Sunday, August 28, 2005

"Yeah, Sports!"

Like my life, this blog, I fear (know? expect?) has been taken over by ultimate. It’s a slow, creeping process where by I relinquish any pretense that the silly game which I love is some temporary external activity. It’s ceased to simply be something I do, a choice among choices, it has a far more definitional feel about it. Ultimate represents some sort of boundary within which my personality and personal drama are acted out. The community of people with whom I share this passion or I guess, affliction, continues to grow in size and prominence. Like any similar change, the movement into a new community comes with gains and losses. I’ve made new friends in DC. The community has come to mean meeting people with whom I shout silly things, scrape knees (I’ve come home bleeding 5 out of the last 8 nights), commemorate victories pyrrhic and epic, and generally recount the great fortune, that is, sharing this passion. And in general I love it. There are days when it can be absolutely taxing, just emotionally wrengching. And somedays, I do wish I could better explain it. I’d love to be able to give voice to the deep need in my life that ultimate fulfills. But we all have our goals, some want to buy the world a Coke, and that’s hard too.

The emotionally wrenching part is hardest to explain. Some days I expend so much energy on the sidelines and on the field that I’m almost in tears in the quiet moments that follow the incredible physical and I’m almost embarrassed to admit, spiritual high of shared competition. Tonight I’m residing in one of those moments. There is a classic sporting expression, an exhortation to further sacrifice: “leave it all on the field.” I’ve always been partial to this expression and the sentiment it represents. My own personal mantra has been something similar, “it only hurts when you lose.” For me the notion of losing is a fairly amorphous one, there is losing in the absolute fashion (scoring fewer points) but there is also the loss that comes from feeling like something less that your best was offered in support of your teammates. The gnawing, clawing painful realization that people, friends who count upon you (even in a silly game) received less than your last full measure (not in the Lincoln sense—I’m not that crazy) of effort. And so I play ultimate with a willful disregard of its toll on my body. I layout eagerly, knowing full well it will destroy my shoulder, bruise my chest (and occasionally ego) and often tweak my knee. And while it’s not true, in any real sense, I believe that it only hurts when you lose (the will to compete or to give of yourself, that is)

And so, in general, I try my best to leave everything on the field. When I was younger and liked team sports less, the goal was to impress my parents, or prove to older bullies that I was more than just the smart kid in class. I guess that was the first and, for a long time, dominant reason that sports mattered to me. I was constantly trying to prove to kids who hated me that I was worthy of their admiration or at least tolerance. The one sentence, never uttered, for which I played was: "Wow, Aaron, you’re smart and you can really play ______" (insert sport X). In service of this goal (acceptance) I adopted a sporting persona dramatically different from my everyday life. In normal life I was, when younger, different from my peers and woefully uncool (by their measures). I cared about things that never mattered to my classmates. I was a progressive child in a conservative suburb. Even more so, I was tender. When teased, I cried. When upset I cried. When frustrated, which was pretty much all the time, I felt alone and unloved by my peers. None of these things are remarkable, nor do I assume them to be, they just are necessary explanations in order to better understand the transformative role that sports played in my younger life—and may help to explain why ultimate is such an emotionally relevant part of my current life.

As a kid, if I was tripped or bullied or just embarrassed I felt helpless. No where in the rules of the playground could I find a loophole that permitted safe harbor for the geeky, hyperactive kid who cared more about national politics than pop music. But sports allowed me an outlet. It was a place where I could reinvent myself. Instead of being the kid who got hit and cried, I became the kid who sought physical contact and never ever cried. If I was hit (as happened) in the knee with a pitch while catching I immediately tried to stand up. In this case, my knee failed to support my weight and I came crashing back to the ground. But I kept trying to stand and protested loudly and angrily at being taken out of the game. A failure to complete an inning was akin to admitting personal failure, personal limitations and sports was, and maybe still is, about killing that part of me. About bringing to the fore an Aaron who can destroy by force of will the part of me that worries about my peers and fears their condemnation. I should further explain that I was never the strongest (pretty clear), fastest (see previous parenthesis) or more capable. But I was among the most intense players. My sports of choice growing up were baseball and basketball. I was never officially allowed to play football, though our backyard variety further reinforced the theme. We had a standing rule in the football games of my younger days where you could perform an onsides kick. This basically involved throwing the kickoff as high as you could and while the ball was descending from its great and loping arc you would gather around the poor sap who decided to catch the football and then as absolutely deck him. You would try to gather as much momentum, and turn it into as much pure force as possible only to release it on a supposed friend at his most vulnerable moment.

I was always the receiver of the kickoffs. I always wanted the ball. I wanted to know that, on a sports field, I could take whatever hit was delivered and that I would not fumble and would not fail.

In my other “official” sports the story was much the same. I pitched and caught in little league. Loving above all other moments, the collision at the plate. It was the chance for the skinny kid with the strange inability to shut up or be normal to take the best shot from the larger, well-loved boys. And with the armor of my position and my persona fully intact, I felt invincible. In school I could be bullied, harassed, taunted, mocked and sometimes made to cry. Behind the plate I was tougher than you, harder than you, and never ever dropped the ball. In 9-10 collisions at the plate in my little league days, I never dropped the ball. I was hit so hard and so flagrantly fouled in one game that the offending player was ejected, but I never dropped the ball—doing so was showing weakness, and that was the role of Real Aaron. Sports Aaron fit in, oh sure he’d reference NPR instead of WBZZ, and he’d talk about the righteousness of Lloyd Bentsen and the folly of Dan Quayle instead of ….oh I don’t know, nearly anything else, but overall he played a role, he was of value.

In retrospect, my elementary and middle school peers were some pretty desperate people. It was a desperation borne of recognition. They knew that there had to be winners and losers. They recognized far earlier than I did that childhood social interactions are built around who is winning and who is losing. Who knows the grossest thing, who knows the most about this taboo of taboos we call sex (Answer everyone else but Aaron. I was, and maybe still am, remarkably clueless). If the answer was you, you were winning. If you could pick on someone else you were winning. As a child I thought of social interactions as something more than a zero sum game. I was not interested in defining my role in opposition to yours. Never occurred to me. I thought we could all be winners. It sounds naïve and probably was. It’s only now, I mean literally right now as I write this that I realized just perfectly sports fit into my childhood. Sports were a place where keeping the tally of who was winning and who was losing was fair. It was based on performance, on effort, on ability. It had nothing to do with whether you were cool. For a few months in the summer people like me would be valued, would contribute and would undermine the veracity of the stereotype which I so ably wore during the school year.

So what, if anything, does this have to do with my life today. I think ultimate plays a similar role to sports from my youth. I have an insatiable need to prove that I’m worth something. This gnawing insecurity that maybe I’m no good. Either objectively or in relative terms. I’m not sure where this insecurity comes from. But I know that something about ultimate helps me cope. Something about testing myself and finding my actions worthy of occasional admiration makes me feel like a tolerable human being. Ultimate is a chance to prove to myself and to people about whom I care a great deal that I’m worth caring for. That any affection they may have for me is not misplaced because I’ll give whatever I have to be worthy of it. This probably sounds a bit absurd, and over the top, and may be just that. But there is a part of me that feels it might be true.

And so I play ultimate with a reckless abandon. In the end, for me, it is about offering up to the good of the team all your physical gifts and making yourself completely emotionally present throughout the games and practices. I show up to games having spent the morning pacing around my apartment because I cannot calm down. I want to play so badly. I pace on the sidelines because I cannot sit still. I just want to be helping my teammates so badly. Even these people, whom I’ve known for a matter of months, I love. It’s a weird love, not the full lasting deep kind. Not the real kind. So maybe love is the wrong word, but it’s a devotion that’s similar to that. It’s a feeling of kinship, or maybe fellowship. But it’s emotionally draining. To spend a weekend with people you adore, yelling, screaming, diving, straining, bleeding and fighting is taxing. And after the joy of shared competition is over and after the cars are packed and the players returned to their normal Sunday routine (icing, trying to explain to significant others why they are hurt, again) we’re all back to being real, normal people. It’s like the end of the summer as a child. The end of every tournament is the end of the magical space in which I can redefine my ability and personality. I have to talk in sentences that makes sense. I won’t be able to say “Yeah, BRDM” or “Yeah, Paul*,” “Yeah, tapping the keg” (ad nauseum) and have it make sense. I lose that world at the end of every tournament. After “leaving it all on the field” I have almost nothing left. I’m emotionally spent, I’m just wiped out.

And while I know it’ll be back to this world again soon, and that unlike in my youth, my real life is pretty fucking stellar, it’s still sad. It’s an emotional remnant of a time when sports allowed me to feel worthy, and know that I could be valuable. I guess we all need that, and so maybe that’s how I should explain ultimate. It’s my community, it’s my place where I want desperately to be found worthy, and where I want to be a part of something where winning and losing aren’t just a zero sum game. This weekend, we lost every game, and as I came back to my apartment yesterday and my roommate’s friend asked me as I struggled to walk and bled all over my socks, "Was it worth it?" To which I replied “There’s no where I’d rather have been, and nothing I’d rather have been doing.”

*I realize this is a pretty unfunny post, and may read terribly in the morning. But right now it says a lot of things that I need to say, so it’s going to get posted. But, also one really funny movement from the weekend. So while playing ultimate it is very common for people to shout, “Yeah, BRDM.” Basically the syntax is as follows, Yeah followed by any noun, many of the verbs or any concept. You can cheer for just about anything you can imagine. Case in point, a teammate of mine throws a very errant pass to another teammate. The disc is coming down slowly and several people are gathered under it. I’m on the sideline and say hopefully, it’s alright he’s going to catch it. The disc is predictably swatted away by one of three defenders. I take a beat and turn to Shamik, who heard my previous assurance that “he” was going to catch it and say, “I never said who ‘he’ was.” To which Shamik replies, “Yeah, caveat.”

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