As part of our continued quest to find alternatives to that ill-considered and naïve reflex, democracy, we offer this latest in an ad-hoc series. We note with tired sadness that democracy and professional sports are each other’s willing fetish—each other’s dawgs. Both thrive in the age of spectacle. “I like to watch” is the sweet nothing whispered each to each.
I write as exhibition jets of the Canadian air force dry-strafe the city to pleasure its citizens while the wars continue abroad. But in the cracks of the empire, pickup games are still alive.
Our neighborhood is three white towers arranged in henge formation near an ancient forest inside the old dry bed of Lake Iroquois in the heart of a great city. In the afternoon the ivory towers of Dovercourt reflect orange sunlight down onto the children playing soccer near the “No Ball Playing” signs, and beige-skinned people like me get a healthy glow on our faces. The stream buried beneath Rusholme gurgles as it makes its way to Garrison Creek, and raptors settle in the tallest oaks. On the Havelock side, no roads cut through the watershed from Bloor to Hepbourne, and the mystery of urban forests healthier than the ones in the countryside, where foresters lurk with saws, is here manifest.
My wife calls the scene of immigrant children and their games of pick-up soccer “utopia,” and I’m inclined to agree. Certainly its carefree air contrasts strongly with the organized version. Even in nearby Dufferin Grove Park, for example, a place with its own legitimate claims to utopia, it’s hard to get a pickup game going. The main field there is usually filled with children who have paid $140 to arrive in air-conditioned Detroit boxes, slogans for internationally owned junk food consortiums fighting it out on their torsos with the gaudy colors of nation-states.
Bare feet here yield to cleats and odd bits of body armor so that the legs of the children are weirdly articulated, like the limbs of Lego monsters. The air is so thick with parental ego you could cut it with a knife, though no one in this famously good country carries one. Adult virtue is judged by how far you’re willing to drive to the game and how fast you can do it, so each of these matches has a prelude and an afterburn of Daytona 500 excitement. In between, overworked parents sit slumped in their assigned space and recharge their adrenal glands, or else engage the refs on points of protocol until the refs, who would like to watch the game as much as the next person, threaten to eject the parents from the field, the city, or the universe, depending on the heat of the altercation.
I learned soccer with missionary kids. MK’s are a quirky category in the international football scene, with the skill set of professional ball players but often overlooked by scouts because they live in strange places. I wasn’t particularly good at the game, but my MK friend Keith took me in hand, and over the years I learned the basics. Not until he brought me one summer to New Guinea and showed me where he’d learned did I fully love the sport. On the sloping fields of mountain airstrips that put the pitch back in football pitch, or deeper into the mists of the high mountains, where little children who’d never seen a beige man found that they could still deke one and follow through with a corner cross from behind a burned stump, knowing that their friend was going to be right there for the header. There was a Golden Age!
In Chicago, Keith’s knee had been mashed and the pro ball offers had drifted away, but in those days Keith’s good leg still owned the field. More importantly, he could organize the lot of us from his bird’s-eye position in defense, and for love of Keith we’d be where we should be. And really, that’s the whole tale—some boys knowing each other well, with some passes quick as lines of dialogue. Thirty years later I can’t remember the goals much, but I do remember the love.
Just now I look out the window, and two boys drift out of the henge with a ball between them, heading for the park. The older one tussles the hair of the younger affectionately. I wonder what happens next.
—Dufferin Grove watershed
DAVID Ker THOMSON teaches at the Dragon and Toronto and Bard (respectively a high school in a house, a university named after its city, and a college on the Hudson River). Maybe the conversation about alternatives to democracy could continue during a canoe trip from Toronto to Manhattan and back next spring? He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org