“All these weirdos, and me getting a little better every day right in the midst of them. I had never known, never even imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us.”
-Denis Johnson, Jesus Son.
Why do I write? Well, I could give you some bullshit on the terrifying lust I found for Flannery O’Connor or being inspired by the activist fiction of George Saunders, but the truth, like many things human, is inescapably selfish. I write because I need to be loved, and I know that these words are more beautiful than I can ever be. But to answer the question of why I need to be loved (even if that love is terrifying), is something I could not find in any fiction; fiction is inherently a lie. And you cannot use a lie to explore a universal truth, that truth being that all of us need love.
So I tried to turn to science, the coldly rational beast, to savage my curiosity.
I read psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who developed attachment theory — the notion that human infants are born with a brain system that promotes safety by instinctually bonding with the mother and the love she provides. Then, Harry Harlow, who gave infant monkeys a choice: Food or a wire mother they could hold. They choose the mother every time. Then Mary Ainsworth who observed that a mother’s love was the most reliable predictor of future success; if her infants felt secure they would have secure futures. But most interesting to me was the idea of imprinting. Konrad Lorenz discovered that if no mother was present, ducklings would trail after him instead. Because he was the first thing they saw, he was the first thing they loved.
Imprinting spoke to me the most as an adopted son. Matt Dagher was my name until my mother met Gary Margosian and the hyphen he brought in his briefcase. An eccentric public defender who fancied cowboy boots and rhetoric far bigger than his 5’7″ height (once, after hearing a guilty verdict, he lay across the defendant’s table and laughed until he was held in contempt). He brought two daughters from a different marriage, and we would soon add my half-brother Michael. This was my first community: a group of outsiders, without choice or say. A patchwork quilt that held the warmth of family.
I miss that kind of love, as innocent and unconditional as those ducklings following Lorenz across his lawn. But the dark side of imprinting is that even when the love given is perverse, it is still what you prefer, or know. I saw this the second time I was adopted by Western Michigan University, my first college ultimate team. Far away from my family and their unconditional love, I was thrust into a situation where the love here was not unconditional. Far from it; love had to be earned, and any failure to earn that love was punished.
Back in 2007, I was not Matthew Dagher-Margosian, I was just some “fat faggot” in the eyes of Western Michigan Ultimate, who would stay fat (and I’m assuming a faggot) until I earned my love. My shame was so deep I couldn’t train on Western’s campus. I discovered that by crossing the WMU tennis courts, I could descend down a hill and into a valley, which gave way to a huge field on Kalamazoo College’s campus, It was here under moonlight, sweat covering me like pastry glaze, that I ran, jiggling and angry. Beyond the fog of my glasses, the constellations hung incomplete, with lesser stars swallowed by the headlights of passing cars. Why does the fat boy on the hill think this is love, and why is he willing to work so hard for it?
Because if the love you’ve known is cruelty, then cruelty becomes the love you need. We can only follow what we know.
Love makes all of us its prisoner. For some it is a solitary sentence, others are reluctantly paroled, but the very rare, or very lucky, are born with gifts that will forever let them be free. In her book Survival of the Prettiest, psychologist Nancy Etcoff calls this ‘The Injustice of the Given’. It’s based off the writer Jim Harrison, who used this phrase in describing the male envy and female fawning Brad Pitt inspired on the set of his film Legends of the Fall. In case you’ve never seen Mr. Harrison or Mr. Pitt, and not be able to immediately tell who is the writer and who is the actor, Dr. Etcoff explains:
“Didn’t democratic societies ban the aristocracy and level the playing field? Perhaps this (belief) is also why we are so easily persuaded by the idea that beauty is attainable through the usual democratic means… If it confers elite status then we must make it an elitism based on effort and achievement, not an a priori advantage.”
The hard headed refusal I’ve had through my entire life is that despite often being ugly or selfish (both inside and out), I could earn beauty, and the love that came with it.
But why ultimate? Well, I suppose it had the lowest threshold for entry, the easiest bar to clear. The fact that ultimate currently MUST foster a culture of adoption to replenish its ranks was the main advantage (when your mine of talent is shallow, you must polish every rock to find the gems). The tired narrative is that ultimate adopts sons and daughters from other sports or walks of life they were not good enough to star in, and for these immigrants offers an approximation of the American Dream: Give us your poor and huddled masses, and if you work hard you can be somebody!
The D-3 basketball player who laces up and becomes a looming monster. The high school volleyball player transformed into Hermes when she glides towards plastic. And yes, those who don’t fit in anywhere else. We’re all given space on these fields, to try and earn our love, but at what cost? That certain individuals are worthy or unworthy? That love, can be earned? Economists now say that “associative mating” is one of the biggest drivers of income inequality in the U.S: Ivy Leaguers and dynastic scions inter-marrying like the trellised plants of their namesake. Disgusting I know, but is our sport any different? Aren’t we also driving the inequalities of love? You worked hard to get on your club team, you’re told you’re awesome for being on that team, so you love your team and only those who work as hard as you have worth or merit. And the harder you work at what loves you, the more it becomes the only thing you love.
Lorenz would chuckle, knowing that it gets worse. The first thing that loves us imprints on us and a college freshman is no better than a duckling blindly waddling, looking for love to follow. So what choice did I have, besides running those hills until I threw up? This was the love I encountered as a freshman, being called a “fat faggot” and branded with nicknames. “Leave them!” You say, reading this paragraph. But I couldn’t. Besides my family, I knew of no other love.
The next day, my bucolic roommate entered our dorm room and let it be known: I needed to make my presence scarce while he dry-humped his girlfriend to Toby Keith ballads. So I went back to the Kalamazoo College hills and fields. Past the tennis courts, I descended down the hill and into the valley. It was daytime and filled with students, reading books I never heard of (Foucault? Some lady who didn’t capitalize her first name, bell Hooks?), In between their liberal-arts education, a few were playing sports. Of course it was the disc, hovering like a UFO which abducted my attention.
I watched the plastic disc flow through hands of nameless boys running on grass. Some in cleats and sweat-wicking jerseys of their summer club teams. Others wild and savage; in cork-board sandals, jorts or fraying dreadlocks. In the randomness of this small liberal arts college, Westminster purebreds and back-alley mutts could all be found in the same animal shelter. There was no lithe, praying-mantis uniformity I associated with the bodies of elite ultimate frisbee players, their team was randomly assembled like a toddler gathers legos. Some fat, others thin, some blazingly fast, others Comcast slow. I couldn’t tell you just how strange that felt, as no one was concerned with proving their worth or belonging.
“Hey dude, you want to come play with us?”
An invitation with no expectations; it reminded me of my family. There was no need to earn love, it had already been given.
For one glorious fall, I snuck away from WMU practices and smiled through my drops, my rusty tin-man mechanics, and my nickname, which here wasn’t a taunt or symbol of failure. People called me Dagher, then in a pique of inspiration, philosophy-major Matt Robshaw (who had the words: Courage, Wisdom, Compassion tattooed over this body) expanded this to Daghertron, then (perhaps worrying about copyright infringement) Daghertron LTD. Bellowing this every time he saw me, his voice a clarion trumpet that let others know this interloper was welcome.
For the first time in my life, I had a community besides my family that accepted me with no reservations. In that community, I got to live a somewhat normal college life: as a pudgy self-absorbed pseudo-intellectual. Before having to choose between the love of these two college teams, my two fathers also gave me the lesson that love can either be conditional or universal. My biological father chose to reject me out of fear or inconvenience. As for Gary, he gave me the most valuable thing an Armenian can part with: His name. The ‘Ian’ in Margosian, literally means “the son of” in Armenian. I will always be a Margosian, a ‘son of’ Garobed (Gary) even if I’m fat, or slow, or strange. Even though I’m not his biological son.
And he gave this to me unconditionally.
The problem of meritocratic love is that outside of that system where we earn our merit there is no meaning to our love. Darwin once said of the wasted energy and genes of animal’s mating rituals, “the sight of a peacock feather makes me sick.”
In the book Why We Love, Drs. Helen Fisher and Geoffery Miller have proposed expanding Darwin’s definition:
“Many of our exceptional traits, such as our ornate language skills, our affinity for all kinds of sports, our religious fervor, our humor and moral virtue are too ornate, too metabolically expensive, and too useless in the struggle for existence to have evolved merely so we could survive another day. They must have emerged, at least in part, to help us court and win the mating game.”
My hardheaded refusal, first as a player and now as a writer, is my inability to accept being unloved joined with my lack of gifts in any one community to earn it. Money? I have none. Good looks? Lord no! Athletic prowess? Have you read the title of this essay series!? So far my stubbornness, my inability to earn love in meritocratic systems is what’s kept me on those fields all those years, and now it’s what keeps me on these pages. But what I’ve wanted my whole life, is for there to be a third kind of love; neither squeezed cold and lifeless by metrics and without the lotto ticket luck of genetic or fiduciary inheritance.
I know this love first-hand. From my step father. Our father-son dichotomy had no basis in genetics, it was something we had to create from nothing. Consider this experiment, from The Rise by Dr. Sarah Lewis citing a colleague:
“[There are two groups of children] In the first group, an experimenter would take a toy with four tubes to a group of four-year-olds, and in one case she would act surprised when she pulled a tube and it squeaked and then leave them with the toy. Another group of four-year-olds, received the same toy but through directed teaching. ‘I’m going to show you how this toy works. Watch this!’ she said excitedly, and then made the tube squeak. Systematically, when both groups of children were left alone to play with the toy all made it squeak, but the first group engaged with it for longer than the second group. The group introduced to the toy through play also found that it had ‘hidden features’ that the experimenter hadn’t hinted at, like a mirror hidden within one of the tubes. The group taught about the toy never discovered all that it could do. Their curiosity was dampened…
The trouble is that the perspective-altering gift of play remains associated with children but (according to pioneering designer Ivy Ross) play is actually the opposite of depression, since depression is being numb to possibilities. Innovation is an outcome. Play is a state of mind. Innovation is often what we get when we play.”
The third kind of love is to play. To love even if it’s strange or unfamiliar. Like an adoptive father and son figuring out what those words mean. Like a small liberal arts college team adopting a sensitive loser from the giant conservative state school next door. From our ability to ignore instructions, paths or inherent traits and find a path all of our own. And this is the love, now that both college and childhood are over, that I am waiting to discover again.
Eventually Kalamazoo College became more competitive. Soon, the BBQ backhands, sandals, and Bob Marley good times were replaced. With identical jerseys and running standard drills in cleats they looked like any other college team. But even with a system, Kalamazoo College never lost their sense of inclusion; they never made love conditional. Like my father gave me his name, they gave me a jersey, the only jersey where the team had the decency to publish my whole name: “Dagher-Margosian”.
Son of Gary, son of K-college, they completed my adoption.
I never met my biological father, but in college there was no escaping Western Michigan University. This finally came to a head when Western Michigan and Kalamazoo College decided to scrimmage. Once more over the hills and through the valley I walked, only this time I was not alone. Two groups of boys ran, in jerseys red or black on opposite ends of a field. I can still remember the disgusted glares as the Western boys watched me warm up, with my Kalamazoo College Buzz Jersey on. We huddled, listening as the Western Boys screamed their traditional cheer:
Blood makes the grass grow Kill Kill Kill
Blood makes the grass grow Kill Kill Kill
Blood Makes the grass Grow Kill Kill Kill
Yellow! Fucking! Mustard!
As they yelled, I felt an arm come over my right shoulder, then another drape across my left, and bring me in. Fitting for a liberal arts college, K-College had elected philosophy major Matt Robshaw as their captain. And perhaps even more fittingly unorthodox, they based their cheer not on tired tropes of masculinity and violence, but on the tattoos covering his body.
And much as I called Gary my father, I could now call Kalamazoo my team.
In the vein of Kalamazoo’s captain, the philosophy major, let’s conclude with an experiment from Happier by Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar:
“Philosophy professor Robert Nozick (in his book ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’) asks us to imagine a machine which would feel the same as actually being in love. We would be unaware that we were plugged into the machine. Nozick asks whether, given the opportunity, we would choose to plug into the machine for the rest of our lives? The answer for most of us would clearly be no…Circumventing the cause of these emotions, through a machine would be tantamount to living a lie.”
Many of us have chosen ultimate as a way to escape the meritocratic doldrums of work or study. I am not advocating for anarchy or utopia, but I am stating that when we try to base who or what we love on merit, we become as cruel or limited as the very systems we are trying to escape. We thus can take from Nozick’s philosophical dilemma, and create our own:
Would you still love ultimate if that was the only reason you were loved? Or in other words (and to end on a tautology) — Do you want what loves you to be the only love you know?
We are back at the beginning, to the work of Lorenz and his ducks, who he found out would follow and love ANYTHING if they saw it early enough. If you’re never willing to play with ideas that are different, to shake off your imprinting, you can never know what you will find just over the hill. If you only look for love, where you are loved, you may never truly discover it.
Matt “Daghertron LTD” Dagher-Margosian, Kalamazoo Buzz #00