I am not sure how to start this. I debated whether titling this post “one for the eulogy” or “red card.” I dabbled over the former, not because I’m macabre and depressing, but because I’m quite aware of the fact that we all die one day.
Yesterday started out gloriously. I was sitting in the sun, awaiting one of my sons’ games. They lost soundly, it was a 5-0 defeat. At halftime, my son was crushed and was asking for advice. I had none other than to say that when he’s off the field, watch the other team’s players and see what they do and then try to do it too.
This particular son is more of a hair-twirler and bouncy runner. He’s young, emotionally, still soft, without that “killer” instinct for the sport, but he LOVES being part of a team and putting on a uniform, cleats and shin guards, arriving on time and doing his best. When he’s focused, he’s a good little defender. My shouts from the sidelines to remind him to “win it, Thing 3! DEEEEEFENNNNNSSSE!” seem to perk him up. I don’t do it very often, so I think that’s why it tends to win out over his dedicated coach’s tips and directions which start to sound like a droning after a while. He woke up in the second half, being more of a gnat to the other team’s approach for our goal, thwarting a couple advances and that made him feel better. As we walked to the car, he said, “Did you see when I stopped that big kid from his drive? I was afraid, because he is huge, but I kicked the ball off track to one of our guys…” and he did. He cleared it a good 20 or 30 feet, with some help from the patch grass bumps in the field, from the goal.
My other son’s game was happening at the same time. I could not attend that one, for obvious reasons, but they lost as well, 8-2. I learned from my husband that our Thing 2 (who is now 14) played quite well and he made a gorgeous penalty kick which he fired with such ferocity that the goalie simply couldn’t stop it. Despite the loss, my son was proud that he had played his best. That’s all we can ask for, isn’t it? That they feel proud of their efforts that they did their best.
Several hours, a spin on the ergometer, a meditation session and 40 minutes in our hot tub later, was the first game of our oldest son’s team. These guys are what’s called “U19” and they comprise all ages from 16-19 in a defined window of available athletes who didn’t make or can’t afford the high school teams and are possibly attending college locally but don’t play on those teams either. These guys are competitive, aggressive and some of them are wildly talented and a pure pleasure to watch. You can see how they’ve acquired thunderous legs and powerful chests, fearlessly advancing the field with a passion you read about. They are not nincompoops. They know the sport, they try to get away with a little here and there, but by and large, these athletes have been playing since they could walk. I imagine some of them slept with a soccer ball as they were children, or young men. It’s as though the ball is an appendage of their form. They are thugs who play like gentlemen… (read on.)
My oldest used to be awkward, afraid, timid. He’s got a coach now who reminds me of the sheriff in “O Brother Where Art Thou?” (I wouldn’t be surprised to learn this coach intentionally plays up his image a little, creating a pastiche of the character for the amusement of the spectators and the team.)
He has those sunglasses. He wears a sport jacket to games after 6:00pm. Last season when “we” went to all-region, he wore a dark fedora and a long black wool coat to the games. He’s pretty quiet on the sidelines. He’s intense and he saves his commentary for when the players come off the field or for half-time pep talks. I recall him quoting a German philosopher or naval officer at the end of one of their early games last season in which they were simply outplayed in every possibly fashion and lost by a score of 11-2 or something. He started to play my son less and less as the season went on.
We don’t engage, as parents. My husband and I have a tacit understanding that interceding on our children’s behalf for their supposed betterment or advancement says more about us and simply hinders any growth in our kids. If it’s the kids’ coach, teacher, friend, parent of friend, mentor, counselor … we just don’t really get involved. They have to learn to navigate these waters. (I’m not saying it’s EASY… sometimes I have to literally bite my tongue, step away and close my eyes… read on…) So my son was understandably frustrated by the continual lessening of his play time. We encouraged him to talk to the coach. To be upfront, sincere, mature and above all diplomatic about his plight. He was and the response he got back was some of the best advice — the same thing his father and I have whispered to one another in the stands — he could have received, but he ASKED to hear it: “You’ve got to be fearless. Get physical. Play some rugby in the off season. Don’t take anyone out, but really, get in there. I’ve said many times, ‘It’s a gentlemen’s game played by thugs.’ Be a thug, but play like a gentleman.”
So Thing 1 came away grateful, a little intimidated, but very clear about what the coach wanted. You can count on Thing 1 for that: he will absolutely follow direction, and he’s a reliable self-starter, but this U19 team was all new to him, he’d never played against and alongside MEN. I knew this coach was going to help turn my son into a man. He’s tough though… and regardless of our scrap-up yesterday (read on…), I still respect the hell out of him.
So this third game was at scheduled for 6pm on a turf field at a park. The center ref is an old man. He reminded me of the “old timer” in the Brady Bunch’s Jesse James episode:
I’m not an ageist. I saw this ref and I thought, They might be really lucky, they’ve got a guy who really knows his game.
No. (read on.)
This ref wanted to start the game early, shorten the halves to 40 minutes each and gave up without any pressure his utter lack of knowledge of the rules. He’s usually a linesman, my husband tells me.
My husband, who is a very patient man (you really don’t know how patient he is…) sighed when our coach shared this information. Apparently we agreed to start five minutes early at 5:55 but keep the halves at 45 minutes (which is the COACH’s discretion).
My son’s team was playing beautifully. They were winning, elegantly. My son scored a nice shot, his first of the season, in the first game, in the first half. He was really proud of himself. I was excited for him. The other team was good, but they seem disorganized and loose. They were out-skilled, but not by much. Due to the low number of available teams in the area, I’m certain we will play them again later on and it will be good to see how they’ve improved. At the half it was 2-1, we were in the lead.
But it was the ref. His calls were inconsistent and beginning to favor the other team, blindly. Clearly legal plays, a slide tackle where the ball was touched first (something I recently understood as the linchpin for that maneuver) was ruled “dangerous” and one of our guys got a yellow card. Even the opposing coach was beginning to be surprised by his team’s inexplicable good fortune.
In the midst, my son’s team managed to get a nice shot in, making it 3-1. My son’s team has increased its chatter on the field and it’s paying off. The other team seemed again to be a little demoralized by “our” fluidity.
Nonetheless, everyone trudges on. Keep playing keep playing keep playing. The un-choreographed dance of 20 or so young athletes was hard for me to keep track of. Plus it was cold, about 55˚ now and the sun was going down. I began to feel sorry for the ref. The spectator heckling was apparent. He likely couldn’t hear it. A couple times, he got hit by the ball with such intensity many of us in the stands were impressed he was still standing. I think those hits started to do something to his brain… he made calls from one end of the field about actions happening 40 yards away. His line refs were exasperated by the randomness of it all. Our team made another shot on their goal, 4-1, which everyone agreed was legal, but from the other end of the field, this ref must’ve used his bionic vision and Big Blue processing chips to recall the goal.
No matter, we were still ahead. Back to 3-1. Then somehow the whistle. No one understood. The other team made a successful penalty kick on our goal, 3-2. We were still ahead though, so … you know, just keep on…
Then the other team made a gorgeous goal during the second half, tying the game. It was hard to ignore the majesty in the drive which began all the way at the opposite end of the field. The ball was passed without much interruption from one player to another in an advance to the goal and then one player just went for it. Without hesitation, and he nailed it. It was a pleasure to witness even though it was now 3-3.
Somewhere in the next few moments, we made an answering goal, 4-3. We were all running out of time, it was close to 7:25. The game, by all rights, due to the -5 minute start time should have been over. Competitive players that they are, our team started to hog the ball, take its time retrieving it, kick it off the field. That got a corner kick which was unsuccessful.
It was 7:27 now… you know, the time in the universe when all in-progress U19 soccer games are supposed to go pear-shaped and the refs are programmed to go batshit crazy. People are starting to question how much time.
All along the course of the game, this ref never explained his calls. He never answered requests for the charges. I know there’s something in the US Constitution about the absolute requirement by an arresting officer to name the charge against a suspect… Doesn’t that commute to FIFA or US Soccer or whatever the governing body is of this sport? My husband says, “Sort of. The ref is supposed to explain each charge, especially if questioned…”
Well apparently we were now playing “kick the ball, run around, and blow the whistle just because” not soccer. This ref allowed player subs at all the wrong times, disallowing subs when they were legal… it was crazy. When you have a six-year-old player still in his uniform from another game putting his head in his hands and running his fingers through his dried, sweaty hair because the calls don’t make any sense, you’re witnessing a travesty of justice.
He gave the other team two inexplicable successive penalty kicks. This one was a free kick. He mumbled something to our players and they lined up, placing their hands in front of the family jewels and waiting for the shot, which went over everyone’s heads and was denied. Still 4-3.
The next penalty, which even I questioned (and that means a lot because I don’t understand this game at all, so I keep my trap shut) because the whistle was blown during a throw-in from the sidelines (on a ball my son had let go…) deep into our territory. While the ball was still airborne, heading toward the goal. Nothing had happened … the ball hadn’t even made contact on the ground. I thought, Did one of the feet come up during the throw? Was it the wrong KIND of throw, not evenly over the head? Was it slung from the hips? But I knew enough, after 11 years, that a bad throw necessitates a re-THROW. And that was not happening. This was a line up for a penalty kick — no interference from other players, just the kicker and the goalie. I questioned the validity by thrice shouting, CLEARLY, from the stands because he’s ancient, it’s windy and cold and the game should’ve been over by then anyway, “WHAT? IS? THE? CALL?” (which our own coach didn’t even demand the answer).
The ref heard me. He looked up at me and waved me off. I’m sure it was the old “he threw the ball too hard” call we hear so little about. Turns out when the throw-in was made, one of the other team’s taller players leaped up to head the ball (legal) but our player who was shorter, yet quite powerful, but right beneath / behind him (on the other player’s descent), crossed his arms upon his chest like a pharaoh in his sarcophagus and that was considered pushing when the other player inevitably, because gravity always wins, landed on him.
The other team’s coach was astonished. His own player ran up to him and said, “you know that’s not a penalty, right?” and the coach nodded and said, “Yeah! …”
Nonetheless, the whistle and ignorant, half-present octogenarians reign.
It was 7:33 now. Eight minutes PLUS the end of the game’s official time. The player placed the ball and took the shot. In the corner. Done. 4-4.
IMMEDIATELY UPON THAT BALL’S SLING INTO THE NET, HE BLEW. THE. WHISTLE.
Not ten seconds later, not another play later, not even when the ball was … stopped from the thrust.
That’s when I lost my mind. I’m not proud of this. I am embarrassed and I immediately sent an apology to our coach when I got home. (read on…).
I stepped down from my seat in the stands and shouted, with my hands cupping either side of my mouth, directly aimed at the ref clearly, emphatically, passionately and intentionally:
.pause. is he looking at me? no.
.pause. has he followed the voice? can he see me? no.
.pause. can he find me yet? no.
.pause. is he looking at me? yes. one more for clarity…
I waited each time I said it, a nanosecond to some, but a lifetime to me, to see if he had made the connection. That he had disgusted a yoga teacher who usually just sits in the stands and cheers everyone — no matter how humiliating the loss — if I see a great play, I’m gonna clap.
My son’s coach, the Sheriff, whipped around like the snake in “Beetlejuice”:
He tried to shut me down. “THAT’S ENOUGH!” — to me, I was just getting started.
Woe, the little man who tries to shut me down.
“NO IT’S NOT!” I growled back. “THIS IS BULLSHIT. HE DIDN’T EXPLAIN EITHER OF THOSE CALLS….” and I hadn’t said, “The game was eight minutes over time! That call was for spite. He’s teaching these kids that rules, decorum and tradition don’t matter and personal pettiness does. AND YOU DIDN’T QUESTION ANY OF IT!”
“YES IT IS. DO YOU WANT ME TO GET A RED CARD FOR THE REST OF THE SEASON???”
>oh. time to stop.<
“NO! I DON’T! BUT THIS IS CRAZY, FUCKED UP…” and I grabbed my bag, told my other son who was ashen and enraged (NO ONE YELLS AT MY MOM LIKE THAT!) that I was leaving and he needed to ride home with his dad, and I stomped away. I’m sure I left a haze of brown smoke behind me.
I didn’t look back. I’m sure all the grandparents were just … “Well, I never” -ing, patting off their sweat with their doilies and reaching for their smelling salts.
I was still seeing red. I put even more of an ugly face on my face intentionally. The face that said, “If you think you’re going to make an impact on me, if you think you’re going to change my attitude, think twice because while I’m unhinged and disgusted, I’m about to get into an SUV and I need to calm my shit down and I don’t need a lecture from you… ” because the shame was starting to sink in. The embarrassment… and oh… the gut-churning shame.
A proud woman in a crimson WISCONSIN hoodie looked at me. She stood up in the space between her open driver’s door of her blue Prius as I was advancing toward my gas guzzling Earth destroyer.
“I agree with you,” she said.
I cooled to a simmer.
“Thanks.” I said and started to continue my retreat.
I stopped and turned back. She was almost in her car. I was defeated and exasperated and so ashamed.
“I’m just so sad.” I said. “That ref didn’t know what he was doing. He started the game early. He wanted to shorten the halves. He knew he was ignorant of the rules, he told both the coaches. He ruined a really good experience and he showed everyone, not just the spectators, but the players and the other refs, that bad calls and not adhering to the rules is just fine and that playing hard and honestly doesn’t count…”
She nodded as she said “He tore apart the integrity of the game right there…”
I thanked her for her kindness. I apologized for my rant. She said, “Nope. You were right. You just said what a lot of us are afraid to say…”
I rage for the many, I thought to myself, sighing and walking to my car, feeling the benefits of my earlier meditation, hot tub soak, writing, and grueling 6k workout on our rowing machine sift through my consciousness. I had negated all that good.
I got home. Didn’t kill anyone on the road, I checked the front of my car later to make sure.
My oldest son called me from his father’s car. I answered. I wanted to hide.
“Hey honey…” I said, faking cheerfulness.
“You ok? I am calling to check on you. I know that took a lot out of you,” he said.
“I’m as good as can be expected. This isn’t your job to fix me, hon…” I said. “I’m so sorry… It’s not at all like me…”
“I’m not trying to fix you, Mom. I apologized to everyone for you. They told me not to bother. They think you rock, Mom. They said they were amazed by you. You said everything they couldn’t say. That our coaches couldn’t say. You let it all rip. No one thinks you suck, Mom.”
My heart softened, toward myself, a little. I brightened. My ego stepped in… “They did? What did they say?” I cringed.
“Just that. That you were the voice for us all.”
I shared with him my points of my argument; that my rage was not personal, and that I was afraid of my rapture. But I also maintained that my reaction is about the principle and the integrity of the game and that no matter HOW HARD ONE WORKS TO TOE THE LINE, there’s always gonna be some asshole who thinks it should be the other way around. I told him that the blowing of the whistle, eight minutes over, as the ball slammed into the net, before it even hit the tensile apex of the net, smacked to me of self-righteousness. That he got to have the last word.
Well, I wasn’t about to let that happen. When it comes to kids, we need to be on our best, most sterling behavior. That includes the ref. I blew it. I sank to his level of stupidity.
I am not a horrible person. I am not a mean-spirited person. But I am a passionate person. I sent an apology immediately to the coaches when I got home:
Coaches Sheriff and Deputy,
I want to express my sincere apology for my outburst on the referee at the end of today’s game versus Saturn. It was a pleasure to see everyone play so well.
I am a passionate person, yes, but one not normally driven to such excess. I exhibited poor behavior and I regret that. I was not a good role model for spectatorship. Next time I’ll spare everyone the drama, leave the game in disbelief, and offer up a silent prayer for my own tolerance.
Please know that the last thing I would want to do is injure the team by causing your absence on the sidelines. The boys are lucky to have you.
PS — you’d never know from today that I’m a yoga teacher…
My husband said it was the perfect apology. I owned my side and I didn’t blame it on anyone else. My son told me his friends on Twitter said I was awesome. (I still don’t know how to feel about that…)
Later that night, after I started to calm down, I turned on my Kindle and started reading Steven Pressfield again. He wrote about “our last days” or the attitude changes which occur (for good or for bad) in patients diagnosed with terminal illness. He said many of them shed the trivialities, and turn toward their passions, fearlessly. They discern, within minutes of the pronouncement of their illness, what matters most and they act upon it. Some people do crazy stuff, others do good.
Earlier in the day, I had picked up random pieces of an episode of The Simpsons my son was watching. It was the one when Homer was told he had 22 hours to live; it would have been 24, but the having to sit in the waiting room took up two hours… Homer did lots of things to make amends for his behavior to his kids, father and others in his life.
Earlier this week, I had read Oliver Sacks’ powerful op-ed in the NY Times disclosing his final days of his life due to terminal brain cancer. He wrote that he was going to stop watching and reading the news; that he was not going to worry about the Middle East as much as he had (he clarified that he was going still care, but that worry served him no purpose) and a change a few other things in his life to bring more meaning to it. The comments on that pre-obit were extraordinary. Treat yourself to them and read them. Not coincidentally, I’ve begun listening to his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat while I “row” on our ergometer. It’s a great book. Sacks has a way of deeply humanizing the misfortunes of his patients and reminding us that our right hemisphere, the one so often discounted by Freud et al., is really the one which gives our lives meaning; the one which matters most.
I reflected on all that data I’d consumed — those pieces of reminders that our days are limited here. I reflected on lots of things, and I determined last night, before I ended my day, that I was not going to feel ashamed for my outburst: I had apologized to the coaches, to my sons, and to the brave and compassionate woman who spoke with me and I asked for forgiveness from God. My shame was pointless, what good did it serve me to hang on to it?
If it were my last day on this earth, and I did know it, I wouldn’t have done anything less. I would have gone to his game, I would have been as passionate about the travesties and I would have had no regrets. I may have been shot out of a canon last night, but I cried out most of all for the all kids. To me, their coach had let too much slide.
Carl Jung writes famously something along the lines of what irritates us about others gives us a better understanding of ourselves. I used to take this to mean that what irks us about Bipsy means we suck too. Well, that can be the case, but I’ve decided to really lean into the words, “a better understanding” — it doesn’t mean we suck; it’s an insight into ourselves. Sometimes it sucks, sometimes it shows us what matters to us … sometimes it shows us we need to change, or that we have a set of principles about things that we weren’t quite sure were really there, and that thanks to the engagement of another person or series of events with other people, we come to see what matters to us. Kids matter to me. Ethics matter to me. If that game were played by adults, I really wouldn’t have freaked out. I might’ve been incredulous, it would’ve ended there. But it was about kids.
So I say this to you, if you’re still here… Live passionately and fully, and own it when you screw up because we all make mistakes. It’s ok.