Karl Lindholm: The time is out of joint

ON A PICTURESQUE late winter/early spring day — March 8 — the Middlebury men’s lacrosse team played against Connecticut College on Youngman Field. The Panthers defeated their NESCAC rival, 20-8, that day and three days later trounced Plattsburgh State in what ended up being the final Middlebury athletic event of the year. Many Middlebury seniors ended their athletic careers with a truncated season, including defending national champion women’s lax and baseball, which played a few games before shutting down. The competitive seasons of softball, tennis, and track and field never began. Independent photo/Karl Lindholm

We “shelter in place,” practice “social distancing” hoping to “flatten the curve” of the “pandemic” afflicting the world. These are terms that were largely unfamiliar to us only a very short time ago but are now staples of our daily discourse. 

We isolate ourselves from one another in this chilly and lovely late winter/early spring season in the hope that we can come together in the warm embrace of the season that follows.

But who knows when that will be? It could be a while. All is so uncertain. 

Schools, from daycare to graduate school, have closed and sent their students home, wherever that may be, to whatever is there for them. Lives are terribly disrupted. 

Middlebury College announced their closing on Tuesday, March 11. I was on campus and within an hour of the announcement, I encountered three students, senior women, in the college store. They were distraught at the prospect of missing their last semester of college, and all that entails, practically and emotionally.

My daughter, Annie, a senior at Bates, is home now too, sad indeed to be leaving those intimate friendships developed over four years. Her senior thesis, a capstone experience, in a lab science (chemistry) is significantly truncated. 

I had hoped to be helpful to my other daughter and her husband by caring for my grandchildren, ages 6 and 3, so their parents could go to work. Now it looks like I will not be staying with them — in order to protect me, as I am in a threatened demographic (geezers), and kids are more likely to be carriers than be ill themselves. Everything is topsy-turvy.

I feel a special sympathy for the athletes at Middlebury who had to forego this season of competition. Men’s and women’s lacrosse got in three games, baseball too; other spring sports teams never got underway. Athletes had been preparing earnestly to play their schedule of games, formally for the past month, and on their own religiously in the off-season.

College is largely about preparing oneself for something grander, a life’s work. Except for the very few, athletes’ competitive lives are over when their schooldays end. To lose a season of competitive play is a real loss when there are so few. 

Time is everything to the athlete — their time in the arena is so short. The intersection of opportunity and ability is so precise. And the thrill of the arena is so intoxicating, exhilarating, a natural high.

Context is important: the intensity of the athletes’ preparation, hour and hours of practice, some formal team practices with teammates, but mostly working on their own, in order to perform in front of friends, family, and community members in rituals of intense meaning.

There is a desperation, a pressure, attached to sports for the athletes themselves. They live intensely in the now. We older folks often try to get them to moderate their passion, knowing something of its inutility later on. We encourage balance, but we know the intoxication of competitive play. It’s a heady elixir.

The vast majority of athletes are finished in any formal sense at 18; some are lucky (and skilled) enough to play another few years in college. They too retire involuntarily at such an early age, way before they reach the peak of their physical capacities. 

They often obsessively refine a physical skill that has no practical application in adulthood: so you can hit a baseball a mile — that and two bucks gets you a cup of coffee. 

John Updike addressed the finality of athletes’ formal play when he wrote the last line of his classic essay on Ted Williams’s last game, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”: “He had met that little death that awaits athletes — he had quit.” (And Williams played into his forties!) 

I know to focus on athletes, this one group, is perhaps narrow in this time of crisis that is affecting everyone — and the loss of a season of play, in the real scope of things, is not tragic. Yet the athletes’ opportunities to express themselves on the field go by in the blink of an eye — just ask a parent, or the athletes themselves, later on. 

I know, I know, the coronavirus: what is the loss of a season of sports for vibrant young people, athletes, against to the loss of life of a loved one, or the loss of income, the loss of a job, for a family struggling to make ends meet. 

We pray that the steps we are taking now to slow the spread of this contagion are effective, and before long, and without catastrophic human consequences, our locked athletic facilities and empty fields will soon enough again be full of the raucous sounds of joyous play. 

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