Choosing Up Sides – Youth to Adulthood
By the time I turned nine, I had absorbed a mountain of information about religious and familial differences among my childhood friends. My family happened to be Jewish; my buddies were not. One boy was Methodist, a son of German immigrants. Twins I bonded with were coincidentally, sons of German immigrants too, but Catholic. This was a Long Island, NY town in the 50’s and 60’s; home to growth patterns and demographics engendered by the uniqueness of those who moved there from the teeming parts of metro New York City and elsewhere. They came from Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx and from considerably further away too. It must have seemed a perfect place to settle down and raise a family….in retrospect, perhaps it was pretty good. Up and down my block were colonial style houses (my parents paid $10,500 in 1946 for ours), each on it’s own postage stamp sized piece of land. An Irish cop lived down the street; a family of fourteen huffed and puffed through life two doors away (I don’t recall specifically, but we can safely assume they were good Catholics). Between their house and ours lived an Italian family; Frank Jr. was a hairdresser. His social interests were unique and amusing but thinking back, never the subject of ridicule…something I remember as being pretty cool. Our neighbor directly across the street hailed from France and sounded the part. I couldn’t understand their language much except the blanket invitation to sample cooking. I wondered at the time why another next-door neighbor, with the name Bordeaux, didn’t have the slightest accent. Go figure. It was a potpourri, for sure.
Both despite and because of the heterogeneous religious and distant foreign influences, small groups of kids were bound to form bonds as the years wore on. These were our formative years; it was a critical wellspring of evolving friendships; whether they’d last or not, who could predict? We went about finding stuff to do…ride bikes, explore, make things and take things apart. Looking back, some actions could be thought of, at best, as dissing anyone from a different group. Stupid and immature? Perhaps. But it was taken semi-seriously at the time and the result revealed itself in many ways. Use your imagination and think back to third grade or fourth or even worse, middle school. Anyway, being the only Jew on the block, I took my figurative lumps, but fit in anyway, in my own special way. Actually, I got on with quite a few individuals from different groups…cliques to be accurate, but didn’t fit in with any one group perfectly enough for my liking. But that’s another story.
For nearly all the boys and many of the girls, sports were an integral ingredient in our young spirited lives. A handful of us would gather on the street…we’d throw a baseball around or do down-and-outs with a football. We’d make it to the playground to shoot hoops…in bigger groups we’d get full-tilt games going. Touch football and basketball were favorites; you didn’t need too many players. Those are times I remember well. It didn’t really matter what the game was. It almost didn’t matter who showed up, long as there were enough. We’d start, all standing in a puddle of possibility and the cliques rapidly dissolved. It was time level the playing field, time to choose up sides.
I have to chuckle at the mixing and matching that put “arch enemies” on the same side. “Best friends” became stern opponents. The team became bigger and more significant by far, than any of its members. The greater the competition, the tighter the newfound teammates’ bonds grew. We cheered for “our own”, while doing what we could to crush the opponent. We played just like that, in the moment and for hours…forgetting the past, ignoring the future. If we opposed a pal, what was it about the team, that put winning above enduring friendship? If we saw no sense in befriending someone different, what was it about the team, which overrode those typically self-centered notions? What was it about the team? Anyone who’s lucked onto a team, particularly one of choice, surely knows the answer. It’s simple enough. A team and its goals blend the best competitive spirits in us into a resolute amalgam. As the competition heats up, so does that spirit and with it, strong support for your teammates, disdain for your foe.
The dynamic hasn’t changed for kids since, or for the adults we’ve become. In the corporate world, there’s nothing quite so ruthless as the arbitrary creation of competition. Inside the best of companies, the best ideas frequently evolve from the pairing of disparate, different thinking employees. In that world, teams of colleagues develop products, teams imagine campaigns and teams find brilliant alternatives where others fail to see anything new at all. It’s true in some cause, whatever it may be, or in a silly card game or in academia, the sciences or in any other place where men and women find common ground and purpose.
All this seems particularly true in times of war. Just ask a soldier what matters most deeply and it’s likely, he’ll answer something akin to, “My team, our mission”. In the thick of it, what more could you hope for in a comrade? Still, it’s vexing to wonder about the genesis of such devotion. One thing’s for sure…a team and all it engenders can be a mighty powerful influence. Perhaps we’d all be better off, if once in awhile we’d start anew, collect ourselves in a big amorphous puddle and choose up sides all over again.