Ultimate culture

I decided to try to find some ultimate frisbee this weekend. The weather’s been really nice, and I just wanted to get out in the sun and run around and have a good time. So I did a bunch of Google’ing and came up with a couple options.

Option 1 was an 11am game on Great Hill in Central Park. I rode my bike up there, and checked it out. Terrible. The field was small (there are no open fields in Central Park unless you get a permit apparently), and the players were just not very good – no stacking, no force, lots of traveling as they pivoted. I didn’t even bother getting my cleats out – I watched a few minutes, decided I wouldn’t enjoy it, and rode my bike once around the park loop instead (which was fun – a guy on a road bike decked out in a jersey and bike shorts whizzed by me on an uphill, which annoyed me, so I chased him down and sprinted with him in my t-shirt and shorts on my mountain bike about halfway around the park before I got bored (and tired)).

Option 2 was a Sunday afternoon game in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Not as convenient, but I was desperate. And, heck, I used to commute to Golden Gate Park from Oakland for good ultimate, and I can at least read on the subway here. I was much happier today. Small field (about a quarter the size of a normal field, half as wide, half as long), but they had dropped to 6’s to compensate. They stacked, they cut hard, people had decent forehands, there was a stall count. I was hooked. I wandered up to somebody, asked what the custom was (games to three, dynasty rules, so no team gets to stay on the field for more than two games even if they win). Hopped in the next game, and played on and off for the next three hours. I was a bit rusty and out of shape, but the small field meant nobody could get too far ahead of me, so it was all fun. And I even threw a hammer for a score!

The thing that interests me is that ultimate culture here is exactly the same as in the Bay Area. It’s the same terminology, the same phrases, even the same laid-back welcoming friendly folks. The heckling from the sidelines made me feel right at home: “Lay it!!” (as somebody didn’t dive for a catch), and the ubiquitous “Hammer or you’re nothing!” It’s all different people than the ones I played with in SF, but yet they’re all the same. There’s something deep or clever here about the transcendence of culture over space and time; Orson Scott Card’s story The Originist makes a similar point when his protagonist observes that the kids singing “Ring around the Rosy” are all the same kids, despite changing year after year. Card puts the emphasis on story telling as the separating factor, which I sometimes agree with. But it’s more than that.

Phil Agre once made the observation that graduate school is not about graduate students doing research. It is about turning graduate students into academics – teaching them the culture they need, teaching them the proper way of doing research in their community. And that’s true of any community – there is a time of indoctrination, of learning the secret codes and call signs that distinguish us from them. I’ve talked about the no-indoctrination communities, but most communities of value require taking the time and effort to learn their language.

And today was a great example. I had never seen these people before. But once I got on the field and I was yelling “Force home!” and “Up!” and “Clear!” and making good hard cuts, I had established myself as a member of the community and was welcomed as such. We were heckling each other, and having a good time. So, yay!

As yet another aside, I think one of my strengths is that I grok stuff pretty quickly. I’ve gotten much better at observing a community, figuring out the ground rules, and learning the catch phrases and responses that get me accepted. For instance, although I’m not ready to go to grad school in social informatics, I’ve done enough reading (as prompted by Jofish) to have some sense of what’s going on, and can quote a little bit of the relevant literature. I can certainly fake my way through most nerd culture communities, from programming to physics to Star Wars. This is part of being a generalist, being more interested in being part of lots of different communities than being a leader within one.

Anyway. The point is, I got to play ultimate. I found a new crowd, which I think I’ll enjoy hanging out with, even though they’re all way too young. And I got to run around in the sun for a couple hours. All good.

P.S. As long as I’m doing a journal-type post, I might as well record the other events of the weekend. Friday night was First Fridays at the Guggenheim with some friends. Crazy. The line was about a block and a half long when we got there. Fortunately, it went faster than the de Young, so we got in pretty quickly, drank some wine, grooved to the DJ beats, talked about the art, and did lots of people watching. Fun!

Saturday night, I stopped by the Look and Listen festival, mostly because eighth blackbird was playing. I saw them a few years ago in SF, and they were fantastic live. Plus the idea of listening to contemporary classical music in a Chelsea art gallery appealed to me since I’d been feeling like I wasn’t doing enough cultural stuff. The concert was decent. I think the highlight for me was actually the first piece, Musique de Tables by Thierry DeMay, which is a piece for three people using amplified tables. They bang away in a variety of patterns – the program suggested it was a ballet for six hands, which is apt. Check out a brief video snippet somebody put up on MySpace.

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