The Seniors Tennis Circuit; Worshipping Mammon
Tennis Balls Along with "The Girls in their Summer Dresses," "The Eighty-Yard Run" is my favorite Irwin Shaw short story. Christian Darling's memory of his broken-field run as he walks along the grass where he played 15 years earlier is a magical moment in fiction. Although Darling's run was only in practice, all the memories of youth flood back. Darling is by now a dinosaur, unable to adapt to a changing world, pretty much broke and dreaming of his youth when he felt invulnerable.
As an old athlete, Shaw knew all about it. How one remembers most vividly the days of glory, of victories. The whole world seems to be in one's lap, "but nothing is except a fleeting moment of health."
I have been thinking a lot of Christian Darling recently as I tour resort towns in Switzerland and Germany competing in veterans tennis tournaments. As some of you may have guessed, tennis is a very easy game. All one needs to do is hit a small ball over the net and inside the baseline only one more time than one's opponent. Needless to say, this simple game has driven more people nuts than LSD, crack and booze combined.
Back in the good old days, when I was on the men's circuit, traveling from town to town was fun. One checked into the hotel, went to the club for practice and then hunted for women. Forty years later, things are almost the same, but not quite. One checks into the hotel, has a practice hit before the match and then lies down hoping to be able to go three sets in the heat. The few women who watch are one's age, which means they're over the hill and basically untouchable.
Why does one compete in veterans tennis? The Christian Darling syndrome is more addictive than cocaine. You think you don't care anymore, but one victory has you dreaming about "what if." This week, in Flims, a beautiful Alpine village in the Grisons of Switzerland, I pulled one out after a tiebreaker in the third set. The next day, still hung over, I faced the third seed, an Italian chap known for giving bad calls even when he plays against his children. We were on court for three hours. I lucked out in the end and went on to win the tournament. It was Christian Darling time, but it's all an illusion. Next week in Germany I'll probably go down in the first round and wake up, just as Darling did.
Still, the hotels one stays in are wonderful, with old-fashioned grand salons, impeccable service and piano concertos every afternoon. I have not heard the f-word once, have not listened to any ghastly rap sounds, have not watched tv in more than a month. This is the good news.
The bad is the anti-Americanism, which is as prevalent as the Alps. Even among tennis players-traditionally apolitical and mostly illiterate-Uncle Sam is hardly their favorite relative. Last week's Davis Cup tie in Brookline, MA, is a perfect example of American arrogance. The rules are very simple. Davis Cup rules forbid substitutions except in the case of injury or illness. With the U.S. down 2-1, and desperately in need of a victory, they tried to salvage the situation by inserting Pete Sampras in place of Todd Martin. Martin, one of the few gentlemen on the present circuit, did feel under the weather because of the heat, but so did everyone else. The ploy failed, Martin won the first two sets but eventually Australia prevailed. The Aussies, however, were furious. They had suspected that Uncle Sam tried to pull a fast one.
"Just like Kosovo," said a tennis veteran to me. "They think the rules are for others. Never for them."
Well, I'm an old Uncle Sam lover, but he has a point. Killing 17 Iraqis last week as if they were flies is now routine for the Clinton-Albright gang. Albright is meeting with the Chinese foreign minister next week to kiss ass because China is strong. Clinton uses the Kennedy tragedy to push through legislation. He would, wouldn't he? Once upon a time sovereign states could only be attacked when they attacked another sovereign state. The Clinton-Albright mafia has changed all that. And even in peaceful little villages like Flims, people are outraged at the bully Uncle Sam has become.
I Worship Mammon There is no greater nonsense than the view, propounded on the opposite page by a columnist who ludicrously calls himself "Hamlet," that the rich are not to be envied. Hamlet claims to be a Jew, but I think he is a closet Christian. For it was Jesus who is ultimately behind this line of argument. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God," he said in the Gospels.
By the law of unintended consequences, this statement actually proved to be a great boon to the rich, as it freed them of any obligation to be benevolent toward the poor. "Why should we here on Earth do anything for the wretched rabble, who will one day be happier than we in heaven?" the rich quite correctly reason. (The Victorian novelist Samuel Butler, on the other hand, could not help thinking that if it is hard for the rich to enter heaven, it must be a lot harder for the poor.)
Jesus' libel against wealth was echoed by St. Paul, who wrote in an epistle that Radix malorum est cupiditas. This is usually misquoted as "Money is the root of all evil," but it really translates as "Greed is the root of evils." And the poor are greedier than the rich. Hence they are more evil. As Oscar Wilde noted, "Wealthy people are, as a class, better than impoverished people, more moral, more intellectual, more well-behaved. There is only one class in the community that thinks more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. The poor can think of nothing else. That is the misery of being poor."
Money won't buy happiness, the bores are fond of claiming-including that prince of bores, Dr. Freud. Happiness, Freud submitted, consists in the deferred fulfillment of an infantile wish, and most babies do not crave money. Yet Freud also maintained that gold is symbolically connected to feces (which is presumably why we call people "filthy rich"). And anyone who has spent time with babies knows that they take a very lively interest in their feces.
Pompous old Carl Sandburg gassed in one of his poems that "Money buys everything except love, personality, freedom, immortality, silence, peace." To which the far better poet Ogden Nash rejoined:
Certainly there are lots of things in life that S money won't buy, but it's very funny- Have you ever tried to buy them without money?
In truth, as the great majority of non-rich Americans have discovered, you can buy these things without money-on credit. "All decent people live beyond their incomes nowadays, and those who aren't respectable live beyond other people's. A few gifted individuals manage to do both." (That was one of Saki's cracks.) It helps to hang out with the right people. There is no point, for example, in associating with children; for, as Fran Lebowitz observed, they are seldom in a position to lend one a truly interesting sum of money.
The secret of being a happy debtor, many Americans have also discovered, is to be a big debtor. "Small debts are like small shot," said Samuel Johnson; "they are rattling on every side, and can scarcely be escaped without a wound; great debts are like cannon: of loud noise but little danger." And if you do end up getting dunned, take the advice of Baudelaire: "Whenever you receive a letter from a creditor, write fifty lines upon some extraterrestrial subject and you will be saved."
Another lie about money is that Old Money is somehow better than New Money. Only the nouveaux riches worry about the age of people's money. Everyone else, including Old Money, merely worries about money. (So I have been assured by Miss Manners.) If the age of money were important, then no one would spend ostentatiously, because that would demonstrate that they had not been rich long enough to inherit their valuables.
How do you know when you have enough money? People on Wall Street are always debating what The Number is-the amount of lucre you have to amass before you can quit the money game. I do not like this one-size-fits-all approach. A more personalized indicator of the adequacy of your fortune is how cavalierly you treat your money. Picasso used to have around the house an old, red-leather Hermes trunk in which he kept five or six million francs-so that, as he said, he'd always "have the price of a package of cigarettes." Andy Warhol said that no one who carried his money around in "Gucci this-es or Valentino thats" really had enough of it; the superrich always kept their cash in a long business envelope. I have one slightly rich (and sweetly eccentric) friend who has newly minted hundred dollar bills sewn into booklets. He rips them out like food stamps when settling big restaurant tabs, which never fails to make an impression.
"A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things," proclaims the book of Ecclesiastes. (To which Woody Allen adds: "Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.") How can we not envy those who have more of it than we do? How can we not disdain those who have less?
It greases the palm, feathers a nest, holds heads above water, makes both ends meet. You don't know where it's been, but you put it where your mouth is. And it talks.
No wonder we love it! Unfortunately, as Baron Rothschild once pointed out to me, it is not enough that you love money. Money must love you.
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