Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Swan Song IX--Endings
There's a Rec Center now that wasn't there forty years ago, and weight rooms, multiple weight rooms. The gym is the same, but main court was new then, brand new, and we thought it wonderful. Once upon a time I played on the same court he did last year, for the same school, against the same rivals--but a whole different time, a whole different era.
When I saw him yesterday--not the first time either--when I saw that kid all by himself in the weight room back in the corner of the Rec Center, it was clear to me that he was suffering. Supposedly, he was there lifting weights; but on his face he wore a wan wistfulness, a distanced look that made perfectly clear he wasn't where he wanted to be. He was in the weight room for other reasons than beach dreams of memorable six-pack ribs.
I may be wrong about all this. I know nothing for sure, except that his name does not appear on this season's roster. I don't know the circumstances, but I know the syndrome. Once upon a time, in the very same building, I suffered as he was.
I don't know the kid, but I've been around this place long enough to know his story--his lineage, the talents and values of the people from whom he comes. I also know that half a Rec Center away, the basketball team was going through drills he wished he was a part of, the team whose roster I've just checked, a roster that doesn't include his name.
Athletics becomes a way of life. They were for me, years ago. In high school, I cared for little else, switching seasons deftly, changing little more than uniforms. When I came to college I just wanted to play ball, declaring a major, education, only because I wanted to coach. I didn't really care what I might have to teach someday, as long as I could coach.
So I played ball here but only for two years. He's been at three, I think. My junior year the handwriting was on the wall--it looked to me as if my playing time was over so I didn't turn out. I didn't so much leave the team as drop the sport.
And it wasn't as excruciating a pain as I think this kid yesterday was feeling. After all, my leaving was willful. I don't know if he quit or got cut, and I don't know if there are other factors in his life--a bad knee maybe--which brought his time on the court to an end. We're not the same, but as I watched him suffer yesterday, I understood because I know at least something of his pain.
It's not easy to alter a way of life, its rhythms and patterns. Your worship daily, every afternoon; and when there's no more reason to attend the services, you pantomime somehow anyway because you don't know any better. That wistful kid was in the back-in-the-corner weight room yesterday afternoon because attended ritual, devoted ritual, dies a slow death. You can't just cold turkey the gym. It's a sweet, sweaty addiction, and the poor kid's still has his needs.
Watching his old team run through drills was sheer pain. None of them could see him way back there in the corner, but I did. It's partly rejection, partly withdrawal, partly a immobilizing loss of identity. One huge part of his life is over, and it feels, for all the world, like death itself.
I didn't try to talk to him. He probably didn't even know I was there. I could have told him I know what it's like to become someone you never thought you'd be. I could have told him that there's another day because there was for me. I could have told him life goes on.
When it was over for me, I was already becoming something closer to what I'd be. I know that now. Some prof had told me I could write--"you've got to write a novel someday," she scribbled on my essay. It was 1968, a year as ripe with verifiable cultural change as any in the last half-century. I had started writing for the school paper. I had begun to think that what was happening in Vietnam was wrong. I quit the gym about the same time I grew out of it--I know that now.
We're not alike--I didn't have a family that cared a whole lot whether or not I played ball. My decision to quit was totally my own. When I stopped playing basketball, I didn't cry.
But it was hard not going to the gym, and it was hard not being a part of that community of guys who become your best friends. It was hard to change.
It always is.