Robert Hills | Dreamstime
I stumbled into my fifties. Agoraphobia was more than a heavy coat, it was a straitjacket. Had I made peace with it, after suffering for more than a decade? No, I made no peace. Every time I wanted to do something that my anxiety prohibited I bled as if it were my first wound.
I was alone a lot. My wife, Cheryl, told me that agoraphobia fit our lifestyle, so I stayed home and read and wrote. I reduced my time at the bookstore my wife and I own by about 70 percent and became what I had always said I’d be good at: a househusband.
Being athletic has always been a touchy subject for me. When I was very young I was small and wispy and uncoordinated. I did not learn to ride a bike till I was a shameful 11. I could not throw or catch a ball. There was only one way for a boy to be in 1960s America and that was tough and athletic. I wanted to die. This life was too hard and I was not cut out for it.
But wait, the peers I grew up with in Raleigh were also the kindest boys I’ve perhaps ever known. They all were very good athletes, fast, graceful, strong, and tough. All things I was not. But did they exclude me? They did not. I played every game of street football, backyard basketball, corkball, kickball, whiffle ball. They did not judge. I played, and gradually gained some physical dexterity, because they were kind and patient and included me. I pay tribute here to the boys of Kenneth Street.
In high school I began to play tennis seriously. I wasn’t great but I had fun and, every once in a while, I pulled off a whipcord backhand that split that sliver of space between net and opponent’s racket. I lived for these moments. They made up for the whiffs, the double faults, the poor net play. I discovered I loved racquet sports.
In the middle of 2015 sat a hurdle in my life: my 60th birthday. I did not vow to exercise more or to try and find a tennis partner or to pick up jogging again. I assumed I was on the downward slope of life, and who starts something new at 60?
But, friends, I was not busy dying. Something was about to enter my life that would be my best discovery since my wife. That something was pickleball.
Pickleball is like geriatric tennis, played with paddles and a whiffle ball. It is not new; it began, like so many good American revolutions, on the West Coast in the late 1960s. But recently it has exploded, for whatever reason. In Memphis you can find myriad places to play.
I believe I read about it first in a newspaper. Oldsters were playing it. And, by a coincidence that Jung would surely say was not coincidence, the great wheel of existence dropped off an angel in my bookstore, in the form of my friend, Peggy Owen.
Peggy Owen played pickleball. It’s very low-key, she said. It’s for folks even older than you. Her group was now playing at Idlewild Church, twice a week. She invited me. Don’t bring a paddle or ball. Just show up.
For some reason, the first day I decided to drive myself to Idlewild, dressed in old gym clothes, which had served mostly as pajamas, I did it with no anticipatory anxiety. I was in the mood to find a sport after not playing a sport for more than 25 years.
And I not only found the sport, I found a group of people I quickly became fond of. They are grand, magnanimous, welcoming, fair-minded, fun and funny, even joyful. They play for the pleasure of the game. Winning is lagniappe. And I found a new me, one that had not shriveled or crashed the way I had thought.
And so I have become a pickleball player. Not great but with flashes of bright performance like diamonds in a junk heap. Sometimes I go on a good run of play and it’s a heady, intoxicating feeling; it’s similar to the rush of writing for an hour or more and losing track of the real world. I play pickleball twice a week. I miss it when I am not playing. I even dream about playing.
The moral of this story? It’s never too late to have a happy childhood. My friend, Lisa, has given me my new sobriquet, Pickleboy. Pickleboy I am and Pickleboy I shall remain until my body can compete no more. All these beautiful, older people give me hope that I can play for a long time, and that I can, again, with humility bred by my sissy past, call myself an athlete. Some days, friends, I kick agoraphobia’s ratty ass.
Since 2000, Corey and his wife, Cheryl, have been co-owners of Burke’s Book Store, a Cooper-Young landmark that was established in Memphis in 1875.