Thursday, November 30, 2006

Doing Stuff: Day 2, The Pottsgrove Table Tennis Club

For years, my name sent terror and shockwaves throughout campgrounds, basements and rec rooms throughout the east coast. The mere whisper of my name caused folks to shudder for I was the most dominating ping pong player of my childhood.

Okay, so I'm prone to a bit of hyperbole. But in a lifetime spent playing and sucking at any athletic event, I found one sport that I was actually good at. Table tennis.

The first time I played ping pong was on a Boy Scout camping trip in elementary school. I didn't have much respect around my fellow Boy Scouts: I was a bony, scrawny nerd from another neighborhood who was in Boy Scouts largely because I thought it was expected of me; they were largely the sons of bike gang lieutenants who were in Boy Scouts because of juvenial probation cases. The ScoutMasters were largely a bunch of drunks who'd rather stay in musty cabins with pre-teens than with their own families. (I'm guessing they don't let gays in Boy Scouts as a whole transference thing.) The only merit badge I would have earned in scouting was in "DIGNITY STRIPPING" from the constant humilations I endured.

But on one camping trip, there was a ping pong table in the rec center. I waited patiently and finally got a chance to play. And play I did, beating person after person after person. (I'd like to say that I won my peers respect that night via ping pong and I soon fit in with the rest of my troop. Instead, they threw my socks into a campfire.)

I apparently had a gift born with me to dominate others on the ping pong table. I became obsessed with ping pong. My family had a RV that we used for weekend camping trips, I begged them to only go to campgrounds with active ping pong rooms. My dad bought a ping pong table for me and put in our basement. I spent hours playing my dad, brother, friends. I took on all comers and rarely lost. I even subscribed to the National Table Tennis Gazette Newsletter to find out about the table tennis scene: how the US Olympic Team trained, their strategies, how they played the game. I mastered how to use spin, how to counter spin and when to play defense and when to attack.

My ultimate ping pong moment came on a family vacation at Lake George in the Adirondacks. There was another teen playing on the table and he knew what he was doing. We soon played each other and it was a great experience. I finally met someone who also was a ping pong dork. I always wanted to be able to return balls from about 15 feet from behind the table, like I had watched the pros do on the rare times table tennis was broadcast on the Olympics or on ESPN. I had my chance to do this against this kid, since there were no steps behind me like in my parents basement. Our battles felt like epics to me, our games going into overtimes, back-and-forth affairs rivalling Connors vs. McEnroe and Sampras vs. Agassi.

(I'd like to say I met a friend via ping-pong. I didn't, the kid was a douchebag who had a temper tantrum after one heated battle and broke the leg of the table after kicking it.)

My dream of ping pong glory and a slot on the U.S. Olympic team, however, was fleeting. The bigtime table tennis players play at the New Jersey Table Tennis Club in Westfield, which was about 40 minutes from my folks house. Their membership fees were steep and my dad had to do things like work and go to grad school as opposed to shlepping his asshole son around the state so he can play weirdoes in a rec room game. I also, eventually, got a life.

After college, I decided to start playing serious table tennis. I finally joined the NJTTC. My first meeting was an odd affair -- Ben, the guy who ran the place wore a flashy tracksuit and a sneer, telling me that it would be a while before I'd get good enough to really play at the club. The regular members looked like they lived at the joint and hated Ben's guts, at one point plotting an overthrow of his rule. (One of the members was a Rutgers grad student in Poli Sci, an Asian kid with a futuristic mullet. "His type of leadership has come up several times in my coursework. He's such a top-down ruler.")

The most bizarre person who played was Joyce, an overweight middle-aged woman who would play in Spandex and frequently curse and throw her paddle around. Everyone who played was intense, but you'd think by her reactions that her victory in ping pong would have given the world a cure for Muscular Dystrophy or something.

While clicking around the Internet, I also discovered Joyce fancied herself a poet, as made evident by her work about U.S. Olympic Team Member Lily Yip.


Train when you train, take a lesson or two.
It will help the sport be better for you.
Put your training INSIDE, when your keeping score.
Have fun, enjoy the game, and do nothing more.
You can be sure, it won't feel the same,
when you try to train during a game.
A single thing, you will NOT learn,
not strokes, or spins, or how to turn.
When all you think about is doing what's right,
and that you better get busy and put on a good fight.
When you go over all the errors that you make,
while checking every step you take.
Then you will notice all that's wrong
that's not really playing Ping Pong.
Neither Lily or me, learn what we need to know
But then when we play, We Must Let It Flow.

After about two weeks, I quit the New Jersey Table Tennis Club.

While starting this adventure, I started looking for a table tennis club. I found one about 30 minutes away in Pottstown, in the shadow of the Limerick Nuclear Power Plant.

I was hoping these people would be as intense and as crazy as the folks at the New Jersey Table Tennis Club. They weren't: they were all really nice guys who just liked to play ping pong. I played two games against Shelly, a guy in his 50's who has been playing ping-pong seriously for about 20 years who has a ranking which qualifies him as an "intermediate level" player according to the United States Table Tennis Association, and one against Charlie, another long-time player.

I lost every game I played (Table Tennis games are best-of-5 sets up to scores of 11) and saw a lot of room for improvement. I reacted to what my opponents were doing (and made poor decisions while doing so) as opposed to doing anything to put them on the defensive. But each game, I felt like I improved and more than held my own considering I haven't played ping pong in several years and played against guys who've entered national tournaments.

After this experience is over, I plan on going back. Who knows? Maybe with some practice and experience, my dream of being an Olympic table tennis player could get a little closer.

(EDIT: Photos of this and the Germantown Social Dancers will be up as soon as we find the cord to hook up to the digital.)


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