Social justice and the green ball
“Do you want the balls?” the girl asked me.
I looked at her. She was brunette and probably 20 years old. It would be crude, I thought, to make a joke about balls. It would be inappropriate. It might be illegal. So, I said, “Um.”
My wife saved me, indicating we did want the balls. It’s always the balls with her.
The balls in question, thank heavens, were 15 inflatable bouncy things that had neither well-considered aerodynamic properties nor any significant bounce. What they did have, however, was a lure that only five-year-olds can comprehend. That is to say, what I surely didn’t think about the brunette behind the counter, the kids were thinking about the balls.
It was the boy’s fifth birthday party and we were sparing no expense. That being said, we weren’t really trying that hard. The year before, we cooked for a massive party, did everything ourselves, and hosted the event at our pool. This year, the boy wanted a Pump It Up party and we thought, “You’re telling me I can spend less, do less work, and make the boy happy? Is this really America?”
And so Pump It Up it was. Fifteen kids hopped up on kiddie crank and adrenaline piled into a room full of inflatable jungle gyms and proceeded to be beat the hell out of each other. It was the kind of thing Norman Rockwell wanted to paint but didn’t have the imagination.
Frankly, all was well and good until the balls got involved–balls and their effects are pretty universal, apparently. See, the balls came in a small variety of colors: yellow, blue, red, and, God help us all, green. My dad was the first to tip me to the problem.
“They all want the green ones,” he said. He seemed amused.
And well he should’ve been, because across the room the kids were digging into a mesh bag of inflatable balls like a pack of ravenous lions. He who came up with a green ball was king. He who came up with a yellow ball looked like he would cry. Debates broke out. Alliances were formed. A caste system was established. The children formed a Lord of the Flies society based entirely on the color of their balls. I wanted to scream. I wanted to yell out, “Kids! Enough with the damned balls! We’re paying hundreds of dollars so you can injure yourselves on these inflatable deathtraps!”
Keep in mind, I paid for the damned balls, too, so I couldn’t be too mad. After all, I’m a problem solver, not a whiner. So, I walked over, and, of course, made sure my boy had secured a green ball. Because, if he hadn’t, I was canceling the party in the middle of the festivities. A kid who can’t fend for himself in that weak crowd was not going to make it in a school full of five-year-olds. The boy was going to stay four years old for another year. Fortunately for both him and me, the kid had a green ball under his arm and was guarding it with a “Touch and I will eat your soul” look on his face.
My buddy Joe stood beside me as the kids put a pig’s head on a stick and stripped down to their underwear.
“You know, after we give everybody health care, we can give everybody a green ball,” he said.
I thought at this point that my son’s generation–hell, my sister-in-law’s generation–would have no idea what I was talking about when I finally wrote about the moment. They have no frame of reference for the screeching sound of a needle being dragged across a 45. That was what happened in my head. There, in the middle of a room full of fun, the kids were acting out a play called “America.”
See, I bought 15 balls and I was buying no more. We parents made a decision that each kid was going to get a ball, because it didn’t seem right to invite everybody to the party and then deny them a ball. We didn’t think in advance that the color of the balls was going to be a big deal. That said, I certainly wan’t going back in my pocket for whatever it took to wrangle up another nine or ten green balls. First, if I did, that meant that we were going to have a surplus of balls. What’s more, I was going to be spending more money on balls than I budgeted (which was incidentally zero dollars, but, well, the wife and her ball thing and all). With a finite number of green balls in supply and the demand exceeding what I was willing to spend for more, the winners would be those children who got there first or those who could wrest the balls away from their one-time friends. Darwinism, reality television, and America, all in a room full of inflatable junk.
I spent a good two weeks thinking about that moment, how a parallel could be drawn between he who had a green ball, he who was stuck cowering in a corner with his yellow orb of shame, and how America operates today. And you know what? I honestly don’t know what it means. Because a green ball isn’t a life-saving surgery that bankrupts you, and it isn’t celebrity, and it isn’t the ability to get SEC football highlights from any source you choose. It’s not a right. It’s just a damned green ball with no value other than that assigned by a group of five-year-olds who wanted to feel like they had something more special than somebody else. They worked for that green ball, damn it, and they were going to hold on to it until their friends gave up or died trying to get it.
I think, as much as I hate to admit it, I feel my cynicism rising again. I’d fought it back for two years and into 2009, the Year of Optimism. But the more I sit and wrestle with worthless existential angst, the more I realize that I live in an America that is probably not going to change in my lifetime. I live in a country I love and have no desire to leave, but also have no way of understanding in a rational way. I live in a place where money can buy great health care and great attorneys, and the lack of money gets you the worst of both. I live in a society that recognizes celebrity more than it does its moral imperatives. I am represented by a government that runs on a fuel of constituent manipuilation and rabid self interest. It doesn’t matter who is in office, which party controls Congress, or the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court. If things change, they change slowly, and they’re apt to change back in four to eight years.
I suppose it’s rather defeatist to throw up the Why Bother flag after so many months of relentless optimism. I suppose it seems childish and naive to have hoped against hope that I could find a way to mentally involve myself in making my country better. I suppose it seems impatient to just throw up my hands and say, “Well we fought the good fight.” And, if I took a good hard look in the mirror, I bet I would accuse myself of all of the above. I probably will tomorrow.
But tonight I sit here looking at my hand holding my son’s green ball in the air like God will reach down and personally bless it. I have a hard time believing I will die in a country that means what I think it should mean. I expect that the stuff upon which we spend countless hours debating is just one giant masturbatory fantasy that ends with a bunch of balls that are decidedly not green. I fear much of what I’ve come to believe about this nation has come from decades of lectures by an unreliable narrator.
In the end, as tragic and meaningless as it may be, it will all be about the battle for the green ball.