28 September, 2008

Why We Divorce

Salvo Mag started up a conversation between me and my son. The magazine is excellent for that. If any of you need such fodder, I HIGHLY recommend it. I even agree with it quite often.

Anyway, Salvo blamed the rising and already astronomical divorce rate on something. I'll let you read it for yourself to find out what. I'm going to give you the rant I went on over it. The conversation was pretty awkward, because I'm one of those statistics, but I never let a little awkwardness stop me. I argued that everyone's wrong about the reasons behind the crazy divorce rates.

The Left Wing often says the divorce rates went up as soon as women were no longer forced by economic necessity to survive in empty, unfulfilling and even abusive marriages. They have a fascinating data point, and one for which I have respect. The divorce rate in any society increases and decreases in lockstep with the degree to which women are treated like chattel. As women become freer, the divorce rate increases. With this data, they point out the essential inequality of the deal women get in marriage. Women, they assert, immediately realize how much better off they are alone when the option becomes viable for them.

The Right Wing usually says all us divorcees just lacked commitment. The romantic excitement went away, and things got hard, and we all caved and ran away looking for greener pastures. They point to the hippy generation's free love mindset and the Boomer's self-obsession and find all the explanation they could possibly want. The "Greatest Generation" died and left America in the hands of a bunch of selfish cowards. When the marital going got tough, we walked away.


It seems to me both arguments are paper thin on the surface. The lefties cannot possibly imagine women are better off alone. Raising kids is the most fulfilling experience life offers us in our 30's and 40's, but doing it as a single parent is devastating. There's still good and joy in it, but the workload kills you a little bit every day. And financially, the single life is stupid. To be single financially is to have no backup plan, and to pay double for most of the resources in your life. (Housing, food, utilities, etc. could all be split with a spouse.) The idea that women are freer just because there's not anyone committed to facing life with them is silly.

The righties could possibly be more insulting, but I don't know how. Everyone who says divorcees lack commitment has simply tattooed on their forehead that they've never been divorced. Again, I don't know any Christian who got bored and decided to spice things up by starting over fresh with a new face. Pretty much when your "answer" on any subject is that everyone's lazy, you're missing something key. I just wish evangelical Christians wouldn't miss this one from the rooftops with their bibles held high over their heads, because millions of broken souls have no way to take their self-righteous accusations helpfully. They just turn away, every bit as lost and broken as they were before Jesus' self-appointed representative stepped in to "help."

Still, we all need an explanation for the hockey stick that describes divorce rates from 1960 until the present.

The explanation is simple. None of us knows how to stay married any more.

It's a skills thing. Our parents used to be involved in helping us judge the quality of our prospective spouses, and after we'd chosen someone to wear our ring, they were "present" enough in our lives to help us navigate a course through those critical first rollercoaster humps.

Who's involved now?

Our parents used to live a couple blocks away from their Mom and Dad. Now we live a couple states away. The extended family used to be the only family there was. Now, it's almost weird to stay in touch with Mom and Dad, much less to lean on them for help and advice. Moms and Dads used to watch "that son-in-law of theirs" and if things got iffy, they got mad. Not any more. These days we keep everything to ourselves, and our parents never hear about our problems, even if they can see them.

And we are hopelessly awkward at fighting. Spouses used to know how to have a good fight and a good forgive. These days the fights are too intense and the forgiveness is too shallow. Consequently, we don't know how to complain to each other. If you cannot complain without starting a too-strong, too-permanent fight, then you won't complain. And if you don't complain, things that could be changed fester. We panic at every conflict.

And that's caused because we don't know about the rhythms of relationship.

We're told that the emotion in a marriage follows a steep downward curve and bottoms out by about year 10 of marriage. If you ask many kids today to draw the trajectory of romantic love in marriage, you'll get something that looks like the current housing market - it starts high and spends the next 50 years in the toilet.

But that picture is not true. Instead, romantic love starts high, dips low, bounces back a little less high, dips a little less low, and through this process eventually settles somewhere in the middle of the scale. No one taught us that. No one taught us it was so simple, so when the first huge dip came we poured heart and soul into getting the fight resolved and the love restored. And when we "won" and everything was back where it should be, we relaxed - only to find ourselves speeding into another dip. We wore ourselves out trying to fight every dip and depression, when all we had to do was trust each other and exercise courtesy, honesty, and forgiveness.

Our generation KNOWS that you need a personal trainer to lose weight or learn tennis. Anything that requires actual skill requires meaningful training. No one tries to become a good tennis player without finding a good coach to give them the basics.

So what do we think? Marriage is easy?!?!

Marriage requires no skill?

Anyone can have a successful marriage if they are willing to be enslaved and if they have enough commitment?

When my wife and I were struggling through those first years of marriage, we had no training and no support. I don't think we were unique in that. We had another couple going through the same stuff we were, but we couldn't really talk to them. Church leadership didn't care to be involved, and our families were so distant as to be no influence at all.

We were guessing!

The real question is how we guessed right for 16 years given all the ballast we were carrying. But we were Americans, and we were smart, and we were successful at so many things. And it looked like things were working for so long, and we made it through so many high waters together. We sweated out days and months and years of low times, and we made it. Up until the last year of our marriage, we were proud of how we'd faced everything together.

But every struggle took its toll.

Go ahead and lecture me about not being committed. What? Do you think I haven't played that mp3 in my head? You can be as committed to tennis as you want. If you lack training, you'll injure yourself while learning nothing so much as to hate the game.

All our successes taught us to hate the marriage.

It takes a village to make a marriage. Look back on history, and you're fooling yourself if you think you see greater commitment in 1950. You're fooling yourself if you think you see women who wanted to be free, but couldn't find a way out. Look back on a world that lacked the isolating entertainment of the television, though, and I think you're onto something. Those kids HAD to play with each other, and they learned profitable conflict. There was nothing else. Look back on a world that expected parents to be involved in their adult children's lives. You can see the last vestiges of that world played out in the sitcoms that made the mother-in-law a villain. Mother-in-law jokes aren't funny any more, because there's no more friction there. The mother-in-law is half a state away, and the young couple has her visitation rights carefully controlled.

Nobody meddles any more, and it's costing us dearly.

We need help.

24 September, 2008


A friend of mine is a committed agnostic. He's not the kind that wonders if there's a God when the power goes out for a couple hours, then forgets again when the wide-screen comes back on, either. He's the kind who's argued against Richard Dawkins after reading 3 of his books, against Plato after reading the Republican, and against preachers after hearing them ply their trade.

He commented after reading the book of Matthew that it was like no other philosophy book he'd ever read. He found it amazing in its directness. He put it like this, "No matter how well it might be concealed, every philosopher's book whispers, 'Don't you think I'm smart?' That's nowhere to be found in Matthew. Neither Jesus nor Matthew cares whether you think they're smart. It's just as direct as it can be."

You have to respect that kind of observation and that kind of observer.

He was listening to Christian radio again the other day and noted it depresses and encourages him equally. One of the depressing things, he said, was the Infantilism.

He said the people on that radio wanted Jesus to answer all their listeners' questions. Jesus could tell them what to think and what to believe. The preachers wanted Jesus to clear all the obstacles in their hearers' lives. They wanted Jesus to pave their paths with roses and wipe their butts for them. "If," he said, "you can imagine wanting it, Jesus WANTS to do it for you."

I don't know about you, but I will absolutely vouch for his observation.

I've never thought of calling it infantilism, but the name is dead-on.

I've written on this subject enough times that anything I said now would be repeating myself so I won't bore you with a diatribe against Infantilism. I just wanted to share the term with you and the prayer that we would be delivered into a rich, fully mature experience of God.

16 September, 2008

The Year of Rallying Dangerously

In August of 2007 I made a promise to myself that I was going for one year to pour everything my body had to give into winning a tennis tournament. I started my quest at the Reynoldsburg Open. In August 2008 I played the Reynoldsburg Open for the second time. In 2007 I won through easily to the Quarterfinals, then lost in a tough match to the #1 seed. In my second attempt I won the hardest match I'd ever played to get to the Quarterfinals, then lost in a tough match to the #4 seed. They were my best two showings of the year, and the second was no better than the first.

This is the story of my continued failure to master tennis.

I've had an expensive affair with this elegant, introverted sport, and never more so than this year. I know everyone doesn't like to read and think about tennis as much as I do, not even most players, but if you're interested read on and I'll tell the story of this year and what it's meant to my life. If you don't I promise I'll understand.

I fell in love with tennis at age 14 or so.

Back at 14 my whole life was at, "Love All." That's the score at the beginning of every tennis match, and my life was still a blank sheet awaiting the unfolding of whatever story it would tell. I spent hours back then hitting against various wooden walls all over my little home town of Grass Valley, CA. I did the same thing with soccer, but it's much easier to practice tennis alone than soccer. With soccer, you can kick penalty kicks all day, and do some light dribbling, but without at least one other person it's pretty hopeless. With tennis, a simple wall will let you practice everything but volleying and return of serve.

I even bought my own racket. The $20 things my parents bought me just weren't cutting it any more. The T.A. Davis Imperial I bought was $80 of pure, voluptuous beauty. (http://www.woodtennisrackets.com/makers/tad/tadrac1.htm - it's in the third row, on the far right.) It was my own money, and when I wore out the first racket, I turned around and bought another just like it. I never regretted spending that money, and I never regretted wearing those rackets down to nubs.

I found that I actually loved more about tennis than just playing. I learned how much I loved being alone with my wall and my ball. I could settle into a groove, pushing myself left and right, wearing my body down, and wondering where the hours could have gone. I was a pretty massively depressed kid, and solitaire tennis played profitably into my survival.

I guess I was emo before emo was cool. :-)

In high school I began to make a little bit of a name for myself. No one on the team hit with as consistent form as I did. Against the wall, I had even worked out a dependable form on my one-handed backhand. No one else used the one-hander back then, so it became a kind of signature of mine. I went on to win a number of high school matches.

All I remember are two losses.

The first one was a really close ladder match on my team. John had not watched as many pros as me or modelled his game after them, but he was resourceful and he was getting the better of me. At one point the coach walked by and found out I was losing. He just said, "I guess John wants it more than you," and walked off.

I was devastated.

That was a deep, deep blow. I wanted that win much worse than John did. It meant a lot more to me to be #1 on that team than it did to him, but John had figured something out that I didn't figure out for years. Looking back, I know I could not have beaten him that day, but I carried my coach's accusation for decades. It might have motivated another player, but it hyper-motivated me. It placed a burden on me that I could not bear, and my reaction to it started me down the road to choking in a way I could not cure.

My second memorable loss was in a match against the local public high school's scrub team. Our little Christian school didn't have a lot of players to choose from, so their scrub team ended up beating us. I don't remember whether if I had won my match, we would have won the meet.

Anyway, it was a single-set match, first to 8 wins. I was ahead 7-1 and felt badly for the poor little kid on the other side. I backed off the littlest bit to let him get a game or two and lost 7-8. It's the kind of thing one doesn't forget, but my coach's look told me I'd really, really never forget it. His eyes reminded me I lacked heart, and couldn't be trusted to deliver under pressure.

Halfway through my little opponent's comeback, my niceness turned into panic and finally into a full-blown choke. I started losing because I was nice, and then choked because I feared I hadn't "wanted it bad enough." I learned that day never to lose out of niceness again, but my habit of choking was permanently fixed by that day.

I'm a very emotional man, and tennis is a fickle sport to emotional players. I needed help dealing with my emotions in more areas of my life than tennis, but tennis was a perfect mirror for everything else that was happening in those years. I was a kid with some potential but who never figured out how to harness it. Instead of the real strength that I did have, I tried to harness some "true grit" that just wasn't me. I started trying to do everything by some unnatural force of will, and it just didn't work for me. And that never works for anyone on a tennis court.

Pretty much everything about life sucked. It just showed most obviously in my tennis.

I laid down my rackets when I graduated high school. Nothing good was happening for me out there, so I let it die. Any potential I might have had was long since gone, and there was no point in playing the game any more.

It was about 10 years later when I picked them up again. I found that tennis was fun if I played doubles with a partner who could keep my emotions under a wise rein. Singles was still too much and too hard for me, but doubles was fun and we won the city championship at our level - and the city was Atlanta. The level was pretty low, but it was nice to have some success.

Then I injured my knee, and laid the old rackets back down again until my divorce.

It had been 11 years since I'd last touched the old Wilson Pro Staff 7.5 in my closet, but with everything else falling apart I needed something unimportant to call my own. My knee was OK if I wore the brace, so I had the racket restrung and joined a 3.5 doubles team.

My two years were just what the doctor ordered. They were good men and I began to feel like I could play the game again. They whetted my appetite, and I began wanting to play more and more.

During my two years there, my main tennis weakness was on full display. No matter what kind of match I was in, I could find a way to choke. I could find a way to be intimidated, or to play below a poor opponent, or just to try too hard. Somehow, I figured my problems out by the time we reached the playoffs, and that never hurt. I think both seasons I was something like 5-3, but I don't think I lost a playoff match.

My little bit of success gave me courage. The choking problem was still there, but I began to hope that I could master it. I was, after all, 40-something now - not 16. The lure of singles tennis began to grab me. I had failed at singles all those years ago (2 1/2 decades? Really?) and I wanted to try my hand at it again. I'd heard there were singles tournaments around Columbus, and I wondered what would happen if I played them.

It seemed like I'd kind of learned how to handle choking during our playoff matches. Maybe playing in tournaments would tap into whatever helped me with that same kind of stress.

So, I started training for singles. And the choking only got worse. Somehow this sport that was a game for many seemed to be a life and death struggle for me. The fear of missing a simple shot grabbed me around the throat point after point, match after match, and year after year. I'd loved tennis for 30 years when I finally played that first official tournament in August of 2007. I beat a guy who hadn't played in years pretty handily, and then played the #1seed. I gave him a run for it. I surprised him, and hung with him for quite a while before he imposed himself on me.

He beat me in straight sets, and there was an obvious skill gap between him and me. If I was going to win a tournament, I really needed more and better skills.

So, I called in a pro.

I went to Joan Ramey's tennis camp.


I'd recommend her gifts and experience to anyone. She retooled my game from top to bottom in 3 days. She saw more hitches and more glitches in my game than I'd ever guessed anyone could find, but she was equally observant of what I was doing right. I left her camp with the strokes to compete with the big boys. It was expensive, but it was the cheapest money I'd ever spent. I could have spent years trying to put together all the things I learned from her in one weekend, and having those years given to me at 43 was quite a wonderful gift.

And with that training in hand, I came back to the local tournament circuit.

And it knocked me on my butt.

I'd love to tell the story of how I rose to the top of Columbus tennis, but I never even made a splash. I'm afraid I have no desire to the tell the story of loss after loss after loss. I know that will disappoint you, but try to understand.

It probably took 8 months after my time with Joan, practicing 3-5 times a week, for the things she taught me to settle down into the depths of my unconscious the way the 30 years of bad habits had done. The strokes I wanted at the beginning of my tournament journey were finally beginning to come naturally.

And even after those 8 months I was still losing to 1st string high school players. Now, that's not exactly something to be ashamed of. A 1st string high school player usually has one or two really good strokes, a lot of stamina, and a deep, burning desire to win, but I was playing to win.

An old man like me usually has cunning, experience, and a valuable calmness in any situation. Oddly, I have none of the three.

I'm not a cunning player. I come straight at you with my best game. If you can beat it, I'll lose.

And my experience was useless. When you throw out all your old strokes, it sets you back a bit. Suddenly, you don't know what to do in a given situation, because you've always done something else before. You find yourself having to think when you should be simply performing, and that's the death of any value experience might have brought.

And more than anything else, I was not calm. Even having strokes that should make me a decent tournament player could not help me breathe when the pressure hit.

I think I played fifteen to twenty matches total. I met up with about five 2nd string high school players during my tournament play. I beat them all. I brought my best game straight at them, and they could not beat it. I probably met up with about ten college level players. They all beat me easily. I brought my best game at them, and they knew exactly what to do to it.

And I met up with three 1st string high school players.

These were the losses that hurt. I lost all three of these matches, and I lost them because I choked. It was truly heartbreaking. And just to cheer me up, a couple of the happy winners gave me tips about what do to when I'm under pressure. Thanks guys. Every tip was one I've heard about 100 times, and whispered to myself during the trial by fire. Every tip failed me.

My old high school coach was a really great guy, and a good man. I praise him for everything he did, and I don't want it to sound like I blame him for what I did to myself across all those years. He did what every teacher does. He experimented. He cared and tried to figure out a way to help me reach my maximum potential. And he did what I've done so many times in my life, and guessed wrong. It's not his fault.

For 25 years I'd carried his words around in my head, and with my game sharpened beyond anything I'd ever achieved before, I was still pulling those words out and killing my potential with them in really unhappy ways.

I have to admit, I was getting close to putting the old rackets down again. I'm a card carrying masochist, but the fun of paying good money to get my butt stomped in the first round of every tournament was beginning to wear on me.

In July, I found Brent Abel.

I may or may not ever play in the style Brent recommends. I've tried it out, and had both great success and abysmal failure. Some of the fault has been mine, and some of the credit belongs to my opponents. We'll see what I do next year. But whether or not I start playing his game, I purchased everything he had on mental skills, and it was a bargain.

Brent's primary aim is to teach each player mastery of themselves, and I needed that more than anything. My strokes were never my problem. It was always me. He freed me of my choke. And he did something even better than that for me. He taught me things about myself I didn't even know. He gave me permission to play tennis like an introvert, and in so doing I learned what I look like when I'm really competing well. I don't look like my high school tennis coach thought I should look. I don't look like tennis announcers think I should look.

When I'm playing my best, I look like I'm really unhappy and almost bored.

Since I started looking at myself through Brent's magnifying glass, I've seen something change in my game. I've become competitive. I beat my first 1st string high school player, beat a 1st year college player, and lost well to a pair of college+ players. It's been a new world for me, and a happy one.

My first win in the Reynoldsburg Open of 2007 had been against a 3rd string high school tennis player. My win in 2008 was against 1st string high school player or maybe even better. And my Quarterfinal loss there in 2008 had twice the quality of my loss in 2007. I was still losing, but my tennis was actually better. Finally. And more than that, I enjoyed myself in a way I did not enjoy my loss in 2007. Tennis is a lot more fun when you can breathe.

My results are no better, and I doubt they ever will be, but my joy with this game is much richer now.

Last night I lost a match 6-7, 4-6 to an old, cunning, inexperienced competitor. He beat me in exactly the same way I lost that ladder match back in my high school days. By rights, I should have won. My strokes were better and my mental game was sharp, but my opponent found the same old weakness. He discovered that I eat up any shot that comes hard and flat at me - like a wall might return. All those years ago I taught myself to hit balls that come off a wooden wall - hard and flat. Anyone who hits anything to me that a wall would not hit always has a great chance of humiliating me.

I lost that match, but one thing was different. I enjoyed myself. And I was sure the guy cheated me out of four critical points! If he had seen those 4 critical points the way I saw, I might have won by as small a margin as that by which I lost. But even with that weighing on my mind, I was enjoying myself. I could see how a worthy opponent was beating me, and I honestly enjoyed trying to stop him.

3 months ago the scoreline would have been 4-6, 1-6 because he figured me out at 3-3. We both knew the moment he changed his game against me, and we both knew the battle was on. It was a real hoot as I tried to force him into positions that kept him from hurting me, and he kept finding ways to hit that one ball I couldn't figure out. He pushed through, but I only choked away three or four points the whole night. It was fun.

And that makes me want to hold on to these old rackets for another year.

Tomorrow I'll work on that shot my opponent kept hurting me with. It'll be just like old times; me, a tennis ball, a machine (that can toss me exactly the shot I need to practice) and pushing myself until I wonder where the hour's gone.

And after my next match, I'll work on whatever hurt me worst that night.

And I'll enjoy myself.

In all this, I've learned one thing above everything else. I've learned the golden value of pushing myself to master something. I accept the reality now that I'm never going to master tennis. After all these beatings, it's still hard to accept. I really thought one day I'd be able to win a tournament, but I can now see that if I do it will take a lot more work than just a single year, a little bit of luck, and it'll have to be a small, small tournament. The guys who play the big tournaments are phenomenally good. The distance between their skills and mine is greater than the distance between Federer's skill and theirs. Really. They are that good. On my best day my best backhand can't compete with what they do while joking around and practicing.

And it is good, it is very good, for me to see what real mastery looks like. I'm embarassed to say I can see how little progress I've really made toward it, too. But I'm proud to see how much more progress I've made than if I'd stayed where I was and kept flattering myself. Pushing against the standard of play at these tournaments finally forced me to come to grips with things that had bothered me for decades, and that can only be good.

I finally learned to enjoy the game again.

Some day I'll probably rewrite this story, because it deserves to be more readable, but today I'm going to publish it as is. It's my story and it's kind of a rough ride. It makes sense that it'd be a rough write.

I'm really glad the Lord made me with a love of tennis, and I'm really glad I came back.

15 September, 2008

Power's Back On

After just 18 hours.

In retrospect, I guess we might have resorted to cannibalism a bit early.


Even the food in the fridge all still seems fine. It was quite a blow, though. I cannot imagine being in it down in Houston.

I was out riding my bike on a tree-covered trail when it hit. I really ought to pay more attention to the weather reports. In fact, I had gotten back on the bike to head home after hitting some tennis balls with a random stranger. The balls were blowing as much as 15 feet away from their initial target when we finally decided to call it a day.

The trail ride was actually a little nervous. A tree fell behind me, and another falling limb caught me right in the arm. In the end, I just went home and watched it all from my porch. The neighborhood had some dramatic tree falls, but nothing personally. I went and checked on all my neighbors and contacts, and everyone was good to go.

I really do have about 3 posts in the oven. Don't give up on me yet. :-)

01 September, 2008

My First ...

Opportunity to preach, that is.

Yes, your little codepoke got to stand in a pulpit for the first time this morning. That's not the whole reason I've been so slow to post, but it did have an effect. :-)

It was an exciting morning for me, and for those of you who are interested it's online already thanks to the ultra-efficient sound guy at our church.

Fruit in the Wilderness