My wonderful nephew Drew sent me a challenge to play him in some scrabble-like game on the Internet. It was on one of those days when I was sitting at the computer, aimlessly pawing the keyboard, not doing much more than answering emails and lurking on Craigslist to see if I could come up with a hot real-estate deal for our sojourn in Manhattan (research, I call it).
A challenge! I was up for it. I had the time. A challenge for a word game! I’m verbal. I’m competitive. I was raring to go. I needed the ego-boost.
Then I made the mistake of looking at Drew’s first move in the game. He’d laid out QUANTUM on some kind of double word spaces and made a score of 70-something. I looked at my own hand: a sorry bunch of vowels that didn’t include a “u” so I could play off his “q.”
So I did what I had to do. I wrote Drew that unfortunately, I was far too busy to play a stupid game, since I was overwhelmed by working on my novel. Also, I had a very bad headache. Then I went back to skulking around Craigslist.
It’s embarrassing. I’d already played the game out in my mind, with Drew kicking my butt, then feeling sorry for me because I’m kind of old and am probably losing it. Then it would get around the family and everybody (especially my own kids) would be laughing behind my back. She thinks she’s so verbal! Did you know she lost a word game 549-23?
All of it reminded me of when my friend Betsy and I went to see Wordplay, that great documentary about the national crossword puzzle championship. These people were, believe me, crossword geniuses. They would finish a puzzle in the time it took me to pour a cup of coffee. The documentary also focused on other crossword aficionados like Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart, both of whom finished the daily puzzles in ink before returning to their day jobs of saving the world and bringing down the Bush administration. Tres demoralizing.
“It’s practice,” Betsy kept telling me, reassuringly. “If you practice doing the puzzles, then you’ll get to be a lot better at.”
After seeing the documentary, she took to practicing on The New York Times’ daily crosswords and informing me of her progress. “I can do the Monday puzzle now,” she’d say, referring to the easiest puzzle of the week. “And I’m getting better at the one on Tuesday.”
Aaaaaaccckkk. I couldn’t take it. I like being naturally good at things — especially things I should be good at, like word games and crossword puzzles. (Other games, like Rubik’s cube, I surrender to immediately. If you gave me one of those things, I would spend hundreds of years on it and the cube itself would probably have teethmarks and fingernail gashes all over it. My idea of hell, Monsieur Sartre, is to be left alone with a Rubik’s cube for eternity.) I can’t bear the thought of working at something so I can eventually be, say, mediocre at it.
When it comes down to it, what I admire in other people isn’t only their ability to do something well — it’s their ability to do something poorly and not mind it. I’m thinking now of Drew’s father and my brother-in-law. When he was staying at our house last year and my husband and I went around introducing him and his wife as Hurricane Ike refugees (along with their refugee dogs), I dragged him to a yoga class with me.
He was terrible at it — with stiff legs and unyielding hips. I watched him as he struggled cheerfully and didn’t seem to mind. Later, he even joked about it good-naturedly.
I’d love to be like that. I have the feeling it would be harder for me to learn than mastery of the Rubik’s cube — but it seems more worthwhile. Just think. I could fail in public and not even mind it. It would be a leap for me. Maybe even a quantum leap.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)