Friday, May 06, 2005

Volleyball tryout Fall 2004

Let me begin with this confession- For the first week of my daughter's high school career I invested far more psychic energy in whether or not she survived her volleyball tryout than whether or not she had the right English teacher. You could certainly argue that this makes my inner volleyball dad more Homer Simpson than Heathcliff Huxtable, but I'm strangely unapolagetic for my overtly misplaced priorities. We learn things in unexpected ways sometimes and I think this most recent experience has reminded me that Spock, the utterly rational Vulcan not Dr. Benjamin, is not the model for parenting or life unless your child has exceptionally pointy ears and a very strong thumb and forefinger.

My first clue came shortly after I posted here a few weeks ago that high school tryouts at schools where most kids play club were essentially a done deal, a kind of volleyball Calvinism. A couple folks pointed out that some of the millions of young players who read this board might be discouraged by this whole predetermination business and react by quitting or not giving their best. I responded that my own daughter was very excited and working very hard for tryouts and I was even encouraging her despite the inherent Calvinist paradox of trying to affect God's will in a universe where God is omniscient enough to divine free will before we actually exercise it. I also started giving my daughter pep talks about Anne Hutchinson's walk to Rhode Island and the Antimonian heresy,its implications for American Democracy, the notion of the "select", and how her chances were better if the coach wanted to run a 6-2 instead of a 5-1. I have to say I still don't understand why kids this age don't listen to their parents more closely. In any case, I was relieved that there no reports of swarms of girls dropping out of tryouts this fall because my post had destroyed their illusions that they would be the outside hitting equivalent of say Julia Stiles in Save the Last Dance or Billy Elliot. fwiw. Had he been a volleyball player, I'm pretty sure that Billy Elliot would have hit goofy-footed. I did have an easier time explaining to my 14 year old that the real world is not much like reality tv. In the real world no one becomes the Frito Delivery man's new wife in six one hour tryouts packaged as weekly episodes, nor does anyone consider finding a woman who has already been married 3 times all that romantic a match. She also informed me that she'd much rather go to the high school in Clueless than the one in Save the Last Dance or American Pie, after which she assured me that she had only seen the tv version of American Pie not the DVD director's cut. Oh yeah, what was my first clue? Despite my insistence that this tryout was a done deal, the closer it got to Labor Day the more palpably nervous we were. Each time we picked her up from the pre-season camp, we would ask her things like “Was it fun?" or “Are you excited about the start of school?" Anything, but the obvious question, “What was your competition like?” She would respond with one word answers, con us into getting something to eat together, then start talking about camp from the perspective of a kid who definitely wasn’t sure how the next few days would turn out. We would ask her more questions “Who the other kids her age?” “Did she like the coach?” “What kind of drills were they doing?” One day, I walked by as the coach was telling her to watch Robyn Ah Mow-Santos in the Olympics that day. I found myself trying to analyze the coach’s tone of voice, body language, looked for clues to my daughter’s fate in every word, as I ran it back on my digital voice recorder. For thirty minutes that day, we searched the internet and the satellite schedules to figure out when the heck and on what NBC sub-channel they broadcast the freaking volleyball match. She caught it in time to see the US miss a bunch of serves in the fifth game against the Dominican Republic, which I suspect has far fewer girls playing club volleyball. School started, as did the three plus days of formal tryouts. The first day we both wound up showing up early to pick her up, we didn’t dare go in the gym during the tryout least our presence got her nervous enough to affect her performance. At one point I tried to peak through the glass doors and Mrs. Boris came up to me and said “Don’t you dare.” In the meantime, I walked around the fringes of pockets of other parents also there much earlier than needed. As I pretended to check my cell phone, I strained to listen to their conversations as they handicapped various girls chances of making the team. My daughter’s name never came up at her position, but I reminded myself that we had come from a different feeder middle school than most of the players. One mother confessed that her daughter decided not to play club last year and that she was hoping to have improved enough anyway. I made a mental check, “One less kid to worry about.” In fact, there were a few players who ultimately made the varsity who never played club. Bottom line, this volleyball dad is miserable, petty, human being, someone who should be doing “Opposition Research” for Carl Rove not someone who should be raising children. While some of the other parents were outwardly encouarging one another about how athletic their daughters were, I told myself they’re just trying to force a compliment back. While some parents were downsizing expectations by saying things like “She’ll just be happy to make the freshman team, we just want her to have a good time, she only started playing last May, etc.", my inner volleyball parent was boiling over with grandiose fantasies for my own kid. While it would have been nice if I sat down and introduced myself to the other parents, I think in retrospect it was wiser for me not to. As much as I tried to pose as a laid back parent just picking his daughter up, inner volleyball dad would have revealed his predatory self. As the tryout ended and girls trickled out of the gym, the next thing I saw was a group of parents who’d been watching the whole time come out as well. The next day went much the same, though this time Mrs. Boris and I coordinated better so that just one of us was dropping her off and the other was picking her up. Again I stood off the fringes of the parents who knew one another. At one point though, I almost slipped badly. The “H” word had come up in the form of “We’re just hoping she grows in the next year or so...”This segued into the Olympics and how this tiny Stacy Skyora, the US libero was doing so well, so there was hope for really small players. This, of course, is the thing I forgot, it was the same mother who was talking about her daughter being small. Had Mrs. Boris been there, she would have stopped me, but I jumped in and said, “Actually, she’s 5’10” or at least that’s what they list her at. She was an outside hitter at Texas A&M.” I have no idea why she looks so short on tv except that she kepts standing in the huddle next to Haneef and Scott, but I don’t blame people for thinking that Skyora is 5’2” based on NBC broadcasts which seem more interested in who posed in FHM than the actual match. I did have the good sense to cut myself short. The next thing I was going to say was,"My older daughter had to block against her in the NCAA’s.” Which the manic inner volleyball dad would have segued into a story about how the Lantagnes always intertwined with our volleyball fantasies in a bad way and thus totally blowing my cover and any pretense that I was anything but a low rent volleyball version of Stephan Capriati or Mary Pierce’s dad. Sort of like For Love or Money, this is our second time through at this high school. Our older daughter went here many years ago and was reasonably successful on the volleyball court. They’re eight years apart and don’t look very much alike, so the other parents outside the gym likely had no idea that we’d been around before or that I was one of those parents who write the local newspaper to complain repeatedly about the lack of local volleyball coverage while his kid is still playing. Anyway, the last thing we would have wanted was for other people to know that and then have the younger one not make the team. Not surprisingly, the other parents went back to their conversation without me and I found myself walking the fringes of the gym and pretending not to look through the glass doors for an oblique view of the drama inside.On the last day of tryouts, I did gather the courage to go inside the gym. The three courts inside seemed to be sorted from tallest and most experienced downwards. I was happy to find that my own kid was on what I thought was an appropriate court and told myself “See, it was a done deal after all.” Still, American Calvinism is less self-defeating than one might think for one simple reason. The “Select” might already be selected, but we don’t know for sure if we are selected nor does anyone else who’s neither God nor the high school volleyball coach. Instead of being fatalistic about God’s will, the same religious tradition spawned Weberian protestant/capitalists who saw hard work as a proof of virtue since everyone devotes his or her life to proving to everyone else that he or she had already been designated as among the “Select” even if the choosing actually happened before the trying. Essentially, a very stern religious determinism played out as something more like “What the Bleep Do We Really Know?”, because of the observer’s quantum influenced perspective. In other words, as far as you’re concerned, you don’t know and you act accordingly by doing everything you can to reassure yourself and convince others that you must be one of the select because of the things you do. That night, we drove home still twitching with nervous energy. It didn’t matter that the next day was the third day of school or that I had various work obligations, all we could see was this bulletin board where the coaches were going to be posting the names of the select and their assigned circles of varsity to freshman grace after the last tryout the next day.
Both Mrs. Boris and I made attempts as we had all summer to say the Heathcliff Huxtable thing. “We're proud of you no matter how hard it turns out and you’re on the team that matters to us, the one of people who know what it means to try their best. The rest is out of your control.” To our daughter, we were saying “Yada, yada....” No matter what we said, the plainer fact was that it would be an emotional challenge for us if her name didn’t show up on that bulletin board. Even though she’s young, she was emotionally insightful enough to remind us that our words were out of synch with what we were feeling. “Are you telling me that I might not make it?” she asked. This was important to her, to us, and we’d invested a lot of time and energy in helping something happen that we did not control. Negotiating this artfully, when I think about it, may be the essence of parenting in general. Saying the “right thing” wasn’t going to make any of us feel the “right way” that evening. The artful thing to do would probably have been to give her reassurances that fell short of making promises and just acknowledge that we were nervous for her too, but I’ll have to save mastery of that for my next life. I was at work the next day. I got a call from my wife saying they would be late because the lists were going up at 6:30 not 6:00. I kept reminding myself that this was my daughter’s life, not mine. I had and should have other priorities. There was nothing I could do to affect what was about to happen. Of course, none of this mattered. I had been restless all day because I knew how much it mattered to her. My cell phone rang at 6:35, a good sign. It was my wife’s number but my daughter’s voice. “Dad, I made the team.” For three months, I was reasonably certain that she would, yet I hadn’t dared verbalize it except to Mrs. Boris or our older daughter (who’s fault these high expectations were in the first place :}). But this was one of those perfect moments for us. It didn’t matter that our neighbor’s dog had killed our cat a few days earlier or that the neighbor was refusing to pay the 1300 dollar vet bill. It didn’t matter that my country year after mission accomplished is in the midst of mounting even accelerating casualties and more terror alerts, a record national deficit, and a broken social safety net, was devoting all its energy to a discussion of whether or not everyone who had a purple heart was really wounded and everyone who was honorably discharged really fulfilled all obligations 32 years ago. This just felt good. That petty vicious over-protective inner volleyball dad didn’t jump out of me to beat his chest or do impressions of Terrell Owens. It was more just a big wave of relief washed over us. We could celebrate instead of console and our daughter had met a goal that was important to her. When she got home, she talked about how her coach cried when she posted the lists because she knew that some players would be so upset by the result. I took this as a sign that the coach cares about the individuals on the cut list as much as her starters, a good thing for someone who spent her own playing career as a star. She also mentioned how the coach was right. Several of the girls took it very hard and she’d taken care not to overreact to her own good news. One of many signs that my own kid’s emotional intelligence is much higher than mine and a much deeper reason for the sane parent and the inner volleyball dad to celebrate. Why do I feel okay about having transformed a high school tryout into a major emotional event in our household? Sometimes, current events inform personal events. For the last month, I’ve watched people argue about what happened or didn’t happen with two men during Vietnam. From any logical perspective, this would seem like a true sign of the fall of the American political system. Elections should be about the present and the future and should take the form of thoughtful debates about significant modern issues. While it’s easy to criticize the media for hyping this cultural garbage, the truth is that the infotainment media in all forms whether it’s Fox News or Dan Rather will air what Americans will tune in to. Emotional time and calendar time are different things. Any novelist or poet would tell you what political pundits can’t seem to understand: that the American psyche has never come to terms with losing the war in Vietnam. In cultural-emotional terms, that war was yesterday not 30 years ago. Before we choose our direction in a time when some insist that the possibility of terrorism must be preempted with invasion even before we can prove the threat exists or that militarily imposed Democracy in Iraq will be the first domino for stability in the Middle East, we must finish processing why the Domino theory of Communism didn’t happen thirty years ago and American military power seemed to have its limits in keeping Southeast Asia anti-communist. At a very primal level, Americans don’t believe it’s about the deficit or prudent legislation. It’s still about Vietnam and whether those who ultimately opposed the war we’re right to do so. Is America the Shaquille/Kobe of the world, simply able to accomplish whatever it wants through military might or are we the US Olympic team suddenly aware of our own vulnerability, forced to cooperate and learn from the rest of the world as a humble superpower?
I’d also suggest that for Iraqis, it’s still about the Crusades and the spirit of the great Kurdish leader, Saladin which was much more than 30 years ago, the broken promise of self-rule delivered through T.E. Lawrence some 80 years ago for Arabs who rebelled against the Turks and immortalized by Lowell Thomas to some of the first American filmgoers in one of the earliest mixes of news and entertainment.
As an adult, I have never met other adults who tell me they were traumatized when they got a C on an English test. Occasionally, they tell me that they didn’t get into the right college, but academic life is not in the heart of most American teenagers. I’ve met any number of adults who have never stopped talking about getting turned down by or not having the sense or nerve to ask the right person to the prom or who didn’t make their football or basketball team. They may be in their late forties now, but as they tell it you know that it was just yesterday for them. I don’t know if the fact that this is true is the sign of a healthy culture. I do know that I’d be foolish to ignore it or to insist that my own child and family were immune from these feelings. I am grateful that my daughter gets to look back on this first tryout as a time she set a goal for herself, worked hard, and got rewarded. I am painfully aware that the rest of her life may well see as many disappointments as happy moments, even in this volleyball season. For now, I’m just happy that she’s happy and that her first couple weeks of high school gave her something she’ll probably always remember fondly.
Every season, someone gets cut whether from high school, the club’s number 1 team, or Winthrop. I imagine if any those folk have been reading this board, they often quietly slip away afterwards. It takes courage to try out for something where someone can and will say no. Volleyball is a venue where our kids do that innumerable times, for club, for high school, for college, for junior national teams. Some of my biggest regrets in life are for those times when I didn’t have the nerve to take the risk or make a serious effort. I’d like to think that all the time we spend here helps give our daughters the confidence to have that nerve whether it’s applying for a job, keeping a husband in line, to go out for another team, to go to war to defend an ideal, or to refuse to go to war to defend an ideal. It takes the same courage to go out and not to make it as it does for those lucky enough to make the team. I hope that courage serves those who made teams and those who didn’t make the right team equally well in the many far more important challenges they have coming to them. I hope my kid grows up to be the sort of person who has the courage to keep trying for what she wants and who can still cry if she ever has to cut someone who gave her best.


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