Last November, Josh Blaine was traveling down the coast of California, with the vague intention of reaching Mexico, when he stopped in Santa Barbara. Outside the city’s art museum, he caught sight of a man sitting next to a bike and a tennis racquet. Josh approached him and asked about the racquet.
“There’s no bullshit about this guy. He’s honest, upfront, real,” Josh said in a telephone interview late last month.
Josh soon found out that “this guy” was forty-four-year-old Pennsylvanian Ken Loch, who told him about his life philosophy, Tennissance. Tennissance sees tennis as an exercise that can aid in understanding the connections among the mind, body, spirit, and soul. At the end of the conversation, Loch gave Josh a slip of paper with the Tennissance website written on it.
“He used a lot of weird lingo; you could tell he wasn’t making this shit up. I was on my way to the library to check my e-mail, so I looked briefly at the site. It looked kind of weird,” remembers Josh.
Josh is a Princeton student in the midst of a year off from school. A native of Winchester, Massachusetts, he had flirted with the idea of taking time off since he entered Princeton in the fall of 2002. The Russian literature classes he took during his sophomore year with Caryl Emerson convinced him that he needed to fulfill his dream of spending time away from Princeton to ask questions and figure life out.
“Tolstoy wrote his works as an intrusive genre (meaning he wanted the reader to not just ‘read’ his books, but to ‘live’ them),” Josh wrote in a follow-up e-mail after our interview. “As I got further and further into Tolstoy’s works and life, my desire to take time off grew stronger…Tolstoy was constantly challenging us (or me at least), to find a greater truth—a truth that dug deeper than anything you could learn in a classroom or a book (even one of his). His challenge to himself was centered around a search for perfection, and that translated to his writings.”
Josh finished his sophomore year and announced his decision to leave school for a year. He was determined not to have a plan: “Obviously, as someone in search of complete freedom, I couldn’t commit myself to any sort of program or even plan of my own that would hinder my ability to live according to the present,” he explains.
He spent the summer working at a summer camp in California just south of Yosemite. After camp ended, he lived with his brother in San Francisco, near where their sister was working. He stayed there until November, when he hit the road for Mexico, hoping to end up in Xilitla, a town where he had volunteered the summer after his freshman year. He was hitchhiking, sleeping in bushes and under park benches (which he admits “sounds very Kerouac,” but adds with a smiley face emoticon, “I still like to think that it was very ‘Blaine’”) when he stopped in Santa Barbara and met Loch.
Over the next few days in Santa Barbara, Josh ran into Loch several times, and Loch gave Josh a further explanation of Tennissance. Loch’s words struck the same chord in Josh as had the novels of Tolstoy.
“When I bumped into Ken, I was still thinking of continuing down the coast, but he really challenged me like nobody had since Tolstoy,” he wrote in his e-mail. “I think the first time I bumped into him I actually went and wrote my friend Page an e-mail saying that I just met a guy who reminded me an awful lot of Tolstoy (or what I imagined Tolstoy was like). It was also blatantly obvious that he was a free man, in every sense of the word. He made my ‘freedom’ laughable. I suppose that’s why he got to me, because he proved simply by example that I was so far from achieving the kind of freedom that I was looking for. I wanted to be as free as he was.”
After a two-week trip to San Francisco, he returned to Santa Barbara and within an hour of being in town, he ran into Loch in a bathroom. Loch told Josh he planned to drive down to Santa Monica, and Josh decided to travel with him. One day at the beginning of their trip, Josh jokingly asked Loch to give him a Tennissance lesson. They stopped in a parking lot, and Loch gave Josh a fifteen-minute lesson.
“I saw something, understood something, right away. The stuff on the website sounded weird on the website, but I started to understand it when I actually did it,” says Josh. “I started to ask myself, ‘What would happen if he actually teaches me this?’” Tennissance, a combination of the words “tennis” and “renaissance,” is an ambidextrous, non-competitive exercise. It attempts to give its students an understanding of all the elements of tennis. A Tennissance student learns to execute each stroke (forehand, backhand, and serve) with both the left and right hand, and with both topspin and backspin. When a student has mastered Tennissance, according to Josh, he should be able to know that he is doing something, but not know quite how he is doing it. Josh compares the ideal state of Tennissance to “The Zone” that many athletes claim to feel when engaging in their sport.
“You transcend beyond what you’re actually doing. You don’t need to understand.”
Like yoga, Tennissance brings a philosophy along with its physical exercise; tennis is only a physical illustration of the Tennissance philosophy. Josh sees Tennisance as rooted in the aesthetic tradition of Plato, Kant, and Hegel. The goal of Tennissance is complete integration of all elements of human existence. The tennis element tries to connect the mind and body; the rest of the philosophy integrates the spirit and soul. To describe what he means by soul, Josh asks, “What on earth is going on here? I’ll just ask people, based on what they do, or what they’re studying, I’ll say, ‘Why are you doing what you’re doing?’ People really don’t know. I noticed it. I was looking around, and since I’ve been back on the East Coast, I’ve been asking. Most people don’t know. The soul part is to get to the point where everybody knows why they’re doing what they’re doing.”
He emphasizes the fact that Tennissance is not a religion. “It requires no faith,” according to Josh. “It simply is.” In fact, he claims that Tennissance “makes religion not necessary” because it is more “complete” than either religion or philosophy. “If you ask someone religious, ‘What is God?,” they probably get to the point where they wouldn’t be able to answer the question I ask them. The point of Tennissance is that that would never happen. It’s complete,” asserts Josh.
Tennissance’s completeness is the philosophy’s main draw for Josh. Josh was raised a Reform Jew in a temple that his parents co-founded over twenty years ago. He recognizes “a lot of truth and goodness” in Judaism, yet adds, “I think I always felt that there was something about it that just didn’t make sense. There were still some unknowns, or mysteries that I couldn’t justify existing.”
Josh understands that his explanation of Tennissance’s philosophy is somewhat confusing: “Part of the point is that I can’t explain it to you until I take you out on the court,” he says. After his first Tennissance lesson, Josh bought a cheap tennis racquet. For the rest of their month-long trip through California, Josh and Loch drilled for an hour or hour and a half each day (weather permitting), slept on the beach, and went to the local library. As it turned out, they could only play tennis for about half of the days they were traveling because of heavy rainstorms.
“Even when we weren’t on the court, it didn’t matter. My understanding was still increasing,” says Josh.
Throughout the trip, Loch and Josh remained the only two followers of Tennissance; Loch the teacher (or, as he identifies himself on the Tennissance website, “the genius of Tennissance”) and Josh his first student. Josh believes that it’s only a matter of time before Tennissance takes on a large following.
“This isn’t small; this is kind of a big deal,” he says.
Josh and Loch have been making contacts in the tennis industry: with the United States Tennis Association, the United States Professional Tennis Association, the Professional Tennis Registry, as well as publications Tennis Magazine, Tennis Life, and tennis companies Wilson and Prince. They also plan to make an instructional DVD. Josh says that the industry has expressed some interest despite the fact that there is “a lot of red tape, a lot of bureaucracy.”
He is not deterred by Tennissance’s lukewarm reception. “It takes some time to understand this stuff. There’s a general trend to people saying, ‘Huh, sounds interesting.’ It’s still in its infancy. It started to take off when he [Loch] started to teach me. Everything has to begin, everything has to start somewhere.” In mid-December, Josh sent an e-mail to a group of his Princeton friends to tell them about his “cool new project.” Word of Josh’s new “tennis religion” spread quickly around the Princeton community.
“I was at Mexican Village in January, ostensibly celebrating someone’s birthday, and the only thing my end of the table could talk about was Tennissance,” says senior Jennifer Albinson, a friend of Josh’s. “It’s as if Ken Loch’s powers have even infiltrated our own subconscious. We’re fascinated by how he’s entranced Josh, not realizing that he’s simultaneously entranced us.”
When he returned to campus a few weekends ago, Josh says that people he didn’t even know came up to him to ask about Tennissance.
“I’ve suddenly become ‘Josh Blaine of Tennissance,’” he laughs.
Though curiosity about his new project has been universal, enthusiasm has been mixed. Nearly everyone Josh told about Tennissance reacted at first with skepticism. Josh says that if he takes the time to sit down with someone and explain it, though, the skepticism usually fades.
“If I sit down with someone in person, I can walk away knowing they understand what I’m talking about. It’s hard to talk about it over e-mail, or quickly over the phone,” Josh explains.
When Josh first told his brother about Tennissance, he was unconvinced of the philosophy’s merits. A few weeks later, however, they went to dinner at a Chinese restaurant, talked for three hours, and came to an understanding.
Josh’s parents took longer to win over. They were worried about Josh’s “homeless” existence in California in the first place, and they reacted to Tennissance with similar concern.
“They’re not that thrilled about it,” admits Josh. He thinks a moment, then adds, “Actually, that’s not true…I’ve told them, if you want to understand it, you have to go on the court.”
About a week after our interview, Josh gave a Tennissance lesson to his mother, making her his first student.
“I had her for an hour, and I must say it went pretty well,” he wrote the follow-up e-mail. “It was basic day one stuff, but I had her doing what I wanted her to be doing by the time it was over. I guess it was successful then.” My own attitude toward Tennissance followed a similar path to that of Josh’s family. When I first heard about Josh’s involvement in Tennissance, I laughed. Looking at the website did not help much in changing my negative impression. Statements such as, “What is tennis’ enlightenment? Primarily, it’s the enlightenment, which is witnessed by the genius of tennis. That enlightenment is the genius of tennis’ self-realization and rebirth,” confirmed my suspicion that Tennissance is exactly the kind of wishy-washy spirituality that Josh would later claim it isn’t.
After talking to Josh, however, I experienced some of the same waning skepticism that his family and friends have described. Josh is smart and thoughtful, and he talks about Tennissance with a combination of humility and authority. He acknowledges the skepticism with which most people approach Tennissance and admits that the website needs some fine-tuning before the general public finds it accessible.
Yet Josh is unabashedly committed to Tennissance. When I sent him an e-mail requesting an interview, he responded within an hour. Less than a week after our interview, he e-mailed me to request I write the article as quickly as my schedule permitted. He wants to spread the word. One element of the Tennissance philosophy continues to sound rather alarming, even after an extensive conversation with Josh. One is the Tennisance website’s claim that Michael Chang is mentally ill. Michael Chang is a Christian tennis player who won the French Open in 1989. In 2002, he started the Chang Family Foundation, whose aim, according to its website, is “to introduce the Good New of Jesus Christ to the World through local and international programs; and to grow and nurture people in their personal relationship with God.” I don’t follow tennis, and I thought that perhaps Chang was indeed struggling with a mental disorder. There is no mention of mental illness, however, on Chang’s own website or on any of the fan sites devoted to Chang.
When I ask Josh about Tennissance’s assessment of Chang’s mental health, he assures me that Chang is indeed mentally ill—just not in the common understanding of the word. “We’re using a different definition of mental illness. There are a lot of things that people say they understand that have changed in meaning over the past 100,000 years,” Josh says. As an example, he points to the word “educate,” which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, used to refer to the rearing of young animals. According to Josh, mental illness is “the belief in false concepts,” engaging in, as he calls it, “self-trickery.” Under this definition, Josh says, President Bush is mentally ill because he claims to be a Christian yet started the war with Iraq.
“He’s doing things contrary to what Jesus is preaching. There’s a divide between what he says he believes and what he’s doing,” Josh explains.
Similarly, Michael Chang is mentally ill because he is a Christian yet plays competitive tennis.
“He probably does understand the mind/body connection in some way, yet he’s not doing it in line with the teachings of Christianity. A truly spiritual understanding of tennis wouldn’t be competitive. It doesn’t make any sense. You’re not trying to defeat them, not trying to be better than anybody else.” He adds, “The whole concept of competition is that someone is better than someone else, which contradicts all religions.” To his credit, Josh makes sure to add that he sent Chang an e-mail telling him about the Tennissance website’s claims about his mental health. He never wrote back.
“Technically, we tried to make him aware of it,” says Josh. This extreme claim aside, Josh has done what few Princeton students even dream of doing; he has taken a break from the resume rat race to ask important questions of himself and others. His education has moved him to action. His Tolstoy class made him want to be a better person, not just a better student or a better writer.
”I feel silly talking to him about things like my thesis or what I’m going to do next year, as he so very much lives in the present,” says Jennifer. “Thinking about things like deadlines and future sources of income appear nonimportant.”
And indeed, this is Josh’s goal with Tennissance: to encourage others to challenge the way they live their lives.
“I know a lot of smart, together people who are not able to answer questions of what it means to be a human being,” Josh observes. “What on earth is going on here on earth? The purpose of Tennissance is helping, healing this problem. Things could be so much better. Why are we settling for this? As human beings, we could be so much more. Everyone is just settling for a half a tank of gas.”