While I am not a kitchen guru by any stretch of the imagination, there are moments in time when I claim something as my own. In this instance, I’m referring to Rick’s own home-made oh-so smooth sweet tea recipe.
Jealousy guarded for years, there’s nothing better on a hot summer day! In fact, I drink so much of it, it seemed only right to learn how to make it for myself instead of having to put in a work-order with my resident chef. My chef-in-residence agreed and class began.
But alas, being a very literal and linear thinker, it took a little while before the tutorials took. But they did take and eventually, I got the hang of putting all the wheels into motion at just the right time and, in the proper sequence. I could now make my own batches of that special nectar. In the words of Mike Tyson, I was ‘ehstadic’.
True, the first few solo attempts were peppered with supervisory comments from the living room, but as the training wheels came off, my confidence soared. It might seem trite or ordinary to some, but I was proud of being able to pull my own weight in the tea department. Yes, I am a simple man, but I make a great pitcher of tea.
So the other day, I was in the early stages of my production process when Rick came in to do something else in the kitchen. I barely noticed. I was on a mission. In fact, I was so engrossed I didn’t hear him make a ‘suggestion’ regarding my work. I knew what to do, and even though I know he knows his stuff when it comes to anything culinary, I had things well in-hand.
“Did you hear me?”
“Did you hear me…dump the sugar, don’t pour it in slowly.”
OK. Not sure why, but OK. I got this.
“What are you doing?”
I’m dumping the sugar. [Now I’m panicked]
“No you’re not. When you do it slowly, the steam puts moisture into the sugar. That’s why it’s clumping in the canister.”
All the sudden, standing there, still pouring the sugar slowly, a picture snapped into focus. I saw the purpose behind his instruction once I had unlocked myself from the rote prep path I had so laboriously committed to memory. You could have knocked me over with a teaspoon. But wait…the ride wasn’t over.
Still pouring, I was now so flustered with the sudden arrival of supervision, my conscious mind didn’t know what to do. In that moment of void, my subconscious made the call and rote routine retained control over my muscles while I continued doing what I had so diligently learned to do. There is simply no way to sugar coat it. In the process of half-listening to him while continuing on, I had truly and completely lost my place.
Seeing the ‘Bambi caught in headlights’ look, Rick smiled and returned to the living room, shaking his head as he did. He knew.
Alone again, I regained my cool and retraced my steps, finding my clumsy way back to where I had been. What can I say? Ordinary things can throw me. For years, I cursed my literal nature as a burden. Why does this take me so long?
On a completely different topic (or at least so I thought), it was with great fanfare we returned to the tennis courts after far too long.
I love the game I’ve played in earnest since my freshman year of high school. I’ve waited all winter long and longer to be able to play again. It’s one of those things I’m really good at.
For me, tennis is a healthy way for my intensely literal mind to work out the game of Life. It’s about parts like footwork, stamina, form, timing, movement and speed. And as true as those descriptors are, fellow netters in the audience will confirm that at its core, the whole of the game is mental.
Like making the secret recipe and for all the sweat, being a good tennis player means the parts have been learned so well they become reflex. Anyone can respond to a lightning serve by doing nothing more than ducking. But to get yourself to the point where you can anticipate where your opponent is going to put their next shot and then, be there before the ball is? Priceless.
I had spent all winter replaying my own mental beautiful bean footage of what it felt like to be in that moment of sublime balance, plunging in perfect extension for the backhand winner that not only wins the point, but feels oh so right. And so it was, with all the swag and bravado of a veteran, I sauntered out to my side of the court, spinning my racket, remembering the joy about to be experienced anew.
In technical tennis terms, what followed over the next few days can only be termed a car wreck. My feet felt like cement. The simplest fore-hand was limping into the net with unnerving consistency. Across the net, the opposite service court measures 13 ½ by 21 feet. It may as well been the size of a postage stamp for as often as I was getting those stupid little green fuzzy balls to land anywhere near its borders…much less inside them. And yes, in another mark of past glory lost, I was blaming the tennis balls. So as the intervals in my labored breathing grew shorter, the more shock and frustration replaced the mental awe I’d held only a few days prior. What is going on? I’m good at this. I enjoy this. But now I’m not, and I’m not.
Compounding my growing rage was my partner on the other side of the net. The more apparent my struggle grew, the more often he’d ask, “What’s going on?”. And again…and then, a little later, again. I was having enough trouble figuring out the ordinary that I know like the back of my hand and he wants to have a conversation?
Are you kidding me?
It wasn’t long before I was conflating little things he does in our real life into things that really tick me off. DEFCON was rising and my frustration on the court was taking on global proportions. “ALL I WANT TO DO IS HIT IT OVER THE NET!” By this point, I wasn’t even worried about even pretending to simulate a point by volleying a couple of exchanges in a row. Why couldn’t I execute on even the most ordinary basic stuff?
And all the while my mind was racing to understand where my game had gone, the helpful [sic] observations from the other side of the net kept coming. “Why don’t you move?; You never hit it back to me; Why am I doing all the running?” and then, the kicker: “What’s wrong?”.
What’s Wrong? Is he kidding? And then I saw the wall.
Seeing the plywood hitting surface bolted to the fence at one end of the courts, I was instantly transported back to my high school gymnasium when I joined the tennis team my freshman year. Wide plywood panels that covered the bleachers when retracted also sported a varnished finish with a painted stripe to simulate the net…the perfect rebound service for newbies like me and my friends.
For hours and hours over the days that followed, our coach would walk up and down the line as we wannabe players learned the basic disciplines of stroke, footwork and timing. I can still hear the drumbeat of the panels echoing the strike of ball and racquet: boom, ping, boom, ping. It’s been years since I’ve thought back to those agonizing weeks of training camp. I’d walk home every night, muttering about quitting….’stupid game’. But by the next day, there I was, right after school, back at my spot in front of the wall, banging one tennis ball after another into those wooden mirrors. And that’s what they were. It took me a little while to catch on, but the wall was only returning to me what I had done first. Day after day, the drum beat continued in the gym. It had been weeks and we hadn’t even set foot on the real courts. “Not yet, gentlemen. Not yet…” We drilled and drilled and you guessed it, the tedium had us start to invent games. Our coach would put an “X” of tape up on the panel and dare us to hit the mark five-times in a row. He’d challenge our boredom with doing the ordinary over and over by mixing it up: “Hit the first one with your fore-hand…now your back-hand. Back to your fore-hand…move it, move it. Love the ball gentlemen. Love the wall.” We were so engrossed, we didn’t even realize great coaching was taking place before our very eyes.
Guess what? I got pretty good. I had so hammered the mundane that we could do it in our sleep. It was a Wednesday when coach told us to line up and walked us out to the courts. After so much work, it felt like we were walking onto the grounds of a cathedral.
Flash back to Now: In that one blinding flash, I looked at Rick, looked at the wall and said, “Let’s go to the wall. I need to practice first”.
The payoff? I’m doing much better. I remembered the wall as a way to break things down into their basest elements. Then, I was able to reconstruct them and the whole made sense. As many of you know, I learned how to walk again after my accident. Learning new responses from what was drummed into me as a kid is tougher. So as I relaxed over the past few days, I’ve gone one step further and am applying the same drill to those other behaviors of mine that drive me and others crazy. Practicing the ordinary is not sexy. But it does remove the element of failure from doing better. It’s only practice, right?
And just like it did so many years ago, I am getting better. Today was a great day on the court. Shots were more consistent. I was calmer, happier and liking the way my body is starting respond to all the exercise. Most excellent in lots of ways.
And the moral of today’s story?
Ordinary is good, but it is not accidental.
So the next time I have trouble doing something that ought to be ordinary, I’m going to say ‘thanks’ for being such a literal guy. Then I am going to walk over to the wall and practice hitting some balls. It is so liberating to be successful when it comes to replacing old rote patterns from childhood with new ones that score. But it’s not effortless but it is really quite simple. To make it stick, I will have to put in the honest work and practice for the rest of my Life. But dems da rules.
‘Go Wall or Go Home’. I’m so thankful that for me, both places are good.
Game, Set Match. See you on the courts.
Click on the screen shot to the left and enjoy Bonnie Raitt as she performs Feels Like Home from the musical Faust by Randy Newman. You may have heard the song first in the movie (w/ John Travolta). This live performance was telecast in February of 1997 on The Rosie O’Donnell Show.
PHOTO CREDITS and ATTRIBUTIONS:
Banner Coastal Redwood Forest by Eric E Photography is used with permission.
OPENING QUOTE: (1)The syndicated column “The Wit Parade” by E.E. Kenyon on March 13, 1955 [CAR] contains the clever remark and in this version the word practice is not repeated. Source: Quote Investigator: Tracing jokes can be difficult because they can be told in so many ways. Etymologist Barry Popikis one of the most skilled practitioners of word and phrase tracing in the world, and he shares his results at the Big Apple website. Popik has a web page about this quip that includes its earliest known appearance.; violin_on_violin photo SOURCE: http://www.musiciansfriend.com/orchestral-strings/the-string-centre-metal-practice-mute/464369000901000; Beaker if he made tea: http://www.showusyourclips.com/tag/muppets/; Beaker Exploding from muppets_beaker_disney_postage_stamp: http://www.zazzle.com/crazy+hair+stamps; forehand: http://www.buzzle.com/articles/basic-tennis-shots.html; Tennis Court Dimensions: http://neotennis.com/?attachment_id=217; Tennis_Makes_Him_Angry-zabawne-zdjecia-60035: http://jumoetc.blogspot.com/; tennis_court_w_wall: http://www.foxassociatesinc.com/projects/public-school-facility; Stoboscopic Study of Man Hitting Tennis Ball by Harold Edgerton_American_1903-1990: http://metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/190034842?rpp=20&pg=1&ft=*&what=Photographs&who=Harold+Edgerton&pos=16#fullscreen; Screen Shot of Bonnie Raitt and Randy Neuman: the Rosie Show (February 1997); Bonus Button: http://www.trinitypackagingsupply.com/NationalAccount; Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz -The Girl From Ipanema – 1964: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJkxFhFRFDA; Kids learning the basics: https://www.facebook.com/tennisfreestyle; Tennis Kid: http://www.catalogs.com/info/bestof/top-10-sports-to-get-kids-in-shape
Jeopardy Fact: Astrud Gilberto & Stan Getz: The Girl From Ipanema- 1964
‘The Girl From Ipanema,’ the classic Brazilian bossa sung by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Dionne Warwick, is the second most recorded song in pop music history.
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