Autumn in the South is gloriously beautiful. Okay, people don’t really call it “autumn” here, or rather, those who do are trying to affect some high-brow or Northern sense of things, or trying to find a good lead for an article. Here we call this season “fall,” from the fact that the leaves fall from the trees.
In any case, back to the beauty part. People like to walk in the park in the crisp, cool air, and speak with each other of the stunning natural scenes of leaves changing color. Ah, yes, and observe the groups of people playing in the park. They play games like basketball, baseball, football, and soccer.
But I’m going to reveal an unusual fact here of which you may or may not be aware. This scene gives rise to a man’s greatest fear.
The fear is that while walking along and enjoying the day, a ball from one of these groups will inadvertently roll your way. Everyone on the team has his eye on that ball, which is now at your feet. You must pick up the ball and return it to the team in a manner fitting to the game.
So, for example, you can’t kick a baseball or basketball back. You have to throw the baseball with accuracy to the guy holding up the glove. The basketball must be returned with one of those two-hand push things and done in a manner that defies gravity. The football must be returned so that it flies like a bullet with no odd twists and turns. The soccer ball must be kicked bang on and straight to the person who awaits its return.
This trick must be performed without any warm up whatsoever. As a man, you must be able to instantly become the greatest player of the game in question. Why must you do this? Because…well, because you are a man!
For any man, this instills a sense of complete terror. Some men are so frozen by the prospect of screwing up that they pretend not to see the ball at all, which is a jerky thing to do. But it’s better to be regarded as a jerk than a complete incompetent.
Why incompetence? Here is the problem. You might throw a baseball perfectly well 99 times out of 100. You can practice and practice and increase your skill. But the one time that you return the ball in a crazy, catawampus, incompetent way is that very time at the park (you only have one chance!) when you are called upon to return the stray ball to the team playing in the park.
The trouble is that this one time is what defines your life! It is the only thing that all the guys playing in the park know about you. “Oh, you are the guy who overthrew the baseball by like 15 feet! Sheesh!”
So here you are with 10 or even 20 guys looking at you to see how you perform this feat. They are all pumped with that guy stuff that makes them feel strong and powerful, with shirts off to display their sweaty chests. You, on the other hand, are dressed in a polo shirt and admiring the fall colors and the trees and engaging in clever banter with the girl next to you. This is not a level playing field. There is a very strong chance that you are going to screw this up.
Your incompetence will not only be obvious to the guys on the team playing in the park. It will be abundantly on display to the person with whom you are walking that, while you might be smart and clever and thoughtful in some way, you are only half the man that these guys playing football are.
In short, we are speaking here of complete and total and irredeemable public humiliation! It is the sort of thing you never live down. You can’t recreate the moment and do it right. It does no good to yell to them: “usually I’m pretty good at throwing footballs!” They will just brush such inane protests off. Everyone has already seen your “talent” and it was a disgrace.
Instead they will think: “It’s bad enough that the ball wandered from our playing field. But then that geek had to pick it up and try to throw it back, and we ended up having to chase it again after his screw up.” Nor is it enough to be good at baseball and football but not so hot at basketball, because, sure enough, it will be the basketball that lands at your feet. No, you must be 100% infallible at all ball sports in order not to fear this moment, and no mere mortal is that.
Keep in mind that you can’t prepare for moments like this. You might stroll in the park day after day for months and it won’t happen to you. You might have five straight years go by and face no obligation to return a ball. Then one moment, when you least suspect it, you look down to see a soccer ball at your feet. You look up and see 40 guys staring at you. You must act, without hesitation.
So you kick. Your foot glances the top of the ball, and it barely moves. You are grateful that you aren’t on the ground after having tripped on it. You turn 10 shades of red. You try again and this time the ball goes in a forward direction but between two players and they have to run off and get it, and meanwhile everyone else on the team is staring at you and shaking his head.
You then try to pick up your life and move on as if nothing terrible has happened. But the pain in your toe is a reminder. Your temporary limp is also an indication, even though you try to hide it from all concerned parties. You act as if this is no big deal but of course you know in your heart that nothing will ever be the same again. All your lifetime efforts to build up a certain image for yourself are shattered in this fateful moment when a stray ball came your way at the park. Curses on fate! Why do the gods hate us so!?
As the days move on, growing shorter and shorter into the dead of winter, the air ever colder and the nights ever longer, there are times when you awake startled and sweating and realize that you had been living this moment again and again in your nightmares. Every night it is the same thing, that recurring moment of terror.
The disapproval of everyone is more obvious on their faces in the nightmare version of events than ever in real life. You are surrounded by guys with disdainful looks. Your girlfriend is standing alongside them, shaking her head in disgust.
Now that you have had a look into the mind of a guy, you can see it is never quite possible to rest easy during these autumn days. The trees might be beautiful, the air clean and crisp, but that ultimate fear that every man holds in the darkest regions of his heart lurks just around the corner, that moment when our pride takes a fatal fall and, like a leaf once resting securely on a branch of a tree, is ground to a pulp and vanishes with the wind.