The Pleasure of Being Mediocre
I have no natural athletic ability, although I have always looked as if I might—tall, broad-shouldered, with muscular arms and legs. I run slowly, with an awkward gait. To say that I throw like a girl is unfair to girls everywhere. P.E. class, to me, was something created to jeopardize my precious 4.0 grade point average. (I managed to eke out an A-minus, thanks to written tests and the credit given merely for showing up and suiting up, which turned out to be a pretty useful life lesson.) I swam well enough to be a lifeguard, but not swiftly enough to be part of Baltimore's ubiquitous swim team culture. I learned to ice-skate, but only after two miserable years of walking on my ankles. We had a word for kids like me in the 1970s, a decidedly non-P.C. one, derived from the term spasmodic. I heard that word a lot.
But when I was 14, I joined my mother for a tennis lesson and it looked, ever so briefly, as if I might have found a sport for which I had some aptitude. For a couple of weeks, we met with an instructor at the public courts near our house. The plan was for us to take lessons together, play together, improve together. Then my father put a stop to it. I was in an accelerated program at school that had a reputation for being difficult. He wanted me to focus on my studies. My mother continued her tennis lessons; her skills quickly outpaced mine, and she found a new partner.
For the next 40-plus years, I tried to play tennis off and on, but it was a frustrating experience, marked by what my first husband taught me to call the yips—a jittery mental state that made it impossible for me to execute the simplest strokes on a reliable basis. My forehand was awful. Nine times out of 10, I either lofted the ball way too high or hit it into the bottom of the net.
Flash forward to the summer of 2018: I decided my young daughter should take weekly tennis lessons with two sets of siblings. None of our kids seemed to have any particular talent for tennis, but I enjoyed the company of the other moms. And I found myself yearning to pick up a racket again and see whether I could unlock the tennis player I suspected was inside me. My father, dead for three years, was no longer calling the shots. Instead of wondering what might have been, I could find out what would be.
I convinced one of the other moms that we should take lessons once our kids went back to school. Until then, it seemed unlikely that I could take on a new physical venture at the age of 59. Muscle memory is real, and most of my muscles have no memories. But six months later, barely a week has gone by when I have failed to play tennis. I’m still not athletic, but I'm strong. I’ve been working out with a trainer for almost 15 years. I walk or bike to run most errands. And as I’d suspected, some skills were still there—a two-handed backhand, a natural instinct for volleying, and a dogged competitiveness that makes me run for everything. “Great get,” my instructor says frequently. Mostly I hear: "Hit the ball all the way through, alllllllllllll the way through." My forehand thuds, thuds, thuds into the net, or soars embarrassingly high into the sky. Sometimes I want to stamp my feet in frustration. But I don’t. I just keep trying. If writing novels has taught me anything, it’s that progress isn’t linear.
So I persevere. I am a terribly competitive person. (That wording is chosen with precision. I care about winning and it’s terrible.) This is my father’s legacy; he loved to win. After decades of playing poker, he decided to stop, declaring with uncharacteristic self-knowledge: “I mourned a dollar lost more than I ever celebrated a dollar won.” My father was the competitor I faced most often. In checkers, gin rummy, Parcheesi, dominoes, and, sometimes, tennis. An indifferent, not particularly skilled player, he always rose to the occasion when I was on the other side of the net. He beat me like a drum, sometimes singing a taunting tune to boot. He wanted to be the kind of parent who could lose gracefully, maybe even intentionally, to his child. But once the game was afoot, he wanted to win.
Once, when I was eight, he decided to teach me an important lesson about gambling. I needed $2 to buy a Sonny & Cher album from Korvette’s. (I think that sentence has more anachronisms per character count than any sentence ever written.) He asked if I was willing to bet the money I had saved by playing the No Game. All I had to do was answer “no” to every question asked. How hard could that be? Such a simple game. Just say no.
“Are you ready to play? Do you understand the rules?”
I narrowed my eyes and shouted: “NO!”
He sputtered with surprise, outraged and proud.
Who would I be if my father had allowed me to take tennis lessons? I have a great life; I’m not worried about some existential tennis pro road not taken. But the yips. All this time, I have remained a choker par excellence. Once, at a bowling competition between two teams of crime novelists, I clenched the game with a spare. “Ah, but did you know you needed to get that many pins?” asked my now husband. He knows me too well. I won the game for my team only because I had no idea that the onus was on me to do just that. That’s why the worst part of tennis class is the last 10 minutes, when our instructor makes us play mock points. My friend is 15 years younger, with a formidable serve and smash. I suspect that she too will outgrow me as my mother did. She wins more points. She maintains that she’s not a superior athlete and that she can’t envision a day she won’t want to hit with me. And maybe that’s true because I think we both prefer to stand on the baseline and rally to one another, aiming to keep the ball in play as long as possible. It’s not about winners and losers, even though it’s my genetic birthright to think in those terms.
The rap on my father is that he was an indulged only child who never learned to lose. He had the best intentions. He would start a game of checkers, spot me four pieces and inevitably find himself about to lose. So he would point to something behind me—“What’s that in the corner?”—knock over the board with his knee and blame our Scottish terrier.
What will the rap on me be when my daughter is grown? I try to model the behavior of a good sport, but I feel this insistent desire to win—and an equal desire to hide the compulsion. I wouldn’t want the world to know what goes through my mind during a game of Go Fish. But in the end, I am happy—truly happy—to lose to my daughter, who has a staggering confidence I can only envy. “I’m pretty much better at everything than you are, Mom,” she says, and I agree. Although she conceded, after watching me on the court recently, that I seemed to be making steady progress at tennis.
After a recent class, I said to the instructor: “My forehand is in my head—and it needs to find its way to my arm.” He agreed but seemed confident that at some point my arm would learn what my head knows. I’m not so sure. Still, I take the lessons to confront that part of me that balks, that would rather lose fast than risk a drawn-out defeat. If a point does go on? The odds that I win it seem to go up, mostly because I dive for strategic but ugly shots. I hate myself for those graceless shots, but I make them, ever prepared to sacrifice form for triumph. And then there are moments when I miss forehands so easy that our instructor, who usually alternates shots to my friend and me, hits another one to me. And then another one, and another one, and another one. He never says a negative word.
My brain yells at my arm, “Could you please take over?”
My arm replies, “Maybe one day, lady, but you still have a lot of work to do on yourself.”
Laura Lippman has written more than 20 crime novels, most set in her hometown of Baltimore. Her most recent book is the national best-seller Sunburn.