Friend: “So what you been up to?”
Me: “I started pickleball classes.”
Me: “It’s not a big deal…”
Friend: It just means you are officially old.”
My friend may tease me all she wants. We have been close since the mid-80s and she always has a spare bed or couch for me when I return to Minneapolis. She is also right about the makeup of my classmates. They are old but, as I learned, feisty and competitive. Sharing informally before our first session almost everyone was describing and displaying the scars from their past life in real sports. Most were former jocks: skiers, golfers, equestrians and tennis players, not to mention contact sport veterans. All had succumbed to broken patellas, bad rotator cuffs, mangled meniscus’s, cracked ulna’s, slipped disks, hip replacements, fractured fibula’s, or pin-filled ankles. The scars are their badge of honor. They speak with an air of sadness and pride as they recount accidents and crazy risks undertaken in their ”hell for leather” days.
I started to say something about being a collection of broken toys but thought better of it. Our pickleball class was a mix of beginners and intermediates. It was high school all over again, and not in a good way. Nothing like being tisk-tisked by a 75 year old grandmother because I was unable to learn the scoring system which was laid out by Hammurabi. It became clear that I wasn’t there because of a competitive fire to compete. I never laid my body out on the gridiron for old Pennsauken High, reasoning that an institution that sanctioned bullying, assigned homework and detention was not going to get my 5’6” 125-pound body for practice fodder. I hadn’t “earned my (bone) spurs” from a debilitating sports injury because I was always picked near the end. While decently coordinated, I was not as tough as my teammates even on our championship co-ed slow pitch softball teams in college.
Our instructor (a former tennis player with an impressive scar running across her shoulder and upper arm) rode me pretty hard. We were not just hitting a whiffle ball with a paddle. Pickleball was a game of strategy, teamwork and occasional power. After a miscue she raised her voice at me. I didn’t respond, so she goaded me. “What’s the matter? Do I sound like your ex- wife?” “No” I responded “You are actually much nicer.” She smiled and while she continued to be firm it did not bother me. Besides learning to score, stay out of the kitchen (a pickleball court area), and move in tandem with a partner, I was happy to have the four week session end. The group felt cold and unfriendly.
To my astonishment I re-upped for the second term in part because a friend was in it but I mostly because I wanted a Groundhog’s Day do over. This group was much warmer and supportive. They “got me.” As I have done my whole life, I used humor to build bridges. I was the foil for many of the instructor’s jibes: “Karen, come on, you’re hitting like Tom! Racket up!” A number of my fellow students spoke with me out of teacher earshot and thanked me for bringing lightness and humor to the class. I am glad I stayed with it. Perhaps some late life maturity is finally kicking in.
Tennis, while beautiful and requiring great skill, can be a bombastic grunting dialogue with an exchange of 100 mph serves. It is often like cable news with two loudmouth blowhards trying to “hold serve” by screaming over each other. Pickleball is a fun, challenging mental game. A player may not cross the seven foot line (the kitchen) which runs parallel to the net and just slam shots back. Pickleball is like the parry and thrust of fencing. It is stimulating dinner party conversation with all participants encouraging each other. After a long rally with many artful saves, all four players feel they have contributed and the point winner is secondary. Pickleball is mysterious. Every evening is not Camelot, but even the most competitive players seem to respond to the synergy that the sport provides.
Tom H. Cook is always promoting something. This month it is Netflix. Huge in France is a comedy series about a famous French comedian who seeks to escape the Parisian celebrity limelight. He does too good a job and can’t get a break or a cab in L.A.