This is the second instalment in Simple Pleasures, an occasional Quillette series about some of the new joys that our writers have discovered as a result of the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Writers interested in contributing may contact Quillette at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The benefits of exercising with friends are compelling. For instance, people who make a habit of social sports like tennis and golf seem to live longer than those who don’t. Such findings have influenced me over the years, reinforcing lots of participation in my local tennis league. Then, COVID-19. Back in March, many of my hitting partners went on hiatus from the sport, honestly admitting their fears of getting sick, or blaming close family—they were the ones who were worried, refusing to let them play. Others rediscovered their inner teenage rebel. I heard about and saw esteemed members of the professional class—doctors and lawyers—ripping red tape, cutting locks, scaling fences, and squeezing through service gates to access public courts closed by the government. I was invited on these excursions but chose to skip the $5,000 fine and possible jail time.
If the virus has had any silver linings, social isolation isn’t one of them. Losing touch with my tennis network, though, reminded me of something: right or wrong, I love to train by myself. Tennis, like other sports, offers several ways to practice and hone skills alone during the pandemic. The greatest is hitting against the Wall. This is how it works: First, pick your Wall. The back of an unoccupied school, the side of your house, or if you want to drive your quarantined neighbors even crazier, the side of theirs. You hit the ball, the Wall rebounds a green blur, and you keep going like that until your legs ache and your arm feels like it’s about to fall off. No virtual trainers or Zoom required, plus it’s free of charge, unlike pricey ball machines. Some of the best things in life aren’t very complicated.
As a competitor, the Wall is a stoic champion, even more secure in its abilities than Roger Federer. In interviews after a rare loss, Federer focuses occasionally on his poor performance rather than the opponent who raised his game for the upset. The Wall never gives excuses for losing—for the Wall is invincible. It never compliments your play either, but it is the perfect complement to your play. In that sense, you and the Wall share a bond of mutual understanding.
Players of the biological variety sometimes fail to return my shot, prematurely ending what could’ve been a beautiful rally. They further offend by taking too long to stroll over to pick up the ball. And this is on top of having germs. Despite a crack or two, the Wall is healthy, with the endurance of Rafael Nadal and then some. It never gets tired of me, unlike a number of my human partners who decide I’m not good enough competition, or my banter in between games isn’t sufficiently entertaining. They stop answering my texts. It happens. The Wall is my bedrock—literally, in some cases. In reflecting my shots at the expected angle ad infinitum, it manages better than people to nurture me, to give me exactly what I want, what I need to improve at the sport I love.
The Wall and I go way back. I hit against it for the first time at age nine, on a tennis court at summer day camp. The early evening sky glowed orange behind it, casting its sleek surface in a shadow that was modest and inviting. The drumbeat of the ball against its broad, army green chest, how that sound blended with the birds chirping their farewells to the sun and the merry shouts of my fellow campers, mesmerized me. Soon this orchestra took on a new instrument: the engine of a van, revving to life. Our camp van. The counselors were leaving the courts with the rest of the kids. I realized this on some level, but not consciously.
When the Wall at last defeated me, I dropped my racquet and the clank of metal on concrete echoed. The orchestra had quit, the van was gone, and no one was in sight. A final streak of pink dawdled on the horizon. I had been accidentally forgotten, abandoned. I can’t recall how I got home that day. But why do I remember feeling satisfied, not scared?
It’s probably not an accident in these frightening times that I have routinely visited the Wall, even as winter has come on. Matthew Futterman, a sportswriter at the New York Times and an avid marathoner, composes articles in his head as he trains for races. After arriving home, he continues running past his wife and children to his notepad to jot down his insights. Here’s what I think about when hitting against the Wall: not a damn thing. It’s not a mindfulness technique; something about the rhythmic thumping just cancels out my inner dialogue. I search for productive thoughts, but like the Wall itself, the zombie inside me always wins.
In my trance, I forget about coronavirus damaging the vital organs of people my age and causing strokes. I don’t ruminate about the thousands dying each week, don’t think of my parents living in Tennessee, which set a record in January for monthly COVID deaths. There is just the ball, the Wall, and the empty park. Silence reigns, inside and out. Maybe this mental fog is essential to my creative process, allowing my writing ideas to baste in my subconscious. It might be some therapeutic flow state. Or it’s totally useless. When I come home from the Wall, I don’t look for my notepad. I douse myself with hand sanitizer and sit on the couch to watch Ice Age with my five-year-old.
Last spring, when the courts were closed, hitting against the Wall was easier than climbing 12 foot fences to defy the authorities. And these days, although playing inside is preferable during cold weather, it seems easier to wrap myself in thermals to visit my most reliable training partner than to navigate the local restrictions on indoor tennis bubbles. Beyond mere convenience, I savor the tranquility of the Wall compared to playing matches, when I must summon the willpower to sustain my performance and fighting spirit for multiple hours—and, too often, swallow losses I take too personally. The Wall doesn’t judge my reasons for hanging out with it instead of competing or working or being with family, doesn’t care if I’m dodging the headaches of my ambitions or relationships.
Overall, though, my affair with the Wall has been functional. I’m just maintaining my game while the world stands still. I’ve always felt more alone than others, but not lonelier. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that every individual is their own star, “and the soul that can render an honest and a perfect man, commands all light, all influence, all fate.” Research suggests those who don’t mind solitude are more adept at coping with stress. At least in some species, loner behavior might provide a fitness benefit to the larger group. In our hyper-connected times, personal resilience is a muscle worth exercising.
As an only child (surprise!), I had no siblings with whom to wander the forest behind my Nashville home. So I explored with my friends and, as early teens, we stumbled on a cluster of six decrepit houses, abandoned long ago. Cars were still parked out front, flat-tired and windshields shattered. What unreported apocalypse could explain this? It was spooky and terrifying, and we loved hanging out in that bizarre wormhole of time, following the gravel driveways into the grass to guess where the roads had once been, sifting through old newspapers turned sepia and the moldy clothes left by the residents, listening for their ghosts, invisible as deadly microbes.
One day a buddy of mine collapsed the front of a house by stomping across its porch. Leaping to the ground, he barely avoided being crushed. From then on, I didn’t bring the other kids anymore; I visited the lost village alone. Treading lightly, waiting for the ghosts. That’s what I’ve been doing this year. I miss my tennis friends, but I’ll see them soon enough, on the other side of this pandemic. Just me and the Wall. It stands tall when I need it most.
Matt Fuchs lives in Maryland and writes about health and culture. You can follow him on Twitter @fuchswriter.