It’s All About Perspective
I didn’t learn to play tennis until the end of high school. It wasn’t a sport many “working-class” kids played back in the Sixties. Looking back, it’s too bad my Spring sports were baseball (which I quit in the Spring of my Sophomore year, not particularly liking the coach) and track (which I ran my Senior year as kind of a lark --- and because I could run the 100 yard dash in 10.5 seconds, which was quick for a high schooler --- the h.s. record that year was 9.8). I say it’s too bad I didn’t learn sooner and play on the Bay Shore High School teams because during those years the Varsity teams, coached by Alan Van Nostrand (my 8th grade U.S. History teacher) won 72 consecutive matches --- the veritable UCLA of (high school) tennis. I’m sure I would have received some excellent coaching from Alan and his brother King, the Junior Varsity coach (and currently the #1 Senior player in the 85-plus bracket). But that’s all water under the bridge, of course. I bring it up because, despite that late start, tennis became a sport I played fervently throughout the 70’s/80’s/90’s and then drifted away from in the early “aughts” of the 21st century, only picking up a racquet again in January of 2017 --- and that’s where this story really begins.
Before detailing that tale, however, I need to note an observation my 93 year old mother shares with me and the Lovely Carol Marie just about every time we see her. It is one you may also hear from an elderly parent (like we’re not elderly now ourselves?) or older acquaintance and it goes something like this: “In my mind, I still think/feel like I’m 20 years old --- I can remember it so clearly.” And that’s what I want to examine, that sense of “who we are” --- in our own mind --- as compared to “who we are” as other people might see or know us.
Reflecting on life, now that I’m a septuagenarian, I strongly believe that the core of who I am today was molded in my youth, growing up in Bay Shore and on Long Island, and then sculpted during my collegiate years in New Haven. By the time I started graduate school at Colgate in June of 1972 I believe the core of who I am, even today, had been formed. And I believe that’s what my mother (and other older people) really is referring to when she talks about the past. It’s all about perspective.
I don’t see --- or talk to --- many of the people I grew up with (aside from my brother) on any kind of regular basis. Some of that has to do with geography (once I moved away from Bay Shore to go to college I not only never returned but proceeded to live a peripatetic life, moving along the “Northeast corridor” between New York City and Boston, with an excursion to Alaska for several months, my entire adult life). Some of it has to do with how that geographic shift changes your social circles, employment choices, etc. Nonetheless, I still have clear memories of growing up in Bay Shore and particularly recall playing sports, starting with Little League and going all the way through high school.
I’m detailing all this because, in my mind, I’ve always “felt” like the same person. All the years I was teaching and coaching I believe my personality was the one that had been formed by the time I left New Haven. Over the years there is addition and subtraction, of course, but the core of who you are remains pretty constant --- as does the view you have of yourself. I bring all this up because I ran across a picture of myself after I started playing tennis again in January 2017. It was actually a video from April of 2017, almost exactly three years ago to this day. What I saw was horrifying! (A still from that video is on the left, at the start of this BLAST). I was, in a word, huge. And not in a good way. What was interesting, as the Lovely Carol Marie and I discussed when looking at the photo, was that I had no perspective on myself. In my mind, I knew I had “put on a few pounds” but I still “felt like” that 20 year old in New Haven. Sure, I couldn’t run as fast but, hell, I was in my late-Sixties. I had no clear idea of just how far I had let myself go. In my mind, I was still the guy who had won two doubles championships in Rye Brook and coached championship tennis teams in Winchester, Massachusetts. In my mind, I was still the guy ranked #16 (out of 120 players) at the Riverside Tennis Association red clay courts on West 96th Street (in the early 1990s!). In my mind . . .
Perspective. It’s tricky. Your mind, if it’s clear, still “feels” like it always did and therefore, you might believe you are who you’ve always been. And here’s where tennis, and a particular remnant of who I’ve always been, intervened. As 2017 rolled on, and I began playing more and more tennis (it’s a very social sport and once you meet this player you now know that player --- and your circle rapidly expands) my lifelong picture of myself as a very good athlete began to waver. The guys I played with thought I was a “pretty good” player but I knew I couldn’t really cover the court and began to realize that my sheer GIRTH was preventing me from competing at the level I believed I was capable of. It took a full year for me to alter my perspective and get honest with myself. And that’s when, as so often happens in my life, I was in the right place at the right time.
We were Christmas shopping at T.J. Maxx in December of 2017 and the Lovely Carol Marie ran into a former colleague (someone I had known years ago, too) John Carrigan. John is an extraordinary educator and a genuinely good person whom we both think the world of. I had wandered around the store by myself for a while but then needed to sit on a bench at the front of the store (because my knees and hips ached), waiting for the LCM to show up. When Carol did appear, she was talking to John, whom I didn’t recognize at first because he had lost so much weight! It happened that the conversation they were having was about the fact that I had recently been expressing the notion that I should do something about losing weight so I could regain mobility --- and some of my old form (and effectiveness) on the tennis court. As it turned out, John had been using a program called NutriMost, with a local chiropractor as his “coach,” and had not only shed many, many pounds but had also kept the weight off! What made the program particularly appealing to me was that you could cook your own food while implementing the diet. John passed the contact information along to us and, in January 2018, I gave a call, set up an appointment, and, by the first week in February 2018, started the NutriMost program.
This is not an advertisement for NutriMost (not to be confused with Nutrisystem, which you see television ads for all the time). This is an essay about perspective. One’s mind is a powerful presence and denial, indeed, is not a river in Egypt. Getting back on the tennis court forced me to take a good hard look at what had happened to my body over more than a dozen years of not playing sports --- over a dozen years of cooking (and eating) everything I saw on the Food Network --- over a dozen years of drinking alcohol without a conscience (those “empty calories!”). At barely five foot ten, I was tipping the scales at 245 pounds --- sometimes flirting with 250. Not a good look but, in my mind, I still “felt” like I was 20 years old (and 160 pounds!). Worse was the toll the extra weight had put on my body and my lifestyle. My knees ached (one needed arthroscopic surgery), my hips were screaming any time I had to climb or descend stairs, my blood pressure was high. In all, not at all healthy and not a great way to face the future.
Since February 2018 I have lost between 60 to 70 pounds (depending on the day)and kept the weight off. Wearing compression sleeves on my knees allows me to cover a lot more of the tennis court these days. In fact, when I returned to an indoor tennis clinic in January of 2019, the coach didn’t recognize me! So, when I ran across the April 2017 video of me on a tennis court, it hit me pretty hard --- not just how huge I was but how, in my mind, I managed to deceive myself. I still felt like I was that guy who left New Haven in 1971 --- but I was, indeed, twice that guy. The point here is: perspective. It’s something we can lose --- over time as well as in the short run.
Given our current situation, perspective is crucial. Reminding ourselves that the current situation of sheltering-in-place will not last forever but also keeping perspective that the world will not be the same when we resume our lives is crucial. Our minds are tricky --- and sometimes devious. We might feel, in our minds, as if we are still young and vital (and skinny?) but we need to remember to step back (and look in the mirror?) and get perspective on what the reality is. It’s not easy, for sure, but it is something that we need to do for now.
Stay safe. Stay home. Wash your hands compulsively.