When I was a kid I begged my parents for a ping pong table. They repeatedly said no, but they failed to offer a valid reason. I was learning in school that you could employ logic to persuade people, so I told them that when I grew up and became a ping pong celebrity, I'd buy them that beach house they'd always wanted. Wouldn't they like that? And golf carts too, so they wouldn't even have to walk anymore? When that failed, I tried pathos: did they really want to make me the only idiot in class without a ping pong table? After all this, I resorted to baser tactics, like sprawling myself on the kitchen floor while my mother tried to make dinner. I was annoyed but also impressed by how gracefully she stepped over and around me, like some sort of ballerina.

Because his parents were reasonable people, my best friend Roland had a ping pong table in his basement. I'd call up and invite myself over, and there we'd rally for a blissful afternoon until Roland got bored and wanted to switch to Super Nintendo or Stratego.

Stratego? I thought. Stratego is for the poor schmucks who don't have ping pong tables and therefore don’t know any better. Schmucks like me.

But wasn't this a passing stage? Wouldn't I outgrow this burning desire just like I had the Nintendo Power Glove, the Hot Lixx Guitar, the Turbo-Graphx 16? I knew ping pong was different, though. It was physically engaging, and there was something intoxicatingly satisfying about the broken-metronome sound of the ball against the table, against the paddle. There was something about stringing an extended rally together that felt like building something out of thin air, stacking bricks one by one until you've got a tower. That's why, in those basement sessions with Roland, I never wanted to keep score or compete, just to hit it back and forth for as long as we could, to get lost in that feeling. In a sense, my pursuit of ping pong became my first pursuit of happiness.

Time passed. Roland’s ping pong table suffered that all-too-common fate of becoming just a table for laundry or Christmas ornaments. I got older and simultaneously noticed and became deathly frightened of girls. I was learning things about isosceles triangles, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Age of Exploration. My obsession with ping pong faded. In the perfect irony of the cosmos, I came home one afternoon during my freshman year of high school to find a brand new Stiga table set up in the living room.

All those years, all that sprawling on the kitchen floor. But somehow there was no chorus of angels, no shaft of heavenly light shining through a hole in the ceiling. If I had ever prepared a speech for the occasion, I couldn’t remember how it went.

“Why is there a ping pong table in the living room?” I asked.

My mom repeated the question out loud, emphasizing the last two words.

"Because it's too damn big to fit anywhere else," my dad said, answering my mom's question, but not mine.

I played, and flickerings of that old fired jumped once again in my heart. There was something to this game, something that I didn’t know how to explain, that felt so addictive, so free, so good. I loved the thwack of the 40mm celluloid ball against the paddle, that exotic exchange of audible pops, like some extra-terrestrial language. Once again, ping pong had snagged me.

The problem was that by the time I reached high school, my three older siblings were away at college and the only competition around was my parents. My dad, a natural athlete plagued with a ruinous back for most of his adult life, was competent with the paddle but completely immobile. When, on occasion, I’d break the rules of our exchange and fire a forehand past him, as one might do in an actual game, he would drop the paddle to his side, stare at me blankly, and say “I wish you wouldn’t do that.”

My mom, though rather adept at placing wily spins on the ball (thanks, she told me, to many hours playing at her all-girls high school) was also hampered by injury, and her failing wrists kept her for the most part on the sidelines. So I did what I had to do. In a memory that now seems rather pathetic, but at the time felt almost heroic in a Rocky V training-montage kind of way, I flipped one side of the table up and played against myself for hours at a time. Without the unpredictability of an opponent the action was less thrilling, but I still got some measure of that feeling, that noise, that near-magic.

High school engulfed me, bringing with it the pleasures and pains of teenage life: I stressed over soccer practice and SAT words, I figured out how to play the riff from Sweet Child of Mine on the guitar, and I became less scared of girls, even managing to land one or two dates. At some point, without me even noticing, the ping pong table was unceremoniously rattled down to the basement, and the obligatory laundry piles and ornament boxes made their appearance.

In college, ping pong’s new name was beer pong, and this game had entirely different rules. In my brave new world of freedom and irresponsibility, ping pong shrunk into an obscure, juvenile thing. It was something I had outgrown. Still, weeks after graduation, I accepted the invitation to play a game with two of my former professors, one a fiction writer and the other a medievalist. For the next year and a half, I played twice a week in my former professor’s dim, dank basement.

The games were a thing of wonder. At least, to us they were. Each of us had our distinctive styles, our foibles and fortes. Fiction was measured, contemplative, safe, and agonizingly patient. He had at his disposal an array of deceptive serves, but he rarely attacked, waiting for his opponent to become anxious and make a mistake. The Medievalist was ruthless, fitful, and decisive with his backhand cruelty. An unerringly cordial man, he never failed to congratulate his foe on an excellent shot. Still, when one of his own shots piddled into the net, or sailed beyond the table, his face would darken slightly, a bead of sweat would form on his forehead, and the faintest glint of injustice would flash in his eyes. I was the x-factor, the young rogue who held the paddle incorrectly and lacked the technical know-how of top-spins and defensive chisels. What I did have, however, was a destructive forehand smash which, the professors agreed, was inconsistent but utterly indefensible.

It was in the Medievalist's basement that I cultivated my philosophy for the game. For me, ping pong was about reacting rather than planning. Instinct was king, because when I overthought things, my play became clunky and I lost that brief intoxication. Losing yourself was the key, blissfully leaving behind any sense of ego to achieve that one-pointed concentration. The joy was in the process, not the outcome.

“It’s like Taoism,” I said, but found to my own disappointment that I had nothing more astute to add.

The Medievalist, who had no desire to bastardize any philosophy for the sake of our hobby, politely disagreed. "It's a game," he said, "like darts, or Stratego."

In my early twenties, I moved far from the dark basement to New York City, where I got a day job in publishing. Resolute in my dedication to the glorious game, I refused to let life once again push ping pong off-stage. I began taking lessons in a cavernous underground club populated by men both impossibly old and impossibly lithe. My instructor, who gave no evidence of speaking English, fired balls to my forehand for fifteen minutes without rest, then, with the same machine-gun rapidity, fired balls to my backhand for the remaining fifteen minutes. Occasionally, when some aspect of my form or demeanor displeased him, he would assume the posture of a tired old hound, with tongue hanging out and eyes rolled back. This, I gathered, was his impression of me.

As the lessons went on, my ambition grew; I envisioned myself entering an arena with women on each arm, pyrotechnics blasting along the edges of my path to the table. I’d do commercials, sign little children’s paddles. But weeks flew by, and our routine never changed. I had so many questions I never figured out how to ask. What about the rhythm of the game? The deep connection between two players who know each other's weaknesses inside and out? What about that mystical feeling? At the very least, how do I serve? Alas, the lessons became too expensive for my modest budget, and these and other questions were left unanswered.

Eventually, New York City became too expensive as well, and I relocated to Portland, Oregon to start a new life with my girlfriend among the trees and the bicycling hipsters. I attended graduate school for creative writing, occasionally dropping by the gym to watch the university table tennis club hone their chops. These guys and gals were good, better than me, and their games had the mark of polished study, of sober training, and of consistent dedication. Once, having been spotted loitering on the sideline, I gamely accepted the offer to play a game against one of them. The serves came low and fast, and my returns went spiraling off in the wrong direction like malfunctioning fireworks. I struggled to slow myself down, to find some sort of flow, and quickly I dropped three games in a row. My forehand smash could not find the table and my backhand was as soft as pudding. I began to sweat, and a shallow spike of frustration grew in my upper chest. I was sucking, and it pissed me off. There was no ecstasy here, no intoxication. I laid the paddle on the table, thanked my opponent, and scampered for the exit.

How could this game I love make me feel so miserable? Ping pong, of course, is indifferent; it is simply a paddle, a ball, and a table. But as a 21st century human being, I infuse the game with my aspirations and anxieties. The pride-fluffing jolt I get from slamming a backhand past my opponent is counterbalanced by the sharp exasperation I feel when I serve into the net. The agony and ecstasy. Each errant shot is a sign of some innate imperfection. My failings at ping pong, I perceive, are my failings as an individual. But in its purest form, ping pong offers the simple pleasure of undivided focus; a pleasure, unfortunately, that can be difficult to find.

My resolve for achieving ping pong greatness has evaporated. I no longer dream of wall-sized posters of me in mid leap-slam. While earning my masters in creative writing, I discovered the same sort of joy I felt plunking the ball back and forth in Roland’s basement. I accepted a job teaching high school English, and my days and nights are taken up reading Plato and Camus and engaging in my students’ papers. I continue to pursue happiness, but I realize there are many different forms of it.

This past summer I visited my parents in their new house by a lake. In the basement, I was surprised to see the old Stiga table set up, free of storage boxes and folded clothes. “Because we know how much you like to play,” my dad explained. “How about a rally?”

We commenced a game, and since my dad’s back was no better or worse than it had been fifteen years ago, we played by the same rules: no hitting hard, no fancy spins, and no trying to hit it past him. Slowly, ploddingly, we plunked it back and forth. My shoulders eased up and my handshake-grip loosened. I stopped thinking and began concentrating. Puh-klick puh-klick went the ball and paddles, and soon enough there it was, that old familiar feeling.

Doug Cornett is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. He earned his B.A. from Skidmore College, and his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Portland State University. His work has previously appeared in Vestal Review, Superstition Review, Prick of the Spindle, and elsewhere. His forehand smash is slowly coming back to him, but his serve is still a mess.