Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Play Is the Thing

Saturday morning water volleyball: The server is lining up her shot. She is poised to fire a cannonball down the left side when Paul on the other side lets out a vocal operatic rumble.

The server reloads and composes herself.

"And the next one will be real!" Paul shouts.

The entire pool cracks up. People in their 50s laughing at fart jokes. It's like we were five years old, but that's the point. Read on:

"Play" resumes. The ball is being slapped from player to player at pinball speed. We're all in the zone, fielding impossible shots. A rocket is returned to our side of the net. One of our guys manages to get a hand on it. It bounces off at an unexpected angle into my airspace in the front corner, headed high and out of bounds.

No time to think. I lunge backward like a painter who has fallen off a ladder and extend the only arm I seem to have available, praying for Inspector Gadget powers. I manage to get my fingers on a piece of the ball, just enough to send a high floater arcing parallel to the net. The players in the front row on the other side are licking their chops in anticipation.

Oh oh, one of them is about to make me look like an idiot.

But just then, the earth unexpectedly stops rotating. Gravity is temporarily suspended. The ball simply hangs in the air on our side of the net. Then it starts its slow descent to where our best player is lurking.

"Oh, crap!" I hear from the other side. Our best player leaps out of the water like a dolphin at Sea World and effortlessly dispatches the waiting orb on its mission of doom.

Suddenly, the atmosphere on our side of the pool erupts in the loudest display of group noise in recorded history. The Ross Ice Shelf breaking into icebergs at three in the morning is the nearest equivalent sound. Even those on the other side are nodding their heads in silent appreciation.

What a volley! You can see it on every face in the pool. Life doesn't get any better than this.

Yes it does. It was my "assist" that set up the kill. Who cares if it was dumb luck? A shorter person would have missed the ball completely, and everyone in the pool is shorter than me.

I did it! I did it!

Before we know it, our allotted 90 minutes of pool time has elapsed. Time to take down the nets and floating boundaries and vacate the pool. There will be another game in the afternoon.

My good friend Paul introduced me to water volleyball two and bit years ago, shortly after I moved from New Jersey to southern California. At the time I was hesitant about joining him. I'm clumsy, with bad eyesight. In school, I was the smallest kid and always the last one picked on a team.

Last thing I need is an activity that brings up all those bad memories.

Instead, the game casts me back to an earlier and far more pleasant time in childhood - ages five, six, seven, eight, nine - when we played with other neighborhood kids in backyards, driveways, pieces of empty street, and vacant lots. Baseball, kickball, dodgeball, football, badminton, hide and seek ...

There were no adults organizing the game for us, much less kibitzing from the sideline. We improvised our own rules as we went along, with no one in authority to correct us. Sometimes it was baseball with two bases. If someone was trundling along a little brother, we suspended play to give the little brother a turn at bat. The play was the thing.

PLAY was the thing.

How on earth, in our transition from childhood to adulthood, did we ever forget that? Where - where - did we go wrong?

Much more to come ...