Commentary

'Everything You Know Is Pong' excerpt

Originally Published: January 18, 2011
By Roger Bennett and Eli Horowitz | Special to Page 2

Everything You Know Is PongHarperCollins Books

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from "Everything You Know Is Pong: How Mighty Table Tennis Shapes Our World," copyright 2010 by Roger Bennett and Eli Horowitz. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins Books.


Ping Pong as Aphrodisiac


The spins. The slams. The serves, the fakes, the mistakes. The rubber paddles. The harder you hit, the harder it comes back at you, and sometimes luck is more important than skill. This is what we talk about when we talk about love.

Wiser men than I have described an intense ping pong match as a dance, and that may be true. But this dance is no restrained ballet, no genteel foxtrot. Nay, ping pong at its finest is a tango, an erotic tussle that leaves both players mussed and the paddles moist. The game contains multitudes, but at its core is an intimate pair (or, sometimes, a foursome). Ping pong is love, and love is ping pong.

This pastime gives us a language for the twists and turns, the volleys and bounces of seduction. I ask her out: serve. She agrees: return. We go out for dinner: backhand to the corner. She inquires about my infamous "intimacy issues": short chop. I excuse myself, curl up on the bathroom floor, and tremble until she leaves the restaurant: topspin slam! Horowitz wins again. Courtship is a game of semiotics, and ping pong provides a satchel of semiphore flags. The double entendres are overdetermined, almost to the point of obscenity.

Case in point: page 109 of Coleman Clark's 1933 masterwork Modern Ping Pong:

"Don't aim your serves constantly to one spot. Hit two or three diagonally across the table, then place one straight down the side. Strike to the corners a few times, then one directly at your adversary. This is often is most vulnerable spot. Frequently change your position behind the table and use both forehand and backhand. Experiment -- try everything."

Purr this passage to a special friend in front of a roaring fire, and watch as all proximate pants evaporate in a mist of passion. (Of course, you need to choose your page wisely; page 68, for example, might not deliver the same results: "Ping pong teaches self reliance and individual initiative and is especially recommended for boys and girls who incline toward awkwardness or who may be afflicted with inferiority complexes. ... What an opportunity it affords them to play a game with their fathers and mothers.")

But ping pong is not just a metaphor for the mating dance -- it is the dance itself. In the bastardized romantic minefield of our modern world, there are few remaining outlets where boys and girls (or any combo thereof) can express themselves and learn about each other in an environment simultaneously safe and sweaty. Roller rinks have gone the way of the dodo, but ping pong strides onwards into our utopian future, providing a common ground of closeness. Men are from Mars, women from Venus -- but across that net, we all circle the same sun. All compete on a level table, and anyone can win, regardless of gender, preference, or body type. And we're not talking about some limp party-game, some witty banter across a Scattergories board. This is flailing limbs, dancing feet, and a healthy dose of steely competition -- a pretty close simulacrum of a long-term loving relationship. Ping pong offers us this terrarium, this biodome, a medium far more expressive than the text-messagy alternatives.

Affection depends on this communication and proximity, but seduction demands separation, a sprinkling of erotic restraint. We must be close enough to lock sexy eyes, trade sexy quips, waft sexy scents -- but not so close that the quivers are quashed. As Freud wrote, "Some obstacle is necessary to swell the tide of libido to its height; and at all periods of history whenever natural barriers in the way of satisfaction have not sufficed, mankind has erected conventional ones in order to enjoy love." This obstacle is ping pong's gift to eros! In our age of wanton touching and easy feeling, there's only one natural barrier remaining: those forty square feet of green particle board (plus sixty inches of netting). No other pastime provides this precise balance, this delicate distance. Except maybe Battleship.

But Battleship doesn't make the heart go pitter-patter. And pitter-patter the heart must! Quite literally, it turns out. The classic Capilano Bridge experiment (Dutton & Aron, 1974) interviewed subjects walking across two different bridges: one narrow, wooden, swaying, and the other a sturdier modern structure. The interviews themselves were a ruse; the real data was that the men interviewed on the rickety bridge were nine times more likely to subsequently call the interviewer -- a healthy young woman of pleasing proportions -- to "discuss the experiment" (and, yknow, maybe dinner sometime?). The psychologists' conclusion was this: subjects in a state of high anxiety or excitement -- in this case, walking on a narrow wooden bridge above a deep gorge -- are far more receptive to romantic advances. The physical symptoms of stress were subconsciously interpreted as signals of arousal, and the starry-eyed subjects responded accordingly. In other words, a quickened pulse is not a result of seduction, but rather seduction is the result of a quickened pulse. Depending on your school of interpersonal-attraction thought, this is described as misattribution, excitation transfer, or response facilitation, but the lesson is the same. A long rally ends, and there she stands -- heart pounding, sweat beaded, lungs heaving. She gazes across the table and sees your face. The rally is forgotten: her heart now pounds for you. Soon, a tangle of limbs, clothes, and green netting.

Thus we find the preconditions for love: proximity, enforced separation, and pre-existing physical excitement. Ping pong might not be the only activity that combines all three. Air hockey, perhaps. But it is certainly the only activity that combines all three plus Biljana Golic.

This aphrodisiac cocktails pack a punch even at the highest levels of the sport. In 2004, shortly before the Athens Olympics, four players were sent home from the Chinese table tennis team for "engaging in romantic affairs" with other players. These players knew the punishment that awaited them, and yet they still could not resist. Such is the allure of a well-gripped paddle! And these particular paddles were well-gripped indeed: two of the players punished were the ladyfriends of the number one and two ranked men's players in the world, Wang Hao and Ma Lin. (The men were not disciplined for their role in the relationships.)

But here's where it gets interesting. Not only is ping pong fertile soil for blossoming love, but the reverse is equally true as well: sexy feelings breed star paddlers. And when those feelings go unsexy, the paddlers go unstarry. These two ostracized women, Fan Ying and Bai Yang, continued to play competitive ping pong -- but without love, their smashes had no ... smash. In both cases, the players' ITTF rankings dropped precipitously after the 2004 heartbreaks. Their male counterparts, unpunished on the table but battered in the heart, saw their play suffer as well; Wang was upset in the files (by a Korean!), and Ma didn't even medal. In contrast, observe the other two players sent packing: a couple. Li Nan and Hou Yingchao were left bereft of luxury training and nationalistic glory, but they retained a richer reward: the glory of love. Expelled together, two against the world, both Li and Hou actually improved after leaving the team.

Love without ping pong, ping pong without love -- I suppose either is possible, but what's the point?

The first person to truly comprehend this special symmetry was Henry Miller, preeminent erotic scribe of the 20th century. This legendary penman was also a legendary paddle-holder, famous for his ping pong passions. Even today, the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur features a table, available for play by any stoppers-by. For Miller, ping pong was not a mere pastime, a diversion from his regular life. Nay, the ball and paddle were at the core of his existence. When asked what kept him so youthful into his geriatric years, Miller replied, "The purity of my soul, playing ping pong, and above all, love!" He might as well have said "Ping pong, playing ping pong, and above all, ping pong" -- for ping pong is purity, and ping pong is love. His fountain of youth bubbled on throughout his eighth decade: across a ping pong table at a Hollywood party, he met Hoki Tokuda, forty-seven years his junior. Within months Tokuda became Miller's fifth wife; the marriage ceremony took place between two fast-paced games.

If anything else needs to be said on the special relationship between acts of pong and acts of love, we will leave it to Miller himself: "The importance of this recreation lies in preventing intellectual discussions."

Of course, it must be admitted that ping pong isn't always sexy. For example:

But what exactly is the problem here? The stance looks correct. The grip seems to be fundamentally sound. The shorts are appropriately snug. But yet the overall effect is strangely un-arousing. What is wrong with this picture?

Clearly there are possible pitfalls when attempting to harness the seductive powers of pong -- and clearly that pit can fall down deep. How to avoid those dangers? What can one do to maximize one's mojo? What can I do to maximize my mojo?

This calls for an expert. By general consensus, the most important work on romantic attraction of the past eighty years is The Art of Seduction, by Robert Greene. Greene is the author of several other seminal works, including The 48 Laws of Power ("An inspiration from somewhere else" -- Stephon Marbury), and The 50th Law (co-authored by 50 Cent). The New Yorker has described Greene as "a kind of sage." Surely a man inspiring such diverse praise would possess the wisdom necessary to extract the secrets of ping pong seduction. But would his theories stand up to the slams and spins of real competition? In the interest of scientific rigor and personal procreation, I decided to test them myself.

Armed with Greene's pinkish tome, I left my desk and boldly descended the stairs to the basement, where two pleasant sights awaited me: a verdant table, net tautly astrung, and a young lady, paddle in hand. We greeted each other warmly, with raised eyebrows and tentative smiles. Greene had already instructed me to Isolate the Victim: "Lure the seduced into your lair, where nothing is familiar." Done; the basement was empty, as basements often are, and there would be no doubles' matches at this early point in our relationship. The paddle-wielding flower -- let's call her Bethany -- waggled her paddle insouciantly in my direction, and warm-ups began.

I flipped ahead to Chapter 2: Create a False Sense of Security -- Approach Indirectly. This casual volleying may precede any official scorekeeping, but that doesn't mean there is nothing to be won or lost. In fact, the warm-ups are as important as the game itself -- the bow before the dance, the flirting before the affair. I kept it easy, even, friendly; Bethany did the same. Back and forth, back and forth, we were united in a steady bounce of symbiosis. I appeared safe, reliable; trust bloomed in her eyes, as she began to daydream of our gaggle of alliteratively named children. Oh, Bethany! Didn't your mother tell you never to give your heart to a ping pong man?

We were soon warmed. The match began.

"Poeticize your presence," says the master Greene. I attempted to play with a lyrical elegance, all sweeping forehands and piquant chops. I resisted any urge to throw my paddle. I avoided girlish yelps. My presence was iambic. My presence was Nerudian. My presence could have been read aloud by Maya Angelou. I looked across the table, at lovely Bethany. Her cheeks were flushed.

But something was not quite right. My mastery was apparent, but it was all too simple, too direct -- more a business transaction than a seductive dance. I turned to Chapter 3: Send Mixed Signals. This is an area Greene discusses in great depth, and from many angles -- insinuation, need, temptation -- but they all can be distilled down to one daring maneuver: Lob Lob Lob Smash. This begins with a steady sequence of high, looping shots, insinuating my way into an easy exchange, an extended volley. The steady rhythms become hypnotic and then addictive, thereby creating a need. But poor Bethany is torn, because another voice within her is nearly berserk with temptation: the ball is just floating there, so juicy, so hittable ... And just when this tension becomes unbearable, when the two competing desires seem they cannot endure any longer, I resolve it myself, with an unexpected, furious slam that skids off the table and into the far recesses of the damp basement. Point: Horowitz.

(For a different type of opponent -- those with tournament-level skills or masochistic tendencies -- an alternate strategy can be employed: the risky Smash Smash Smash Lob. This should be attempted only by experienced operators; dangers include pulled groins and lost matches. When performed correctly, however, the SSSL allows for all the benefits of LLLS, plus Ch 21: Give Them Space to Fall -- The Pursuer Is Pursued; the sweet young thing across the table gets a taste of blood, and maybe she likes it. And maybe you like it too.)

By now, Bethany and I were deep into the match. The score was tight, and the end was near. A connection had been forged. But our rhythms, once so intoxicating, had grown a bit ... stale. It was time for Greene's master stroke: Ch 18: Stir Up the Transgressive and Taboo. "Master the art of the bold move," he writes. "Not everything in romantic love is supposed to be tender and soft; hint that you have a cruel, even sadistic streak." Easy for him to say; in the safety of a luxury hotel, any number of scenarios and costumes can be brought into play. But I was in a basement, facing the runaway train of Bethany's topspin slams. Various naughty options sprang to mind: Switch the paddle to my other hand. Switch the paddle for a butter knife. Leap up upon the table. Remove my pants. Etc. What would Robert Greene do? What would Henry Miller do? What would Biba want? The ball crossed the net, heading my way. Time stood still. Nothing moved, except for my pounding, yearning heart.

And there we will let a veil of darkness fall over the basement. Maybe I won, maybe I lost. The important thing is to play the game; there's always another match ahead, other players in the pool. And maybe such straightforward analogies no longer apply here. Ping pong sounds like love, looks like love, works like love, and feels like love; it provides a language for describing, the physical ingredients for initiating, the emotional thrills for elevating, and the spiritual core for maintaining a lifelong affair -- and yet here we are, alone again. Ping pong is love, and love is ping pong -- both are eternal mysteries, and these mysteries haunt us, enchant us, sustain us.

Roger Bennett is the co-author of "Bar Mitzvah Disco" and "Camp Camp." Eli Horowitz is senior editor of McSweeney's.


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