There are some words you’ve never heard me say, and it’s not because I believe there’s something particularly potent about them. It’s mostly because they feel really awkward coming out of my mouth. Well, maybe that’s not the only reason. Maybe that’s not even the main reason.

It could have been fall or spring—the particular season doesn’t matter. I do remember we were standing in the grass—a soccer field. That’s what most of my life revolved around when I was young. My age? That’s hazy as well. Probably 10 or 12. Let’s say 11. Richie Anderegg was there, along with another boy whose name I could probably remember if I cared to try. We played for the Yahara soccer club—a big deal in the 1980s in Middleton, Wisconsin.

I’m sure the conversation started with something normal and fine. I suppose that’s what most of my life was, as a good Christian boy who learned not to stand out too much—fine. Whenever I was asked how I was doing—fine. It was a safe word. Just far enough out of the negative realm not to raise flags while, equally important, not positive enough to prompt joyous inspection.

And I was fine for most of my boyhood. Fine was my way of saying, I know I’m not supposed to stand out, so I’m choosing this middle road option. And it was also my way of saying, Although you may see me performing really well at most everything I’m doing, I’m actually not great. But perform I did, because that’s how I felt loved.

Here’s how I tried to earn the right to be noticed:

Get my quiz or test posted on the bulletin board

Win the race

Beat the video game faster than my brother

Earn straight As

So achievement was far more about receiving accolades and attention than about enjoying whatever it was I was doing. Except for playing soccer, that is. On the field, I felt free. I felt strong. I had a voice. I was, well, myself. When I stepped onto the field to play, I became a different person. I became who I was made to be.

So it’s fitting that I was on the side of a soccer field that day, talking with Richie and what’s-his-name, when I lost myself in the briefest of conversations.

– How are you doing, Tanner?

– [quietly] Fine.

– Tanner, why don’t you ever swear?

– [muttering] I don’t know.

– Swear for us, Tanner.

– No, he doesn’t have to.

– Swear for us. C’mon.

So I softly and sheepishly mumbled a word that fell limply from my lips to the ground. I’m not even sure they heard it.

But what weakly dribbled out of my mouth was more than a word. You see, I lost something more that day. I lost my ability to call everything fine. I knew it wasn’t, and I didn’t know if it ever would be. Because I also realized in that moment that saying that word was evidence that I wasn’t actually me.

While I may have crossed a line that day, at least the lines were drawn. I stepped onto the field.

Jeff Tanner is the cofounder of a co-working space in Costa Mesa, California. On the weekend you can catch Jeff saying good morning to the morning (along with every tree, flower, bird, and bug) on walks with his daughters and pups, catching up on premiere league football (aka soccer), or perfecting his grilling skills.

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