• John Teske

Square Ball in a Round Hole

Updated: Sep 29


To distract my toddler one morning when my wife was trying to get him into the car, I picked up the cardboard container from some wine coolers and told him we were playing “square ball.” I often find that my toddler’s agenda is quite different from mine, which should surprise no one who has ever been around a three-year-old, where the best way to initiate the “run game” is to tell him you want something he has in his little hands. He was sufficiently engaged by the “square” ball being something we could easily toss around. I think sometimes he just enjoys throwing things. I am amused so see objects flying over his shoulder as he searches through his toy-box, but there are times he will just spend time systematically throwing things across the room. He can already throw more accurately than I can.

The combination of my son’s incipient pitching skills and the idea of different agendae reminded me of a powerful and surprising experience I had a decade or so ago. A student of mine who, for whatever reasons, found me approachable, asked me quite innocently after class one day why professors thought what was going on in their classes was so important. The obvious answer is that we got paid to do so, but maybe more importantly, students’ and their parents’ tuition payments were where that pay was from. I asked him why he came to college. The answer was obvious to him, that he came to college to play college baseball. I was teaching at a little liberal arts college, so baseball neither got him into the college nor provided scholarship support for his attendance. I tried to gently suggest that the sizeable tuition payment, provided by his parents and his funding sources, including any loans, was justified by him being exposed to a bunch of overeducated professorial types to try to cheerlead students into learning, if not the inheritance of their culture, at least something that might help them think more fully and critically about the world, or even to learn some skills that they might be later using to make a living. But who knows? This was about the time a college strategic plan had to include all the "stakeholders," which gave faculty about 25%, hardly the dominant influence.

I loved this kid, both for his love of baseball, and his innocent curiosity about how all this other folderol fit into his life. I knew him to party a bit with his teammates, but he wasn’t there to party, he was there to play baseball, about which he spent a lot of his time thinking. He worked hard at it and was, I think, one of our better pitchers, not that I followed college sports that much. Or sports in general for that matter. Clearly my gender role socialization had failed somewhere along the line as I couldn’t understand why people would spend so much time and money watching and thinking about spectator sports that really were irrelevant to anything that mattered in the world.

I guess I understand why people play sports. It’s good exercise, there is the pride in skills learned, in the heat of competition, and there is the camaraderie of one’s teammates. And sure, here there are always professionals with whom to compare oneself. I remember tossing a football in second or third grade, calling out “I’m Bart Starr,” who was then a quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. So, there is also identification with professional players, the vicarious enjoyment of playing the game (especially if you have played it yourself, like the appreciation I have for violinists after I spent years trying to learn), being with the team, and even the place pride of this being “our team,” or “my team.” So, some of it is a sense of identity, and even the camaraderie of being shared spectators, certainly giving you plenty to talk about, especially important in bonding with other men.

I think I know what got me off on the wrong foot. I was “young for my age,” being, in those days, one of the later Fall births that were still counted in the same grade cohort. So, for example, I didn’t turn five until late October during my year of Kindergarten. There were a lot of kids that turned six during the following Spring. I do remember being happy “fitting in” when we all compared our first report cards and we all were graded “at grade level,” though my dad encouraged me to do better. But this also meant that I couldn’t sign up for little league baseball the summer everyone else did. So, despite playing catch with my dad on a regular basis, watching the Milwaukee Braves with him and even going to Milwaukee to see a game, I didn’t have much else in the way of the requisite skills. The other kids were all full of game talk, and by the following school year, I was out of the loop. So, I didn’t sign up the next year either.

Maybe this helped me become one of the “smart-alecks.” I remember my sixth-grade teacher, who’d talk sports with the boys in front, telling my friend Dan (the son of a professor at Wisconsin) and me one time, after we’d caught him in another error: “Who do you two think you are, Einstein and Freud?” I made painted buttons for us to wear the next day. Maybe it also meant I had fewer distractions from the issues of the day, after Kennedy’s assassination, and the civil rights protests. My Dad was a campus minister, so maybe we also played catch less in that era, the era he also went to Selma to march with King, and we got nasty racist phone-calls at home. By the end of sixth grade I was already clueless enough to slide into first base after, to my surprise, connecting with the ball. I rode home alone and in shame. My old Louisville Slugger, the paint long gone, still sits propped against my study wall, and despite my Dad being dead 25 years, I still carry a ball and glove in the trunk of my car, just in case.

I learned to throw a Frisbee from my Dad’s college kids in Madison, but that was a long way from being anything more than an afternoon on a sunny campus common, at least at the time. I guess I learned beer-drinking from him sampling his Milwaukee pilsners while we watched the Packers win the first two super bowls. Then, still during the civil rights era, Milwaukee sold the Braves to, of all places, Atlanta. One of my favorite players was Hank Aaron, who even liberals would have called a “negro.” Didn’t Atlanta burn in the civil war? Betrayed by baseball, by the time we moved to Indiana, even the Packers weren’t getting much coverage, and I was still recovering from being hit over the head with a baseball bat and trying to find my way in high school. In West Lafayette, where my Dad was now a campus minister at Purdue University, there were a lot more “smart ones,” the children of Purdue professors, from whom I learned social activism, and some seriously countercultural attitudes.

Perhaps I was already there. When we moved to Indiana, I put up a poster in my bedroom, which you could see from the street, showing Alan Ginsburg, with a big sign that just said, “Pot. is Fun” I really didn’t know what that meant, I just knew he was a rebel poet, and it seemed cool. Meantime my church youth group from Madison was getting busted for toking up on a canoe trip. Missed that one. Eventually I’d learn to play pick-up volleyball when I went to California after college, and I loved using long bicycle rides as an escape when I was in grad school. Strong thigh muscles I have. But aside from the cyborg thrill of international Formula 1 racing I shared with the math professor’s kid who first “turned me on,” that was sports for me.

Here's a bit of feminist scholarship I learned from Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychanalysis and the Sociology of Gender, that helped me understand the “sports thing” in a different way. Historically, one was normally stuck doing what one’s parents did, but you pretty much learned to do it on an “apprentice” model. Girls hung around with Mom and did what she did, boys with Dad, doing dadly things. Come the industrial revolution, with divisions of labor into domestic and public spaces, Mom still did the “home based” work, but Dad was more often the one to head off to factory or mine. Since children were still reared largely in domestic spaces, much of what went on in the course of the day was with Mom. Girls still learned much of their gender identity “in relation,” in interdependent connections with maternal figures. Boys still had the same level of interdependency and emotional support, but that wasn’t what men did, so a lot of their gender-identity would be formed in opposition, by separating themselves from domestic space (spending more time on their own, out of doors) and pointedly not doing the things their sisters did (and until quite recently families tended to have lot more kids), avoiding being a “sissy,” and not doing things in the same nurturing interdependent tutelage with their mothers, avoiding being a “mama’s boy.”

On the positive side, what to do to be a man is too often formed by guesswork or by indirect sources, in the media, in guy talk, or on the fields of competition. Why are guys so into sports? They don’t get to hang out with Dad at work, but in those short interstices after work, or on weekends, where Dad is often escaping the angst of his own career life, by participating, or even just spectating upon the world of sport. And while I am happy to see that when Title IX has its intended effects, girls can have some of this action, too; my fear is that this merely means that, as women participate more in the world of work outside the domestic sphere, increasingly it is girls, too, whose only positive source of shared identity with Mom or Dad, is in their leisure activity, too often a distraction from their actual role in the economy, and the dynamics of power in their society. So, how does socialization provide a positive picture of these things, where one can see, identify with, and participate in what their parents spend their most productive, alert, and directed time, and most of their waking energy, engaged? What models of virtue are there in the world of sports, of celebrity, and of politics to which developing youth can turn their attention.

There was an interesting development in the second-wave feminism of the 70’s called “take your daughter to work” day, where professional working women were encouraged to help their daughters see that being a woman, like their moms, could also include at least a day of the same interdependent developmental moments they might once more frequently have gotten in the domestic sphere. Don’t boys need this, too? How many productive, professional men were showing their sons what productive work might mean, including its meaning-affirming benefits, rather than however much shared spectating, or even coached participation they might have had in the interstices between work and sleep, with family interaction, mealtime, and emotional support thrown in?

Identity has to do, at least according to Erik Erikson, with coming to grips with one’s maturing body and sexuality, one’s place in the sequence of generations, and one’s economic place in society, however much these may be male-biased tasks. For Erikson, identity had to be negotiated before developing any real intimacy, as one had to have an identity before really having anything to share in intimacy. But Erikson’s feminist critics, like Carol Gilligan of In a Different Voice suggested that given the ties of their identities to relationships of interdependence, these were more likely to overlap in girls. The focus of a developing young man is to further his career and success in the economic marketplace; hence he is likely to be more focused on sexuality, and less on the development of true relational intimacy, requiring a much better understanding of interdependence.

The problem men have in negotiating the passage to intimacy has to do with their well-defined (and well-defended) ego boundaries. As we have seen, the management of their substantially more visible anatomic signs of sexual arousal may lead to their developing an armory of strategies of distraction or redirection and, likely, a more problematic relationship with their bodies. They have also formed identities in opposition, in separation and guesswork about male roles, and intimacy means forming a relationship, surrendering and opening those boundaries, letting down some of the defenses (the walls of a fortress also keep a lot inside). This is why trust is so important, and why the trust in the world of others developed in early attachment is so important to later intimacy. In forming identity in opposition, in competition, letting down the guard is dangerous, risky, even foolish; but without doing so you can never form a relationship with another whole human being, or form a unit on anything but your own terms, which of course is no new unit at all – the boundaries have to be opened and the defensed let down to expand the bounds of ego and identity, to include another person, and be part of a larger unit. “Building a nest” may require this, just as “making it” seems to require the reverse. Otherwise all you have is dominance and submission. What do we call a guy who spends too much time with his girlfriend? “Pussy whipped.” But if your goal is to “keep your bitches in line,” you will never find an equal, a partner. That requires being strong enough to let yourself be vulnerable, to trust that you can handle it.

Even sadder than my poor baseball player was the basketball star, who for years had his pick of girls throwing themselves at him, offering themselves to him – he merely had to choose. He came to my office once for a long talk because there was a woman he was attracted to, and even liked and respected, and he didn’t have a clue as to how to approach her that didn’t fee like surrendering his heroic identity.

I know I’m at risk of “mansplaining,” so please tell me if you think I am full of it, but I think the problem women have in negotiating the intimacy passage is both easier and more difficult – easier because women have formed identities “in relation,” and have more permeable boundaries; harder because it is so easy to lose one’s identity in relationship. In the latter case, you also, as in men’s failure to open up and expand, don’t have intimacy, but only surrender, acquiescence, submission. In short, becoming someone’s bitch. For women, true intimacy, especially with a man, requires “finding your own voice,” to use Carol Gilligan’s phrase, so you have the strength of identity to be intimate with someone whose identity is clearer to begin with (or more well-defined, well-bounded, perhaps more defensive). This means differentiating and separating oneself out from the nexus of relatedness.

Think of that warm orbit of friends from which younger women often seem so inseparable, to which one’s identity has previously been tied (that group whose membership in which you so value, the entrance to which is your more familiar source of power). It may seem safer to stay inside, but no one is coming in there after you, no prince hacking through the brambles. You want an equal, you must put yourself out there, which feels much more vulnerable. Without this differentiation one can never be truly independent, a genuinely unique individual, and without becoming one’s own person, with choices about relating, the larger wholes of which one might be a part are lessened, and one has no legacy to pass on except as a whole defined largely in terms of someone else, Roberts and Sons, rather than Ingridsdottirs. Provoke them, and they’ll come to you. Even if “being provocative” makes you feel more vulnerable, it shows strength and confidence. You don’t want to be treated like someone’s bitch? Sound off. Or walk off and watch Jack come following after.

If I had to specify the standard dynamic of relationship development in early adulthood, from almost 40 years of college teaching, this was ubiquitous. Never mind the hookup culture, we’re talking relationships here. I don’t pretend to understand the hookup culture, though, like “grinding,” it is not clear to me what girls get out of it, except attention, and that, furtive. But research also shows that college students are more likely to adapt to “sleep away” school if they have a close female friend, whether male or female. I suspect those early interdependent relationships meet serious emotional needs, and boys have a harder time negotiating those, at which they tend to be less practiced, than the hierarchy of male competition. Having a friend who is a girl, or with whom one can have this kind of communication, a confidante, an emotional intimate, “with benefits” or not, might be what it takes.

Boy meets girl, and by whatever emotional and physical intimacy, become involved. The closer they get the better she feels. Not only does this meet more emotional needs (which it does for both), but it is a great source of validation for her more interdependent sense of identity, which is familiar and comfortable. The problem is that this really doesn’t work for him, whose identity is formed from differentiation, separation, and independence. The more time he spends with her the more his boundedness and independence is being threatened. Regardless of whether he comes to be seen a “whipped” by his male peers, his own sense of himself as masculine, independent, and autonomous tends not to be very validated. This feels emasculating, and regardless of the genuine emotional value of interdependence, this is difficult to tolerate.

So, he needs “space,” or he wants to play around, spend more time with his buddies, or on his own projects, when she wants to be “part of it all.” He’s likely to feel that as invasive and controlling, and he may need to act assertively to get the separation he needs, so he breaks up with her, or he cheats, or he pushes her away. He may need to get back on the competitive field. He’s really not doing this to hurt her, however clumsy he may be, but to save his sense of his own masculinity which, in fact, she really doesn’t want him to lose as this may well be one of the things that attracted her to him in the first place. But the more he separates, the more he pulls away, the more she feels like a piece of her is being torn away, that warm interdependence she found so validating – in fact this is very painful for her, and being reactive to this perceived harm, especially if she blames him for it (not an unreasonable thing to do, to be sure), can only exacerbate the disharmony, and speed the relationship's dissolution.

The answer? To see it as the kind of a dance it is (as love really is, a threat of removal of the validation, of a loss of satisfaction of intimate needs, and then its return), but it works better if both understand the differing needs of interdependence and independence, of intimacy and identity, and even take the differences as a source of creative tension, as a bit of the frisson of a relationship, which might actually be harmed by the safety of habituation. It requires trust, both in the other, and in one’s own security, to sustain it.

From whence comes a boy’s sense of what it means to be a man, when the only shared time he has with Dad is in the appreciation or pursuit of athletic competition? And, sadly, how much is this now also becoming true of girls in dual-career families? Perhaps I was one of the lucky ones, that on top of the privilege due a straight white male, and their bane, I had many opportunities to see my Dad at work. He was ordained the year I was born, so my first years were living in a parsonage next to the church, then in married student housing while my Dad studied, then upstairs on Langdon Street, at the Lutheran Student Center on fraternity row at the University of Wisconsin. I could run down to his office from our apartment or lurk around and cadge Cokes during his discussions with students and faculty by the hearth in the front room, with interesting, passionate and largely civil discussions of “big issues.” These were duplicated later by our own “Friday night fires” eating popcorn at home after swimming at the YMCA, in the same room where my father would sit us down to explain why it was important that he go to Selma to march with King.

Years later, I'd stop by the Ecumenical Center he helped fund and build as part of the Purdue Campus Ministry, across from the Life Sciences building where I’d take my first college course in Zoology. Or watching his passionate, teary anti-war Sunday sermons, or see him on one of the campus commons, giving a speech about the need for patriotic dissent in a free society. I got the advanced academic degrees he never did. He saw me at my doctoral hooding, celebrated my finally getting tenure, and even came to one of my classes, enriching a discussion of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will,” with his memory of being in the same stadium at Nuremberg at the end of WWII, when it was being used as a massive hospital for the wounded.

I had several friends who were also so lucky. The son of a psych prof from whom I once took an award-winning class in abnormal psychology, who saw his father’s after-work political activism, is still a political zealot in his own retirement. The son of a math prof, who shared his love of photography after work with his son, spent his working life printing, selling film, and finally copying equipment He opened a photography studio with his own son, the day after his own retirement. Finally, there was the daughter of an art professor, whose home was an art studio where she played, becoming a professional violinist, marrying a Thai composer, and having two beautiful daughters, at least one of whom is in the arts.

I also once had a student, whose father’s after-work encouragement pressed her to be competitive, who had a life-size photo in his recreation room of his daughter doing a mid-air kick, poetry in motion. At the end of her final championship game as a star of the women’s soccer team, she dropped to her knees on the ground and wept for a half hour because soccer could never have the same role in her life. She had no interest in coaching but was never going to be a professional soccer player. Or there was the sad senior, neglecting his studies to put all his time into helping the soccer team at our little college win the NCAA Division III National Championship, only to discover, celebrating in Miami, that no one really cared. He dropped out got some girl pregnant and, as far as I know, still works at an Ocean City resort.

Finally, my baseball player, who so dearly loved baseball, after 10 years playing minor league ball, finally acknowledged he was never going to get “moved up.” He came to see me, to thank me for pushing him to finish his degree, because he might now still have a chance at a life. Or the better success of the student who, when I invited him back to talk with our honors group, confessed that his majors in college were baseball and psychology, in that order. He’d come to me while working in the trenches in a mental hospital the summer after he graduated: “Doc, can I take you out for a beer? I fucked up bad, and I need your help.” He followed my advice, got his master’s degree at the best school he could get in, and moved up to a doctoral program with his advisor, got a doctorate and was now running the Mental Health Service at a college in New Jersey, and doing “sport psychology” on the side. His wife was pregnant with their first daughter. He still loved baseball, but now was particularly sensitive to the psychopathologies exacerbated or even engendered by a life dedicated to playing a sport, any sport.

There are, of course, multiple causes to young people now seeking, not a college education, but the “college experience,” and, sadly, that is what admissions offices now sell them. It hardly seems worth the price. And there are those, like the shoe salesman of “married with children,” or depicted in a song by Bruce Springsteen, whose “glory days,” fondly remembered and often exaggerated, form the kernel of the fragile self-esteem now lost in the quiet desperation of a working life. Evenings and weekends, and the world of sports, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” from which they are now disenfranchised, or now engage vicariously through their children, or the players they watch from the stands, or their couches, become their favorite distraction, their favorite escape.

There is another side. One of my favorite students, now an animal activist, quit our soccer team when he realized it was taking too much from his studies, studies that would form the foundation of a life that soccer never would. And there was the best student assistant I ever had, a broad shouldered and muscular high school football star, whose sister was the “smart one” who went on to get a PhD in physics. Funny how siblings can be forced to different “specialties.” But this student didn’t want to “play college ball.” Indeed, he came to our little college in part because we didn’t have a football team. Or not a “American football” team, “soccer” being she sport, played mainly with your feet, that the rest of the world calls “football.” Still in his sister’s shadow he muddled along in college until he hooked up with a young African American girl, who took her college education seriously enough, and worked hard enough, to get everything she could from it. So, my (soon to be) assistant found himself studying as much as she did, to spend what time he could with her. He discovered, lordy, that he could get quite superior grades, and that he had more of a mind than he thought. Their relationship didn’t last, but the habits did, and he ended up getting a doctorate in psychology, and becoming a licensed psychologist.

I think expectations, family roles, and parental hopes play a huge role in pushing us to find some of our greatest enjoyments, and some of the positive and validating parts of our identities, in a sports-obsessed culture. Sports and entertainment, I suppose, as we have moved increasingly to a culture of distraction. Maybe I’m just jealous, and maybe just self-justifying, but I think it all too easy to be shaped by our socialization (in which we certainly participate) into behavioral and developmental pathways that do not in fact suit us, to the detriment of the satisfactions that might better come, not from our leisure pursuits, but from how we shape ourselves, our skills and our lives to occupations, to vocations, to which we might better be called.

Even in my own 40-year academic occupation, I sometimes wondered, seeing colleagues torture themselves, work themselves to exhaustion and even self-destruction for world-eggs that never hatched. Even for the least of us, we work 50-60-hour weeks for decades, just to keep pace with institutional and administrative demands, while trying to be the best educators, and the best scholars we can. What if all that brain power were directed to helping solve, mitigate or ameliorate some of the global problems more threatening to our survival, or even the unhappiness, suffering and despair of too many of our fellow human beings. We need, all of us, not only to better see our own hearts beating in the neck of the other, but the joys of transcending what we thought we were, and finding the ecstasy of breaking out of the boxes to which we accommodated our lives, and learning that the meaning of our lives is finally nothing more than how we have contributed to those who survive us