Saturday, May 5, 2012

5K and Baseball

Sunday and yesterday.

Sunday: I participated for the second year in a row in a 5K Run/Walk (I’ll say right here that I WALKED) that charitably supports a program that helps children with cancer. I did this as part of a particular team who has been doing this for a student at our school who has been a cancer survivor for a year, now. It really is a lot of fun and both years I have gotten to have some really great conversations during the walk with some parents at the school whom I had wanted to get to know better.

But this year, I really was quite aware of the difference between those who were there to run and those who were there to walk. And other than for the great pleasure of getting to know better the people with whom I walked these two times, the group that I WISH I were in is those who were there to run. I don’t want to exactly make this similar to the experience of the ugly duckling seeing the swans (because I think I probably really am a duckling), but I truly did feel within me the inkling of an energy of wanting to run it, not walk it. And checking out the list of winners afterwards on the event’s website, I saw that the winner of the race finished the run in 18 minutes. Of course, if I ran the course (that really is only three miles, not the 26 miles that is a marathon), my time wouldn’t be 18 minutes, but even so, I ask myself, “Can’t I run for at least 18 minutes?” And that then leads to the question of how much effort it would be to work up to it. I do hike in the hills around here quite a bit and that effort isn’t quite like a “walk in the park”; there’s a lot of uphill and downhill (for me, the downhill is the harder), so it’s a better workout that it might seem. So couldn’t I run for some portions of those hikes, building myself up to the level of maybe being able to run a 5K, at least? Next year? That, currently, is my resolve.

Yesterday: I joined the small crowd of employees who after work went to watch, party with, and support our fellow employees in the school’s annual Parent/Employee Softball Game. Just allowing my body to be anywhere near the location of such an activity has been an anathema to me which dates all the way back to high school. While I nearly always got an A in every academic subject, when it came to PE, I almost vomited every day right before PE class. And this is probably weird (beyond the fact that most boys LOVE PE), because it wasn’t that I wasn’t athletic; in fact, I actually had been on both the swimming team and the wrestling team in after school sports, and in PE, itself, was actually good in the sports of trampoline and boxing, both of which are not even allowed in high school anymore due to having “too much dangerous liability”. But if you categorize swimming, wrestling, trampoline, and wrestling, you will see that these are all individual sports, and are NOT team sports. (I recognize that track, though, is also an individual sport, but running and I absolutely did not get along, and I was somehow terrible at things like the broad jump and the high jump, and it wasn’t that I didn’t try hard!)

I had always accepted this situation as a reality of life, that I was “bad in sports” and henseforth would do any and everything to avoid them like the plague, despite my parents doing almost anything in their power to change that situation. One summer they sent me to a sports camp, but, true to form, I remained terrible in the team sports but excelled in the individual sports. They’d buy me season tickets to the Stanford University football games, hoping that something fundamental within me would be ignited. They bought for the whole family season tickets to professional hockey games. I think any boy would be ecstatic at having both of these, but I hated them and going to these events were as boring and almost unendurable to me as it would be for the average high school student to attend a lecture on Shakespeare.

It wasn’t until I became an employee at this high-powered private elementary school that I began to understand this “disability” of mine. At our school, every child, barring not a single one, loves PE and after school sports. And why they do is quite similar to one remarkable experience that even I had had near the end of my senior year in high school.

That remarkable experience that happened to me was that one day in PE, our regular PE teacher was sick and so we had a substitute teacher, who happened to be a Stanford University graduate student earning his degree in kinesiology. At the very beginning of class, he told us that we were going to be doing something quite different from the normal pattern. He said that we were going to be playing football, and he understood that we already had teams set up (we had two of them that would play against each other), but now we were going to choose teams again, but this time, there would four of them, not two.

Team-choosing, for me, had always been the horrendous experience of, not me being chosen last, or close to last, but, worse than that, of not being chosen at all. Instead, the two opposing team captains would flip a coin to see which one had to have me. And of course, once somebody had to have me on his team, he made sure I never ever had anything to do (except, perhaps, “block” the opposing time right after the “hike”). For all practical purposes, I wasn’t on the team all.

But what this Stanford University graduate substitute teacher did was to ask who the captains were of the two normal teams, and then he had them go ahead a choose teams again, but once half the class had been chosen, he sent them off to play like they normally would. As for the second half of the class that was remaining, he merely divided us into two separate teams (no choosing of players) and sent US off to play. What that meant was that the “bad” players were playing on teams composed only of bad players. He helped us a little bit to set up who would playing various positions (most of us had always just been blockers) and then we played as best as we could. I will never forget the moment when during this game someone actually passed me the football, which I caught, and then I triumphantly ran and made a touchdown. No one had ever, in all my years of elementary and high school, passed me the football during a game. And so my situation was that I started out bad, and never had the chance to become good, because in a team sport, they naturally want to win, so they arrange it so that the bad players whom they are forced to take never really are participating, so once bad, always bad.

This is similar to a young student having trouble learning how to read, so from then on, never even GETTING to read. And I understand that we DO have that in our society, that we have fully grown and working adults who never ever learned how to read, so they live a lifetime of separation, carry around a working disability, and feel deeply ashamed.

Physical education nowadays seems to be more enlightened than it was back in my day, which might explain why at our school no student is actually “bad” in sports. Sure, there are a few stars, and some whom I guess never move beyond the “C” team, but they nevertheless do participate and have achievements and have a ball with it. But for me, when it comes to team sports (which an adult in our society can safely remain isolated from since all that comes to an end once you are out of school), they were something that I was easily able to avoid for all these years. In the corporate world, for example, there might be something like a company picnic, but if I got wind of the idea that as part of that picnic they were going to have a softball game or a volleyball game or something similar, my RSVP would be “regret”.

Somehow working at a school, though, remaining isolated from these things is not quite so easy.

Here are three examples of experiences where there had been no means of escape:

The parking lot: Until the day when I got a reserved parking space, I had to park in a parking lot at work that I refer to as being in “the lower forty”. Getting there involves a long walk across campus and then down a long flight of stairs that leads to a basketball court, next to which is the parking lot. The basketball poles there are the adjustable kind that can be raised and lowered to accommodate the size and ages of the various student grades, from pre-schoolers all the way up to adult players.

One day as I was leaving work and going down those stairs, there was a group of boys attempting to play basketball, but the net had been left in the highest position and they were having a blast fooling around with seeing what they could do with the net being way higher than normal, but it was clearly difficult. But when they saw me, a tall adult who must have looked even taller than I actually was since I was coming down a long flight of stairs above them, one of them, a very good-looking kid who was a “star”, saw me, looked up at my "giraffic" height and with great admiration said, “Wow you're so tall, doing a lay-up with this would be so easy for, why don't you show us!” and to my horror, he then passed the ball up to me with the obvious expectation that I would then show off to them what were bound to be my awesome lay-up skills. (By the way, I am only 6' 1/2", but for some reason, people think of me as being of "basketball player" height.) If possible, I think I was worse in basketball than I even was in football.

Instead, of course, I was horrified over this suggestion and actually hadn’t the slightest idea how to even DO a lay-up, let alone have the ability to provide for them the impressive demonstration they expected.

The only tack I know is to be as honest as I can, and maybe even make a joke out of the situation, so I passed the ball back to the boy and said, “Actually, I am TERRIBLE at basketball, and I am pretty sure you guys would be better at doing a lay-up with this tall basket than I would be if it were at Kindergarten height. You don’t want ME demonstrating anything, because my bad example would utterly destroy your basketball career for the rest of your lives!” Fortunately, they did laugh, and they went back to their own game. However, I felt terrible, not because I was “bad at basketball”, but because I was so out of it that I wasn’t even in the realm of being bad, that doing something like that was beyond my ken.

A few days later, I ran into one of our school’s basketball coaches, a woman, and I went to her because she teaches the littlest kids (that’s the kind of teacher I needed!) and I told her the story. To her great credit, she was totally understanding and gave me some pointers as to how to do this if it ever came up again. A few days later, as I was making my way down that now scary flight of stairs, I saw that somebody had left a basketball there, but there was nobody around. I decided to practice for real what she had told me, and I actually was able to do it. I then challenged myself to do some free throws, and said that I couldn’t leave until I had made ten baskets. Unbelievably, I was able to do it, and the accomplishment felt good.

I’ve not had any use for any of that since then, but at least now I am not afraid of it.

Sixth grade team-building games: I was chaperoning a sixth-grade field trip that involved two overnights and two days of games, including team-building challenges and a ropes course. Chaperones can elect to participate in some of the exercises along with the students, or simply stand by on the sidelines and help to “keep order”. I decided to participate, not really understanding what I was getting into (or maybe deep down inside I realized it was something I needed as much as the students did). Most of these exercise involved elements that are actually team sport skills, but utilized for a purpose other than the specific team sport, such as one of them that was designed to be a name-learning exercise, but to me was really a “baseball catching and throwing exercise” because the baseball throwing involvement was an adjunct to the name-learning. All of those games seemed to involve the concept of “complete rounds”, that is, if anybody messed up, the whole team would have to start over. So that was the team sports pressure that was on me, I had grown up being the one who would relentlessly mess up (fail to catch the ball or whatever) and I sure didn’t want that to happen in this setting.

Fortunately, I was able to do it to the extent that it was even fun, constantly reminding myself to concentrate and keep my eye on the ball. So I felt quite “accomplished” after all these years!

You know that thing of “Are you as smart as a fifth grader?” Well, that concept was essentially applying to me, not pertaining to “smartness”, but pertaining to these team sports skills, where I really was “behind” the level of these students, but somehow now made up for decades of lost time.

After school carpool: “Carpool” at our school is a word that has several different uses and meanings, and what it refers to here is the process of the children being picked up after school. At the beginning of the school year, families combine together into carpool groups and receive campus security priority passes based on how many students are in their carpool. Each carpool size has a time in the afternoon when they are allowed to come on campus for this purpose (transporting nearly 500 students on and off campus is like a military operation that requires careful organization), rewarding earlier scheduled entrance times based on larger carpool size. Those carpools who are picking up 6 or more students get on campus first, followed by the 5s, then the 4s, then the 3s, and then the 2s. Those who are “singles”, that is, those who are picking up only one student, can come no earlier than 4:00 PM, about 45 minutes after school is out.

Since 4:00 is the normal end of our working day, the school needed somebody to volunteer to stay after that for this extra 15-minutes, and I volunteered to do it. My job in this is to announce on a walkie-talkie to the after-school monitors the name of the student whom the parent (or nanny or grandparent or driving-age sibling) has come to pick up, and where I stand to do that is on the long driveway right down below the high hill, on the top of which is the baseball diamond, and right now it is baseball season.

What this means is that at least once every day, now, a baseball comes shooting off the hill and ends up right at my feet. I will then snag this baseball (and it IS a baseball, not a softball!) and I will look up at the top of the hill and there I will see several forlorn boys, looking all around for that lost baseball. Of course, being an honest person, I will then hold the baseball up and show them that the missing ball has been found, which makes them very happy. But now the challenge for me is to get the ball back up to them.

The first time this happened, I had to shout up to them and explain that I highly doubted that I would be able to throw the ball all the way up to where they are, but that I would do my best to get it as close to them as I could. I threw the ball to the best of my ability and it made it about a third of the way up the hill. Not very good, but at least it was better than if the boys had to go all the way around and down to where I was to get the ball, a huge waste of time. Fortunately the hill is covered with very thick grass, so wherever the ball landed after my throw, it stayed there where the boys could slide down and get it rather than it rolling back on down the hill to my feet, again.

The next time this happened, I managed to get the ball halfway up the hill. I was getting better!

I felt like I was doing a poor demonstration of baseball-throwing, but the truth was that I really didn’t know if somebody else would be able to throw the ball right up into the boys’ hands, either. So I described the situation to one of the PE coaches and he said that that distance is pretty far, he didn’t think that he could throw it all the way up, but he really wasn’t sure. So I felt better about it, that maybe what I was doing wasn’t so bad after all (and that all my efforts were valiant).

Last Thursday, when I threw the ball up there, I swear, I got it to within ten feet of the boy who was looking for it, so he only had to slide a tiny bit down the hill to get it. I had improved gigantically in only a week of throwing the ball up the hill. So I figure the PE teacher I had asked, if he had been down there, would have been able to throw the ball right into the hands a boy waiting up there, but it looks like I, too, would be able to do that probably by next week, and what an amazing feeling of accomplishment that would be for me! I had almost never ever in my life had a real baseball in my hand and for sure never would be attempting to throw it a long distance to some baseball-playing kid, while now doing something like that might become second nature—like with any other guy. (A normal guy is happy to have the chance to throw a ball, doesn't shrink back from it!)

So, those are three examples of how, due to working in a school atmosphere where I am surrounded by ball-playing kids, I have been drawn into having to deal with these issues which I have ignored or or hidden from for several decades.

It helps that I love the kids and have a great appreciation for how meaningful these balls are to them; in fact, I marvel at them. All they need is a ball, any ball, and immediately they create some kind of a game involving that ball that they can enjoy for hours. Balls are a treasure for a boy, not something to nearly have a phobia over like they had been for me. I realize, of course, how weird I am regarding this, but at the same time, I will take credit for attempting to change it.

So, yesterday was the Parent/Employee baseball game that I had ignored all these years, and even this year, I did not elect to PLAY (that’s going a bit too far right now), but I did GO. That took a certain amount of bravery, you understand, just the idea of being there and publicly being an obvious male who is NOT playing. There were even some tough females on both teams who played, it wasn’t just guys. Every once in a while, a person might ask me if I were playing, and I would answer with my standard joke, “If you want our team to win, then just sneak me onto the parents’ team.” They would laugh and that would be the end of it; we could then just get down to drinking and eating and cheering on our team, all of which I did with relish.

I will say, though, that I was honestly filled with admiration over some of the skills that I saw demonstrated out there. Somebody would connect with a huge hit that would explode with a loud crack and then the ball would go flying way, way out there. Or somebody far out in the field would jump up and snag right out of the sky one of those huge hits and then in the blink of eye throw it right into the mitt of baseman who would put the runner out (I don’t think I could even think that fast—where do I throw this!). Or these runners, who after hitting a powerful ball that was NOT caught, would run like lightening around all three bases and then back to home for a perfect home run. This is the kind of stuff you don’t see in the offices or in the classroom and it was as impressive to me as the runners were at the 5K race. I have to say that I honestly had a craving to go out there and play with them, but I wouldn’t dare, not right now (for me it would be strike outs and dropped fly balls). Maybe next year, though. I wouldn’t have to expect to be good; I just didn’t want to be, once again, that guy that they’d have to lose a coin toss in order to have to take.

Some friends of mine there at that game might have been going through the exact same thoughts that I was having. After all, they weren’t playing either, and why not? Every single high school in America probably had two or three guys who had been in a position like mine. I was thinking that what I wanted to do was to practice in a batting cage; it might be fun. And sure enough, somebody said that out loud, that they wanted to practice in a batting cage and wondered where there were some, and another one told us where there was a batting cage place--at Castle Park in Sherman Oaks, which also has miniature golf and a games arcade—it’s a popular place for birthday parties. I said to those three that we really ought to go do that. So, it looks like that’s what we will be doing next Saturday!

Who’da thunk it? Me wanting to go to a batting cage? Mom and Dad might even be proud. I guess we’re never to old to have a complete childhood.


Longboardjeff said...

I first want to thank you for your participation in the 5K to raise awareness of cancer. This means a lot to my family, and we do participate in similar events every year, and we all remain very active. You really do get to meet some pretty amazing people at these events.

I was never a jock, although I was always pretty fast on my feet, being one of the smallest kids in my class. I was good at ducking under branches, scooting around bushes, hopping over rocks and logs, and even zipping between the legs of that big guy was was about to pick me up and throw me into the lake.

I also did participate in the occasional softball games where I worked during college. Yes, there was beer, and although I was always considered a good pitcher, I usually got shortstop, which I hated.

Yes, if you're not a good football player, and they don't let you play, you'll never be a good football player. Or -- "Devin never drove in the snow. Don't let him drive in the snow. You take him, Jeff."

So we got in the car, got halfway down the street, and we switched seats. He learned. That's what this grad student did, basically.

I deal with the "You can't do it, so don't do it." kids. They're very much like the your team. I try every day to pass the ball to someone who never had a ball passed to him. But son of a gun! They do catch the ball!

Your story about the boys playing basketball with the net up high reminds me of something that happened to me. A group of kids were playing basketball in the street. I suck. One of the kids threw me the ball and also told me to a lay-up. I turned around, back to the net, and tossed the ball up over my head. "SWISH!" Wow! You should have heard them all "oooooh!" "Ahhhhhh!" "Do it again, Jeff!"

I tured down the opportunity to prove the existence of divine intervention!

I've watched the kids at PE playing ball. Some of them are quite good; some are just naturals, and others don't quite have it. You really get to see the cross-section of personalities during those PE games. You've got the airplane watchers, the grass watchers, the nose pickers, the mind readers, and of course, the kids who are taking the game just a bit too seriously. But one thing I don't see or hear is the kind of criticism I heard as a kid, if one of the kids drops the ball or strikes out. I remember dropping a seemingly simple fly ball. I was called everything in the book. "You suck, Sheehan!"

So I dropped ONE fly. What about all the batters I struck out, or the flys I caught, or the double plays I orchestrated? Don't they count? It's the story that you can have 1000 attaboys, but one ahshit takes them all away. Things seem pretty calm at school, anyway. Nobody gets too excited over a dropped ball or a lay-up that's more of a flop-down. They just keep playing.

So we go back to the walking vs running the 5K. I start out walking, run for a while, and then walk. I like to finish running, even if it's within sight of the end. I'm not too concerned about HOW I execute the 5K. The important thing to me is that I do it, and I can share stories with people about my sister, and hear stories about others. It's good for the soul, and equally good for the heart. So whether it's a 5K or a benefit (even if it's just for fun) baseball game, it's the spirit I enjoy. And besides, nobody will tell me I suck. I do the report carts. :)

I hope you get to play in the game next year. I decided not to take it too seriously or to get too critical of myself. I just like to have fun.

Longboardjeff said...

I could have commented a lot more, but I enjoyed this post.

Pitbullshark said...

Jeff, I did think of Kimmie when I did this 5K and it was also because of your honest stories about it all that I had some idea of how to be involved with this family throughout their year's ordeal (what to do and not do, what to say and not to say). The girl in this case is Grace, and she is almost through with first grade now. Her kindergarten year was spent having chemo, radiation, and surgery, and because of her immune-compromised situation, she had to be pretty isolated, but she can be quite thoroughly in the mix now!

Glad to know that Devin can drive in the snow!

Also, great "Divine Intervention" with that lay-up. I can almost hear God laughing--"Okay, Jeff, once was on me, but the next one is on you!"

I enjoyed your descriptions of the various players, which presents a real good cross-section of who all is out there. Our own students are really good like yours seem to be; they are very supportive of one another instead of cruel or hurtful. I have tried to explain to them that it is magnificent to see how well they work together (and how good they are to each other) but couldn't think of a useful example to help them understand my point clearly. I can think of one now, though--birds I saw in Australia that do a courtship ritual by flying complicated patterns in pairs. If they can match each other in this gorgeous flying, then they know they belong together. With our students, it's like watching a complicated coordinated effort like that bird-flying, except among 66 of them. It really can bring tears to your eyes.

I hiked for an hour and a half up in the hills this past Sunday. I ran a tiny little bit of it (only about 2 minutes worth!). So I am long way away from running a whole 5K, but this, at least, was a good baby step.