Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Teaching an old dog ...

Last Wednesday night I had my first tennis lesson.

But before I say anything about the lesson, let me go back and provide a little background:

Tennis and I have a long and somewhat troubled history. I used to play it ... way back when... (ahem) ... when I was younger, (although I never took formal lessons). I got by ok, and I basically liked playing tennis, although I was never either a very avid player nor exceptionally skilled. Truth is, I never really took tennis very seriously: as a teenager, my idea of a "sport" was playing Dungeons & Dragons, and I only really started getting into tennis about the time I started college. By the time I was starting to get any good at all, circumstances were conspiring to make playing tennis a less than pleasurable activity. This is a long story, from before I came to Brazil, that I won't go into (most of my family will know what I am talking about anyway); suffice it to say that it has to do with an old high school friend and tennis partner who never grew up, and whose annoying enthusiasm for tennis turned the sport into an agonizing obligation for me rather than the recreational pastime that it could have been. (I refer you to the first season episode #4 of Seinfeld -- entitled "Male Unbonding" -- for a good example of what my predicament was like ....)

Nearly 15 years have passed; for this reason and many others, until last year I almost never again played tennis-- in spite of the fact that, for the last few years, I have been member of a club that has tennis courts, and have a nephew (Bruno) who plays tennis... and who actually takes lessons.

Then, last year, circumstances suggested an opportunity to return to the game. The first was my doctor, who didn't specifically suggest tennis, but did recommend that, as I encroached on my second score of years in age, an aerobic activity would be a wise move for health reasons. Of course I didn't really need the doctor to tell me this: the diagnosis had been tangibly manifesting itself through an unmistakable burgeoning of my waistline over the last few years.

The second circumstance was that my brother-in-law Gustavo and his wife Regina (Cristina's sister) had temporarily moved back to Brazil. Gustavo had been taking tennis lessons in the US, and was interested in playing here in Brazil, if he had someone to play with. Our nephew Bruno was a natural candidate; but I also saw it as my chance to get in some much needed physical activity and maybe have some fun too.

So the three of us got together and played a few times... not as often as we wanted, but it was a start. I began to feel enthusiastic about the idea: physical activity, besides being a salubrious undertaking, can be mentally therapeutic, and I was passing through a moment in life in which I felt like I needed the distraction as well as the exercise. (I still do, for that matter!). I bought a racket. Bruno gave me the telephone number of his tennis instructor, and all I had to do was call him and agree on a day and time to start taking my lessons.

My enthusiasm was to be short lived, however; Gustavo and Regina decided to move back to the US. Having lost my potential partner, I procrastinated calling the tennis instructor until my fervor had cooled almost completely.

"I still want to play tennis ... " I would tell myself, "but there's no use in starting now because I have to <fill in the blank> first. As soon as <fill in the blank> is done, I'll give the instructor a call."

Another year passed by, and I was still putting off calling the tennis instructor when Gustavo and Regina came back to Rio for a visit in July. Just before they left to return to the states (actually, on the very day of their return flight), we got together for an impromptu match, this time joined by Sergio, my sister-in-law Ana's boyfriend, who is an avid tennis player. The picture shown above, of me in action, and the one below, of the four of us, were from this outing. I post these pictures mostly for the benefit of my brother-in-law Celinho, who was somewhat dubious of my claims that I still know how to play tennis after 15 years!

This event managed to reignite my interest: Bruno had recently stopped taking lessons, and was thinking about restarting if he had someone to split the cost of the instructor with him. Unfortunately, we were unable to find a day and time in which the three of us -- the intructor, Bruno, and myself -- were all available for the class.

Then the Fates intervened: Sergio, who also takes tennis lessons at the same club, asked me if I wanted to take a class together with him, since his current tennis partner had injured his knee in a freak rock climbing accident. This was apparently the only way to get my lethargic butt onto the tennis courts: an act of God (along with someone else taking the iniciative!)

So that's the current state of affairs ... as long as Sergio's partner can't play (at least another month), I'm playing tennis on Wednesday nights. Hopefully I will make the leap and maintain the momentum after Sergio's partner returns to play ....


But first, I will have to learn to play. Here's what I found out last Wednesday:

I suck.

Well ... I guess that's a crude way of saying that, although I know how to play tennis (i.e. I understand the rules), and I can play the game (i.e. I hit the ball back and forth over the net), my technique is all wrong: my grip is all wrong; my backhand is all wrong; My serve is all wrong.

I have to admit: I started out thinking that tennis lessons would be a piece of cake. I would augment my serve, I imagined. Polish my backhand. What I really needed, I always thought, was lots of practice. And, in the worst case scenario, I figured, I just wouldn't get any better; if perchance I found out that I really don't have a natural bent towards tennis.

What I didn't count on was that, in the first fifteen minutes of my first lesson, I would be reduced to an inept rookie, who could barely keep the ball in the court! To be sure, all I had to do was shift to my original, albeit wrong grip, and I wouldn't look like such a fool. But the instructor would quickly call me out, as would Sergio.

It's one thing to learn something new that you have never done before; quite another to break a bad habit you've spent years developing. I felt like a child trying to learn how to walk: it looks easy enough, but it's soooo awkward; I mean, crawling has gotten me where I need to go all this time... so why should I bother to blunder around on just two legs??? What's the point?

My instructor will have her work cut out for her: the main thing that I've got going for me is the fact that I've not played for a long time.

It actually reminds me of learning to snow ski as a teenager, although it wasn't exactly the same situation. It was at Keystone Colorado, with my cousin Greg and my brothers and sister. When we arrived on the slopes for the first time, Greg and I were really hyped up. Before taking the lessons, while the others were still moving about unsteadily, and falling down constantly, Greg and I were flying down those bunny slopes and having a great time. Of course we had no control over our descent: but since the bunny slopes had no curves and levelled off steadily at the bottom, there wasn't much challenge to it. We were riding high, thinking we were pretty cool.

Then came the lessons: "snow plow ... snow plow ... put your feet together and do a snow plow to control your skis."

"What the heck is a snow plow"? I just didn't get it. Neither did Greg. The subtlety of applying gentle pressure to the ski opposite the direction you wished to turn just wasn't natural... and it seemed beyond our capacity to grasp. After a few hours, we were utterly exhausted, no closer to curbing the stubborn will of our own legs than when we had started. Meanwhile, the younger kids were running circles around us, holding their skis in exagerratedly "v-shaped" little snow plows.

We eventually did "get it". And I guess that's my point, if it can be said that I have one.

I'm not really pessimistic about learning to play tennis now that I know it won't be as effortless as I thought it would; I'm trying to look at it from the positive point of view: actually, it signifies that there is a potential for radically improving my game. Or not. Time will tell.

But it's interesting to note that, sometimes, unlearning something -- letting go of something we already think we know, but that may be wrong -- can be far more difficult than just learning something new. To get someone to open their mind, you may have to empty it first.

They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. I say the bigger problem is getting him to unlearn the old ones.


At October 11, 2005 11:44 AM, Mark said...


Ah yes, learning to do something the right way. Great post. I think I'll make my comment a blog entry, too, in a day or two.

My grandfather, an absolute golf nut who still hits the links at age 91, had my brother and me out on the course as soon as we were old enough to hold a club. He had us hitting drives on the range, chipping to the practice greens, blasting out of bunkers that blocked one's view of the hole -- everything that a golfer could imagine happening in a round of golf, he had us work on it before we ever hit the course.

And, he paid for lessons with the club pro. So, right from the start, we had a proper grip, proper swing, and amazing etiquette. My brother, who had measurably greater athletic prowess than I, went on to become very good, while I struggled to get the occasional par.

Then, later in life, I played in company tournaments with some folks who had only been golfing about a year or so, and with horrendously misshapen swings and no consideration for the other players' concentration, they beat me. Now, part of this had to do with something else I had learned right from the start -- proper scoring. Some of these guys would ignore lost balls and the out-of-bounds markers when tallying their strokes for each hole, while I painstakingly counted every penalty stroke. They also had an annoying habit of moving the ball to perch it in perfect striking position.

I golf about three times a year at most, so I have no expectation of getting any better than I am, but it's always frustrating to see these hackers writing down lower scores, probably wondering why I'm not better if I've been playing for more than 20 years. Add to it the fact that I can't stand doing things badly.

I have since learned to adjust my attitude to the folks around me, as it seems fewer and fewer golfers are even aware of what is appropriate.

As far as my technique? It seems it has slipped a bit, and my brother throws in a couple of tips here and there. He wants me to do well, but knows and fully accepts that something I only do three times a year might not be high on my priority list.

At October 11, 2005 3:47 PM, Anonymous said...

I'm not sure which is my favorite memory from that Keystone trip...you barreling into the poor, unsuspecting father (who was taking photo's of his kids at the time) or Steve losing a ski on the ride up the ski lift (watching him squirm trying to anticipate how he would make his exit at the top). Then again, there was Lori who looked like the little brother in "The Christmas Story"...you could only see her eyes.

Great Memories...

Glad you're picking up tennis, Jim. All great players had to start somewhere...look out Wimbledon. Lea-Ann and I played coed softball this fall. I never remember being sore after a game of little league...hmmm.


At October 11, 2005 5:45 PM, Jim said...

Mark, I don't think golf would do it for me, physically at least (although I guess you do get some fresh air ... and stretch your legs, as long as you don't use those little golf carts to get around on the course!).

I'm looking for a physical activity that I can break a sweat, and I'm not much of a "team sport" person (down here I would be a laughing stock if I tried to play soccer, which is the national pastime).

At October 11, 2005 5:54 PM, Jim said...

I was thinking that Lori looked more like Kenny from South Park.

how about this one, for your list of memorable moments:

Halfway up the mountain, on our first ride on a ski lift, about 50 feet off the ground, I "notice" that, yes, ski lifts do indeed have safety bars! ... you just have to pull them down!

Too bad I don't have any pictures of that trip. Of course, I would have pictures if I had remembered to put film in my camera ...

At October 12, 2005 12:31 AM, Kim said...

Hey Jim!

I love hearing stories that include my dear, sweet husband and things he did when he was a kid! Thanks to you and to Greg for his comment.
Also to Greg - I started playing softball in the spring and still play. If I exert myself AT ALL, I'm sore, no matter how often I play! AHH! The joys of getting older!

I would like to volunteer to play tennis with you next time you are here, but I know nothing about tennis except that the ball goes over the net (rather than INTO it). I am, however, qualified to take pictures of you and whoever you get to play with you - if that should happen. I would not suggest asking Steve, as he would probably break yet another bone (though it's been quite awhile since the last broken bone, which basically means he's due) but I bet you could find someone to practice your new skills on when we see you again!

By the way, I sent the link to Gramlingville to my family and my older sister Kelli gets a huge kick out of your entries. She called me laughing one day and told me the next time you all are here, she wants to meet you!

At October 12, 2005 2:03 PM, Jim said...

Thanks Kim! Luckily I'm not getting any older; just wiser!

As to stories about Steve ... I'll take that as a request! Steve was a key protaganist in several of our Keystone adventures. I'm sure if we all put our heads together, we'd have more than enough material for a feature film ... with comedy, drama, action ... we've got it all!

Speaking of which, please ask your husband why he never comments on my blog! (ahem!)

At October 12, 2005 3:39 PM, Mark said...


yeah, golf doesn't do it for me, either, which is why I only get out there when family gets together or some company function comes up.

I prefer backpacking.

My tennis history consists of watching my brother's serves go wizzing past, and then beating a friend in college only because he had no ACL in either knee.

At October 12, 2005 11:15 PM, Kim said...

I'm quite certain Steve would say something regarding you and me being the writers (I used to be a journalist in HS and college) and that he's too busy to try to comment. Seriously, he has trouble composing e-mails to people! He's afraid he spelled something wrong or that the grammar is all wrong. Usually, it's perfectly fine but he does seem to build up a lot of anxiety when he has to talk to someone he doesn't know well, or has to write something more than one person might read unless that one person is a business associate, then it's all over! I guess that's why he married me. I can do the talking and the writing for us both when it's possible.

Take comfort that Steve does read your blogs and he enjoys them. We even talk about them at family "things" sometimes!

At October 13, 2005 4:16 PM, Anonymous said...


When you're playing tennis, just remember that your mind can actually 'will' your body to make a quick stop and change direction much faster than your feet can respond - remember that time my foot turned black for about six months? It's called inertia.

You're right - we could have made a movie about that Keystone trip (but my favorite movie would have been Chevy Chase in "Mexican Vacation"). Remember when I had to take Steve back to the condo (because of altitude sickness)and then the rest of you guys apparently got stranded on the mountain while I set up a command post and had everyone in Keystone looking for you? Those were the pre-cell-phone days.

Happy birthday!


At October 13, 2005 4:42 PM, Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday Jim!!

This is awesome - you're getting some family input now! Hello Uncle Jim! I remember "Lost in Keystone". That wasn't just an attempt to ditch us? I guess the sub-zero ride down the hill (in the back of your pick-up) didn't get rid of us...so that was the next best chance...


At October 13, 2005 4:43 PM, Anonymous said...

Between Jim and I, we could come up with lots of Steve stories...we just have to find time to get together.


At October 13, 2005 5:26 PM, Jim said...

Dad ... that incident at Keystone is one of the main stories I was thinking of. Of course, it's much more dramatic told from your point of view... we just figured you'd left us to take the bus back to the condo.

Those were indeed the pre-cellphone days; and pre-CNN too ... now-a-days, there would have been live coverage of "the dramatic search" for a group of lost greenhorn-skiers (from Kansas!). Meanwhile we're back at the condo drinking hot chocolate!

At October 14, 2005 6:42 PM, Mark said...

Wow, that first comment I made was crazy long. Sorry about that. I should not write such lengthy pieces in comments, unless it's more than tenuously connected to the subject. I encourage you to nuke it, if you like.

At October 14, 2005 10:18 PM, Jim said...

Mark, my blog is a public forum ...
so feel free to voice your thoughts! Blog commenting isn't an art form ... and there aren't any rules that I know of. Like any conversation, ramblings and digressions may occur. Many interesting discussions grow out of unplanned digressions!

Besides, golf, like tennis, is a sport... so that is at least a tenuous connection to the topic!

At October 15, 2005 1:09 AM, Jim said...

BTW, Happy Birthday Kim!

I was going to mention that in yesterday's blog post ... but guess who hasn't got around to posting yesterday's, or today's ...

Hey! actually looking at the clock, it's already tomorrow! Dang!

Anyway, hope you had a good one! I need to get to bed!

At October 16, 2005 2:54 AM, Kim said...

Thanks for the birthday wishes, Jim! I went and had lunch with my twin - which is odd since we spent our entire childhood pissed that we had to share a birthday, and now we make a point to see one another. After that, I ran a couple of errands and then played softball. Pretty typical day for me, but since I am not a child anymore, it's not too surprising. Steve did very well this year and got me one of those new iPod nanos! Lane gave me a new bat and a bag to put it in. Unfortunately, Steve wasn't feeling well, so I didn't get my usual dinner at Chili's

I do hope your weekemd goes as well as you expect and you don't spend too much time worrying about Kevin's first weekend away from you guys. He's FINE! Don't fret!


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