I once loved beach volleyball. Before I was married, some of my co-workers and I would play at Oak Street Beach every Tuesday. We were a fierce group of competitors who spiked our way to a league championship our very first year. And by “we,” I really mean a bunch of former Northwestern University superstars. I tagged along mostly for comic relief. My skill set was limited to knocking the ball directly into Lake Michigan. My team started imposing fines for my transgressions by Week 6.
Sadly, when our games got pushed to a later time the following season, we were forced to visit our sponsor bar BEFORE sets. We lost every game. Too schnockered to stumble our way to the assigned nets, our team spent entire evenings arguing over whether or not they had actually moved Oak Street Beach somewhere else.
I still contend I was right.
After I married and had kids, the days of participating in organized sports appeared over. All remnants of athleticism and competitiveness seemed lost. My reaction time and agility deteriorated to Betty White levels.
So when my yoga-loving, marathon-running buddy suggested we sign up for cheapie tennis lessons at a local park district, I agreed. I convinced myself that I secretly possessed mad tennis skills. What if my dormant abilities could be honed and the glory of my natural talents celebrated throughout the world? There was no downside to this, I persuaded myself.
An hour before our first Thursday lesson, I located my husband’s old tennis racket in the basement. The handle had disintegrated (“dry rot” I was later advised). I considered wrapping some electrical tape around it, but I could only find Scotch tape. The damn stuff wouldn’t stick. So I drove off in my minivan wearing one of my husband’s old T-shirts, a pair of elastic maternity shorts and 5-year-old running shoes.
I looked amazing.
Of course, Yoga-Friend arrived wearing a cute tennis skirt, a Nike dri-fit shirt, and a visor. She was mistaken for the instructor. Her racket was a thing of beauty, gleaming with perfection and shiny newness. It was with much effort that she hid her disdain for my own racket and the trail of soot and debris left in its wake.
The lesson got under way with a tutorial on the different kinds of “grips.” The instructor assigned various clock analogies to explain where fingers and thumbs were to be placed. One o’clock, three o’clock, six o’clock. None of us gals were able to translate these concepts into a single correct position.
“Why doesn’t he just explain it in terms we can understand?” whispered Yoga-Friend. “You know… ‘Grip it like the wheel of your minivan,’ or ‘Grip it as you would a stroller.’ He needs to speak our language. ‘know thy audience,’ right?”
The instructor, conceding the gross ineptitude of our class, finally decided to hit us a few balls. That was when every bad seventh-grade gym memory came rushing back in living color. The instructor mimicked our awkward reactions and stances. He called us names. He drilled balls at our heads. He made one lady walk out.
“Why are we doing this again?” I questioned Yoga-Friend as a ball blasted past us.
“Once we know what we’re doing, we can go to the park and play,” she retorted as a ball ricocheted off a 60-year-old woman’s head. “It will be good exercise.”
“But that guy is bringing back a lot of painful memories,” I argued. “I think I’m having some post-traumatic stress, you know? Getting picked LAST for the team? Tripping over the head cheerleader and ruining her manicure? This is NOT FUN.”
“Oh, suck it up,” countered Yoga-Friend as she smashed a ball into the court four over, interrupting the game of some phenomenal 6-year-olds.
Still, I found myself looking forward to Thursdays despite the ridicule, sad little racket, and deplorable tennis wardrobe. It was the one hour of the entire week where I did not worry about my husband, the kids, or the endless laundry. I focused on relaxing my grip and embracing the rhythm of the game. I thought about fluid movement and grace. I envisioned myself at Wimbledon, handily taking on both Williams sisters at once. Tennis lessons supplied a rush of happy endorphins and stress relief. It was as though I had traveled back to a simpler, easier time in my life.
It was an era of sponsor bars, general mischief, and the firm belief that life would never be very hard.
I ultimately came back to reality when the instructor demanded to know whose racket was making such a mess on the floor.
I pointed to Yoga-Friend, smiling innocently.