“I need a photo opportunity, I want a shot at redemption, don’t want to end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard . . .”
– Paul Simon
What is it with me and philosophical revelations that occur at 5-5 in the third set? My return to tennis after years of body-related absence has been chronicled here before (click here if you missed last year’s edition upon playing my first tournament since 1989), but this time around it had to do with a lot more than tennis.
A few weeks ago I was in the shower at the gym after swimming some laps. When the shower area is empty (or I think it is) I often sing – yes, my voice is flawed but I enjoy the resonance. That day, Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” is what came into my head, a perfectly fun tune.
The thing was, though, that whenever I got to the line with which this post opened, I choked up and couldn’t actually sing it. That seemed odd – it’s kind of a silly song after all. So I tried again. Again, no dice. Introspective sort that I am, I began to contemplate what it was about the “shot at redemption” that was so emotionally loaded. Was it that I had just seen the wonderful British film Unfinished Song, which chronicles an old curmudgeon’s nick-of-time quest to change his ways? Was it that I had just spent a month teaching teenagers on the cusp of either committing to their musical goals or choosing the path of least resistance? Yes and yes, but . . .
It takes neither a rocket scientist nor Sigmund Freud to find source material in my life. Over the last year and a half I have been at close range to a disproportionate amount of pain and adversity. Some of that is perhaps just the cycles of life (after all, the older you get, the more likely it is that your loved ones will get sick, experience marital woes and experience other life-shaking challenges) and some of it, of course, is being a step removed from the inexplicable tragedy experienced by our dear friends when their daughter was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December.
Whether it’s vision (as I like to think) or simply a coping mechanism, I can’t help but look for victory, however small, in the midst of tragedy. This is especially true insofar as it involves someone who has experienced painful circumstances but has a chance to learn something and transform in a positive direction. Real people, fictional characters, it doesn’t matter, I’m just a sucker for a good old heartwarming transformation (Budding filmmakers, take note that if you want to stimulate my otherwise-dry tear ducts, you just need to throw in that kind of story and I will cry at the designated moment, even if your movie otherwise stinks).
Now that’s easy to say when we are talking about adversity borne of “negative” personality traits that can be turned around. But what about profound loss that is totally beyond our control? This was another sobering reminder from the Ehlers-Danlos learning conference earlier this month. I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak and perform for a room full of people who have the same disability I do, but I’m also conscious that most of the wheelchairs and neck braces I saw were the product of hard luck, not reckless decision-making. My primary message was one of hope – after all, in spite of all the tribulations and compromises, I am living a full life and essentially doing what I set out to do 20+ years ago when I was too naïve to understand my body’s limited capacity to do so as expected. But could I reasonably promise this outcome for people whose physical debilitation was even worse than my own?
This was where that line about a “shot at redemption” hit me once again. What I really saw looking out at those people (and interacting with them and others for the remainder of the weekend) was the strong desire for precisely that. These folks hadn’t given up, or else they wouldn’t have put themselves through the substantial challenge of getting there. In many eyes I saw (and remembered from my own experience) weariness, suffering and the fear of an ever-worsening set of symptoms and challenges. But I saw something else: at least some belief that it didn’t have to be that way, at least not entirely. That some of what was lost could be reclaimed. Some will experience that to a more dramatic extent than others, but the hope remains, and in a sense that is the most important part. I suppose it is not dissimilar to the wording in the Declaration of Independence that emphasizes the Pursuit of Happiness – the happiness itself is not guaranteed, but the freedom to pursue it is seen as essential to our society. Take that away and you are essentially crushing the human spirit.
So this past week I decided to go for it and sign up for a tennis tournament over the weekend, my first in the 3.5 division (a notch up from 3.0, the division in which I made my humble comeback last year, ultimately taking home the hardware at 3 of 5 tournaments I played). I was feeling sheepish about it. I’m not in my optimum shape. My play this summer has been erratic. We had out-of-town visitors and though they expressed eagerness to see me play, I didn’t want to embarrass myself and bore them.
But, with Kate’s encouragement, I went for it. I won my first round match 6-2 6-1 and had a few hours to rest before playing the #1 seed in round 2. I had no business thinking I could win, my goal was to simply stay focused and enjoy the opportunity – any quality-of-play issues were of minor consequence, though I hoped I could win a couple games per set. After the Newtown shootings I took some time off from playing tennis, and I promised myself that if and when I got back to it I would always keep my cool. After all, I have been looking in the face of real tragedy, the likes of which typically evokes the response “I can’t even think about what that would be like.” I couldn’t either, but I think about it every day now, and as close as I feel to our bereaved friends, I still can barely imagine what their hour-to-hour existence feels like. The least I can do is recognize that if I dump a backhand volley into the net it really, really isn’t a big deal, remembering instead that I’m fortunate just to be there.
My opponent was skilled and aggressive, but I hung in there. And hung in some more, and before I knew it I had made it to 5-5 in the first set. Then my body started to wilt, he found his groove and next thing I knew he was up a set and 4-0. I started to think “okay, it was a good try” but then stopped myself and wondered why I couldn’t dig in and really give it my best effort, stiff and exhausted body be damned. I zoned in and adjusted my tactics a bit and scraped and scrapped and mentally bargained with myself (okay, if you win the 2nd set you can change out of your sweaty shit) and somehow wound up taking the second set in a tiebreaker as Kate and our friends Karl and Beth watched on. I was making a match of it!
The third set was a roller-coaster and I continued to play tough while fighting off fatigue, pain, thirst and stray thoughts of how the heck I would play another match the next morning if I pulled off the upset. At the 3-hour mark, we reached 5-5 in the third set. And as I stood in to receive serve, I heard Paul Simon’s words in my head again.
Looking out at Kate and our friends, looking across the net, looking down at my sweat-soaked and battered body, I smiled. Here I was, from the brink of losing, pulling even and earning myself a chance. As it turned out, he picked it up a notch and won 7-5, but in that moment I had, on multiple levels, that much-coveted shot at redemption. And, as trivial as it may be if it revolves around winning or losing a quarterfinal match at a 3.5-level tennis tournament in CT, one shot at redemption validates the very possibility of redemption in other ways and at other times.
I knew it was not the time for philosophizing, but on the next changeover, as I prepared to serve (in vain, as it turned out) to force another tiebreaker, I couldn’t help but think of the last verse of “You Can Call Me Al.” The day I tried to sing it in the showers, I skipped over the lines that choked me up and made it through most of the song until I got to the end of the last verse: “He looks around, around, he sees angels in the architecture spinning in infinity, he says Amen and Hallelujah.” A few points later as I shuffled to the net to shake hands and say “too good,” I took a deep breath, looked out at my “cheering section,” looked down at the leg muscles I never thought I would have and said to myself “Amen and Hallelujah.”