In the January 18, 2016 issue of The New Yorker, Tad Friend wrote an entertaining article about facing the mid-life crisis through squash (the sport, not the vegetable). My post-mid-life choice for feeding the illusions of youth has been hockey, but I have brushed shoulders with squash from time to time, with mixed results.
My father taught me. I was about 14, Dad was about 45, getting paunchy, in need of exercise as he gradually retired from side-yard games of catch and we kids began edging him out of his lawn-mowing, leaf-raking, snow-shoveling monopoly.
He decided on a return to squash, which he had played a little in college, and he drafted me. We joined the Y and started on the basics: a four-walled room; a thin-shanked wooden racket; a hard rubber ball, which could be shot off any wall but had to reach the front-wall on the fly; out-of-bounds lines on each wall, including the front, with its tin bumper at the bottom, shouting a sarcastic, metallic BLONK at every low-ball.
There was strategy — grab the center of the court (the T) and fire shots side-to-side and short-long, to keep your opponent off-balance. There was etiquette — don’t intentionally block your opponent’s path to the ball, nor maliciously hit him with racket or ball. And there was jurisprudence — he who holds the T has property rights.
Dad played strategically, and I ran, which was appropriate for our differences in mental age and energy-level. But, even a teenage Energizer Bunny gets tired and erratic. I didn’t mean to hit him, but I whacked at a ball from deep in the court and got him square in the back.
He assured me it was more painful than harmful, but worse than either was the hideous purple grapefruit that bloomed. We did continue in the months that followed, Dad with his gradually withering bloom, I with hesitancy.
I played occasionally in college, usually against my roommate, who was an excellent tennis player, but used his wide-sweeping, stiff-wristed tennis stroke, an unintentional, but not exactly fair, land-grab in that little room.
A few years later, studying at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, I started playing again, often against an unfailingly cheerful and very good Singaporean fellow-student.
Above the back wall of each court there was a viewer’s balcony. One day, as we were playing, I noticed a strikingly regal, gray-haired woman watching us. When we finished, she was outside and asked me if I‘d like to play sometime. My yes was polite. I masked my doubt. She had to be at least 65. Was I being fair?
You know the result! She took the T and never relinquished it, yo-yo-ing me from side-to-side, up-and-back. What made it even more impossible, she wore an ankle-length gray skirt and, with her feet planted wide, blocked much of my view with her opaque capital A. I’m reasonably certain I didn’t win a single point.
She was Professor A.K.S Lambton, world-famous Persian scholar, and gracious victor. (She died in 2008 at the age of 96. Her obituary in The Guardian mentions her skills as a horsewoman, but inexplicably neglects her squash mastery.)
Over the next decades, I played only occasionally: a couple times in Kuwait with a Palestinian who, I knew, was courting me for a visa and dumped me when he didn’t get it; at the Air Force Academy, with younger, much fitter fellow-instructors who beat me regularly, but consoled me with, When I’m your age, I just hope I’m …
Just about my last match was in Abu Dhabi, when I was posted at the U.S. Embassy. Senator Arlen Specter was due to visit, and looking for a squash partner (he was well-known as a squash fanatic). The care and feeding of visiting Congresspersons was a top priority, and I was the only one at the Embassy who played.
He was an aggressive but fair, though not very stylish, player. Still, I might at least have had a slim chance but for two mildly distracting factors: (1) Abu Dhabi had provided him with an armed escort, one of whom stood menacingly on the back balcony, his rifle held across his chest, watching us sternly as if warning me to behave; (2) It seemed that something the Senator had eaten was disagreeing with him. True, we were both breathing the same air, but I suspect he was more accustomed to the oxygen deprivation than I was. He was victorious … graciously so.
It is possible that, in my squash career, I never won a match. I’ve repressed that part of it. But I bet that few squash players can say they were trounced by a world-renowned Middle East scholar and a U.S. Senator. Just sayin’.