Obsession (Not the Fragrance)

The word “obsession” reminds me of those Calvin Klein TV commercials from the 80’s. You know, the ones featuring a beautiful couple gazing passionately at one another, in the shadows, and ending with the woman whispering something mock-profound, like: “Where do I end and you begin? Obsession.” (If she really doesn’t know, then she’s got some serious identity issues.)

Obsession is a word I know well, and not because of Calvin Klein. I also am familiar with “obsessed” and “obsessive” and “obsessive compulsive.” I know these words well because, well, I become easily obsessed. It’s (only a little) comforting to know it’s a trait I share with other Aspies.

The object of my obsession changes. Not day to day, but more like year to year. I’m not someone who, for example, devotes his life to building model trains. I don’t think I could devote my life to anything. With me, I get deep into a subject, and it’s like I sink my teeth into it and can’t let go. Or a better metaphor would be that my teeth get stuck and I’m forced to chew and chew and chew until I’ve finally devoured the subject, to the point that no one wants to hear anymore about it. Ever. Again.

Over the past year, my obsession has been tennis. (Were you surprised, given my last post?) That includes not just tennis players, but tennis tournaments,  techniques (I’ve spent MONTHS practicing my “kick” serve), strategy, the history of tennis, ranking the greatest players, and perhaps most of all, tennis racquets (or as some prefer, especially those who have a pathological hatred of the French, rackets).

For the uninitiated — and that includes close to seven billion people, I’m guessing — there are hundreds of models of tennis racquets. Thousands, if you include historical racquets (I can tell you about the development from wood to metal to graphite to present day graphite blends, if you’re interested … which you’re probably not).

Different racquets have different characteristics: flex/stiffness, size of the face, how “headlight” or “headheavy,” the size of the beam, the length of the racquet, their swingweight. And then there are the strings, which are as important as the racquet. There’s multifilament and the newer polyester and nylon strings. But the gold standard is still natural gut. (It’s not cat gut, by the way, but cow gut. I’m not sure which is more disturbing, but it smells when it’s wet — ponder that.) Besides the type of string, the tension is important too; pros, and even casual players now, use everything from super loose (45 pounds per square inch), to being so tense the strings frequently break (75 pounds per square inch). If that’s not complicated enough, most players now use a hybrid mix of two types of strings … which often have different tensions!

The only silver lining is the practical application of this knowledge, that is, it helps me choose a racquet, or should in theory anyway. But what it’s done mostly is make me question whether my racquet or strings (or grip, or vibration dampener, or anti-sweat gel or whatever tennis-related thing I’m obsessing over) could be better. I’ve tried out about 40 different racquets over the past several years and only recently did I find what I think might (I cautiously say “might”) be The One. So, to a large extent, it’s knowledge just for knowledge’s sake. It also leads to new obsessions, like the one that is supplanting tennis (but that’s for another post).

Obsession is also distracting. Not distracting to me, but distracting to what I’m supposed to be doing, whether at home or work (or, in the past, at school). I’ve read Asperger’s books pointing out that being obsessive can be a positive, because detail-oriented people who can focus on a single topic for long stretches without interruption are often valued. In other words, obsession is actually less, not more, of a distraction. That view was recently validated when German software company SAP announced it’s actively seeking to hire Aspies. And I find some truth in it: every group, family or enterprise needs different personality types to function effectively. But for me, it’s a perpetual struggle to hold back the obsession demon, to concentrate on all the many work or home tasks I’m supposed to, rather than the particular subject I want to. (Case in point — I’m at work, and yet writing this blog; in the interest of full disclosure, though, I don’t have much work to do today.)

I’m not sure if, on balance, my obsessive nature is a positive or negative, although I’m leaning toward the latter. But I also know that fighting it only makes it worse, and makes me unhappy. So I try to manage my obsession the best I can, to let it run free until it (hopefully) tires itself out. There’s also the pharmacological route. But that too is for another post.

Hmm. Maybe my next obsession should be time management techniques.

(Any thoughts on techniques to manage obsessions are welcome.)

Roger Federer as the anti-Aspie


The man they call GOAT

The man they call GOAT

I recently* fulfilled a longtime dream: watching, in person, a match featuring Roger Federer. Federer is the tennis equivalent of Michael Jordan, Michael Schumacher, Pele or Babe Ruth, in their respective sports. In tennis, Federer is almost universally considered the Greatest of All Time; he is, as they say, the GOAT. In a sport where competition for the #1 rank is fierce, he held the top spot week after week, for four and a half years. (And he only dropped to #2 because he encountered a younger, left-handed Spaniard who, it turns out, is the greatest clay court player of all time.) Federer holds almost every record, and if that isn’t enough, he speaks four languages including perfect English even though it’s not his first language. But what I find most unique about him is something else: the way he moves on the tennis court.

Some commentators have said he performs tennis ballet; I agree. When he moves, his hands, feet, head, torso, legs and neck move in harmony, seemingly with only the tiniest of effort or exertion. He is always balanced, composed, ready. His

Roger Federer

Roger Federer (Photo credit: Daryl Sim)

movement is the epitome of efficiency: nothing is extraneous. He doesn’t use the standard wind-up to the serve that most players do. He doesn’t bounce the ball 20 times like Novak Djokovic. He doesn’t tug at his shirt or shorts like Raphael Nadal; he doesn’t have special rituals or nervous tics. He doesn’t even sweat, or so it seems. There’s a rhythm, a geometry, to his movement which commentators have actually diagrammed on dry eraser boards. Every match, he plays with grace.

Then there’s the way I play tennis: off-balance and inconsistent. My success does not come from harmony, rhythm or balance. I muddle through and scrap for every point. I expend effort, I sweat. A lot. My feet do not always work in tandem. When I bounce the ball before serving, it doesn’t always go where I want it to.

Although it’s not an official diagnostic characteristic, I’ve read that many Aspies have poor motor skills and an unusual gait. Some studies point to poor muscle tone. My deficit in this regard wasn’t so severe that I couldn’t use pen or pencil (although my handwriting was, and is, as bad as any doctor’s). But it was certainly a deficit, and I was aware of it

While this may seem a non-sequitur (and maybe it is — I have Asperger’s, after all), I see parallels between poor motor skills and poor social skills. Both require a type of instinctual dexterity. Most people take for granted the ability to carry on a conversation. It comes naturally to them. They don’t need to think, ok, first I should ask the other person how he’s doing, then transition to an interest of theirs, talk about myself, ask about gossip, all the while glancing, but not staring, at the person’s face.

But that’s how it often is for me and I suspect other Aspies. I have to diagram the conversation in my head, at least much of the time. I have to think of contingencies — what should I say if there’s silence? What is appropriate and not appropriate to talk about? And during the conversation, I wonder if I’m talking too much. Is their body language — a strange term for us literal-minded Aspies — communicating that they’re interested in what I have to say, or that I’m putting them to sleep? Maybe they’re signaling they don’t want an exegesis about string tension used on tennis racquets and how it must be modulated for the stiffness of the racquet and the material of the string. Maybe?

Turning back to sports, for an Aspie they are a mixed bag. Sports often mean jocks, who, before, during and after the game engage in banter with their teammates. Actually, “banter” is probably too soft a word — it’s often more like verbally and physically abusing each other. (Especially anyone who would use the term “banter.”) So Aspies are disadvantaged in this forum by physical AND social awkwardness.

On the other hand, if you can get past the motor deficiencies, sports provide structure and rules. You know exactly what is allowed and not allowed, what causes a “foot fault,” when a ball is “out,” how to keep score, who serves and who receives. For that reason, I was often happiest as a kid playing tennis and other sports. There’s a calming, zen-like quality to physical activities that are governed by rigid rules and require single-minded dedication, and for which one is rewarded based on objective criteria.   

But if I’m honest, I harbor the hope that one day, I’ll hit a shot, just once, as beautifully as Roger.

There's never been a tennis player as graceful as Federer

There’s never been a tennis player as graceful as Federer

* I’m using the term “recently” somewhat loosely; much time elapsed between writing and publishing this post (I wasn’t at the French Open, unfortunately).

** Both photos were taken with a Nikon D3000, Nikor 55-200 f/4-5.6g VR zoom lens.