Red and Black

As a kid, it seemed that everyone else had gotten the guidebook. The other kids knew what it meant, for example, when someone asked if you were a Texan or an Aggie. They knew whether it was polite to eat fried chicken with your hands during school lunch. (They did not hunch down and eat behind their lunch kits.) They knew what the raised middle finger meant ("something about those bathroom things," H guessed in 6th grade, and I wasn't sure whether he was close or not) and how the car blinker knew when to go on. They knew what game we were playing when we wore bibs called pinneys and stood in front of "goals." They also understood Red and Black, which was a ritual at summer camp, the reason red and black bandanas were on our packing list, along with t-shirts, shorts and tennis shoes.

I think the whole camp was divided in half, and we won team points by doing activities. I barely remember, but I know I was confused. I didn't understand the purpose. I have an inkling of the purpose now: It was the last week of camp, so Red and Black got everyone all excited, knocking them out of complacency or boredom; it was a way to meet kids in other bunks and bond with them; it inculcated us into the dog-eat-dogness of the Military Industrial Complex awaiting our older selves. Red stood for Red, and Black for Black--we weren't talking Socialism and Anarchy.

And yet, the paradox is that Red and Black week was all about the communal. The Red Team worked together (I guess, but it must have been unwieldy) and so did the Black. We're talking about that sacred American institution, the team. Team spirit. Team player. The alleged ethos of our camp was carved out on a board nailed over the entrance to the mess hall: God-1, You-2, Me-3. The individual wasn't that important. Your friends were. Your teammates.

I can't remember being on a team, a real team. We must have had them so that we'd know which side of the volleyball or badminton net to stand on in gym class, but I don't remember any team consciousness. At least I wasn't always the last kid picked for a team; I should have been, since I was so ungainly and confused, but there must have been girls more outree and unfortunate than myself. I don't remember suffering in that way and I carry grudges.

In high school, for the very first time in my life, I was a little bit better than some others in a physical skill. I jogged longer and faster than a couple of other girls. I collected ribbons for accrued distances. They were printed in different colors and featured a running cardinal, our school mascot. Junior year, Title IX was passed, the law guaranteeing equality in sports, and one of the gym teachers began arranging a track team. I thought for a moment of joining, but I didn't. I have asthma that's aggravated by exercise, but I also have tremendous lung capacity. I could have been a contender.

I have rowed three times now. I do not look forward to competing with other clubs. I do not care if our scull goes faster than the other one. (I'm brought out of the boat for informal races, so that a more experienced rower can help the scull move forward--or to put it another way, so that my choppy oaring won't impede movement and others can get a workout). I'm competitive but also indifferent. If no one expects anything of me I do well. The other side of the experience is the encouragement. Practices are a mix of: Perfect! Much better than last time! and imperatives: Watch M and move when she does! Put your oar all the way in the water! Bring it on in! Watch S! Take your oar out! Push off with your legs! Sweep all the way back!

I know we should all be working together; I'm not coordinated enough to do that all the time.

Have you ever been on a team before? I asked M last week at rowing practice. No, she said, and I said No too. This is rehabilitation for us Boomers Who Were Left Out. Someone else made off with our slice of the American Dream. We want it back. No questions asked.