A few months ago, when my knee had recovered enough to give me basic mobility, I took a tennis lesson from a pro whose background is sports physiology. He’s a bit of a miracle worker when it comes to injury recovery, and I had faith that he could help me get back to my regular Tuesday night game that I’d enjoyed for almost 30 straight years, right up until the loud pop of a torn meniscus last March.
We did our tennis lesson thing, focused on little micro-adjustments, all of it feeling a bit awkward because the adjustments were new and because I’d been out for months. At the end of the lesson I thanked him and told him, again, that my goal was just to get back to my friendly, weekly game. I said: I mean, it’s not like I was ever going to be Chris Evert anyway, right?
And he said: You know what’s the biggest difference between you and Chris Evert? A million tennis balls.
Well, sure, I conceded; of course she hit, like, a million balls. But she had a native talent, basic athleticism that I’ll never have.
He said, again: The biggest difference between you and Chris Evert is a million tennis balls. She hit a million more balls than you. Sure, those other things are true. But the biggest difference is just practice. Lots and lots of practice.
I was thinking about these words last weekend after taking a (delightful and totally escapist) hand-lettering class.
A little context:
My interest in calligraphy and lettering goes back decades, back to the calligraphy set I asked for (and received) for Christmas in 7th or 8th grade. I still have that set of pens and bottles of colored ink, in the original box. My truly awful attempts at lettering, using guide sheets and tracing paper, are still in that same box.
I had wanted to add calligraphy to my bag of art tricks, wanted to write beautiful letters, worthy of an 11th century illuminated manuscript. But while art and drawing had always come easily to me, lettering was hard. My pen stokes looked forced and tight and downright ugly. The initial result was so disappointing that I put all the supplies right back in the box.
Every few years I would make another half-hearted attempt, one that usually involved buying a new pen (or several), sure that a new tool – the right one this time – would make the difference. I bought books, too, and even read them. But every time I put ink to paper, the results were unrewarding.
I signed up for the modern hand-lettering class, led by the talented and encouraging Meriweather Adams (@collectivelymeriweather), mostly because I needed a one-hour escape from the world but also because hand-lettering is a skill I’ve longed to have, for a long time. Maybe live instruction would make the difference, unlock the secret.
Did I care that modern calligraphy is the stuff of parody, with swoopy letter “grateful” signs available at any dollar store? I did not. I was going to park my old, tired, fat rear end in a chair in a workshop, turn off my phone, ignore reality, and learn how to write a flirty “J” because, dammit, I wanted to.
We gathered at tables, a dozen of us, each with a shiny new pen and clipboard full of worksheets. We heard about entry strokes and exit stokes, down strokes and up strokes, x-axis lines and parabolas. We practiced with tracing paper, experimented with different brush pens.
On the way home I stopped by the Art Center (because, shop local) and loaded up on tracing paper, brush pens, and a new Moleskine notebook. I sat at my kitchen table and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, building muscle memory until my hand was tired and I had to take a break. Then I went back for more, alternating between tracing someone else’s letters and making my own on a blank sheet. And I got better – not good, but better.
Am I ready to hand-letter a thousand wedding invitations? Well, no. But that wasn’t the goal. And the goal (escaping reality for an hour while acquiring a skill) may not have been the real lesson.
Last Sunday night I spent an hour, as I do on Sunday nights, writing my goals for the week. The thing I love about the Ink+Volt planner (NOTE: we’ve gone steady for 2 1/2 years now, so this one might stick) is the prompt each week to look back at monthly and yearly goals. So I was writing my weekly plan, noting my appointments, reflecting on what I want to accomplish this year.
And I wondered to myself, looking at that list: what’s worth a million tennis balls, and what would happen if I actually put in that much effort?
A few other things…
What I’m Reading
My book group read Kevin Wilson’s terrific Nothing to See Here, and we all agreed it was satisfying in every important way: well-written, good story line, not too heavy, enjoyable without being too escapist. Plus, it’s short. That he wrote it in 10 days while living in a trailer is just delicious to me.
The book on the shelf beside my bed is The Dutch House, about which I keep hearing great reports. One day soon I’m actually going to read it. I am.
Important but disheartening (and depressing): How Far Can Abused Women Go to Protect Themselves. If you don’t click and read (which you probably won’t, I know, especially with my description), I’ll give you the takeaway: Brittany Smith shot the man who raped and brutalized her. She was charged with murder, brought a “Stand Your Ground” defense, but an Alabama judge refused to dismiss the charges. She’s looking at life in prison.
Mostly to spend more time writing, but also to spend more time cooking: I’m trying a bi-weekly schedule on dinner prompt (which I’m just not ready to give up on yet) (still). And the meal we had for book group really was worth making again.
Last note is this: I hope you’re registered to vote in your state’s primary and that you plan to vote. My unsolicited advice? Vote with your heart. Quit trying to game and guess. You are not in charge of anything bigger than your own vote. Cast you one and only precious, individual vote for the candidate you most want to see in office.
But no matter what you do, vote. And get your friends and family members and neighbors to vote, too. Because Rachael Bitecofer might be right.
Thank you for the glimpse into your life and mind… I long for the connectedne3ss of family. I love you…
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Work, work, and more work. That’s what made Kobe Bryant so good. That’s what made Michael Jordan so good. Four hours a day, every day, is what makes musical miss so good. People talk about the first 10,000 hours. Try the first 100,000 hours for me. That’s likely an over statement. But…
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But not overstated by much, I’d bet.
Happy Mardi Gras, Ray. Looking forward to seeing how you see it this year.
The original quote came from Ansel Adams, who said it took at least 10,000 pictures to get it right. Of course in those days he shot 4×5 sheet film.
Thank you. As you said, I’m consistent over a decade…
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