when i was six years old, i played football for the Eastern Valley Packers. my best friend was the quarterback. for the 65 Pounders. he was a veteran, unlike me. one of the few things i remember about my first and only pigskin season is that i was number 74; my time on the team was spent indecipherably between success and failure, north of boring but south of exciting. and then, it was over. forever.
four years later, i decided once again to try a new sport. this time: soccer. at the Y. i took to the field on tryout day, apprehensive and optimistic all at once. i didn’t know any of the other kids; none of them were from my school; and they all seemed to be friends from seasons past. so i knew i’d have to penetrate the bubble; that afternoon, i watched the situation like a hawk, trying to learn, trying to move, trying to adapt in a shift-and-blur victory for the underdog. i was the new guy. even the coaches were back from the year before, and none of them seemed empathetic to my outsider status. but i had hope.
or so i thought.
the coaches clearly had their favorites. you, you, you, you, and you. you take the front. you take the ball. you take the game. you take the glory. oh, and hey you–new kid…stay back and guard the goalie; we don’t need to know what you can do. we don’t care.
they never even gave me a chance. from the first day at practice, i waited for the coaches to let me kick the ball. just check my skills. practice. after practice. just a shot. it never came. i spent the entire season–in every game and every practice–standing in front of the goalie. i never once got to run to the other side of the field. not even the first day. i literally never got to make contact with that elusive black and white checkered apple of every shin-guarded YMCA-er’s eye. i received no such honor. i barely seemed to exist. i occupied no space in the lexicon of soccer importance–i don’t even recall the coaches ever saying my name. all season, i watched their familiar and previous favorites take the ball and run down the field. and score, or at least try. to the sounds of cheers.
–those kids were given the keys to the kingdom–
–and one of them stood out above the rest. he was the golden child. at least, that’s how it appeared, if you translate conceited dorkiness to “golden.” this kid spent every moment in a weird 80’s catalog pose, and you could easily imagine him being the frat rat villain in some cheesy snow-ski movie. from the time His Blondness arrived, ’til the time he dirtied his parents’ upperclass car with soiled cleats, he grinned from ear to ear. but not in the way you might expect: the left side of his mouth reached not just to his left ear, but beyond it, around the back of his inflated noggin, all the way to the other ear. he was an alien; one who clearly viewed himself as a champion, a Dash Riprock among the Alabama Hillbillies surrounding him. and more than anything, he wanted everyone to share his view. but i saw something different.
–is it wrong to call a 10-year-old a douchebag?–
we practiced ’til dark; and every Summer’s Eve, when he ran, Sir Dipsh*t kept his fingers stiff and together like a robot. and with each stride, he karate chopped the air. with a plastered smile bigger than his head. like a hyperactive, android used car salesman. i only hoped God was feeding him a “heapin’ helpin'” of Deep South insects while he teethed it up at full speed. but regardless, there i stood, so many afternoons and saturday gamedays, in the same danger of passing out as a weak-kneed groomsman at a too-long wedding, while Lance LaRoo swam up and downstream–a judoing, large mouthed bass, minus the B, smiling his way to another attempted goal. showing 68 pearly whites. even now, seeing him in my mind, i can’t help but hear “blackhole sun,” with an overdubbed narration of “love that joker!” and if it were japanese cinema, there’d be a whooshing sound with each flail of his kung fu arms.
and so the yellow-headed champion — who was absolutely destined to one day wear a tight shell necklace — toothpaste-commercialed and Hong-Kong-Fueyed himself back and forth across the field, while i stood counting the white flowers around my feet. some of which had bloomed since i’d taken my initial position. if only they’d been colored discs, i could’ve played my own game when he came to my end of the field: it would’ve been fun trying to catapult them into Mr. Mouth.
–sadly, they were only flowers–
but i hoped. despite the Chosen One and our coaches’ desire for him to lead the pack. despite every empty practice. every uninvolving game. i hoped against all reason, that just once, the coach would put me in. the action. one chance. …but that chance never came.
it wasn’t until the end of the season that i retrospectively accepted my disposition: i’d been trapped. in a situation that was never going to change. never going to bring me an ounce of satisfaction or happiness. but that wasn’t clear until it was too late to change it.
i didn’t realize i was trapped until it was all over.
that wasn’t the case with the marching band:
growing up, i’d always thought marching bands were ridiculous. at every game i’d ever seen, i’d wondered why anyone would want to wear those uniforms and walk all over the field, tooting their horns. but in elementary school, i’d started playing trumpet. and when i transferred to high school, i was told that in order to remain in the band, i had to march. i reluctantly agreed, knowing i would be miserable. i went to every practice, all summer long, knowing i would hate it. i learned each pattern and step, knowing i was in training to look like an idiot. in the middle of every football game. my best friend was still the quarterback. but i was no longer number 74. now, i rode the bus on friday nights, knowing i was performing a service that nobody cared about, in exchange for a scarlet letter G for Geek. all season long. i was trapped. by my own choice. and i knew it would never change. from the very beginning, i knew.
and that’s what i’ve been thinking about lately. we trap ourselves with our choices. sometimes we do so like my year playing soccer, hoping naively that tomorrow will be different. other times, we know the outcome, like a marching performance in front of an ambivalent, full-bladdered crowd more interested in peeing than watching us point horns at the bleachers and blow. but regardless, our predicament is the end result of our own decision. day after miserable day.
being trapped by your own choice is living at its worst. if you’ve ever been there, you know.
it’s the least trapped you’ll ever be; but it’s the most trapped you’ll ever feel.
and that’s why my brain tumor is not getting the best of me. it’s something beyond my control. something i cannot change. something i didn’t ask for. something i cannot quit. i look around at my life, and i ask myself the questions that matter: am i on the soccer field, hoping for a chance that will never come? or worse, am i on the football field, trumpet in hand, knowing that tonight will be agony, but keeping my foolish commitment anyway? life is short, when compared to all the fulfillment i wish for. so in every way i can choose, i must choose wisely. and live purposefully. we all know those who don’t. we’re surrounded by people who feel stuck in their relationships. strangled by their jobs. relegated by an encircling world. and for most of them, every day will be soccer practice. every night will be an away game. until it’s too late to choose. because it’s too late to live. but i won’t let life be taken from me. my life isn’t the breath in my lungs, or the beat of my heart, that could be stopped by some lightning storm in my head. rather, it’s where i choose for my feet to carry me. and the people i share that journey with. the kindness i give to those i don’t know. and the love i give to those i’m lucky to know. that is my life. and i am not trapped. not by a hopeless circumstance. not by a tolerated misery. and most of all, not by a medical anomaly. this is my life. this is my life. and i am the quarterback. i call the shots. thank God, i get to choose, between success and failure. i get to decide my fate, whether south of boring or north of exciting. one day, it will all be over. forever. but for now it is mine, and that is why i love it.
i will take my chances, but i will assert my voice, i will fight for my place, and i will hedge my bets. and i will wallow in the elation that however my body may fail me, whatever uncontrollable fate may be awaiting, i will look upon that piece of providence, knowing that i am in control. of all the choices i make. God will make his own. but as for mine, i will not give them up to a lost fight. to a wasted life. i am alive, and i will live like it. i will love. i will be loved. by the best and with the most. and that is living. purposefully. and that is what i will do. today, tomorrow, and every single chance i get.
a further reflection on my time in the marching band–
from a previous myspace blog:
when i was in elementary school, i had to choose between taking band or home economics. i found out that home ec meant wearing an apron and baking a cake, so i chose band. i picked out my trumpet and started learning about music. i learned how to read it, and i learned how to play it. and i learned that i loved it. then i went on to high school, loving music. but when i got to high school, i found out that loving music meant more than just reading it and playing it. as it turned out, loving music meant coming to school during the summer at 8:00 in the morning to stand out in the grass or gravel and take military orders from a madman with a megaphone. as it turned out, loving music meant melting in the sun, practicing right turns and walking in place like a bugler whose dose of speed came with two lead boots. loving music also meant coming to school an hour early in the winter, so i could press my lips against iced metal like the flagpole licker in A Christmas Story as i high-stepped in The Parade of Nerds. most of all, as it turned out, loving music meant getting dressed up every Friday night like napoleon and drawing a figure eight across the football field with my feathered head while (thankfully) nobody watched, sweating to death as my fingers froze while my peers made out behind the bleachers, and being confined to the cement seats for the entirety of every football game with no girl, no food, and no drink–because any one of those could stain my dry-clean-only uniform. as it turned out, that apron didn’t seem so bad. and so i quit. because as it turned out, i hated loving music.
today, as i reflect upon the sweaty bus rides and countless lost dates, i feel close to my marching brothers and sisters. to those of you who walk in my shoes, i salute you–your yoke is heavy. you entertain empty seats while the audience is busy buying hot chocolate, going to the bathroom so they “don’t miss anything,” and proving to the world that they, for one, are NOT socially impotent. you wear suspenders, get B.O. in the winter, and play instruments that inflate your face veins. you dare to go where others will not. you dare to do what others will not. you dare to wear what others will not. i am with you. i feel your pain. i share your scars.
and to those of you who have yet to choose your path, i implore you: bake the cake.