 50 or 100 yards downwind, what’s the point?

So you’d (and I say you as if someone else might be involved) — you’d run with your eyes ever skyward. Given that, it was important to know the terrain, to know where potatoes had been planted generations back — where the field still carried the undulations. And the one lone telephone pole in the middle of the field. Had to be sure of that one.

Eventually the leaf would lose all its momentum and flutter down, ducking and diving like a knuckleball. And there I’d be, loping alongside, stiff-necked and panting, poised to try a one-handed stab.

At 74 things are far different. I’m not running anywhere. And my eyes are shot, the depth perception has disappeared. My daughter asked for assurances that I’d be bringing my baseball glove with me to Rhode Island. “Well yeah,” I said, “but only just because.” My arm feels great, but I don’t think I can catch a thing. I’m real quick to tell Santina not to toss keys down the stairs to me — someone could get hurt.

But that’s not to say my sense of competition has disappeared. Santina and I have discovered the game room at our apartment complex. We’re well matched at disk shuffleboard where you can hardly slide those things down the hardwood softly enough. And pool. We laugh — and strut — when a ball that wasn’t even in the plan plops into a side pocket. I make up the rules as we go along; Santina follows them when it’s convenient.

Ping-pong is the only game I have any real history with here. I used to lose to my older brother with a grim predictability. I learned to carve and slice the ball with a certain flair, all in the hope of losing with style. And I developed a sneaky, secret weapon return that would be past you before you could blink; problem was it only hit the other side of the table twenty percent of the time.

But now I’ve got no return at all. I’m swinging and missing. Flailing. And I’m seeing the ball bounce twice on my side. I’m reaching for it, but now it’s off the end of the table and making ever-diminishing bounces across the floor. With each bounce I’m making one of my old leaf-stabbing lunges and coming up empty. I can’t play this game.

I’m at my very best with air hockey where I rely on two simple strategies: protect the goal, and whang the puck off the side boards. This is sheer frenetic energy, and I’ve still got it, though I have not forgotten how my daughter at the age of eight would devastate me at slapjack — same kind of energy. When a jack popped up she’d strike like a cobra. (Mental note to myself: Do not play air hockey with daughter.)



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