Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Game To End All Games

Today is Superbowl Sunday. The Superbowl – also known as the “Heterosexual Oscars” -- is a very holy event in my country. Those seeking a guide to this fascinating primitive tribal rite may look here. …

But I’m joking. Lots of gay people are watching the Superbowl right now. Yesterday a fellow in a gay chat room told me that he was getting his house ready for tonight’s Superbowl party; all that remained was to get the keg. Yes, Cthulhu help us, we are everywhere, including no doubt the crowds watching the game in person.

Not me, though. I’m going to take advantage of this solemn occasion to reflect on my own checkered history with the great god Sport.

My poor father tried to teach me to play catch when I was four or five. The first attempt ended when the ball hit me on the head. I started crying, and that was the end of that lesson. How did I manage to get hit on the head by a softball, thrown underhand? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that on some level I was trying to repeat that feat the next time he took me to the front yard for another try. I think it took another session or two before he finally gave up. It’s hard, when you’re a little kid, to get out of doing something you really, really don’t want to do, but that your grownups really, really want you to. Getting a boy involved in Sport is one of those things that are more important symbolically than in reality, to prove you’re All Boy, to provide skills that will give you entry to Boy Culture.

But here’s the thing. A few years later, in third and fourth grade, I got interested in softball and played it voluntarily – not very well, because I wasn’t interested enough to work at it very hard. I was, as I remain, a dilettante; plus, it was something to do during recess, when I was not allowed to stay inside and read, which I’d have preferred to do. Your Promiscuous Reader is a control freak, and at least part of my unwillingness to learn softball from my father was that I hadn’t chosen to do it. There were probably other factors, like poor hand-eye coordination when I was younger. Phyllis Burke, in her book Gender Shock, suggests that what is thought to be a genetic or biological cause of homosexuality in boys might actually be a delay in the development of hand-eye coordination, which makes boys do poorly at Sport, which in turn is interpreted as a defect in gender conformity, and by association in sexual orientation. (By which I mean: if a little boy can't play ball and isn't interested in learning how, he'll be considered a sissy, and a sissy is considered queer.) I find this plausible in my case at least. For all that I was a sissy, I was more interested in playing with guns than dolls (though I played with both), and in wearing a Davy Crockett raccoon cap than in wearing my mom’s shoes. (Was I a sissy or a tomboy?) At six and seven I couldn’t master riding a two-wheeled bike, but at nine I climbed on one day and rode off. There is, I think, a lot to be said for letting kids set their own pace in these things – but I digress.

Like many gay boys, I started puberty early and shot up in height ahead of most of my peers. In sixth grade I got interested in basketball, and played for a while on the team of my very tiny three-room school. Again I wasn’t interested enough to work at it very hard, so I didn’t last long. In seventh grade I became student manager of the seventh-grade basketball team, which I remember with some embarrassment now. It wasn’t a ploy to see the players naked in the locker room, since I could see them every day in Phys Ed class. It was more of an attempt to find my way into Boy Culture, to get close and friendly with the boys I was attracted to. (I already knew I was a homosexual, thanks to my reading, though I don’t remember how much I connected that knowledge with my interest in my male peers.) But the intensity of my feelings scared me as I became bossy and possessive of the team, and I backed away.

About a year later, I was sitting on the bleachers during a basketball game when it suddenly struck me how ridiculous the whole thing was. To pretend that other teams and kids from other schools were somehow Other, Inferior, Worthy To Be Defeated made no sense at all. I knew, and everyone else knew, that it wasn’t true, but it was something you had to say was so anyhow. I had already read Orwell’s 1984 by this time, and recognized the manufactured divisions of games and pep rallies as the Two Minutes’ Hate, so I started sneaking off to the auditorium to read during pep rallies until I was caught and made to attend. But if I had to attend, I could at least refuse to participate: I didn’t cheer, wouldn’t stand. It says something for the basic humanity of the kids in my small rural Midwestern school that I wasn’t harassed or beaten up for this; they couldn’t understand why I couldn’t go along with it, but they let me live. I feel a bit foolish now that I didn’t appreciate that fact more at the time.

For some reason I tried running track in high school, but again didn’t stick with it. After I finished my last required Phys Ed class, I vowed never to exercise again, but in my mid-twenties, a woman friend made me go running with her. I had been walking and bicycling anyway, so I found I did quite well: almost immediately I was running two miles in fourteen minutes or less. For about five years I ran several times a week, and continued irregularly into my early forties; it was hard to do alone, and my work schedule made it hard to find partners to run with. This experience taught me that exercise can be fun if you’re not being driven by the competitive, quasi-military mindset of organized Sport. (No Contest, Alfie Kohn's polemic against competition, is relevant here.)

This is why Robert Towne’s Personal Best is one of my favorite films: it rejects that mindset explicitly and unequivocally. (Key scene: Mariel Hemingway says to her vicious, homophobic coach, played by Scott Glenn, “Did anyone ever tell you you’re a sadistic, manipulative creep?” Taken aback, he answers, “Not in so many words, no.”) The photography of the women athletes is inspiring, and for several years I’d start running more regularly after I’d watched the movie. Unlike some intellectuals I don’t feel alienated from my body; I now see exercise, as I long have seen dancing, as a way of going into my physical self and feeling myself complete. That, and not competition, is what I think Sport ought to be, if it must be at all.

A few years ago I was at our small local gay tavern, watching a compilation video of past Olympic events. It included a series of male wrestling bouts, which all concluded with the winner pinning the loser in a quasi-coital position, winner’s groin pressed against loser’s buttocks. “I guess I lack the true competitive instinct,” I told the bartender, “I think they should take turns.” He winked at me and said, “That’s for later, in the locker room.” If only it were so; but I was serious, and not speaking only about sex.