As I am no fan of watching televised sports and would go so far as to be antagonistic towards organized sports devised as part of our educational system not to mention being bilious on the subject of the waste of time and resources that is a devotion to professional sports (sorry fans–it’s not you, it’s me), I offer a paean to play detached from the very idea of sports.
My favorite thing to do when a child, when a boy, when a young man, when games were considered frivolous if not suitably leisurely or expensively “networkable”, was to play catch with my dad.
I liked to chase baseballs like a dog plays chase with its master. My dad’s arm would wear out, then he would switch to a bat and then both his arms and back would wear out before I would weary of the sport.
If I had a long lolling tongue it would have always been hanging out and sweating from my panting mouth, my lips pulled back in that dog-wolf-snout grin. The dog a kind of automaton of joy seeming to fulfill the only reason for living–the chase; the wolf more slyly playing the game of waiting, having fun but not losing himself in it, there’s a job to be done that requires focus. Running, jumping, stretching, diving, reaching, catching, then plant and pivot spinning around to whip the ball back as if the body and arm had reached the end of a long tether and been snapped back of some force not self-generated and do it again, do it again, again and again and again.
Consequently, I was very good (both naturally capable and trained in a kind of falconry of catch) at one half of what it took to be good at baseball. Not bad at the other half either—but I had no love for the batter’s box; I could not be lost in the responsibility of reaching base.
I knew where the ball was going before it even left the bat…I knew how it would bounce if I didn’t catch it on the fly…I knew the angle I’d have to take to meet it in the future. Rather, it was as if I was already future before the play began. You weren’t chasing the ball, you were chasing time, predicting the future…in that space was the real emptiness of pure coursing…the non-being that you can chase and chase and chase with your mind but would only really meet in the timelessness of the physical angle of intersection. Waldo was right that the power is in the darting…not in the aim.
Humans, of the American variety at least, are all aim with little regard for the dart…real goddam living happens in the dart. Repose, Ralph, cessation, ending, death happens at the target.
Nothing better in life, I am sure, still, to this day, even as over-the-hill as I am I would pay someone to go out and have a throw and chase session with me. I didn’t really ever want to play baseball, just ball; I only wanted to dart toward possibilities, limitless until ball meets mitt.
I hated organized ball from little league on up; it made me queasy, too rigid, too adult, too much expectation. No fun, dammit, too much winning and losing. Teams sounded good but too often they were recipes for way too many heated dissensions. I loved to play, not to game. America games at everything but cannot find time for simple play.
I was good, and success followed irrespective of intent, but that didn’t alleviate my nervous sense of impending, what, failure? A game was always a fulcrum on which you balanced within systems of rules and procedures and at the finale you were judged. Winner, Loser.
One could argue that it shouldn’t have weighed on me so heavily but just take a peak back into your cultural expectations of organized sports in childhood and adolescence, especially when playing for a school. I will always agree that there can be and are moments of transcendence in team sports and that there are players uniquely unstuck in time to achieve this kind of otherworldly play within the cultural boundaries of games; but this is rare and this is not reality for most.
Where is the joy, sheer joy, of just goofing? No aim, only dart.
For me, playing catch was as near as one could come to nirvana—the heat of the sun caressed arms and neck, while the smell and feel of the grass and soil as your bare feet lit upon it and you fell into it connected you to the pulsing rhythms of the earth and the blue of the sky, whispering warm breezes, wrapped you in its present tense.
I wanted only to run, only to hear my breathing, only to feel my stretching and never stop. To reach, snatch, pivot and throw all in one balletic event; all already having happened before the ball left the bat.
This would be a pleasurable eternal recurrence.
And with my father. Always in this moment and in this memory was my father, as fluid and timeless as any action in reflection.
Lost and found without seeking.
I have found these No-Mind moments in organized sports; just not often and always a truncation of the dream. Though degraded events these were still crystalline moments of such clarity that I would have to label them some kind of radiating emanation.
I remember reading an account of a moment of nirvana at a Buddhist monastery—the master asks a question; the student answers, wrongly; smack the paddle to the back of the head: enlightenment. I found myself in Memphis, Tennessee, playing football and turning to run down a pass in hopes of an interception, arms hands fingers reaching seeing the ball’s nose and SMACK into my own teammate—the strong safety, who seemed to always be in the right place to intercept passes, which was bad for him this time—and I would not be able to explain how wonderful that collision felt. The safety crumpled to the ground and I just stood there (neither having caught the ball) in utter dismay—it seemed as if I had absorbed another man’s force. All the energy of the collision had somehow transferred into me. But then it was gone and my teammate, wobbling and actually turning to run to our opponent’s sideline, finally stumbled off the field and was out of the game. I had emptied him.
And this too—thirteen years, ten months. Playing catcher (the only position I could bear in organized baseball—always in the action, never waiting, mind always working, in focused dialogue with the pitcher, learning his pitches and guiding them with your body and glove position; I was the target facilitating the shooting of the sixty-foot gulf) a batter fouls back a pitch and I spin with the movement of ball off bat, two short steps and dive, glove outstretched and nearly on the ground, to make the catch. That play could not have lasted much more than a second but to me it had been slow motion. I can still see the ball hit the bat on the upper portion seeing the seams stop and start again at a different speed and creating a short parabolic trajectory. I didn’t see it after it left the bat, I just turned and dove and the ball was in the glove as if by magic. I had predicted the future and had been right.
I can discourse on the snap throw down to first as well—no-mind is required as it happens as if by sixth sense. You do it when it’s right to do it.
But I cannot speak with this kind of feeling about the process of hitting. It was my Achilles heel. It seemed too full of human time…it was a frozen expectation. It seemed that this was why it was so hard to do successfully—it was tool bound and absurd—round ball round bat, good luck. The fluidity of the throwing motion was bound to overwhelm. It seemed a microcosm of human folly: a bat was oppositional, gladiatorial, adversarial. A bat represents man’s inability to just play. You don’t really even need a glove to play catch let alone a maple cudgel.
I love what the dog appears to love—to meet himself in between the now of the throw and the now of the catch—to vibrate with the energy of living within that space. Unburdened and Unstuck.
It’s possible that one might interpret this as a way of justifying a lack of ambition; if he was a dog on the field of play then he was not a baseball player. He would not be a baseball player. He lacked the drive to be defined as such; he just wanted to bound and gambol with a spit-soaked ball in his mouth. The timelessness of the chase yields to the capture, but the brilliant dog brings the ball back and drops it at the feet of the time-bound creature who will offer him more timelessness through another throw. Only thirst intervenes.
I’ve been told that some dogs have played themselves to death. This seems a death as noble and worthy of praise as any sung of the greatest Greek warrior.
I have always loved to play ball, but never to play a game.
photo credit: LOLren