I can still recall when I first heard the word “networking.” I was in college, the year was 1990, and I was taking part in a month-long game in a political science class. The class was called “Normative Political Theory,” and the game may have even been called “The Networking Game.” Mainly, the game involved earning points by first persuading your peer group that you should be the one to venture forth and act as a representative in negotiations with the other groups. There were other steps and levels to it, as there always are with games. But that was the beginning. Persuading your peers.
I remember being a terrible participant in the game—possibly the most disinterested member of my team. I spent that month of class ignoring my teammates and instead communing with the semi-exposed root system of eucalyptus tree. (Blessedly, we played the game outside.) One class was spent putting my tennis-shoed toe into the bulging, veiny ridges of the tree’s roots, trying to find the perfect fit. Another was spent rubbing my hands along the bole of the tree, examining it for some even now I know not what. Soon, I thought of climbing the tree, but eucalyptus trees are hard to climb. They don’t often have any low-lying branches; no footholds to get you started up into the top. Yet as the other members of my team were busy fighting over the opportunity to represent our group in negotiations with the other groups, I was developing my first real relationship with a eucalyptus tree.
Being from Baltimore, Maryland, I did not know the California trees. Later I would learn that eucalyptus trees are not indigenous to California, and also how few things are. But my memory of the networking game came back to me after reading a recent news article on Bloomberg.com: “Wall Street Pipeline Finds Work For College Lacrosse Players,” by Scott Soshnick.
On the face of it the article tells a grim story. It begins with Dom Starsia, the head coach of the University of Virginia’s lacrosse team, who, “before [he] talks about national titles…unfolds a two-foot-wide spreadsheet that gives University of Virginia recruits a look at life after lacrosse.” Reading on we learn that a “big part of the coach’s sales pitch for a university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 is VLAN, or the Virginia Lacrosse Alumni Network, a 300-person database of former male and female players who work in finance and other fields and are willing to help cub Cavaliers get there, too.” But it’s not until we read this next portion of the article that the snap-judging Nancy Grace in all of us begins to suspect foul play:
Dave Huntley, a former Johns Hopkins University player and principal at Baltimore-based HR Investment Consultants, said he takes a second look at any resume that includes big-time lacrosse. The sport’s tribal nature, he said, explains why players feel a sense of obligation to help each other.
“It’s unbelievable how many guys from different schools, all with lacrosse connections, are on Wall Street,” says Huntley, 56, director of Canada’s national lacrosse team and coach of Major League Lacrosse’s Hamilton Nationals.
Here the sport’s “tribal nature,” along with the fact that “many guys” on Wall Street have “lacrosse connections” is likely to raise the ire in any of us who are not among what the Occupy Wall Street movement has taught us to call “the 1%.” Lacrosse does have, as many of us know, a reputation as an elitist sport. A fact that can be witnessed in this clip that features the actual Nancy Grace providing a few of her earliest comments on the Duke Lacrosse scandal of 2006:
Note how Grace’s producer tries to frame the accused and the accuser. He’s trying to present the financial disparity of their backgrounds. Admirably, if only in this one way, Grace aggressively dismisses such framing. But as the clip also shows, there is perhaps no one less deserving of the name “Grace” than Nancy Grace.
The three young white men from Duke’s lacrosse team who were accused of raping a young black female at a party were eventually found innocent of all charges. For it turned out, much to the chagrin of Nancy Grace and other media figures, that the entire situation was much more complicated than it had originally appeared. And what had once been an opportunity for the media to make much outrage hay, became, eventually, a better opportunity for Jon Stewart to do what he does so hilariously: point out the absurd dialectics that pass for American political and social realities:
Persuading one’s peers is an admirable ability—admirable in a Jon Stewart, admirable in a Nancy Grace, and admirable in any lesser-known cajoler. But anything worth admiring is also bound to be dangerous, so when my best friend from childhood began persuading me to join his lacrosse team when I was fourteen or so I was suspicious. One problem I had was that I loved playing sports, but I hated organized sports. I hated the uniforms; I hated the idea of coaches telling me what to do; I even hated the idea of people sitting in the stands watching me play, a hatred I still find somewhat bizarre, given that my job as an adult requires me to get up and say things in front of people on a regular basis. But when I think of that childhood version of myself, with all of his cold and feary hatreds, I also think of how my childhood friend eventually did persuade me to play lacrosse, and how thankful I am to him for that persuasion.
We were not a good team. I offer as evidence of our awfulness the fact that we won only one game our entire first season. I think I scored five goals that game, which, if you know anything about lacrosse, is impressive. But being impressive in the undeniable suckfest that was Stemmers Run vs. Overlea sometime during the 1980’s is a mediated thing, a version of being a big fish in a small pond phenomenon, maybe.
Our team, as I would learn when we travelled to Cockeysville to play, was a gang of poor kids. I might put it that we were lower-middle class kids, but that aspirational language doesn’t quite capture the realization I had when we played, and lost, to Cockeysville, who had three teams in our age group. They were all outfitted with the best equipment, and played on pristine fields. And Cockeysville 3, whom we lost to 17-5, was the worst of their three teams in our age group.
Our own team’s home field was a semi-level affair behind Kenwood High, pocked with holes and crabgrass. And my helmet, I still recall, was so loose-fitting that I had to stuff a t-shirt into the top of it so that it wouldn’t bobble on my head while I played. But it was visiting, and then convincingly losing to, Cockeysville 3 that constituted my first brush with the 20th century American version of class.
The American orientation to class, compared to the English, or even the broadly European understanding of it, is peculiarly naïve. One does not have to read the novels of Henry James to see this, but it helps. Oddly, if perhaps predictably, most Americans still equate class with wealth, not culture. America remains an accounting nation, a “tallying” nation, as Walt Whitman once put it. Witness Garth Appelt, “a portfolio manager at Moore Capital Management,” who is featured in Soshnick’s aforementioned Bloomberg piece:
Appelt, 44, a 1991 Virginia graduate, said he wants to bolster his business by helping athletes whose package of time management, competitiveness and ability to cope with failure make them ideal candidates for success in the financial-services industry.
“Imagine taking all those kids who don’t have lacrosse anymore and they can put all of that time and energy into their career,” Appelt said in a telephone interview.
Imagine taking all those kids who don’t have lacrosse anymore and they can put all of that time and energy into their career. That is the American tallying language, a literalization of that unfortunate phrase, “human resources.” But Walt Whitman, in his still emotionally devastating elegy on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilac’s Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” tallied this way:
To the tally of my soul,
Loud and strong kept up the gray-brown bird,
With pure deliberate notes spreading filling the night.
Loud in the pines and cedars dim,
Clear in the freshness moist and the swamp-perfume,
And I with my comrades there in the night.
While my sight that was bound in my eyes unclosed,
As to long panoramas of visions.
And I saw askant the armies,
I saw as in noiseless dreams hundreds of battle-flags,
Borne through the smoke of the battles and pierc’d with missiles I saw them,
And carried hither and yon through the smoke, and torn and bloody,
And at last but a few shreds left on the staffs, (and all in silence,)
And the staffs all splinter’d and broken.
I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.
The ability to render an atrocity like the American Civil War, and then to realize life’s grave complications in the undulating waves of language that characterize Whitman’s best lines is the capacity of poets, not businessman, not pundits, and certainly not politicians. It is also a capacity that I’d like to honor at the end of another Memorial Day, which, as many of my patriotically American friends have been reminding me via Facebook, is about honoring the many Americans who have died during our wars.
I think of those dead now, their number that keeps on climbing, and will likely continue to climb until some adjustment of soul occurs in each of us living sufferers, who cannot, for the life us, realize that living is not a game of winners and losers, a battle over resources, ideologies, or even an opportunity to network one’s way toward some vague vision of upward mobility. Our lives are not sports, though we owe something to the games that we play.
As for myself, what I owe to lacrosse in particular—the only organized sport that I have ever played—is much of what constitutes my current life. It led me to college, which I would not have entered had it not been for a college lacrosse coach who also happened to be the Head of Admissions. College then led me, eventually, to graduate school studies in Literature, which, as most advanced degree graduates in Literature know, leads almost inevitably to teaching Freshman Composition, where I now teach reluctant, sometimes petulant college kids how to write essays that they don’t want to write, and see no reason for writing.
“This has nothing to do with my career,” I often hear my students say, tallying as they do. To this I usually respond with the story of my college lacrosse coach, a man who no doubt pulled some strings to get me into his school. I didn’t have the grades to get into his college, or any college, really. But because I was from Baltimore, a place known to produce some of the country’s best lacrosse players, and his school was in California, he took a chance on me, though he hadn’t seen me play.
“Fact is,” my story to reluctant students goes, “he couldn’t have seen me play. My high school didn’t have a lacrosse team. I probably attended the only high school in Maryland that didn’t have a lacrosse team.” Sometimes I go into the fact that I ended up not playing lacrosse in college, sometimes not. But almost always I mention the phone conversation wherein the coach badgered me to write my college application essay, which I stubbornly refused to write. “Just write anything,” he told me over the phone. “I’ll take care of it.” And he did. After I did.
“Do you think at that moment in my life that I knew I would end up teaching someone like you how to write essays?” My reluctant students, who no doubt think—and have been taught to think—that their lives ought to be planned out ahead of time, have only one answer to this question.
The networking game is a powerful thing. It can also be a mysterious thing. But one thing it likely cannot be is that which makes you who you will eventually become. For what makes you that, whether it be your soul, your DNA, or your culture, is too strong and too subtle of a persuader to be predicted, or tallied, or networked into.
It is the business of the living to suffer, not the dead, as Whitman once wrote. And suffering is life’s business because it is the buried root of life’s passion. Passion has its etymological roots in suffering, even if these roots have largely been cut in America, excepting for their preservation in the phrase, “The Passion of the Christ.” “Do what you are passionate about,” we often tell our young people as they prepare to leave the yard of youth and enter into their adult lives. Yet often when we advise them this way we speak as if to persuade them that life can reward without pain, without loss, without suffering.
The Buddha once recommended that the gist of our lives be a “joyful participation in the sorrows of the world.” I recall reading that once, years ago now, while I sat beneath a eucalyptus tree in California, and failed to participate in a game that my team eventually lost.
Games and the sports that we play help us to live out our passionate and joyful participation in the sorrows of the world, if only temporarily and vicariously. To see an athlete cry tears of despair when he loses, or tears of joy when he wins, ought to remind us of this existential fact, even as some dismiss such displays with, “It’s only a game.” But to be persuaded, in peace or war, into the belief that each of our lives is a simple sport or game, with winners and losers, and to the righteous victor goes the spoils, is a dismissal far more grave. For tallies like these have long made, and will continue to make, the living world’s balance of accumulating sorrows.
Matt McClelland is a teacher and writer living in Brooklyn, NY.