Dan and the Zen of Ping Pong

We all like to win.  Be it in life, love, and the games we play.  Do I hear an Amen?  Yet, there is a dark side to winning.   I have a tale to tell that begins two years ago when I retired.

Once I retired, I needed a plan.  I’m just that kind of guy.  How was I going to fill my unscheduled time?  It turned out volunteering at York Hospital and tutoring for York Adult Education helped fill the bill quite nicely.   A couple of part-time jobs didn’t pan out.  They were just too much like work.  I still dig reading to my friend Vin.  Writing my weekly blog turned out to be a satisfying challenge and an additional creative outlet.  Going regularly to the gym energized my day and gave me a mellow afterglow.

But it was playing ping pong that was the surprise activity of my retirement.

The feel of our basement table

The feel of our basement table

I grew up playing ping pong in the basement of our house on Bolton Place in Fair Lawn, NJ.  There was no more than 18 inches at either end of the table so I developed quite the backhand to accommodate for the tight quarters.

As the older brother by two years, I felt the burden that I had to win games against my brother Richard.  Let me tell you, feeling like you should win can take the joy out of playing.  I developed a winning strategy that emphasized caution and playing it safe.  Maybe my natural introversion came through in my playing style.  On the other hand, my brother, freed from the expectation of winning and having the DNA of an extrovert, developed a flamboyant style that carried over into all aspects of his life.  Ah, to be the middle child!

Our ping pong table at Chases Pond Road

Our ping pong table at Chases Pond Road

Playing ping pong now in my 60s, I’m still steady and have a natural topspin backhand from my youth that serves me well against most opponents.  I keep the ball in play until my opponent errs and more times than not, I reach 21 points first.

And so when my occasional ping pong partner George was up for weekly games, we chose Thursdays to play, one week at his place, one week at ours.  Rallying and warming up for 20-25 minutes as we caught up on each other’s lives, we’d then play ten to twelve games over the next hour or two.

My friend George at his place

My friend George at his place

For the first year, I usually won 75-90% of the time.  My steadiness and the occasional big forehand served me well.  During that time,  I was always impressed that George, in defeat, had so much fun just playing.  It seemed to me he hardly remembered who won!   It seemed that he was in, what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls the “flow.”  The “flow” is to pursue an activity for its own sake rather than for the rewards that it brings.  He’d just want to play one more game, and then another; not in a competitive sense, but in a pure joy of playing sense.  I’d read about such people, but here was one in the flesh.

And then things changed, maybe a year after we began.  Not our relationship.  Thursday ping pong continued to be a highlight of my week.  What changed was the George started winning and winning.  What happened?

Clearly all the practice had made him better.  In the beginning his forehand was non-existent, but now it was a powerful weapon.   Certainly his “flow” helped him focus on the moment  rather than the score.  I had a lot more to learn from George than just improving my ping pong game.  It could be we were each getting better, but he at a faster rate.

In the last few months, George has held the upper hand, though I do have my moments.  Some afternoons, I do win my share, but the tide has turned in Biblical proportions.  How was Danny Boy to handle this turn of events?  It’s easy to be gracious and amiable when you’re winning.  How was I going to be now that any win of mine was a 21-19 struggle?

Ready to rock and roll at George's place

Ready to rock and roll at George’s place

Let me say it was an adjustment.  My shots that he previously hit off the table now came back as ping pong sandwiches that I couldn’t return.  His serve was just getting better and better; when he needed a point, he was well-served (I couldn’t resist.)  My serve, always weaker than his, exposed me to his spins and angled shots and growing confidence and, indeed, skill.

But my approach to ping pong was changing, too.  I started playing on my toes in a readiness stance for his electric serve.  I’ve gone to the Internet to pick up some tips on how to improve my own serve.  I began to hit the ball sooner so as to take the initiative in the play rather than merely be reactive.  Never one to pay close attention to the ball, I increased my awareness of watching the ball hit the center of my paddle for more accurate returns.  To develop my “flow,” I focus on one point at a time and less on the final score.  I know that it’s the afternoon together that is the gift.

Sadie joins us from time to time

Sadie joins us from time to time

And I gave our time together a Zen twist.  I sought to be as gracious and positive to be with as George is.  You see it’s less about ping pong and more about friendship.  George is just one of those damn nice guys.  He’s both interesting and interested.  With him I have a voice in our friendship.  He’s the kind of friend you’d all like to have.

My competitive drive to win still lives within, but my approach is more Zen-like as I enjoy the moment, the friendship, the flow.

That said, it’s still sweet to win.

Dan and Hannah and the Boston Marathon

This feels personal.  Boston is the big city we know best after living in New England for over thirty years.  Despite growing up a big sports fan in Jersey, I now root for the Patriots and the Sox.  Living just an hour north of Boston, we have family and friends who live there.  Our son Will goes there often.  I’ve been to Fenway Park and watched the Boston Marathon in person.  Living in New England feels like family.

All from Boston todayLet me tell you, there is no better day in Boston than Patriots Day.  It’s a celebration of spring, the buzz of happy crowds away from their daily routines of work and school waiting for runners who have trained all winter, supported by family and friends.  It’s a day when we cheer for people we don’t even know.  Except for a very few, no one runs to win the race.  They run to raise money for worthy causes, challenge themselves, check off a bucket list item, or because 26 miles of running is just what they do.

hopkintonJust six years ago Hannah and I were near the finish line of the Boston Marathon as our daughter Molly completed the 26.2 miles of running into 30-40 mph head winds on a stormy day.

Molly after 25 miles

Molly after 25 miles

She had trained all winter, raised over $6000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and doggedly fought the elements and finished with a time of 4 hours 2 minutes.  Remember that time.

Fast forward six years, if Molly had run the same pace in this year’s marathon, she would have crossed the finish line minutes before the first of the two bombs exploded at 4 hours and 9 minutes.  She would have been milling around the finish line in her thermal wrap and to collect her finisher’s medal.  We would have been at the finish line looking for her.  Amazing how random life seems.

BM Finish line

Six years ago I was teaching at the University of New England on the day when Molly was to run her marathon.  It was heart breaking not to share that moment with her, but I had to teach that day.   On campus in Biddeford, Maine at 830A for a meeting, I was ready for a day of getting updates from Hannah about Molly’s progress.  Fortuitously that morning a storm was brewing (the same storm that produced those strong winds for the marathon) and amazingly it blew a major tree over wires to campus and the university was closed by 9A!

Like a bat out of hell, I headed south from Biddeford, Maine, two hours north of Boston, to be a part of the Boston Marathon scene.  With everyone at the race and the Red Sox game at Fenway Park already begun, it was really quite easy to get into the city along Storrow Drive on this crazy, wonderful Patriots Day (which commemorates the first battles of the American Revolution at Concord and Lexington in 1775).

Our son Will, neice Tara, sister Patty, Dan at Kenmore Square, a mile from the finish line

Our son Will, neice Tara, sister Patty, Molly’s friend Molly, Dan at Kenmore Square, a mile from the finish line (in sight of Fenway Park)

We camped out at Kenmore Square for Molly to come by.  Despite how gassed she must have been, she was cruising and loving life as we cheered her on.  We then meandered down to the finish line in this party atmosphere of the young and old just enjoying being alive on this windy day.

No longer will an 8 year old and two others know the sunshine and soul affirming joy of just being alive on a spring day in New England.  Our niece Tara who lives in Boston says in the aftermath, I still don’t feel completely safe – even though there are extra police and army men all over.

My childhood friend Tom from Radburn who works in Boston responded to my email about his thoughts on this day thusly:

Dear Dan

I’ve just returned from chapel at the UUA, feeling grateful that I work in a place that allows us time and space on a day like today.

It has shaken me to have an attack like this–one that could only harm the innocent– happen in our city, our home.

I grieve for people I don’t know, who lost so much so quickly.  Especially the Richards family in Dorchester who lost their 8 year old son, and whose daughter and mother remain in the hospital.

And I am aware that others around the world live with this kind of violence and unpredictability every day.

I am sobered that someone thought their pain would be eased–or their cause advanced–by maiming and killing people they didn’t know who were bound together in this moment only by their desire to cheer a friend or family member across the finish line.

These words from the Haggadah we used at our Seder this year have been with me.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: Only light can do that.                                                                                                                                                                              Hate cannot drive out Hate: Only love can do that.”       –Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I wish you all light and love today–Tom

MLK light

And Hannah has the last word.

United we Stand

Even the Red Sox and the NY Yankees came together, “Sweet Caroline” and all.

Yes, those who would do their best to tear and rip others apart – women and children, no less – are nothing short of cowardly beasts.  Malevolent, indeed. 

Those who would do what they did in Boston have lost their humanity, no longer qualify as human.  Yet, in response we stand…united, selflessly, compassionately, sure and secure in our humanity.  We will not become like them. Instead, we become even more purely and utterly human….displaying the best of who and what we are.  May Love continue to be the arrows in our quiver.  And may the target be each other. Like the Amish, let us respond with Love…even more Love, towards one another.

Once again, united we stand – and love, fearlessly and tirelessly.  Terror is no match for Love.

United We Stand

United We Stand

By the way: President Obama must have been channeling me when he wrote his inspirational speech for the Inter-faith service in Boston Thursday.  I wrote my lead sentence two days before his speech.

Dan Remembers the Long Journey to Fabulous

Recently Hannah and I were talking with our daughter Molly and her husband Tip about dating and marrying.   The question came up, Do you settle for good when fabulous is out there?  Our discussion had me think back on my journey to fabulous.

Regularly two to three times per week, I read to my 91 year old friend Vin.  It’s win/win for the two of us.  He gets my full attention and my best theatrical reading; and I have meaningful conversations with a friend as well as just slow down enough to better understand what we read.  Ironically, as a teacher of reading, I wasn’t much of a reader.  In the 1950s I was taught with the look-see method of reading Dick and Jane at Radburn School in New Jersey.  I never learned how to interact with the text: ask questions and make predictions and personal connections to what I was reading.  I did learn how to answer comprehension questions at the end of the chapter and, by the way, to hate reading.  I fear those who pray to the god of standardized testing are again teaching kids to loathe reading.

Dick and Jane

Earlier this year Vin and I read Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, a book I never even fake read in high school or college.  Currently we are in the midst of John Grisham’s latest page turner, The Litigators.

john grisham litigators

Though we have just begun The Litigators, I already relate to the main character, David Zinc; a young corporate lawyer in Chicago who, after five years, has had enough of the exhausting, life sucking demands and emotional harassment at his 600-lawyer law firm; he eats breakfast, lunch, and often dinner in his cubicle of an office on the 93rd floor of a downtown high rise and has never been to court in the five years that he’s been there.  And did I mention, he went to Harvard and makes $300K.  One day, he says no mas, goes on a day-long bender, and soon finds himself at a two, now three person law firm where he makes $1000 per month.

And I total get David Zinc.  Quitting?  I have been there and done that.

Patrick Henry School   Anaheim, CA  (Dan's first teaching job in 1970)

Patrick Henry School    Anaheim, CA                (Dan’s first teaching job in 1970)

As a teacher of some forty years, I took my first teaching job at Patrick Henry School in Anaheim, CA teaching social studies, science, and Spanish to a diverse group of Americans, be they Anglos, Chicanos, or Asians.  Let me note that I had four years of high school French to prepare for my teaching of Spanish.  With an East Coast childhood, my sweetheart (Hannah) in New York, and my college buddies in Arizona, I didn’t adjust well to my new situation; I was just so damn lonely.  I didn’t have the social skills to make friends in southern California and just pined for what I didn’t have.  Pretty pathetic.

So fourteen weeks after I started, I quit lock, stock, and barrel.  I was gone by Christmas of my first year of teaching!  Without the drunken excess transition of David Zinc, I returned to Tempe, AZ to hang out with my friends, took a job as bus boy from 11A-2P in Sahuaro Hall, a girls’ dorm at Arizona State University, and shared a $120/month efficiency at the Oasis Apartments with two college roommates.  I was happier, much happier.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was on my way to fabulous by quitting what was not even good.

Dan taught 4th, 5th, & 6th grades in Tempe, AZ

Dan taught 4th, 5th, & 6th grades in Tempe, AZ in the 1970s

Something better was out there; I didn’t yet dare dream of fabulous; I was just looking for better.  After seven years of teaching in the elementary classroom in Tempe, Arizona, it was becoming just a job so I quit.  It was fine, students generally grooved on my teaching, but I wondered if there wasn’t something more.  The seeds of fabulous were planted.

Dan and Hannah's Alma Mater

Dan and Hannah’s Alma Mater

I just quit with a vague plan to get a Masters in Physical Education at Arizona State University.  (Ah college in the early 1980s – the refuge for those unwilling to grow up.   Read: Dan.)  At loose ends after completing my degree, but needing a job to support our family of four (Molly and Robyn were recent additions), with Hannah I moved to New England seeking better, even though I had no job offer.  I didn’t know it nor was able to articulate it, but fabulous was coming.

Still wanting better, I thought the transition to teaching middle schoolers might be what I was looking for.  Well, it was better; I had teammates for collaboration, learned to teach writing, but soon felt isolated with colleagues whose professional goals were different than mine.  Too many were enduring the kids and just getting through the day.  My hopes of working in a collaborative school were dying.

Frisbee Middle School, Kittery, Maine    (Dan taught here from 1986-1996)

Frisbee Middle School, Kittery, Maine                         (Dan taught here from 1986-1996)

At 48, I just couldn’t imagine working 14 more years in this same position just to get a pension; so I quit.  But, the buds of fabulous were finally sprouting: I had a plan to teach teachers at the university.  I hadn’t really dared to dream that, but twenty plus years in the classroom, pushed me to such a dream.

With Hannah working fulltime, I earned a PhD at the University of New Hampshire at 51, and then commuted 150 miles each way to my dream job on the faculty of the Department of Education at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, CT as an education professor of reading, writing, and student teaching.  I had hit fabulous: I was teaching students who chose to be there, my schedule was varied and challenging, and I worked with some good folks.

Clock Tower at Eastern Connecticut State University

Clock Tower at Eastern Connecticut State University

So quitting led me to fabulous.  I listened to the gnawing doubt over the years and slowly got to fabulous.

That said, fact is I had fabulous at 19.  I met Hannah Kraai at the College of Wooster in Ohio.  Career fabulous just took a little longer.

Dan and Hannah Seek your Support as we Bike across Prince Edward Island (Canada)

PEI mapSince Hannah and I will never be “thru hikers” of the Appalachian Trail ( those hiking 2000+ plus miles), we look for other shorter “end to end”  experiences.  A trip to Prince Edward Island last June got us thinking about biking the 273 kilometres of the Confederation Trail in Prince Edward Island from North Cape to East Point (Tignish to Elmira).

Especially for me, one major downside of hiking the AT is the overnight sleeping arrangements.  Either we would be squeezed in a shelter with six to twenty others, a number of who would be locomotive snorers; or we’d camp in a tent and sleep on the ground.  Daniel Boone I am not.

The beauty of this trans-PEI trip is that we’ll be in a bed each night.  The AT is a four to six month commitment; the CF in PEI is a three day commitment.  Do I hear any Amen?

PStarting in the town of Tignish in the western part of the island, we’ll spend the night before we head East at Murphy’s Tourist Home.  In the 1950s, when our family would travel from New Jersey to my grandparent’s home in St. Petersburg, FLA, we would stay, rather than in a motel, in someone’s house, which was called a tourist home.

PEI trail 2Our first day ride is the big one as we will bike 109 kilometres (about 70 miles) to Summerside, PEI.  That night we’ll stay at the Willow Green Farm B and B, where we stayed last year.  As a one-time railroad track, the Confederation Trail is level, wide enough to ride side by side, and with only the occasional crossroad that requires our full attention.

Hannah biking on the Confederation Trail

Hannah biking on the Confederation Trail near Summerside


Our second day we’ll travel 95 kilometres (about 60 miles) to Mount Stewart and stay at the Water’s Edge B and B.  Where we stay each night depends on where there are accommodations.

PEI trail 3

On our last day we’ll have but 68 kilometers (about 40 miles) left to reach our destination.  We’ll soak our feet in the Gulf of St. Lawrence at Points East Beach Motel in North Lake.

North Lake PEI

North Lake PEI

At least that is our plan.

Why we are seeking your financial support is that we are riding to raise money for a dear friend of ours and her family.  See our fundraising letter below.

Hannah and I would like you to consider donating to support our ride across Prince Edward Island this coming June. 

With Hannah’s left leg healed from her water skiing accident last summer, we are going to bike the entire 273 kilometres of the Confederation Trail in PEI.  We are raising money for our friend, Amy Paquette, and her family (husband Mike and three boys, age five, seven, and ten).  Amy was a student teacher of mine during her teacher education at the University of New England and currently is a third grade teacher in Kennebunk, Maine.  In January, Amy suffered a leaking brain aneurysm and had successful emergency surgery in Boston. Three months later, she is home recovering and participating in regular physical therapy.  Hannah and others have made meals for the Paquette family, but we’d like to do a little more for them.

Hannah and I would invite you to support our fundraiser for the Paquette family by donating five cents per kilometre ($13.65 total) for our bike ride across PEI.  This money would go directly to the Paquette Family for a family adventure, necessary expenses (extra, added, unforeseen), or anything they choose to do with the money.

If you would like to donate to our ride, please send us a check made out to the “Paquette Family” at our address below.  Please consider sending the check by April 20th.  


Dan and Hannah Rothermel

162 Chases Pond Road

York, Maine  03909

So if donating is in your budget, we’d love you to support us and the Paquettes as we ride across Prince Edward Island.

PEI trail 4 sign