Monday, January 27, 2014

Returning to Tennis

Over the holidays, I visited my hometown of Oberlin, Ohio. My parents, who've both entered their 80s, still live in the house they bought two years before I was born. Doing the math any way you want to, that means they've been in the house for 52 years.

The house is loaded with 52 years' worth of stuff. To be fair, my parents have begun reducing the contents with a plan of moving into smaller and stair-free living quarters eventually. And, to be fair again, it's not all their stuff. I'm the middle child of three, and (so I say) because I lived overseas a lot until Markus and I settled in Michigan and had kids, I always had two pretty good excuses for not taking charge of the stuff I'd left in Oberlin. One: I was overseas and couldn't take much with me. Two: I had little kids and couldn't bother with old boxes in the attics and drawers jammed with letters and photos.

Well, I'm back to living overseas, but I have at last begun dealing with the items in my parents' house that still have my name on them. Every time I visit, I find a day or more to sort and toss. There's my childhood and youth. My summer in Japan. There are my college years (at Wesleyan and at Oberlin) and study/travel/living in Germany. There are the grad school years in Wisconsin and Oregon. I'm pleased to say that beginning in 1992, when Markus and I got married, I became the keeper of my own accumations of stuff. Markus evacuated his parents' apartment years ago at their insistence because they need the space. If only my parents didn't have such generous and ignorable attic space and such pronounced accumulation habits of their own.

I find junk and memories. Little glass ornaments I loved to touch when I was a child.

A box of items from my girlhood desk and whatnot shelf revealed sealing wax and
a tiny punch bowl with ladle and cups in spun glass. (Attic sorting c. August 2012)
I find objects I clearly remember and objects I dimly remember. Objects I would never have known I could remember until I beheld them again. The summer of 2012, from a box labeled "What nots" I posed this little group, telling myself that a photo would make them last and I could part with them now. Then it was time to leave for the airport. I couldn't pack them away and I couldn't take them along. What did I tell my mother--to get rid of them? Or to pack them away for me again because I couldn't stand parting from them afterall?

Special collection. Objects I looked at and loved and played with as a girl.
On attic display. (c. August 2012)
This small collection may (or may not) be up in the attic still. I've cut my overall quantity down to about eight boxes up there, filled with the items you can't sort through quickly. Letters. Photos. Heavy things you can't easily mail to Germany. I'm a writer (my ultimate excuse for anything these days), and there might be a story in there. My daughter tells me it's a book: the Cleaning Out My Parents' Attic book. What stories are lurking in my girlhood letters? In the stacks of letters from old beaux and the stack from my husband? Look, there's my album of black and white Poloroid photos, and there in the photos you can see our cat (Serena)! I flip the cards with the plastic sleeved photos. I connect with the action performed dozens of times by a former me. I remember holding the corner of the photo, smelling the chemicals before peeling off the sheet that coated the photo, following the second hand around the face of my watch.

Early this month, I consolidated photos and letters into boxes I will return to--I promise. With a cup of tea and a real place to sit and sort, down from the attic, I can bring them into some kind of order. Of course I never miss or think about the lettes I wrote to my friend Sally (and she to me--for it is those I have collected) when we were eight or nine, but what kind of character can you create from old letters? From touching old objects of sentimental longing and familiarity?

And what, an alert reader might be wondering, does this all have to do with tennis?

One of the photos that crossed my hands and eyes was a black and white 8x10 of my high school tennis team. We stood and crouched, about ten of us, with coach Fran Baumann. Simple white t-shirt tucked into a red wrap-style tennis skirt. Raquets held slantwise across our fronts. Group photo smiles.

I played doubles with Sarah Friebert. I'm about 5' 4". She's about 6'1". My dark hair poofs out frizzy-curly. Her dark hair is sleeked back on her head. We are an odd couple.

Sarah and I became doubles partners junior year, holding down the position of second doubles. Senior year, we advanced to first doubles. The Oberlin team did well in our conference (we had some strong singles players), but team success always seemed to occur despite my own meager accomplishments on court. When we won, it felt like Sarah won and I did my best not to mess things up too badly.

But I did play tennis. I went to practice. I tried to learn topspin. I tossed and tossed and hoped I'd throw a ball where I could actually hit a serve. I had a mean doublehanded backhand (like Chriss Everett), it's true. I was lucky occasionally on a volley, and my forehand was sometimes okay. I had solid quadriceps that bulged out above the knee from all that "ready positioning" and running short sprints. I had a solid right forearm.

This past week, I followed a whim and peeked in on the Heilbronn Open men's pro tennis indoor tournament. It's an annual January event, held in the industrial area between my town of Flein and the neighbor town of Talheim. I see the posters every year, and this year I learned you could watch for free during the qualifiers. I took a look. It was tennis. Thwack of the ball. Squeak of the shoes. Breath and sweat of the players.

The officiators were a new element for me. A dozen linesmen surrounded the court, each responsible for calling one particular spot where balls could go long or wide. Sometimes they errupted with such animal noises of "Long!" and "Fault!" that people in the stands rustled nervously and chuckled. There were eight ball kids scampering around to keep balls out of the way. There was the scorekeeper. Back when I played, we called our own games. If I didn't see it properly, I always called the ball in. What else can you do? The serving player called the score before each point. We were teenagers and probably said dumb stuff like, "Luv all!" I do remember this about playing: deuce situations that went on and on. Once we hit 30-30, we called it deuce. Then it was "Ad out" and you scrambled to get the point. "Deuce" again. Then "Ad in" after which we invariably lost the game or set or match point and went right back to "Deuce."

Yesterday I watched the doubles final between the Skupski brothers of Great Britain and a what-the-heck pair of a Polish man and Finn who'd just teamed up for this tournament. The systemmatic Brits had every reason to win, practiced moves and conspiratorial strategy whispers before each play. But the other two men made the most of what-the-heck and pulled off the title. I'd never seen pro doubles before, but it turns out they don't play the whole deuce game. They get to 40-40 and then the next point decides the winner of the game.

The doubles players seemed to strategize about what kind of serve would be hit, where the second player would stand (crouch) out of the way, and probably what sort of pattern they might run. A doubles point--with running to the net, crossing the court, spinning to grab a shot--reminds me more of pairs figure skating than of the base-line, long rally and power shots of men's singles tennis. I don't remember having strategic mini-conferences with Sarah between points. I think my personal strategy when I had the serve went about as far as this: hope I hit the ball over the net and inside the box. Backing up: hope I can toss the ball up to where I can hit it on my serve. Hope I don't have to re-toss too often. Hope it's someone else's turn to serve soon.

I sell myself a little short, but not much. Maybe the desire I got from watching the tournament will hold, to grab a raquet and swing at a ball. Maybe it will inspire me to check out the tennis club that's three blocks from my apartment.

But what I'm really thinking about today is how important threads in life get started and keep going. I suppose that's what nostalgia is. Sarah Friebert re-entered my life about ten years ago. She went on to become a pediatric oncologist, and I went on to have a child with cancer. She reached out to us mid-cancer journey and sent Simon one of the best goody boxes he ever got (how did she know he would like ring-pops so much?). In 2004, I learned that Sarah was not only a pediatric oncologist, but she had also specialized in pediatric palliative care. She's one of the pioneers of that field, and I most recently encountered her on the pages of a January 20, 2014 New Yorker article about advances in the field. Here's another link about the article from Akron Children's Hosptial, where Sarah works.

During the two months we spent caring for Simon through his dying, Sarah advised patiently on the phone from Ohio. About dosing narcotics. Whether to transfuse blood or not. To hydrate or not. How long a person can last without taking food or water. We found a way to blend her knowledge with the care plans of Simon's doctors in Utah. My doubles partner.

Watching tennis this past weekend and recalling the sort of tennis player I'd been, I wondered if the challenges and rhythms of Simon's cancer weren't a whole lot like tennis. You get a kind of clean slate when you start a new set in tennis, and you get that sometimes, too, with cancer. But you get into trouble again, then try to get out. You win some rounds, you lose others.

I do think I kept at it as a tennis player, but I had limits on my abilities. I know I kept at it on Simon's cancer care, doggedly keeping pace with treatment needs (and other stuff), but I wonder now, having known the terrible odds from the beginning, if I ever thought we could win that one, any more than I ever believed I'd win at tennis. Can that be true? It feels true.

I watched a player win the men's singles tournament yesterday. He was not one of the top-seeded players, and he'd come into the tournament ranked about 138 in the world. But he was on a tear, having won 12 of 14 matches already this month. Having lost in a semi-final in Doha to world number one Nadal (but having held his court against the champion). Peter Gojowzck (24-year-old German) beat the number one seed Igor Sijsling (Netherlands) in two sets. Gojo was calm at the baseline and hit a wicked-hard ball that looked for all the world like it was out, but then it dropped just on the "in" side of the line. Topspin! I thought. Isn't that what they taught me in the summer time at the Oberlin Tennis Camp all those years ago?

Aside from 15,300 Euros, the big deal about a win for Gojo in the Heilbronn tournament was a chance to move into the top 100 players. We'll be seeing more of this player, I'm quite sure. He was a pleasure to watch. He said his next goal is to make the top 50. Dreaming big, the top 10.

I checked today's stats, and there he is at 99. Every. Win. Counts.