Ping Pong serve

Ping Pong Utopia

Ping-Pong is the name of the greatest game in the world but contrary to popular opinion, it is not onomatopoetic. The name does not suggest the sound it imitates…nor does it hint at the eloquence of the game. But it’s a much catchier moniker than wiff-waff (the sound of parchment paddles in 1882). It’s hard to imagine the moment Nixon met Mao 100 years later, as pad-dap pad-dap diplomacy but that’s the sound of the game.

In 1920 long after the name Ping-Pong was already in popular use, Parker Brothers bought it. Establishments avoided paying royalties by coming up with an abundance of puns, paronomasias and nick names such as King Pong, Paddle Pong, Ball Ping Hammer and so on. To the official body, Table Tennis implied a Wimbledon pedigree. Protocol was the intent but the implication that ping pong players would rather be playing tennis was the message.

There are those who believe ping pong is named after a Chinese man and the proprietary pride Asians have for the game adds substance to that notion. At present, the Chinese dominate and that’s a big deal because the whole world plays it. Expense is no excuse (as in skiing, sailing and golf). Dedication (as in running, soccer and basketball) is what it takes to own a game that has more to do with merit than money.

America has to own pong pong if only because it’s chock full of democratic principles. The ping pong culture in the USA numbers 20 million and that’s a lot of tables–even with half of them folded up…or used to fold laundry. Which leaves us with a lot of roly-polies, sitting idle, who would really rather duce-to-reduce than sweat-to-the-oldies. The two overused outdoor tables, installed in Bryant Park in 2009, are testament to this awakened desire. Additional tables would be greatly appreciated but the Department of Parks can’t stand success.

A simple name that belies its significance is as gratifying as getting what you paid for…and ping pong is both. In the same space as a pool table, ping pong burns a thousand times more calories than looking down the shaft of a cue stick. The paddle induces a trance that speeds up time and all things become equal. Anyone can play anyone. Old vs. young. Women vs. men. There is hardly a favor to age, sex or size. Vegas does do venues for the faithful but it’s a hard sell commercially without the blood and guts risk to life and limb.

The milky homogeneity of the NHL is profitable mostly because of violence. Ping pong is more colorfully diverse and the extent of violence is limited to the irascible Tahl Leibovitz breaking his paddle for not keeping pace with his AngryBird genius. He does have a following…but see the game performed with tempo and style, and it becomes a dance spectacular. When infused with hot sweaty passion, it becomes sex. And sex, as we all know, sells.

Spin (the upscale Club on 23rd Street) has spun ping pong into gold. They know there is nothing more provocative than a damsel, paddle in hand, teetering perilously on high heels. A primitive hero-impulse kicks in…but rescuing her is a lot harder than it looks. With such loud music, the courageous suitor must operate without his trusty lingual ploy–and the mouth, when denied the delivery of a smooth line, takes solace in food and wine. And that’s the golden genius of it. Brilliant!

To the aficionado, Spin is more glamour than game–it brings in fresh faces and celebrities–and ping pong is all that. But the serious player can escape the noise and novelty at the more affordable and well-appointed Westchester Table Tennis Center owned by puzzlemaster Will Shortz, 47 minutes from Grand Central and a short walk from the Pleasantville Station. Opening times correspond to after-school hours but the market for early-risers, seniors, and off-peak commuters goes untapped as if there were no disposable income to be had or as if there were a prohibition on ping pong before 3:30pm.

It might be taboo to play ping pong in the mornings but it’s a crime not to play it at all. There’s much more than meets the eye here–and if you are lucky enough to have a punctual partner–it is your civic duty to play. No other game is as green, sustainable or efficient. The bubble that is the ball, recalls the classical, fleeting and ephemeral metaphor for life. Keep your eye on it, stroke it squarely and you’ll never be friendless… or fat.

My ideal Utopia is based on a ping pong module. This concept might have saved those failed communities of 19th century America that were patterned after Charles Fourier’s phalanxes. He advocated the benefits of a cooperative society and coined the word feminism. If only his disciple, Godin, had used the central court of his Familistere for ping pong instead of a lecture hall for his inspirational speeches the movement could have realized its earthly paradise.

The Department of Parks should take note. Many of the games they provide do promote a measure of goodwill but none come close to the healing power that brought Nixon and Mao together. Ping-Pong Diplomacy can also work for Homies and Preppies–and all other disparate groups in society. Perhaps, someday my Utopian dream will become a reality and pad-dap pad-dap will be the sound of peace.

Tell ROD KNOX what you think