Sunday, April 24, 2011

Day Twenty Four - Losing The Game by Diane Ackerman


On the face of this midfielder,
a saint’s passion.

Sweat brilliantines his hair
flat as a seal pup’s fur.

Thorns rake one knee, and fatigue
is a train whistle that never quits.

In his mind, the falcon of defeat
slips off its own hood

and sails into the vapory cold December,
hangs like a crucifixion over the field,

then slants down the wide thermal
of his shame. Today 2 + 2 is algebra,

and nothing will transmute
his base metal to gold leaf.

When crowd and players have gone,
he watches the sun set

under a tumultuous bruise of sky,
below the empty grin of the bleachers,

deep into the valley,
a ghastly, yellow bile draining out.

---Diane Ackerman

Diane Ackerman's Losing The Game

I've always found it inspiring to see young athletes expose so much of their physical and emotional selves in order to perform to their best ability. You've probably heard the same sports cliches that I have, phrases like "you can't win 'em all," "give it your best shot," "there's no I in team," and "leave it all on the field." Notice that last phrase, "leave it all on the field," and think about how those six simple words can propel teenagers to sacrifice themselves for the good of their team. Just this past week I watched a piece on ESPN's E60 that showcased a girls high school cross country team in the San Francisco area. This team is a perennial powerhouse and is coached by a highly respected leader in the field of running. Unfortunately, this gentlemen has been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and he is slowly losing his body to the disease. For a man who is used to running miles every day, it's now a struggle to walk step-by-step. His team of young women, realizing this might their last season with their coach, performed exceptionally this year, especially at the State Championship Meet. The E60 piece honed in on this meet and how the team's championship hopes hinged on the team captain's finish. With less than a 100 yards to the finish line her body shut down and with less than 10 yards to the finish she collapsed on all fours. Displaying that aforementioned trait of "leaving it all on the field" the young woman crawled the remaining yards with other runners passing her by. Severly dehydrated, she finished and placed high enough for the team to win another state championship for their ailing coach. It's stories like this that reinforce the thrill of victory and the epitome of why we compete. Diane Ackerman's poem Losing The Game is not about the thrill of victory. The agony of defeat is just as much a part of why we compete. If there is a winner then there has to be a loser. Learning to lose is just as important to savoring a win. The lessons gained from losing might not be immediately applicable, but with the distance that time provides we can gain much from our unsuccessful experiences.

Teenage athletes are admirable for the passion they display in their athletic pursuits. We've already mentioned "leaving it all on the field," and this mindset allows student athletes to view games as matters of life and death. In some athletes this brings out the worst, prompting cheating, unsporting behavior, and violence. In other athletes this brings out the best and they display perseverance, sportsmanship, and a selflessness that is rare in society. Older generations sometimes scoff at youthful exuberance for athletics, failing to remember that time in their lives when their team's performance meant the world to them. Yes, there is life beyond my JV soccer team's performance in tonight's game, but the high school sophomore can't see that life. The future is far off and as a result the here and now takes precedence. With that thought in mind, Diane Ackerman constructed an accurate depiction of what it is like to lose a game as a student athlete. There is an epic quality to her poem Losing The Game and if you can't see it, instead viewing the poem as melodrama, then you might be a part of that generation out-of-touch with youthful passion.

Diane Ackerman's poem Losing The Game is carefully constructed to reinforce the high school sporting event as an epic happening. The midfielder's face has "a saint's passion" and his hair is not just matted with sweat, but it dramatically "brilliantines his hair / flat as a seal pup's fur." The athlete, who presumably will go home to study for subjects like algebra and his driving exam, takes on the qualities of a battle weary warrior. As "thorns rake his knee" and Ackerman takes us into his mind, which is a creative and perceptive universe of thoughts, emotions, and reactions. In his mind, the game is not a fixed period of quarters or halves with a final outcome that sends everyone home in their cars to resume their lives afterwards. No, "In his mind, the falcon of defeat / slips off its own hood / and sails into the vapory cold December, / hangs like a crucifixion over the field, / then slants down the wide thermal / of his shame." His mind can't loosen its grip on defeat, but there is a beauty in his downtrodden nature. Passion exudes from his defeated shell, and although he may have lost, Ackerman's athlete equates his game with the more important things in his life. This is apparent in the overarching religious motif, where the athlete has thorns, crucifixion, saints, and a swirling symbolic falcon on his mind. Like many leaders, both religious and secular, throughout history, the athlete in Diane Ackerman's poem reflects in solitude after the "crowd and players have gone." His eyes and heart are open, the defeat has left him exposed and raw. As a result, the sky is a "tumultuous bruise," the bleachers are taunting him with their "empty grin," and the sun is not tinged in gold as it sets but it is a "ghastly, yellow bile draining out." Ackerman captures the mind of a young athlete in the grips of defeat so vividly that she doesn't miss a single truth or nuance. This is the temporary mental paralysis of defeat, but this is also the stage that will allow for life-altering growth. No one wants to lose the game, but everyone wants the long term benefits that come from losing and reflecting on that loss to improve yourself. Even the cross country team and their coach that E60 profiled recently knows they will not win every race, but I would guess that they let the taste of their losses linger in their mouths each time they approach a new race reminding them what could happen if they fail to "leave it all on the field."

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