Wednesday, June 30, 2010

When A Parent Becomes A Spectator

Squash always seems to my continued amazement to imitate life. Anyone who has been a parent, knows that when your children become young adults it's a major adjustment as your role as parent changes. I've been rightly accused by my young adult son and daughter of still treating them like children -- and I can tell you it does really make them mad. I'm often slow to adjust and make changes but once I recognize the need I do make the changes necessary to keep things going. I recently received a wake up call from my daughter that seem to say if I didn't relate to her as an adult, I might as well not talk to her. We recently had an AIM conversation, she can always go offline if I annoy her rather than just hang up the phone, where I asked her how her studies in pre-med were going. She said she was studying for a Micro-Biology exam, I then asked her what that was, and she proceeded to tell me quickly what that was. I'm still trying to understand what it is and how to relate to that. She never played squash but foil fenced and was really very good.
For my son, who plays squash and wants to play professionally, he is at the point where I coach him but mostly he likes the way I train him and feed him. It's on rare occassion that I'm allowed to offer any advice. He is incredibly demanding and edgy on court and has little or no patience if I am on court with him and have been coaching 7 hours and seem tired or sore. I'm not his father on court, I'm on court to help him train.
Recently our good friend and squash guru, Jim Masland (whom I've written about frequently on this Blog) was back in town. My son first joined Jim on court when he was 4 years old in Durham, North Carolina in 1993. Since then they have played numerous times, and even as recently as last December, Jim beat him. The gap has closed significantly since my son was 4 years old, and last time they played the better player lost to a wily fox, an Odyssean journeyman, a Yoda with the lightsaber. Jim has slowed in recent years, has put on some pounds, but his game is still great, he's a joy to watch. He has a magnificent forehand, short, compact, economical and holds the ball forever. His feathery drops to the front are tantalizing and he can punctuate a long rally with a sudden and winning trickle boast. Jim is a fierce competitor and I've often noticed just how fierce he is when he's pressured. He is used to winning, if not in score, then in the quality of the squash.
We invited the club members at LA Fitness in Great Neck to come watch, what was now becoming a grudge match between the two warriors. Trash talking started a week before. My son has been training hard and is in the best shape of his life. His game is the foundation of a professional game, 3 months ago it was but he tin'd the ball and didn't execute well. Thanks go to a brief stint in England playing in Birmingham with Chris Hall and Chris Fuller, under the tuteledge of Steve Townsend.
The crowd was small but some of my favorite members were there to watch. Margaret Higgins who had taken a break from squash was back, the place smelled wonderfully with some "beach" labelled perfume (she always adds class to the squash area there), Shyamala was there as well, beautiful and with that most infectious laugh. John Gross, Pooya, Tom, and a number of other passer-by's had stopped to watch
Jim was in considerably better shape than the last time they played, he was more muscular and balanced. You could see his footwork was sharper, he moved extremely well around the court. My son, was quick, his racquet speed and preperation explosive. A few early points into the game Jim returned shots and before he even looked back to follow his ball, my son had cut the ball off and rifled shots back. There was a nice even tone to the first game, Jim was still trying to find his timing and the way of the court, which is fast off the wall but slow on the floor. My son built an early lead and then Jim tied it and went ahead 9-7. I could see a very cool and calm player with a gameplan, every shot he hit had purpose. Jim was a bit impatient and when he tin'd a loose ball in the front he was a bit frustrated it was the opening he had been looking for. My son then missed a hard tight rail from Jim and Jim had game ball at 10-8. It was then that I realized that I wasn't watching my son, I was watching a player, a really good player in a great match. For years my son played, wasn't fit, was evolving, a work in progress, he'd hit a bad ball and look at me, I'd gesture with calm, focus, watch the ball signals, he's wave me off. He'd argue with the referee and yell at himself -- his squash mind was well beyond his physical abilities. Here, I was referreeing this match and he never even looked in my direction. He was separate, he was a young man on court simply playing a game he loves more than anything in the world. He won that first game 16-14, Jim looked like he had been through a round with a young Mike Tyson.
The second game began with Jim making an adjustment. He'd shorten the rallies and end the point on the fist opportunity he had. He wasn't going to "hang" with my son, so his gameplan was to frustrate my son, hold the ball, go for the nick, redirect the ball. It worked brilliantly, my son started playing Jim's game but was tin'ing. A couple of times I made some signals to settle and watch the ball come off Jim's racquet, but my son wasn't looking at me. By looking at him you wouldn't know whether he was winning or loosing. He just played. And the games were 1-1.
Between games my son came off the court didn't even notice me, I was talking to Shyamal and Margaret but was watching my son out of the corner of my eye: "is his asthma bothering him, does he need a hit from his nebulizer, how are his knees"; the floors at that club aren't sprung and unforgiving. But he took drinks of his vitamin water and stared blankly ahead.
My son played brilliantly in the third game and just dominated a fading Jim. I wanted to tell my son to beware of the aging possum, to finish Jim off and not let him in. In the fourth game, tensions mounted. Neither player gave an inch. My son was calm and composed, Jim was edgy, shaking his head, and when he missed a forehand volley off my son's backhand cross he seemed to drunkenly stumble to the side wall. He was tired. Jim was trying to upset the rhythm of the game he argued a let when no let was called. He opened the door and said "where was the let" I responded by saying "no let was called" a bit puzzled that he was arguing a call that wasn't requested. To Jim's credit he came back, he wasn't ready to concede and fought back, he was he now the underdog, the scrapper, fighting for every point. I've watched Jim play for years and I always marvelled at his balance and fluidity on court. Now it was my son, striking the ball with tremendous pace and precision, taking it right to Jim, he wanted to grind Jim into submission, and if it went to a fifth game, so be it, my son was none the weary for the match. My son had three match balls and when Jim went for a forehand trickle boast and tin'd it my son gently pumped his fist, job done, match over. He shook Jim's hand as an equal -- they walked off the court and sat for a while discussing the match. I watched with some regret but a great deal of respect that what I was once to my son in squash he now to himself. He was and is his own man both on the court and off the court. I briefly talked to him about my observations, but stopped myself, old habits are hard to get rid of, he didn't seem to notice as I cut myself off and said "well done".

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Future Mayor of Great Neck

Samir of Pakistan heritage, just turned 10 years old last week. He missed his squash lessons at La Fitness in Lake Success, because this past week was a milestone for him to reach double digits in years. I had him on court this past Sunday, didn't recognize him because he had his hair cut short, big boy style, a crew cut, having cut off his long hair that often covered his eyes when he was hitting. For weeks he had been asking me when he would move off the large, bouncy, blue ball for beginners to the regulation double yellow dot ball. I kept telling him you have to show me you can hit the beginner ball first. He is smart, very smart, and at 10 years old still has more of the toddler in him than the strapping teenager he'll someday become. He plays soccer and seems to love squash, but it's a challenge to get him to focus and to get fitter. He has asthma, so I have to be careful not to push him too hard, I do emphasize "no bread, and certainly NO RICE, and no soda." He tells me he doesn't eat or drink that stuff. He probably won't be tournament ready in the junior under 11 and our goal is to get him playing in maybe the under 13's.

I look so forward to my sessions with Samir, not so much for the squash, that's always a challenge to coach someone that young, but for his keen presence in and around the court. I watch him leave the court frequently for water, on his way to the fountain, if he sees someone around the courts, he'll stop and say to that person "you play squash?, I'm Samir, what is your name". I watch how people react to him, he does this with such ease, I tell him he is a natural politician. People respond to him with genuine friendliness and ease as well. He has this ability, that rare ability, to make people feel so comfortable. I call him the future mayor of Great Neck.

During his most recent session, he showed me something on the court as he consistantly hit the beginner ball for nice tight rails and wide cross courts. After a while, I stopped play, and looked at him, and said he was hitting the ball very well. I said that I thought he was ready, "are you ready for the real ball?" "Yes", he shouted out, and pumped his fist. I went and took a yellow double dot and warmed it up a bit. We started hitting, and he was hitting the ball as if a magic wand had touched him. The balls were tight, deep and with decent pace. "Wow", I said, "it must be your haircut, you've never ever hit like this!" "Thanks, Mr. Will" (he always calls me Mr. Will). We worked through the session and he kept looking for his dad, he wanted so much to tell him he was off the beginner ball. When his dad showed up toward the end of the lesson he excused himself and went out to tell his dad, I could see by his face and rapidly moving face, he was so excited about this latest milestone. Whether it's double digits in age or double dot in the ball you hit, accomplishment is accomplishment.

As we finished up I noticed my next lesson, Shyamala, a beautiful Malaysian/Hindu woman, stretching. I pointed to her and asked Samir if he'd ever seen anyone so pretty as her. She smiled at us, I commented how beautiful her smile is. He asked me if I liked her, or "liked" her or was she just a friend? I told him I really "liked" her and asked him if he thought she would like me? He said "sure, Mr. Will, take her to a movie and out to dinner, she will really like you." Great advice from the future mayor, I'll let him know how it goes when I next see him on court. As he left the court he went up to Shyamala and asked her if she hit with the "real ball", to which he quickly added, "I hit with the real one too."

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As a follow-up to this posting I wanted to add that Samir's advice was very good indeed. When I saw him next on the court I complimented him for his advice. I told him that Shyamala is now my girlfriend. I added that it had been a while since I took a woman out to movie and a dinner and remarked how expensive it was. In typical Samir fashioned, he paused and said to me, "money doesn't ever equal love..." That is Samir, wise beyond his years.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Like a Man Possessed

Quite a while back I published a post on Arti Locker, my son's and my favorite fan, who passed away last August. Arti used to watch us play squash at our LA Fitness club in Lake Success, Long Island. He always bet on my son and I used to jokingly tell him, "Arti, stick with me, one day I'll win a game..."

His wife, Lola, the sharpest and prettiest senior around, and whom I check in with periodically to see how she's getting along in life after Arti, invited me over to her house because I showed an interest in learning to play the card game, Bridge. Arti, she told me was very good, and I thought it would be fun to have her teach me.

I had no idea about Bridge, but I know that many people play it and as you progress in life it's important to work your mind and memory the way you conitnue to work your body and heart. So I thought why not give it a try we spent weeks trying to coordinate our schedules -- last night I finally arrived at her home and I could tell she was eager to teach, I was hoping that I could keep up with her instruction and explanation to this very complex game.

When I arrived at her house she had lots of photographs of her wonderful familiy, including pictures of Arti. The ones she had of him playing handball years and years ago in Brooklyn (where American squash great Victor Niederhoffer used to play), taken sometime in the 50's showed a stocky and extremely muscular youn man in his late 20's or early 30's striking the ball...the pose reminded me of the Ancient Greek scuplture, The Discus Thrower. Arti, to his last days, was etremely fit.

Bridge is really hard, I can only equate it to squash. By evenings end my mind was exhausted and Lola only covered the first chapter of her introduction to this card game. But this post insn't really about learning Bridge or the comparisons to squash. It's about how I left Lola's house last night and on the drive home heard Arti's voice in my head and saw his face in my memory of him. I thought, how could it all have passed from that photo taken of him on the handball court in Brooklyn to now, simply memories among the people that knew him. I knew him only within a certain context and in the later years of his life, but for whatever reason, his impression on me has been lasting.

This morning my son and I went to the courts, we were both stiff and sore from a lot of weekend squash. We warmed up, we stretched, we did star drills and then played one game. What a game it was. My body was like air, my feet light and swift, my head was completely clear, no frustrations no over thinking my mistakes, not a care in the world, as if this game was outside of time,as if I was born to play it -- and I saw every ball no matter how fast the pace like we were playing in slow motion. My son dominated the points and the pace as usual, in the early going some long rallies but I kept it close. At 4-4 he hit some bullet crosses that I step up and cut off and cross nicked. It wasn't my intention, I wasn't even thinking, except for the thought who is this guy hitting the ball this morning. At 7-4 I nicked a serve into the backhand corner, I could hear my son mumbling that this is just luck 3-4 nicks. He started mounting his come-back, I felt no pressure even though he was running me around, I was retrieving anything and everything. Then, as I was up 9-8, he hit a cross-nick that rolled out -- but lo and behold, I was so quickly on it that as it came out ever so slightly I turned on it and ripped a low hard shot down the rail that he couldn't get a racket on. At game ball, a few shots into the rally, he hit a loose shot that I held and dumped ever so lightly into the forehand front nick. Game over. My son, who has never complimented me in any of my squash, was a bit stunned but recovered and reminded me it took 4 nicks to get it done.

Coming off the court there was Russ Feinberg, one of my son's students waiting to get on the court with a lesson with him. I looked over at him, I had to tell someone, and just pumped my fist and said I took a game! But the person I really wanted to tell wasn't there, the fan who for so many games watched me lose again and again, and who would just smile and say youth takes over, wasn't there -- maybe Arti wasn't on the bench just watching, maybe this day he was right on the court playing through me, forever the young Brooklyn hand baller; afterall, I did play like a man possessed.