In my life to date, the “Things I Thought I’d Be Incredible At” list is long and tortured while the “Things I’m Actually Incredible At” list is startling in its brevity. No one’s incredible at everything, even if on the surface it appears that way, and no matter what, there’s something they’re bad at—be it chess, left turns, or arriving on time. In a weird way, I enjoy discovering what people are bad at. Okay that sounds tacky. It’s not that it makes me feel good knowing someone else’s deficiencies, but it’s nice to know they’re human and that my being bad at some things isn’t unique. Knowing this makes me feel slightly less claustrophobic when I step outside my door each day.
I was set up for disappointment from the get go. I had solos in our musicals, was good at the games we played in Children’s Church, I always had a big group of friends, and was involved with every sort of church-related activity offered to me. You’d think I was a social decathlete by the way things worked out for me at church but that success did not necessarily translate outside of those walls.
In kindergarten, I or my parents decided I was going to play soccer so I joined the league in my town. I was a Silver Seahawk, which sounds like a team name from Legends of the Hidden Temple, and I attended weekly practices where I’d kick the ball and do what my coach told me. However, when it came time for the actual games, I was more interested in something other than making the play or getting the ball into the goal. Her name was Crystal.
No one’s really invested in the game when you’re that young. I believe Kindergarten is when you’re at your most clueless. You have the attention span of a ferret and the fine motor skills of a deer on a frozen lake but even a Kindergarten-aged child can tell by context clues that the point of the game is to get the ball into the goal. It was, in fact, my goal to make a goal. I loved hearing the sound of the crowd cheering when someone scored and I wanted that for myself. I’d just rather do it while holding Crystal’s hand.
Crystal and I chased the ball down the field in tandem, our hands clasped together. My parents told me holding her hand wasn’t what I was supposed to do on the field, but it was way more fun to run hand-in-hand with the girl with the big blue eyes and platinum white pony tail. Maybe because of that, the dream of scoring a goal eluded me and I never got to experience the elation of the suburban crowd cheering my name.
I played soccer for a few seasons, but all the running was annoying. When I ran laps during practice, I’d gaze longingly at the playground with the burnt orange twisty slide. I wished I was over there slaying dragons and running from imaginary bad guys, not running in circles around the field. When I realized I wasn’t meant to be the David Beckham of my generation, I moved on to baseball.
I had the little white pants, a forest green and gold jersey, and a hat with the emblem that showed I played for the “A’s.” Again, my family would come to see the games, and again, I sucked. I mean, I was truly terrible. When I was at bat, I was terrified the ball was going to hit me in the face. Then, when I’d stand in the outfield—because that’s where the sucky kids stand when you’re playing baseball at that age—I was terrified the ball was going to hit me in the head on the way down from the sky. Each time someone hit the ball anywhere other than where I was standing, I’d whisper with relief, “yes.”
I did make one hit that season, though my form was so loose and shaky that when my little metal bat connected with the ball, the impact vibrations shot through my hands and hurt like hell. I ran toward first base but I and my self-esteem were tagged out before we got there.
Attempting to play baseball, I no longer yearned for the playground with the orange twisty slides. Instead, I yearned for the free soda at the end of the game. As soon as the final inning came to a close and we “good gamed” the other team who beat us, I ran to the snack shack and get my free soda. At that age, it was cool to mix all the soda flavors together. We called them “suicides,” which was wildly irresponsible, and we’d toast the sugar-fueled sludge as it coated our throats.
I needed a pivot so I left sports behind for a while and focused on something I knew I was good at: music. I thought I’d be good at playing the piano and for a while, there was a glimmer of hope I might be. I started taking lessons in elementary school by choice—it wasn’t a childhood-postmortem on the part of my parents to reconstruct facets of their youths—and I really wanted to learn. Plus, I was fixated on the prospect of learning to play the “Minuet in G” because it had been featured on an episode of Saved By The Bell.
My piano teacher’s house was across town and once a week, my mother drove me through thick tree-lined roads to get to her neighborhood. Tucked away from the main road, her street was newer than ours, which in my mind meant she was fancy. She was a frizzy-haired woman, as thin and gangly as a crane, with noticeably small lips. I’d arrive and spend half an hour in her back room pretending to work on my music theory exercises before joining her on the piano bench. Then me, my teacher and her hair would play through the songs I’d been “practicing.”
There in-lied the problem: I hated practicing. I didn’t have the drive to sit at the piano for an hour a day and plunk out the same songs over and over again. Doing so interrupted my afternoon cartoons. I’d begrudgingly practice for recitals when my mother threatened me with no dinner until it was right, but that still wasn’t nearly as much as the oddly thin, Ms. Frizzle-like woman would’ve preferred. Ms. Frizz even tried to entice me into being a more dedicated piano player by teasing me with an annual pizza and pool party she threw for her students and trust me, I was tempted. For a kid, pools and pizza are the Holy Grails of a good time; you’d do just about anything to get them. The only catch was you had to prove you’d practiced the amount she wanted you to have practiced.
Oh. Well I wasn’t interested anymore. I may have been young, but I saw right through her game. Also, once I really thought about it, I didn’t know the kids who’d be there. What kind of reward was it to get to eat pizza with strangers? I decided that was no party at all so I kept doing what I wanted: watching Animaniacs instead of rehearsing Bach. At the end of the spring, she informed me that I hadn’t earned the right to come to the pizza party, and if I’d been a little older and a little more self-aware, I would have told her I didn’t want to go to her pizza party full of stranger danger and the only reason I was taking piano lessons was to learn to play the “Minuet in G,” which I had. So the joke was on her. I’d won already! I didn’t take lessons that fall.
Even when I wasn’t trying to be good at a specific activity, I somehow failed. My family didn’t take grand vacations, but each year my parents made sure we did something that got us away from the house. One year, we drove down to San Antonio for a few days, one of which included a visit to Sea World (which used to be an amazing place before Blackfish was released and effectively obliterated both our ignorance and our faith in humanity).
Kids go to Sea World to see Shamu. That’s the main event. Now that I’m older, I know the whale’s name was probably Hiroko and she’s never even met Shamu. Mostly, they haven’t met because this whale was living a sad, domesticated life in a tank when it should’ve been out eating defenseless baby seals in an ocean of freedom. Also when you’re a kid, you love you sit on the front row of the stadium so Hiroko can splash you with her flippers. There’s the build-up: you see the largest fish you’ve ever seen in real life slowly making her way toward your bench through the glass walls of the tank. Then, Hiroko swims by, flings waves of water all over you and you cheer loudly as the salty fish water lands on you, destroying your clothes and leaving you smelling like Jonah washed up on the beach. It’s elating!
My brother and sister didn’t want to go sit on the front row so I sat alone on the bench, clothes soaked through to my socks, smiling a huge Muppet smile up at my dry and comfortable family. I ran up to my parents to reiterate how amazing it was and because of my excitement, my brother decided he too wanted the experience. Having already been down there, I didn’t want to go again, so I turned my brother down and stayed up in the dry seats.
When you’re older, you graduate from the desire to get wet at amusement parks. The harsh realization sets in that it’s hot, muggy, and as much as you’d like to believe the sun will dry off your skin and clothing, leaving you smelling like the towels in a fabric softener commercial, you end up sunburned, your clothes never fully dry, and you chafe for the rest of the day. Still, I should’ve taken my brother down to get splashed with fish water. I’d been a [Moby] dick instead.
Not one to learn my lesson the first time, on the way back from kid’s camp a couple years later, our bus full of church children stopped at a fast food place for lunch. My brother didn’t have any money left after the week and it was up to me, the older brother, to take care of him. This was simple enough except I wouldn’t let him get a full meal because that would mean I wouldn’t be able to get a full meal. I made him get a kids meal and I got the meal I wanted. I could’ve gone without the fries, hell, I could have shared the larger fries with him. But, after a week of praising God and focusing on grace and giving, I was a selfish ass who didn’t even know how to share. I then spent years being fat. Those two things are probably connected.
So to recap elementary school: Unfocused at soccer, scared of baseballs, undisciplined at the piano, selfish with my brother. That’s not a great track record but I learned from all those things. Some lessons took longer, but I got there. I’m getting there. Basically, the only thing I succeeded at during elementary school was right as I was leaving it. In fifth grade, I was selected to be a part of a special choir. We had extra rehearsals that made us feel very important and high on the elementary totem pole and we gave a concert at Open House. We sang about cheese.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon.