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Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Making an obstacle of myself...

It's Wednesday morning, about 4:30 a.m., and the Substance-P side-effect of the capsaicin seems to be kicking in right on schedule and I'm awake and ready to blog. Randi noticed that I was online (thanks to our Yahoo Messenger connection) and gave me a call. With the five-hour difference, my (involuntary) return to an early wake-up schedule and her late-night editing work are setting a pattern that allows us to exchange good nights/good mornings. Even insomnia has its benefits.

One of the interesting aspects of academic life is that the patterns of your week change from term to term as your teaching and research schedule changes with each semester. It usually takes a couple of weeks, but eventually a regular schedule emerges not merely at work but also at play.

This term Tuesday has turned out to be the pivotal day in my week here in Belfast. I have a 10 a.m. lecture on US politics and an 11 a.m. tutorial now fixed in my Tuesday schedule, and by coincidence there is a weekly Law faculty football game scheduled from 4 to 430 at the Queen's Physical Education Centre that afternoon. It hasn't taken long for these set obligations to become the defining points of my entire life. Everything else seems to be falling into place around that schedule.

The football game is actually quite fun, although I am probably the weakest participant on the floor. One thing has been evident from the get-go: I am incapable of handling the required "footwork" involved in soccer. This rather surprised me at first, since I've got pretty good strength in my legs. But kicking around a soccer ball is not as easy as some people make it seem, and is clearly a matter of brain-limb coordination that's developed early in life.

An observation: in the US most of us of the baby boom generation grew up playing upper body games, while the rest of the world was kicking around their soccer balls. (For my kids, now in their 30s, the soccer option was available from the time they were in elementary school). When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, the street games I recall were things like "stickball," "punchball," and "handball" -- all requiring upper body work with lots of hand and arm action. Legs were for running, not for controlling the speed and direction of the ball. I never played American football, but even there the use of the legs is pretty straightforward and doesn't really require concentration beyond just booting the damn thing forward. If you wanted to kill time you "played catch" with a friend, literally just tossing the ball back and forth while simultaneously chatting away. And if you were alone you found a wall to just throw the ball against over and over again. It's clear that the same kind of "killing time" activities in the rest of the world involve playing around with a soccer ball for minutes and hours at a time. And I suspect that someone who grows up doing that probably feels as awkward throwing around an American baseball as I do trying to engage in European football.

When I mentioned this to a good friend in the US, he confirmed the observation with a story about a trip he took with his family to Israel several years ago. At some point there was a trek to the park where he and his daughter started "playing catch" on the open lawn. Pretty soon he observed that a small but attentive crowd had started to gather watching them just toss the ball back and forth. It was a unique sight for Israelis who would think nothing about seeing two people doing the kicking equivalent with a soccer ball.

The bottom line for me is that I spend most of my time in this casual pickup game of football each Tuesday either running around trying to play defense or doing my best to avoid eye contact with a teammate who might make the mistake of kicking the ball in my direction. When confronted with a soccer ball the most I'm able to do tap it very weakly in the wrong direction. In the meantime I watch in awe as my colleagues demonstrate an almost natural ability to control this round object with their toes.

I probably feel most comfortable standing in the goal position, for although I am not really effective in consciously and intentionally blocking shots on goal, I make a pretty good obstacle. When I first took that position several games ago, I found myself doing what came naturally -- that is, every time the ball came in my direction I would try to dodge it (another auto response developed from games we played when I was a kid). It didn't take long before I realized that my value to the team (if any at all) came from literally putting myself right in front of the oncoming player. So for the last two outings, I've taken the shots on goal pretty well. This doesn't take much talent, and in fact no skill whatsoever other than making sure you are in the wrong place at the right time. Yesterday I took a shot in the face (the rules of our little pickup game prohibit above-the-waist kicks, but they are unavoidable) that knocked my glasses off and caused slight cut on the nose bridge. The rest of the time I spent in goal I took the usual body hits, although I also allowed quite a few goals to be scored.

Unfortunately, the goal position is a rotating one -- a chance for others to take a break from running up and down the gym floor (with only four people on each side -- which is the typical turnout for this term -- there is an awful lot of running back and forth, which makes this a fairly active half-hour). As a result I do spend as much time on the run as I do in goal. But I'm getting over the embarrassment that comes from being so inept at this sport. And thanks to some tolerant colleagues, great fun!
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