Optative Bop: Ping-Pong in Life and Literature
by Henry Stimpson
Years ago my friend David came down from Vermont to go to a Celtics game with me and his 16-year-old son, who was hanging around with a druggy crowd and close to flunking out. David feared the weekend might not go well; they weren’t getting along. But they played ping-pong in my basement, and David soon had a big grin on his face, and so did Jake: he was beating his old man.
Ping-pong creates an instant intimacy between two players locked in (usually) friendly combat. A game is your joint creation, your own little world with its peculiar rhythms and crazy bounces. There’s no time to think. The ball is coming back at you a split second after you hit it.
Elite table-tennis players are superb athletes, but the game is democratic: anyone who can hold a paddle can take a whack, from pipsqueaks to octogenarians. People who have just one good leg or are confined to a wheelchair can often play at a high level. It’s perfect for a captive indoor audience: every old hotel, prison, mental hospital and dormitory should have a ping-pong table, usually with chipped edges, a sagging net and really crappy paddles.
Ping-pong is fast, reactive. Literature is slow and dreamlike. But both transcend ordinary reality. And ping-pong turns out to be surprisingly literary. It finds its way into fiction and even poetry.
I was already a dedicated reader at 11 when my dad bought a green plywood ping-pong table and set it up in the unfinished basement of our little red house in Warwick, R.I. A floodlight brilliantly illuminated the center of the table but left the rest dim. High school brought endless hours playing Jimmy Andrews, chasing the ball when it rolled under the washer. Jimmy was slightly better than I, but I could beat my other friends easily—unlike any other sport.
At Boston University, I had only ping-pong in common with my freshman roommate. I was an honors student, Catholic, casual about my curly hair and with a nascent interest in poetry and fiction. Steve, decidedly non-literary, should have been a junior but was returning from a year’s academic probation. He was a Jewish New Jerseyan who spent a half hour every morning combing blue goop into his black hair and blow-drying it into a windproof helmet under the gaze of the Playmate of the Month. He had a heavy metal brace on his left leg, withered by childhood polio.
But he was a terrific player. I tried to get the advantage by angling for the corners. He’d lurch for the ball, the brace under his shoe banging the floor tile with a heavy smack, and usually return it with a look of grim triumph.
One day, he gave me a devilish smirk, “Do you know what co-population means?” It took me a few seconds to register. “Um, Steve, it’s copulation.” He indulged in it when his girlfriend from New Jersey visited a couple times during parietal hours 2 to 5 on Sundays and I was locked out of the room. When his hair dryer burned out in the spring, he didn’t replace it. He finally noticed it was 1968.
I didn’t play much ping-pong in my 20s. But at 31 I bought an old double-decker for a song in a blue-collar Boston neighborhood, retrieved our old table from Warwick and set it up in the big unheated sun porch, where the chill just got you moving faster. My own table, at long last!
When I got married a few years later, my wife and I bought a small Colonial in Waltham, Mass. I shoehorned the table between the oil tank, washing machine and dryer. Once when Suzanne and I played, our two-year-old daughter grabbed a paddle and “played” alongside her, looking like an impossibly cute wind-up doll as she scurried around holding the paddle. Suzanne’s friend, depressed after getting dumped by her boyfriend, came to visit. A lanky, gangly woman, she was unskilled but challenging to play because the ball came off her paddle at random angles. She looked less depressed after our games.
I eventually discovered the Waltham Table Tennis Club: two floors of cavernous rooms, peeling green paint and tables above a greasy-chopstick Chinese restaurant. My first time there, Ben, the club owner, who was in his late sixties and had a gimpy leg—a polio victim like Steve—beat me 21-3 without breaking a sweat. “I wouldn’t feel bad,” he laughed. “I was the national seniors champion two years ago.”
At the club, old men like Jack, a Korean War F-86 pilot in his 70s, middle-aged men and young women all beat me soundly—whacking the ball with pinpoint control and wicked spin. I was a hot basement ping-pong player, but could barely cut it in real table tennis. Same game, different world of skill.
To become competitive, I took private lessons with Ralph, a top-ranked player in Massachusetts who taught me the right way to hold the paddle and stroke the ball, which I’d never learned. He volleyed balls at me at machine-gun pace while I panted. This was in my early 40s when I was beset by anxiety over some really stupid things. I tried psychotherapy and medication. They helped some; table tennis worked better.
Ping-Pong Bounces across Literature
I discovered my most beloved fictionists—Vladimir Nabokov, Steven Millhauser and John Updike—in my twenties. Richard Wilbur became a favorite poet three decades later. All four have written about ping-pong.
In Nabokov’s novels, ping-pong is absurd. In Pnin, the immigrant Russian protagonist is asked by a fellow resident of the College Home for Single Instructors if he’d like to play: “Ping-pong, Pnin?” “I don’t anymore play at games of infants,” he replies haughtily. He moves out of the Home to rent a room in a professor’s home, where the lady of the house next uses the phrase “a cracked ping-pong ball” to describe the sound of his name to her husband. In Pale Fire, the pompous narrator, Prof. Charles Kinbote, installs two ping-pong tables in the basement of his rented home so that the male college students he lusts after can play simultaneously. “But why two tables?” asks a fellow professor. “Is that a crime?” Kinbote responds. Twice.
Mentions of ping-pong as part of the American landscape are scattered in Updike’s work. His short story, “Falling Asleep Up North” features an insomniac narrator who finds relief at a friend’s New Hampshire ski house. “I crawled under the Ping-Pong table and fell asleep on the concrete floor while the paddles and the celluloid ball hollowly clicked overhead.” His host is annoyed; the narrator feels he’s somehow making a Sixties-style protest. “But I can’t stop making it, and fall asleep again, on my little island of cement, as if on a towering column of cotton.” In one of Updike’s best-known stories, “The Happiest I’ve Been,” the teenage narrator drinks and plays ping-pong at with a girl at a New Year’s Eve party. Maybe happiness is simply a matter of ping-pong.
Millhauser’s novel, Portrait of a Romantic, features an ennui-afflicted teenage narrator who plays endless games of basement ping-pong with his friend in a small Connecticut city in the 1950s—much as I did with Jimmy Andrews in the 1960s. Ping-pong figures in several Millhauser short stories and novellas, and in his nonpareil novel of childhood, Edwin Mullhouse. Millhauser’s childhood home had a ping-pong table in its otherwise scary basement.
Millhauser is a skilled player with a tricky defensive game, according to a Web review by a former student at Skidmore. I’d love to play him. I’ve thought about writing him to ask for a game, but I haven’t had the nerve yet.
Wilbur takes the championship of literary ping-pong hands down. An early poem, “My Father Paints the Summer,” depicts a seaside hotel on a dismal July day with rain beating down in cold torrents: …. “the ping-pong balls/Scatter their hollow knocks/Like crazy clocks.” Has there ever been a better evocation of the sound of ping-pong? And then there’s this: “For the ping-pong’s optative bop/Will never stop.”
“Optative bop”—what a magnificent phrase, combining an obscure Latinate word with the hard Anglo-Saxon of bop. “Optative bop.” Say it to yourself a few times, and see what I mean. Who else but Wilbur, could make ping-pong deeply poetic, with appropriate rhyme and meter? Writing about the game in free verse would be like playing table tennis without a net, to paraphrase Robert Frost. The game is both rhythmic and arrhythmic, so perhaps some genius could capture it in free verse, but I doubt it.
I met Wilbur once when I interviewed him for an article. Besides being a great poet, he was a kind, witty gentleman. We touched on ping-pong. “It’s a good game,” he said.
Other tidbits. From The Catcher in the Rye: “He put my goddam paper down then and looked at me like he’d just beaten hell out of me in ping-pong or something.” Poets Kathleen Spivack (I once took her writing class) and Elizabeth Bishop played ping-pong three days a week.
In my current house, despite having a beautiful table with bright white lines and a firm net and ample room in the basement, I don’t play often enough. A friend comes over to play a few times a year. My wife usually declines my entreaties, but sometimes she gives in and we bat the ball around without keeping score and laugh.
When I’m feeling antsy, I’ll whack a few practice balls over the net by myself. I optatively delude myself that someday I’ll master the loop shot that Ralph tried to teach me.
Henry Stimpson has been an independent public relations consultant and freelance writer since 1984. Before that, he worked in PR for an insurance company, was a reference librarian and the librarian of a maximum-security prison and drove a cab. He lives in Massachusetts. His memoirs, essays, articles, humor and poems have appeared in Cream City Review, Rolling Stone, Common Ground Review, Poets & Writers, The Boston Globe West, Yankee, New England Ancestors, New England Monthly, Bostonia, Boston Phoenix, Beauty/Truth, Embodied Effigies, The Philadelphia Inquirer and others.