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I had the best day on Sunday…

On Sundays, I love to play beach volleyball. I look forward to it every time, and I’m dismayed on the days I can’t make it. This time, however, I was a bit apprehensive. While the group I play with is very laid-back and full of friendly, funny, and welcoming guys, I noticed part of it had been self-segregating into “better” teams. Instead of the entire group getting together every few games to re-organize randomly into new teams, these “better” teams tended to remain together for the entire day.

I’m not a great player. I am merely okay. My worst trait is that I am inconsistent. So the week before, when I was playing on a court with a couple of the other “better” players, a few faux-innocent, gay-catty “it’s all in good fun” comments were thrown my way, and some unvoiced and no-doubt half-imagined frustrations simmered. I became too self-critical.

I think it’s morbidly amusing that, at 36, I still begin to doubt myself if any self-appointed upper-tierer reminds me that I’m not as good as I think I am or want to be.

The last time I played volleyball with a group who was too good for me was two summers ago, and it was a depressing experience. It started off well, the first couple weeks being full of, “Ha ha, it’s okay!” and, “If you’re cute, we don’t care how well you play!” But the charms of being new wore off, and people began giving me helpful but frustrated pointers so often that I couldn’t just relax and enjoy the game. I then, of course, played even worse. My last day with that Saturday group, I had played several games with a team that made every effort to keep me from making contact with the ball. It was nearly amusing in its obviousness!

That experience, plus the previous Sunday’s malaise, had me doubting myself.

The day before Sunday, I passed some kind of volleyball tournament near Venice Beach. I stopped the first major Rollerblading excursion of mine in many moons so I could watch the two-man teams compete. Of course, they made it look so easy. Part of me knew it was. Of course there was skill, but this was not something I could watch and say, “Oh, I could never do that!” I could do this. I just needed to play more and not be so demanding of myself.

Standing on the pedestrian side of the cement activityway, I watched how the tourney dudes played, comparing their techniques to the advice I’d been given by the Saturday group two summers ago. I should not have been surprised that while some of the advice I’d been given back then was excellent, some of it was utter bunk. Look at that! I did not have to hold my hands just precisely so… I could hold them however I pleased, as long as my elbows were locked and I steered the ball with my body as well as my arms. As long as I allowed myself to control the ball without panic.

I rolled away from the tournament after giving myself a barrage of tiny little pep talks.

Not long afterward, I passed by the old, too-good-for-me Saturday group at Will Rogers. It was packed! Three full games were up and running, with many spectators and hangers-on lounging in the sun courtside. I saw Van and a couple other Sunday blokes out on the third court, and I wanted to play. I had time to do so, but I did not have the guts yet. Instead, I just sat for 15 minutes on some deteriorating concrete steps and watched, then finished ‘blading back to my car.

So of course, this Sunday, I was uneasy. I had a tenuous self-confidence from Saturday’s observations, but I still felt hesitant walking across the sand toward the nets where the gang was already playing. I paid too much attention to the dingy green backpack I was carrying, heavy with the half-empty one-gallon water bottle inside, and to the flip-flops in my hand, the ones I’d bought in Hawaii after not wearing that kind of footwear for probably decades.

I headed right past the “better” court and a few guys playing ukuleles to join some of the fun folks at a net nearer the ocean. At that net, we were too far away to hear the songs the ukulele guys were plucking out in unison. But it didn’t matter. It was a gorgeous day and it was time to play!

My first game, right off the bat, brought near disaster. The volleyball sped between my outstretched hands, catching my right thumb. The entire court heard the crack. I stared at my thumb in confusion. Should it be hurting more? Was it dislocated? Was it broken? Would I have to bow out already and walk back across that sand? Would Van help me if I needed it?

That exhilarating event set the tone for the day. I had an injury! I had an injury, and the humorous banter was just ramping up on the court. I was a-okay here. I could relax. And I was gonna work at improving my game instead of being worried I couldn’t.

I determined that if it wasn’t dangling or bleeding or protruding bone, my thumb was fine. It was astoundingly sore, but X-rays and such have since determined it was merely sprained. Thank goodness.

Because I was now worried about re-injuring my thumb, I did not play particularly well. I did not play poorly, either. I got very tired as the hours went by, and I had a moment or two of emotional distraction as Van, who has avoided me with the precision of a drum majorette, actually strolled way over from the “better” courts to our humble net to play with us. He didn’t talk to me aside from a “Hi,” and he was uninterested in even making eye contact, but he didn’t avoid being around me, either, which was new.

At the end of a few hours and a good but losing string of games, I began to ponder leaving. A number of guys, including Van, had left by then, but the newly-unwrapped 2005 version of Daylight Savings Time meant there were still some hours left to go in the day, and the mixed-media weather at the beach was perfect. I did not want to leave. My thumb wanted to, but I didn’t. It could have hopped on The Big Blue Bus and let itself into the apartment for a soak and a rest, and I would have stayed to keep playing. I wanted to stay.

Right then, a great thing happened. The remaining guys from the “better” court came over to those of us left on the “other” court to see who was left and willing to play. And that was when the real games began.

I don’t know if it was because I was tired enough to be more relaxed, or because I was having so much fun already with some of the guys on the courts, but my level of play jumped. I became less afraid to take chances, painful thumb or no. I felt more in control of the ball, and more like I was contributing to the team. These four or five games were hyper and alive. Some of the play was astonishing in its quality. Everyone was happy and talkative.

As each game ended and my body made more strident demands regarding my leaving, another game would start up, and I’d hop back in, excited and eager. Two Asian guys I recognized from the Saturday group were playing here for the first time, and they even commented on how much more relaxed the Sunday group was. The two guys are great players, but this time, I was not intimidated. I played damn well, and didn’t doubt myself or shrink back from the game.

We finally called it quits as dark, wintry clouds rolled over the mountains in the north and the air got gradually colder. The lines were wrapped on their plastic spools, the Hawaiians got their ukuleles together while wrapped in blankets to keep warm, and the lot of us headed for the tunnel.

It must have been just after 7:00 when I parted from the others and headed toward my car. As I walked, my back was killing me and my not-broken thumb was swollen and throbbing. My backpack was heavier though the gallon bottle was now three-quarters empty. I had sand all over myself. My fingers were caked with grime. My dirty feet were back in the flip-flops and would have been shuffling were it not for my dislike of that lazy sound. My sleeveless arms were cold from the rapidly-cooling sea air. My throat was dry and getting sore.

I felt great!

I won’t be back to volleyball for three weeks. Sure, it’s because I’m going to Paris, so I won’t complain. If I could play this Sunday I don’t know what I’d be expecting. I don’t think I could expect another unexpectedly meaningful day of beach volleyball. But I can long for it and appreciate that Sunday happened as it did. I had the best day!


John Expounded Thusly:

Do you play volleyball in hell?

Thursday, April 7th, 2005 • 1:02pm • Permalink

Eye Witness Ken Expounded Thusly:

… and what a stellar day of playing for you, indeed, Steve. You were spot on; great form, great ball control, great great great. (Is this grating yet?) Self doubt is your only enemy. (Im relieved your thumb is not broken — and so sad to have been the one to send that nasty serve your way.)

Friday, April 8th, 2005 • 12:09pm • Permalink

:-) Expounded Thusly:

It has been a highlight of my day to learn that Steve has great ball control.

Friday, April 8th, 2005 • 1:26pm • Permalink

Steve Expounded Thusly:

My ball control, it seems, is indeed better than I thought. I’d hate to doubt it, with such excellent revieews coming from others.

Monday, April 11th, 2005 • 10:10am • Permalink

Steve Expounded Thusly:

But seriously, thanks for the nice words, Ken! You had better come down often once you move.

Monday, April 11th, 2005 • 10:19am • Permalink

? Expounded Thusly:

To practice ball control?

Tuesday, April 12th, 2005 • 8:55am • Permalink


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