Thursday, June 18, 2015

The rules of engagement

       Last summer I longed to be surrounded by more than a few good men.  Men who are trustworthy and kind.  Men who can say it like it is without hurting my feelings.  Men who know what they want, yet don't have to run roughshod over me in the process to create it.  It's taken a long while, but I've found the fruition in my faith that good men do exist.
Most of my classes are filled with women, and as a writer, the balance of my day is spent alone.  Except for the year I worked in the garden at Esalen, I've never really been in the company of men for long stretches of time.  And yet, while living on the edge in Big Sur, I learned that to be surrounded by masculine energy of all kinds is a healthier way to live.  In the eight years since my return to the Midwest, it's been one of the things that I've missed the most. 
I'm not shy, but I am introverted, and avoid bars, loud parties, and concerts.  My idea of unremitting hell would be to drive up to the University of Michigan with my wonderful neighbor, Rick, and sit with him in a stadium surrounded by 50,000 screaming fans.  I'm one of those people who'd much rather hang out in my own house and watch the game on television.  After all, the camera angles get you right into the heart of the action.  But I'd still need someone to explain the more subtle details of the game. 
I know what it means to sack the quarterback.  I know that "third down and eight" means the offensive team has one more play to move at least two more yards in order to keep possession of the ball.  I know that unsportsmanlike conduct results in a fifteen yard penalty.  But I don't know squat about MVP's, and I'm not quite sure I could explain what a safety is.  Still, as I am in life, I'm not necessarily interested in who wins, but I'm highly curious about strategy and know-how.   How to play without hurting myself or anyone else.  How to engage with the energy of the activity without being swallowed up in its momentum.
Which is why I'm so thankful to now be surrounded by men of all ages who share their perspective on sports, life, and living with kindness and clarity.

On the night of the NBA finals, I had the pleasure of hanging out with my pals, Satish and Danta, and three of their friends while they played a pick-up game of basketball in their driveway.  Ranging in ages from eight to twelve, the boys effortlessly chose teams, decided where the three point line would be, and established out-of-bounds on the makeshift court.  For over two hours I sat and marveled at how they played so well together.  Even though there were many times when the game was intense, they never ceased to amaze me with their good sportsmanship and cooperation.  I was reminded of all the years I loved teaching boys, simply to observe them interact with each other, to get a glimpse of what life is like on the other side of the coin. 
I don't have a brother and I didn't really play with a lot of boys in our neighborhood when I was a kid.  As an elementary education major in college, my classes weren't exactly overflowing with young men, and the experiences I had at fraternity parties left me disenchanted to say the least.  So when I have the opportunity to hang out with a bunch of fellas, no matter what their age, I'm always eager to listen more and talk less.
       I'm delighted that Satish, Danta, and their pals not-so-subtly revealed the rules of engagement...on and off the basketball court.  And I also discovered that little men have much to teach me about the ways of the bigger ones.  So here's a list of what I've learned by watching with fascination some of the best teachers I've had this year.

Play by the rules
     Establish boundaries right up front so everyone is on the same page.  Be clear about how the points will be tallied and who is keeping score.  Make sure your ref is honorable and unbiased.  Naturally everyone wanted Satish to ref the game because as one of his friends said, "He's always fair."
     I can vouch for that.  No matter what the game, no matter how much we may tweak the rules, Satish always follows them to the letter, even if it's not to his advantage.

Play hard
     After fueling up on pizza and strawberries, the boys were ready and raring to go.  They dribbled and dodged and sweat their way through play after play after play, never once letting up.  At one point I thought Satish might call it a day, but he got his second wind and before long was easily sinking lay-ups...shot after shot after shot. 
     I'm a pretty good endurance hiker, but I know I'd never last ten minutes with those little dudes. 

Be hospitable and gracious if you're the host
     At one point during the game, Danta disappeared into the garage when it wasn't his turn in rotation.  Moments later he rolled out a mini-trampoline and set it in the shade.  "This can be for whoever isn't playing," he beamed.  "It'll give you something to do while you're waiting!"  (I even had a turn...and yes, it was tons of fun!)
     A short while later when I went into the house to get something, I found Danta in the kitchen filling up water bottles for everyone.  "We don't have five, so I'll share with Satish." 
     "You're such a sweet guy," I told him, holding the door as he walked out carrying a pretty big armload for the smallest kid on the team. 

Don't hold a grudge
     Of course there were fouls and miscalls and minor yelling matches.  But I knew they weren't going to hurt each other, so I deferred to the kid who was chosen to be the ref unless I was blatantly asked, Was that ball out of bounds? or Did you see that foul?
     It was surprising that the boys could yell at each other one minute, then establish an almost instant common ground so they could quickly get back to the game.  None of them held a grudge or picked a fight or insisted they were right when they clearly knew they had made an error.  I was simply amazed at the almost instantaneous way the boys could scowl at each other in one moment, then chest thump in the next.

Call a timeout when you need to confer with your teammate
     Satish and his pal were playing the whole game as a team while the other three rotated in and out.  A few times they were so tired, they called a timeout and went to the other side of the yard to rest and talk about new strategies.  The other boys sat in the grass, drinking water and explaining to me what it means to "set a pick" on another player.  
     One of them was quick to say, "Danta's really good at that when Satish is trying to press break."  (Of course they had to define that term, too, but I picked up on it quickly enough when the game resumed.)

     This word has come up a lot for me this spring-into-summer...and mostly from the mouths of men who are driven to work hard and be incredibly present with the task at hand.  Many times during the game, one of the kids would yell at his teammate, "Focus, man!"  During free throws it was even more evident how well those boys could concentrate, even though opposing team members would try and distract them.  Great food for thought as I spend the summer editing someone else's memoir while a host of diversions cycle through my day.

Have fun
     Danta is my hilarious and articulate little guy, who can always come up with something amusing to share.  Throughout the game he'd continually shout out, "MARIACHI!  MARIACHI!"
     At first I thought it was a code word for a play, but one of the boys rolled his eyes, saying, "Every game Danta chooses some random word and yells it over and over again."
     "He's pretty smart, 'cause that's a good way to keep you a little off center," I smiled.  
     The boy sighed and shook his head.  "You never know what he's going to say."
     "One of the many things I love about him," I replied.  Then I yelled, "Hey, Danta!  Cucaracha Cucaracha! 
     This of course gave him a fit of giggles.

Have something to look forward to after the game
     My only task (besides being the person who tossed the ball for the tip off) was to be the timekeeper, so the fellas could finish the game before the start of the NBA final.  They didn't give a rip about the pre-game interviews or all of the commercials, so I was given careful instructions to let them know when it was exactly 9:05 PM.   
     They were planning to spend the night in a huge tent outdoors which was pitched near the huge family room window.  Through the open flap they could easily see the big screen TV and still be able to watch the fireflies come out.

Be a good sport
     The pick-up game ended in a nail-biting win by one point.  As Satish and his friend collapsed on the lawn, just having lost by one lay-up, I went over to congratulate them on how well they played as a team and the endurance it took to stay in the game the whole time instead of rotating in and out.  On my heels were the three other boys, slapping hands and saying, "Good game, man...good game."  Then all five of them eagerly thundered into the house, leaving their sneakers by the door and the basketball rolling on the garage floor.

Work as a team...on and off the court
     When Satish and Danta's dad came home, all of the boys happily went outside to help put up the tent.  Then as the basketball game started, they eagerly shared bowls of powdery cheeseballs and leftover slices of pizza.  They told me about the possibility of the Caveliers breaking their losing streak, and how LeBron James always plays better in the second half.  Milling in and out of the kitchen, the boys were all aware of each other and interacted in a way that revealed any discord on the court had long been forgotten. 
     Friends since they were babies, I imagine those boys will remain pals all of their matter where time and space might take them.       

Show your friends how much you care
   I've learned that girls tend to hug each other or sit closely when they play.  Boys chest thump and slap behinds and wiggle their fingers together when they're excited about a well-executed maneuver.  I've seen girls pick a fight to get what they want while boys set a pick to prevent what might happen next.  Girls giggle and whisper and talk for hours while boys yell and encourage and talk good-natured trash to each other. 
     It's not that one is better or more desirable than the other.  Still in my years as a teacher and a surrogate aunt, I've also figured out that girls tend to want personal connection in communication, while boys are more likely to listen if they're doing something along side the other person...even if it's squirting each other with a water bottle.

     So while I doubt you'll ever hear me cheering on the Wolverines from a seat in the stadium, I imagine come this fall I'll be over at Satish and Danta's, playing a game of touch football in the yard before we venture inside for food, fun, and frivolity while seeing what's going on in the Big House from their wonderfully welcoming house in the Heartland.