The Lonely Sports

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People love to talk about the “community” aspect of sports.  They talk about the sense of belonging that comes from being part of a team, about the human instinct to work together and how sports facilitate that. They talk about teamwork and fulfillment and friendship and trust. But those are the sociable sports – the team sports.

There are lonely sports, too. Sure, you make friends with your cross-country teammates or your buddies on the tennis team, but in the end, you’re all out there for yourselves. You are, of course, technically on the same team, and you all participate in the bonding activities and genuinely care about each other. I’m not here to tell you that playing high school tennis will make you lonely and depressed, that your cross-country team can’t be a great support system and family. But I am pointing out something obvious, but often unmentioned: when you walk out to the court or the start line or the mat, you’re walking out by yourself and for yourself. You’re there to win, you alone, and that means beating your ‘teammates’, too.

It’s not always catty or malicious. You don’t pretend to be friends while secretly hating or resenting each other as a result of the competition. Generally you are friends, you do wish each other well. But you don’t, ultimately, want your teammates to win, not over you. And you know that, ultimately, they don’t want you to win either. Not over themselves.

The team parties aren’t lonely. The bus rides aren’t lonely. But walking out to do the very thing that brought you together at all, to play the match or run the race…that’s as alone as it gets. You cheer each other on if you’re not in the same race, or on opposite sides of the net, but the competition is yours and yours alone. They’re not there to help you win, they can’t give you anything more than ‘good lucks’ and ‘go get ’ems’.

It’s not all bad. In these individual sports, these lonely sports, you don’t resent each other for bringing you down or putting pressure on you. The weakest link on the team hurts only themselves (excluding overall scores and rankings, which matter of course, but aren’t felt in the heart the way the competition itself is). And it makes your cheering squad bigger, when your teammates can only watch and support, excluded from the points or the steps or the pins themselves.

And with these lonely sports, your accomplishments are all your own. Perhaps that’s a selfish positive, a mark on the pro side only for the egotistical and self-absorbed. But I think everyone wants their wins to be as theirs as possible. It feels good to share, to be part of a winning team and feel the love and appreciation for and from that small community of players. But it also feels good to look at your trophy or ribbon or ranking and know that was all you. That title or number reflects your standing, your talent, your pain and sweat and hard work.

It’s a trade-off. There’s something decidedly more wholesome and Hallmark about the team sports, the power of community and teamwork and sharing the glory. The lonely sports lack that human component, that life-lesson-y aspect of the activity. But the lonely sports make you independent. Strong. Confident. And that’s good, too.

I’m not advocating for any particular sport or subcategory of sport, though I only ever did really play the individual ones. All sports have their merits, and I won’t claim any one is better, in any general sense of the word, than any other. There are pros and cons to weigh across any two, of any kind. But it struck me recently how different the school sport experience is for those who play team sports and those who play individual sports, how ‘sports’ encompasses such a vast range of different things, that all draw different kinds of people, and all shape those people in drastically different ways.

I’m Back in the US and All I Do is Sleep

So I suppose my initial goal/intention of posting twice a week or so was a bit ambitious. It’s not that I’ve been too lazy, I’ve just had a block about the blog itself – I’ve written thousands of words in other projects in the last couple of weeks. But at the same time, I was traveling for days and then recovering from a 9-hour jet lag, so I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. In fact, I’ve been sleeping about 85% of the time since last Friday. So maybe missing a week of blog posts isn’t so bad.

And I’m back in the states! It’s a strange feeling, in so many ways. But I think the most striking thing, really, is how similar things are, here and in Spain. Yes, everything is done in two different languages, one of which I still can’t say I speak well, but so much is the same: we all have coffee shops and libraries and make the same faces when there are 19 people in line at the grocery store and only 1 clerk. We all have parks to run in and like to drink beer with some friends on a free evening. In a way, the most shocking aspect of coming back to the US is how little culture shock there is.

Granted, I was only in Spain for 3 months. I’m sure if I spent years there, things would be different. But even so, 3 months is long enough to settle into a routine, to get a comfortable sense of the way things are done, the way people live. And it’s so much like here. Sure, they eat a lot for lunch and very little for dinner, which is backwards here. And they take naps in the afternoon and stay up most of the night, which isn’t normal past your early 20s here, at least. But in a way, my day-to-day in Spain felt almost no different from my day-to-day here (except that I currently have nothing to do, which is terrible).

I may be dealing with the sadness of leaving Spain, which I loved so much, by pretending it’s the same here. There are definitely differences, and I gotta say, I prefer the Spanish way for the most part – except that everything is closed from 3-5. That blows. But whatever my motivations, I’m not totally wrong – language barrier aside, life here really isn’t that different from life there. So I’ll readjust, catch up on my sleep, and start the next chapter of my life.

And hopefully actually write some decent blog posts.

Writing: Pride and Insecurity

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In place of a normal post today, I’m going to share something of a short story, for lack of a better name, that I wrote for myself a while back. I had been writing about some of my weaknesses and flaws, trying to introspect and see what aspects of myself and my life I could improve the most, and found myself writing something of a fable instead. So without further ado, an untitled work on the symbiotic relationship between pride and insecurity:

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Insecurity was a shadowy, many-legged creature. He scuttled around, frightening people, occasionally barring doorways in an attempt to disrupt people’s lives by keeping them from crossing. He fed on fear, failure, distress of all kinds – nearly the whole range of negative human emotions. But Insecurity, for as large and dark and frightening as he appeared, did not have teeth. He operated in the shadows, preying on people who were too afraid to just ignore or step past him. He relied on the naïve, who did not yet know that he could not bit or claw them, and the phobic, who knew what he was but still could not keep the panic from risking at the sight of him. And so he lived, scurrying from under beds for a meal of startled fear and lingering in doorways to drink in the dread, the frustration, the failed bravery. He lived well enough, but never quite felt satisfied – his diet sustained him, but there was one feeling he could not elicit, and so could not taste: he craved the rich flavor of pain, which his grand but toothless appearance could not provide.

Until one day, Pride arrived in town. Now Pride looked nothing like Insecurity. He was barely the size of your average housecat, and walked on just four stately legs. His size belied his strength, but his strong muscles were hidden under a layer of bright red and orange fuzz. Pride did not live in the shadows, as Insecurity did. He was not large or frightening enough to fill his belly on quick startles, or to keep people from crossing their doorways past him. But Pride had something that Insecurity lacked – Pride had teeth. He rarely managed to partake of the visceral fear and dread that sustained Insecurity, so instead he dined on pain. A quick nip would get him through the day in a pinch, and when he was starving or gluttonous, a hard chomp could usually satiate him. Mostly.

But Pride too was tired of his uniform diet. He enjoyed the rich taste of pain, but even the most delicious of meals becomes unappealing after a time of eating nothing else. On a good day, the result of a bite might have gotten him pain seasoned with startled fear, but none of the subtle flavoring of dread, frustration, or the gut terror of seeing a great shadowy beast. And so, after yet another bland meal, Pride payed a visit to Insecurity.

Insecurity received him in his favorite shadowy corner.

“I come with a proposal for you, Insecurity,” said Pride.

“A proposal?”

“A mutually beneficial business arrangement,” Pride affirmed. Insecurity stared silently.

“These humans have such an abundance of delicious emotions, my friend,” Pride continued after a pause. “Why should you have to live on the scraps of dread and startle, always hoping that you won’t go hungry because you misjudged the bravery of your victim? Why should I have to subsist on nothing but hard-earned pain, day in and day out? I long for the flavors of dread, of the paralyzing terror which you instill, and I can see in your eyes that you too are unsatisfied with you meagre options. We can help each other. I offer you my teeth and the rich taste of pain, and all I ask in return is that I may share in the fear, dread, and frustration that you are so accustomed to.”

Insecurity was silent for a moment longer as he mulled over the creature’s proposal. He had worked and lived alone for a long time, but he saw the wisdom in Pride’s offer. Together they would not only enjoy rich new flavors, but also never again feel powerless against the increasing number of humans who no longer feared him.

“I am hungry,” he said in response. “Let us begin our relationship with a meal.”

And so they did. The feasted daily on fear, pain, dread, and the confusion of the humans who had previously believed Insecurity to be harmless. Those who used to march past him through their doorways and into the world soon grew wary and fearful once more, knowing that the shadowy presence could now hurt them. In this manner, Pride and Insecurity terrorized the town. Many people gave up, refusing to even attempt to cross their doorways. But Pride and Insecurity always found a way in, to feed on their fear and on their failure. They never went hungry, growing only larger and stronger, and tasting more and more flavors as the humans’ frustration evolved into despair and self-hatred, knowing that the whole world awaited them on the other side of a doorway, which they could not bring themselves to cross.

**

This piece may seem odd to most – but if you’re like me, you may understand. Pride and insecurity seem, on the surface, to be opposites. But they’re two vices that can combine in the worst of unions: when your insecurities are fortified by pride, it can become impossible to listen to the criticism of others, to introspect honestly, and to admit your faults in order to improve them. On the other hand, when pride is fortified by insecurity, you can be overly competitive and sensitive, taking offense to criticism and becoming something of a bad sport. The combination of my insecurities over my abilities and intelligence, especially those insecurities regarding how others perceive me, in combination with my pride can make even a friendly game of Scrabble a cause for distress.

This story may mean little to you, and that’s okay. But I’m proud (in the non-vicious way) that I have been able to introspect at least this much, and come to see the manner in which my flaws interact and damage my relationships, my life, and my well-being.

Playing Tourist at Home and Abroad

Growing up, I always wanted to be one of those free spirits, traveling the world and finding fulfillment in the incomparable experience of contact with new people and cultures. Travel is a wonderful thing – it opens your mind, it forces you out of your comfort zone, and it enables you to learn and grow in the most enjoyable way.

I have been doing quite a bit of traveling recently. I’ve gone far out of my comfort zone, learning new customs and languages and seeing sites I couldn’t even dream of before seeing more of the world. The United States can claim some of the most beautiful nature and interesting culture, and I am proud to be an American. But even so, I had never seen anything that compares to the Sierra Nevadas of Andalusia. I have seen some lovely churches in the states, some quaint and some spectacular, and yet I must say that nearly every city and town in France boasts a cathedral more spectacular than any you can find in the much-younger Americas.

Not to mention these incredible castles – it’s no wonder that Disney based some of their castles on these French sites – like the island-surrounded-by-quicksand Mont Saint-Michel:

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It is humbling to realize how little of the world I had seen before, and how little I have seen even yet. It has reinvigorated my desire to travel, to experience, to learn and grow.

But travel can also be scary.

You can find plenty of people that speak english in most countries nowadays, but the language barrier can be daunting nonetheless. You feel stupid. You often get odd looks from people, and if you’re a bit anxious like me, that can convince you that everyone knows that you have no idea what you’re doing. It can feel like you don’t belong, and for most of us, belonging is one of the most important feelings.

Besides language, even the most similar cultures have drastic differences in lifestyle and attitude. You’re never going to visit a new country, or even a new part of a country, without having to adapt to a new schedule, a new palette, a new everything. And when you inevitably demonstrate your unfamiliarity, you will often out of place again. That said, these looks you get, these anxieties you have, are rarely if ever as bad as you think: people might notice that you’re not from there, but rarely will they genuinely be judging you so harshly – even if you are a loud, uncultured American like myself.

So it has always been hard for me to accept being a tourist. Like all of us, I want to belong – I want to be a part of the place I’m in, regardless of where I’m from. Foreign visitors are usually noticeable – you see them in your hometown (if you live somewhere touristy, as I did for a number of years) with their fanny-packs and their cameras, walking on the wrong side of the sidewalk and giggling…a part of you knows that they’re having so much fun, that this memorable experience will stay with them, but at least for me, I have to squash down a feeling of superiority. This is my place – look at you, so excited about the path I walk to class every day. Look at you, not belonging. It’s a terrible way to think of people, but I think we all do it at times.

Nevertheless, I have to accept being the tourist. Even playing tourist in my own town – how many years did I live in Washington, DC, and yet only ever visited the Smithsonian a handful of times? There’s so much to see. When you live in a place that people travel great distances to visit, you have an obligation to take advantage of those things. Your hometown can easily become absorbed by your day-to-day: this is where I work, this is where I go to school, where I eat lunch and brush my teeth. This isn’t where I go out and learn and enjoy.

But shouldn’t you be learning and enjoying the most in the place where you’re most comfortable, in the place where you spend the most time? I guarantee you, however long you’ve lived in your current city or your hometown, you do not know everything there is to know. You have not visited every interesting site, restaurant, or brewery.

It’s important to travel. New places will force you to have new experiences, and those experiences will often be much more different from any you could have at home. But it’s equally important to truly understand and experience your own culture – because it is so comfortable and familiar, you probably take it for granted. There may be aspects of it that you’ve never experienced or considered, and even those aspects you are most familiar with, you may never have truly contemplated the nature of it, the way in which it shapes you and those around you.

So I encourage you to travel. I encourage you to experience. And above all, I encourage you to approach every place and culture with that discerning eye, to look for and consider what makes this place unique, what makes it the way it is.

Gratitude for the Parents that Prepare their Kids for Life

I am so grateful to have been raised in the home I grew up in. Our parents, our early home lives, shape us more than anything else. They are the single most significant factor in who we become, and the lives we live – whether we like it or not.

I’m not saying we’re all just the result of our childhood environment. There are just about no aspects of psychology or sociology that don’t boil down to a combination of nature and nurture. It’s rarely the dichotomy people make it out to be, and two people with the exact same upbringing may end up leading vastly different lives. Even completely opposite lives. But they are both still, in many ways, the product of that upbringing.

I didn’t turn out exactly how my parents intended. Not that they had extremely strict plans for who their children would be – above all, they just wanted us to be happy, healthy, and safe. But they also have their own ideas about what that means, as all parents – and people – do. I don’t share many of their values anymore. In my adulthood, I’ve departed drastically from the lifestyle they believe is best, and I know in their ideal world, I would do things a little differently. Go to church. Wait til marriage. Have some kind of plan for my future by now. But they always valued independence in their children, and taught us to think for ourselves and forge our own paths. That’s an amazing thing.

So here’s a shoutout to all the parents who give their kids structure and guidance, but let them become themselves. It’s a difficult thing. While I never had a true teenage rebellion – in the sense that I hid any deviance from them very well, and maintained a pretty healthy relationship – I do regret the time I spent resenting our differences. Resenting the things I didn’t agree with or understand about them. As similar as you may be to your family, there will always be extreme differences to navigate, and my parents did a great job. Better than I could do, for sure.

My sisters and I had rules. Lots of them. More than any of my friends, in fact, which I certainly resented. I was the last to be allowed to watch PG-13 or R rated movies, I was the last to get a cell phone, I had the earliest curfew…but they also had reasons for those rules. While I didn’t and don’t agree with all of them, being able to understand why a rule was in place made me a lot more inclined to follow it. And a lot less inclined to feel guilty when I chose not to (sorry Mom).

But my greatest gratitude is for the rules and structures they put in place that prepared me for adulthood. Some are simple and seemingly obvious, like doing laundry. My mom didn’t make us to our own laundry as kids (although I would understand if she had), but she did make sure I knew how to use a washing machine, and what colors not to mix, and when to use cold or hot water or fast or slow cycles. I remember my first semester in college, actually having to teach other 18-year-olds how to even operate the machines.

The other incredibly important thing that my mom taught me was budgeting. She didn’t just sit me down and explain not to blow all your money – we get enough “frivolity is a vice” lessons through school and media. Instead, she gave me a system to exercise my freedom and practice handling my money in the day-to-day: a set allowance. Now, most kids have an allowance. Many of them, like me, were given that allowance on a weekly or monthly basis, and would be refused if we went asking for more. That’s all well and good, but all it really teaches is that you can only buy so many super-cute shirts with $30.

What my parents did instead was give me, from the age of 13 or so, total buying power for myself. My allowance was adjusted up accordingly, but I was in charge of buying all of my necessities (excepting food and board, of course). I chose and bought my shampoo and conditioner, my lotions and moisturizers and beauty products, my underwear and my vitamins. It gave me the freedom to buy a nicer, more expensive face wash if I wanted – and to have less money as a result for clothes, or for going to the movies with my friends. I learned how to manage money on a small, safe scale – no fear of starving or getting evicted – and was thus much more prepared in early adulthood to manage my money.

At the end of the day, most parents want to help their kids grow up happily, securely, and into capable, well-adjusted adults. But I am incredibly grateful to my own parents for encouraging and helping me above all to be independent, to be prepared for the real world.

Love you, mom and dad.

Review: Uni-ball Pens and Structured Motivation

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I’m very picky about my pens. So picky, in fact, that I can safely say that I’ve spent most of my academic and adult life (post-pencil years of middle school and prior) in constant search of good pens.

I want an even, dark line. I want to be able to write on both sides of a page without bleed-through. I want to be able to close my notebook or journal when I’m done, and not smear ink all over my precious words.

The wrong pen makes writing a chore. It makes it difficult. It makes it ugly. It takes away that smooth satisfaction of writing by handBut the right pens are hard to find – for the last five years or so, every time I’ve run out of pens, I’ve tried out a new kind. A new brand, a new style, a new size. Over the years I have found a few that worked well enough for me, but rarely any that I truly loved. None that I stuck with. Not until about a year ago.

Our love story starts in the 4rd-floor study room of my University’s library. I usually preferred the 5th floor stacks, but that day fate sent me elsewhere.

It was sitting on the floor, under the chalkboard and amongst a rather foul mixture of dustballs, candy wrappers, chewed up gum and other equally unpleasant debris. I don’t exactly make a habit of grabbing abandoned pens out of corners that haven’t been cleaned in what looked like decades, but I had been using a horrendous freebie pen from some fundraiser or bank ever since my last extra fine-point Pilot Precise V5 had exploded on an airplane (yeah, that was a mess). I had been lethargic about getting new pens, since the Pilots had been far too inky and the task of choosing and trying yet another kind gave me a frustration headache. So when I saw this big, honking silver pen, cover in lint and frighteningly close to a wad of dried up chewing gum, I figured it was better than what I had and pulled out some hand sanitizer. And I fell in love.

Now this pen was so old that most of the markings had been worn off. I could make out something like U**Ba** and maybe a t or an l. I checked every store I went to, trying to find it by simple recognition. I scoured Amazon, Google, pen reviews, Staples…if I put as much work into my writing or school as I put into that search, I’d probably be a wildly rich and successful author by now. Well, maybe.

But I couldn’t find it. Despite my desperate search, knowing my beloved pen would soon reach the end of its days, I never found another of its kind. To this day I have no idea if they even make it anymore. When it finally ran out of ink, I was at a loss. I would borrow pens from the boyfriend or my friends or my classrooms, but I couldn’t bring myself to go back to the hunt, not for a while. I needed to get over this pen before I could be ready for a new one. Delete its number. Eat some ice cream. Burn the notebooks we made together.

Or something.

But eventually, as with all things, I was ready to try again. Refreshed and hopeful. Plus, I knew something now – Uni-Ball. Maybe I couldn’t find the exact pen, but surely the company made something similar, right? So I put on my most daring lipstick (alright, I was probably wearing sweatpants and hadn’t brushed my hair in a week, but I like the relationship analogy) and marched confidently into my local Office Depot.

I found the writing supply aisle. I found the pens. The Uni-Ball section.

I have a few criteria when it comes to pens: black ink, rollerball, preferably 0.5mm if not smaller. That usually narrows it down to just about nothing in your average CVS. In this Office Depot, sticking to the Uni-Ball section, there were maybe two options. I read the boxes. One of them sold me with some nice key phrases like “bleed-proof”, “consistent smoothness”, “thin, neat lines”. I took a leap of faith. I bought a 12-pack.

And boy oh boy am I glad. I just plain enjoy using these pens. It’s easy, it’s smooth, it’s satisfying. Writing in a journal with that even, neat ink flow is up there with a glass of wine in the bathtub or a nice foot massage. It just feels good.

And what feels good, we want to do. I started writing a lot more by hand. I started thinking of writing as a leisure activity on top of part of my work. And it gave me the extra push I needed to get my shit organized.

I’m not going to pretend I’m the neatest, most detailed or scheduled person. I’m not. I tend to be a bit all over the place, if I’m being honest. But I also know myself, and I am not someone who thrives on chaos and spontaneity and constant change. I work best with a routine. I get things done best with a general kind of schedule. So I gave myself some structure: a basic daily routine, including time to write. One chunk of time to type up my next blog post or a short story for editing or submission, and another chunk to sit down with my journal and my (lovely) pen and write whatever I like. Daily thoughts. Insecurities. Lists. Memories. Hopes. Brainstorms. New stories and essays. You know – journal stuff.

The key to being a writer is to write. Everyone says it, all the time: you won’t always have the motivation to write. You won’t always want to. But you have to do it anyway, and that’s where structure comes in. If it’s a habit, when your inspiration passes you’ll still be able to do it, you may even still want to do it. Structured motivation.

So find yourself the right pens, the right tools. Find yourself the right things to do with those tools. And do them – regularly.

And for the record: the pen that currently has my heart is the Uni-Ball Vision Rollerball, micro point (.5mm), available on Amazon and most likely your local office supply store.

Review: Pikolinos and Investing in my Adulthood

As a quickly growing child – in both size and personality – my mother instilled in me a habit of purchasing “temporary” clothing. It made sense: whatever I bought, I would surely outgrow within a year or two, and my sense of style was changing even faster. So I frequented Goodwill and other thrift or consignment stores, and developed a nearly pathological fear of spending more than $10 on any one item. The only new clothes I bought generally came from cheaper, youth-oriented stores such as Forever21 or H&M.

And that’s perfect for a teenager.

But as I entered adulthood (kicking and screaming, but I have no choice), I’ve begun to realize the importance of investing more money for more use.

I started realizing a couple of things recently: first, my clothes fall apart far too quickly. I was constantly shopping, constantly dropping $5-10 on a new basic grey t-shirt or pair of shorts. Second, I was buying things I never wear – of course, that’s going to happen occasionally, we’ve all fallen victim to the power of the fitting room mirror, believing we’ll rock some exciting piece and then finding that we would much rather wear something we’re comfortable in. That’s fine by me, as much as I try to avoid it. But when I was buying $5 shirts I would never wear, and then buying a new shirt because, well, I never wear the ones I had…that was a problem.

So as I’ve settled in to a standard fashion that I love – and that I’m comfortable in – I’ve realized that it’s time to start investing in my wardrobe. When I spend time to find exactly the right piece to fill a role in my wardrobe, and am willing to spend a little more (don’t get me wrong, I’m still cheap), I buy items – and only those items – that I actually wear a lot. And they last.

My most recent obsession are my new Pikolinos:

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They’re damn cute, they don’t hurt my feet (even after hours of walking!), and I wear them almost every day. I can wear them to class, to dinner, even hiking. They’re sturdy, well-made, and fit me perfectly.

I’m still in the process of converting me wardrobe from a mess of things I may or may not wear, that may or may not have holes, into a small collection of staple pieces that I wear regularly. But I can’t stress enough how worth it the process is – I worry less about what I’ll wear, I’m more comfortable in all my clothes, and I already need to replace things much less often.