On My Mind: Federer, Bukowski, and Me

Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories - and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories--Alice Munro

Go back 14 years. It's a warm Saturday afternoon at the Pinnacle Country Club tennis courts in Rogers, Arkansas. A small crowd of friends and family was gathered in the bleacher seats watching a club tennis match between the home team and a visiting team from Bella Vista. At least that is how I remember it.

The score was 4-4 and my partner and I had break-point on our rivals. My partner hit their serve down the middle of their court, but it was expertly returned as a towering lob (their specialty, they lobbed everything!) I retreated to the baseline as he hit a short ball return. They pounced and hit a perfect drop shot about 20 feet in front of me. Then something miraculous happened. Seeing the shot, I sprinted towards the ball, lounging into a headfirst dive for the last desperate 8 feet with my racket poised in front of me. Landing on my chest (fortunately, it was a clay court) my ball cleared the net but right to my opponent. Seeing me on the ground, he fired the ball back at my prone body. With a movement only Roger Federer could manage, I stuck my racket up from the ground and hit the ball back. The crowd began yelling raucously. My opponent again fired the ball back right at me but now I had been able to assume a kneeling position. From my knees, I expertly knocked the shot back at a sharp angle. Point. Game. I jumped to my feet and ran down the fence line by the bleachers giving high-fives to the excited crowd. It was a work of staggering athletic prowess. At least that is how I remembered it.

The next day, I mentioned to one of the crowd members my moment of glory. "Oh, you mean when you fell down?" he replied. Thunderstruck, I then queried a team member who was at the match. What did he think of my Roger Federer moment? "Oh yeah," he replied "You're talking about when you fell down and was rolling around. That was funny!" Were these people blind to the brilliance on display that Saturday? What was going on?

Turns out our memory comes with issues. In a 2013 research study by St. Jacques and Schacter, they found that participants' memories were both enhanced and distorted by the process of recall itself. According to Dr. Jeremy Dean, autobiographical memory is not just about accurately remembering what happened when it is an active construction of the self. In plain English, we like to remember events and reconstruct them in a version where we look good.

The director Taylor Hackford tell a story about in 1973 he made his first film, a documentary about Charles Bukowski who was known as a no-nonsense working-class poet who, as he liked to say, had the stink of the city in his writing. As luck would have it, on the first day of filming, Bukowski (who lived in relative obscurity in Las Angeles at the time) received a lucrative offer to come to an event in San Francisco and read some of his latest works. Bukowski, along with the small film crew in tow, arrive to find a packed auditorium of 700 people, all eager to hear this emerging new poet. Bukowski whose largest audience to date had been 20 people at a local bookstore, was petrified. Downing several beers, he vomited just off stage before finally taking the podium, again vomiting, all captured on film by Hackford. Later that week, Bukowski wrote about how "smooth and successful" he had been. When asked by Hackford about the discrepancy in what he had eye-witnessed, Bukowski replied; "In my story, I'm always the hero." Bukowski, who had a hard-earned reputation as a tough guy from the street was simply not able to have his memory compatible to this nervous, scarred version of himself that Hackford captured on film.

So, what does this all mean about my memories of tennis glory? All I can say in retrospect is this: I was awesome! At least that's how I remember it.

NAN Our Town on 08/22/2019

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