Friday, March 11, 2011

Tennis, anyone?

I used to play tennis somewhat regularly in school and in the years after school before I moved to Seattle. The weather is too inclement here to play outdoors much and I am WAAAAY too cheap to belong to an indoor tennis club. To give you an inkling of how long ago that was, my favorite racquet was my Wilson T2000. Yes, I usually had two or three racquets in my bag, but they were all, at most, normal-head-sized racquets, unlike those hypercephalic things people play with now. In contrast, the T2000 is microcephalic.

Contemporary fat-head racquet:

But this is not a post about the varying morphology of tennis racquet head styles over time, although I can't understand how anyone could ever miss the ball with a head that big. This is mostly about choice in style, life, and lifestyle, I guess. You'll hafta decide for yourself what you think I'm trying to say.

Lemme talk about decision-making at a significant point in a game, tennis being the game in this particular scenario/analogy. I'm rushing the net. My opponent just made a poor return which is floating toward me and which I can do anything I want with. I can choose to make the high-percentage put-away shot, which I can make 99 times out of 100 and which will certainly win me the point, game, set, or even match. It's the sure winner. Or I can try for the high-skill shot, the difficult one which I make maybe 30 times out of 100, the shot which challenges me but which doesn't really benefit my score in the game. Quite the opposite, by trying that shot, I have a 70% chance of giving away a sure point.

If the important thing to me is winning this particular game or, more generally, playing the game with an overall philosophy that winning is the most important part of the game to me, then I'll probably choose the 99% sure shot. However, if my philosophy is more inclined toward challenging myself rather than being concerned with a particular outcome of a particular game, then I'm thinking about trying the low-percentage shot. Yes, it will most-likely lose me that point at that particular time in that particular game; but it will increase my overall skill because simply trying the shot increases my experience with the shot, even if I miss making a point with it that particular time.

That was almost always my choice in tennis and in most aspects of life. At the time I didn't consider it a philosophy; but in retrospect, it was. I would rather improve myself, define that how you will, than simply win whatever game I happened to be playing, whether it's a tennis game I elected to play, or a school class I was required to take. Unlike the typical American high school experience, my high school was intensely competitive and grades were hotly contested. I remember guys arguing with the teacher over a point or two on a daily quiz which would ultimately count for about one-millionth of one percent on the final grade; but that might mean the difference between first card and second card in that subject for the grading period and they wanted that first card because second place is just first loser. I found that approach alien and very tiring.

I would much rather pursue knowledge for its own sake than work to a test. By digging deeper into wave-particle duality to satisfy my own curiosity, maybe I neglected focusing on the specific (limited!) factoids that would be on the physics test and I would fail to regurgitate those factoids to the satisfaction of the tester. No first card for me. Oh darn! Half a century later, I still remember what I learned then and have increased my body of knowledge on that subject. The guy who got first card for that grading period? He's a lawyer who wouldn't know a wavicle if it bit him in the ass or gave him skin cancer. I'm happy with my way. Maybe he's happy with his. After all, he understood the rules that were imposed on him, he chose to play by those rules, and he played to win. And he did. He clearly met the expectations of our society's definition of success.

I chose to play the game differently, just like I played tennis. By societal definitions, I never lived up to their expectations or my potential, and never won the game or even played to win. I was a quitter. However, living by my own standards, I've had a lovely, overall successful (in my own terms) life.

It seems to me that unschoolers tend to adopt a weltanschauung more like mine than like the default societal expectation of accepting the "normal" game rules and playing by them, specifically, playing to win, under the parameters defined by the game itself. Clearly, you don't have to be an unschooler to reject society's game but unschooling in general and unschoolers in particular seem to inevitably gravitate toward the position of inventing their own game. Me, I think life is more fun if you're playing a game of your own choosing rather than one which has been imposed on you, but that's just me.

And I'd still rather go for the challenging shot than the easy winner.


  1. this post needs a "like" button. : )

  2. Hey Frank. :) I'm watching Jesse 18, explore more math these days. I haven't delved into his reasons very much, since they seem to be his private reasons, but the math interest seems to have been sparked by his interest in music and music theory and a book he found titled "Quadrivium", and a band he's interested in called "Meshuggah". From Wikipedia: ~In a typical polyrhythm by Meshuggah, the guitars might play in odd meters such as 5/16 or 17/16, while drums play in normal 4/4.[21] An example of Haake's dual rhythms is a 4/4 and 23/16 rhythm. He keeps the hi-hat and ride cymbal in simple 4/4 time but uses the snare and double bass drums for 23/16 rhythm. On "Rational Gaze" (from Nothing), Haake plays simple 4/4 time, hitting the snare on each third beat, for 16 bars. At the same time, the guitars and bass are playing the same quarter notes, albeit in a different time signature, and eventually both sides meet up again at the 64th beat. Hagström notes about the polyrhythms, "We’ve never really been into the odd time signatures we get accused of using. Everything we do is based around a 4/4 core. It’s just that we arrange parts differently around that center to make it seem like something else is going on." ~ So, anyway, something has sparked an interest in learning more math, and Jesse is working in a notebook, seeking information online, reading math books like "Euclid's Window". It fascinates me, this work he's doing. There are no grades, no competition with others, no prizes and rewards or recognition. He's playing a different game.

    Thanks for this post, which helps me understand, reminds me of the joy he's finding in choosing to pursue knowledge for its own sake, for his own reasons.

  3. yup.

    and i bowl like you play tennis. how boring is it to throw a ball down a lane - ya gotta give it some gutter spin baby. Actually, I also play tennis and golf the same way - intentional slices all around.

    Actually, actually... I don't do any of these things anymore.