Friday, July 24, 2009

The Playground

I’ve played pickup basketball with regularity since I was about 20 years old. An athlete for life in other disciplines, I started hoop late, and paid for it. For years my skills lagged behind my physical abilities, and I paid my dues on macadam and hardwood across the country, wherever I lived, coming up to speed on how the game is played. Not just the dribbling, shooting and passing, but the way the parts moved in harmony, how 10 people worked together to create this flowing game.

Pickup is universal. Anywhere in the country, the world, anyplace where they have a ball and two hoops, the rules are the same, with only minor variations. With no refs, subjective calls and guys banging into each other all over the court, it shouldn’t work, it can’t possibly hold together, but it does. The string of the game binds the flying parts, and all 10 players subject themselves to the whole.

The rules are always similar, but never the same. The play is to 7, or 9, or 10, or 11, or 21, and by twos, or ones, or twos and threes. Different levels of contact are allowed, but always within certain bounds. You call your own fouls. Sometimes charges and blocks are called, sometimes that’s taboo. But it’s always basketball. And there’s always one element that never changes, that’s present everywhere, and cannot be escaped.

The playground.

There’s a reason it’s called the playground. All those rules of elementary school still apply here. It’s survival of the fittest, strongest, fastest. You are only as good as what you can produce today. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, the color of your skin, your size, your pedigree – all that matters is whether you can ball. It’s the ultimate meritocracy. You might have to deal with some hazing on a new court, to prove yourself, to take the heckling and the fouls, but eventually, you’ll be accepted for your ability to ball. Walk inside those lines, and leave everything else behind. It’s just you.

You and your fear.

Make no mistake. No sport is more mental than basketball. The difference in a shot going in or out , of an attacking dribble working or not, of getting a board, is all about the space between the ears. You are intimidated, either overtly or subtly, every step of the game. You are tested and berated, found to measure up or found wanting, on every possession. You are force fed an immediate gauge of your value and worth. It changes court to court, game to game. King of the court, team goat, you. All the phases, all the time.

All those childhood emotions of the playground still live here. The fear, intimidation, elation, gloating, teasing, pain, and joy, now presented for adults. All those emotions we run through everyday but never describe, and often don’t even acknowledge. They are laid bare before your feet on the pickup court. There’s a reason ballers call it the playground. Welcome to all the worst of your childhood fears.

I’ve played pickup for 20 years. I’ve just turned 40, and though I’ve always been fast, the college kids can now outquick me at times. The can certainly outjump me. My body aches when I play, but it aches more the next day. It takes me half a game just to get warm. I won’t be able to play this game forever. I’m trying to hold on long enough to play pickup with my son, who’s 7. We play all the time in the driveway. He already understands the rules. Not the rules to the game, but the rules to the playground. It’s inate, in all of us, waiting to prey on our minds. Waiting to test us.

As for me? My body is getting weaker. I’m the star of the court less and less. I’ll keep coming back to the playground, however, as long as I can, because it’s given me a gift, one of the most precious I could ever ask for.

The 20 years of constant measurement, the yardsticks, the fronting, the staredowns all have had an effect, slowly working like water on stone. The tempering that comes from that has changed me. The playground no longer owns me. All those childhood fears? For almost every adult out there, they live on, and crop up just below consciousness in our professions, our relationships, our day to day lives. For me, they’re gone. Beaten, burned and burnished out of my mind over 20 years of the playground, of facing the never ending challenges of the court, and having to learn how to survive there.

Play pickup long enough, and the ball will change you. That sliver of doubt that pulls you down, that fear in the back of your mind in the face of a difficult moment, it’ll just be gone. And you’ll stand there in that moment, in the face of your job, or your relationships, or the world, and you’ll find the moment won’t own you. You won’t be worried about winning or losing, or looking foolish, or failing – you won’t be worried at all. The moment will try to stare you down. And, in that instant, instead of wilting, you’ll find yourself starting right back at it, and answering.

“Let’s Ball.”

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Trouble With Logical Arguments In A Public Arena

As a civic volunteer on a local planning board, I often run into public debate (primarily regarding the provision of housing and density along with the changing nature of cities.)  One side will get up and state its case, then the other side, and the logical arguments rage on and on seemingly without end.  After a couple of years of this I started noticing that there was dissonance in the meaning of applied terms in this setting.  For example, “density” didn’t mean the same thing to each person.  It carried different images, connotations and results within each person’s head, and that was not resolvable through logic.

Taken further, let’s assume two people are arguing different sides of the issue.  One person feels density should be allowed on a site.  They argue their point and make an airtight logical argument that is unassailable.  When the person on the other side doesn’t capitulate, our density proponent writes them off as being unreasonable or arbitrary.  Trouble is, for that other person, the logic of the argument is flawed.  How can this be, after all, logic is logic, right?  There must be one right answer.

The issue arises from the a priori assumptions of the two debaters.  The argument is being poised to satisfy the value judgments inherent in the person, which are what the debate arises from, and against which the logical flow is judged.  Take an extreme (and very basic) example.  Let’s debate whether a chunk of sandstone is hard.  Should be simple.  However, the meaning of the word “hard” has not be defined, and frankly can’t be defined without other debates which will further introduce undefined and not agreed-to terms.  The result of this is the ability for someone to take a different comparative definition of hard as the base assumption, and argue that the sandstone is not hard compared to, say, quartz.  Obvious, but this is an example of the presupposed value systems we all have that most of the time never enter the argument.

In the public arena these example are never obvious.  We never take the time to try to come to a common ground on these meanings, let alone agree on a common value system.  Without that discussion, we have arguments on things like density, with one group “pro” and one group “against”, without the acknowledgment or understanding that the two groups are talking about completely different things.

Additionally, the importance placed on value judgments in these discussions never considers that people have different core beliefs.  What is “good” to one person is not necessarily “good” to another.  As a democracy, we do not have a nationalized directive of values, and we are left to muddle through these discussions to see who can convince the decision makers, be it a judging body or a populous.

I have come to the belief that the meat of these public debates should reside less in logic.  The immediate response to this is always that the only other path is rhetoric, which is used to essentially mean emotional arguments which aim only to convince, not to enlighten.  This side is equally dubious, for reasons that are more apparent to our logically trained minds.

The truth is in the middle.  Both logic and rhetoric are tools used to help us find the truth, excellence, some sort of absolute.  All the interpretations of rules and laws to sway our minds, all the stories of woe and promise that are aimed at swaying our hearts, all of this is paper thin.  Somewhere, at the end of the path, is something virtuous. 

I have found this to be much less arbitrary.  When aimed at virtue, logic and emotion hold far more power, are far more valuable, and make far more sense.  There are many logical constructs that are “correct” based on the assumptions that fuel them.  There are far fewer conclusions that can be called virtuous. 

Marcus Aurelius: “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be.  Be one.”




Friday, January 07, 2005

Windmill Tilting 101.

Pointless, no doubt.