Soon after Andy’s arrival, a friend asked how it felt to be a dad. “Great, I think,” was my answer. I wasn’t sure if I had experienced anything yet in the sphere of being a father. Other than cheer leading during birth, nothing much had really happened. I had taken photos – thousands — and shopped for diapers – thousands. Otherwise, I still had no idea about being a dad.
“Don’t worry,” my friend said, “he will teach you how to be a dad; children always do.”
Despite Andy’s best efforts, 5 1/2 years later, I am still a woefully slow learner. Recently, the lesson was the difference between playing a sport and competing. I hadn’t thought much about the difference for years. For kids, I had assumed that sports were mostly about playing; that it was all fun, unlike adults, who seemed to be capable of taking the fun out of anything. Kids sports were recreation — beach volleyball and gunnysack races. For adults, sport was serious. The world weighed on the outcome of even a pick up game of basketball.
My own view was that sports were better played than watched; a game of HORSE in the driveway preferable to watching the NBA final. And losing was simply an outcome of the game. You didn’t have to like it, but it was part of the game. With Andy, I tried to make it the same. Sports were also a way of making him stronger — he had terrible asthma and pneumonia before he was a year old.
So it was that I overlooked the importance the school undokai, or sports day. There is no U.S. equivalent. Every Japanese school does one – either spring or autumn, from daycare right on up through the grades. After witnessing my first one when Andy was 18 months old, I decided that these, like many activities in Japan, were tests of patience and perseverance. Periodic spates of children running, tumbling and jumping, interrupted the dominant performance: Teachers arranging equipment and drawing chalk lines in the dirt. Except for a short race to his teacher (he won), Andy did little except sit his chair and scan the sky for airplanes. The second year was even less eventful. His auntie came to watch him, which elated him until she had to sit in the audience. The day consisted of him crying and passing on most of the activities. His third sports day was more enjoyable – he laughed and chatted with his friends through most of it. But he lost the footrace -– his competition jumped the start, but it wasn’t called back.
Last year something changed. He’d learned about winning and losing. He’d started, at his own request, judo on his fourth birthday and that combined with the several sports he was already doing (cycling, swimming, and soccer) he became more aggressive. He insisted that judo was fun, but I wasn’t sure. He cried often in practices, even when he was winning, which was most of the time. Once, he even cried in frustration when he and three of his teammates couldn’t beat the sensei in a tug-o-war.
Everything had become do or die. I tried to laugh off his competitiveness, but found myself, like many parents, considering the feasibility of intervening in soccer games and judo matches. He took it seriously and I started to view it the same way.
As his fourth sports day approached, he seemed ready. He had practically lived in Komazawa Park through the summer and when he wasn’t in the park, he was swimming. At the start of the undokai, he promptly went out and lost the footrace, again because of the quick start. But he seemed to handle it and turned his focus to the team competition (the two oldest classes compete in teams). His team had two tries at tug-o-war and lost both badly. It wasn’t even close. Another child gloated in front of him and he cried for the rest of the day.
By the time this year’s undokai had arrived, he had retired from judo and taken up studying in the evenings. I assumed that his competitive fever had eased. It most certainly, however, had not. First, there was the footrace, and again his competitors jumped the gun and won the race. He looked disappointed, but moved on to the team competition. This time it was tama-ire — a primitive incarnation of basketball, in which bean bags are tossed into a high basket. His team easily won the first match and were jubilant. In the second match his team scored more than double the competition’s score. As I watched the elation, I realized that he hadn’t won a sports day event since the toddler footrace in his first year. It had taken him four years, but he had returned to the winner’s circle, at last.