Open Minded

Rising stars shine brightest in the tennis world.

Because the game is, for the most part, an individual sport, the cult of personality can sometimes play havoc with discipline, attitude and sanity. Often when a talented new player bursts into public view on a stage far bigger than the local tennis court, the ensuing media storm proves a more dangerous threat to competent performance than the wiliest opponent.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more merciless than at the U.S. Open. Now underway in New York City, the final major tennis event of the year takes place on the biggest, and often most raucous, venue in the professional tennis circuit.

A few days ago, fifteen-year-old American CiCi Bellis thrilled the crowd with an exciting upset victory over the No. 12 seed, 2014 Australian Open runner-up Dominika Cibulkova, a fiery player from Slovakia recently ranked No. 10 in the world. The veteran Cibulkova, who is twenty-five years old, was expected to win.

The media went nuts. Bellis appeared to take it in stride. This is the beauty of being fifteen years old. You don’t know how lucky you are, until you aren’t.

Two days after her stunning victory, the young star had to play a night match against twenty-year-old Zarina Dyas of Kazakhstan. The crowd was solidly in Bellis’s corner from the first point. They cheered when she got over her nerves and began playing well, after the first three games. They cheered every time her opponent made an error, not exactly classic tennis etiquette, but not unusual with a New York crowd. And they went crazy when, after losing the first set 3-6, Bellis went on a tear and won seven games in a row, taking the second set 6-0.

But then one of those almost imperceptible shifts in momentum occurred. Dyas maintained her composure throughout, in spite of the crowd applauding her every mistake. She quietly dug in and battled back hard, fighting her way to win the third set handily before finally sending Bellis back to San Francisco with some things to think about.

However, in case there was any doubt about who was the winner as far as the media was concerned, consider this: usually, at the conclusion of every match, the media representatives swarm the winner to grab footage and quotes. At the conclusion of the Dyas-Bellis match, the microphone was thrust not in Dyas’s face, but in Bellis’s.

I was sorry to see this. Dyas, playing in front of an almost hostile crowd, carried herself with the kind of grace and stoic grit that has been the hallmark of many great tennis players. Bellis, in contrast, was cute as a puppy, frisky and playful. You couldn’t not like her. But I don’t think she would have been damaged if the media had had the good sense to first congratulate the winner before fawning over the newest darling of the tennis world.

No doubt I’m just bitter. I remember how it felt to have to play singles against a much younger opponent. When I was in my mid-forties, new to tennis and pie-eyed with enthusiasm, I entered a charity tournament at the local rec club. I don’t know how they came up with the draw but I’ll never forget my opponent. She was fourteen. She was blonde, leggy, with a killer topspin forehand that took the wind out of my sails in a hurry.

And to make matters worse, she was kind and polite. It was obvious from the first point that she was going to beat me. The only question was, would I be able to win a game. When it was over she shook my hand and I wished her well in the rest of the tournament.

I kept playing tennis. Over the years I won some matches, and lost more. But my appreciation for the game, for the skill it demands, for the energy it requires, for the passion it inspires, still keeps me playing.

In any sport, winning is more fun than losing. But losing teaches you that no matter how good you may think you are, there’s always someone who can beat you. Yet in tennis you’re expected to be gracious whether in victory or defeat, because, at least in tennis, good manners are supposed to be part of the game.

Just another thing to practice.


Meryl Davis and Charlie White are golden Olympians.
Meryl Davis and Charlie White are golden Olympians. Photo Credit: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

I watched the Olympics on a small black and white television when I was a young child in the fifties. Like a lot of things—cars, music, telephones—television coverage of the Olympics was different then. We would watch contestants competing in real time. And the networks showed all the athletes, not just the Americans.

The slick packaging of sports as a form of entertainment hadn’t ascended to an Olympian level back then. The close-ups were limited, the interviews rare, and the camera angles not always the most dramatic. But the sense of watching something unique lent the event a glamor unmatched by today’s technically superior coverage.

When I was child I was given to understand that what made Olympic athletes different from other athletes was that Olympians came from all walks of life, that they were just regular humans who worked hard in their spare time to achieve athletic greatness for the honor of their country. There’s still an element of that beneath the massive marketing and the publicity circus that both sustains and feeds off the modern Olympics. But more often it seems that the athletes who climb their way onto the podium are nothing at all like ordinary mortals. Most of them devote years to develop the skills and strength and mental fortitude essential to compete at the highest level.

Perhaps this is how the Olympics were always meant to be. Perhaps my childish notion of an Olympic competition as a bloodless pageant that could, ideally, foster peace and understanding between all the nations of the world was as naive as many of my ideas at that age.  But even now, when I watch the Olympics, marveling at the unparalleled daring and skill and grace of the competitors, that same naive hope still burns bright as any Olympic torch.

In the Sochi Olympics I’ve been mesmerized in particular by the ice dancing. For many years I never paid much attention to the ice skaters. I could skate. Big deal.

Then I saw Charlie White and Meryl Davis skate together, and I realized that what I did wasn’t even the equivalent of crawling compared to the athletes who dance on ice and make it look easy.

White and Davis, who have been skating together for seventeen years, met as eight-year-olds in Michigan. Last night they won the gold medal in ice dancing for the United States, the first time an American team has won the gold since the sport was accepted into the Olympics in 1976.

While many Olympic events seem focused on driving athletes to go faster, higher, and farther, not many require the synthesis of artistry, passion, and teamwork that make ice dancing so thrilling. Sure, there are always a few people who don’t get it. Some people seem suspicious of any sport that doesn’t involve grunting.

On ice White and Davis move with breathtaking precision and fluid grace that is nothing short of astonishing. Watching them swirling over the ice I was reminded of a line from an old jazz ballad, Crazy He Calls Me: “The difficult, I’ll do right now. The impossible may take a little while.”

It took seventeen years, but White and Davis did the impossible last night. On Russian soil they performed with flawless brilliance. Some may flap flags and feel proud to American, and that’s part of it. But for me, their performance makes me feel hopeful for humanity.

If our crazy self-destructive species can still turn out a pair of kids like Charlie White and Meryl Davis, then maybe there’s hope for us yet.
Go Team Earth!

In A World Distracted

I was told there would be snacks.
I was told there would be snacks.

Yes, I watched the Super Bowl. No, I don’t care about football.

But I am continually amazed by the peculiarities of my species, and those are on display with extra sprinkles during our nation’s annual rite of roughhousing. Love it or hate it, football is entrenched in our culture, almost as deeply as the beer and cars and snack food whose ads support the whole ritual.

And, I admit, I enjoy critiquing the Super Bowl ads at least as much as I enjoy watching the game. I mean, breathes there a soul so dead that never involuntarily said “aww!” at the first sight of those Budweiser ads with the puppy and the Clydesdale? Come on! Puppies! Clydesdales! United in their appreciation for American beer, even if that company is now owned by a Belgian-Brazilian corporation. It’s still our beer, right?

Well, beer aside, the Super Bowl is over, and now we have to face the rest of February with only Mardi Gras, Valentines day, and the Olympics to distract us from the tiresome work of reality. In Washington, D.C., people pay a lot of attention to the news. And a lot of people in this city are actively involved in trying to change and/or improve the way things work in this country and the rest of the world. There’s always room for improvement. But it’s never as simple as one might hope, it’s rarely easy, and often slow to manifest.

That slowness represents a challenge for us humans. We all want instant results. Lose weight fast. Get rich quick. Dominate the market today.

Yet there’s an upside to a slower process that allows for adjustments, refinements, and perhaps a closer brush with perfection. It’s hard to stay focused on one goal persistently, day after day, week after week. Everyone needs a break from time to time. Thus, some watch football. Others prefer the Kitten Bowl, or the Puppy Bowl.

In a world where the problems sometimes seem too large to manage and the people in charge appear unequal to the task, it’s important not to lose hope. When my spirit sags I turn to movies. This past weekend I watched “In A World,” Lake Bell’s brilliant and funny film about the curious business of voice-overs. The film has a lot to say about ambition, gender issues and perception, but most of all it challenges the notion that we are all stuck “in a world” where things can’t be changed. Bell makes it clear that even when the game is rigged and the odds are stacked against you, you can change the game.

As Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson said in his interview after the Super Bowl, his father always encouraged him to follow his dreams even though they seemed out of reach, saying, “You have the ability…so why not you?”

In a world where the Seattle Seahawks can defeat Peyton Manning and the Broncos, it feels like anything can happen.

Play’s The Thing

A Dragon Boat team practices under the full moon along the Washington Channel.

Come out, come out, wherever you are.

It’s that time again, when a kindlier light shines upon the Earth and, although all is not right with the world and perhaps never will be, it’s wearing its happiest face and making the best of it. So should we all.

These golden days, when the sun lingers longer, when the winds blow softer, and the rains nourish new life, it’s enough to bring out the poet in the most savage soul. For those of us who feed on the thrill of simple sports, these are the days we’ve been waiting for all the long cold winter.

Here in D.C. the return of flip-flop weather has inspired a bumper crop of outdoor enthusiasts. The streets are a-swarm with hipsters and bicyclists. The volleyball teams are leaping and smashing on the fields near the Lincoln Memorial. The crack of bats and the thwock of gloves floats above the baseball fields in the shadow of the Martin Luther King Memorial, and all weekend long the cries of agony and shrieks of victory arise from the tennis courts at East Potomac Park, while the golfers on the adjacent course pursue their goals with quieter resolve.

It’s springtime in our Nation’s Capitol, and for this brief, blissful season politics is not the only game in town.

Plato, we’re told, once remarked that “Life must be lived as play.” Easy for him to say. In the modern world, as we slog or blog along at our daily chores, whether chained to desks or digging ditches, the concept of “play” can be elusive. The human penchant for nitpicking, score keeping, record seeking and trophy hunting sometimes obscures the purity of The Game. But, that’s not something we need concern ourselves with in this bright moment. Today we play.

Another fellow, Guy Lombardo, expressed the notion a bit more blithely in song: “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.”

Good advice anytime.

October Blessed

Mellow Fruitfulness

Here in D.C. where the locals don’t even look up when the Presidential chopper thrums over the rooftops, the glory of autumn is sometimes enough to make even the most jaded policy wonks take a moment to inhale the elixir of crisp leaves and hushed fog that signals a tilt in the planet.

It’s time to stop and smell the apples.

And, as far as I’m concerned, you can keep your Golden Delicious, your Galas and HoneyCrisps. MacIntosh is better as a computer, and Romes aren’t worth the seizing any day.

The richness of Virginia’s apple heritage is sometimes overlooked, especially now in these days when Big Agra dictates an algorithm for marketability based on ease of production, transportation and storage at the expense of taste and texture.

Yes, I’m talking about Stayman. Not the new-fangled Stayman-Winesap hybrids, which ruin the best features of each of those two honored heritage cultivars, but the true old Stayman apple, which grows on a tree a little too big for the practices of modern mass fruit production. A Stayman tree has character, like the apples it produces. It’s a taste once acquired never forgotten.

During the last six years while I was living in the Pacific Northwest, a region that takes pride in its apples, I despaired of finding a true Stayman apple. They simply don’t grow them out there. And when I came back to Virginia to visit, I was alarmed by the disappearance of the roadside stands where I used to be able to count on finding Staymans and Yorks for my pie baking. I was told that times had changed and no one was planting the old varieties anymore.

But this week the farmer who drives up each weekend from Ruckersville and sells his produce at the corner near our building had a big bin of Stayman apples.

I do believe in Virginia, Santa.

This year, my October runneth over. The D.C. area has a lot to be excited about.The Nationals, with the best record in Major League Baseball, are in the playoffs, the first time D.C has had a baseball team advance so far since 1933. And Baltimore, our sister city, not to be outdone, earned a wildcard entry into the playoffs. Football still dominates the sports pages here, but local baseball is finally enjoying some respect.

And of course there’s that election year buzz, crackling and spitting like a downed power line across the road. That never gets old.

The slanting light spilling through the golden tree canopy that remains a defining  feature of the city in spite of the damage from the June derecho casts an enchantment that, to those susceptible, redeems the abrasive jangle of political agendas.

After all, in a few weeks the election will be over, and we can get on with our pies.

One of a Kind

Unforgettable Ichiro

Being a Mariners fan just got a little harder.

Ichiro Suzuki changed his uniform yesterday.

The longtime “face of the franchise” turned in his Seattle Mariners number 51, trading it for the Yankees’ number 31.

The deal went down so quickly that many teammates and most shocked fans never saw it coming. Since he first arrived as a rookie for the Mariners in 2001, the year they made a run at the American League championships and Ichiro earned both the MVP and the Rookie of the Year awards, the Japanese outfielder has established himself as someone unique in a sport where flashy, brash and outspoken characters tend to hog the spotlight.

Quiet, methodical, graceful and uncannily gifted, Ichiro won the hearts of fans in Seattle and Japan through his amazingly consistent play. For ten years running he had more than 200 hits a season, won the Golden Glove award, and was named to the All Star team.

Yet the Mariners haven’t been back to the playoffs since 2001. In fact, during the six years I lived in Seattle, we considered it a good year if the team came anywhere close to a winning season. For a couple of those years the Mariners and the Nationals both languished at the bottom of their respective leagues.

Now, suddenly, the Nats are contenders. The Mariners, not so much.

So it’s easy to imagine why Ichiro would welcome the chance to play for the most bodacious, ego-loaded, winning machine in baseball. The Yankees, win or lose, are more than just a team of ball players. They are a team of superstars.

And Ichiro deserves the chance to shine with them.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw him play, and witnessed his signature routine at the plate – the bat held out like a painter sighting along his brush, the tugging at his uniform, the adjusting of his elbow strap – and his remarkable ability to create quality hits on pitches outside the strike zone. You could close your eyes and feel the whole stadium like a giant heart beating as the crowd chanted his name: “I-chi-ro! I-chi-ro!”

Will they love him with the same passion in New York? Somehow, I doubt it. After all, the Yankees are stuffed with talent. They may be jaded to superstars. But I hope they appreciate what just happened.

Ichiro is a Yankee. I’ll be damned.

A Game of Throws

Pitch Perfect

In an ideal world, for every throw there is a catch.

Yet we all know that human life is compounded of some successes and countless errors. We treasure the successes. We brood on the errors. And in the brooding a world of trouble breeds.

Readers who casually pick up Chad Harbach’s first novel, The Art of Fielding expecting it to be another baseball story about the struggle for greatness and its cost will not be disappointed. But this remarkable novel portrays a rich and complex emotional terrain that extends far beyond the diamond.

Through his careful, compassionate, and at times comic depiction of five characters whose lives become intimately connected at a small Wisconsin college, Harbach has created a work which transcends the sports novel genre, while at the same time remaining true to the love of the game which resonates throughout the book like the heartbeat of a team.

The story of Henry Skrimshander, a gifted shortstop whose uncanny fielding ability raises expectations in all who encounter him, The Art of Fielding is both an examination of the way we try to become the people we want to be, and how one slip, one bad throw, can change everything.

Set on the shore of Lake Michigan, the novel is enriched by a nautical theme anchored in a bit of Melville worship which works much better than you might think. As the Harpooners go through the long baseball season, we feel their pain, we share their hope, and ultimately, we come to believe in the redemptive power of the struggle itself.

The important thing is not whether you win, or lose, or make a great play or an error. It’s being in the game.

The Up Side of Losing

Let's Go To A Movie

People who don’t get sports sometimes don’t get that it’s not just about winning.

It’s about playing. Being in the game. Being part of a team. Kind of like being human.

While many great films have been set in and around the world of sports, it’s the rare film that uses sports to convey a broader message about what it means to be fully human.

In cautious sectors of the film industry the popular trend embraces repetition. The Hangover leads to The Hangover Two, Mission Impossible leads to Mission Impossibler , Zoolander spawns Twolander, etc.

Yet there are some films, critically lauded as they may be, which you know will never be shadowed by a sequel. The simply stunning Winter’s Bone, a gray brooding brilliant story of survival on the edge of our country’s crumbling economy, is a fantastic film, but hardy likely to start a franchise. Yet it’s the real thing – proof that America still has filmmakers able to drill deep and tap into the true grit that fuels this nation of passionate extremes.

Thomas McCarthy is one such filmmaker. He’s also a gifted actor and writer (he wrote the story for Up, and wrote and directed The Visitor, among others).  In McCarthy’s most recent film, Win Win, for which he also wrote the screenplay, he offers another finely observed portrait of a man losing his grip on his own moral compass as he tries to support his family without losing his soul.

The peerless Paul Giamatti holds it all together, even as his character falls apart.

As offerings go on the cinematic menu, Paul Giamatti is a bit like Brussels sprouts. Not  as universally popular as, say, French fries. I love Brussels sprouts. And I’ve been a Giamatti fan ever since he blew me away in the underrated Duets, in which he played a downtrodden traveling salesman whose life is unexpectedly altered by a chance karaoke experience.

In Win Win Giamatti is again cast as a kind of loser – a struggling small-time lawyer whose only emotional outlet comes from his role as a part-time coach for the local high school wrestling team. When a young kid with a troubled past and a gift for takedowns shows up in town, the plot veers into deeper waters. In other hands, this kind of material could have easily devolved into the predictable drivel of the standard Lifetime Channel tearjerker.

But with a steady hand and a clear eye director McCarthy has crafted a quiet study of the universal need for dignity. At times funny, thrilling, and ultimately moving, the film never lapses into maudlin clichés or cloying cuteness.

Some moviegoers may fail to see the appeal of a film without a single car chase, with no pyrotechnical explosions, no raunchy sex scenes and no computer-generated special effects.

But for those who enjoy a well-wrought, thoughtfully directed small independent film, Win Win is a winner.

Swing, batter!

It’s that time when the baseball season has begun, and the first losing streak (seven games) has been snapped, and the diehard fans are still clutching those season tickets with a kind of wistful, albeit delusional, hope that this will be the year the Mariners prove they’ve got what it takes.

Not that anyone really believes this. But it’s the hope that carries us along, as we watch King Felix pitch with consistent conviction only to be undone by the limp bats of the offense. No offense. But really, that’s the problem. Again. At times last year it almost seemed as if the announcers could have phoned in the analysis.

But that’s baseball. Some teams got it. Others . . . not so much.

Still, if you get hooked on the dance to the music of baseball, you have to be there. Good or bad, win or lose, the game remains strangely hypnotic for those of us who give in to it. Since moving to Seattle I have learned to love baseball in a way I never did before. After years of watching soccer and tennis and even football, the game of baseball offers an entirely different kind of narrative. I’m continually intrigued by the variety of skills, and strategies, and personalities, by the slow unfolding of each game’s drama.

And at the heart of the game is the dynamic fulcrum of risk – the cagey battle between pitcher and batter. To swing or not to swing. It would seem a simple question. But when every pitch varies in speed and trajectory, it’s not so simple. And what can be more annoying than watching a perfect strike go by without taking a swing? I imagine it’s hard to judge a ball whizzing past at 97 mph, as they often do in Major League Baseball, so I have a lot of sympathy those guys.

As a writer, I’ve had some experience with pitches. Not the kind you see in the ballpark, but the kind that editors and agents demand before they’ll consider reading your work. A good pitch can open doors in the publishing business. But these days, the sheer volume of pitches being thrown in the publishing industry is so overwhelming that few editors and agents will consent to swing at anything unless the writer has already done some heavy lifting.

At the last writers conference I attended the most popular buzzword in the seminar programs was platform. As in: you have to have a platform if you want to be a successful writer. It’s not enough, apparently, simply to write whatever it is you feel driven to write. You have to build a platform – blog, Tweet, tour, plaster your name in as many places as possible to create buzz about yourself, to reach your target audience, to keep them informed about your books, your life, and enable fans to connect with you.

All of this sounds reasonable, I suppose. But the reality is, if you really want to build a platform, it takes money, time and a lot of effort which might otherwise be put into your writing.

So, as I’m gearing up for the publication of another book, coming soon to a web site near your computer, I’m thinking of pitches and platforms, promotions and pop flies. I’d like to think that I have fewer illusions about my writing career than I do about the Mariners’ chances of making the playoffs.

But, truth be told, I’d love to hit one out of the park.

Will it be “Moon’s Blues,” my up and coming light novel about an affable geek who tries to impress his girlfriend by managing a rock band? Probably not. But you never know. It’s a long season. Anything can happen. That’s my platform.

Court Date

A coach's work is never done.
A coach’s work is never done.

See ball. Chase ball. Hit ball, catch ball,  throw, kick, lunge for, jump for, dive for ball.

Dogs aren’t the only species whose eyes light up at the sight of a ball. We humans feel the pull, the ‘catch me if you can’ spell of the bouncing, flying ball. And though not everyone feels inspired to play a ball sport, or join a team to do so, for those of us who do, the rewards go far beyond the obvious pay-offs in fitness and friendships.

I came to sports late in life, although I dabbled in basketball and field hockey during high school. This was long before Title Nine cleared the path for women’s sports, and decades before soccer mania took root in America’s suburbs. I never took any sport seriously until I was over forty. That’s when I fell for Wilson and Penn. I’ve been chasing those bad boys ever since.

This past weekend my  love affair with tennis took me farther than ever before, when my USTA Women’s League 3.5 team from the Pacific Northwest Section traveled to Tucson, AZ, to compete in the National tournament. Teams from sixteen sections of the country, representing all fifty states and the Caribbean, gathered for three days of match play under the hot Arizona sun.

It was an amazing, exhilarating, exhausting experience. I had imagined  before we went that there might be a few hours here and there during the tournament to see a little bit of Tucson, maybe buy a few souvenirs. Silly me.

Between the practice matches, real matches, team meetings, dinners, lunches and vital social gatherings there was hardly time to squeeze in a little precious sleep. I felt as if I were trying to keep up on one of those moving walkways at the airport while bouncing tennis balls and juggling water bottles. And  as anyone who’s traveled with a large group knows, the logistics of coordinating movements can be testing. The fluid nature of time and the peculiarities of the human temperament reveal hidden truths.

In many ways a good team is like a car. Different players bring different strengths. You need a strong engine, good wheels, fiery sparkplugs, smooth linkage, a reliable clutch. But a car, no matter how well put together, needs someone with a clear head at the wheel to stay on the road. Our team was lucky. Our coach, Jason Chapman, is younger than many of us on the team, but in tennis years he’s  older and wiser. He’s been to Nationals eleven times before, once as a player before he started coaching.

It takes a rare sort of person to bring out the best in a dozen women with widely varying skill sets, personalities and ages. It helps to have a deep well of patience, a good sense of humor, and an inner compass locked on the goal.  Jason has all these attributes, and more.

He asked us to trust him, and we did. Under his guidance, we worked hard for eight months and got to the Big Race. We made it to the Final Four and nearly to the finish line before we were edged out in the final by a scrappy team from Arkansas.

Does it lessen the sting to know that two of that team’s best players were young women who came from the Pacific Northwest? Not really.

We came to win. We nearly did. And as far as I’m concerned, my team is second to none.