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Wednesday
May212014

Ambler, No. 12 [On Paperwork, A Means to Depression]

That other attribute wherewith I recreate my devotion, is his wisedome, in which I am happy; and for the contemplation of this onely, do not repent me that I was bred in the way of study -- Sir Thomas Browne

That man is the freest of the beasts is a concept that is both accepted with enthusiasm, yet disdained in droves. Man, free to extend the capacities of his mind, to reason well beyond the limits of the brutes, both to promote justice and peace and to annihilate his brothers. Man, so commonly disposed to virtue and reason, is thus distinguished from the creatures, whose barbaric natures fetter them in impulses and foster lives of monotony. But though man reasons beyond even his own capabilities of understanding, he also finds that the very nature of his ability to reason makes him bound in a way unlike the beasts -- for man is, unlike the animals, commonly found with thoughts that tend upward and outward, and while the beasts are fettered to instinctive impulses, so man is fettered to his thoughts on the firmament.

Man, unable to reach the physical localities of many of the beasts, has yet found ways to stretch his presence across the globe. Man, so keen on adventure and exploration, though unable to fly as the eagle or swim as the dolphin, has, nevertheless, scaled the heavens and submerged the sea's depths. But man, after searching out the four corners of the globe, conquering skies and seas, has achieved so much in exploration, that modern discovery is relegated to the atmosphere, and those of us left below are told to repress our adventurous spirit or hand it to a guide. Man, now having explored the countryside, has so regulated every jot and tittle of land and lot, that adventures are either covered in mountains of paperwork or controlled by machines and fences. Any modern man who so decides to go on an adventure -- decides to leave the nicely paved paths -- is liable to prosecution or execution, and the free-spirited creature, once so open to freedom from instinctive impulses, is told to harness his adventurous spirit through games and gadgets.

Those powers which so suppress modern exploration have strewn their signs across the landscape, and unless one is willing to fill out mountains of paperwork, signing away any ability to sue for negligence or admitting to knowledge of the dangers that await. But though man is so told he is to not trespass, a gravel path which led right past that warning sign went unheeded in the cool evening as a companion and I strolled past nonchalantly. That path we were on forked as many do, and we chose to bear right, flying right past that sign which warned us we were breaking the law.

*****

The path continued on to the right, but as boys are wont to do, we left that path for a small creek -- what the locals often refer to as a "crick." The sense of smell, so often neglected as a sense which protects, alerted our attention to the distinct smell of a skunk. Now, the modern farce here is that some power-that-is thought that constructing a sign which reads “no trespassing” would actually stop anyone from trespassing. The problem is that many modern people, like us, are completely oblivious to any ugly white sign stuck on a nature path, as if anyone is going to look at the one eye-sore along the landscape. Moreover, those who are not oblivious probably cannot even read or at least have little to no idea what “trespassing” even means, for it is a whole three syllables. But even granting they can read and do know what “trespassing” means, they have probably grown up under the modern education system, which teaches us that even if we think we know what “trespassing” means, we really actually have no idea because it is merely constructed by old white males, and so the reader of a no trespassing sign must analyze the meaning, not by its dictionary definition, but according to his, or her, or its cultural group he, or she, or it belongs to. This process probably takes a couple of hours for all people belong to various sub-groups. If you happen to be a middle-class, Hispanic woman, “trespassing” means something different than if you are an upper-class, Asian-American male or if you are some concoction of a gender yet to be discovered and revealed. The whole farce of it all is that even when we are done figuring out what “trespassing” specifically means in our own cultural context, we then (coming to the same conclusion as the dictionaries, as happens every time) have to realize that because it was preceded by a “no,” we are bidden to subvert whomever placed that sign there, so that, at the end of the day, it would have been better to either create a sign that read “please trespass” or put a rabid skunk in its place, for as the smell became more poignant, my companion and I fled that little cove for the path.

We took turns throwing rocks at things along the way and commented on the cornfields to our east, surrounded by fences as if deliquents were going to get in. I commented on the joy that cornfields give, that though my time among them as a teenager was filled with moments of sadness, the cornfields were always nostalgic to me for that lost time, and they had a certain beauty that, unlike the untampered grazing fields, pointed our attention to man’s dominance of the world.

*****

It was about this time that my companion mentioned we were probably breaking about fifty ordinances. Now, nevermind that we were, the point is that a boy today cannot simply sail out on his local river without someone telling him he is breaking the law. It is more likely we would imprison a small boy on a raft, smoking a pipe, than any sex-offender among us. But the whole problem truly boils down to our trouble with the legal system. The whole reason everyone has to fill out three-hundred pages of paperwork to take a step in the river is due to a common acceptance of stupidity. The boy who drowns in the government’s river is now the least responsible person -- about as responsible as the goose watching him drown. If my companion and I were to waltz out into one of the cornfields and rise up and slay each other like the children of the corn, the last person to fetter would be the victor. It is more likely the cob used to club the defeated is to blame, and the murderer, to ward off punishment, should put the stalk in the dock and sue the seeds.

But while violence is still frowned upon in our lands, stupidity is lauded. Every year we hear about how some idiot spins himself on a windmill or trips over a sprinkler head, only to point blame to man who built the windmill or watered his grass. Now, it used to be as good a joke of any to place an object so as to make a person fall; now it is a multi-million dollar lawsuit. Stupidity reigns supreme from coast to coast, and those who are thereby affected are the pioneers and explorers of our age. So unlike Lewis and Clark, we strutted out of harm's way that evening and proceeded back to the path outlined for us by government officials. We crossed a bridge that was too safe and rounded our way back to the automobile which would take us away from nature and back to the town in which we live. “It is sad,” said another companion of my mine recently, “that we have covered everything in concrete.” Indeed, it is. But I suppose the modern philosophy is that one is easier clubbed to death with a cob of corn than cut of cement.

Sam Snow (theficklefarce.com)
Written with nothing else to do,
Manhattan, KS
May 19-20

Painting: "A Cornfield"
By Peter De Wint
Oil on Canvas, 1815 

Friday
May162014

A Song In His Hand

Oh, to have the recollection of a Mr. Boreham and place the scene in its correct literary place. I cannot but remember the image and must leave you to benefit from reading George MacDonald until it's found. Here is a small shepherd boy with nothing to his name except a delightful contentment. The sheep graze and wander about him on a Scottish hillside as he pulls out of his pocket a book of poetry to be read again and again with unfading pleasure, the companion of his days, an accompaniment to the delights of the breadth of heather and hill.

*****

Walking down the hills and through the autumn woods of Nova Scotia, Anne is reading, absorbed in poetry as the trees and foliage take on the life of those lines. Her mood and thoughts disappear in the passage until she is rudely awakened by an irate guardian. The music swells behind her walk with haunting tones as the score of the film brings us in, but the notes are completely silent in her ears as only the melodic poetry sings her home.

*****

As I read more and more from authors of past years, these scenes are played out in seemingly everyone’s life or characters. I can hear the refrain as they quote various passages and refer with reverence to some work that brings forth image after image from their lives and experiences. Lewis would use these poetical experiences as one given avenue in which the anguish of the deepest heart is stirred at the hint of that which has been lost or is missing, that far-off country. 

My brother and I, even as he begins to gain some experience with poetry, recently discussed the almost complete loss of poetry as a means to these ends in the common experience of this, and probably at least one previous, generation. Poetry is all but lost. Individuals would argue against this in certain tight spheres, but I do not think it is debatable in the general. And yet, as much as I have had a desire to experience the same thing through those poetic means, I fear I am a long way off. To start now in gaining an appreciation would only be to catch faint glimpses in these later stages of life when many of the unique moments of younger days would be completely lost to this gracious phenomenon.

But wait! Upon reflection, I have had the same experiences that Chesterton, Buchan, Boreham, Wodehouse, MacDonald, and Lewis describe. Not only so, but it is with almost certainly similar consistency. I can track my entire life with the glimpses of glory and fairyland through something these men knew nothing about. Not a better means surely, but, rather surprisingly I feel, an equal one. David is my witness. For, my moments have been defined with the lilt and waver of song. Not just a song from the stage, but a song in my pocket!

Journaling, and all writing, has been extremely difficult lately. For this reason, I have been making some historical lists to change up the routine (or maintain one). A new form of diary began in the listing of the albums, artists, and songs that defined moments and eras quite similarly to how, I would assume, a poem or works by a poet would immediately evoke certain life images and times. In fact, upon this idea first percolating in the old noggin, I could go down almost year by year (or certainly stage by stage) and tell you the music I was listening to and even have my heart glimpse that unspeakable painting of those times at the simple recalling of an album or artist. I can quote lyrics from my childhood as the authors quoted poetry. I may hear a song and an entire mountain range, a drive from someone’s hospital bed, a room in a house, a chair and a book, or a moment of friendship are before me. Now, as snippets of those melodies or lyrics pass through my mind abruptly by happenstance or conjuring, the specter flies up as a line from a poem may have evoked in years past. That past time is gone, but a new pastime has filled the void with audible notes that a poem’s melody, I think, tried to suggest.

I briefly mentioned Anne of Green Gables above. To continue that theme, the orphan or youth of today would have come down that path with headphones on, lost in a similar way, in the mood of Lorde or something. While the music of choice may be rubbish for the edification of the person or quite movingly affective at the de-edification, the effect, most likely, is quite similar. The bemoaning of the loss of poetry cannot be a bemoaning of a loss of its sensation. Music was as rare as a holiday and out of the question for providing a moving moment in the everyday. Poetry filled the gap in reverse. The movement of poetry has been actually given voice through music in one’s ears on the train, on the path, on the water, or upon the hill. The content of the form is not the discussion here, but simply a part of what is being “lost” in the absence of a book of poems in the hand is actually given amazing voice with the possibility of a song in the hand. 

The greatest beef I suppose I could have in this exchange of forms is that the person who walks in front of me does not feel or know the mood which I would imbue to him as a part of the scene from the music playing in my head. When the music is present, the theme, genre (what a terrible word), mood, and essence often seem to play out in everything around me. I immediately assume everyone and everything is moving to the same music and feeling its weight. The poets wrote with the environment of God’s creation or man’s industry, ones that are shared and experienced commonly (not to infer a baseness in this commonality). Therefore the poem can have similar weight with, say, two individuals in the cafe.

Without a doubt, as with everything our crooked fingers touch, music has become increasingly rugged and fishy at times, but, as far as a metaphor goes, it must be said, music touches all feelings, from the basest to the highest, as may be the case with poetry if I new more of its range.

As a follower of Christ, servant in His Kingdom, and an adopted son of His Father, all is sacred. Through music in the car over the flint hills, in my ears on a run through the fields, playing in the home as I study, God hints and reveals as I “watch the sheep.” 

 

Phillip Tippin
Roeland Park, KS
Preparing to board ship and sail from beneath this green canopy.


Image:
Landscape with Apolo and Mercury
Oil on canvas, 1660
Claude Gellée, called Le Lorrain, French, 1604/1605(?)-1682

Monday
May122014

Animal Animosity

 

May I take only a paragraph of your time? No?

Well, listening to The Secret Garden in the evenings with the kids reminds me of a midsummer evening about a year ago. We, the family and I, stood in the backyard beneath the nest of the barred owl, Belteshazzar, in our cottonwood. He peered down upon us as a family of rabbits came out to play. The rabbits seemed to be suddenly, in the beauty of the evening, considering us friends as they hopped in amongst us. The vail of fear in wild creatures fell away for a magical few moments as when the robin at MisselThwaite Manor alighted on Ben Weatherstaff’s spade. That summer evening served as a juxtaposing reminder of a quite vivid fear that would take me suddenly in childhood. At that time, knowing animals would contribute to the killing of 1/4 the population of earth (Rev 6:8), a sideways look from a stray cat or maybe a rabbit on the lawn brought a haunting fear of all domestic and wild animals turning on me in a sudden switching off of avoidance and indifference. Is there an animosity that would not only break that barrier of fear like the summer evening, but break it with  murderous aggression? Attacking those who rather than tending the garden and subduing creation, tended death and fear at the beginning. Years later, eating breakfast on the lower slopes of Horn Peak in the Colorado Rockies I was introduced to something of a animal prophet in this vein. Many mornings the most cantankerous of black squirrels would place himself just off our deck on a limb of a pine before beginning his ritual berating of the congregation. He scolded, scathed, and derided us with all his might and furry, staring at us with stinging black eyes below his sharp pointed ears. It was the closest I may ever come to Balaam’s Donkey in my life. All this to say something. In every way, animals included, creation waits and groans, sometimes aggressively.   

Phillip Tippin
Roeland Park, KS
With many squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits round about me

 

 

Image:
View of Tangier
Oil on Canvas, 1890
Krämer, Johann Viktor 

Tuesday
May062014

Ambler, No. 10 [On Beauty]

 

I conceive there is a traditionall Magicke, not learned immediately from the Devill, but at second hand from his schollers -- Sir Thomas Browne

They stood still as statues in the field, periodically interrupting their stillness to graze on the grass. We gazed and gossiped about the deer, who ignored our presence, despite our rudeness, despite our noise. Like Tolkien's dwarves we bumbled our way along the path, crunching sticks and leaves, speaking freely and openly. We met with an old bridge that swayed with the ease of any swing. Boys cannot help but make such bridges toss and turn, much to the dismay of our female companion, who cursed our gender's existence. Though our initial course was covered with trees, the path slowly led to an open field -- and as the trees gave way to tall grass plains, our elevation increased slightly.

A contrast is discovered by man when atop a hill. For the cool breeze of an evening in spring soon becomes billowing gusts, reminding one of the coldness of winter. In the ease of prosperity, the tempest surrounding our senses do not touch our soul, and we are not affected by life's inconveniences; but when prosperity melts into poverty, the slightest of winds wounds us through and through, and slight frustrations boil into failures. Atop that hill, with no buildings to act as buttresses or trees to trap the winds, my compatriots and I adopted that aforementioned posture of our beastly brethren, despite our efforts to move with vigor, despite unwillingness to keep to that hill. We trudged on under grey clouds and acknowledged that a sunrise from that spot would be a beautiful sight, so we made a commitment to watch the sun sink and die its daily death from that spot as we took comfort from the winds in the valley below.

The few deer we had noticed before had multiplied. My fellow pilgrim must have counted at least twenty standing solemnly in the open field. We took to our car and drove past another filled with perhaps more deer than the previous field. It is very rare for modern man to see one or two deer, let alone fifty, but all the while on our journey home, we saw them out in droves, standing like statues -- all, that is, except the three who courageously crossed the street in front of our car careening down the road.

*****

Two days later my two companions and I took to that same hill, this time with decided purpose and initiative. We walked as a unified group until my friend got it into his head that the sun would sink before our slow pace could carry us to the hill's summit. He shot off like a boy's rocket, skipping and striding with the grace of a gazelle being chased by a lion in the midst of lent, starved and salivating for a meaty meal. My eyes grew large with admiration of such energy, and I turned to my other companion and told her of that feeling. We gazed and gawked, and I asked for permission to chase my friend and overtake him -- for a man should never leave a woman alone without at least asking for permission, and even if given the "okay" to do so, he should weigh that decision with much gravity. For it is often the case with the female gender that "yes" can mean "no" and "no" can mean "yes." But it is not for man to know one way or the other. The whole theory of it all is to keep the men forever guessing and eternally bewildered, until they are so turned around and spun in circles, that up becomes down and yes becomes no. And it just so happens that when they reach this point of understanding with the female gender, that that sweet gift from God decides that all along "yes" actually did mean "yes" and "no" could certainly not refer to anything else but "no." This apparent shifting of values with the female gender should never be brought to their attention by any male, for doing so would, and has, resulted in far more pain and suffering than mere spinning in circles could ever cause.

Nevertheless, I took my friend's word as she gave me the go ahead. I bolted after that summit like a boy shoots for the exit sign on the last day of school. About five strides in, however, I fully realized I was not the young boy I once was. My lungs began pleading my legs to let up the madness I was putting them through; my legs told my brain to give it up completely; my brain told my heart it wasn't worth it; my heart told my soul I was running out of steam. Despite all these accusations flung at my soul, it remained steadfast in its pursuit. As I neared the summit, the climb got steeper with each stride, and reaching my friend grew into an impossibility; but to turn back now would end in utter humiliation, so my pride pressed me forward with the vigor with which my lungs pressed against my chest. As if they sought release from the prison of my body, they made their plight known to the world as I heaved with a tremendous amount of a pain -- growing in volume just as the hill grew in its steepness. and then I saw it; my faith became sight; the dim mirror became clear vision; the form vanished and made way for the ideal reality; and I placed my hands on my knees and huffed and puffed in victory, sure I had met my end.

*****

That evening, after my lungs came back to earth and my friend had made her slower, yet much more calculated ascent up the hill, we watched the sunset. Layers of clouds were strewn across the horizon, and at times the sun merely proved its presence by shooting forth its rays from the other side. It never ceases to amaze me how different the sky can appear from various angles throughout the day. No two sunsets are ever alike; yet all sunsets are similar.

As we watched we decided to read a few Psalms which spoke of the sun; the strong man in the sky had nearly run his course. There is nothing to be said about a sunset; there is not enough which could be said about a sunset. But if anything could be said of it, it is that they are not enough. A man eats until he is full; he writes until his mind is satisfied; he laughs until he's no longer amused; he cries until he is amused. But he merely watches sunsets until the next sunset. Like the cyclical nature of the sun, so man's desire for beauty is never satisfied. He constantly wants and seeks more beauty; and when he has discovered more beauty, it only leaves him wanting more. His inability to be satisfied suggests a higher, purer beauty which his eyes cannot see, nor his mind comprehend.

This past week that same friend who ran up the hill like a glorious gazelle reminded me of a passage we had recently read in Plato's Phaedrus. Plato argued that when the lover sees beauty he is enamored by it because it reminds him of true reality -- a reality he cannot currently get to. CS Lewis spoke of a similar idea when he argued that longings which cannot be satisfied on this earth suggest we are made for a different world. We live our lives running from toy to toy, constantly and forever longing to fill a joy that can never be satisfied with the transient things of the earth. So as we descended that hill for the night and the evening chill began to slowly overtake us, none of us felt the satisfaction of a sunset -- as deer pant for streams of water, so our souls panted for God, souls that will press on in their earthly pilgrimage until they lay rest on Mt. Zion.

Sam Snow (theficklefarce.com)
Written with renewed vigor,
Manhattan, KS
May 3, 2014

Painting: "A Heath: Sunset"
By David Hodgson
Oil on Canvas,
1860-1864 

Sunday
May042014

Throwing off the Monkey: A Tennis Memoir [Part 3]

 This is the third installment of Bryn Homuth's tennis memoir. To read the first, click here and here but certainly not here.

There are two people that stand out as having rerouted my path from complete destruction and self-implosion, and the first is Juan Mondragon. Everybody knows Juan in the Fargo-Moorhead area. Not only can he be found at Island Park every summer day around two o’clock, but he owns major restaurant chains in the heart of downtown and satellite burrito shops throughout the city. Juan also sponsors a local tennis tournament every year. Juan played high-level tennis in California after he and his family moved there from Mexico. On nearly the same level as Division I collegiate or semi-professional athletes, he traveled regularly to tournaments and eventually opened a tennis academy after the prime of his career. Then comes the part I still have trouble understanding: slightly disenchanted with teaching and running his academy, Juan and his wife Annette moved thousands of miles northeast to try their hands at the restaurant business.

I met Juan when he walked by my court one day while I was practicing serves.

“Yeah Rocket,” he said, referring to what I initially thought was the steady thwock and ting of my serves as they ricocheted off the chain link fence. That may have been his intent, but before long Juan and the entire tennis staff were calling me Rocket. After nearly five years of friendship, Juan has still never called me by my first name. I’m not sure he even knows what it is. When Juan sees my mother or friends around town, he still asks How the hell is Rocket? I hope he always does.

Before long, Juan chose me to be one of his daily hitting partners, which I’m sure started only because I responded quickly to requests and never showed up late. He always arrived early; he stretched on a towel and filled an empty ball can (his makeshift water bottle) with some concoction of electrolyte powder. When I’d miss a shot or do something else embarrassing, Juan would emit this high, shrieking laugh and feed the next ball. He’d often raise his arms above his head and pretend to claw at some unseen force behind his neck.

“That’s the monkey on your back Rocket,” he told me. “And if you don’t reach back there and pull that bastard off, he’ll never leave. He lives there man.”

I still remember the first time he made me actually reach back, pretend to yank that demon off, and fling it to the ground. Sure, the monkey occasionally climbs back up when I’m not looking, but now that I know what his absence feels like, I can always tell when he adds his weight to mine.

At nearly sixty years old, Juan would still beat me soundly on a regular basis. He wasn’t shy about it either. We’d have an extended grueling rally that would end in an error of mine and he’d look right at me and yell You cannot beat me! If I began to seethe with the beginnings of an outburst, he would walk to his bag, sit, and say I don’t play with babies. Juan reminded me of two things. First, he reinforced the classic mantra “There’s always somebody better.” Second, he gave me the first opportunity to stop taking myself so seriously.

The second influence on my tennis, my private lesson instructor for many years, was a man named Oliver Summers. As his name might suggest, he grew up in England and competed well in his own right at Portsmouth—a Division 1 institution.  For a time, it seemed Oliver would give me one strong piece of immediately impactful advice every lesson. I used to call this a “treasure horde” from which he took bits of gold to gift me every one-hour session. I can still recall most of his insights (probably because I hear them in his distinct accent), but one simple tactic for rage control stands out. Oliver once told me to switch my racket to my left hand (to give my right a break) after every point and to hold it up around the level of my shoulders as I prepared for the next ball. This, he explained, was not only a symbolic “I’m still here” message to an opponent, but a visual cue for me to keep my spirits up. It was funny at first; every time I’d remember to hold my racket that way, I’d look over at Olly and flash a joking smile as if to say, “I know I look silly, but I’m trying it.” What I realize now is that every time I thought to do that, I spent the moment lifting a different kind of torch than the one I’d trashed in my match with Daniel Sam. Rather than a surge of ferocious disgust with myself, I could focus on something pleasant—I remembered to do something my coach told me, and he saw me do it.

---

When I started college tennis, one of the first formalities was to fill out a bio. On the team’s website, each player is asked to answer a few questions that combine to create a personal page. Among these are basic questions like favorite food or favorite TV show, but at the very top was a blank for one’s nickname. I thought about this for a very long time; the varying nicknames I’d been given over the years each corresponded to different aspects of my game and personality, but I wanted something new. Having just taken a course on the history of the English language, I decided to try and fuse two words to create a new word, probably derived from my fondness for the word “portmanteau.” The first two names that came to mind were “bro” and “dawg”—affectionate titles by which males often refer to one another. Placing these together in my head, I typed the word “brawg” into the spaced provided and submitted it to the athletic department.

The captain of our team was a guy named Kirby. He was much like the actual character from Super Smash Bros. in that he was small, pink in the face, and made interesting noises as he flew around the net poaching volleys. On one of our road trips, I was sitting shotgun as he drove and took song requests with his iPod. He asked me why I chose that nickname, a note of amusement in his voice. Though I remember little of the rest of that conversation, I had soon shed the name of my birth and was being referred to consistently as “the brawg.” It didn’t take long for my coach Troy to catch on too; those same clipboards hung on the wire fencing now depicted my nickname rather than the name my mother gave me. Interestingly, he spelled it “b-r-o-g,” which made me think of some amphibious combination of frog and human being. To this day, I’ve still never corrected him.

The summer prior to my junior season, the girl I was dating was off at basic training, reachable only by handwritten letter, and though I’d written several to her, I received almost no replies. Though it was a different kind of anger, I was frustrated at her blatant neglect of a two-plus year relationship. My coping mechanism had been a strict regimen of morning workouts, eight-hour shifts at the butcher shop, and evening tennis under the compound eyes of stadium lights. A blessing in disguise came in the form of a surge in my skills. Swim sprints, distance running, and endurance weight training joined with tasks like stacking eighty-pound boxes of rib eye to melt away the bulk of my excess weight. I could finally run like my teammates used to and even retained every bit of the power from my broader frame. I started to string wins together and even made the consolation finals of the Red River Open—a tournament in which I would usually only record one or two wins. Juan and I would schedule “training days” where we’d attempt to hit as continuously as possible. By the time our fall practice season opened in August, I was ready to challenge for a top spot.

As a student balancing both musical ensembles and athletics, I often found my attention divided. I had received a music performance scholarship for tuba, which meant that music was priority, tennis second. During some years scheduling managed to work out quite well, but during others the two extra-curricular activities butted heads. Such was the case my junior year. Despite every instinct otherwise, I often had to force myself to attend band rehearsal instead of going to my full tennis practice. I once asked my band director if I could split time, coming late to band two days a week in order to be to practice on time. He replied with a firm “no” and laid the groundwork for what would be a frustrating year. I felt as though time was never going to be on my side. With my fitness level high and mind virtually unencumbered, it was sitting in a chair, playing the tuba (most often, resting) that kept me from maximizing my ability.

There came a point in the season where I started to be passed over in favor of other players—far more regular attenders. Although I was a better player, commitment mattered, and Coach had no choice but to demote me in the lineup. I almost quit the team that year. I spoke to both Coach and Kirby concerning the possibility of leaving the team. The subsequent conversations were meaningful far beyond the fifteen minutes I spent in each of them. My coach didn’t suggest one decision or another, but instead encouraged me to seek the route that was best for my own development. Kirby similarly said the choice was mine, yet reinforced that there was little anybody could do with my inconsistent attendance. By the end of the year I was so irritated with trying to make it to every practice that I stopped going to tennis altogether. I concocted excuses that included some sort of “rehearsal” or “meeting,” and when I did show up it was like a relapse into high school tennis—on the court with everybody, and yet partially outside, still staring through the diamond-shaped holes in the chain-link fence. Worse than all else, though, was when Coach denied my request to be in the team photo taken at the end of the year. Still, when I enter his former office and see the pictures of teams down through the years, my absence in the 2010-2011 frame haunts me.

The last match I ever played for Concordia was at home in Fargo against Hamline—a college in Minneapolis. My friend since freshman year and I played third-position doubles while I played fourth in the singles lineup. Our doubles match featured the two of us firing on all cylinders. Between my decisive volleys and booming serves and Will’s monster forehand, we dismissed our opponents in workman-like fashion. When I was called out for singles, I knew we’d have a tough time winning the meet as a whole, but was determined to leave a lasting impression. I was admittedly nervous. As someone known throughout the conference that practiced well and performed poorly, I heaped pressure on myself before even walking out. My opponent was a hyper-aggressive guy with a forehand so hard he could easily strike clean winners from the back of the court. I tried to go toe-to-toe with him at first, and quickly lost the first game. On that changeover I thought of Juan, of Olly—how would they want to see me finish my career? Did it matter if I won? I decided, for better or worse, that I’d go out doing everything that I’d been taught, and the result would follow, whatever it was. I went down Love-30 with a couple jittery errors long, but started to force my opponent to hit extra shots. Little by little, he started to make errors, and I chiseled away at his seemingly impenetrable game. I won the first set 6-1, a score line I hardly ever achieved even when I was playing my best. The second set was closer, but I rolled right through with minor hiccups—6-2. Dominant routs were, again, not my tendency, and when I told Coach the score, his “Whoa! Nice Brawg!” conveyed something in his voice that I wouldn’t understand until we huddled up on court after the meet.

Every one of my teammates lost, leaving us with a final 2-7 meet score. We gathered and waited for Coach to give his year-end pep talk—for several seniors, our last. Few moments in my life stand out so vividly as what he said next.

“All right fellas, I know we lost today, but you guys fought hard and should be proud of this season.” He looked at me. “For some of us, today was the perfect finish. The Brawg played the best tennis I’ve ever seen him play, and in his very last match. To see what he did today is a major reason why I love what I do. Congrats to him.” As I felt my teammates pat my back, it was all I could do to keep composed.

I realized in that moment that the dream I’d constructed in my mind and held for so long was not necessarily what it should have been. In a sport as lonely as ours, tennis players have the gift (and curse) of individual responsibility for everything that takes place in the course of a match. Whether we’re hitting the ball as though it’s the most natural thing we’ve ever done or keeping afloat in the vast sea of our minds, we, at some point, have to look within.

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I eventually started teaching private lessons, but in minimal capacity and only over the barely three-month North Dakota summer. My first student was also my next-door neighbor, Brayden. Only about eight years my junior, I worked with him the summer before he began his own plunge into high school tennis. Brayden has a severe lung condition that prevents him from speaking above a whisper and impacts his breathing. Doctors cleared him to play non-contact sports, but even in those he must monitor himself closely to prevent any sort of major respiratory distress. His life expectancy is anticipated at no more than thirty years.

At his first lesson, I remember trying to assemble my ball hopper’s long steel handles that folded under and locked so it could sit at waist-level as a basket. I thought I’d set it up properly, but after feeding the first few balls, the whole of it collapsed and spilled out across our court and into the next. From above, it might’ve looked like a tipped yellow paint can. I’ll never forget how fast Brayden picked up those balls. Stuffing his pockets full, building a pyramid-like structure to carry more on his racket—all he wanted to do was hit. Once we cleaned it up, I started feeding again, now watching his swing to diagnose the best plan for his improvement. He buried most shots in the net or sent them several feet behind the baseline, but every so often he’d catch a ball right in the center of his strings and send across a crisply timed scorcher that dipped right inside the court. In these moments Brayden’s feet would pause, and he’d smile—the smile that flickers across a person’s face when they get something right without trying.

“Keep moving your feet!” I’d remind him every time, and he dutifully would. Not once did he grimace, slouch his shoulders, or give any indication that he was missing most of those shots. In him, I saw myself as I’d been in Olly’s lessons—racket in my left hand, raised almost above my head. Something about that simple habit changed me over the years. When I moved my arm that way it was like an invisible string had pulled my attitude up out of the slouch that had become such a familiar posture. Every squeak and scuffle of his tennis shoes sent a tingle through my feet and memory; the hot asphalt radiating up through my feet, the raw red as those first blisters burst forth. 

Bryn Homuth
In the presence of (and, in sections, dictated to) one, R. Eric Tippin, in our lonely office at Kansas State University
February 15, 2014 

Image: http://www.upenn.edu/gazette/0510/images/arts_04b.gif