When I was a toddler, an obsession with baseball struck early and hard. My parents bought me a huge red plastic bat for my 3rd birthday and from what I hear, I took to it immediately.
It started with hallway sessions: My father would take a few light, plastic balls with faux stitched seems and lob them at me dutifully as I smacked the shit out of them, bruising our previously white corridor walls, and sometimes pelting his bearded face. The love affair snowballed and baseball continues to mean a lot to me to this day. But this is New York. And for every glorious mass of grassy land, there are hundreds of concrete rectangles with plexiglass and iron joined perpendicularly. So while I developed my romantic love for baseball, basketball became a great friend for me to fall back on when she went away for the winter. I played in high school — I played in tournaments, on summer teams, in the park, in the gym after school, and in college. Luckily enough, there is an outdoor court across the street from my apartment, so I get at least a couple sessions in every week.
Since I graduated college about a year ago, my life has gotten pretty fucking crazy. I’ve got all the normal post-college shit – trying to figure out a career while allowing myself to be lost, adjusting to old friends with new priorities, being a new person every day until I find the one that fits just right (as if character were a t-shirt). But then there’s this not-so-normal shit. My girlfriend was diagnosed with cancer, had a lung tumor removed, and was declared cancer-free only to have it return viciously, this time for good. The job, the trips down to Baton Rouge, trying to craft a social life that fits the rest of me, it results in a sometimes-unbearable amount of pressure and stress.
At times, I’ve felt completely devoid of any agency, or a reliable process by which to judge my own decisions and actions. With work being so new and my relationship constantly presenting new, rare challenges – how can I know what’s right?
This would be tough on anyone, but I can’t help but think that in some ways the situation is even more unfitting for myself: I’m prone to crippling bouts of self-doubt. With work – every time I send an e-mail to a partner or a proposal to a client, my bosses look over it first. I get it – these are important interactions and I’m still very green, but it makes me feel like nothing is entirely under my control – and a sense of complete ownership is a feeling I want.
What’s worse is that even after their stamp of approval, I inevitably look back and see my work riddled with consequential failures in one way or another – I forgot to ask an important question, I neglected to include information on a line item, I phrased things awkwardly and now they think I’m an idiot, etc. I think it’s a product of having little work experience and knowing even less about the industry – it makes doubt and self-criticism seep into every crevice of work.
With Emily, it’s the same concept, but 400 times more potent.
I have no agency – my girlfriend and I had this dynamic relationship that was on such an exciting path before she got sick – and then it just happened. The weight dropped and I didn’t even think about it – I loved her, so I rushed to support her, to lift her up. She was in crisis mode and I just did it because I wanted to and I had to. I’m not saying I regret doing it or that I don’t want to be in this relationship – that is just not true. To think that ending my relationship with Emily would be some permanent panacea would be horribly misguided. But that doesn’t take away from the feeling I have that I’ve just been reacting – for a year. I haven’t had time or mental space to let it breathe.
There’s no reliable process for decision making here either – I don’t know any other 23-year-olds who are trying to figure out their lives while trying to navigate a relationship that is under constant existential threat. There is no roadmap for this. There is no right answer, though sometimes I wish there were and that it would present itself to me.
So here I am, swimming in an ocean of unchartered territory with no way to know if what I’m doing is right. Through it all, I’ve had to grip onto the things – the people, the routines – that keep my mind sane and my feet on the ground. My parents, my best friends/room mates, and basketball.
Everything I described above about work and my relationship – all the self-doubt and frustration and anxiety – basketball is the opposite – it frees me. I literally feel like I am playing out my emotions, the energy leaving my body, the fluidity, the confidence, the consistency and logic of it – it makes sense when very big things in my life don’t. I feel in total control when I play – when I am on the court, I know I can trust my instincts, and more than that – I get instantaneous feedback. If I make one extra pivot, travel – turnover. If my spin is a bit too fast, I’m off-balance, I miss. If it all goes right, I score. Either way, I know where I stand within seconds. Where the world is opaque and unaffected, the basketball court is a string on my finger.
There are some blissful moments that are almost ineffable – having the ball on the perimeter, pounding it on the ground as I move forward in violent silence and watching my opponent backpedal.
A basketball move is a beautiful thing – most of the time I don’t even know what I’m going to do when I start my move, but years of instinct all tied into intense somatosensory memory summate to this one thing – half dance, half battle sequence.
It’s been so necessary and cathartic for me recently – several times I’ve just broken down in tears in the shower after playing. All the things I keep pent up inside me just come to the surface and hit me in an overwhelming but beautiful way – it’s just pure release.
But that’s also only half the story.
There’s been a dark side to basketball for me recently. The instinctual takeover is a double-edged sword – it’s a floodgate, not a series of selectable channels. It’s enabled an ugly side of me to come out. One time someone tried to argue a foul I called and I snapped: “Shut the fuck up you fuckin pussy, why don’t you score a point before you start talking shit.”
As soon as it left my mouth, it upset me on so many levels. I didn’t know I had that kind of abrasiveness in me. I felt completely out of control. I flat out berated and demeaned someone I didn’t even know. These outbursts happen often. I foul too hard, I scream at opponents and teammates — but it’s not how I want to act. Is this all just the violent explosion of a suppressed id? Does the release help my mind – a capacitor discharging on the completion of its circuit, regaining the static pleasure championed by the stoics? Or is it just exacerbating the problem, feeding it in a damaging positive feedback loop? I know I won’t stop playing, but I have to find a way to rein in this part of me. Or maybe both sides of me just need to exist.