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Tuesday
Apr292014

The Rambler #14: "The difference between an author's writings and his conversation."

No. 14.

SATURDAY, MAY 5, 1750.

——Nil fuit unquam
Sic impar sibi——

Hor. lib. i. Sat. iii. 18.

Sure such a various creature ne'er was known.

Francis.

 Among the many inconsistencies which folly produces, or infirmity suffers, in the human mind, there has often been observed a manifest and striking contrariety between the life of an author and his writings; and Milton, in a letter to a learned stranger, by whom he had been visited, with great reason congratulates himself upon the consciousness of being found equal to his own character, and having preserved, in a private and familiar interview, that reputation which his works had procured him.

Those whom the appearance of virtue, or the evidence of genius, have tempted to a nearer knowledge of the writer in whose performances they may be found, have indeed had frequent reason to repent their curiosity; the bubble that sparkled before them has become common water at the touch; the phantom of perfection has vanished when they wished to press it to their bosom. They have lost the pleasure of imagining how far humanity may be exalted, and, perhaps, felt themselves less inclined to toil up the steeps of virtue, when they observe those who seem best able to point the way, loitering below, as either afraid of the labour, or doubtful of the reward.

It has been long the custom of the oriental monarchs to hide themselves in gardens and palaces, to avoid the conversation of mankind, and to be known to their subjects only by their edicts. The same policy is no less necessary to him that writes, than to him that governs; for men would not more patiently submit to be taught, than commanded, by one known to have the same follies and weaknesses with themselves. A sudden intruder into the closet of an author would perhaps feel equal indignation with the officer, who having long solicited admission into the presence of Sardanapalus, saw him not consulting upon laws, inquiring into grievances, or modelling armies, but employed in feminine amusements, and directing the ladies in their work.

It is not difficult to conceive, however, that for many reasons a man writes much better than he lives. For without entering into refined speculations, it may be shewn much easier to design than to perform. A man proposes his schemes of life in a state of abstraction and disengagement, exempt from the enticements of hope, the solicitations of affection, the importunities of appetite, or the depressions of fear, and is in the same state with him that teaches upon land the art of navigation, to whom the sea is always smooth, and the wind always prosperous.

The mathematicians are well acquainted with the difference between pure science, which has to do only with ideas, and the application of its laws to the use of life, in which they are constrained to submit to the imperfection of matter and the influence of accidents. Thus, in moral discussions, it is to be remembered that many impediments obstruct our practice, which very easily give way to theory. The speculatist is only in danger of erroneous reasoning; but the man involved in life, has his own passions, and those of others, to encounter, and is embarrassed with a thousand inconveniencies, which confound him with variety of impulse, and either perplex or obstruct his way. He is forced to act without deliberation, and obliged to choose before he can examine: he is surprised by sudden alterations of the state of things, and changes his measures according to superficial appearances; he is led by others, either because he is indolent, or because he is timorous; he is sometimes afraid to know what is right, and sometimes finds friends or enemies diligent to deceive him.

We are, therefore, not to wonder that most fail, amidst tumult, and snares, and danger, in the observance of those precepts, which they lay down in solitude, safety, and tranquillity, with a mind unbiassed, and with liberty unobstructed. It is the condition of our present state to see more than we can attain; the exactest vigilance and caution can never maintain a single day of unmingled innocence, much less can the utmost efforts of incorporated mind reach the summit of speculative virtue.

It is, however, necessary for the idea of perfection to be proposed, that we may have some object to which our endeavours are to be directed; and he that is most deficient in the duties of life, makes some atonement for his faults, if he warns others against his own failings, and hinders, by the salubrity of his admonitions, the contagion of his example.

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practise; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.

The interest which the corrupt part of mankind have in hardening themselves against every motive to amendment, has disposed them to give to these contradictions, when they can be produced against the cause of virtue, that weight which they will not allow them in any other case. They see men act in opposition to their interest, without supposing, that they do not know it; those who give way to the sudden violence of passion, and forsake the most important pursuits for petty pleasures, sire not supposed to have changed their opinions, or to approve their own conduct. In moral or religious questions alone, they determine the sentiments by the actions, and charge every man with endeavouring to impose upon the world, whose writings are not confirmed by his life. They never consider that themselves neglect or practise something every day inconsistently with their own settled judgment, nor discover that the conduct of the advocates for virtue can little increase, or lessen, the obligations of their dictates; argument is to be invalidated only by argument, and is in itself of the same force, whether or not it convinces him by whom it is proposed.

Yet since this prejudice, however unreasonable, is always likely to have some prevalence, it is the duty of every man to take care lest he should hinder the efficacy of his own instructions. When he desires to gain the belief of others, he should shew that he believes himself; and when he teaches the fitness of virtue by his reasonings, he should, by his example, prove its possibility: Thus much at least may be required of him, that he shall not act worse than others because he writes better, nor imagine that, by the merit of his genius, he may claim indulgence beyond mortals of the lower classes, and be excused for want of prudence, or neglect of virtue.

Bacon, in his History of the Winds, after having offered something to the imagination as desirable, often proposes lower advantages in its place to the reason as attainable. The same method may be sometimes pursued in moral endeavours, which this philosopher has observed in natural inquiries; having first set positive and absolute excellence before us, we may be pardoned though we sink down to humbler virtue, trying, however, to keep our point always in view, and struggling not to lose ground, though we cannot gain it.

It is recorded of Sir Mathew Hale, that he, for a long time, concealed the consecration of himself to the stricter duties of religion, lest by some flagitious and shameful action, he should bring piety into disgrace. For the same reason it may be prudent for a writer, who apprehends that he shall not enforce his own maxims by his domestick character, to conceal his name, that he may not injure them.

There are, indeed, a great number whose curiosity to gain a more familiar knowledge of successful writers, is not so much prompted by an opinion of their power to improve as to delight, and who expect from them not arguments against vice, or dissertations on temperance or justice; but flights of wit, and sallies of pleasantry, or, at least, acute remarks, nice distinctions, justness of sentiment, and elegance of diction.

This expectation is, indeed, specious and probable, and yet, such is the fate of all human hopes, that it is very often frustrated, and those who raise admiration by their books, disgust by their company. A man of letters for the most part spends in the privacies of study, that season of life in which the manners are to be softened into ease, and polished into elegance; and, when he has gained knowledge enough to be respected, has neglected the minuter acts by which he might have pleased. When he enters life, if his temper be soft and timorous, he is diffident and bashful, from the knowledge of his defects; or if he was born with spirit and resolution, he is ferocious and arrogant, from the consciousness of his merit; he is either dissipated by the awe of company, and unable to recollect his reading, and arrange his arguments; or he is hot and dogmatical, quick in opposition, and tenacious in defence, disabled by his own violence, and confused by his haste to triumph.

The graces of writing and conversation are of different kinds, and though he who excels in one might have been, with opportunities and application, equally successful in the other, yet as many please by extemporary talk, though utterly unacquainted with the more accurate method, and more laboured beauties, which composition requires; so it is very possible that men, wholly accustomed to works of study, may be without that readiness of conception, and affluence of language, always necessary to colloquial entertainment. They may want address to watch the hints which conversation offers for the display of their particular attainments, or they may be so much unfurnished with matter on common subjects, that discourse not professedly literary, glides over them as heterogeneous bodies, without admitting their conceptions to mix in the circulation.

A transition from an author's book to his conversation, is too often like an entrance into a large city, after a distant prospect. Remotely, we see nothing but spires of temples and turrets of palaces, and imagine it the residence of splendour, grandeur and magnificence; but, when we have passed the gates, we find it perplexed with narrow passages, disgraced with despicable cottages, embarrassed with obstructions, and clouded with smoke.

 

 

This is a guest post from the esteemed Dr. Samuel Johnson which he first published without the aid of the internet in his periodical The Rambler

 

Image:
A Girl Writing; The Pet Goldfinch
Henriette Browne (1829-1901)
Oil c. 1870 

Saturday
Apr262014

A Meal Prayer

I am a member of a terribly secret and fiercely radical underground society called The Killjoys which meets almost weekly and shares meals, drinks, and original writing. When we gather for a meal, we read the following prayer.

 

Lord of the harvest and Maker of every animal—You who turned water into wine and fed five thousand by breaking one loaf and filleting one fish, thank You for the meal before us. Thank You for the variety of food available to us on the earth and the satisfaction we have in eating. Thank You for the safety, health, and relative ease in which we eat. Thank You for the company at the table and the joy of sharing a meal with friends and family. Please help us talk in a way and with words that honor you—in the stories and jokes we tell and in our conversation about others we know. You have blessed us with the gift of food on our plates; help us not to love the gifts you give more than we love their Giver. We pray that You will help us use the energy this food gives our bodies to build Your kingdom—not using our strength and mental vigor for sin. In the name of Jesus, the true giver of the feast, we pray. Amen.

 

R. Eric Tippin
Twenty Steps from Kansas State's Catacombs
January 22, 2014

Image:
"Saying grace before carving the turkey at Thanksgiving dinner in the home of Earle Landis in Neffsville, Pennsylvania"
November, 1942
Photo by Marjory Collins. Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)

Saturday
Apr262014

Throwing off the Monkey: A Tennis Memoir [Part 2]

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

Professional tennis players of the 1980’s demonstrated some of the most overtly fierce competitive spirit the sport has seen. Rivalries like Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe kept fans thrilled not only by the quality of tennis, but by the edgy behavior that was invading the “gentleman’s sport.”  McEnroe was someone I resonated with; his propensity for angrily contesting calls, yelling, cursing, and demolishing wooden rackets into near-kindling was certainly not “role model” behavior, but he represented the possibility that passionate rage could be channeled, harnessed to produce world class results. Looking back, I wish sometimes that I’d never heard of McEnroe. His existence somehow condoned my behavior, as though I would somehow reach a stage where destructive energy would morph into excellence. His old Wimbledon matches and memoir You Cannot Be Serious, despite their fascinating content, probably set back my on-court maturity two or three years. McEnroe was an anomaly, and it would be years before I recognized that I was no second coming of the tortured-soul athlete with untapped talent. Instead, I was just another decent player with a temper.

I recall playing a kid named Daniel Sam one weekend afternoon at our indoor tennis club in Fargo—Courts Plus Fitness Center. The match had no real meaning. It was simply the culmination of each week of lessons in which kids put their technical skills to the test in a match atmosphere. Daniel was a pusher, a term used to describe the kind of person who sits back on their heels, feathering balls over the net and waiting for their opponent to make errors. Pushers won most high school matches because there were very few players who could sustain aggressive, attacking tennis. Around the sport, these players are referred to by the all at once praiseworthy and condemning nickname—backboards. I hated pushers. I lost to them often—usually with several flurries of error-ridden play—but it wasn’t so much the result. Pushers don’t “beat” other players, they wait patiently for the other players to beat themselves, and I quickly became my own worst adversary. I don’t remember what the score was against Daniel, but it was shameful. At something like 6-1, 5-0 down, I had been up to much of my usual on-court behavior: snapping my racket against my calf so hard it left long red streaks, poinging the string bed off my forehead until my face looked like a sheet of grid paper from math class. And that was just the physical abuse. Every so often, obscenities that had been collecting like the tiny bubbles in an almost boiling saucepan rose and mushroomed at the surface. If you ever heard a sudden, violent bellow while watching a Fargo South or Concordia tennis meet, it was likely me.

In that last game against Daniel, I did something I hadn’t ever done before. I didn’t even move for his last serve as it zinged past, and walked straight to the net. You know all the times you’ve read about blood boiling in your head? For me it was more a warm fog that slowly filled and weighed down my head until it seemed to pulsate. By the time I started to feel that bass-like fuzz against my temples, I had already decided I wasn’t just going to take this loss. I deserved punishment for playing this poorly, and with no teammates to properly scorn my poor performance, it was left up to me.  I walked along the net after the handshake and fixated on the net post. Recalling the moment, it almost felt like something besides my own volition was moving my arm, but before I knew it I had tomahawked my racket into the metal. After a look at the buckled, caved-in frame, I continued to smash it against the post, over and over, until I held only a grip attached to a twisted torch of catgut, graphite, and fiberglass. I didn’t look at Daniel. I didn’t look at anything. I didn’t hear my teacher Jake shouting after me as I shoved out of the club, and I didn’t stop until I fell into the front seat of my car and put my hands on the wheel to stop the shaking.

---

Although I had a difficult experience in junior varsity, I soon found myself contending for the starting lineup. My high school head coach taught history, was short and heavyset, and took a relaxed approach to coaching. He preferred to remain soft-spoken, to encourage through light humor, and to stay even-keel in any sort of situation. More importantly, he and I clashed. We clashed in personality, competitive philosophy, and every other way you could imagine. Well, except for food. But how much bonding can you really have over the Burger King lobby realization that you both share an affinity for crispy chicken sandwiches (or as was the case for me—three in one sitting)? Coach Youngs wanted to change my power game from the beginning. Seeing as his top four players were beanpoles that could run for hours and would disappear if they turned sideways, I can’t stay that I blame him. He liked mild mannered players, because he could anticipate what they’d do. I, to some degree, was unpredictable.

High school ladders vary from state to state. While players just across the border in Minnesota would form seven-person teams, play best four of seven matches (three singles, two doubles), and specialize in either one, North Dakota players had the opportunity to compete in both events. We played best five of nine matches (six singles, three doubles) and were comprised of anywhere from six to nine players. In my conference, the top four or five players were usually skilled enough to occupy multiple spots in the lineup, but the rest of us were left to teeter between starting and sitting on the bench, often not knowing our fate until hours before teams were introduced. In order to move up, you had to operate within the “challenge system”—an idea that rewarded consistently strong performance over the possible fluke that might vault a guy into varsity after a series of wins unlikely to be duplicated. Odd rankings could challenge one week, evens the next.  I would attempt a challenge every week, but because of my coach’s lackadaisical attitude, top ranked players (upperclassmen, especially) often dodged these matches by insisting on any number of bogus excuses. One such guy, David Schuster, was ranked ninth, while I occupied the ten slot. After weeks of trying to schedule our match, Coach Youngs, without warning, announced that we’d contest the slot following practice. Exhausted, I was beaten soundly in what should have been a relatively even match. To this day, I remember the horrible practice that followed that failed challenge.

It was one of those rare North Dakota summer days when humidity and raw heat combine to build a sweltering haze so thick you could reach out and tear a handful of the air away from itself. Tennis courts average fifteen to twenty degrees warmer than the surrounding air temperatures due to the heat trapping quality of the surface. With a forecasted 90 in the air, our men’s team had already planned on an abbreviated afternoon. I didn’t mind the heat as much as my teammates did, and often considered less-than-ideal weather conditions as an advantage. But, only fifteen minutes in, I was spraying shots like one of those t-shirt cannons at a baseball game. As hard as I tried to focus on the strings and make solid contact, balls kept rocketing off my frame into the bordering evergreens, trickling down like a Plinko board. In the middle of one of my characteristic vile tirades, Coach stopped play.

“Bryn, go take a break in the shack for a while” he yelled.

Soaked in sweat and swimming in fury, I stomped into the shack where we held pre-match meetings. Folding chairs lined the room, and as I systematically threw, kicked, and yelled my way across the room, I looked at the carnage in my wake. Bruises were blossoming along my legs, a few patches of dried skin on my fingers had torn open and bled freely, and I could hear my huffed breath reverberate off the musty walls of the shack. I thought about my legacy for the first time, and that I wanted my lasting impression to be more than just “a hothead.” At that moment, to inquire about me to anybody who knew me in the tennis world would be to receive an answer that was some variation of “talented, passionate, but a guy who can’t escape from his own head; a waste.” I was angry on court many other times after that, but never again with the same blinding fury. I didn’t completely change in that moment; I would continue to struggle every time I stepped out to play, but it still proved to be a turning point in my tortured career. 

At the end of senior year, my doubles partner Adam and I once competed in a state-qualifying match against our cross-town rivals—Fargo North. It wasn’t just who these guys played for (I’ve never cared about such rivalries); they were jerks. Each point they’d whoop and holler like little boys. It wasn’t the kind of pump-up language contained to their side of the court, either. The frequent looks to gauge our reactions and obnoxiously loud antics couldn’t have been genuine. Had I not been well versed in tennis decorum, I would’ve likely started yelling at them on a changeover. Or worse. You could tell that getting under our skin was as much a part of their strategy as executing shots. I haven’t even gotten to the line calling.

In every level of tennis except professional, players call their own lines. Certainly there are those who maintain integrity during the course of a match, but far too often a player is pushed to act purely in self-interest—to cheat. The practice of deliberately making questionable calls is known as “hooking.” In the most extreme circumstances a line judge can be requested at regional events, but the best solution—one Coach always advocated—was to control your side of the court. Those guys from Fargo North were out to win by any means necessary, and when the last point was over, the score line read 7-5, 7-6 in their favor. It was my last chance to compete at the high school level, to rectify any mistakes from my rise through the ranks, and I felt it after that last ball. I wordlessly shook hands at the net, trudged to our bench, pulled my towel over my face, and sobbed. I thought about the dream I had, how, strangely, some of the pieces were in place: a final match, the towel, the tears. The difference was that I sat there with my face in my hands and wept for what I thought I’d lost, what I’d never get back. Every racket smashed and curse word screamed suddenly had no meaning, no purpose in the arc of my career. At the time, redemption seemed impossible . . . (to be continued)

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 

Painting:
"Tennis" 
Tempera on Plywood - 1930
Eric Ravilious 

Tuesday
Apr222014

Ambler, No. 8 [On Saying Something]

I am not so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven. -- Dr. Johnson

Our modern sympathies necessarily make the joke an impossibility, for modern man, in thinking too highly of himself, and too lowly of Truth, has created a farcical philosophy free of farce, which believes in nothing, and proclaims only solemnities. Our lack of Truth in our philosophy has created men of timid spirit, men who, not knowing what is true, are far too fearful of stating anything with any sort of objectivity, and the result is a philosophy free of paradox, a philosophy free of irony and wit, a philosophy free of jokes. For a joke is undeniably objective; it cannot be refuted by rebuttal or defended by any declamation; it rests on the grounded assumption that Truth is unchanging and constant, that Truth will be Truth, no matter where my own arguments ends up, no matter what my audience perceives me to believe. So modern man, entirely scared of Truth, either resolves to make no objective statements about anything whatsoever, or in fear of saying something untruthful, says what everybody has already heard a thousand times over, and he states this in the same dry and dull fashion in which it has been said for centuries.

If our modern sympathies do lead us to accept paradox, they do so by way of the culture wars. Perhaps the greatest joke in our society is radical feminism. The belief that, by clamoring for more power, they will thus be more powerful is actually the worst possible route one could take in pursuing of power. For the paradox lies in a simple truth: those who are perceived to be less powerful are actually the most powerful tyrants our world will encounter.

How many men have grown weak in the knees at the sight of their newborn, who having done nothing, demands food, care, and unending attention at their beck and call? And not only do these beautiful kings and queens receive their wishes, they are loved unconditionally. Tyrants really have very little power compared to children, and the grandest of radical feminists our country has encountered is last among the long line of lowly mothers who have shaped an upcoming generation with more persuasive appeal than many a prophet.

*****

The issues I have today with modern writers is often that they fall into one of two categories. Either they are too modest to believe in any type of truth, so they write objectively what they are not so sure can exist objectively; or they are too timid in saying something that may not be completely true -- that may be paradoxical -- and so in fear of being untrue, they resolve to write timidly. The first camp is what I call the secular academic, and the second is what I call many modern Christian writers. If you read a humanities textbook today, you will learn you can't believe anything, but you may be moved to do so; if you step into a modern Christian bookstore, you may know what to believe, but you will not be moved to do so. Wit exists in our generation to promote skepticism, but Truth is often best presented with wit, and it is a shame Christians have left off even attempting wit and paradox in their writing.

Over the past month or so, I have been working on a project which involves me studying the prose styles of two writers: Samuel Johnson and GK Chesterton. Both of these men saw an extraordinary value in humorous writing; they followed the tradition of rhetoric which went back to the Greeks, a tradition which argued that making someone laugh was a great way of persuading them. But jokes are often not found in modern writing because they cause a writer to either be so grounded in Truth that he actually believes something to be true; or it causes a man to be so grounded in Truth that stating it as a joke does not harm it; he is not overly cautious about being truthful or overly timid about being blasphemous. He is not so concerned that his metaphors be so rigid that they conform as closely to Truth as possible; it is more important that the underling Truth remains constant. When I said above that babies are more powerful than tyrants, I did not mean they could accomplish more or even lift more, but what I did mean was closer to the Truth, for babies and children, constrained as they are, are more free than the tyrant, for the tyrant is forever bound to his depraved will, but a child's innocence and wonder makes him more free than the worst of tyrants, for true freedom lies not in anarchy but in submission and duty.

*****

It occurred recently that I found myself in an awkward position. I am often surrounded by worldviews which both clash with my own as well as common sense. A man must hold fast to Truth in such situations, and at times that Truth must come out of his mouth. It happened within a lively discussion on words and their power, that our group began to conclude that words retained a special power to construct "meaning" and "truth." It is not, so goes the thought-process, "meaning" and "truth" which are represented in constructed words, as has been believed for centuries; it is words, which contain no inherent meaning, that create a perception of truth and meaning, truth and meaning that find their relevance only in the common acceptance of society. The natural result of this absurdity is the conclusion that in giving words so much power, we actually strip their power completely. If a word essentially could mean anything, it is the same as a word meaning everything, it is the same as a word meaning nothing. If a word is not inherently tied to concepts of things, language is truly nothing but vague onomatopoeia, and the natural course of conversation should devolve into meaningless grunts and gestures; the result, I confess, would be welcomed in regards to conversations like the above.

Now, no one is ever arguing that words are not constructed, but what is now being argued in institutions of higher education is that now the things and concepts are also constructed. The obvious problem with this lies in determining which constructed entity came first. A friend of mine wittily states that his favorite social construction is the building, and I will use that as an example. Stating that both words and the concepts they refer to are constructed is like saying the building is constructed by the man and the man is constructed by the building. It is stating that a word like "woman" is constructed by the concept of woman, and that the concept of woman is also constructed by the simple fact that we name that concept "woman." It denies any sort of objective grounding on which we can rest our feet. If the idea of womanhood only exists because society calls it "womanhood," so too do elephants only exist because we call them "elephants." But you can call a woman any number of things; what you cannot do is change the underlying concept of what a woman actually is.

As the conversation continued along illogical lines, I eventually gave in, proclaiming the above thoughts and concluding that whether you call a computer an "apple," it still remains a computer. It does not turn into an apple, and at the end of the day a woman is still a woman. Of course, little did I know that the last place on earth any person ought to make objective statements is among English majors. Perhaps that is the true paradox of our age -- that a branch of academia which has fought so long for the meaning of words, has now completely devolved into a small society of people who cannot say with any force or courage that a cat is a cat. But instead, the modern English major is content to spin around in circles debating not only the "true" meaning of "cat" but also whether or not the concept of "cat" can objectively exist. If English programs are seen as impractical today, I would have us step outside our socially-constructed circle and see why: for the world sees us doing nothing but staring into the sky and spinning in circles.

Sam Snow (theficklefarce.com)
written with a bold sense of meaning
Manhattan, KS
April 13, 2014

Painting:
"'Pysche' a White Persian Cat'"
By Francis Sartorius I
Oil on Canvas, 1787 

Monday
Apr212014

Throwing off the Monkey: A Tennis Memoir [Part 1]

The first time I broke a racket was an accident, but the rest were not. The worn tack of my sweat-stained grip slipped out of my hand on a service follow-through, bounced twice, and entangled in the net like a fly trapped in a spider web. All I could detect was a jagged crack in the throat, but by the end of the set I could hear a crunch every time I hit a ball as the fissure widened and shifted; eventually the strings lost tension and the frame was unusable. Unless you’re personally sponsored or have some kind of agreement with a major company like Wilson, Head, or Babolat, individual racket frames (minus string, grips, or other munitions for a tennis player’s arsenal) cost near $200. Once I became an NCAA athlete, it was like I’d been accepted into one of those strange inner circles where there’s always a way to avoid paying face value. It reminded me of when I discovered Expedia after shelling out $500+ for airfare a couple times. Now there were package deals with two frames, stencil ink, over grips, a spool of string, and a bag for only $350. By then I’d probably smashed near one thousand dollars worth of hardware, but, strangely, began to treat my equipment more kindly—I may have thought I could somehow earn back the wasted frames of the past.

From a young age, I sought out contact sports. There was no feeling quite like hitting somebody in football, and even after fifth grade, when I switched to soccer, I quickly earned nicknames like “Polar Bear” (a nod to my half-Norwegian blood). Once I’d been dribbling across midfield and, while looking down at my cleats, a defender ran right into me and fell flat on his back. The ref had motioned at first to give me a yellow card, but soon realized I had no malicious intent and that the poor kid just had too slight a frame to contest the ball. After that, I was “Steamroller.” When I chose tennis as my exclusive varsity sport in ninth grade, the bodily collisions suddenly became purely mental, and the only defenders I ran over were those in my own conscience.

For a brief time after elementary school, my parents sent me to a psychiatrist to “fix” my anger problems. Dr. J had a cluttered office; I remember feeling like the stacked books and papers were closing in around me. There was a comically large poster of a thermometer that he’d use to represent varying levels of rage; I don’t recall any of the descriptions, but I do remember that only the bulb was shaded. He probably didn’t want kids to imagine their day-to-day levels as anything beyond common irritation or annoyance. With Dr. J, I did eventually learn how to set aside most of my adolescent troubles—playground brawls, scuffles with my little brother—but rather than leave me completely, my mental instability instead entered a sort of hibernation, slumbering unseen while I prepared for high school.

Tennis was different from what are often referred to as the four major sports (football, basketball, baseball, and soccer) at my high school. Unlike the vigorous trials athletes had to undergo to be considered for one of those prestigious squads, tennis welcomed all and made no cuts. I liked that absent performance pressure at first—no fear of being called into a coach’s office to sit in an itchy, poorly-padded chair while you were told your “effort was appreciated” or you could “find other ways to help the team,” but that your spot was no longer a spot, or it now belonged to somebody else.

One of the first tennis-specific nicknames I had was given to me by my collection of three tennis instructors—Cody, Elliot, and Ryan. I was only seven or eight years old, and they convinced me, among other things, that they formed the core of the heavy metal band Slipknot and were “tennis teachers in normal life.” I was a chubby kid, and far stockier than the usual gazelle-like breed of tennis player. To put it in perspective, when I started competitive tennis at age 13, I was about four inches shorter and twenty-five pounds heavier than I am now. Running side to side for hours at a time, though it was something I knew I should be able to do, was not a subject my body and brain had agreed upon. It often only took one point in a game that was longer than ten strokes before I was sucking wind as though I’d nearly drowned. Hitting winners seemed easier than winning those points by attrition, and a clean winner just looks beautiful. I have yet to experience a feeling quite like it. Winners are the kind of shots that make commentators say things like “artistry in motion,” and they always send scattered clicks of applause through a cheering section. Pounding serves and rushing the net was a way to either win points quickly or lose them quickly. Either way, I didn’t have to wait long for a result. Combining impatience and fatigue is the best way to lose a match—I always operated on a healthy dose of both.  After they watched me clobber a good number of balls over the back fence and walk enough Nature Hikes to become strangely familiar with the weedy terrain between courts and field, they started to call me “Tank.” And it stuck.

The lenient junior varsity rules meant that every afternoon around 3:30, the Discovery Middle School courts would flood with bodies and pops would start to fill the air. I always wondered how our JV coach could handle so many novice participants at one time. He was a gangly geometry teacher with a nasally voice and a head and neck that, for somebody who taught angles, seemed to jut out bizarrely from his shoulders. One day Coach Thiner announced we’d be practicing our doubles skills and placed us four-to-a-court with assigned partners. I don’t remember who my partner was, but I do remember staring across at Michael Moore and Cory Gillerstein—two high school guys who were still smaller than me.

Some basic rules of doubles play: prior to a point, both server and returner stand diagonally opposite at the baseline while their respective partners stand near the net. A serve is playable if it lands in the opposing service box, or, on rare occasions, if it strikes the net player before touching the ground. And I do mean rare.

When I toed the baseline, I realized how few serves I’d hit before, but I knew the jist of it from TV: toss, swing hard, and hope for the best. What I didn’t expect was the line-drive bullet I sent directly into Mike’s forehead. After a stunned moment for the four of us followed by an examination of the fuzz-ringed blotch on Mike’s face, Coach crowed from his observational roost:

“That’s your point Bryn, but I wouldn’t make a habit of that strategy.”

A couple years later Mike pedaled a bicycle off the theater stage and suffered a severe brain injury. For a long time I wondered if my serve to his head had something to do with that decision . . . (To be continued)

 

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

Painting:
"The Tennis Party"
Oil on Canvas - Date Unknown
Charles March Gere