Badminton is Neither "Bad," nor a "Mint," nor is it "On" anything . . . Discuss!

Friday, August 22, 2014 | 0 Comment(s)

Badminton is neither "bad," nor a "mint" nor is it "on" anything. Discuss!  Somehow this lawn game turned gym class requirement has followed me like the rope climb on my travels around the world.

The first time I was introduced to "slow tennis" was after we completed the handball curriculum in middle school.  Even at 13, I could tell that the school staff was reaching to find every possible non-contact activity that involved competition, a ball, and a lack of expensive equipment.  With one long-ass net stretched across the entirety of the gym and replacing the handball wall, we instantly transformed the gymnasium into six badminton arenas.

It should be mentioned that most young teens are not intrinsically motivated to play badminton.  While it is way better than the wrestling mats, the only real enjoyment our immature minds could foresee was saying the word "birdie" a lot. Flippin the birdie. Birdie on a wire. Bye Bye Birdie . . . And when we grew tired of saying that, we started in on "shuttlecock."  That usual got us til the end of the first class.

"because 'rocket penis' was already taken"
We did like smashing things however.  And once we realized that you were encouraged to smash the birdie as hard as possible over the net, everybody in class began to fall in line.  You could really thrash those rackets through the air, and if it occasionally flew out of your grasp and dinged another student in the head, all the better.

Once the students bought into faux-tennis as a sport, the teachers unleashed the competitive side of the game.  A tournament would be held during class.  The winner of said tournament got to keep one of the brand new badminton rackets that had a star pattern woven into the strings.  I guess the idea was that if you were the best middle school badminton player, you probably would take those skills with you and play at home.  To the best of my knowledge, no one ever played badminton outside of school.  The racket was essentially a functional trophy.

I never understood why they always had to ruin the experience of learning a new sport by creating tournament play.  For most students, tournament play just meant that they were forced into the activity of playing someone much better than them at a sport they just learned, and getting destroyed in a landslide of a loss.  Nothing like chopping the legs out from under kids' new found skills.  Inevitably, once the second and third round began, all of the less athletic youngsters just got to watch those kids who were already getting plenty of extra-curricular exercise play badminton, while they sat on the sidelines.  God bless education.


The next time badminton popped up in my travels I was 18 and living on a kibbutz in Israel.  I know, right?  Who would have thought.  After a few months of acquainting myself with the kibbutzniks my age, I was invited to "the theater for sport." Those were the exact words my friend used.  While I most certainly felt that something had been lost in the translation, I was living in the middle of a farm, and any new activity was a welcome respite from days of farming and nights of drinking.  Though sports, excuse me, sport, inside a theater was a new concept for me to mull over before attending.  What should I wear?  I mean, I don't want to arrive all decked out in my short shorts and a headband to confront a group of casually sweatpantsed Israelis.  I also didn't want to roll up in my sweats, just to die of heat exhaustion from running around inside an un-air conditioned building.

Cargo short. Cargo shorts and a t-shirt, bring a sweatshirt just in case.  Nailed it.

Turned out the sport my local friend was referring to was a semi-intense, definitely for serious, round-robin style weekly badminton tournament.  Oh sure, games during the first hour or so weren't for keeps, though still played all out.  But once pairs were drawn for the nightly tourney, a playoff atmosphere gripped the 23 or so of us gathered in the front of a kibbutz drama theater at 8:00pm on a Thursday.

The court, singular, was constructed of masking tape measured out atop the stage of the theater.  I was impressed to realize that our semi-rinky-ding avocado-growing kibbutz's stage was deep enough to fit an entire badminton court, but it covered the distance with room to spare.  That said, the amount of space"out of bounds" to the sides was quite thin.  On one side the players had to mind not to smash their racket, or face, into the back wall of the stage, while on the other side, you had to mind the 5-foot stage dive you were liable to launch yourself into when engaged in a long rally for supremacy.  All in all, I decided the court was "very Israeli." Whatever that means.

Those games played out on Thursday nights were the sweaty gym workout segment of every 80's worst-to-first training montage.  All ages were welcome, though most of the smaller kids left for bed before the pairs action began.  And as I remember it, every person that picked up a tiny elongated racket of destiny sprinted their heart out on that stage. As time has draped its rosy coloring upon the Ghosts of Exercise Past, I recall a few hours each Thursday unburdened by the upcoming early morning wake-up or the threat of another bomb-warning siren rushing us all back to our lodgings (though admittedly, that still would have driven us out).  We played that wacky sport at 110% just for the love of the game.  Even if we didn't love that game, specifically.  We didn't have a tennis court.

I never *did* get to play while in Japan . . . 

This past weekend my wife and I took up rackets once again to face off in badminton against my in-laws.  Oh badminton, how you toy with me!  All those feelings of middle school and kibbutz tournaments flashed through my mind's eye as I twirled the familiar racket in my palm.

But.  It seems.  The rules have changed.  We are going "for rallies," I'm told.   The court has no lines, it is a temporary moveable net in the middle of a lush green yard.  Ideal.

"But where are the lines?," I don't say out loud.  Never want to look crazy in this particular company.  As the shuttlecock flies, little me giggles at the word that no one is saying but my mind is repeating over and over.  Shuttlecock shuttlecock shuttlecock.  Hilarious.

As I swing my forehand around to lob the birdie (hehe) back to my father-in-law, I distinctly remember the sensation of smacking that webbed not-a-tennis-ball as feeling more cathartic.  A twang, for certain.  Perhaps even the rebound of taut strings against rubber.

I've completely missed the birdie.  It is nestled in the long blades of grass at my feet.  The cold reality that not playing a sport for 20 years, and getting older in the meantime, can sometimes affect one's game.  I fear I was not the exception to the rule in this case.

And with that swing and miss all of that badminton competitiveness unloaded from my shoulders.  Of course the point was to keep the birdie in the air.  Court lines are useless, this is a family game.  And as the four of us flopped around in the grass, swatting at the shuttlecock shuttlecock shuttlecock like mosquitos at dusk, I couldn't help but contemplate how these new rules better fit the person I've become.  Could this wack-a-doodle ping-pong-on-acid of a game really be serving as a metaphor for my life?

Badminton 1  Mattitiyahu 0

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