Turning 21: A Reflection

Always struggling with how to start these things, I suppose I’ll just start from where I left off. If you don’t remember, it the first weekend of Spring Break, the night before I left for California with my father. I was still experiencing a rare high of intense joy and astonishment that I was noticed by Natalie Maines which, in retrospect, probably isn’t that spectacular. But for those few moments I was filled with a glee that was numbing and foreign. Being noticed, man. It’s a beautiful thing.

(If you don’t care at all about my experiences watching tennis, skip about halfway down)

So off we went to Palm Springs, known to some of you cool kids for hosting Coachella, but is relevant to me for being the location of my favorite non-Grand Slam tennis tournament, Indian Wells. It would be my first time attending this tournament and provided a guaranteed opportunity for me to watch virtually every top tennis player in existence. But all that really mattered for me, the crazed borderline stalker that I am, was the chance to watch Maria Sharapova play in person, something I hadn’t done since 2010.

I plan on writing a more detailed post of the trip and providing a lot more pictures than will be posted here, so stay tuned, whoever’s interested in mediocre pictures of people you’ve probably never heard of!

Some might say that watching three scalding days of tennis all day and night and not doing much of anything else on a trip to California would be miserable, but those people are fools. It was seriously 3 of the best days I’ve had in a long time, a rare few days that I got to spend with my father whom I had only seen a handful of times since before leaving for Ghana. Being a smaller, more intimate tournament than the U.S. Open allowed me to be just feet away from people I had only been able to previously ogle from afar. Of course Maria Sharapova’s practices were held as far away from public access as possible (she is the Queen, after all), but I still managed to take plenty of creepy, zoomed-in pictures of her and other ladies practicing. Take, for example, Victoria Azarenka, a “lady” who had been the #1 player in the world for almost all of last year, before thankfully being dethroned by Serena Williams in February. This “woman” is an absolute disgrace to humanity for reasons I won’t get into here, but all you really need to know is that she cheats against teenagers, has convenient medical “ailments”, and is currently dating THIS GUY. No. Really. I’m not joking. See for yourself. DSCN2705

Anyway, the cretin unsurprisingly withdrew from the tournament and I was spared an opportunity of having to watch her play.

To get that rotten image out of your memory, here’s a picture of Maria I took practicing before her Round of 16 match.
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One day in particular had to be one of the greatest (and longest) tennis watching days I had ever experienced, featuring up and coming players choking away leads, top players flopping (I’m looking at you, Petra), and a probable once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to watch Maria Sharapova play just feet away from me. It all started earlier in the day session (early would turn into a relative word for that day) when some lady stood up and announced that she was selling a front-row Stadium 1 ticket for the night session. Knowing Maria was scheduled to play the first night match at 7:00PM, I basically begged my father to get that ticket for me, which he did. Just when I thought I was beginning to break from my past as a crazed, spoiled rotten douche, this happens. But at that moment I had no thoughts other than “HAHAHAHA MARIA HAHAH ❤ ❤ <3”. Yup. Definitely the sign of a healthy person. If you can’t tell, I was excited.DSCN2748

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As the day dragged on with one 2.5+ hour match after the other, I was beginning to have paranoid thoughts that her match would be moved to another court because it was getting so late. Finally, at around 10:00PM, she took to the court against Sara Errani, the girl she defeated to complete her Career Grand Slam at the French Open last year. Now, you don’t have to like vagina to recognize just how stunning this woman is. It’s completely different seeing her at times just 8 feet away. The intensity you see on TV is amplified at this proximity, and each calculated step she takes and each clenched fist and bitch-stare across the net was breathtaking. In essence, girl looked HAWT.  Oh. And she’s loud. Did you know that? I did. But holy God. It’s actually scary.

DSCN3023Anyway, I was settled in, excited to enjoy a fairly straightforward match against a woman who hadn’t given her much trouble in the past. WRONG. SO WRONG. It quickly turned into one of the most stressful experiences of my life when it became clear that things weren’t going to go as smoothly as I expected. Before I knew it, girl was just points away from losing the first set and I was quickly deteriorating into a state of mild psychosis. Really. It was bad. There were times during that 82 minute set (for non-tennis fans, sets generally don’t last longer than 45-50 minutes) when I was laughing maniacally at moments that were anything but comical, I sunk lower and lower into my seat (there was a lot of head shaking), and basically wondered why I ever thought it would have been a good idea to be this close during one of her matches. DSCN3033It’s like (kinda, sorta, not really) watching somebody you obsess care about suffer through a painful ordeal that you can’t do anything about, and all you want to do is escape and pretend that everything’s alright. You could feel the desperation emanating from this lady, and it was utterly exhausting. Somehow, after 2 hours, Maria pulled through that match just at the strike of midnight, ending things in a much less stressful manner.

So there I was, the moment I never dreamed would happen to me, the moment I would finally get Maria Sharapova’s autograph. By that time the stadium was virtually empty, and I managed to get a spot above the doors leading to the locker room without having to toss any child aside (I would have). I couldn’t believe how serendipitous it was that I was in possession of a U.S. Open 2006 hat, representing the year she won that tournament in a brilliant display at just 19. And wearing this perfect dress. As she approached, I had one of those cheesy/I didn’t believe actually happen moments when everything slowed down, sounds became muffled, and all that mattered was that one of my idols was just inches away from me and my waving hand. She was right beneath me, signing balls and hats directly next to me, and then….

And then the bitch was gone. Snubbed. Ignored completely. Absolute devastation. I’m pretty sure I had never felt more humiliated in my life, and that’s saying something. For the first time I think I understood what it felt like to be rejected, which says things about me that probably aren’t too pleasant. It was basically the first time I really put myself out there, made my feelings and intentions clear (can’t be more clear than shouting her name in crazed desperation while waving a hat in her face), and…just mortifying. We sat through Novak Djokovic’s match that didn’t finish until after 2:00AM, and by that time you could basically count how many people were left in the stands. I figured that he would surely sign an autograph for everyone left, and waited patiently as he signed something for everyone around me. And what do ya know? More rejection! Because the night just wasn’t jocular enough for me. So after a 15 hour day of watching tennis, we sulked back to the hotel empty-handed and cranky.

I should have known that my life wouldn’t take a break from being absolutely ridiculous. The next night, after a disappointing match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal ended with Roger and his injured back promptly being shown the door, I settled in for my final match at Indian Wells that featured the Bryan Brothers, the greatest doubles team to ever play the game. I don’t care much for doubles, but they were entertaining, and I always have a soft-spot for veteran players who have earned respect. They won after saving a match point, and began the tradition of signing tennis balls and launching them into the stands for a few lucky fans to claw each other’s faces off over. One of the twins was facing our direction (we were sitting almost as high up as you can get), and something shocking happened. Astonishingly channeling my 7-10 year old self who had despised played baseball, I calmly stuck out my left hand, and before I knew it, I was looking down at an autographed tennis ball from these legendary men.

photoSo ridiculous. Apparently being 2 feet away from the player isn’t enough to get an autograph, but being dozens of feet away gets a ball launched right into my outstretched hand. I was stunned into a bewildered stupor; Me? I caught a ball? With one hand? I possess that kind of capability?! My father probably hadn’t felt that much pride in me since I had made the game-winning hit in a baseball game when I was approximately 9 years old.  Sorry, dad. But at least I make good decisions 95% of the time! It’s a trade-off. So, the trip ended on a lovely high-note (even higher after Maria won the tournament a few days later), and I look forward to (hopefully) returning next year.

Phew. Wrote more than I planned to about this trip, so for those of you still with me, you will be rewarded with tales of a visit by my mother and sister, followed by some contemplations concerning my upcoming 21st birthday/my future in general.

My mother and sister arrived to partake in their Spring tradition of using visiting me as an excuse to enter into every store in Georgetown and renew their quest of viewing the ever elusive Cherry Blossom. In all seriousness, it was an enjoyable weekend, filled with a trip to the zoo (No otters. But beavers!!), the cherry blossom festival fireworks show, and occasional time to sit and enjoy some beautiful weather when my mother actually allowed us to take a break.photo photo photo

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At this point, I have a pretty good idea of what to expect from these two whenever they see me after being gone for a minimum 2 weeks at a time. The amount of fussing and confusing excitement (being in my presence shouldn’t be looked forward to that much) is always overwhelming, but, it’s just something I have to accept. And because things can never be completely normal when my family is involved, I had the foresight to mark down moments that were particularly outrageous. This should paint a pretty accurate picture of what my family interactions are like:

  • Upon greeting me at the hotel, my mother smacked my face repeatedly, saying “Matty!!! You look good!!!!!!!” Oh thank heavens. I was really becoming paranoid that my body had deteriorated in the 3 weeks since she last saw me.
    • Despite my apparent wonderful appearance, my mother still took the time to trace out how she would like to have my beard carved into (basically into the same shape as her boyfriend’s). Yup. She took her finger and drew an invisible beard on me. In the hotel lobby.
  • At one point in Georgetown, I was sitting outside while my mother and sister looked around a store I obviously would have no interest in. They eventually felt bad about me waiting and told the store employee about it. The employee apparently uttered something along the lines of, “Oh. You should have said something! I would have given him “Porsches and Ladies” to read!” Yeah. That’s definitely at the top of my reading list right now. Just beneath the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, actually.
  • WARNING: Graphic. “I must be really comfortable here because I’ve never been able to make a doody the first day of a trip”—anonymous
  • “I remember walking through this broken boulder”—my mother, regarding the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial
  • “I think I’m dying!”…pause…burp.—my sister
  • “Ya can’t be walking around DC at night. There’s homeless people!”—my mother
  • “Who’s coming with me for my colonoscopy?!”—my mother
  • “What’s a Macklemore?”—my mother
  • “I want some pasta” (my mother). “You’re having ravioli!” (my sister). “That’s not pasta to me!!” (my mother).
  • “What’s different about a sloth bear from a regular sloth?”—my mother
  •  “You have fleshy ankles”—shoe store employee to my sister
  • “I don’t know what’s happening”—waitress at dinner to us. Because we can’t just order a meal without chaos. Ever.

DSCN3140The morning they left was the day I registered for classes, an experience that was maybe more problematic than I anticipated. For basically my entire college career I had molded schedules in a way that would allow for the possibility of having an internship. I’ve had a lot of great experiences over the years, been able to spend time at places I never imagined I’d be, and my resume is basically bulging at the seams with entries that make me look more impressive than I’ll ever be. This culminated in me being offered an interview with the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, basically the pinnacle of any DC International Affairs student’s dreams. Long story short, things didn’t go too well (my phone interview skills are unparalleled). I think if I’m being honest with myself, there’s a part of me that sabotaged that interview. Yeah, my lack of confidence or belief that I really deserved the opportunity probably played a role, but I think there’s a larger part of me that really just didn’t want the position anyway. Maybe I’m tired of putting myself through all this stress, of balancing a full class schedule with working 20 hours a week for no pay, doing things that aren’t all that interesting. Let alone finding any time to have some kind of life. So I was left in the aftermath of registration, a schedule that leaves Monday, Wednesday, and Friday virtually free, with the decision of leaving things as they are and trying to fill those days with more work, or of changing things around, maybe taking classes I’d be more interested in that would leave little room for more. I could feel this dread building that I was wasting my time, not taking advantage of college the way I should be. Maybe I can find something smaller to do, like return to the animal shelter I volunteered at freshman year. Or maybe work with DC Reads. So for now, I left things as they are, and even did something wild and added a 1-credit tennis class. Yeah, I’ll probably still apply for internships, but there won’t be this sense of urgency like there usually is. I want next year to be the year I really take steps towards bettering myself, physically and mentally, and damn it, I think I’ve earned a break. What I really wanted was for someone to tell me, to reassure me, that it was okay to take that break, that it wouldn’t be a big deal if I took one semester to just, I don’t know…live? But, it is what it is. We’ll see what happens, I suppose. Things have a way of always working out in the end, one way or another.

So. 21. It’s really hard for me to wrap my mind around turning that age tomorrow, and I’m not entirely sure why that’s the case. It’s an age that people generally look forward to more than most, the age when you really can do whatever you want, whenever you want, without fear of repercussion. No more fake IDs, or having your older siblings or whoever go out and get you all the alcohol you want. Obviously this hasn’t been much of a concern for me; I haven’t been counting down the days like some do for when they can do this. For whatever reason, as this day has come closer, there’s been this growing sense of discomfort, or nausea, or…something. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I can say with certitude that excitement is far from what I’m feeling.

I have some theories. As the years have gone by, especially the last few, there has been this growing belief, a belief that seems to be growing at an increasingly rapid pace, that I have wasted valuable years. With every fantastic, unbelievable memory I’ve made, with every place I’ve visited, and with every opportunity I’ve been given, I can’t shake this belief that I’ve focused zero time on the things that really matter, the things that are vital, essential. I’ve focused all of my energy on achieving superficial things, academic and professional success which, while important, isn’t most important. The problem is that I haven’t allowed myself to even think about anything else; I’ve convinced myself that this is what I need to do, what’s best for me, that I can think about these things later. You tell yourself something enough times and you do start to believe it; it becomes second-nature, something you just believe to be inherent to who you are, instead of being something you manufactured as a way to avoid what you’re afraid of. This has worked for me for many years (I made it into this God forsaken school, after all), but lately I’ve been noticing these cracks. I’m beginning to realize what I’ve been doing and why, and it all comes down to that one word I wrote about a little over a year ago: Insecurity. One little word that’s been responsible for all my avoidance, all my doubts. I know I’m eventually going to need to deal with and figure out why it is I lack so much confidence in myself as a person worth getting to know. I don’t know what I’m afraid of. So there it is. I’m turning one year older, but it’s just another year that has passed with little progress made where it counts.

Another theory, maybe connected to my first one, but pretty basic and unoriginal. Turning 21 means I’m just that much closer to being thrust into a world that I don’t feel like I’m prepared for. I feel trapped in a current that’s pushing me in this unknown direction, and I feel completely powerless against it. All the flailing, struggling and fighting won’t save me from the fact that, one year from now, I’ll be graduating college, and I’ll be expected to have everything that comes next figured out. All I want is for things to slow down, for things to be less urgent, but that’s not going to happen. I hate that everything’s supposed to be decided at this one age, at this one moment, and if you don’t, you’re often deemed to be this visionless, lost person. I think what I’m most afraid of is having to leave my remaining safety net, school. If there’s one thing I’m reminded of over and over again, it’s that the world has the capacity for so much ugliness; the evil, the hatred, the murder, the infidelity, the cruelty. There are so many things out there that make the world a place I often feel disappointed to have to be a part of.

But then…then you see this adorable puppy video on YouTube and you’re brought to instant tears, or see this baby who was born deaf hear his first sounds, or you see this person whose smile or glance alone can make you feel instantly energized. You hear your name being chanted by children when you arrive for “work,” you see the amount of joy just jumping on a trampoline can bring. You receive countless hugs in a given day just for being present, you see the relief and sense of accomplishment when 4+8 is finally figured out. You’re being begged to stay until bedtime to watch a movie, you’re fought over just for the opportunity to be picked up and held, or pushed on the swing. You hear the words, “Mattee, don’t go.” You feel this overpowering love being thrown at you, more than you’ve ever opened yourself up to, and find yourself deflecting some of that love back, even when you realize the pain that will likely come when you leave. In so many ways, Ghana has helped me understand the importance of love, the beauty that it holds. No matter how much I may miss Prince and the others, the most important thing is that for those 4 months, I allowed myself to feel, to connect, to love.

That’s really all that matters, isn’t it? At the end of your life, if you can say that you loved, that you really, completely, unabashedly gave yourself to another person, everything else is just extra, an accessory. The love I gave and received in Ghana I think has been the most important thing to happen to me in years; It has opened me up to new possibilities, it’s made me realize that I do want more than what I have right now. It’s these moments of clarity, these reminders that life is so much more than the ugliness you see on the news on a daily basis, that need to be clung to. It’s the smiles, the laughter, the hope, the awe and the wonder, the leap of faith taken when you board a plane and visit one more new country (Sri Lanka is just 40 days away now)…that’s what needs to be focused on. I hope more than anything else that I manage to channel the person I was in Ghana with these kids in Sri Lanka, but one of these days, I hope I can be that person all the time. Who knows, maybe this will be the year.

Maybe turning 21 won’t be so bad after all.

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