I I hadn’t touched a tennis racquet in nearly 20 years when, last month, I decided to join an adult clinic at the local courts. I thought hitting a ball might help release the tension that keeps me up in the middle of the night, might wring me out like my kids are wrung out at camp, after which they come home and sleep, hard. Tennis players range from college graduates to 70-year-olds. Some days 12 people show up and we play games; others, just two, and we organize exercises. I used to play as a kid, and I was terrible back then – competitive and erratic, a lethal combination that had me cursing a blue streak, throwing my racquet with abandon, and gritting my teeth in a vise for hours after a lost game. Now, as then, I am terrible. And yet, I discovered that I am also deeply happy to be terrible.
whoosh! Here’s my backhand, sailing over the fence. Phew! There is this serve, which could be in, if only my opponent was in the next court. The pros smile quietly as we throw balls back and forth like we’re playing on the moon. Some of us are better than others, but we all exist comfortably in the “pretty mediocre” range, and no one cares, let alone me. The compliments flow freely, and nice essays are a constant.
We are scheduled for lunch, when the summer sun scorches the courts and rids them of any spectators or serious athletes, who are all at home icing their elbows or re-tensioning their racquets or whitewashing their whites or to polish their marble busts of Federer or whatever they do in their off-game time. Some days the preschool campers play alongside us, their monitors teaching them the basics of hand-eye coordination by tossing balls in the air for them to run and fetch. They prance, panting like little puppies loose in a bumper bowling alley, and alongside them we do the same, a multigenerational desecration of sport. It’s an image straight out of John McEnroe’s worst fever dream.
Yet I always come back. One of the reasons is that he is very slightly social, after so many years of panicked, enforced isolation and grim solo joggers. The tiny chatter we have with each other as we switch sides, or stop to drink water, or cheer each other on, are part and parcel of the weak bonds that so many psychiatrists shouted from the rooftops that we had lost in the past few years, and are so critical to our well-being.
Another is that, although I know I’m going to suck, the stakes are so low that I can really lean into my sucking – something that can be a palliative for stressed and overly anxious people (read: almost everyone , or 87% if you need a number, at least according to the American Psychological Association’s latest Stress in America™ survey, released in March). And it’s a fix that other people have acknowledged and touted for years, and one that seems especially relevant now, as we hurtle toward another uncertain downfall, with the world literally on fire, and the future so bleak. that people would have stopped reading the news altogether, unable to bear yet another tragic headline. Low-stakes lawsuits and accepting mediocrity might be a good tool to have in our self-help kit.
“Trying to reach for a few moments of happiness,” Karen Rinaldi wrote of her dreadful surfing in a viral op-ed that she later expanded into the book (It’s Great to) Suck at Something, “I experience something else: patience and humility, of course, but also freedom. Freedom to pursue the useless. And the freedom to suck without worrying about it is telling. In the book’s introduction, she urges us to consider the importance of “celebrating the vital art of doing something seemingly irrelevant, especially when the rest of your life is drawn to resounding, overwhelming, all-encompassing relevance. and heavy”.
I’m so dumb right now. I suck for not watching five episodes of The Bear and falling asleep on time. I suck at putting my three-year-old to bed, which means almost every night ends with me curled up in a pink child-sized chair as she barks orders at me. I suck at not eating handfuls of goldfish when I forget lunch. And in each of those moments, no matter how small, the stakes seem legitimate: that my emotional reserves dry up and vanish with every hour of lost sleep; that I failed to be an authority figure for my children, with all the ramifications down the road that may have; that my body will shut down one day, after it can no longer extract Pepperidge Farm’s fortified wheat flour for the folic acid it so desperately needs. Largely, I fear that what I suck at is being an adult.
In tennis, if I suck, it really doesn’t matter.
This week, with a break in our work schedules coinciding, my husband asked me if I wanted to knock. He’s good, actually good, having competed seriously in high school, but we hadn’t played together in years, after a terrible game shortly after college. My competitive streak was still blistering at the time, and after demanding he play to win and then getting run over, I swore we’d never return to the field without a counselor present. couple as referee. With my newfound love of mediocrity, I thought we could give it a whirl. And aside from the fact that he kept yelling “TWINKLE TOES!” every time I didn’t adapt to the ball fast enough, a weird phrase he learned when he was a coach years ago, we had a blast and only played for points towards the whole end. We left the field tied, and yes, it was fantastic to take those winners away from him, even though I knew deep down that he was downplaying me.
And so, during the scorching days of summer, before that nostalgic camp-like window closes and we find ourselves back to our daily grind, with our pencils sharpened and our eyes on this amorphous weighty relevance, I urges you to join me on the metaphorical seek. Who knows? You too can be terrible or, at the very least, mediocre. Here I hope.