playing catch

There has to be at least two different kinds of cooperative games. There are probably seven, for all I know right now. But two kinds seems to be a good enough place to start. There are your endless games, like catch, that go on and on and on and then on again until everyone else gets too tired or bored or antsy to play. Then there are your ending games, like Prui and The Lap Game and Knots, where everybody tries to do something together (join the Prui, sit on each other’s lap, get untangled). And, o, wait, there are cooperative games that don’t really end, but could – I guess you could call them episodic, like clapping games and jumping games and ball-bouncing games, where as soon as you get good enough to feel like you’re succeeding, you make it harder.

So, OK, there are three kinds of cooperative games. You can also play some ball-bouncing games by yourself, don’t you know. But then you’re not cooperating, unless you’re cooperating with the ball, which you probably are, even though the ball might not be interested in cooperating with you. But that’s not the point. Or, at least, that’s not my point.

My point is that there are probably three kinds of cooperative games, and regardless of how many there are, I really just wanted to think with you about one game in particular: “playing catch.” Which could be called “playing toss,” but it’s not. It might as well be called juggling, because that’s pretty much what you’re trying to do, except there’s only one ball. But it’s the same idea – keep it going back and forth for as long as you possibly can.

There are a lot of things you can play catch with. There are baseballs and footballs and Wiffle balls and beach balls and balloons and bubbles (those games tend to be very short). And ping pong balls and volley balls, which you usually don’t really catch, but you do something very much like it, cooperatively speaking, by trying to, well, volley the ball back and forth, ad, conceptually-speaking, infinitum. So, let’s say we’re not playing catch. We’re volleying. Playing ping pong. But not for score. Just volleying. To exemplify, I repeat myself as follows:

There we were, up in the barn, playing with our brand new, thoroughly researched, ultimate ping pong table. That barn was the center of what we were calling The Games Preserve. We wanted to fill it with not only every game on the planet, but the very finest manifestation of each. And Bill chose that particular table, and those particular paddles and balls, and installed that particular kind of lighting for precisely that reason. It was not just a ping pong table. It was table tennis. Bill knew that I couldn’t really play ping pong. And I knew that he could really, really play. And because we wanted to play together, we just more or less volleyed (he more, me less). After a while, Bill suggested that I just try to hold my paddle still enough so that he could get the ball to hit it. Apparently, that was more than challenge enough for him. And for me, every time the ball actually crossed the net, hit my paddle, and got back to Bill was sheer magic.

After a while, we managed to get an actual volley going, Bill exercising the depth and fullness of his ping pongly skills, me magically holding my paddle where it needed to be. And after a longer while, we got a very, very long volley going. And during that volley, the ball seemed to take on its own, almost internal light, as if it were inhabited by our spirits, Bill and mine, combined. And it was, for an instant, as if we were seeing God. Honest. When we left the barn, we were like two Buddhist monks having just achieved enlightenment, together.

Actually, you could say that this was a fourth kind of cooperative game, different from the others in that it was based on a competitive game. But that’s not the point nor particularly relevant given the observation that playing cooperatively, without score, for no other reason than playing to keep playing, can lead to an experience that is as profound and transforming as the best moment of any game you can think of, cooperative or competitive, game or sport or contest, in pursuit of fun or beauty or knowledge or wisdom.

Sooner or later, all “keeping it going” kinds of cooperative games end. Or at least get interrupted. Usually because somebody misses.

So, there we are, throwing the ball back and forth, and we’re, well, kinda good at it. Back and forth and back and forth with nary a miss at all. After awhile, despite our collective brilliance and our desire to go on and on for as close to ever as possible, we get, well, a little, shall we say, bored by all that brilliant nariness. So, we increase the distance between us, or slightly change the way were throwing or the way we’re catching.

Something gets changed, by purpose or accident. You step back to catch the ball, and you stay there. And maybe next time you miss, but you don’t move any closer. You still think it can be done. Until you miss and miss again. And then, maybe, you take a step closer. Until it gets too easy.

It’s a game of balance, of fine tuning, adjustment, constant adjustment – adjusting to each other, to the changing levels of fatigue or energy, changes in the sunlight, temperature. At the same time there is this desire to perform and reach and share the spectacular. To go just beyond your limits. To return the throw with a accuracy that surprises both of you. To dive, to leap, to dance, not just in harmony, but with splendor. Something unsaid between us urging us forward towards the promise of something beyond us, the achievement of something extraordinary. Until, the inevitable befalls us, and we miss, and miss again.

In truth, it’s often very difficult to determine which of us actually missed. Maybe the thrower didn’t throw quite as brilliantly. Maybe the catcher wasn’t totally present, if you know what I mean.

We’ve made it a rule that you’re not allowed to say “sorry” when that happens, because: 1) stuff like that sometimes just happens, and 2) how do you know it’s your fault? how do you know the other guy didn’t return the ball the way he should have? what makes you so sure you were the one? and 3) it doesn’t help. What helps is to pick up the ball and keep going. Unless you don’t want to. Or the other guy doesn’t want to. On the other hand, saying things like “sorry,” even when you don’t actually entirely mean it, is something people do to keep the game going. On the order of saying “OK, so let’s pretend that last one didn’t really happen.” Or saying “that doesn’t count.” Or saying “that’s a ‘do-over’.”

Better to admit that we need to change something about the way we’re playing. We can change the distance between us, we can change the way we’re catching or the way we’re throwing.

Or maybe the best change of all is to play some other game, a different game. It might be more fun, next time, if we added more people. Well, maybe not more fun. Maybe as fun. Fun again. Fun in a different way. Maybe if the three of us, or five of us, or ten of us can keep it going long enough, maybe even more thoroughly, more powerfully, deeply fun.

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