Tuesday, August 16, 2011

bad sneakers, do it again

Imagine, if you will, my car smoothly eating up the miles in the desert on I-10. I'm on my way home from Los Angeles.

A mere press of the window lift away, it's over 110F (43C) but inside, it's deliciously cool and quiet. As the sun reddens behind me, I settle into the cooled seat which will be my home for the next six and a half hours. Relax, connect up the iPhone, in seconds I'm down in the world of Steely Dan's sophisticated mix of jazz and melancholy.

As the doubtlessly well-informed reader that you are, you already know I'm listening to them from the title of this blog entry. I reflect on what has been a good visit.

Five names that I can hardly stand to hear
Including yours and mine, and one more chimp who isn't here

That's how the song Bad Sneakers begins. For a moment, I think back to New Jersey days. Those Butterfly 808 table tennis shoes pictured above look brand new but are over 12 years old. Having languished in a dark box for all that time, they are essentially new, unused after I ordered them back in the late 1990s.

I figured it's about time these "sneakers" emerged into the light again. Since I've restarted table tennis, I've stuck to my marathon running shoes for cushioning and comfort. I've been re-purposing my Newton Sir Isaac neutral guidance trainer (see picture at the bottom of my prior entry A Half Marathon). You may be surprised to know these Butterflys (538g) are heavier (and offer less protection) than my Newton neutral racers (500g).

(Out of all the sports I dabble in, my bicycle racing shoes are by far the lightest, at around 320g. Yup, one Butterfly shoe is nearly two bicycle shoes.)

But, as the saying goes, it's very much horses for courses. Those Butterfly shoes have a very low heel (to protect the ankle) and (by design) a natural rubber sole that balances the ability to slide and make small adjustments with grip. With respect to cushioning (to protect against fatigue), let's just say they work best with a professional (cushioned) floor that the best clubs have.

As long as we're talking numbers here, have you ever wondered why cars report the outside temperature but never the inside?

As you can see, the automatic climate control is set for 74F (23C) but the actual temperature at head level is 32.3C (90F) with 12% humidity (it's the desert).
(Notice the fan is barely running. In other words, the car thinks it has reached the correct temperature.)

Back to the coolness of Steely Dan (and Do it again):

You go back, Jack
Do it again
Wheels turning round and round
You go back, Jack
Do it again

There are no quick fixes in table tennis (or life for that matter). Old habits are ingrained into muscle memory and die hard. Once we recognize our technical problems, it takes considerable work (i.e. time), dedication (i.e. make time) and a certain kind of optimistic stubbornness (it will come, it will work out, give it time). Those who promise quick and easy fixes are mere charlatans.

When you know she's no high climber
Then you find your only friend

I'm not completely sure what some of the songs mean, but people have said this breakout tune of theirs is about addiction, second chances and the inevitability of fate. I muse, hmm, this is my 2nd time around at table tennis. You could say it's an addiction. But I'm not sure what fate has to do with it...

Perhaps then my occasional weekend trips to Los Angeles are about a leap of faith.
  1. Dedication: I have to drive 13 hours round trip.
    I prefer it to flying because of convenience. Flying basically involves nearly 5 hours each way counting time spent getting to the airport, parking, going through security, waiting around, renting a car etc., only actually saving 3 or 4 hours round trip. So far, unless I have been driving all night, I have been able to arrive alert and relaxed enough to take a lesson after a short break.

  2. Work: to maintain quality, a lesson lasts only 90 minutes.
    Why? Well, multiball is physically demanding. I go through three shirts (sweat saturated), two bottles of water, a Gatorade and a towel in just 90 minutes. Willing the body to continuously move, move, move to get to a position and hold balance, stop momentarily and get the shot off. It's not about mindless or brute force strength. The coaching is intense: every improperly played ball (never mind the missed ones) gets reviewed and highlighted. Nothing is missed. Correct form is everything. Struggling with yourself on a conscious level is also mentally taxing (not to mention, frustrating, at times).

  3. Optimistic stubbornness: that's a few sessions per weekend maybe once every other month or three. (That's pretty far from the ideal of training 3 or 4 mornings a week.) It's a legitimate question to ask whether anything can be learnt and retained in such short bursts. Without constant feedback and application, one tends to revert back to old habits.

At this point, I can report that I am finally starting to see glimpses of the promised land. As I mentioned earlier, give it time, it will come. My body is beginning to react and move differently. Because how you move and maintain balance is everything, it affects all aspects of the game. Tension has been transferred from the shoulders into the forearm. Suddenly I go from looping two or three balls to twenty or thirty in a row. They're not all perfectly minted, mind you. But now and then I feel my center of gravity doing the right thing. And it's definitely not the shoes :)

Fundamental change is possible, and on my long drive through the desert, that thought makes me happy.

For match practice, I also play in LATTA's Saturday afternoon's advanced league. Typically, I take a lesson in the morning at 10:30am. Then break for lunch at noon.

(There is a cheap chinese eatery nearly directly across the road. They also serve protein shakes not on the menu.)

Back to the club at 2pm, it's a round robin group format. You play 5 or 6 matches. Because it's such a large club with several leagues, the level on Saturday afternoon is good, all are hardened and experienced players. Competition is ferocious. No match is easy. As I can easily see myself losing every match, I'm amazed sometimes I even manage to win any. After the round robin phase comes the single elimination phase. It all finishes around 7pm.

For example, last Saturday I played a total of 32 games (including 10 straight with a guy who wanted to learn my style and me, his). By this point, I've put in close to 7 hours. I'm tired and ready to book myself a long massage. Despite some lingering fatigue, the underlying fitness is there. I know I can recover in time for tomorrow morning's 90 minute three shirter.

On Sunday morning, I'm a bit stiff but after warming up, it's time to see if recalcitrant muscle memory can be bent a bit more until it yields. After the lesson, it's noon time and I've made special arrangements to play my 1600 nemesis, Zhu Min Ming (see earlier LATTA entry). I've never even managed to take a single game off her but she is kind enough to offer her number and say practice with me. Her consistency and control game is way ahead of mine and her long pips backhand isn't easy to handle. However, this time there is a titanic struggle with long rallies. No matter how many loops I bang in, she always has an answer. But somehow this time is different. I finally manage to prevail and come out 3-1 ahead.

I'm carrying my fortune cookie from last Sunday.

It's an epochal moment. I know I have passed some test.

(I have a sneaking suspicion she makes sure she is perennially underrated. She is almost at 1900 now and needs to start discounting again.)

At lunch, she calls me and says someone is waiting to play you.

It's like something out of an Indiana Jones movie or kungfu novel. It seems Zhu Min Ming has passed me onto challenge number 2. His name is Duc Loi, and he is over 60. Plays every day. Can chop away from the table. Can stay at the table and work you over with placement. His speciality is attacking with the long pips. He is rated over 2200. I am warned even 2400 players lose to him first time around. Of course, I lose 0-3. Like Zhu Min Ming before, he offers me his card and says call me to play when you are in town. I know he is a benchmark. 過三關 and all that. It's definitely like something out of a movie.


One of the advantages of Los Angeles is that it is a big city with large ethnic populations. Population density makes for convenience. You can find everything within a 3 mile radius. The Monterey Park/San Gabriel "ghetto" is one such enclave. And local competition ensure low prices and high quality. It almost fully mitigates against the traffic, lack of green, open space and poor air quality that characterizes the area.

There are 3 table tennis clubs run by high level professionals within a mile or so of each other. I've never been to the others. The LATTA is the largest.

I have also established a routine here. I know where to go for what. I typically book the same hotel or another one. I trade off convenience against an oasis of green and quiet perched up on a hill. Either way, it's just five or ten minutes more.

Saturday morning, I go for dim sum before my 10:30am lesson.

Always at the same place (海寶潮粵海鮮酒家), they're open early. No queuing up. And more importantly, they always have my lotus seed paste buns (蓮蓉包) correctly configured with egg yolk. (I'm very particular about that.) And it's pretty good but not expensive. (Okay, whaddya expect, it's no match for 稻香.) Still, no reason to go anywhere else.

I always go to the same massage place (快樂按摩) straight from the club. I choose them because they have a shower so I can clean up first. $25/hr plus tip is the going rate around here.

I know where to go for cheap food. I have a favorite noodle place, a decent thai place. Even the $12.95 sushi place is unpretentious and the taste is fine. Back in town, they'd make a big deal about it. Here, it's just another place. (Okay, it's not Sushi Say (寿司清) Tsukiji main branch (築地本店) in Tokyo, but this is frickin' Southern California, whaddya expect?)

And for the observant, yes, that sign shows $9.99 for one hour foot massage. Amazing isn't it?

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