Here’s Why I Watched Twenty-Eight Hours Of Tennis Last Week

Here’s Why I Watched Twenty-Eight Hours Of Tennis Last Week

First of all, it’s July.

No college football for seven weeks, watching summer league basketball is like watching warm-up drills, college baseball is done, college softball is done, the National Spelling Bee is done, major league baseball was on hiatus for the All Star Game, the Little League World Series hadn’t started yet, and Battle of the Network Stars … well, let’s just remember that last week’s highlight consisted of Corbin Bernsen thumping  Cornelius Smith, Jr. in basketball.

Or, I could watch round-after-round of tennis from Wimbledon.

I confess an unhealthy regard for pomp and circumstance, the trappings of tradition, and the genteel reminder of what sport once looked like in an age of determined, and, yes, blissful, ignorance of a world beyond the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon, home to the oldest tennis championship in the world.  The Championships, Wimbledon (usually referred to as Wimbledon) are played on grass courts, the only one of the Grand Slam or major championships to be played on grass.  The which would be more than enough to make Wimbledon refreshingly outdated and charming, even if dangerously close to the merely precious .  By the end f the second week, it is true, the courts show some wear, but at the start, just after they have been trimmed by what is a virtual grass Zamboni, they are magnificent.

Place, then, remarkably fit young men and women, dressed with uniform modesty in white on the courts of green, and the spectacle is unlike most other athletic contests with the obvious exception of the other pastimes played only by mad dogs and Englishmen, games such as croquet, cricket, and lawn bowls, games in which wearing white was eminently sensible at noonday in the far reaches of the now almost forgotten empire.  “Tennis whites” were the standard of dress for decades, deflecting the heat and pronouncing the player wealthy enough to have easily stained clothing dry cleaned, or, one presumes, cast off, given to urchins begging at the gates or to housekeepers puzzled by the prospect of donning a tennis dress.  In addition, tennis sounds different from other sports, at least from the sports I watch.  I have to assume that crowd noise builds in lawn bowls, but just as the tree falling in an empty woods creates an enduring koan, the tumult of the bowls crowd has to remain hypothetical.  Now that golf’s formerly hushed and properly reverential followers have given way to raucous “In The Hole” yahooing, it is only tennis in which decorum remains as essential as Wimbledon’s signature strawberries and cream, decorum so carefully guarded that players wearing black (or blue) underwear are escorted off the courts and advised to make sure that every layer of tennis wear togs as white as the moon on the breast of the new fallen snow .

The sharp contrast of white against a green background is pleasing indeed, but the greater pleasures are best described in contrast to other sports.  Want action?  There are no huddles in tennis, no trips to the mound; coaches are sequestered in seats at a remove from the courts. Yes, there is the opportunity for an instant replay; each player is granted three challenges to the umpires’ calls, But, and this is part of the on-the-ground strategy that sets tennis apart, a challenge used ill-advisedly is a challenge not available in a situation that may determine the outcome of the match.

Want power?  A powerful serve hitting the opponent’s court at up to one hundred and forty miles per hour is comparable in many way to the home run, but that serve is likely to be returned with close to equal force, initiating a true battle, shot-by-shot, game after game.  Some might argue that although tennis is nothing but action, an evenly matched pair of players can play at the height of their powers for hours until one finally outmatches the other.  True, but every minute of that long set or match is filled with constant and often spectacular action.  While a baseball game does occasionally sparkle as a great throw from centerfield catches the runner at the plate, or a third baseman spread eagles on the line to grab a rocket shot to the hot corner, we’re lucky to get one or two web gems per game.  Great tennis shots?  In an exchange on any length, we’ll see at least two or three per point.

Points?  How about this?  There are no ties in tennis; there are no matches that end up nil-to-nil.  One tennis player will score every time the ball is served, and should the game score remain even, a tie-breaking game finishes things off with a flourish.  The outcome of a hockey or soccer game can come down to a shoot-off.  Please.  Tennis does not lower itself to an unseemly trading of powerful serves to end a game.

It should also be noted that tennis is the only major sport I know in which the quality of women’s play and men’s play are recognized and appreciated with equal enthusiasm.   There are cycles, eras in which the men’s game is rich with great rivalry, but there are equally compelling eras in which remarkable women players seem to emerge at the same time. When we speak of tennis legends, we are as likely to think of Martina Navratilova as we are to think of Pete Sampras.  I’m not sure that there is another sport which could produce a female athlete such as Serena Williams who is considered the most dominant athlete of a decade, comparable to Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady.

Every sport has its share of odd characters, and here I’m assuming again that there are croquet cut-ups and bawdy cricketers, and tennis has its share of bad boys and girls, but not as vile as those in, say, the NFL and NBA.   Would I choose to ride in a closed car with any of the NFL’s unreformed wife-beaters?  Uh, no.  Could I survive the same trip with John McEnroe or Ilie Nastase?  Sure.

I have my favorites, to be sure, and Britain’s Andy Murray is not among them.  He went off again, berating an umpire at Wimbledon when a ballboy inadvertently put a women’s ball into play during a match that Murray lost.  Ok, I’m not going to go into the difference at Wimbledon between the ball used by men and that used by women; it has to do with fuzz, and that is outside the scope of this article.  In any case, yes, Murray was foul-mouthed and surly in the heat of battle, but … it was Murray who responded to the off-handed sexism of a reporter who declared that Sam Querrey, who had defeated Murray, would be the first American player to reach a final match at Wimbledon since 2009.  “Male player”, Murray interrupted.  That correction came quickly and in the midst of an interview conducted within minutes of what must have been a devastating loss for Murray.  And, it is Murray who has considered boycotting the Australian Open, another Grand Slam event, as the venue includes a court named after a noted homophobe, Margaret Court.

So I spent some part of two weeks watching the brilliant play and unexpected upsets that Wimbledon brought us this year.  Do I intend to settle in to watch play in the somewhat less rarefied mess that is the US Open, played on hard courts in New York?  Am I preparing for another half-month at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows – Corona Park, Queens?









How Can I Live In The Free World And Not Find Game Of Thrones Spoilers Everywhere I Turn?

How Can I Live In The Free World And Not Find Game Of Thrones Spoilers Everywhere I Turn?

It’s not an addiction. I can stop whenever I want to. It’s just a show; I can live without it. Money’s a little tight; no room for HBO at the moment, and like the grown up that I am, I did not hit savings to buy the Direct TV package. Didn’t even call to see how much it would be to catch the entire new run.

That might not be true.

OK, I did call, but that’s as far as it went, and I made it through the first week without weakening, even though I can’t step out of the house without hearing someone somewhere chattering about the first episode, which I probably wouldn’t watch until the end of the run anyway because I like to wallow in the entire season, living on Epic Chicken Sesame Bars and Cheetos. Which is not to say that I would walk out of a friend’s house if he happened to be screening that episode, figuring I could watch it again when the rest of the series was in the can, although watching with a friend absolutely reduces the probability of Cheetos. Some people get all fidgety when I rub my orange fingers on my socks, but I’m pretty sure that gets off most of the orange.

Yeah. That might not be true either.

In any case, until I’ve saved up enough to feed my unfortunate habit, I’m determined to avoid the entire season without stumbling over the crucial plot developments, which, to be honest, are really character deaths and dismemberment. The actual plot is pretty well clear, unless HBO decides to send George Martin into dragon withdrawal (not a spoiler). I do pretty well at guessing who is next to feel the cold embrace of the White Walkers or the tang of an embolism inducing potion. I admit, I did choke on Cheetos during the Red Wedding. Should have seen that coming.

But, in order to protect myself, I’ll have to avoid popular magazines, which will mean not shopping at my local grocery store as they not only line the checkout aisle with screaming headlines but also have the most provocative right in front of the cashier, so I’d have to pay with my eyes averted, which is obviously not a good look at any time but especially when pushing my card into the reader.

TV is ok, I think, as long as I stay away from anything produced live. I have been watching reruns of Bewitched anyway and have eight years of 24 in the slot for the moment when Dick Sargent replaces Dick York as Darrin. Don’t get me started on the Darrin Syndrome; we’re not stupid, Television.

But, and here’s the rub, I also can’t go on line without an internet buddy to screen the sites I reach, and even then I’ll have to figure out how to go into a coma when pop ups pop up. I do that already in most cases, and, since flaying is no longer as likely as it was in the Ramsay Bolton era, I can probably swerve away before being sucked into a G.O.T. update.

I have tried busking, crowdfunding, selling essential oils — all for naught. Unless an unexpected expense intrudes (buying gas, eating, electricity), I should be able to cough up enough for HBO Now in three months, just about time to put together the seven episodes in what is somewhat misleadingly called Season Seven.

Maybe four months if I splurge on the Epic Chicken Sesame Bars and Cheetos.

Hey, Maybe People Aren’t So Bad After All

Hey, Maybe People Aren’t So Bad After All

I hadn’t realized how thoroughly I had come to expect daily accounts of humans being beastly until I found the story describing the courage and decency displayed by ordinary people in Panama City, Florida, who, seeing children and adults trapped in a ferocious rip tide, joined hands, stepped up, formed a human chain, and put themselves in danger in order to rescue people they didn’t know.

After week after week of defaced temples, graves, and mosques, after swastikas, Klansmen, murders, and bullies, after being assured that there are no safe spaces, I realize that I have allowed myself and my world to shrink.  I have allowed all that is ugly to blur all that I know is lovely.

Political discourse has always brought recrimination and occasionally brought assault upon the character of those in office or the character of those holding a point of view other than one’s own, but we’ve lived through administrations that displeased us without abandoning the rule of law for the most part.  For the most part.  As I write today, it is hard for me to remember that the groovy Sixties included violence on a terrifying scale and moments in which it seemed the Republic as we knew it might not survive. I’d like to take some comfort in believing that just as those wounds healed, the current climate of animosity and distrust might not mean the end of tolerance, civility, and security.

After all, doesn’t everyone need a safe space?

I’m tempted, of course, to use the brave Floridian human chain metaphorically, recognizing the leap of … what?  Faith to be sure.  Faith that people of all sorts cherish life and are willing to go to great lengths to protect it.  Courage too, the summoning of capacities we rarely know, summoning the willingness to step into troubled waters because others need help.

Stories such as this reveal generosity of spirit and shared humanity both moving and restorative, but in addition to the “feel good” appreciation of what others have had the courage to do, they also ask us to question our own willingness to act in the interest of something other than, greater than, ourselves.  I don’t know the ethnicity of those who saved children from drowning.  I don’t know what political convictions they hold or who they love.  I only know that they came together, took a stranger’s hand, and did as a whole what they could not have done alone.




Why Don’t We Wait Until We Get There, Do It Anyway, And I Did That

Why Don’t We Wait Until We Get There, Do It Anyway, And I Did That

I’m trying to change.

I’m finding that old habits die hard, and old ideas die harder.  The weight of every bad decision, the memory of each act of thoughtless unkindness done to others, the stinging charge of every carefully cultivated  resentment is more than enough to slow the progress of change, and, if all of that weren’t enough, archived rationalizations are running relentlessly in the background, convincing me that I’m not the one who needs to change.

OK, so it takes some gumption to slog through all of that and recalibrate – maybe gumption plus the sense that living a nettled and swampy life is not much fun.  I’d like to say that gratitude is my go-to response to all that the world presents, but the truth is that I often react rather than respond, and my first reaction is not always graceful.  Rationalization can only take me so far, and I inevitably end up catching myself being myself again, nettled and swampy, and once again forgetting that I had intended to do better this time around.

I’ve read spiritual guides and self-help books galore and have found much of value there, but when I’m reacting with my dinosaur brain or trapped by my inner petulant child, I need immediate and foolproof correction.  On the spot.  Straightforward and uncomplicated.

Fortunately, I have stumbled upon a few helpful tools, not really mantras, but verbalized reminders that I have learned to consider before spinning out on one of the day’s curves.

I don’t take direct orders well.  Even lighthearted orders.  The British use the phrase, “Don’t get your knickers in  a twist,” jokingly advising that there’s not much to be gained in acting as if the future has already arrived.  It does seem reasonably clear that experiencing the emotional impact of things that might not happen brings neither comfort nor consequence, but I’m inclined to bridle at even this mild injunction. Apparently, I’m stubborn.

Fortunately, I overheard someone on a bus help a child who was very concerned that strawberry ice cream might be gone by the time they arrived at the next stop.  I was not asked and did not offer my opinion, which is a good thing because when intending to comfort, I often revert to the extension of promises I might not be able to keep.  “Of course, there will be strawberry ice cream.  There is always strawberry ice cream.”  Well, maybe not.  There might have been a run on the flavor, or the freezer might have gone on the fritz.  Thieves might have run off with all berry flavored confections; the FDA might have recalled all ice cream starting with “s”.  Who really knows until one knows?

The enlightened parent on my bus simply said, “Why not wait until we get there?”  Not an order.  More a suggestion.  Options still wide open.  Here’s the thing:  I am not wealthy or young.  Things really do tend to loom from time to time.  However, I am really not at my best when I invest all my energy in reaction to the might happen.  Sure, judicious planning makes sense and actually is comforting, but, having done what I might, the possibility of misfortune is always at hand.  So, by the way, is the possibility of lovely and unexpected good fortune.  I get all of that in the abstract, but in the heat of the moment, old habits can kick in, and I have the option of turning on the awfulizer. I also have the option of reminding myself to wait until I get there.

The results are in:  I feel better, act better, and plan better when I choose to wait until … well … whatever happens.

That observation brings me to the second helpful phrase.  Having admitted that I don’t take orders well, I guess I might as well suggest that I would rather not do things that are difficult or uncomfortable.  Preparing our taxes is difficult for me; visiting a sick person in the hospital makes me uncomfortable.  Once again, over the years it has struck me that there are consequences to both action and inaction.  A tax return not filed will bring pain, sorrow, and penalty.  The same can be said of ditching a dental appointment or not putting coins in a parking meter.  Cause and effect.  Not visiting a sick friend, not returning a phone call to a friend in need, not addressing a sticky issue in a relationship, each has consequences.  Cause and effect again, darn it.

It appears that how I feel about the relationship between cause and effect has absolutely nothing to do with how things turn out.  Remember those classic rationalizations on perpetual loop right somewhere next to the limbic system?  Here’s where they pump up the volume and coax me into believing, say,  that there are a dozen reasons why everyone else should pay taxes, but I should not.  Pick one:

Hedge fund guys are probably living in Barbados with the money I lost in 2008, three hundred and twenty-one million people live in the united States – surely the IRS won’t notice if one person not living in the lap of luxury misses a year or two, I don’t think I filed in 1969 – nobody seemed to care, the pothole on my street still hasn’t been fixed – I’m not sure where my tax money goes, people in the United Arab Emirate don’t pay tax, and so on.

In this case, coercion actually has worked; my taxes get done … grudgingly.  But the things I do grudgingly get neatly sorted and filed in that chamber of resentments I mentioned earlier.  I can only speak for myself – life in the chamber of resentments is no fun at all, and given that I only have this life to work with, I’d rather try to work out a way to meet the exigencies of life without grudging up on a regular basis.  That being said, I need help in breaking out of old thinking and found that I do much better when I realize that while I can choose to wish that consequence might be cancelled this year, I can also choose to just do that which ought to be done anyway.

Do it anyway.  See, the magic for me here is that I’m not being bashed for having all the screwy thoughts that I have.  I get to acknowledge the difficulty in doing something I would rather not do.  Sure, it’s uncomfortable having to tell a friend that he is out of line telling offensive jokes.  It is uncomfortable; do it anyway.  Moving the car from the handicapped parking place next to the door all the way to a spot a block a way is a pain.  It is a pain; do it anyway.

Whew!  Who knew I’d get more done and feel a lot better by just doing what I know has to be done.  And we do know.  We always know.

Oddly, I call up the final phrase, “I did that” even more frequently than the others.  It serves two purposes:  Obviously, it brings accountability.  William Carlos Williams wrote poems, but when my wife asks who ate the plums, I have to say, “I did that”.  It also gives me some perspective when I rush to judgment on other people.  I hear someone boasting and pontificating, I prepare to assign him to the lowest ring in Hell, then remember, “Oh, yeah, I did that last week at the picnic”.

It turns out that I’m allergic to accountability. I don’t like to admit my mistakes, don’t like to admit I’m  wrong, don’t like to admit I’ve done something thoughtless or just plain dumb.  A lifetime of weaseling has not done much to prevent the accountability coming my way; it’s just made every situation a bit uglier.  In  the same way that I pretty much always know what ought to be done, I pretty much know when I need to own up and stand accountable.  Apparently, knowing what needs to be done, even if my ego is battered, I have to do it anyway.  I’m a work in progress on this one, but I am increasingly convinced it’s worth the effort.

It turns out that it is actually harder and more painful to wriggle and squirm, deflect and deny, than it is to own up.  Once again, who knew?

Then, this judgment thing.  I am currently unindicted and haven’t killed anyone or carried out acts of unspeakable cruelty, but when it comes to the ordinary catalog of human failings, I have pretty much messed up as frequently as anyone I might choose to judge.  Abandon a friend? I did that.  Make fun of someone behind his back?  I did that.  Want to be the star of the show?  Ta Da!  Pretend to be something or someone I am not?  Did it.  Stretch the truth?  Uh huh.  Bore a roomful of people talking about myself?  Yep.  Try to look cool?  OK, once. And so on.

I used a phrase earlier – catching myself being myself.  That’s really where I find any progress I might make in trying to change those old habits and old ideas.  Here’s the thing though: I am starting to get a kick out of catching myself being my older self.  I am occasionally amused and almost always informed.  “Ah, there it is!  I’m terrified of something that certainly won’t happen today and may never happen.  I’m thinking about not doing what I know is the right thing to do.   I’m trying to be important.  I’m judging that guy when I’ve done what he does.  I don’t want to own up to something I’ve done.”


Now I have the choice to wait until I get there, do something I don’t want to do anyway, and hold myself accountable.

I like having the choice; it feels a little like freedom.