When I visited my dad in Los Angeles as a child, he would sit on the edge of my bed and tell me stories as I fell asleep. These weren't like the stories my mom read me every night back home in San Francisco. Dad liked spy thrillers but, at age 5, I didn’t understand much. I didn’t understand why my parents weren’t together anymore and I didn’t understand why he was telling me a story about the KGB stabbing people to death with syringes. I started to cry, then hyperventilate, and, in a state of mounting panic, Dad invented Ipski-Pipski, the dashing, adventurous young man who became the mainstay of all my bedtime stories from then on.
Ipski-Pipski was amazingly talented. Before bed, dad would ask me what I wanted Ipski-Pipski to be that night. If I said, “A Fireman!”, Ipski-Pipski smelled smoke and rushed off to find a skyscraper in flames. If I said, “An astronaut!”, my bed started to shake and Ipski-Pipski and I were seated atop a giant rocket about to take off. Ipski-Pipski could be anything he or I dreamed of: a race car driver, a cowboy, a soldier. There were no limits.
And then, oftentimes, Dad would go out and leave me with a baby-sitter I never liked. One night, after Ipski-Pipski had climbed Mount Everest and Dad went to a party, I realized that I, too, could do anything I wanted, so I took Max the dog and left. I wasn’t tired, particularly after the Everest assault, and I wanted to find my own mountain to climb. Max, a 40-pound Airedale, understood me. He eyed the door and wagged his tail and, as soon as we got out on the street, he started pulling me towards the Hollywood Hills. But Max was also jacked up on Ipski-Pipski stories. He’d been listening every night and wanted to have his own adventures. I was a liability for him. Before we’d reached the end of the block, he was gone, galloping ecstatically towards the Hollywood sign.
I hadn't brought any mountaineering equipment with me. No peanut butter and jelly, no celery, no ice cream. All I had was my Superman pajamas with the crinkly plastic feet. I needed to stock up on supplies first so I walked down Santa Monica Boulevard until I found a liquor store.
“I need some ice cream,” I said to the man behind the counter. He was bearded, unsmiling, and backed by a wall of pint-sized bottles of whisky. “I'm going to climb that mountain.” I pointed out the door into the night.
He glanced outside and saw nothing. He seemed surprised and asked me if I was alone. I told him my dog had run away, my dad was at a party and my babysitter was a member of the KGB.
“Is that right?” he said, smiling for the first time. “And what kind of ice cream is best for mountain climbing?” I didn't hesitate: vanilla Klondike . Very good for going up hills. He dug two cones out of his freezer, dialed 911, and asked me how many mountains I had climbed already. This would be my first, I said, and described how Ipski-Pipski had climbed Everest.
When the cops arrived, I was just at the part where Ipski-Pipski was crawling, inch by inch, toward the summit. I had decided to eat one of the cones – I had two, after all. The cops looked tired and unhappy. Max was trying to dig a hole in the back seat of their squad car and they wanted to get him out of there as soon as possible.
“Come back sometime and finish the story during the daytime,” the bearded man said. “I'm always here if you need more supplies.”
I waved to him as the cops drove me away. I was having a great adventure – meeting new people, riding around in a police car, and eating ice cream. Unfortunately, Max wanted ice cream as well and snatched the second cone out of my hand. I started yelling at him for being such a stupid dog but was distracted by the sight of my dad and all the neighbors waiting for me in front of our apartment building. Dad pulled me out of the car and hugged me hard while trying to wipe away tears.
“Why are you crying, Daddy?”
“Never, ever do that again,” he said in his you’re-in-big-trouble tone of voice. “Never leave the house without an adult.”
“But you told me I can do anything, just like Ipski-Pipski.”
“You can, sweetheart. Just not when you’re five.”
“Later. Now you’ve got to go straight back to bed.”
As I tried to fall asleep that night, I imagined all the great things I could do when I wasn’t five. I could fly the fastest airplane, ride a rhinoceros, and paint myself blue like my walls so I’d be invisible in my room. I could hire my own babysitters and tell them I was allowed to lock them in the broom closest and that my bedtime was one in the morning. I comforted myself with the knowledge that someday, I would be old enough to be like Ipski-Pipski.
The promise that we can be anything we want to be is an American ideal. We live in the land of opportunity, and, as a nation, we believe in individuality. We tell our children that they can grow up to be champions if they really put their mind to it.
But is it true? Did I ever have a shot at basketball stardom? My dad took me to the courts religiously when I was a kid. I’d try to bounce the ball between my legs and I’d smash myself in the nuts. Passes would plonk me in the head and I almost never made a basket. I needed glasses from a young age but nobody picked up on it. They just thought I was slow with my hands.
The sad truth is that we can’t all be in the NBA. There’s no way I could even make it on a semi-pro baseball team. I’ll never be in the Olympics, I wouldn’t be let near a football field, and when I tried hockey at age 6, I was nearly run over by the Zamboni. But my father never stopped telling me that I could succeed. He picked me up, held me above his head so that I could dunk and told me that, someday, I’d discover what it was that made me an individual.
But individuality can be hard to come by when there are 280 million other would-be individuals in the country. In practical terms, we first need to figure out when we’ve achieved uniqueness. We need some way of comparing ourselves to others to prove that we are different. That’s why I’ve always been attracted to competition. Rankings give me a way of knowing how close (or far) I am from being a champion. For instance, I quickly realized that I wouldn’t make it to the NBA: I never won even a single game of HORSE. I like to think that was largely due to the fact I couldn’t see the net, but, either way, I was never attached to the NBA per se. For me, the implicit promise of America was that I could be the best at something. It didn’t matter what.
So I started with basketball and it didn’t work out for me. No big deal. I moved on to hockey and then baseball. As I grew older, the options whittled down. I checked all the big sports off the list by the time I got to high school and was forced to mine a new vein: exploration. Charting new territory had distinguished Columbus, Drake, and Cook: Maybe it could work for me. I bought an ice ax and a compass and started hiking.
But the more I climbed, the more I realized that just about everything had been charted. You used to be able to start walking and, before long, arrive at the edge of the map. Now there is no edge. Our generation of explorers is relegated to trying the fourth route on a thrice-climbed spire in the Bugaboos. Thousands have climbed the tallest mountains, so our thirst to be first forces us to fragment the already explored. We have to pretend that being the first to summit the left side of a mountain is just as edifying as being the first to summit it full stop. The world has run out of challenges, so we’ve had to invent new ones.
As a nation, we’re really good at this kind of invention. We’ve come up with competitive cup-stacking, turned poker into a televised event, and have set new records for pumpkin hurling. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the present explosion of non-traditional sports coincides with our emergence as the world’s only superpower. America used to be a young country. We had unlimited potential and frontiers to explore. We were destined to be the most powerful nation on earth. Well, we’ve achieved that, so now we’ve got to do something else with all our energy. We need something new to inspire the kids. Enter cup-stacking. It’s absurd but it fulfills a deeply American need to accomplish what hasn’t already been done.
America’s push to invent new challenges came at just the right time for me. When I graduated college, I was in a panic. I had given up mountaineering and was running out of things to try. I eventually took a job as a data entry clerk and began to tell myself that maybe the American dream was dead. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be great at something. Maybe I was just supposed to be a subpar data entry clerk.
But then the spirit of Ipski-Pipski came back into my life in a most unusual way.