I’m no hacky sack champion. My lifetime record for the number of kicks I’ve made before the hacky sack hits the corner of my shoe and angles for the ground is less than ten.
But I like to hacky sack. I like the way it sounds when it hits my shoe, like sand falling into a bucket at the beach. And it’s so satisfying when it hits the sweet spot — the spot where my arch curves, and where the sole of my shoe meets the three stripes of my Adidas Gazelles. When it hits the sweet spot, it bounces straight back up slowly, giving me more than enough time to make another attempt with my other foot.
I used to practice hacky sack on my driveway, wearing red, white and blue Nike Air Force Twos. It was what I did when I was doing nothing else — when I was waiting for dinner, for instance. The sun would still be strong and my parent’s cars would be making cracking noises, cooling down for the night. My dad would come up to me sweaty to show me the wheel barrel of vegetables he harvested from the garden. We’re going to have to put a lot of tomatoes in the salad tonight.
It was what I did when I was waiting for the mail to arrive. I never got anything in the mail, but I liked to be the first to file through the local newspaper and pre-accepted credit card letters and alumni donation requests that came in every day. I liked to scan the paper to count how many people I knew and dog ear pages of the Target ad. So, I’d wait outside around noon and kick around until I heard the mail truck turn the corner.
My hacky sack came with me to college. Within the first couple of days, I brought it with me to the freshman quad and started to kick around like I always did back home. I didn’t play any better — kick, kick, drop was (and still is) my mantra when it comes to hacky sacking — but I noticed something changed about the way that I felt doing it.
At home, when I messed up and the hacky sack hit the pavement, I’d pick it back up and start over again without thinking much about my failure. It wasn’t a failure, after all. I was just playing around and wasting some time. Sure, it would have been nice to get past ten, but even if I had, there was no prize waiting for me on the other side. Even mediocre hacky sack players would still consider my skills to be pretty bad and they weren’t watching. No one was watching.
At home, when I messed up and the hacky sack hit the pavement, I’d pick it back up and start over again without thinking much about my failure. It wasn’t a failure, after all.
But at college, it didn’t feel so inconsequential when the hacky sack fell. I didn’t pick the hacky sack up right away and start again. Instead, I would scan the quad to see if anyone was looking at me. Shortly after beginning to look around, I’d realize that I really should be focused on myself so that I don’t come across as someone who cares about other people watching me. Next, I’d laugh it off, the way people do when they trip on an uneven sidewalk. Finally, I’d mutter some words under my breath. Even I couldn’t make them out, but they intended to make it seem like I never mess up. I always get past ten.
The little playtime hobby that I used to do while I was waiting for the pasta to cook somehow turned itself into a performance. I was no longer passing time, I was performing for the long-haired guys who walked up excitedly and asked me if they could join in. I was performing for the girl on the phone with her mom, chatting about the J. Crew sale on a bench across the quad. I was performing for the security guards on their lunch break, leaning against a brick wall in front of some dorms.
The little playtime hobby that I used to do while I was waiting for the pasta to cook somehow turned itself into a performance.
I got stage fright. Before long, I tossed my hacky sack into my shorts pocket and went back to my dorm room.
Growing up in the middle of nowhere is incredible for many things. My youth was filled with bike rides to swimming pools and making forts in the forest. As a teenager, I’d walk around farms and read Hunter S. Thompson books and think about what the world must be like. For fun, my friends and I would walk five miles to an Amish grocery store, or wander onto a cemetary near a lake and chit chat for hours until our mouths were scraped dry from eating too many salt and vinegar chips. Fifty miles driving in any direction, we’d still be in the same sort of nowhere place, where we’d do the same sort of nowhere things. There was nothing to do and no one to see us.
Until I was eighteen, my life was devoid of public appearances.
There were no public places in my hometown, like museums or galleries or shows or plays. We did have one museum, a victrola museum, but we never really wanted to go to that. For fun, my family and I would go to shops after dinner. A favourite shop of ours is Ollie’s Bargain Outlet, which sells surplus goods that no one really needs, like 2018 calendars in August of 2018 and two litre bottles of olive oil that expired last month and Personal Computers for Dummies. We’d be the only people in the shop and we’d walk around and make fun of the size of the pretzels they were selling and then leave.
Until I was eighteen, my life was devoid of public appearances. No one ever got to see me do anything other than walk around and speak and eat and I never got to see anyone doing anything but the same. Everything that I learned, I learned within the comfortable confines of a private space: a car, a deserted tennis court, my driveway.
I live in London now.
Many people say that big cities are beautiful because they allow people to become anonymous; everyone is just some person on a bench to everyone else. But for me, this isn’t true. For me, it feels more like everyone can always see you, even if it’s unintentionally. Even if they’re really watching their four-year-old and you’re a blurred out figure in the background. Even if they’re smoking in the park and you’re in the group next to them.
For me, it feels more like everyone can always see you, even if it’s unintentionally.
They may not notice you at first, but the moment you choose to do something other than walking, speaking or eating, you become a performance.
Humans notice differences and pay attention to them. It’s a natural behaviour that we can’t get rid of. It’s there so that we can spot enemies in bushes and tell the difference between deadly plants and edible ones. And for the most part, it’s a good thing. In fact, it’s always good for us. It’s nice to walk down the street and notice someone juggling on the corner. I like it when I’m in the park and I spot someone doing a cartwheel.
But, it’s not as nice when you’re the one doing a cartwheel and all you want is to practice new types of cartwheels. When you’ve never done a free cartwheel and are repeatedly failing and you don’t want to wonder who saw you and you don’t want to tell yourself to not care about whether people saw you. It’s not as nice when you just want to focus.
Living in a city puts pressure on people to be normal or otherwise be noticed. If we want to become an expert hacky sack player in a green space in London, we would have to be noticed for thousands of hours before we could kick it over our heads and have it land on the heel of our shoe. And while that is many hours of pleasure for passers by, it’s also a lot of public failure to go through — a lot of messing up and looking around. A lot of reminding yourself to not care what other people think.
Living in a city puts pressure on people to be normal or otherwise be noticed.
Working in solitude gives us the ability to be alone with our hobbies and to be alone with ourselves.
It’s nice to be able to experiment knowing that when you diverge from the normal path, no one will be there to see where you go. You have the freedom to fail over and over again, and when you do, you can pick right back up where you left off and try again without having to think about anything else. You have the freedom to focus.
I hacky sacked this weekend on a rooftop in Zurich. No one was watching me but the mountains and the clock tower, and I got past ten for the first time in years.