In college, I had a friend named Jane. She was the oldest daughter in a family of tennis players, and they all looked like her: tall and willowy, but strong as thoroughbreds, with defined muscles in their long arms and legs; permanently sunburned noses; and an effortless way of moving that was almost heartbreaking to watch. Even when Jane was just swinging her backpack over her shoulder as she sauntered out of class, she had a way of making it look like art.
At her Long Island home, her family walked around in track suits and tennis shoes, without the irony that, for example, a track suit would have conveyed on my plump mother. Someone was always going out to play on the courts or coming in from just having played, toting bags and several racquets and fresh cans of balls that smelled excitingly of gassy rubber. They had kitchen conversations about faults and flats and tournament seeds, and other things that I desperately didn’t understand. They taped the US Open, replaying the best parts for each other. Even their golden retriever always seemed to have a tennis ball nestled between her paws.
I envied Jane deeply. I coveted her family’s casual athleticism, their secret language, their common bond that elevated tennis from a simple game to a distinct family culture–a way of life that lent meaning and purpose to each as a person as well as to their lives together as a unit.
For a while I took tennis lessons. I started running to improve my wind and stamina. I walked around in gym shorts and short white socks with pom-poms at the heel, with a racquet tucked in my armpit. My then-boyfriend and I hit the ball back and forth on the weedy courts at a local middle school. It was fun enough, I guess, but it lacked the magic I had seen in Long Island.
Eventually, I had to face the truth: I am not a tennis player, nor do I come from a long line of athletes, like Jane did. My family isn’t willowy and tall–more Eeyore than thoroughbred–and in fact most of us, with a few exceptions, are stunningly unathletic. We are the ones last-picked for the team, the ones who are afraid of the ball.
When I was 12, I spent an entire softball season in the right outfield–the place where no one ever hits–praying that nothing would roll toward me. Renee Bettelle played shortstop, just ahead of me on the field, and I was always extra nice to her–offering her my can of bug spray when dusk hit and the mosquitoes swarmed, and bringing her small gifts of a stick of gum, an extra water bottle. I was buttering her up in the hopes that she’d come to my rescue should a pop fly ever come my way. (And the one time it happened that season, she did. Thank God.)
My own kids have played sports over the years, at times with real enthusiasm. But it’s hard to shake genetics: If athletics were a Harry Potter story, they’d still both be Muggles.
Of course, this was before something remarkable happened–before Christmas came and under our tree appeared a Nintendo Wii gaming system. The Wii might look like any other video game console, but it’s anything but.
The Wii is marketed as the gaming system for the rest of us: regular people, the non-basement-dwellers, the non-geeks, the non-gamers, the people who don’t know Astromash from our elbow. But it also suits those of us who are mere mortals on athletic fields and courts–and not, like Jane and her family, the genetically gifted, the talented elite, the Greek deities of physical prowess.
In practice, Wii tennis simulates the actions and achievements of a real tennis game, but for the colossally unskilled and unschooled. You hold the remote like you’re shaking hands with it, just like a real racquet, and you play one side of the net–volleying against someone else or against one or more players–swooping and diving with a grace and power that’s hard to replicate in the real world.
I’ve thought a lot about Jane and her family over the past week of near constant play, like when my 11-year-old turned “semi-pro.” And then again, last night, around 2 AM, when I was rousted from sleep with the sweet victory cheer of my teenage son, downstairs in the family room: He had just turned “pro.”
The Wii, more than a video game console, is an agent of change: It has taken us from Eeyore to Barbaro, reframing us as a family of virtual athletes. From the family room, in front of the screen that has their tiny avatars facing off in a match, my two kids talk tennis. Evan, in the role of game veteran, critiques Caroline’s game, her stance, her swing. And she, amazingly, accepts his advice, and sometimes solicits it.
Occasionally–usually late at night, after they’ve been on the courts for hours, they break out into a bicker. They call each other names. But even that I tolerate, because here we are with something approaching a common language and culture that–25 years after I once coveted Jane’s family–I thought was permanently out of reach.
I’m exaggerating, of course. None of us thinks we are really athletes. But what’s the harm in fantasy? What’s the harm in play?
A year or so ago, National Public Radio aired a commentary from Kelly McBride, a parent and Poynter faculty member, regarding her children’s frequent use of the Wii. From ArsTechnica: “Rather than relishing the fact that the new toy has them off the couch and swinging their arms, Kelly worried that her children are equating the game version of the sports with the real-life counterpart; that is to say, the children are gaining ‘a false sense of what it’s like to compete in the world.’”
Well, duh. Tennis is a ridiculously hard game, and there are a relative few who can, in the real world, reach pro status. Few of us can do much of anything well enough to attract real acclaim. But it’s a blast to try. And it’s even more fun to feel some pleasure of success from your efforts. To forget–even for a few foolish minutes–that you aren’t an uncoordinated undesirable left standing on the sidelines. That, instead, you are gifted. Talented. A winner on the court. The kind of person the captain picks first for the team.
This morning, my son corralled me into the family room to show off his newly minted pro status. “Check it out,” he said, as he proceeded to volley flawlessly.
I sat on the couch and watched him. He might have been standing, in his stocking feet, on the floor of our family room, hitting with a tiny virtual figure. And he might have been wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt and jeans slung so low that he played with one hand at his waist, to keep his pants from drooping below his hips.
But seeing the look of concentration on his face, the small grunt he emitted at each powerful swing, and the tiny smile that appeared around his lips when he won the volley and his avatar danced in the end zone, he might as well have been dressed in tennis whites, rallying the crowd, and right there–for all the world–playing for keeps.