I’ve always wanted to be a team player, but…
As a fat kid with allergies whose lawyer father let him carry his briefcase into court but never played catch, I had no athletic skills, beyond standing so massively in touch football that no one on the offensive team could knock me over. I was never chosen voluntarily for any sports team and, even with my specific gravity, was resented on every team on which I played.
I found basketball incomprehensible, and still do. To me, its virtue is in rules and procedures that make simple things more difficult to do, and thereby evoke a sense of drama and skill similar to writing a sonnet or watching British people push their peas on convex edge of a fork, and then transport those peas into a mouth without dropping any.
I was never in the military, or in a paramilitary organization, but I respect those who have been in them. I honor their courage, their sacrifice, their resourcefulness under stressful situations, and–most of all, their ability to get along with others.
For a few years, I was in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. Both organizations seemed (to me) about wearing a uniform and getting dirty in the woods. My mother communicated to me, not a horror of dirt (I got my share, playing with die cast metal tractors in her rose garden) but an appreciation, if not outright admiration, for places that other people have cleaned. Though I’ll admit there have been moments of scenic splendor and tasty campfire cuisine, I’ve hated every camping trip taken. To me, camping is a hotel room with a view, and room service.
Though I have worked very hard for my employers, I have too frequently lacked the social skills that assure my employers how grateful I am for the opportunity to work for them. When people greet me by asking me how I am, or how I’m doing, I answer the question as accurately as I can. Yes, I know that anyone who asks isn’t interested in me. They’re being civil, polite or merely pleasant. I’m also aware of the vital human affectation of tact: one of many personal compromises, big and small, that help you fit snugly into a group.
But, when I’ve had a choice between sucking up, swallowing what I’ve been fed, admiring how adept my superior is at superiority, I err.
I don’t know why I haven’t learned from so many mistakes. The truth is, I’ve always wanted to find a group to which I could belong. I’ve wanted to wrap myself in the gift-wrapped security, mutual respect and camaraderie that groups are supposed to deliver. I’ve dreamed of belonging to a salon like those in Paris where eccentric expats dithered and squabbled, listened to a Chopin nocturne and came up with great art.
I even learned about some of these legendary salons and their hosts. About the best I can say is that the world would be a different place if not for these incredible gatherings. The worst is that the salons were sometimes no more than a free drink or meal for artists who resented flattering the host, that the conversation was no better than gossip, much of which was heartlessly cruel.
A difficulty I have at some family gatherings is hearing gossip about those who are not in the group. If you listen to someone trash someone else behind her back, chances are you’re going to be trashed by that every same person when you leave the room.
I even studied group dynamics during a brief foray into cultural anthropology. I learned about ethnocentrism: the behavior that creates and enforces group identity and membership. Those in groups, whether they’re a bullying leader, or a zealous follower, can do terrible things to perceived inferiors, or outsiders, as a way of reinforcing the values of their association. This has been used to explain how it is possible that more people have died in the name of God than that of every human villain.
Maybe it’s genetic: I’m missing a part that would make me more socially sensitive and a better fit for the teams, tribes, newsrooms, academic English departments and other groups that determine what is real, safe and proper for just about everyone alive today. If I had that gene, I wouldn’t be so rude as to tell people precisely how I was feeling when they asked. I might have even found a steady job in the media, worked long enough until my publication downsized or went out of business.
Or I could have used my incredible, nature-nurture-enhanced people skills to rise to the heights of management. I could have been an editor, with an office filled photos of myself standing next to famous people, folding my hands on a desk while explaining to some snarky reporter that “we’re not the government.”
Instead, the fat kid with allergies grew up to be a guy who got into the martial arts, not because he wanted to beat up the bad guys, but because he couldn’t understand why, so often, he was his own worst enemy.
I remember Gerald Evans, a karate teacher who broke away from the American organization to found his own school, telling us to “love your punch. Love every block, kick and throw. Love every technique. When you punch, give yourself an ‘ahh, that felt good’ or ‘that felt right.’ And if it didn’t, look for that feeling. You’ll find it. Put it into everything you do.”
You can hear that in a group, but you learn it on your own.