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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I just returned from the gym, and I feel terrible. My friend, "Norm," and I are experienced racquetball players, but only recently began playing against each other. Norm has never beaten me and is rarely able to keep the score close.

I recently read about a man in his 70s -- a scratch golfer -- who occasionally loses to lesser players when he feels they could use an ego boost. Of course, the other player has no idea that he has been allowed to win.

When I got to the gym this morning for my game with Norm, he began his litany of woes: divorced, estranged from family, barely ekes out a good living, etc. I immediately thought about the golf story, and decided that Norm would win today.

The game started strongly in Norm's favor. I had my hands full just trying to keep up with him. I had decided to keep it close -- hit most of the shots to his strong forehand and avoid his weak backhand at all costs. Several times I had to rally to tie up the score. Before long, Norm had 20 points to my 15 (21 wins it). At that point I did all I could to feed his forehand, not hit any tough shots and let him make the winning shot. He was unable to do so.

Finally, after a long volley, Norm hit the ball to me in a perfect "kill" situation. Before I knew what had happened, the game was over. I had won again.

Afterward, I told Norm he had played a great game and complimented him on his effort. However, my words felt hollow. I had won. He had lost. The opportunity was gone. I feel miserable. My competitive nature would not give up.


DEAR FEELING GUILTY: Now you continue playing racquetball with Norm and forgo throwing any of the games. Norm gave you a run for your money, and soon he's going to beat you fair and square. When he does, the victory will be genuine and the two of you should go out and celebrate. That is, if your competitive nature will permit you to enjoy another person's victory.

DEAR ABBY: I am confused. I received an invitation to my uncle's 80th birthday party, which is being given by his children. The invitation states, "No presents but your presence."

The other night my sister and mother asked me what I was giving to my uncle for his birthday. I said nothing but a card, as the invitation requested. My mother said she knows what the invitation said, but she was going to give him money, and my sister said she wasn't sure what she was giving, but she knows that my cousins would give "something" to my father under similar circumstances.

I was viewed as "difficult" by both of them because I feel strongly that you follow what an invitation requests, and it's unfair to others not to. My sister said, "Why is it that the people who choose not to do what they want are made to feel awkward?" I answered, "It's not you who's made to feel awkward; it's the people who follow instructions and come without a gift while others show up with one."

Please help, Abby. I don't know what to do or what is right. -- BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE IN OHIO

DEAR BETWEEN: You are not "difficult" for following your host's instructions. Guests who feel they "must" do something for the honoree when no gifts have been requested may make a donation in that person's name to his or her favorite charity. That way, no one is embarrassed for having followed the host's instructions.

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