Disclaimer: Details fade over time and it is likely that some or all of the details of this story are off, out of place, or completely made up. Think of it more as a fictional story that possibly has some facts sprinkled in.
I have a cousin who, for the purposes of this story, we’ll call Al1. Al is 9 years my junior, the son of my mother’s younger sister, and an only child2. It stands to reason that I did things before Al because I am older and, since we were often together as children, it also stands to reason that I would influence Al in someway.
Such was the case when Al decided to try playing tennis. I’d already been playing for some time and gained enough proficiency3 to be an obvious source for Al to turn to for help getting into the game4. Happy to help5, Al and I took to the court to get him started. We weren’t at it long before I reached the conclusion that Al would never amount to much of a tennis player. He was uncoordinated to the point that I wondered how he even remained on his feet much less how he’d ever consistently connect racket with ball. I didn’t let on that he had no future in the game6, he did seem to enjoy trying, but I knew with complete certainty7 that tennis wasn’t for Al. This would mark the first time I underestimated Al8. It turns out, I was more than just a little off in my assessment of Al’s on-court ability. He got better and he got better rather quickly. Just a couple of summers later, Al and I were standing across a green rubico clay tennis court from each other under a hot Florida sun. Until this point, I’d easily bested Al on every occasion that we played9 and I’d won the first set on this day, but only barely. I stood to serve to start the second set, drenched in sweat, covered in green dust from the court, gassed and dizzy from a hard effort in the heat looking across at Al who was not drenched, dirty, gassed, or dizzy. No, he was the opposite of all that. Dry, peppy, fresh, and doing that thing with the racket where you spin it in your hand, with a wry grin on his face10. The next two sets were just a blur to me12. I won very few points, no games, and it was all over quickly13. I’m not sure I ever played tennis again14. Al certainly went on to play more tennis .. in college .. on a tennis scholarship15.
Some time later during a family trip to the beach, Al asked me about playing guitar. Of course, I encouraged him to give it a try16. We listened to a few tunes, I plunked out some melodies17 to show him how to sort out what was being played, and explained things like how to hold the instrument18, how to tune it, and other practical lessons. During that time at the beach, we spent a fair amount of time fiddling19 around with guitars and songs. Once again, Al was enthusiastic and once again, I was confident he’d never catch on. I remembered myself moving from hardly being able to hold the instrument to playing passable songs in short order20 but after a few days of close instruction21, it was like Ground Hog’s Day22 with this kid – as if he hadn’t heard a thing I’d said the day before. You’ll be shocked to know that I was wrong again23. Al kept playing and, if anything, he’s even a better guitar player than he is a tennis player. I’d be embarrassed to sit in with his band or even sit around the coffee table and play music with him now24.
So, two strikes25 for me and you’re probably figuring out Al is likely the brighter of the two of us. Well not so fast26. Al graduated college27 and went to law school28. By this time, Al and I hadn’t spent much time around each other in years. By the time he was finishing law school, I would only hear sporadic updates about Al from my mom or his mom29. When Al first took the bar exam and didn’t pass it, the worry set in30 among some in the family, but not me. Oh no, I had learned31 my lesson about underestimating Al. I said it right away and I said it to anyone who’d listen32, ‘Al will not only pass the bar, he’ll be a hell of an attorney’33. I’d seen this uncoordinated kid become a really good tennis player and an accomplished musician so I was sure he’d sort out the bar exam34. Of course, he did pass the test35 and has gone on to be a fine attorney36.
So what does all this matter? Al has a good career going, a talented wife, three super smart kids but of course the obvious question is, how does this help me37? Well, a few months ago, Al called me about getting into road cycling38. You see, I’ve been riding for some years and he figured I could help point him in the …. familiar story, right? This time around, I could see the plan forming in my head even as he asked those first questions about cycling everyone asks when they start39. This time, I would employ Al’s ability to learn new things quickly, his natural physical gifts, to my advantage. The plan is to get him going, hope he sticks with it and gets super strong, then bring him to my area for a big ride with the fast folks in my circle, playing it off like ‘he’s my cousin who is just getting started so you guys go easy on him’. Then, I’ll coach40Al through the first few hours, upping the pace, applying the pressure and eventually laying to wood to my ego-driven buddies while I sit on41, readying myself for glory. See, I know Al, and by the time this day comes, he’ll already be stronger than I am on the bike42 but I may still have some tactical advantage left43 and that will allow me the gap I need to win one last set44 from Al while crushing my usual riding group at the same time and that’s lots of winning for me45.
Seems petty you say? Perhaps, but I see it as the small, tangible, mildly entertaining byproduct of learning some valuable lessons from my cousin. Help people when you can. Be encouraging even if you aren’t truly hopeful. Understand you’ll get it wrong sometimes so don’t be afraid to admit it and learn from it. Realize that most of the time you think you’re helping others, you’re the one being helped. And perhaps most of all, enjoy the glory in life; it’s fleeting and in all likelihood, Al is right behind you and he isn’t even breaking a sweat46.
1because that’s his name
2other than being younger than me, none of that is relevant to the story
3to impress people who didn’t really understand what talented tennis players looked like
4I don’t remember how old we were or if that’s really how it happened
5or show off and elevate my young ego by crushing a novice partner
6actually I may have taunted him
7the certainty that only a prepubescent male can muster
8unfortunately, I wasn’t as quick a learner as I am now, and I did it again later
9I’m not sure about that actually, but it sounds better for what about to come
10it’s possible I was hallucinating at this point, Al wasn’t a smart ass11
12I believe we played two more sets, it’s also possible I blacked out
13no idea really what the score was but I’m pretty sure I didn’t win a game
14ok, that’s a bit dramatic although I really don’t remember if I ever played again .. I probably did, and even if I didn’t, it was my choice and not because my ego was crushed
15at least I’m told he got a scholarship – my mother and her sisters have been known to embellish their son’s accomplishments – remind me to tell you about my older cousin Scott.
16this is where I wish I could tell you I remembered the tennis lesson
17he had no idea if I was really even close or not
18I should mention I never had any guitar lessons – I had 4 bass guitar lessons but they’re both stringed instruments so I wasn’t making it all up
19I’ve never played the fiddle
20I was in college when I learned to play, many beers and years before this moment so I was maybe giving myself a little extra credit
21the instructions of a young, self-taught, mediocre hack but still
22the Bill Murray movie, not the actual holiday, where he wakes up to the same day over and over and incidentally, learns to play piano
23it’d be nice if you’d tell me you would’ve thought the same thing and I shouldn’t feel so stupid
24which is odd considering how often I take credit for his talent and skills … also, I’ll actually sit in with anyone, anytime, anywhere … the stage is irresistible
25I hate baseball and I apologize for mixing metaphors among sports, I guess I could have said I double faulted but there isn’t a triple fault and I still need some room to tell the story
26well, he probably is brighter but I’m not a complete moron despite the way this story is unfolding
27whoop-t-do, I did that too
28after some indecision but still, law school, impressive right?
29his mom is a teacher who by this point was teaching my children and doing a much better job than I ever did helping Al with anything – thankfully
30we’ve got a few pessimistic types in the family – shocked aren’t you?
31‘learned my lesson’ sounds too passive – Al taught me and the more I think about it the more I wonder if he was playing me all along?
32there really wasn’t anyone listening except my wife and she doesn’t have to testify against me, does she? Al?
33I’m sure I said that before just now, at least once, or something close to it
34not as sure as I am now, years after he did pass it but sure none the less
35or I’d have written a much less flattering story about how I was right all along
36this is a huge assumption on my part as I have no idea if he’s a fine or even decent attorney …no representation that the quality of legal services to be performed is greater than the quality of legal services to be performed by some other guitar playing ex-jock lawyer
37me as in me, the guy writing the story – not me as in you reading it – why would I write all this about you? I don’t even know you. Well, I might know you since mostly only my family and friends will read this but …
38road bikes – as in racing bicycles ridden on the open road while wearing all manner of silly looking spandex, often as in my case, by middle-aged men
39it’s truly startling how we all ask the same things in the beginning, make the same declarative, ‘I’ll never shave my legs’ type statements … ‘I’ll never ride 100 miles at once. I’d just like to be able to go for an hour or so’ … 6 months later, we’re all signed up for a century ride, hairless and clad in lycra
40coach, manipulate … whatever, it’ll only work once so I’m going to enjoy it
41‘sitting on’ is when a rider drafts off others, shirking any work out in the wind to save energy, often for a well-timed, if not well-regarded attack at the finish line on those who have been doing the work
42I know it’s coming but still, 17 years of riding and he’ll best me after 18 months on the bike, it’s not easy to take
43I am fairly astute on the road if I do say so myself
44sorry about the metaphor mixing again but I’m wrapping it up so it helps to pull the story together
45Al would probably play along anyway to help his aging cousin out a bit – he’s a good guy that way