Yep, I'm one of those people who joined the great pandemic pickleball boom and can't stop talking about it.
My new hobby was born out of boredom. In the spring of 2020, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, my husband and I grabbed some sidewalk chalk and drew up court lines on the street in front of our house. We set up a couple of folding chairs and strung straps between them to serve as our net.
The older kid was my doubles partner. The younger was our ball boy, cruising on his scooter with a sand pail rigged up to his handlebars, happy to rescue our errant balls before they rolled into the storm drain.
As we scrambled and volleyed, I remember reclaiming something that felt lost to me in those early, uncertain months of the coronavirus: joy.
Do you remember playing baseball on the street growing up, pausing the game every time a kid yelled, "Car!" That's exactly what I was doing, only this time as a fortysomething with a mortgage and a fanny pack.
Fuyei Xaykaothao and his family fashioned their own COVID-era pickleball court on their suburban cul de sac, much like we did.
But unlike me, Xaykaothao is actually good at pickleball. He's a former college tennis player, coach and evangelist who as a kid dreamed of going pro. His heart broke a little when his young children showed no interest in tennis.
But pickleball was a different story, they discovered. "Dad, the paddle is much smaller. This ball's so much easier. This court is just our size!" his kids observed.
To be sure, the sport's smooth learning curve has helped fuel its growth among the estimated 4 million players in the United States today, according to USA Pickleball Association. Even Xaykaothao, who is 5 feet 7, felt he couldn't dominate tennis as the play got more competitive. But the rules of pickleball and the size of the court equalize the game, he says. You don't have to be tall, overly athletic or youthful to outshine your opponent.
Xaykaothao, 39, learned that when he first picked up the sport at the Apple Valley Community Center.
"Those old ladies and those old guys schooled me all day," he recalled.
But he got better, to the point where strangers on the court started calling him the "pickleball ninja." He's since launched a new business, PikNinja Sports, selling pickleball paddles and apparel aimed to appeal to a younger set. (The average pickleball player in America is 38, according to the sport's governing body.)
Xaykaothao, a former associate director of St. Paul Urban Tennis, has also organized free pickleball camps and clinics for youth.
"Our new mission is to penetrate the younger generation of players," he said. The sport is growing among other populations, too. "We have people in wheelchairs playing pickleball, and people who are obese playing pickleball. They're losing weight and changing their lives," he said.
Unlike all of you quilters and sourdough bakers, I can't say that the pandemic has made me a better person. I didn't emerge from lockdown speaking three new languages or strumming a ukulele. It's left me wondering why it's been hard for adults like me to learn new tricks.
As a parent, I want to expose my boys to all sorts of interests in hopes that something might light a spark in them. Their dad and I have the privilege of introducing them to soccer, track, cooking classes, mountain biking and drawing lessons so they might one day discover what's their thing. But these days, what's my thing?
Tom Vanderbilt, author of "Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning," had the same thought after shuttling his daughter to chess tournaments. He noticed that kids did the activity, and adults like him were "staring into their smartphones."
In the book, he wondered if we, "in our constant chaperoning of these lessons, were imparting a subtle lesson: that learning was for the young."
In doing so, we've forgotten the pleasures of learning something new. Vanderbilt calls it the "spirit of the novice: the naïve optimism, the hypervigilant alertness that comes with novelty and insecurity, the willingness to look foolish, and the permission to ask obvious questions — the unencumbered beginner's mind."
Last summer while vacationing Up North, my husband and I hunted down some pickleball courts at the local YMCA. Even though we're not skilled players, I may have talked a bit of trash. I found myself channeling my mom's scary-aggressive competitive drive. Over family games of ping-pong in my childhood home, she was known to slam the ball at my brother and me while yelling, "Sha!" which means in Mandarin, literally, "kill."
On that pickleball court at the Y, I realized that trying out a new pastime with your spouse can trigger positive associations of why you are together. It felt good to share in the sense of growth beside him. It also felt good to smoke him with a sneaky drop shot.
Earlier this month, we signed up for our first official pickleball lessons.
It may have taken a pandemic to get us here, but I hope we've found a new passion that we can rally to keep going.