The Slapping Game

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Essayist Tim Brookes and his 11-year-old daughter have invented their own tennis-like game. It may not be Wimbledon, but there are still sporting lessons to be learned.


The Wimbledon Championship ends today with the men's final. Essayist Tim Brookes and his 11-year-old daughter, Mattie(ph), may very well skip watching it on television. They've invented their own game.

TIM BROOKES: The game goes like this. I take a sheet of eight-and-a-half-by-11 paper and crumple it into a ball. Mattie stands in front of the wood stove. I stand in front of the glassware hutch about eight feet away from her. I toss the ball underhand in a high arc, aiming for a spot about a foot or two above her head. She watches it and smacks it back at me with her opened palm. I try to catch it.

After about two minutes, our one-year-old border collie, Phoebe(ph), wakes up and wonders over to a point midway between Mattie and me and watches intently, her ears pricked. If I drop a catch, Mattie gets a point. If Mattie misses a reachable smash or just tips the ball with a finger and it goes behind her, usually down the stairs, I get a point.

If Mattie hits the ball into Phoebe's water bowl, she wins a gold fish. If the ball ends up on the floor, Phoebe is after it with astonishing speed. And if Mattie or I manage to grab it, but Phoebe is so close we feel her jaw close beside our fingers, that's called dog lips(ph).

If Phoebe gets the ball, she chops off with it into the living room and starts to rip it apart until she hears we started playing again with another ball from our supply of crumbled up junk mail.

At which point she loses interests in her half shredded trophy and takes up her pounced position again. We play until someone reaches 10 points or 20 points or until Phoebe eats the last available ball.

It's a great indoor game. The ball can ping off china or glass without knocking it over. I have to make adjustments to catch a rebound off the ceiling or the hutch or the wall or the Christmas cactus. Mattie watches the arc carefully and adjust by jumping or stepping back or even by falling away to her left and reaching up like Stephen Edberg hitting a crosscourt overhead to an attempted lob over his backhand side.

Mattie has instinctively learned the snap of the wrist and if I get the height of the toss just right, she goes up both feet off the floor and smacks that thing so hard. I don't even try to catch it but spin around, hoping for a rebound off the corner cupboard, where we keep art supplies, liquor, light bulbs and miniature marshmallows.

This is the thing about sport. It teaches us more than we can explain. It rewards us in ways we can't put into words. Sport is older and deeper than words. It's written with the body, in the body. Mattie knows this. She knows that a perfect hit is a thing of beauty, an instant when every muscle in her body cooperates, her arm unreeling like a whip. Hooyah, she says.

SMITH: Tim Brookes is the director of the writing program at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont.

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SMITH: This is NPR News.

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