A Different World to Inhabit
When I was in middle and high school, I played a lot of basketball. Walking over to the rec center after school, taking hundreds of shots, challenging people much older than me to pickup games, winning, losing. I played on school teams. When music got to be all-consuming (as it does for instrumentalists), I played games with kids on school teams. I developed into a half decent player and got in really good shape.
I'm twenty six now (nearly twenty seven), and I've spent the last full three months working. I can count the number of physical workouts I've done on my fingers. I've limped through the Advent and Christmas seasons at church and stayed out doing doctoral applications in the evenings. I've struggled through tough families in hospice care. I am in a shape appropriate to sitting and thinking, not playing defense.
My brother is a senior in high school, and he plays a lot of basketball. And he invited me to play with him this afternoon at an open gym. And I went because, like all of us, the void of sedentary potentiality that looms behind me at all times often spurs me to run off the existential dread. I also like playing basketball with my brother.
Something that must be stated clearly about Christian (the aforementioned brother) is that he is lightyears more physically gifted than me. This is due in part to work ethic but also to just plain genetic fortune. He got the best of both sides. He's all platinum blonde hair and rippling muscles and low BMI. I'm… present. So together we went down to the North Collier Regional Recreation Center, we stretched and played a half an hour or so of one-on-one.
And I was keeping up. Which was a big deal for me. I was reading him well on defense and scoring at a respectable clip and not getting buried in jumpshots. My shooting stroke was somewhat inconsistent, which is to be expected when one hasn't played in a while, but I was operating well in the post and getting to my spots. (It was often said of Lebron James that he would transition from small forward to power forward when he reached his thirties because his soft hands and intelligent offensive management would make him an unusual threat at that position. When Lebron reached his thirties, basketball went through an avant-garde deconstruction of the very idea of positions, instead. To make up for that loss, I've steadily morphed into a 5'8" power forward as I've slowed down).
What one starts to realize when they're keeping up, however, is that they aren't. By twenty five minutes of game time, I was completely exhausted, doubling over, gasping for air. Christian was barely warm. By that time, our court was being taken away from us for volleyball lessons. I quietly thanked God for bailing me out and letting me head home with only mild cramps and some of my dignity intact. Unfortunately, the other court was still open, and we were being invited into a game of three-on-three by our neighbors.
My younger self would have jumped at the chance. My older self groaned. I wanted to be able to sit and stand the next day. But Christian wanted to play, so I begrudgingly agreed.
It was only then that I noticed the ages of the other players. One (thankfully) was a college sophomore, but the other three could not have been older than sixteen and were likely closer to fourteen. Christian, as a seventeen year old, is perfectly suited to play any sport with whoever's available. He's young enough to play with early high schoolers but old enough to keep up with college kids. Things, I'm finding, aren't quite the same for someone in their twenties. The world I inhabit is wildly different from theirs, and I quickly realized that I was around twice as old as our youngest competitors. That couldn't be possible, could it? I was the youngest person in both my workplaces. To be the out-of-shape adult playing basketball with a bunch of teenagers, that's not where my life was at, was it? My hyperventilation intensified.
Not wanting to make weird eye contact in my moment of panic, I looked up. Above me, I saw a face—bald, necktied, beaming a trustworthy smile. It was my insurance agent, his office sponsored the leagues at the gym. Oh God, I have an insurance agent. I felt death creep a little closer behind me. The minute hand on the wall clock was racing at a breakneck pace. I looked down at my hands. They were wrinkled and mottled. As the room swayed, I told Christian I needed to use the bathroom. I needed to walk this off, and also blow my nose because I'm prone to sinus infections when I overwork and oh God oh God I'm so old, aren't I?
I weaved my way to the locker room. As I entered, I bumped into an impossibly beefy man. He was a little taller than me, with a brown goatee and great, bulging arms that looked inconvenient to haul around. He was clearly older than me, or perhaps his weightlifting routine had taken some decades off his life. He was wearing a backwards baseball cap, a shirt with ripped off sleeves, and a Jansport backpack.
While I took care of my business, I eavesdropped on this distinctly eye-catching person. He was very loud, perhaps only depriving those in the furthest running showers of his conversation. He was distributing pills to his friends out of a plastic baggie, saying they would "open up their muscles." I stayed silent, feeling unsettled by the exchange but not courageous enough to ask what was in the unlabeled snake oil tablets. The whole affair felt eerily familiar, ringing with the distant echoes of locker room drug dealing and desperately masculine bravado that I hadn't seen since I was in high school.
I turned to the mirror. My youth had been restored. Or perhaps it had never left, as the bizarre transactions and simple indignities of immaturity seem to rear their heads just when we think they have faded into the distance. Sometimes, they reemerge to mire us in workplace gossip and petty entitlement. Sometimes, it's to excuse us as we prepare to beat a bunch of fourteen year olds in three-on-three.