The ball comes spinning from the other side, it hits the top line of the net, hops up for a bit and comes down to nick the edge of the table maybe some four inches away from the net. The moment I sense the ball hitting the net, I leap into action. The ball is changing its direction from the path that I had predicted, I have to get there fast. In this leaping and running action, I work on new prediction models. Where will the ball be when I get close to it? Everything happens so fast. The ball nicks the edge of the table, my secondary prediction models are wasted, too. Now I act on pure instinct. I extend my hand far as forward as I can, and the connect with the ball. The ball jumps back over the net on to my opponent’s side of the table. He lines up for the smash, and misses the table entirely.
“Noooooo,” he exclaims, “You weren’t supposed to get that!”
“Wasn’t supposed to?” I ask, “I try and hit every shot.”
“Yeah, you weren’t supposed to. That’s an impossible shot,” he says in his French accent, “Who takes table tennis so seriously?”
This shot is “impossible” for a few reasons. When the ball hits the net, it changes its trajectory. It becomes very difficult to predict where it will land next. Difficult, but not impossible. The other thing that happens when the ball hits the net is that it gains speed. So not only do I have to worry about placement and direction, but also velocity. I have to adjust how I will play the shot in more ways than one. But when you couple this with the ball nicking the edge of the table, playing the shot becomes impossible, as it were. I love it when my models are shattered and I have to build new ones. It isn’t easy, but it is very rewarding. Even when I miss.
“I do,” I retort.
And I do. I am a desirous man. I don’t just want to hit every shot. I want to win every point. We play games up to 21 points. I want all 21 points. But beyond the 21 for any particular game, I repeat: I want to win every single point. I think I can. In a very “the physical laws of the universe permit such a possibility” way. But the odds are so very low that I never will. But my desires are not swayed by facts of probability. I play as if I can.
I love this game. The rhythm and the beat, the continuous nature of motion; I love this dance. My opponent isn’t my opponent. He is my partner. Together we create this beautiful dance. It is both physical and intellectual, both exhausting and uplifting, both nurturing and destructive. I absolutely love it.
My desires do not stand still. They conflict. They are paradoxical. I said earlier that I want to win every single point, and I do. But with the same intensity, I want my opponent, my partner, to never miss. I want the beat to continue forever. I want a never-ending challenge. I am not satisfied with a few steps on the staircase, I want to scale mountains. I want to be at my limits. I want to be at the end of my wits. I want to win, of course, but in this continuous rhythm there is no winning or losing, there is only motion; there is only the dance. The dance is all that matters. It is the dance that I truly love. Winning and losing aren’t even concepts in my mind anymore.
Opponents as we are, we have to respect our partners. I don’t mock my partners when they make mistakes. A botched serve bounces back in his face instead of on the other side of the table. I do not laugh. That could easily be me. In fact, that is me on the other side. If I win a point by luck, I apologize. We do not celebrate luck. Luck happens so far beyond our control, we do not take credit for it. If my opponent celebrates on a lucky point, I’ll be damn as hell sure to smash the next point. We all learn our lessons somehow. I have learned plenty of my own, and plenty more to come, I’m sure.
But the self is not so spared. “Fuck,” I’ll yell at the top of my lungs. Angry at myself for missing a shot I ought to have clearly made. For not having the discipline I should. Ultimately, it is not the other that I play against. I play against the self. The self is all I can control. Ultimately, the self is all I have.
The conflicts of desire, like the desires themselves, are endless. I want to win every point, but I also want to be down in the game. I want to be down 16 to 6, and work my way up. I want a steep climb. The score is just a number. Nothing else. I take a deep breath, and look my partner in the eye. I want to let him know that I am here. I am losing, for certain, but for certain I am very present. “Bring it!” I yell at the edge (but not the top) of my lungs, trying to disrupt my partner’s rhythm. The game is played in the mind as much as it is with the dance. A few points later, the score is 16 to 10. What seemed a sure loss with a ten point gap is now within reach. The score is just a number. Nothing else. I am so focused that I am slicing up every moment. You couldn’t find my focus with a laser if you tried, my focus was more precise. The score is now 16 to 13. The game is on.
I sense a heightened nervousness in my partner. My heart, too, beats rapidly. Drops of sweat fall to the floor. The score is now 18 to 16. I am down just two points. The score is just a number. And now the game is tied at 19. From nearly nothing I am level again. The score is now 21 to 19. The game is over. I am down two points. I fought my way back to level the game, but I couldn’t tilt it my way. I am tired and defeated. I hate losing. I hate it so much. But I also accept it like it was my own skin. The moment is gone and there is nothing else. The score may just be a number, but I can no longer change it.
“Would you like to dance again?” my partner asks. I do not know how to say no to this question. The score is zero-zero. We begin again. I try and dance to a new beat. But every loss lingers. And all the wins, too. Every point, and all points of my past, they linger. I find the new beat. One step back, and one step forward.