Book Review: Strokes of Genius

Wimbledon is my least favorite tournament. I hate the all-white rule. I hate that the grass gets cut up and causes injuries nearly every year. See also Bethany Mattek-Sands. It starts late, and the players don’t play on the middle Sunday. It rains. All. The. Time.

That said, I literally watched Strokes of Genius four times, so I thought it was time to read the book. Author Jon Wertheim is an entertaining commentator, and while he covers all five sets of this final, he fills each with tidbits about tennis, the All England Club, and about the players themselves.

The most interesting parts for me: Hawk-Eye is named for its creator, a 30-something (at the time) Brit named Paul Hawkins. The system employs 10 evenly spaced high definition cameras and projects the probably path of the ball to within 3.6 millimeters.

Federer does not have “tennis parents.” His father Robert worked for Ciba and traveled to South Africa, where he met Roger’s mother, Lynette. There are no great athletes in the family, and Wertheim describes Robert as 5’7″ish with sausage fingers. Lynette comes across as the bigger force when she takes an 8-year-old Roger to the local TC Old Boys club and says, “Here is Roger. I think he can already hit many shots. Maybe you can train him.”

Since they travel so much, appear worldly, and are usually only asked about sports, it’s easy to forget that professional tennis players don’t always have a lot of formal education. Roger left school at 16. Roger had a tendency to break racquets and throw things on court when he lost but says he gained confidence after winning his first grand slam.

Rafa, by contrast, was never allowed to throw racquets and Uncle Toni stressed that the shoes and equipment he was given were expensive and to be treated with care. Roger didn’t initially employ an agent and negotiated a poor initial Nike contract. Mirka took over the reigns of the Fed empire and now manages his interviews and appearances and helped design the RF logo.

Wilson spent more than a year designing Roger’s new racquet. Rafa will almost literally play with any AeroPro Drive you give him. Babolat describes him as the perfect pitchman. Wins a lot of matches. Isn’t very picky. Rafa plays with Babolat because that’s what Carlos Moya used. Moya is also from Mallorca and is currently Rafa’s coach. Rafa plays in very tight shoes because that’s what soccer players do. Not sure what to make of that one.

Strokes of Genius is an interesting and fast tennis read. My copy is going to a sports obsessed fellow traveler. It is available at the library. The movie is very different, so go ahead and watch that too.

To suppress anger

Brad Warner’s Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Dharma Eye is the 18th book I read in 2018, and the fifth whose subject was Buddhism.

It’s been a tough year on a few fronts, but reading and internalizing these studies has helped me navigate a chaotic work environment, helped me stay calm on the tennis court, and has helped me grow as a person. 

To suppress anger, you have to suppress the urge to enjoy the beautiful juiciness of it all.

Brad Warner, Sit Down and Shut Up

One of the things I’ve tough quite a bit about lately was the role of anger. I’ve been imploring a few people I genuinely like to be nice to each other. Yet, they seem to choose anger. I couldn’t put my finger on why until Warner pointed it out:

To suppress anger, you have to suppress the urge to enjoy the beautiful juiciness of it all.

It’s hard for people to admit, but when you start paying attention, you’ll notice that you actually enjoy being angry. There’s a wonderful rush of self-righteousness to it. Because, obviously you can’t be angry about something unless you know you’re right and the other person is wrong. You are angry because you want to be angry. Always, always.

The main thing is to avoid acting on any angry impulses that might pop into your head. No matter how justified you might know yourself to be, an angry action will only invoke another angry response, both in the person you’re dealing with and in yourself. These actions and responses scramble your brain and make it impossible to act in any kind of efficient way to solve the problem at hand.

Watch how your anger begins, and see how it grows. When I did this myself, I discovered that anger always starts out very, very small. It’s always based on the difference between how I think things should be and how they are. Within this gap, the fiction known as “me” appears and reacts. To protect this fiction, I begin to justify my anger, to build a convincing case to prove to  myself that I have every right to be angry. I do this, I found, because the very existence of this fiction of self is based on its supposed ability to feel angry. To let go of anger is to let go of self. And that, my friends, is very, very, very difficult.

You cannot accept any of the justifications for anger that your ego coughs up at you, no matter how reasonable you make them sound. Even the absolute, incontrovertible certainty that your anger is 100 percent utterly and without doubt justified is an excuse to allow yourself to feel angry.

Look hard at what is happening within you. Your habit of reacting with anger has been built up over long years of reinforcement from a society gone terribly wrong.

With practice this stuff gets easier. But you’ll never completely lose your desire to get bad at things.

Drop me out of the equation. When there is no “you” there is nothing for “you” to get angry about and no one outside yourself to get angry at.

So to end my own anger, I have to stop enjoying it. To stop seeing the world as “me” and everyone else.    

To end the anger of my friends, I need to help them understand the same thing – that they are the world. There is nothing external. 

As Warner said, this is extraordinarily difficult.

In the midst of reading this book, I was musing to a friend that I was sometimes exhausted being the “nice” person in the room. Now, I see that this is the only way of being because everything is connected. Every action ripples throughout the universe because we are all connected. This is no me. There is no them. You can send that negative out or you can counter it by being nice. By being of service to others. Always. 

Attention Always Filled

“Old George Orwell got it backward. Big Brother isn’t watching. He’s singing and dancing. He’s pulling rabbits out of a hat. Big Brother’s busy holding your attention every moment you’re awake. He’s making sure you’re always distracted. He’s making sure you’re fully absorbed. He’s making sure your imagination withers. Until it’s as useful as your appendix. He’s making sure your attention is always filled. And this being fed, it’s worse than being watched. With the world always filling you, no one has to worry about what’s in your mind. With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.”  – Chuck Palahniuk

The Circuit

I wanted to read The Circuit, Rowan Ricard Phillip’s book on the 2017 ATP season, since I heard him on the Beyond The Baseline podcast. Phillips came up with the idea for the book while recuperating from tearing his achilles on the basketball court. An accomplished writer and poet, the Manhattan-based Phillips would watch all the majors and travel to some while writing this exquisite book suitable for tennis nerds everywhere.

So what were the stories of 2017? The resurgence of Fed, whose surprise Aussie Open win that year was followed up by another Wimbledon title. 2017 was La Decima for Nadal at Roland Garros, and he also picked up the US Open title in an easy walk past Kevin Anderson. It was also a good season for Sasha Zverev and young American Frances Tiafoe, who took Fed to 5 sets in the first round of the Open. Phillips doesn’t cover Jack Sock, who is ranked as high as 15 during 2017 but would fall off to a subpar singles ranking in 2018. It was a disaster of a season for Murray, who started the season No. 1 but struggled with his hip injury all year. Nole, likewise, ended his season early with an elbow injury.

Phillips has some interesting reporting on Alexandr Dolgopolov, who suffers from Gilbert’s syndrome, which causes sudden exhaustion. He adjusted his style of play to limit his time on court. Phillips also has a soft spot for the diminutive Goffin, a player I barely follow.

Phillips saves some of his best pages for the talented and temperamental Aussie Nick Kyrgios. “Kyrgios is clearly bored. He’s not bored when he plays Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, or Murray. Adrenaline, opportunity, and pride run through the veins then. But aside from that? He loves basketball, he’s passionate about it. He ended up being better at tennis. Let’s leave his parents out of this and say tennis chose him. He hates to train. He hates to travel, the alpha and omega of being an elite tennis player; but let’s just say tennis chose him. He and tennis are at odds. And he lashes out at it. There’s not much in the way of sympathy or empathy that comes his way from people who have paid to see a proper match and, let’s be honest, aren’t inclined to root for him anyway because he’s brown, and recalcitrant is not what people pay to see at a Grand Slam or Masters 1000. Foolish but not stupid, he must sense this, because it looks like he carries this dark cloud often to the court with him.”

Besides the 2017 season, Phillips has a nice chapter on the creation of the clay court. You can find it as a stand along article in Paris Review here. #recommended

Survey Says

I get endless surveys. I get one each time I stop at CVS. I get one each time I go to the doctor’s office. Any doctor. We go to a restaurant near our house several times a week. I get one on every receipt. I’m a heavy user of Adobe products, and I get a 15-minute survey from them virtually every month. Is all this feedback necessary? Am I not voting with my presence, with my dollars?

As a designer, my work is very visible. Large projects are especially so, and I do have an internal team of critics. There are a handful of people that find fault with virtually any effort, and they tell me so. I always read the comments, but I rarely respond.

Their feedback does rattle around in my brain at the next juncture, and it has made me better. Better at parsing those small slights that I clearly miss. “Why did you list this department first in the agenda.?” Only because they came through first in the paperwork. Nothing nefarious, but we’ll switch that up next time. I’ve noticed that entire divisions feel left out because they are physically more remote from the corporate office. As a result, I’ve made them first by design the next time a job comes around. I make notes to physically visit on a regular basis. Do they notice? I’m never sure, but the effort is what matters.

Does it make me feel bad? Full disclosure – it used to, but it doesn’t anymore. I think it speaks to the power of design. These projects project the company culture, and that’s not nothing. I should be careful, and I am. My critics just point to the holes.

The thing about complaints is that most people are more apt to say when they’re unhappy than to recognize a move in their direction.

The small kindness is always worth it. Always. It improves your work and breeds inclusion. Just don’t expect it to be noted on the comment cards.

Gift Horses

I just finished a Content Marketing class at the Pennsylvania College of Art and Design.  This was just one of a series of Continuing Education classes they offer in the evenings and on weekends every semester. It’s a great way to increase arts education, serve the community, build a base of supporters and potential donors, and better use the building. Continuing education students might not turn into full-time students, but they learn their craft and come to love the school. Like I did.

One of the things I love about the school is the instructors. They’re working professionals. Like Ken Mueller, my instructor for Content Marketing. Ken does marketing for Occupational Development Center, a facility that helps gives jobs and purpose to adults with intellectual disabilities.

Ken also teaches the Intro to Social Media class and most of the classes in this certificate series. He also taught the full semester course for PCAD’s full time students. 

During the last class, he mentioned that the full-time students have to take social media, and they often aren’t into it. He joked that an 18-year old Ken might not have been into it either.

I get that, but they’re missing an opportunity.

I have two degrees in English. When I left graduate school, I landed in an insurance brokerage firm with a copy of Adobe PageMaker 6.5. I wasn’t a designer, but designing the internal newsletter was part of my job. 

Being open to that experience allowed me to build a career in design. I’m a very good designer now and a competent photographer. Both skills support my writing. You know – the thing I went to school for? 

Construction Continues

My neighbor Al died in April. I’ve written about his passing here and here for those who want the backstory.

In short, Al was a great neighbor who diligently took care of his home, but he never updated it. As in never. 

One day last week, I caught the painter Lenny leaving the house, which is now a full on construction site with variable hours.  He said, “Did you know this house hasn’t been painted since the ’80s? I mean it has to be that old. It’s oil-based paint. No one uses that inside anymore. I have to cover it just to get started.”

The new owners did much of the initial demolition themselves with the hopes of moving in by early November, when their lease was up. 

But the thing about a reno is, where do you stop? 

They started with the easy decisions. The galley kitchen with the 80s cabinets and appliances has got to go. Out came the wall. 

The ceilings were next. There were stapled ceilings all over the house. In every goddamn room. What is a stapled ceiling? I’m glad you asked. It’s an ugly ceiling. According to my contractor dad, they were popular in the ’70s as a way to cover up plaster cracks and water damage. “Popular in the ’70s” is all you need to know, right?

Moving on.  

Next came all new electricity, which is wise, and by mid-October they were onto the bathroom. It’s small, but when we renovated, we left the footprint and layout. They changed things up by reorienting the tub, which probably pushed things back a bit.

By early November, the central air was in, but the new owner said he was keeping the radiant heat, another wise move because radiators rock. Best. Heat. Evah.

Mid-November brought a lull, but the contractor was back on Thanksgiving morning to finish up a bit. 

Enter painter Lenny. As far as I can tell, he’s been at it at various times and on various days for about three weeks now. I look in the window and see little change. That oil paint must be a bitch.

Carnage on the back porch

Stuff

Last winter, I instituted a room by room cleaning project. I emptied closets and cupboards. Nothing was untouched. Nothing uncleaned. I got rid of boxes of stuff. 

In Brad Warner’s fantastic book, Sit Down and Shut Up, he writes this about things:

Every object you acquire comes with a certain degree of responsibility for that object. Most of us don’t realize this, which is why we treat the stuff we own so incredibly badly.  You need to take care of these things. When you don’t, you cause yourself and others a heap of trouble.

The only way to really be happy is when you desire as little as possible.

I keenly felt the burden of things during my clean out, but since then, I’ve continued to acquire. I was unable to give it up then, but I’m coming around. I just bought a new computer and deliberately let go of some files. I purchased Spotify and stopped buying music. I’m thinking of dissolving my CD collection. 

Technology helps as certain technologies go away like VCRs and DVD players, those relics left behind lose their meaning. Streaming services mean you no longer have to own your movies or your music and thus the burden of caring for it.

It’s sometimes noted with a sneer by older generations that millennials don’t want to own things like cars. I think owning things comes with a certain complexity that this generation has decided to avoid. I think we need to, perhaps, applaud that thinking and re-examine our own.