Synergy and Geekdom

posted by Nancy

As everyone who has ever watched a sports show (or read or written about one or just gone through a spelling bee in second grade) knows by now, there is no “i” in “team.” I’m really tired of hearing this. It has become a cliché.

However, sayings often become clichés because they contain kernels of truth. So does this one. The obvious kernel is that teams succeed because the members subordinate the desire for individual glory to the good of the group. This appears increasingly untrue in the NBA, but that’s not what this blog is about. It’s about what I got from being part of a team.

Y’all know I have a weakness for teams–Legion of Super-Heroes, Justice League of America, Smallville, Brockmann’s SEALs, Dee Davis’s A-Tac, Laura Anne Gilman’s PUPI. I love groups that meld into families while serving a greater good. Plus reading about hunky guys, brave women, and deeds of valor never hurts.

Teams have been on my mind lately because I just finished Nora Roberts’ masterful and totally engrossing Sign of 7 trilogy. The heroes are three boys born at almost the same time on the same day who have been lifelong friends, brothers at heart, and whose innocent camping trip and blood brothers ritual on their tenth birthday unleashes an ancient evil on their town. For seven days every seven years, a big part of the town goes mad, and these three battle to contain the damage.

Two of the heroines are friends who’ve known each other since college and come to investigate the paranormal upheaval due to recur that year. The third is a woman who’s mysteriously drawn to the town. They find friendship, love, and surprising blood kindship as the madness starts early and the danger escalates, building to a showdown that will determine their fates, those of the men they love, and that of the town.

What makes this trilogy so good is, first and foremost, the writing, for which I don’t think Nora gets enough credit. She writes love scenes that are intensely emotional without being graphic. Her dialogue reflects the way people talk. Yes, she slips in and out of POV, sometimes for as little as a paragraph, but the important thing, I think, is that the shifts don’t feel like head-hopping. They’re smooth, not jerky. Of course I also love all her science fiction and comic book references. (I’m currently reading Tribute, in which the hero writes and illustrates graphic novels–how perfect for me is that?) The plot arc escalates masterfully over the three books.

These books deliver a special punch, though, because of the way she draws on folklore, numerology, and metaphysics, giving them her own spin, to add layers and resonance to the world and the problem in a way that is just bloody brilliant. The first book, in particular, is not only scary but look-over-your-shoulder-at-shadows creepy. I gave serious thought to waking the dh up at 3 a.m. to escort me to the bathroom though I ultimately decided to woman up and deal, not wake him up because I’d been reading a scary book. It is definitely a romance, but it tips the hat to some horror conventions.

As a reader, I found myself completely engaged, unable to stop reading even though I’m not normally much for scary books. My heart was breaking as we went into the last chapters of the last book, The Pagan Stone, and I had to see what happened, whether she was really going to pull out an HEA or this marvelous hero would die. As a writer, I got taken to school. The way she set up that ending, kept the suspense and the doubt and the dread growing, was masterful. She also inspired me to hit the library and see what I could find that would give more depth to my own paranormal.

In the process of fighting this curse, these six people become not only lovers and friends but a team, a fact that becomes heartbreakingly clear in the last book. Some of the things I love about the characters in these books and the other teams I mentioned, obviously, are their solidarity, their mutual support, and their affection for each other, even with full knowledge of each other’s flaws. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a group like that? But I also love the way their individual skills mesh, the way they not only give to but take and learn from each other, the way they appreciate and defer to each other’s particular talents.

All of this led me to look back at the years when I was part of a team, officially designated as such. I was even the captain my senior year. No, I don’t mean the pep band, though I found out, not long before graduation, that pep band was officially a varsity team sport (no letter, though, alas). I was on my college debate team, fighting with words, sparring over ideas, and I loved it. I stayed involved, traveling to tournaments as a judge for our school when I could (every team is expected to provide one, but you never judge your own squad), for two or three years after graduation.

While a fair number of people participated, there was always a nucleus of people who traveled most of the time. My junior year, it was my partner, Maria, and me in novice and Mark and Gordon in varsity. My senior year, it was mainly Maria and me. After I graduated, though, there were Bobby, Brian and Marvin. I have no genetic brothers, but these guys were the next best thing–and an invaluable resource on questions about dealing with their gender, bluntly honest because they trusted me not to quote them and they knew I trusted them to help.
Working on things together created a synergy of ideas and personalities and sparked things none of us could have come up with alone. We would go to rounds during the day, watch each other’s schedules, try to grab each other if we knew something about a team our comrades were facing, and then pool ideas and argue strategy over dinner and in the motel at night. On campus, we’d wander into the debate room, toss arguments around, dig into government studies and congressional hearings (talk about dry reading–sand practically filtered out of the pages!), and look for new angles on that year’s topic. Geek heaven. While all that geekiness was going on, though, I was learning some important life lessons.

For example, don’t let stereotypes suck you in. At a tournament at The Citadel (which was then all male and provided cute uniformed cadets as timekeepers for the rounds), Maria and I discovered that we were to face a female team known to dress in form-fitting clothing. One of them actually wore a skin-tight top that had a big, red rose directly over her left, er, bust. We dressed in business attire, as our guy teammates dressed in suits. Worse, our judge for that round was listed (name changed) as “Jones, Naval Academy.” Great, we thought. Just great. We’re screwed before we walk in the room.

Oh, ye of little faith! I especially should’ve known better, as the daughter of a hospitalman chief and a WAVE. Anyhow, we walked into the room, set our stuff down, and turned to greet the judge. And Ensign SUSAN Jones, USN, gave us a courteous smile and a nod. Just like that, we were back to the merits. As we probably would’ve been anyway, I can say with a more mature perspective. Back then, though, we had the geek girl insecurity common when expecting to face off against sexpots in front of a guy.

I also learned that when you get clobbered, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move on. Intercollegiate debate, at least in those days, involved putting out as much info as possible in the time allotted for each speech. The faster you could talk–and enunciate, so the judge could understand you–the better. We were pretty good at it. Then, one day, “pretty good” ran into “light speed,” and it was game over before we even got to rebuttals. I couldn’t write fast enough to take notes, let alone reply to everything they said, nor could my temporary partner.
I remember sitting there afterward, dazed, knowing we had another round in 15 minutes, trying to get the synapses firing, and just getting fog. Eventually, however, a realization penetrated the fog, that if we didn’t get it together, we were going under a steamroller again, regardless of whether the other team was even decent. If you don’t get any arguments out, you’re guaranteed to lose. Somehow we shook it off and went on, and we finished with a decent record even though we didn’t make the elimination rounds. We were the only team from our school there, so we had no one to buck us up. I’d never been so glad to climb back in the college station wagon and head home. But it was a valuable lesson. Some people are not just better than you but way better, and you have to learn to deal with that.

I also learned to focus when fighting. It’s about the issue. It’s not about you. Or about him/her. Winning arguments address the merits, not the perceived or even actual personal defects of the opponent. You shake hands with the other team when you finish the round, just as opposing lawyers shake hands at the end of a trial, because, again, it’s not personal.

I have to say guys are generally better about this than women, though there are plenty of exceptions on both sides. With guys, you can be blunt because they are, and you don’t have to dance around what you mean and think of the 17 ways someone might decide you were actually being personally insulting so you can phrase your comment to avoid that. You can slam right back at a guy with as many reasons as you like about why his idea won’t work, you can get up in his face when he gets in yours and harden your voice like his, and he’ll respect you for it. Might use the B word behind your back if you’re a woman, but he’ll respect you.

Women, as a rule, not so much. Many women take any disagreement personally and then turn it into a personal feud. I’m happy to say most of the women I know are not like this. The banditas, in particular, are a joy to work on problems with–lots of respect for the opinions of others, openness to different ideas, trust that everyone’s focus is the group, not her own ego, and unwavering willingness to let the one most skilled or experienced at whatever run with it.
I also learned, I hope, to be a good winner as well as a good loser. In my novice year, the varsity teams told us we could gripe all we wanted in the car going home (and we all did), but we’d better not say a single bitter word or cast a single angry glance on the tournament grounds. We should congratulate people who had beaten us or had finished higher than we had. Making friends on other teams who might give you a tip or appreciate one from you was more important than indulging your disgruntlement. We did make friends, other teams of amiable people we were glad to see and who were glad to see us, to hang out at meals, maybe have a beer, and help each other out unless or until we met across a lectern.

At my first big tournament, they announced the speech competition results before the debate ones. These were events like oral interpretation, impromptu speaking, dramatic interp, and so on. People in these events, guys and girls, had a tendency to squeal and jump up and down–not just a couple of times or for a few seconds but on and on and on–and hug their entire squad before going up to get their trophies (which were often tacky, though that tournament gave beautiful silver bowls to the winners). One of the guys informed Maria and me that we had better not ever do that because such behavior was obnoxious and winners should have a little dignity.

Like I said, blunt. But well intentioned. And when we learned, a few minutes later, that we had won the novice division, we were too blown away, too shocked, to squeal, anyway.

I’m not sure weeping your way through a thank-you speech, as I did at the Maggies, counts as having dignity. It doesn’t meet my standards, quite, but I did hold it together enough to get the actual words out. And I did not jump up and down and squeal, hug all my friends in the room, or hold up the proceedings. Yet writing this makes me wonder what my old teammates would’ve said. One of them would probably have come out with some variant of “Jesus, Ms. Northcott!” (“Jesus, you people!” being one of his favorite statements to make in disgust at an argument) But, aside from doubting he cares much about romance as a genre, I think he would’ve been happy for me because a win is a win is a win.

Maria and I have stayed close over the years. I mostly lost touch with the guys but have recently reconnected with some of them over Facebook and the internet. Yet the affection I felt for them all has endured, as I hope theirs for me has. Meanwhile, I’ve been lucky. I found another team, one that won’t graduate and split apart, the Romance Bandits. I can’t wait to see the ones who’re coming to Orlando and, together, drink a toast to the ones who aren’t.

When I graduated from high school, my wonderful Latin teacher wrote in my yearbook, “tibi splendet focus,” which translates as “my hearthstone shines for you” or, more prosaically, her door was always open. As mine always will be to my former teammates. And to my current ones, the Romance Bandits.

I’m giving away a mystery package of books I’ll be picking up at RWA next week (hence the mystery) and a copy of Blood Brothers. So tell us one or all of the following–have you ever been part of a team? Do you have a surrogate brother or sister, a tight bond formed by choice rather than blood? Is there someone you’ve lost touch with but would immediately welcome?

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