What a Racket

Ugo Humbert, I feel your pain.

If you’re not an avid follower of tennis news … well, neither am I, to be honest. But the news out of Wimbledon a couple of weeks ago is the sort of thing that any of us could sympathize with.

You see, Ugo’s match got delayed 90 minutes by rain. And when everyone got the word to start up again, he got excited to get back on the court. Maybe just a little too excited.

“Despite coming on court carrying a massive red bag,” Reuters reported, “the 24-year-old sheepishly admitted: ‘I don’t have any rackets – sorry for that.’”

That’s right. A professional tennis player showed up without his racket.

Really, who hasn’t been there? I mean, I we’ve all walked out of the house without something, haven’t we? Car keys, wallet, glasses, phone, the major implement of our profession … it’s all good, right?

OK, it’s easy to tease. But we have all had the nightmare, haven’t we? It’s the athletic version of the “came to school undressed” dream, complete with the inevitable crowd of people laughing nearby. And it’s almost always born of anxiety: the fear of being off guard, unprepared, out of control.

Of course, there’s an irony. What’s most likely to make us unprepared? Anxiety – or rather, the sense of hurry that anxiety can bring.

Don’t get me wrong. There certainly are situations that call for urgency, excitement, even haste. When something’s on fire – metaphorically or literally – it’s a time for action rather than dithering. But it’s easy to get caught up in what needs to be done without spending any thought on how to do it. And that’s how rackets get left behind.

In the ocean, it’s the difference between flailing and swimming.

On the battlefield, it’s the difference between a panicked mob and an army.

In any situation, it’s the difference between impulse and direction. Or the recognition that “Do something!” isn’t the same as “Do anything!”

That’s hard to remember in a crisis. But essential. It requires awareness, thought and preparation. You have to know your goals and what it will take to get there. Sure, you’ll always have to adapt and change for circumstances … but it’s a lot easier to adapt if you have some idea what you’re doing. “Plans are worthless,” Dwight Eisenhower famously said, “but planning is everything.”

We’re having to plan for a lot these days. Alarms scream on the deck from every direction: about the environment, about politics, about viruses, and about 137 other crises besides. (But hey, it’s early yet.) None of these are back-burner questions. All of them are going to require all the ingenuity and energy we can bring.

But energy without focus doesn’t accomplish much.

That’s where we need each other. Not just to support our goals, but to give the “hey, wait a minute” that keeps things on task. It’s the sort of grounding that stage managers give actors, that editors give writers and that friends give friends.

Ugo got that kind of help – belatedly, but it came. Within two minutes, someone arrived with a fresh set of rackets. He was rattled at first, naturally, but went on to win.

It’s a simple lesson: Together, we can keep each other in the game.

Or at least make sure that we’re ready to raise a racket.

Signs of the Times

Do you know the way in San Jose? You’d better.

According to Reuters, the Puerto Rican city of 1.4 million is just now installing its first street signs. It’s a $1 million project meant to head off a recurring $720 million problem: undelivered mail.

“My current home address is 200 meters north of the Pizza Hut then 400 meters west, but in a few months, I will be able to give a proper street name and a number,” Mayor Johnny Araya told the news service.

Trust me, Mr. Mayor. They’ll help a lot. But I suspect you’ll be giving directions a long time yet.

I speak from experience.

I have, it may reliably be said, one of the worst senses of direction in the continental United States. Where some people have an internal compass, I have a metronome. (“It’s this way – no, that way – no, this way …”) The one direction I can reliably find is down.

As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time getting directions from people. Nothing against Google Maps, mind you. It’s been a lifesaver, as well as a source of semi-harmless amusement when it sends me half a county away from my real destination. But hey, what’s a couple dozen miles between friends?

But for a true education, there’s nothing like getting directions the way God intended: half-understood over the phone while scribbling madly to get it all down before your pen runs out of ink. Just what those scribbles add up to, of course, depend on the school of thought your erstwhile guide subscribes to.

Historic – I ran into this method a lot in Kansas, where a small town can have a lot of communal experience. The outsider, lacking this background, is probably doomed. “OK, now keep goin’ until you get to where the church burned down in ’07 – no wait, it was ’06 – then hang a left. You’ll want to go three houses past where Jimmy used to have his bike shop ….”

Artistic – My Aunt Carolyn is the living master of this technique, which involves describing every building, cross-street and minor landmark along the chosen route, regardless of whether they indicate a turning point or not. The good news is that if you get lost, a good set of watercolors will let you paint the description and sell it for enough money to hire a cab.

Orienteering – This one seems to be the dominant method in the Colorado communities I’ve known. “So you’ll want to go three-quarters of a mile past 17th, turn right, then after about 200 yards, you’ll want to turn left again …” Alas, for years, I had a Chevy with no “tenths” position on the odometer, reducing all this careful military science to hasty guesswork. “Oh, crap, is it that … no, wait, it’s here … no wait, it was back there …”

Zen – For some people, all directions seem to be one, because they’re either new, clueless, or traumatized from being off the Google. The one constant beyond a shrug is the ability to point inerrantly to the road you just left, refer vaguely to a turn, and give you the Four Most Dangerous Words: “You can’t miss it.”

I suppose I shouldn’t complain. Just like losing your script forces you to learn lines, a directional fog can force you to learn the route. And you can make some interesting discoveries when you go along the road less traveled. Mine include the limits of my patience, the resilience of my blood pressure, and the depth of my religious convictions. (Praying for guidance takes on a very literal meaning when gas and time are low.)

And oh, yes, one thing more: a sense of humor about my limitations. The author Spider Robinson once said there are two kinds of people in this world: those who step on a rake in the dark and swear, and those who do so and laugh. The second tends to make for nicer people and a more comfortable world.

So good luck, San Jose. Enjoy the new signs.

And if you see a driver making random turns in 4/4 time … come on over and say hi, will you?