Sunday, October 27, 2013


I know there are people who read my Facebook posts about tennis and roll their eyes, thinking, "There he goes again, blathering about tennis. Enough already."   I know this because I've thought the same thing about some of my FB friends who always post about some single-minded obsession.  

This week I read a somewhat entertaining article about ways people be can be annoying on Facebook:  7 Ways to Be Insufferable on Facebook.  I almost didn't finish the article because I didn't agree with the author's cynical view that so many posts are motivated by bragging or inducing jealousy in other people.  I often post about my tennis (and other) successes, but it's not to brag or elevate myself above others.  I do it because I'm happy and proud and I want to share my happiness/accomplishments with people.

But I kept reading the article, and I'm glad I did, because there's a great Venn diagram of concentric circles showing how few things actually will interest your FB public.

The author gives examples of things in the blue, green, and orange territory.  Funniest line in the article: "Off to the gym, then class reading...We're talking about serious blue territory here, which means that even your mom doesn't give a shit."

It was with this article in my head that I was reluctant to post on FB that I'd won my match on Thursday, which meant I got to go to the playoff finals in Aurora!  (The event that I really really really wanted to go to.)

In fact, I posted it Thursday night, then took it down immediately because I worried about bragging.  Stupid Venn diagram, get out of my head!

Friday morning I reconsidered and posted it again.  (I could at least justify it because I knew for a fact that my mom did give a shit.  I called her after my match on Thursday and she was excited for me.)  The post would get 29 "likes" and several comments of encouragement.  I guess it was interesting to my FB friends after all.


When I was in high school I was obsessed with wrestling.  I grew up in a wrestling family and when I joined the high school team it become my whole life.  As a junior I made it to the state tournament, and as a senior I was the team captain and a contender to win State.  I ended up getting third in the state, which I was proud of, but fell short of my goal.

Making it to the league playoff finals in Aurora felt like the closest I would ever come to re-living my high school wrestling glory days.  As a 42-year-old man, I was given another chance to win the big tournament.


A few months ago my new mother-in-law made the mistake of asking me if my league tennis matches were something that people came and watched.  I was touched that she wanted to support my hobby like that, but I had to admit that people don't watch league matches.  There's not even a place to sit.  But I told her about the playoffs, and said that IF I qualify for them, and IF I make it to the final weekend, there would surely be fans at the final event in Aurora.

So when I won my match on Thursday, I told my in-laws that I was going to Aurora, and they offered to drive me and Katherine to the tournament.  We loaded up the car and took the hour-and-a-half trip out to the far western suburbs.

My in-laws are super nice, humble people who would never do anything to make me feel inferior, but sometimes I get a slight inferiority complex around them.  Katherine is the only person in her family who doesn't have a doctorate.  Her family members work super hard, do very well in their careers, and earn a lot of money.  I have two masters degrees, but I'm also working as a part-time librarian and letting my wife be the primary breadwinner.  I personally have no problems with that arrangement (I take care of more house stuff), but there are times when I worry that they think of me as their deadbeat son-in-law.

Let me be clear.  They've never given me any reason to feel like this.  It's all my own insecurities. 

So it was quite a thrill to have them watch me play tennis.  They actually got to see me at something I'm really good at, something I'm proud of.  See-- I'm not a loser!  I work hard.  I have talent. 


So with all these issues swirling around, how did I actually do in Aurora?

I was in the semifinals of the tournament, the final four competitors in my division.  In my first match, I played the top seed, a super nice guy.  Most of the guys in this league are friendly, but he was exceptionally so, giving me high fives at every change-over. We had a great first set, and were on serve, each of us holding easily, until I was up 6-5.  On his service game I got a little divine intervention.  The sun came out and it was at a point in the sky that was right in his eyes.  He couldn't serve well under those conditions, so I broke him and took the set, 7-5.

At the beginning of the second set, Katherine and her mother left to go to the bathroom. I promptly lost three straight games.  Down 0-3, I clawed my way back, but it wasn't enough.  I lost 3-6.

In the final set my cheering section stayed the whole time.  I was able to step up my game and wear down my opponent.  I won 6-3.  On to the finals!


During the break between my matches I took a picture of the brackets, showing myself in the finals, and posted it to Facebook.  It got 18 "likes."  I guess people do care!

Before I could play in the championship match, I had to wait for the other semifinal match to end.  They were having a real battle out there.  Although they played three sets, just like us, their match lasted an hour longer.  By the time they were done and the winner was ready to play me, it was about 5:30pm. It was already starting to get dark.

In the championship match, the first set was a massacre.  I jumped out to a 5-0 lead.  We were only in the second game when I thought, "I'm gonna win.  This guy can't compete with me."  He showed a little resistance near the end of the first set, but I finished it off, 6-2.

But he became a new player in the second set.  Suddenly he was getting to everything, hitting everything back that I threw at him.  Hey, that's what I do!  He won four games in a row and took the set, 6-3.

Ugh.  I felt really bad for my fans. It was dark now, so we had to turn on the lights on the court. And as it got dark it got colder.  The day had never been warm, in the 50's and partly sunny, but at night time it got into the 40's.  It was very cold on the court.  When I looked over to the bleachers, I saw my wife and her parents bundled up in blankets.  I felt bad for making them sit there in the cold for so long.  And now they had to sit through one more set.  All the other matches were done for the day, so my small three-person cheering section sat there alone and huddled together for warmth.

Like this, but only three people.

Although I had lots of chances, I lost the first game to go down 0-1.  That was five straight games I'd lost.  If I didn't change something, I was going to lose the match I had been convinced I'd already won.  In front of my in-laws.  I needed an answer.  I needed a second wind.  I'd been playing high-energy tennis for four hours.  My legs hurt, my back hurt, I was cold, and my opponent seemed to have all the momentum.  I wasn't sure I could beat him.  Even though I hate sports cliches, I told myself I had to "dig deep."  Whatever the hell that even means.

I evened the match at 1-1, and in the next game I had lots more chances to take the lead.  But every time he'd battle back.  He went up 2-1 and I started losing hope.  I had to work hard, so very hard, just to win the next game and keep even with him.

Then I discovered something.  A chink in his armor.

Wow.  If you google "chink in armor", it comes up with images of Asian athletes.  That's really offensive.

I found that if I just kept hitting my forehand hard, cross-court, and into the corner, I could do that all day.  I kept running him around while I stood in one place bashing the ball into that same corner.  Every time.  Eventually he'd get tired and make a mistake.

I grabbed on to this strategy and didn't let go.  I won four out of the next five games to take the championship: 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.


As my opponent and I gathered for our trophy presentation, the only people left were the tournament director, his assistant, and my three fans.  I got a big glassy trophy.

Cat sniffs trophy

This is by far the biggest tennis accomplishment I've ever had.  I won "State"!  I won respect!  I'm validated!

I posted a picture of my trophy on FB.  So far it's gotten 30 "likes." (I promise this will be my last tennis post for a long time.) 

And I called my Mom.  Who definitely gave a shit.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Power of the Ring

Over the long Fourth of July weekend-- my first weekend after moving to Chicagoland-- I played three tennis matches over four days in my new league.  I lost all three matches.  Later that week I would play my oldest brother in our annual grudge match where he always beats me.  He beat me.  That was four straight losses.

Then I got married and went on my honeymoon.  I didn't play a tennis match for two weeks.  My first league match as a married man I beat a clearly overmatched (and possibly stoned) dude 6-0, 6-1.  

Then came the biggest test of my new tennis career in my new home.  I was to play the best guy in the league-- someone who was 5-0 and had not lost a set yet.

He was cruising to another routine victory against me, up 6-3, 5-2.  He only needed to win one more game.  That's when I shut him down.  I came back to win the second set, 7-5, and went on to win the match, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4.

Throughout that match, I kept fiddling with the ring on my left hand.  I still haven't gotten used to wearing the ring, and I'm often playing with it.  As I started my comeback against the best guy in the league, the mantra I kept saying to myself was, "Use the power of the ring."

It was corny and superstitious and irrational, but it was fun.


Since that time I have not lost a match in my new league.  After winning my last three matches in the summer league, I ran the table (7-0) in the fall league, and have now won the first two matches in the playoffs.

As a married man, I've won 12 straight singles league matches. (Full disclosure: I've lost some practice matches/sets, and I've lost a lot in doubles.)

Apparently marriage agrees with my tennis game.

This league I joined-- which I found using The Google-- has a playoff tournament at the end of the year, which is something I've never done before.  Qualifying for the playoff tournament is based on an intricate point system that ranks all of the players at my level.  I love shit like this.

My original goal was the qualify for the playoffs.  Since I hadn't been here to play in the spring season, and points were accumulated over the whole year, I knew I'd have to have a strong showing in the fall to qualify.  Not only did I have a strong showing (I went 7-0 and only lost 1 set), but of the 177 guys at my level, I had the most points for the fall session.  I made the playoffs!  

If you qualify for the playoffs, you have to be available to play in the final four in Aurora ("Wayne's World! Wayne's World!") in late October.  Aurora is way the fuck out in the southwestern suburbs.  To get there from the north shore, where I live, is 50 miles through gridlocked suburban traffic.  Depending on traffic, it could be a two-hour drive.  So I wasn't thrilled about the prospect of driving there, but my love of tennis and playoffs and competition over-rode that.  I figured if I lost before then, my consolation would be I didn't have to drive to Aurora.

My first two matches in the tournament have been surprisingly easy.  I won the first 6-3, 6-2, and the second was embarrassingly easy, 6-0, 6-1.  That match was so anticlimactic that afterward I went for a bike ride just to get more exercise.  I'm now in the quarterfinals, the round of 8, and if I win my next match I get to go to Aurora.

Now that I'm one match away, I really, really-- really!-- want to go to Aurora. I've had this date tentatively blocked out on my calendar for weeks.  The organizer sent out an email this week about the final four "Super Saturday", with schedules and details about the event.  I'm salivating at the idea of being a part of it.

Can you guess the connection between Freddie Mercury and Aurora?


I still have one match to go.  My next opponent will definitely be tougher than the first two guys I beat up on.  We're playing tomorrow, and the high for the day is 46 degrees.  I've never played tennis is such frigid conditions before. I just have to remind myself that this is for fun, it's not about winning.  But going to Aurora will be so much more fun!  The thing about a tournament is, you want to keep winning so you get to play more.   

I know by wanting it this bad, by thinking about it, and writing about it and preparing for it, I'm jinxing it. My only hope is that writing about my fears I can jinx the jinx.  If I write about how I might choke, or lose one match before qualifying for Aurora, or break my 12-match winning streak, maybe I can avoid it.  I really don't know if I've been lucky or good or what during this winning streak.  (Probably a little of both.)  I've played doubles twice in the past week and gotten my butt kicked.  So that has kept me humble.  I'm not really as good as my winning streak would indicate.

Anything can happen. I have no idea how good my opponent is or how we'll match up.  Or whether I'll play well or not. 

But I do have a backup plan.  If I don't go to Aurora, I'll just stay home and sob.  And let my wife console me. 


Did I make it to Aurora?   Read the exciting conclusion here:

Saturday, October 19, 2013


Inspired by an anonymous old friend, I decided I might try telling some of my old stories on this here blog.  Since this one is already written and edited, I'll start with the text of the story I told at the Storytelling event I performed at a few weeks ago.  Just imagine me standing up and telling this story in front of a crowded coffeehouse.

Action photo of me storytelling!


After my shower I find Nikole lying on the bed, curled up on her side in the fetal position. What’s wrong? I ask. She won’t talk to me.

We were having a great weekend, staying in the small German village where she grew up. We’d been to her brother’s wedding. We’d gone swimming, snuggled on the couch, had lots of great conversations. And after an awkward trip to the small village pharmacy, where I’d very publicly bought condoms, we’d even enjoyed some afternoon delight. We were having a great time.

So why the abrupt change in her mood? Then it hits me. “You read my journal, didn’t you?”

My journal was a record of all my thoughts, impressions, and adventures in Germany. Officially, I was in Germany to study the syntax of modern Germanic languages at the University of Stuttgart, but my studies took an entirely different turn when I met Nikole.


She was a German grad student who was preparing to take her masters exam in English, and was looking for a native speaker to practice her English with. In exchange, she would help me practice my German.

The first time we met we talked for three hours. She was impressed with my German and admired my Nebens├Ątze. Although we enjoyed the conversation, neither of us was smitten from our first meeting. She told me later her first impression of me was, “Oh, he’s harmless.” The second time we met we talked for 4.5 hours, and a conversation that started out in the library moved on to McDonald’s, and eventually ended up at the Irish pub.

For our first official date, we went back to the Irish pub a week later, on St. Patrick’s Day. We got drunk, went back to her place, and continued our conversation horizontally.

The next day, I would write in my journal, “I guess now you could say I have a girlfriend. I really like Nikole. She’s smart, funny, and affectionate. She’s so cute. This morning she told me I have a wonderful body temperature. No one’s ever told me that before. I’m not even sure what it means, but I like it.”

Nikole had once heard a theory that people learn a foreign language best in bed, and this proved true. My German reached a whole new level once I started sleeping with a native.


For her birthday in early May, I wrote her a poem-like thing where I quoted all these things I’d written about her in my journal. She liked it.

But she wouldn’t like everything in my journal. In addition to a record of my experiences, my journal was also my therapy, where I wrote out all my hopes and fears and anxieties. Sometimes I wrote about doubts I had.

As Nikole lays there on her bed, not talking to me, my mind races through all the things I wrote. A knot forms in my stomach. There were the times I’d wondered if we were going too fast. The times when I went back and forth between apathy and excitement toward her. And there was the time I talked about how Nikole was not the type of girl I was usually attracted to. She didn’t have that “cute American look” that my previous girlfriend had had.

Yes, I’d kept a written record that compared physical attributes of two of my girlfriends. It was a stupid move that I would pay for for the next 2 years. After Nikole read that, she was convinced that I thought she was ugly.

I did not think she was ugly. She big bushy curly black hair that I liked, cute nerdy glasses that turned me on, and adorable facial expressions. And not to put too fine a point on it, but the sex was great, too. More importantly, we connected on an intellectual level that I never had with any other girl.  Nikole gave great conversation. But after she read my journal, Nikole didn’t see any of that. She thought I thought she was ugly. She no longer trusted me.

It is perhaps ironic that she read my journal, violated my privacy, and yet she was the one who lost trust in me. Over the next two years, she would obsess about what I found ugly about her. Her nose? Her skin? Her ass?


A year later, I come home to find Nikole once again laying on her side in the fetal position on the bed. This time it is our bed, in our apartment, in the U.S. town where she’s moved to so we can be together.

She has decided that we are not right for each other. We are not going to end up together. Despite this pronouncement, she makes no move to end the relationship. I do not take it seriously.

One time we are out shopping when we ran into Ann. Nikole knows that Ann was a girl I asked out a few years ago. Nikole studies Ann, and compares her to pictures of my ex-girlfriend, and other girls I’ve been interested in. Nikole goes nuts trying to find a common characteristic, something that defines my “type.” But I didn’t have a single “type”. I’m attracted to lots of different women. But I’m in love with her.

After 8 months of hearing from Nikole how wrong we are for each other, I am finally convinced. “Ok,” I say. “Let’s break up.” That night I sleep on the sofa bed, but when I wake up in the morning, Nikole is sleeping next to me, snuggling up. I guess I wasn’t clear enough, so I say, “As of this moment, we are broken up.” Then things get real ugly. The phrase “fucking asshole” is hurled at me with a slight German accent.

After the dust settles, and Nikole moves out, she still won’t let go of the ugly issue. She sends me an email. “Now that we’re broken up, can you please tell me what it was you found so unattractive in me?” I refuse. Of course I’m ready to end things with her, but it isn’t her looks that I find ugly about her, it’s her insecurities.

The punchline to this story is, ever since we broke up, whenever I see a girl with big bushy black hair, nerdy glasses, and adorable expressions that remind me of Nikole, I think, “Oh, she’s cute.”

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Story About The Story

The theme of the story I was to tell was "ugly."

I had one really good story that I'd have to shoehorn into the theme, and one story that fit the theme really well, but wasn't as good of a story.

Story A is about a crazy lady I lived with in Germany, a paranoid schizophrenic host mother who was convinced the neighbors were out to get her.  It's by far the most interesting thing that's ever happened to me, very funny and entertaining.  But to fit with the theme, I'd have to talk about this "ugly" experience, or how "ugly" mental illness can get.  

A fancy silver shoehorn
Story B is about an ex-girlfriend who was convinced I thought she was ugly.  Not very entertaining and definitely not funny, but fit the theme perfectly.    

Which story to tell?


So I've become involved in a storytelling troupe.  Since I moved to Chicagoland, this is the only social thing I've done that doesn't involve Katherine or tennis.

Every month they host storytelling shows centered around a certain theme.  It's all very low-key and casual.  There are no workshops or discussions on how to tell a story, they just hold events and invite people to tell stories. They had no idea if I was any good or not when they invited me to tell a story for their October show.  Neither did I.

But I thought it would be a good way to keep in touch with my creative side.  So I volunteered to do some public speaking.  For fun.  They say that public speaking is the #1 fear people have, and here I am giving speeches in my free time.

As I was obsessively preparing my story, Katherine kept asking me, "Is this fun?"  I didn't look like I was having fun, but sometimes fun isn't just about fun, you know?  Sometimes you do things that terrify you a little bit in order to feel alive.


I had three weeks to prepare my story.  I decided to go with Story A, the crazy German host mother shoehorned into the "ugly"  theme.  It's a story I'd had in written form for many years, but had never found a formal audience for.  It's called "32 Short Stories About Frau Steiner."  What makes the story so good is that, although I only lived with this nutbag for three days, I accumulated 32 (at least) anecdotes about how crazy she was.

This has nothing to do with Frau Steiner, other than it came up during a Google image search for "nuts."
So I edited the manuscript for brevity and started memorizing and practicing parts of it.  After two weeks, I was about halfway through the memorization process and making good progress.  Then a week before the performance the organizers sent out an email with the guidelines for our stories.  The first line devastated me:  "Story must be no longer than 7 minutes..."  I'd been planning for a 15-to-20-minute story.  Seven minutes?  Who can tell a story in 7 minutes?

I rehearsed the Frau Steiner story with a stopwatch, and when I hit 22 minutes and still had about 5 sections to go, I lost all hope.  I'd already cut out a lot of details, and I thought about trying to take a hacksaw to it to get into the time limit, but then I gave up.  There's no way to tell this kind of story in 7 minutes.  What makes the story so good is the sheer volume of crazy things she did.

So with a week before my performance, and two weeks of preparation down the drain, I started over completely.  I decided to tell Story B about my ex-girlfriend who one day read my journal, misinterpreted it, and decided that I thought she was ugly.

First I had to write the story.  I'd had parts of it written down from other sources: the story of how we met, emails, and the journal in question.  I just had to put it all together.

After a few days of writing it and mostly memorizing it, I delivered it and timed myself.  It was 12 minutes.  Fuck!  How the hell am I supposed to tell a story in seven minutes!?!?   This was the short story, the one that wasn't even that long or interesting.               

I started cutting things out, but that just seemed to make the story even less interesting.  It was like a bullet list of boring events.  "Just the facts, ma'am."

As I was struggling with this, I went back to the email the organizers had sent out that had guidelines for the stories.  It also included storytelling tips, and links to storytelling how-tos from other organizations.  What I realized was that my story didn't really show, it only told. I've known for a long time that good writing doesn't just tell you what happened, it shows you.  It illustrates.  It makes you see and feel what the people in the story are seeing and feeling.

So I scrapped the whole story (again!)  and re-wrote it, starting with a very pivotal scene-- the moment when I discover that my girlfriend has read my journal, and how terrifying that was.

I wrote, practiced, re-wrote, and re-practiced.  I'd thoroughly worked and memorized every section of the story, which was now only 3 pages long.  The day before the performance, I practiced the whole thing from beginning to end with a stopwatch.  It was 8:10 (eight minutes and ten seconds.)  That was good enough.  I decided to practice it once an hour.

Over the next two days I practiced it six times.  I kept a log of the day, time, and how long each performance was.  The times were 8:10, 7:50, 8:12, 8:47, 8:12, and 8:35.  Clearly it looked to be a little over eight minutes long.  Most of the times I practiced it in front of the bay window in our living room, staring out into the street.  (People walking by must have wondered what the crazy guy was doing talking to the window.)

The last time I practiced it in our basement, to an audience of a sleeping cat, two trophies, and two stuffed animals.

My enthralled practice audience
 (I had planned to practice it in front of my wife, but she was unavoidably detained that day and couldn't make it home in time. Which was just as well, I was ambivalent about sharing a story about my ex-girlfriend with her.)                


I showed up way early at the coffee house where we were supposed to perform.  They told me that my story would be third.

As I listened to the first two stories, I realized that mine wasn't nearly as funny as theirs.  The first guy told a wacky story about a horrible date he'd had, and the second lady told a story about being a bully in junior high (but in a funny way.)  I thought about my own story and what lines might get laughs, but it wasn't really that kind of story.  It was ultimately about how my ex obsessed about her appearance, and what I really found ugly about her was not her body, but her insecurity.  Insightful?  Possibly.  But not funny.

I went ahead and told the story, and it did get some laughs.  There were some funny parts in the first half where I talk about how we met.  I only flubbed one or two lines, but for the most part I delivered it as I'd rehearsed it.   

Incidentally, I timed some of the other stories, and many of them were way too long.  One was even 15 minutes. Whatever. At least I know how to follow rules. So I've got that going for me.   

People were gracious and told me afterward what a great job I did, but I don't know if they meant it or were just being nice.  Anyway, it was a fun, terrifying experience, and I probably will do it again some time.