Which is worse: not knowing where you stand, or knowing exactly where you stand? If you could choose, would you opt to, as Ingersoll muses back on page 112, “know just where [you] stand at all times,” or go forward in ignorance, never knowing exactly how you compare to others? Does knowing or not knowing make you care more, or less?
In last week’s reading, we came across the “dark legend of one Eric Clipperton,” an independent player who advanced to the top of the tennis rankings by playing with a loaded Glock 17 at his left temple and threatening to “blow his own brains out publicly, right there on court, if he should lose, ever, even once.”
When O.N.A.N.T.A.’s newly minted computer and ranking center manager ranks Clipperton as #1 in Boys’ Continental 18-and-Unders, he trudges up to Enfield Tennis Academy, gets an audience with James and Mario Incandenza, and eliminates his own map in front of them. The problem, we find out, with knowing exactly where you stand, is that if you finally get to the top, there’s nowhere to go but down.
I’ve been thinking about the Enfield Tennis Academy students (and their competitors) a lot this past week. As someone who invested the entirety of the first 25 years of her life in school and academia, I crave environments where abilities are ranked and quantified. I know what a 97 percent means. I know what a 4.0 GPA means. And I know what those numbers mean in comparison to those who are there, going through life beside me.
Those kind of numbers are an easy answer to the “Am I any good?” question that rattles around in the quiet spaces of our skulls. After all, we all want to feel like we’re doing at least an adequate – if not excellent – job handling our day-to-day endeavors, whether it’s our job, our off-hours pursuits, our relationship skills or our parenting abilities.
But how can we really know? Unless you play competitive sports or work for one of those companies that implements a ranking-based annual review process, your abilities go mostly unquantified. You might get a promotion, earn a salary increase, win a prize or celebrate an anniversary, but you aren’t literally ranked #3 out of your company’s 100 employees, or #5 out of the 20 moms in your daughter’s kindergarten class. Life doesn’t work that way; you can’t rate work and life experiences the same way you can tally wins and losses in competitive tennis.
Hal gets this in a way Eric Clipperton didn’t. We see him, in the tennis practice following the previous day’s Eschaton match, looking back at the shards of computer glass glittering in the sun and reflecting on the fact that he didn’t do more to prevent his Little Buddies from being hurt. He’s good – he’s predicted to be seeded in the top four at the Whataburger Invitational – but what he’s really grappling over is what it means to be a good person.