This may be beating a dead horse but the horse won’t care so I’m going to do it anyways because it isn’t my fault the horse died in the first place.
Today, I am depressed. Sitting in this corner coffee shop staring at my unfinished young adult novel whose flittering fragile life and completion hinges upon only my desire. Like many, I would love to be paid to write books, poems, prose or maybe even dinner menus, anything where my creativity could be given the gift of freedom and appreciation. But I am not, not even close. Sure I can self publish children’s books, sure I can write articles pro bono, maybe a funny Facebook post, but soon the cost of living in the technology bubble of San Francisco will call me back to an actual paying job to meet these absurd rent costs. Or I will have to move in with the likes of Martin who has feasted upon the swollen teats of mother Google for almost a decade now.
Humph. I stare out the the window at stacked houses yet all I can see is the piled up hours I’ve spent spinning the 26 letters of the alphabet that often end up as misspelled words and I am forced to see that my passion does not equal pay. It’s quite sad to think that I will “never make it as a writer,” that I will never sign a bazillion dollar book deal or have Oprah tell me my book inspired her to feed all the children and cheetahs in Africa (I almost replaced the previous “and” with “to the” but figured PETA would get upset because of the lack of nutritional value in starving African children). More importantly it means I may never get to buy a beautiful Tesla Model S and join the growing swarms of electric cars that have procreated like bunnies in the past few months.
And so I sit here in a heap. Eeyore would be impressed at my ability to wallow in my own thistle bush of self-loathing thought. Just as the last bit of cranberry scone goes down my hatch I realize the parallels of being an unpaid writer and being an ultimate frisbee player and I remembered going through this exact same battle about 5 years ago. This is how it went.
It was battle. On one side stood the idea of playing football: arena, Canadian, maybe NFL. I had worked hard on every event in the combine, getting my 40 time below 4.4, making my broad jump longer than 11 feet and my vertical above 36”. The Oakland Raiders’ terribly skilled draft picks led me to believe that superior athleticism was good enough to get a spot on a team. I am by no means claiming I would have been successful but I was definitely ready physically to at least give it an honest shot. The only problem was that my mind hesitated, for on the other side of the battle stood ultimate, the sport I had been enjoying playing at a high level.
To the common man this battle is probably laughable, not even a battle at all. Football is a well-respected billion dollar powerhouse business that celebrates some of the world’s biggest and strongest humans. The fame, the money, the cars, and the playboy models are all just part of the tapestry that make up America’s most-watched sport and gives its players a majestic mantle of respect along with a constant adoration of prominent ESPN anchors.
On the other side was ultimate, the lowly hippie pastime born from a pie tin. A sport expected to have a tie dye frisbee floating about a park on a puff of pot smoke and then fetched by well-trained but also high border collies. There is no mantle or even a bracelet of respect that comes with saying you play, only a glance of incredulity and confusion as you complete a grueling hill workout in the chilly fog-filled evenings that are the mainstay of a San Francisco summer. Two things for sure are that ultimate does not pay the bills and the ESPN anchors have a hard time keeping the snark from their snippets about any frisbee highlight.
Of course, I see ultimate in a different light. To me, it embodies what a sport should be: easy to set up, easy to learn, easy to play, hard to master. Required teamwork links together the individual battles that take place across the field, each player responsible for their role while helping to protect a teammate’s weakness. Sprinting, leaping, throwing, catching, field awareness, the list of possible skills that make up a great ultimate player could fill a page easily and that would barely scratch the surface of what makes a great ultimate team. The parallels between this team sport and life are everywhere: the commitment, the constant training, the hardships, the small victories, the grand failures, and the constant pursuit of future goals that will always wait just out of reach. I grew up playing every sport imaginable and I can tell you I have never felt so full of fatigue, so relieved of desire and so utterly blissful as when I complete a difficult ultimate tournament. My first year playing competitively for Colorado University’s Mamabird taught me more about myself than the 20 years that came before. I learned what passion meant, what chasing a dream was all about, how fear and failure can become monsters if we let them and that I can push myself beyond what I thought was possible. And I learned it all from my teammates and coach who soon became good friends which made winning the national championship that first year much sweeter. Simply said, it’s easier for me to say “I love you” to ultimate than it is to my girlfriend.
My coffee has cooled, the window lets in too much light. A pretty girl typing on the couch ignores my playful staring and I continue my self diagnostic. If my heart was rooted in ultimate, why did I even think of playing football? Where was the battle? Money of course.
Fabricated or not, the allure of possessing lots of money is a huge part of our society and unfortunately carries the misconception of being the ONLY thing that depicts how good you are. Back then I believed this myth and absolutely thought my athletic abilities were worthy of vast stacks of moolah or they would count for nothing. I was working at a Best Buy-type store getting paid eight dollars an hour to make up information about computers I knew nothing about and convincing middle-age ladies that my charming smile was a good enough reason to buy the most expensive computer with a BS insurance plan. I was ready to give up ultimate to chase the dream of fast money, ready to leave that job, ready to leave my friends and even ready to leave my girlfriend. Whatever it took. I was blinded by the idea that money could prove my worth and show the world I was a real athlete.
So I did what I always do when a predicament pops up: I read some books. A few on philosophy, a couple on athletes, I stood upon the shoulders of others far wiser than I and dissected the battle. If I went the NFL route I probably would, at best, be a backup to a backup sent to chase the football on kickoffs, playing for some crappy team in some desolate city whose economy is so dismal the fans make football a religion and swear their star player is the Second Coming. I doubted I would be happy, training hard yet hardly ever even getting to step on the field while risking the plethora of injuries associated with playing football and the head problems that now come guaranteed. Of course, the $350,000 league minimum salary was the massive price tag hanging around the broken neck of unhappiness and health risks. With the thought of money still blocking all other thoughts in my head, the battle stood at a stalemate.
Then one day I got insight. It wasn’t from MLK, Gandhi, Lincoln, or any of the other great speakers. Nope, instead it was a masterpiece in cinematography that moved me: one of the “Fast and Furious” movies; the specific one escapes me, as they blend together like Vin Diesel’s muscles after about the sixth one. Anyways, I left the theater with two take away messages — first, always drive as fast as you can, and second, pursuing life goals will mean more if done with good friends. It only took a smidgen more soul rummaging to see the best option was to stay with the sport I loved, with the friends I loved, and with the community that accepted me for who I was. I am not sure how the NFL would have handled the concept of my being bi and having an open relationship with my girlfriend but I doubt it would be with same gracious curiosity that the ultimate community has shown me. With my firm decision tucked into my mandatory red apron, I continued dispensing computers with a grin to the tune of eight dollars an hour and vowed to become the best ultimate player I could be.
My coffee gets a refill, the Pandora station switches to Lindsey Stirling and my flirtatious gaze gives up on the cute girl and switches over to the cute guy who has just sat down next to her. He is wearing thick black rimmed glasses and hopefully speaks with a European accent though he doesn’t say a word. That’s fine. He would never live up to my imagination and I am not done thinking. Since I made my decision to choose ultimate, what have I gotten from playing? I think back to the recent escapade of being a part of Team USA at the World Games in Colombia where money wasn’t an issue because all necessities of life were taken care of and all we had to do was concentrate on playing our sport (except for the distracting team bus that randomly emerged and disappeared like a fat green gopher with Alzheimers). It only takes three swigs of coffee to catch a taste of a couple obvious answers.
First and foremost on the list are the people that I get to call teammates. They are my adversaries at practice, my preachers in huddles, my crutches when I stumble and my friends through all of it. They push me physically and stretch me mentally, all I have to do is be susceptible to improvement and make sure I don’t pull a mental hamstring trying to keep up with their engineering jargon. Every ultimate team I have played for has been consistently lush in character and taught me things that school teachers never could or would and the 2013 World Games team was a great example. For the World Games, the ultimate community had to be distilled down into 13 players plus two coaches, a process that by its very nature had to extract tears of disappointment and frustration from many deserving players before eventually leaving a humble brew worthy of representing the USA. Thankful for the opportunity and driven by thoughts of friends who were not so fortunate, we excelled in our pursuit of attacking each moment as it tried to wiggle by. Quite early on it became our team motto that “Love is King” and that we would passionately do King Love’s bidding no matter what kind of facts attempted to breach our moat. (I am personally not endorsing love, results may vary and love should always be handled with care.)
With this loving portfolio of personalities we built one huge bonfire using naked camaraderie and legitimate compassion to burn off all the egos and selfishness that sometimes burden great teams. Once personal barriers had been broken down, team chemistry grew almost organically. It flourished rapidly to cover up many of the weeds of weaknesses that sprouted up at our practices so that by the time the actual Games started we knew that real trust was spread like a safety net right below should any of us falter and fall. Luckily we didn’t fall and we swung away on a trapeze of tribulations with a gold medal, proving yet again that a co-ed team that showers together will be clean enough to snuggle together and hence play as a team.
Second is the shaping of our sport. All successful sports started with a healthy stew spiced by passion yet garnished with competing vision. Our sport is no different and it is still being simmered in the cast iron pans of infancy, the fires of change swirl about with the top teams and players having a chance to really flavor the final dish. If I play well enough when the general public finally decides to sample ultimate frisbee they could say “What a nice flavor, is that a hint of Beau I taste or is that just burnt garlic.” This shaping I speak of was displayed by Team USA when we got the rare opportunity to be a chef starting from scratch.
At the World Games, the people of Cali Columbia harbored no preconceived notions about ultimate, or as it was called during the event, Flying Disc. They didn’t know what they were “supposed” to think of Flying Disc or the athletes that played it and we weren’t going to tell them. We weren’t going to tell them because we didn’t speak Spanish very well and we weren’t going to tell them because we wanted to show them firsthand and let them decide. We were working with a blank page. When we took the field together we began to draw out the finesse, camaraderie and athleticism of our sport, shading it with concentration and determination. At first we had to use the eraser a lot and it wasn’t pretty, with smudges and splotches covering the page but soon the strokes relaxed, the pencil began to flow and the people began to see the picture and were intrigued by what it was. Before long we threw away the pencil and moved on to bold and colorful paints and big bristling brushes, dashing and diving we painted the field with great plays, a kindred spirit and a confident grace. According to a news report Flying Disc was the most watched sport at the World Games, and according to my eyes and ears we had painted the picture that represented our sport well. Using our Love we installed a love of the sport in the people who came to watch and those people in turn showed us what open minds and kind hearts can do for the growth of a sport.
Which brings me barreling headlong right smack into my last idea. The age old “what if”. What if fame, change or incredible fortune come crawling, falling, or dragged kicking and screaming into our sport?
Refs or observers, sponsored or grassroots, MLU or AUDL, NexGen or ESPN , the game is growing up before our eyes and we don’t own this game anymore than parents or guardians own their children. If I had to guess, I would say ultimate is in its teenage years. We can be bad parents that demand obedience, threaten punishment, complain about change and bicker about family rules — just remember eventually this game will mature, move on and leave you to be loved by someone else. Or we can be good parents, even if we decide to get a divorce to go separate ways. Good parents that teach ethics by example and show support for all the awkwardly growing, pimple pinching, voice cracking changes our sport will endure as it explores all the possible venues that make growing up great. When we step on the field, no matter the size, no matter the slight rule variances or the brand name of the disc or the amount of refs, we can play with the integrity this great game deserves. You never know which young whippersnapper is sitting in the stands watching and is going to show up on your doorstep one day to take the sport you raised on a first date in a Tesla Model X that he got for a signing bonus. This kid who learned everything from watching you will leave holding your game tight and you will think to yourself was I a good parent? A good mentor? A good role model? A good person? Or will you think, dang, I was a stifling prick with narrow minded indoctrinations who got caught cheating all the time and now this kid who idolized me is taking my game to a frat party called “Hog ties and heffalumps” and I forgot to set a curfew.
A bagel with cream cheese calls my name, my novel is whimpering about how I still haven’t found an editor and the rest of the coffee shop has become devoid of cute people to be smitten with. I am a little less depressed and will give Eeyore his thistles back. Who knows, hopefully one day my passion for writing/creating will swing around to align with a living wage and one of my books can replace the sexy vampire fetish that sucks the literary to a mindless husk. As for Flying Disc, I look forward to being a part of the changes; the 2013 Team USA was proof that ultimate can take the big stage with big money and still remain true to the values of good sportsmanship that this sport should aspire to. And in the meantime, I heard Best Buy is looking for more employees who don’t know anything about what they are selling and my grin has been buried beneath this novel for far too long.
Alright, I am done with this horse, it is ready to be glue.