From Awkwardness to Joy: Act I
Have you ever heard the phrase "Obie awkward"? It's a wry acknowledgement that among the many things that make Oberlin exceptional — world-class musicians, student-taught courses, cooperative industrial kitchens, and more — awkwardness has a traditional place, and with good reason. Obies are known for it. Sometimes it's an endearing, oh-my-how-are-we-ever-to-decide-who-will-pass-through-the-door-first kind of awkward. Sometimes it's the squirmier, stealthier awkwardness that sneaks in behind difficult questions of identity and equality. Much of it is common to all college students, hovering as we are between adolescence and adulthood. But some of it is uniquely ours.
There are plenty of reasons for this, and if you've ever experienced an Obie-awkward moment, you probably have your own theories about its cause. (If you haven't, and you come here, you will.) I have two years' worth of moments. Many are funny, many are horrible; many are so horrible they're funny — or will be in ten years, at least, when I've forgotten the details. But I have a few favorites, just from this past week.1 These are ones where I enter from stage left, stinking of stress and fear and uncertainty, and exit down the center aisle, glowing with joy. It happens a lot, actually. Oberlin specializes in awkwardness. And joy.
The curtains open at eight AM on a beautiful Saturday morning. I had overslept and missed the carpool to a farm I was hoping to visit, so instead, I decided to go see some friends of mine play ultimate frisbee. This sounds like a casual choice, a whimsical way to spend a pretty day. I assure you, I am not the kind of spectator who gets whims to go to sporting events. I'm the kind of spectator that accidentally wanders onto the field and gets hit in the head with the football — the ball that was, coincidentally, just about to be caught by the home team's receiver to make the final touchdown. This hasn't happened yet, which is how I know it's going to someday. I'm due.
Anyway, I walked the few blocks from the coop to North Fields in a state of mild trepidation that increased to a rather sharper anxiety when I actually reached the field. It's a vast span of mown grass stretching from the fieldhouse to the solar array, and in one corner, I could just make out a colorful flurry of athletic people doing athletic things. I couldn't discern a single spectator. I almost turned around and went home.
But there was a white tent set up on the field nearest me, and I made for that. Perhaps its sitters could tell me where Oberlin was playing. Perhaps they could tell me where on earth I was supposed to stand. If it was really bad, I reasoned, I could always leave — after all, the barbed-wire fence only guarded one side of North Fields.
I walked the long walk to the tent and found myself greeted by name. The tent-keepers were Zack and Aaron, Horsecows who I know a little and respect a lot. They clearly did not find it strange that I was on North Fields at nine in the morning to watch their teammates play sports. They told me how the tournament schedule worked, and I began to feel a little more at ease. I took a surreptitious second to study the field layout before I made my way over to where the Horsecows were playing. The football in my prophetic vision could just as easily be a disc.
I stood off to one side for a minute in a self-designated spectator zone, but when the disc moved down the field, I got caught up in the cluster of Horsecows following the play. I stopped thinking about myself and started thinking about the game. During the last year, I'd heard plenty about frisbee practice, frisbee parties, frisbee players and frisbee tournaments, but very little about the game itself.2 I didn't even know the rules. So I watched.
Here's the first of many beautiful things about frisbee: it's intuitive. The Manti like to chant, "Simple game, simple rules!" The point begins when one player throws the disc as far as possible towards the other team. With the disc as their standard, they charge down the field to engage with their opponents, who have taken possession of the disc.
The players are all running now, chasing down potential futures. The disc darts from hand to hand until it's slapped down or caught by a member of the other team. Each player has only ten seconds to hold the frisbee, and much of the game is about passing the disc to extend those seconds into long moments of continuous play. When the disc moves well, without interruption, it's called "flow"; the grace in it is tangible. The pursuit of that grace is occasionally amazing:
But the interruptions have a grace all their own:
Here's another beautiful thing about frisbee. Because we all change the future every moment, we rarely see it happen. I saw it happen on North Fields that weekend. It's especially visible after a foul, when time slows and stops while the teams discuss the play. The disc arcs lazily back to the last player during the beat in time between two realities: the reality in which a foul took place and the one in which it won't. As the player catches the disc, sometimes the players shuffle. They're trying to see forward in time, moving to where the disc needs to be in just a heartbeat more than ten seconds. But sometimes there's a perfect motionless pause. Then the player taps the ground with the disc and the count begins.
I love the moment when stillness erupts into speed. The position of any stationary player looks random, but when they move, their intent becomes one bright thread among many, woven into the fabric of the point. A single future extricates itself, play by play, until the end of the point. Scoring is simple: a player has to catch the disc in the opposite team's endzone. This has to be done 11, 13, or 15 times during the game, depending on the predetermined point limit, but it's beautiful every time.
The end of a game is often anticlimactic. The ones I watched last month were no such thing. The Horsecows and Manti A and B played fiercely and well, and I happened to watch many of the most dramatic, including one that the Horsecows won twice, after a disputed point count resulted in a redo; and one in which the Manti played their most capable opponents, matching them point for point. That one ended like this:
The tournament took place in early October, and I started the post about three days later, but every time I came back to it, I was frustrated by my inability to transmute pure physical grace into language. I post this now to show you Mya's amazing pictures, and in the hopes that you will go and watch a frisbee game for yourself.3 Or that you'll go somewhere you're not sure you belong, shout even if you're not sure you should, stay even if it's cold and you're not sure something amazing will happen soon enough for you. Because the odds are it will. Especially at Oberlin. And you might see something that, even months later, you'll struggle to put into words.
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That is, a week in late October when I began this entry. Although come to think of it, I have some from last week, too.
Apparently, frisbee players don't call it frisbee, they call it ultimate. I am not a frisbee player, and the Horsecow I know best often calls it frisbee when talking to laypeople, so I have used them interchangeably here.