Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Happy VaLINtines Day to You

My husband keeps telling me that because we have a boy, I am going to have to like me some sports.


See, I thought I married the perfect guy. A few years ago, we were out for dinner on a Sunday in the Meatpacking District (back when Florent was actually run by Florent), and the waiters were like: "Ooh! Not Super Bowl fans are we?" And I was like: Wow. This guy is amazing. He didn't even know it was the Superbowl.

But he does now. And then there were the recent years during which we had to follow the Mets. I didn't like watching the Mets. I loved some of the players, but overall, I would watch them and I would think: "They do not want to win. They want winning to happen *to* them." And life doesn't work that way.

I don't like sports. I think it goes back to being a dreamy, creative kid who wanted to read a book even on a sunny day, but I'm quite sure the jocks who picked on me in high school were part of it too. I made sure I didn't go to a college where the football team ruled the social scene. And now here we are today and I have a boy.

Last week my husband started to talk to me about this basketball player. He was not "important" and wasn't a star, but was suddenly winning games for the Knicks. He had also tranformed the team. Everyone was suddenly playing better. And he's Asian American.

What? There are no Asian American athletes. We are best at programming computers and going to medical school. But we don't play sports. Sometimes we write books, but there is only so much room for us in the marketplace.

Anyway, I was intrigued. But then, I watched part of a game in which the Knicks were playing the LA Lakers. Even I have heard of Kobe Bryant, though my general impression of him was that he wasn't very nice. Supposedly, when the reporters asked Bryant if he would be guarding against this Asian kid, Bryant said: "Let's not get ahead of ourselves." Actually, he didn't supposedly say it. He said it.

So there they were, the Lakers versus the Knicks. And there was Jeremy Lin. He was determined to win. And win he--and they--did. And he helped them win by doing things like this.

One of the things that has quickly impressed me about Lin--aside from his story which I'll get to in a minute--is his determination to make his teammates feel like they are on a team. In this way, they are all lifted up. They all play better. And this is a reminder to us: we are *all* always capable of *more*. If you think you can't, then you won't. But if you think you can and you focus, then you will. You *can*. The news reports keep talking about how Lin has been playing with a "second string." And yet, that second string beat the Lakers. Because they suddenly knew they could do something.

One thing that has bothered me about sports is the emphasis on money and the poor tolerance of bad behavior on the part of athletes. It's like--oh, here we go again. Someone beat up a woman or is doing drugs or stole money or is caught cheating or whatever, but is paid millions to "stand" for some kind of symbol. I hate this. I am not an idiot. I am not going to applaud some young man who chooses gobs of money for physical feats that are all about *him* in lieu of learning, say, how to think and read and be kind and what it is that makes us human. I haven't liked pro sports for a long time because the purity of the game feels very tainted to me. Then, along comes Jeremy Lin, and the story shifts.

It turns out that Lin is a Christian. And vocal about it. Not vocal in a "I must convert you" kind of way, but in a "I want to lift you up" kind of way. I respect this. Wanting to share your positivity with the world is a good thing. But! This man who is such a gifted athlete, almost didn't get to show his teammates what he had. He was continuously overlooked. The whole "skipping college to go pro" thing didn't happen to him, because his coaches couldn't see how talented he was. Now, why couldn't they see? No one wants to say it, but we all know why. There may have been a myriad of factors--Lin himself says that his game is not best one-on-one, but with a team--but it's impossible to discount his ethnicity. (Oh, if I had a dollar for each time someone has said; "But you just don't seem that tough, Marie.")

No one will say this, of course. But here is what they will say. I find this quote fascinating.

Some coaches have wondered whether Lin, who is of Taiwanese descent, did not receive a closer look by recruiters because of his ethnicity. Coaches have said recruiters, in the age of who-does-he-remind-you-of evaluations, simply lacked a frame of reference for such an Asian-American talent.

What on earth is a frame of reference? You mean, there were no other Asian players to compare him to, so he was compared to black and white players and found lacking? And, despite his stellar accomplishments and the data on his playing, why exactly was he found lacking?

I would like to put forward another idea and this is that there is a different physicality in different cultures. An extreme example would be, for starters, the Japanese ability to use space and the western ability. In her marvelous book, Watching the English, Kate Fox dissects the British tendency to apologize, even if something is not their fault (sound familiar?) To test her theory, Fox devised a "bumping into people" test to see who would apologize if bumped into (not their fault) and who would not. The only people who scored higher on the "will apologize if bumped into and its not their fault" test were the Japanese, who she found almost impossible to bump into. Their sense of physical space was so finely tuned that you could not bump into them.

That's an extreme case of how someone's physical language is different due to culture. I would argue that in his natural "resting" state, Lin doesn't telegraph "aggressive I will score lots of points grrrrr I am extoverted" in a way that is immediately obvious in the west. What he does have, are skills. What he didn't have, was empty flashiness. And so, over and over, coaches missed him.

Now, watch this, the closing from the game last night.

The game is tied. The game will go into overtime unless someone scores. Over and over--in this direct and aggressive way--the Knicks try to score. They can't. Someone throws the ball to Lin. And what does he do? He does not force points. In fact, he puts up his hands and tells his teammates to fall back. He's going to take on his opponent one and one. And then he just stands there and lets the clock run. What is going on? Where is the direct attack?

And then suddenly--bam. He scores 3 points. He has calculated an entirely different way to play and to win the game. And he's lifted up everyone else in the process.

I can't even begin to tell you how much I identify with this story. I've come to accept, for example, that I'm not someone who scores a lot of points at a young age and gets the ball in over and over again. I'm not the best at a direct attack. If I try to behave this way, it doesn't work. I do have a great work ethic--and I've tried to put this into my exercise. I'm going to have to find another way to succeed, if that makes any sense. And sometimes, success takes enormous patience.

Here is what Lin says about the years that he was overlooked as an athlete. He quotes from the Bible (and I am not a Christian and I don't own a Bible, so forgive me if I get this wrong).

1. Suffering builds character, character builds hope and hope never lets you down.

2. In so many instances in my life, God has turned what seemed to be “bad” situations into great ones.

3. "I'm not in a battle with what everybody else thinks anymore."

4. He started every morning with a devotional before heading to the gym to work out. Whenever the anxiety tried to creep in, he whispered a Bible verse to himself:

And we know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to his purpose. — Romans 8:28

I occupy a weird place among my peers. I'm not a member of any organized form of religion and it would probably be impossible for me to join one. But I think about religion a lot and I write about modern spirituality when I can. And this is because I think the toughest questions are always spiritual.

How do I stop eating bad food? How do I forgive? How do I get myself on the damned exercise mat? The answers are usually spiritual in nature. And there's a link between what we do physically, and how we feel emotionally and spiritually. The yogis knew that, and that is why their physical practice has a spiritual element.

Remember: today is a new day. Always.

You can always do more than you think.

You are not stuck in one position in life.

One little thing can change the way you fit into the world, but the change will probably not come because of something that *happens* to you, but because of your efforts. You may have to try several things--you may have to try different diets or different attitudes--to find something that will work for you. When you find something that works, stick with it. Some times you will have to persist through difficult times, but if you are doing your best, then you will never be sorry about the time you spent "suffering." And your persisting will probably be the thing that brought about an eventual change.

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