Summertime (and the writing ain’t easy)

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a writer. To me, being a writer was better than being President of the United States. Even before I first wandered into the library for my first Hardy Boys paperback, I knew I wanted to be a part of the writers’ club. It was there that I knew that I belonged. To me, it meant being somebody in a neighborhood that was full of nobodies. Writers weren’t like anybody else. I mean, they did whatever they wanted. They double-parked in front of a cafe and nobody ever gave them a ticket. In the summer when they banged on their typewriters all night, nobody ever called the cops.

OK, only the first sentence of that opening is actually true, but it’s really good writing, right? Tragically it’s not my really good writing, as the astute cinephiles amongst you will have already realised. Still, a key part to being a writer is being able to recognise good writing, even if it’s not yours. And this I can do; much like Salieri, the desire burns in my heart as I observe geniuses at work, but I am not imbued with the talent.

Except that’s all a load of malarky, right? I have a friend who is an amazing artist, and as I was looking at some of his work one day, I told him that when I was a kid, I loved to draw (who doesn’t?), but that I wasn’t any good. He looked at me and told me that I was wrong. What I wasn’t, according to him, was not good; what I was was impatient. He was clearly from the Auguste Gusteau school: “Anyone can draw,” he said, “it just takes dedication and the willingness to be awful until you’re not.”

Without me knowing the terminology at the time, Juan was explaining the growth mindset to me. There is such a thing as innate talent, sure, but anyone can develop their skills over time through intentional practice. And it’s this intentional practice thing that’s been hard for me over the years. I have enough innate athletic ability to be slightly above average at most sports I’ve played over the years, but I’ve never had the drive to get really good. For the most part, I’ve trained by myself and gotten the basics down, but then got discouraged when I joined a team and saw that I wasn’t one of the best players. “They’re just better than me,” I thought, and didn’t realise that for the most part, they were better than me because they’d worked harder, put in the hours.

The one exception to this, sports-wise, was tennis. I absolutely loved tennis as a child. I remember watching Ivan Lendl slug it out with Boris Becker and John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, the epic Martina Navratilova vs. Chris Everet rivalry, Björn Borg in the twilight of his career but still a threat. The reception wasn’t great on our old TV in the mid 80s, but it got better on clear nights, and the CBS affiliate over in Roanoke always broadcast the later stages of the Grand Slam tournaments, and I was glued to the TV, together with my dad (a diehard fan of any sport, even one he’d never heard of before like hurling), as commentators discussed in hushed voices the finer points of Lendl’s “inside out” forehand or whether Björn Borg or Arthur Ashe was the best men’s tennis player of all time.

Speaking of Arthur Ashe, my mom found a copy of “Arthur Ashe’s Tennis Clinic” at the county library and checked it out for me. I read that book cover to cover, even though I didn’t so much as have a tennis racquet, a fact that would be remedied in due course.

I was in Boy Scouts back then, and there was a magazine called “Boy’s Life” that you got as part of your membership. The magazine had a section where you could sell different things to raise money for the Boy Scouts, and one of the things was microwave popcorn, which had pretty much just come out at that point. A company called Act II developed a shelf stable butter flavoured popcorn, and even people way out in the sticks where I lived were starting to buy microwaves, and they loved them some buttered popcorn. Every box of popcorn (they had big boxes with 20 packages and small boxes with 5 packages) gave you a certain number of points that you could then redeem for various prizes. One of the prizes was a youth-sized tennis racquet, and I absolutely had to have it.

I walked to all the neighbours’ houses, peddling my goods — no mean feat when the closest neighbour was half a mile away. I remember the elderly couple on the next farm over buying two boxes of 20, even though they didn’t have a microwave. What they did with the popcorn is beyond me, but bless their hearts for contributing to my tennis career. My dad took the order sheet to his day job at the telephone cooperative and managed to sell a few of the smaller boxes to linemen and even a big box to a Bell Atlantic salesperson (this was a couple of years after the US government broke up the AT&T monopoly) who came all the way over from the Richmond office to try to sell them a new phone switch. As Dad tells it, he strung the poor guy along for awhile and mentioned that his son was trying to raise money for the Boy Scouts in order to get a tennis racquet, so the salesman asked to buy a box to try and close the deal, then Dad handed him the popcorn and told him that he was just the accountant and that the guy would have to stop back by next week when the president of the coop would be in.

Dad also had a seasonal job as a tax accountant, and he magically managed to sell a box to each of his clients. I didn’t suspect it at the time, being 7 or so years old, but looking back on it, I’m pretty sure Dad bought those boxes himself and just gave them away to his clients as a thank you present. Thanks, Dad! I love you, big guy.

In any case, after a couple of months, I had sold enough popcorn to get the points I needed for the tennis racquet. I filled out the form from Boy’s Life and waited eagerly for my racquet to arrive, which must have taken quite some time, because I remember it being really hot when I finally got it, and since tax season ended in mid-April, I must have sent the form away by the end of April at the latest. When the racquet arrived, I realised that I had a problem: I didn’t have any tennis balls, and the general store down the road definitely didn’t carry that sort of thing (you could buy a 50 pound bag of feed along with your eggs and milk, though).

Luckily for me, my grandfather was due to visit from Harrisonburg in a week, so I wrote him a letter — long distance phone calls were mighty expensive back in those days — asking him to bring me “a tennis ball” when he came. My grandfather, ever the practical joker, found a tennis ball by the side of the road that had probably once belonged to a dog but had since been run over by a few cars from the looks of it. He wrapped it up in some Christmas paper with a ribbon and everything. When he presented this to me, I tore it open eagerly and then did my best not to let my face fall when I saw this falling apart, completely flat ball. He in turn did his best to keep a straight face when he handed me his car keys and asked me to go get his glasses case, which he reckoned had slipped out of his pocket when he was driving, and had probably fallen under the driver’s seat.

I guess you already saw this coming, but when I reached under the driver’s seat to feel around for his glasses case, my hand closed instead on a can of tennis balls! I ran back into the house, completely forgetting about the glasses case (which had magically appeared in Grandpop’s shirt pocket in the intervening moments) and excitedly showed him what I had found. He of course acted like he had no idea how the can had gotten there, and insisted that it must have been there when he bought the car. Even at that age — I guess I was 8, since my birthday was in May and I figure this must have happened in July or August — I was mighty suspicious of this story, but I didn’t care in that moment that my grandfather was probably the biggest liar in the history of liars; I just wanted to play some tennis.

Back in the 80s, tennis balls came in an honest-to-goodness steel can, which you had to open with a can opener. I ran to the kitchen, pulled the can opener out of the drawer, cracked that bad boy open, and was out the door with my tennis racquet and that can of balls so fast that the resulting sonic boom probably shattered a window or two in neighbouring farmhouses.

We had a woodshed over by the gravel driveway, which had a nice wall around the side that was unbroken by doors or windows and had a more or less flat section of driveway running past it. I pulled a ball out of the can, took a deep breath, squared up for a forehand just like the photos in the Arthur Ashe book showed, and hit the ball against the wall of the shed. I still remember the thwack as the ball hit the strings, the thunk as it hit the wall, the skitter of gravel as it bounced in some random direction, and the whoosh of air through my strings as I tried in vain to return the ball.

I was in heaven. Playing tennis with an actual ball was better than I could have ever imagined. I kept at it until suppertime, sometimes getting a lucky bounce off the gravel driveway that carried the ball more or less back to me, sometimes not. After supper, I ran back outside for more, playing until the dusk got so dusky that I couldn’t really make out the bright green tennis balls anymore. The next morning, I woke up at sunrise and was back at it again. And so on the next morning and the next morning and the rest of the summer. I learned how to serve, how to volley, how to keep score. I pretended that I was facing off against Ivan Lendl in the final of the US Open, Jimmy Connors at Wimbleton, playing mixed doubles with Martina on the clay of Roland-Garros. I reveled in the glory of victory and the agony of narrow defeat. Tennis was life.

I kept playing tennis until the snow covered my makeshift court, and then resumed in the spring. I took my racquet with me when we drove to Harrisonburg to visit my mom and dad’s parents. Grandmother lived right by a park which had not one, but four tennis courts, and a real backboard that you could practise your strokes on. When we moved from our farm to the bustling metropolis of Staunton (population 18,000) in 1989, I was sad to leave the farm and my friends and Chip, my beloved Border Collie, but overjoyed at the prospect of living a 10 minute bike ride from the tennis courts at one of the city’s three public parks!

I met a kid named Ian in 5th grade who would become one of my three best friends in the whole world. He lived right by the park — in fact right across the street from the tennis courts — so whenever I went to his house, we’d play tennis. He had cable television as well, so we watched all the major tournaments, falling in love with this young dude named Andre Agassi as he shocked the tennis establishment by having a heavy metal hairdo and wearing shirts with colourful designs and also by being really really good. Ian and I couldn’t grow our hair like that, but we could save up our allowance to buy $25 Nike tennis shirts (that was a lot of money back then, kids) with neon colours splashed across them and Agassi’s signature on the tag, and so we did.

Ian’s love for the game turned out to be relatively short-lived, but mine continued undiminished. It turned out that my mom had played on her high school tennis team, so my dad got her a racquet for her birthday, and she proceeded to absolutely humiliate me on the court. She was as good as the backboard at returning my shots. She never hit the ball hard, but never made a single mistake, and could place the ball wherever she wanted. Her one weakness was serves; both serving and returning. Her serve had no pace on it, and she tended to stay on the baseline after serving, so I learned that if I chopped the ball with lots of backspin just barely over the net, the ball would die long before she got to it. And if I got my Arthur Ashe’s Tennis Clinic backhand grip serve just right, hit with plenty of power and oozing with topspin, placed right into the corner of the service box, she couldn’t get her racquet to it.

After a few months, my mom couldn’t give me much of a challenge anymore, but she had one extremely valuable lesson left to teach me: patience and how to win and lose with grace. She had the best mental game of any tennis player I ever faced; she never seemed to get frustrated when she hit a bad shot or I blasted a serve past her, and she never moped when she lost or gloated when she won. Most tennis players, even professionals, tend to get in their own head and effectively beat themselves from time to time. I never saw my mom do this. Most tennis players, even (or especially?) professionals, tend to get angry when they mess up from time to time. I never saw my mom do this. And most players, even professionals, tend to celebrate an opponent’s mistake a little too much from time to time, and even occasionally let a smirk cross their face. Not my mom. She was an absolute paragon of good sportspersonship.

Unfortunately I never learned this lesson well enough. I joined the high school tennis team as a freshman, and played all four years, eventually rising to #1 on the team in my senior year. Unlike my mom, I would lose to myself rather than my opponent plenty of times, occasionally throw my racquet or smack the court when I messed up, and sometimes do a little dance when I was crushing an opponent. I would have been a much better player if I could have been more like my mom.

I also would have been a much better player if I had had the drive to practise more, to work harder. I had enough drive to go to training and practise on my own, and I had enough belief in my ability to get better, but I didn’t have the belief that I could be the best, so I didn’t work hard enough, thus the prophecy that I would go on to be just a good high school tennis player instead of a great one was fulfilled.

So what does this have to do with writing? Well, I started out by intending to talk about how I wanted to be a writer as a kid, and then mentioned the growth mindset so I could explain why I want to challenge myself to write and publish something every day this summer, but then got well and truly sidetracked by a series of memories from my child- and young adulthood. But the point is to practise writing, and I have written many hundred words (why doesn’t Medium give you a running word count?), so despite this story not really having a point, I will declare victory!

That’s all for today. Let’s see what my brain spits out tomorrow!

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📝 Published: 2022-06-15