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  • Writer's pictureKevin O'Keefe

Justice, Mortality and a Slice Backhand

Updated: Jan 25, 2019

We can change the world, rearrange the world...

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Being close to sixty now, I look back on my life and recall two pivotal figures from my adolescence - Father George Kuhn and my Aunt - Ann Eno. Aunt Eno (I couldn’t pronounce Aunt Ann and the habit stuck) had a small brown cottage on a hill in West Townsend, Vermont. Whenever I’d visit her she’d regale me with stories of her adventures. They could be about anything but they shared a light sense of self-deprecation. About the only thing she was serious about was social justice. Ann marched with Witness for Peace activists in El Salvador after four nuns were murdered there in 1980. She chained herself to the White House fence to protest nuclear power. She sang We Shall Overcome outside the School of the Americas, also known as the School of Assassins for its cunning to train latino dictators and thugs. Ann cried, “Hurray for you!” when I told her I was participating in a cultural exchange to Nicaragua in support of the Sandinista Revolution.

On her frig in Vermont was the Margaret Mead quote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Ann taught me that peace begins in one’s own heart. And how simply being a witness could be essential to make lasting change. She showed me that speaking truth to power could be exhilarating and at times, lonely, sad or frustrating. Ann loved the hillsides and hamlets of Vermont. She could toss a perfect spiral in our pick-up football games, smack a whiffle ball or be moved to tears when reading a piece of poetry.

Father George Kuhn was literally, “the fighting young priest who can talk to the young,” that Doonesbury comics quipped about. Father Kuhn was tall with wavy salt and pepper hair and sideburns. He donned brown leather driving gloves while zipping around Larchmont, NY in a white BMW. He was the leader of the St. Augustines’ Teen Club when I came of age. Under his direction we picketed the local Gristede’s super market in support of farm workers in California. One sweltering summer we served soup in a homeless shelter in Washington, DC. This was at the tail end of the Vietnam War. While in DC we protested South Vietnamese political prisoners being held in tiger cages.

Working along him in our teen club was Sister Elizabeth. This was after Vatican II and many of the younger nuns chose to discard their traditional habits in favor of conventional clothing. Sister Elizabeth had close-cropped dark hair and aquiline features. She strummed her acoustic guitar and sang hymns in the alternative folk mass on Sunday mornings. We teens spent an ungodly amount of time speculating whether there was more being exchanged between she and Father Kuhn than wafers. As I think about it now it seems to say more about the over-active and hormone-charged state of teen minds than anything they were giving off. They dedicated their lives to Jesus and I doubt could have cheated on him.

Father Kuhn turned out to be a divisive figure in our church. The generational spilt at St. Augustine’s was profiled in Life magazine and he was eventually reassigned to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He too, chained himself to the White House fence. It was a thing back then. And now, a badge of honor, at least in my book.

As I careen toward sixty I see more of their influence in pursuing my own social justice causes. From them I learned that writing gun reform editorials is more life affirming than crying on the couch after the latest slaughter of innocents. When I participate in #MeToo and March for Our Lives protests it repulses my feeling of hopelessness. Social justice causes like these and climate change, income inequality, the opioid crisis are bigger than my ability to influence them. What I found I can control, to a degree, is a tennis ball.

I played the game recreationally in my teens, and after moving to New York City in my early twenties gave it up, not by choice so much as the fact of real estate in New York. Even back then it was $100 an hour to play indoors or one could wait for hours in Central Park for a court. I put my racquet on the shelf where it gathered dust for twenty-five years.

After moving to Vermont about ten years ago I returned to tennis. While I may not be able to stop the next deranged young man from murdering his high school classmates and teachers I can smack a backhand down the line. My ability to hurry Robert Mueller is nil but I can charge the net and volley past opponents. While my wife and I (like many Vermonters) are ravaged by tick-borne diseases due to climate change, I find solace in being able to yo-yo my opponent with three successive shots to opposite corners.

Sometimes I wonder if any of my tennis playing friends share any of my motivation for playing—to forestall death. I don't recall the scene very clearly but in a Bergman film doesn’t one character play tennis or badminton with death, or it is chess? I may be getting it mixed up with a Woody Allen parody as well, but the point is that many of the people I see on the tennis court are my age. There are a variety of motivations for middle-aged people to play, i.e. mind-body exercise, community or feeling the competitive fire. It’s hard to know if fear of death or a loss of power are what drives my fellow New Englanders as they not known for sharing their reflective intimacies.

I was speaking to my wife about my existential dilemma and all the change that didn’t occur during my lifetime. She listened and then encouraged me. “Rather than focus on all the things you didn’t change and couldn’t accomplish maybe you could make a list of all the things you did accomplish.” Sigh. Isn’t she the best?

Death, old age and suffering may be inevitable but what happens between those white lines is not. There I have the power to make change and practice grace. Tennis has admirable etiquette too. No matter what happens during the match I shake hands at the end and quickly forget my mistakes. There are no referees or judges. Fairness is sacrosanct and instilled in every player, so when in doubt about a close call we give the point to our opponent. If the timing of their serve is interrupted, let them have another. We applaud when they hit a winner. When we mis-hit and win the point anyway we wave the racquet to acknowledge our luck. Don’t bother wearing white, you ole fuddy-duddy. We all get dirty, besides, uniformity is overrated. Express your freak flag with a shoe color you wouldn’t wear in any other circumstance. Ask for help from a reliable teaching professional in improving your game. Share a cold beverage after a hard fought battle in the sun. Turn someone less fortunate than yourself onto the game of a lifetime. Conduct yourself as Roger Federer might, not Mr. T. I may be creaky in body, a little closer to death every day, but I can still occasionally ace someone.

Train for the future, control the present, let go of the past: Play tennis.


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