Sunday, December 31, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 334: Biomythography - Note 78, On Novocaine (I)

On Novocaine

In the 1970s, everyone in the United States seemed to be suspicious of pain. Stating that you were in discomfort made your doctor's eyes narrow. He would put you on his naughty list right then. Pain was a precursor to demanding opiates, which led next, obviously, to heroin, which meant you were some kind of junkie. You couldn't admit to feeling pain without being a junkie any more than you could admit to being an atheist without being a commie. Culturally, your best bet was to let your arm fall off and hope a nurse would leap to the right conclusion from it.

Dentists were the one sort of medical professional who could admit their patients were in pain. In fact, they discussed it openly. One of them introduced me to novocaine. 

What a Pain, Generally 

I grew up with a lot of martial arts sparring sessions. They give you a nice approach to your body. Sharp twinges become less alarming. You learn the difference between a kick that stings and one that injures. Even in real fights with people hitting their hardest, a blow taken is usually not an injury (not a serious one, anyway) and it's good to know. You learn to see or feel the difference in other people, which is helpful.

Endurance sports like swimming lend you a familiarity with aches, cramps, and soreness. You sense the difference between a muscle spasm and a tear. You learn to persevere when your arms and legs won't move. If you're persistent enough, you feel the differences between muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Humans have a wide array of internal chemoreceptors, cutaneous receptors, and stretch receptors. You can learn to pay attention to them.

Being tormented by adults or bigger kids, the kind of sessions where a bigger person pins you and you can't escape, doesn't seem to give most people the same kind of physical insights. Yet the insights are there to be had. You can lean into the torture.

My experiences with leaning-in led me in the wrong direction about novocaine.

First Novocaine 

"My wisdom teeth came in two years ago," I complained to my mother one day. I was seventeen. She had herded me into her car to drive me to the dentist. I slumped in the seat and leaned into the corner by the window, away from the future. "They're fine. It's dumb to take them out."

"The dentist says they're pressing against your other teeth." She always took the side of the medical professionals, no matter what they said. We'd had similar conversations before. I suspected the dentist was drilling and filling cavities that didn't exist. This extraction seemed like more of the same.

(A year later, when the dentist announced I had twenty-two cavities, I refused to go back. The things he claimed were cavities looked about the size of dust motes, even when enlarged on my x-rays. Fifteen years later, I visited a dentist again. The next x-rays showed I had three cavities. So I think I was right.)

I remember way too much about the extraction, so I'm going to skip a lot of details. You know the weird, half-clean, half bacterial smell of a dentist office. You've heard the banter between the assistants and the dentist. My dentist talked a lot that day because he knew I was suspicious of the extraction. He allowed how, yes, my enamels were fine except for my wisdom teeth. Then he warned me that my mouth wouldn't stay healthy if he didn't remove those last molars.

"I've got great novocaine," he said. This was his selling point.

"No laughing gas?" I asked. My previous dentist had used nitrous oxide on me for every procedure.

"That's old stuff," he sneered. "It distracts you but it doesn't deaden the pain. Novocaine eliminates your nerve sensations. I'm going to have to break your teeth off from your jaw, remember. So no, no laughing gas."

"But you're going to give me a shot in my cheek."

"Yeah." He nodded.

"Ugh." As a child and teen, I had gotten eight years of allergy shots. I took them twice per week at first, then once per week. The needles had entered the flesh of my upper arms, which is not a bad place. Nevertheless, they hurt every time.

Eventually, I sat down and let him give me the shot. It burned, of course. I tried to lean into it but the sensation was so sharp, it surprised me even when I expected it. A couple minutes later, the dentist returned to give me another in the same cheek. It didn't hurt as much because my jaw was numb from the first time. He inserted a bunch of clamps in the back of my mouth and screwed them down to my wisdom teeth. The clamps, as they went in, looked like medieval torture devices, thumbscrews for those pesky bits of wisdom.

After the dentist got all the contraptions in place, he dipped into his supplies for another syringe. He sank a needle into my gums. It hurt like a needle. After the third shot, though, I finally grew numb enough for him to start his cuts. It wasn't too hard to move my spirit toward the remaining pain, to take it in and enjoy the living experience of it.

The procedure seemed to involve a lot of blood. The assistant tried to keep me from seeing too much of it but there was enough to make her scramble for more equipment. Within ten minutes, the throbbing pains were back, too. Each time I got cut, it felt like a stab wound. I leaned into the sensation. 

The sensations grew. I leaned in more. 

I had read lots of old adventure stories, comic books, and war novels that featured torture. (Tintin had gotten thrown into a torture chamber, probably more than once. War heros suffered in them, too.) In all of the stories, the main characters remained fearless despite the torment. Mentally, emotionally, and physically I leaned in as if I were accepting my disfigurement and death at the hands of torturers. 

At some point, even though I had accepted the sensations and the dentist was chiseling out pieces of tooth without too many problems, he could tell I was feeling it. He administered another shot. He resumed the extraction of bone fragments from the upper right. By the time he got to my lower jaw, he could tell something was wrong with the novocaine.

"It shouldn't wear off this quickly," he murmured to his assistant. "Isn't this the same stuff as yesterday?"

"Yes. It was a nearly full tube."

The dentist administered another shot. Out loud, he started to worry about how many novocaine dozes were advisable. He kept talking and blaming the assistant. He gave me another dose. He did it again. He administered the last of the tube. The remaining painkiller wore off quickly, too. By the time he broke off my bottom wisdom tooth, I understood pretty well why tooth pulling was used as a form of torture in so many countries. I felt everything clearly. Even the clamps on my teeth, although they sat unmoving, flared with their additions of misery. When the dentist started his stitching procedure in my gums, I felt every jab of the needle. I felt every flap of loose flesh. I leaned into every spasm. My legs and fingers twitched involuntarily.

At some point, I became delirious with agony. My sensations got confused. Stabs of pain created swirling lights in my vision. The dentist, to his credit, ignored his circumstances and carefully finished his sewing of my gums, top and bottom.

On my way out, he gave me more painkillers, which I dumbly refused, so he gave the pills and a prescription to my mother.

Although the extractions may have been unnecessary (although certainly not unusual), in retrospect the pain was not his fault. It took me twenty-three more years to understand my body's reactions to novocaine and other painkillers.

Back in 1978, though, the reaction most on my mind was my dentist and his assistant. I had to return a week later for more extractions. The team said they would remove my two remaining wisdom teeth. 

This time, although the novocaine would wear off quickly after every shot, I would expect it. 

The dentist would only half expect it. During the second procedure he would grow convinced that, somehow, it was my fault. He was right.

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 333: Biomythography - Note 77, Good (Enough) (Learning to be Mediocre, Pt. 6)

Good (Enough) at Basketball

Part VI


The day was bright. The store was crowded.

When I wasn't shopping with my family, though, the background of my life was different than in the years before. For a while, I had been working in the NIH Clinical Center. I was a contractor with them and I'd gotten fifty percent raises for two years in a row. My family had climbed above the poverty line. We didn't buy our groceries on credit anymore. We were still shopping for groceries three times a week, of course. We had a couple of kids. We felt the continual pressure to provide boxloads of crackers, juice, peanut butter, and diapers.

As we pushed a cart through the local Food Lion, I saw a former Hood College student striding my way down the freezer aisle. To my surprise, he sprang forward before I could wave. He had recognized my family right away.

I'd played with this guy during the Hood lunch hour basketball games but my wife didn't know him. She turned her attention to the kids, who didn't seem much interested in the strange, new adult.

"How's school?" I asked as we shook hands. He was much taller than me but he managed to give me a shoulder hug.

"Well, I just graduated," he said.

"Great!" We stood with hands on shoulders for a moment. I congratulated him and tried to catch up on his life. We chatted long enough for my wife to decide she should take the kids to a different aisle where they could drool over the cereal boxes. That let her escape the overly cool air and the smell of frozen, stale food, not to mention a conversation about things two years ago she hadn't seen.

After a few minutes, my old friend asked if I were still playing basketball regularly. He had been on the court with us when Jim Miller had died. I had to say, no, although I was trying to teach my kids to play. He said it was understandable. He'd liked the games, though. Then he really surprised me.

"I think about you a lot, man," he said.

"Really?" I leaned back, eyebrows up. This was a guy I'd liked. But we had only spoken on the court and in the locker room. He hadn't played with us for much more than a year. (Well, he had played for plenty of days per week but most of it was during the last year of the lunch games.)

"The sessions kind of fell apart after you left," he said. He stepped back and straightened his blue, collared shirt.

"Not enough critical mass, I guess."

"Not enough something." He shrugged. "Anyway, I had to get serious about my classes. But I always felt like you had taught me something. You really believed in me."

"Well, yeah." He had been a blonde, fairly tall, physically deft player but he had been awfully timid. With encouragement, he'd become one of the featured big men. He had shown us that he was quick, mentally. He could anticipate a rebound. He could lead another player with a pass. "Of course."

"I hadn't run into that before. And you were fearless."

I laughed. He was talking about a game, after all.

"You were the shortest guy on the floor," he insisted. That part was true enough. "And you'd go into the center fearlessly. And you'd get stuffed. Whacked. Fouled, sometimes, right in your face. And you'd grab the ball. You'd wrestle it back. You'd fight the big guys and most of the time, you'd win. And you'd shoot it again."

"Yeah, sometimes, I guess."

"I'm tall. But, you know, I'd always been afraid to look bad. You weren't afraid to look bad."

Definitely a back-handed compliment. That was more like it. I laughed again. "Thanks."

"You know what I mean." He stopped and put his hands on his hips.

And I did know. I understood.

"I wasn't getting any better because I was afraid to look bad." He touched my shoulder again. "But you have to go in there, don't you? That was my lesson. You have to mix it up with the others. You have to get rejected. That was good for me to see, man."


We stood and smiled at each other for a few seconds. It was apparent this had been on his mind. And he'd said what he needed to say.

"Well," he murmured in a resigned voice, "I guess I'd better find my girlfriend again."

"Good for you."

"Yeah. Where did your wife go?"

I waved in the direction of the cereal aisle. We parted, smiling and waving. I weaved through the aisles a little, mostly for fun and to find my favorite peanut butter, but I knew where I would find my family. When I did sneak up on their cart, my wife gave me a smile and handed me our daughter. Our girl launched herself at me, really, and I caught her.

"Who was that guy?" my wife asked. She pushed the cart towards the line at the cashier.

"Oh, he wanted to talk basketball."

She paused for a moment. Her expression grew concerned. She had always liked seeing me play basketball and thought I was good at it. All the trick shots I'd done had deceived her. I'd trained myself up to my best level for a little while, yes, but it was a level of solid mediocrity. That seemed pretty reasonable to me as an accomplishment. I knew it would take more training to maintain that level. I had to make choices about my time. And we had kids.

"I thought you were done with basketball," she said carefully. Even though she was a fan of me playing sports, I knew she couldn't love the idea of me devoting eight hours a week to it like I had before.

"And I am." I nodded as we took our place in line. I bounced our daughter on my hip. "I'm done."

Sunday, December 17, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 332: Biomythography - Note 76, Good (Enough) (Learning to be Mediocre, Pt. 5)

Good (Enough) at Basketball

Part V


This part is not about learning. It is not even about basketball. 

But it started with a basketball game. 

In the spring, I'd gotten my graduate degree. With it, I approached a headhunting company. They seemed eager to connect me to better jobs. My initial choices were a system analysis spot working for the Department of Defense or a programming position with the National Institutes of Health.

I toured the defense contractor offices, where my job looked like it would take a lot of sitting in a light grey cube and revising analysis paperwork. In contrast, at Building 13 in the NIH I would work among the dingy green tiles from the 1950s. None of the furniture matched in Building 13. The rooms looked like the scientists had only decorated them under orders from the HR department. The place smelled like a machine shop. But the supervisor there told me I would get to stalk the corridors underneath the hospital to fix the back-end instruments and data servers. I would be allowed to help the patients at the largest research hospital in the world. 

Two years earlier, I'd seen the NIH cure a friend of mine of his rare type of cancer. The experimental medicines worked. I'd witnessed them. I accepted the spot in the NIH clinic. And I gave my notice to Hood College.

My friends saw it coming. We had two weeks to say goodbye. They said they wanted to throw a going-away party for me. Of course, they wanted a basketball game to feature in it. 

Around noon on my last day, we started playing a half court matchup, four to a side. It was an cloudless June day, so the sunlight shone through the high windows of the gym. After the second or third basket of the game, we switched sides between offense and defense. As I took position just east of the three-point arc, I turned to look at our group. The men were chatting. A couple of them shuffled into position to set picks. Jim Miller, short and dark-haired, stood among them. Jim set himself.

Then he collapsed.

He had taken a spot among three others, facing his defender. His salt-and-pepper hair had flown loose. Otherwise, he had looked happy and fairly neat. He'd worn a smile behind his close-cropped beard. He hadn't had time to sweat into his light-colored jersey yet. 

But as I watched, he stopped moving. His face went blank. The muscles in his body slackened. He fell in a jumble, like a puppet with strings cut. His momentum flopped him onto his side, then his back. His body made a wet sound. His head hadn't bounced. He didn't groan. He didn't try to lift himself back up. 

He lay still. Even his chest seemed motionless. 

I started running before the men standing beside him realized what had happened. A moment later, I was holding Jim's wrist. He still didn't move. I counted the time I didn't feel a pulse. Twenty seconds, nothing. I pressed the vein on his neck, under his jaw. 

"He's not breathing," Bruce announced.

"I don't feel a pulse," I said. I was pretty sure I was in the right spot. It's hard to miss.

"Try the other side?"

As I moved Jim's head, a slight huff of air fluttered his lips. I could hear the movement of his tongue, too. My first aid certifications had long ago expired but I had trained three times. I remembered parts of what to do. One of the problems for unconscious people is that their tongue slips back in the mouth to prevent breathing. Choking is pretty common even when the primary problem is a heart attack or stroke.

After a few more seconds with my fingers on what I was sure was the right spot, I still couldn't feel a pulse. I started to turn Jim's head so he would have less of an obstruction to his breathing. It would be irrelevant if we couldn't get his heart started. It might be helpful then, though.

"Help me turn his whole body on his side," I said. 

For a moment, I looked around. I had been so concentrated on Jim that I'd forgotten about the other players. They were standing in a rough circle. As soon as I asked for help, they relaxed enough that I could see how tense they had been. 

That's part of the training, too, I remembered. They say, don't try to do everything yourself. It's not possible. Other people want to help. Give them clear directions. Listen to their directions and follow them. Do your part. In an emergency, everyone wants some way to make things better.

The other players started asking questions. I explained my ideas about Jim's breathing. We needed to keep his tongue from sliding down his throat. The others nodded. It seemed right to them, too. We rolled his body so that it held steady on its right side. I started feeling for a pulse again, wrist and neck both.

Bruce crouched next to Jim's feet. He said, "What can I do?"

"You can call 911."

"Okay." He stood and started to leave.

"We need someone to tell the athletic center staff," I announced to the others.

"I think Henry took off to do that," said Allen.

"Okay." That was smart. He hadn't waited. "Next, we need to look for a defibrillator."

"That's a good one," Allen agreed. Everyone straightened up. 

"That would be the best thing." John, one of the security guards nodded. I could see him thinking about it. "This would be a building for one. I don't think there is one, though." 

"Does anyone know CPR?" asked one of the professors.

"No." I shook my head. I had already been kicking myself about it, somewhere in the back of my head, but there wasn't time to wallow in my stupidity about not training for this. 

"No." Others started chiming in, too. They didn't know how to do CPR. I heard murmurs of 'no,' 'nope,' and 'damn,' and saw their heads shaking.

I hadn't let go of the hope of finding a pulse. 

"If someone finds an emergency medical kit," I suggested after another moment of consideration, "that might have something to hold his tongue to the side. We can put him on his back and try artificial respiration or chest compressions."

"Want me to look for a kit?" one of the professors asked.

"Absolutely." Secretly, I was hoping an emergency kit would have a few pages of CPR instructions. I was willing to try.

While I waited another fifteen seconds, I discovered that I could move air in and out of Jim's chest. Although I had to move his left arm first, I could make his chest expand and contract. 

"I found the coach." Someone raced back into the room. He talked while I tried to get Jim's breathing going. "She made the call. She says an ambulance is on the way."

"Great." I nodded.

"Should we try CPR anyway?" someone asked. It was what I had been wondering, too. Getting air into Jim's lungs didn't mean anything if the heart didn't pump his blood to move the oxygen around.

"Is anyone certified?" 

I had to shake my head no again. The other men around me repeated the same sentiments they had before.

"She said if no one was certified, wait. The hospital is right next door. I mean, we can see it from campus. The ambulance will be here within a minute." 

It had already been over a minute since Jim had fallen. I'd heard a human brain shouldn't go without oxygen for more than four minutes. Still, the athletic director had made a definitive statement. It seemed sensible in its way. We could go against her wishes and try CPR but that only made sense if we got instructions on how to do the procedure. No one had returned yet with a med kit, CPR instructions, or a defibrillator, which probably didn't exist anywhere on campus anyway. Those cost a couple thousand dollars, so apparently it was just a crazy idea I had.

The longer we waited, the more it seemed like a bad decision to wait. Any pause in the action would be fatal. Having no defibrillator was another potentially fatal decision. If Jim's heart was stopped, and I thought it was, he needed the pads on him right away.

I stayed next to his body and pumped air in and out. I kept stopping to feel for a pulse. He kept having none. His skin felt clammy and cool. Finally, someone said, "They're here."

I rose. A glance at the clock told me it had taken five minutes. 

The two men in white jackets asked questions. I don't remember my answers but they seemed happy with what they were hearing from our group. They rolled Jim onto his back and, maybe due to my pleading or simply because it was the obvious step, they got out a yellow defibrillator.

As I'm writing this, I know defibrillators have gotten smarter than they once were. They can listen for a heartbeat and respond. At the time Jim went down, the only feedback they provided was a readout of the heart signal. Humans had to adjust the settings and make the decisions. The medical technicians shocked Jim once, twice, and got no change in the broken, static pattern on their screen. They changed settings and shocked him again. On the fourth try, they got a heartbeat. I could see the waveform on the readout. I started to cheer a little. But the technicians ignored me. They didn't like what they were seeing in the heartbeat or maybe they were just going through the motions and not really looking at their readouts. They shocked Jim's body again.

"Stop!" Even though they were ten yards away, I reached out my hand.

The heartbeat disintegrated. The electrical signals in Jim's chest fell back into static, a non-rhythm. 

The technicians kept at it. They adjusted the settings and shocked him seven more times. It seemed to take them a long time before they gave up. 

They never got his heart to beat again.

I'm not sure how we got to the hospital. Plenty of times, I've ridden in ambulances with friends and family. It seems unlikely in this case. I don't remember the ride. What I recall is pacing the halls. Eventually, we heard the doctor's pronouncement, passed by a nurse to a handful of us standing together in a waiting area with white curtains next to the emergency room. Jim was dead. I didn't feel defeated so much as defiant. I was angry the medical staff hadn't seemed to try much. (In retrospect, by then it was too late and the staff recognized the fact.)

Later, at work, we straightened up Jim's office. One of our co-workers knew how to get Jim's family contact information. Our boss started the process of calling his family members. 

The next workday, a Monday, I reported to the NIH in Bethesda. My new supervisor showed me around the clinical center. He demonstrated how to start programming for the DICOM image servers. We hiked through the basement corridors between buildings. He logged into his dedicated image collectors. We inspected the medical images from CT scans, PET scans, and MR scans. It seemed like a different sort of world here, a bigger one.

Sunday, December 10, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 331: Biomythography - Note 75, Good (Enough) (Learning to be Mediocre, Pt. 4)

Good (Enough) at Basketball
Learning to be Mediocre, Part IV


The coach of the women's basketball team played with us at the lunchtime games. A hitch in this that I didn't understand at the time but realize now is: the coach usually quit when a woman from her team joined the game. The thought makes me I wonder if there's a NCAA rule involved. If the coach and players are on the floor together, maybe it counts as coaching time or something even though they're in a pickup game started by other people.

Anyway, our oversized group occupied an old, shiny, but age-stained multipurpose room with wooden floorboards. It had glass backboard hoops that didn't quite work - the mechanisms to raise and lower them had broken - but they were more than good enough for us. The college had no stands for anyone to watch games. There wasn't more than a meter of room between the edge of the basketball floor and the cinderblock walls. Every dive for the ball risked breaking bones. Despite these odd circumstances, the room hosted official college basketball games. It's what Division III is like, sometimes. 

Despite her oddly-timed visits in the ancient gym, the coach saw us playing enough to get the idea of hosting a student-faculty game. There's a long tradition of students versus faculty. The problem for us was, when the coach got the idea, the faculty said they could provide four players. The rest of us in the lunch group, all staff, not faculty, needed invitations too. So the coach waved us all in. 

The Problems: 

Our group had played on the full court a handful of times about a year before. That wasn't enough. I insisted on a practice game. 

"I want one, too," said Allen after a brief chuckle. "Only I figured I would have to talk everyone into it."

"No. We need one," Bruce agreed. 

Everyone in our usual rotation was in. A week later, we all turned out for a full court practice. We had twelve guys, enough to practice substitutions. I had a lot of fun running the floor. Recently, I'd gotten back into a semblance of cross-country shape. It helped. 

Unfortunately, I found I still had my "bricklayer" form from junior high school. While moving at full-court speed, my layup shots went hard to the backboard and bounced out. I knew there wasn't going to be enough time to solve the problem of this habit.

During our regular lunchtime scrimmages, I had never shot a layup. No one built up the velocity to take one, really, except maybe the tallest two guys. In my case, even when I gathered enough speed I was too short to get over my defender. So this was a known problem and I hadn't fixed it. 

Adding the pace of a full court game to it only made the issue loom menacingly.

The Student-Faculty Game:

Here's how you get accused of showboating.

  • Be a part of the winning squad
  • Get underconfident about an easy layup

By the time I stepped in, our best five players had already built up a lead for our faculty-staff team. I came in as a reserve point guard. Starting from the top of the three point line, I ran a few plays, defended, made a couple easy assists, and sank an open jump shot. 

During the next defensive play I knew a rebound was coming. From the angle of the shot by the opposing player, I knew where the bounce would go. I crouched to sprint for the other end. As the ball touched the fingertips of our rebounder, I took off. The man with the ball saw me launch. He lobbed in my direction.

I caught his pass and dribbled once, twice. And I was already there. At full speed, hearing footsteps behind me, I knew I wasn't going to make the shot. Because it was a layup. Because I had already tried to do this. I tried again, anyway. My planting foot, my right one, came down hard. I tried to break my momentum with it. But my shoe slid on the forty-years-of-wax floor, as it usually did. And I knew that, if I jumped right then, my layup was going to pound the backboard. I had to stop my momentum or at least slow it a little.

So I kept going. 

It was what I knew how to do. I dribbled in an arc. With my defender trailing me, I spun underneath the backboard for a reverse layup. Perfect. Easy. It was my most reliable shot. But a minute later, I got pulled out of the game. Apparently, I'd been accused of a technical foul. The women's team coach stormed over to talk with me about it. 

Somehow, mostly because we already knew each other, it wasn't too hard to have the conversation. 

"That's showboating! Showboating!" She mimed my spin under the basket. "There was no reason for that."

"Sure there was. I don't know how to shoot a straight layup!" On the sidelines, I threw up my right hand in a gesture toward the basket.

"What do you mean?" Her hands swept the floor, even bigger. "You play basketball three days a week."

"You've played with me." Here's where the conversation slowed. "When have you ever seen me shoot a layup? How would that happen?"

She took at long look at me, hands on her hips. She was not a tall woman. But she wasn't short, either. The top of her head was an inch or two above mine. Her mouth hung open for a moment.

"You know," she said. "I don't think I've ever seen you shoot a straight layup."


After we talked a bit more, she rescinded her charge of showboating and we laughed about me not being able to shoot a layup. Bigger players could plant their feet and stop. The coach confessed, though, that she couldn't get that stop-foot action going, either. Our conversation got me thinking about the physics of it. To keep up with bigger players, my legs had to turn over at twice the speed. That shouldn't have made a difference to me planting my foot. But maybe it did. 

"Or maybe it's your shoes," she said, pointing to my cheap low-tops.

"Eh, maybe."

"Enough," she said. "Go play some more. I have to get back to coaching my team. I'm just mad. I thought we'd be better than this."

The game evened out a bit but it's true that her side seemed overmatched.

In retrospect, the woman's basketball team was fine that year. It actually proved to be way better than the season before. They played to a 9-10 record against their AWCCC schedule, a lineup of contests that included three losses to a top-notch Notre Dame (Baltimore) team, with whom they managed to hold respectable games in the first halves. No, the problem with the student-faculty contest was the staff. We had guys who never went to college but they could play at a low college level. They were literally heads and shoulders above the tallest members of the women's team. 

Some of the women had four or five years of experience. Some of the men had fifteen and they were in their twenties to mid-thirties. Basically, the best staff couldn't help being as good as they were. As for myself, I wasn't good enough for any sort of college level, not even our Division III women's team. But I was happy anyway. I felt more than fine with the mediocre competence I'd reached. I'd worked for it.

Also, I had never thought someone would accuse me of showboating while not suppressing a laugh. So that turned out fine. 

Sunday, December 3, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 330: Biomythography - Note 74, Good (Enough) (Learning to be Mediocre, Pt. 3)

Good (Enough) at Basketball
Part III


All spring at Hood College, our lunchtime basketball sessions grew larger. Allen, our desktop support lead, took charge of the recruiting. Moreover, his newcomers pulled in more recruits. We got more staff and professors on board.

When we had started the year before, we'd limited the games to 30 minutes. We got 45 minutes for lunch. Counting time to shower, our games were cutting it close to our technical limit. As we pulled in more professors, security guards, women from the basketball team, and regular students, the spans of our sessions grew longer. We took 40 minutes, then the full 45 for lunch as if we didn't shower although we still did, usually. It's hard to stop playing when everyone else wants to keep going.

Eventually, the sessions started running as long as an hour. They grew more, too, reaching 70 or 80 minutes. Sometimes, I ran off the court, tossing off sweaty clothes as I sprinted to my work meetings.

From the Hood physics professor, I learned how to do a reverse layup. From two students, I learned to crossover dribble. From one of the security guards, I picked up a fadeaway. From another, I figured out setting picks. Pretty nearly everyone taught me to how to shoot while changing my aim in midair. They didn't mean to teach me that. It was simply necessary for me. I'd go up for a shot. A tall player would rise up to block me. I'd need to double pump to shoot around them. And usually, I would fail.

Sometimes, of course, I couldn't learn the bursts of speed that other men possessed. I couldn't dunk. I mostly couldn't block shots unless I had unreasonably lucky timing. There were limits to where my learning would peak. I hadn't been playing long and already I was bumping into my low performance ceiling. 

The people we added from around our campus were better at basketball than I was. Fortunately, I kept improving in incremental ways. I practiced enough to get picked in the middle of line-ups in our lunchtime league. Mostly I got respect for passing and defense but, sometimes, when my shooting was good in one game, I would get picked first for the next.

That was always a mistake. In the top two was not where I belonged. Mostly, my hot shooting didn't translate from game to game. Occasionally, yes, it did. The team captain would pat himself (or herself) on the back. Mostly, though, the captains shook their heads with buyer's remorse.

Sometimes the opposite team would solve my lucky streaks by putting Bruce, the best defender, on me. Unfortunately for me, Bruce kept improving his positions and blocking. He was already our best former high school baller. He shot well. He timed passes perfectly. When he was guarding in the key, he picked off more passes than anyone. In fact, his defense was responsible for me learning to sink a hook. 

He smashed back my shots back in my face so regularly, even with my double-pump moves, that I got desperate. I started on yet another dastardly plot. I knew no one took hook shots anymore. It didn't make any sense to me but there it was. Bruce and the other defenders had adjusted to my double moves. I needed an edge. I had to do something they didn't expect. I decided a hook was going to be it. 

I headed back to the playgrounds. 
After trial and error, I decided to practice hooks with my opposite arm upraised. That was the way I'd seen Kareem Abdul-Jabbar do it on old basketball game footage. He kept his defender off him with the opposite arm. It looked illegal but, at my height, I couldn't be shy about taking every advantage.

The first game I tried it, everyone laughed. And I sank three out of five hook shots. 

The second game, I got a better defender. By the third, I had Bruce again. For almost two weeks, Bruce seemed mystified. He was taking my measure. 

"Don't let him shoot the hook!" shouted one of the security guards. "Don't let him shoot the hook!"

He and Bruce took turns showing the others how to defend against my shot. Really, though, the first block came from Bruce. He had eyed my move for long enough. Now when he took an angle, he could get past my opposite arm and reach my hook shot. So, just for Bruce, I needed to try a hook fake. 

And the learning continued. 

"What the hell was that?" One day, in a small, pick-up game, Allen stopped everyone. He grabbed the ball under the basket after I heard a swish. 

"Did it go in?" I had to ask. 

"You didn't even look." His voice sounded angry but his eyes crinkled. He allowed himself an open-mouthed hint of a smile.

"Yeah." I had been practicing that, too, as stupid as it was. I sure got blocked a lot. This time, I figured a no-look shot would take everyone by surprise. 

"Well," said the security guard with a smile, hands on hips. "Then it didn't go in."

"It went in," Bruce told me while everyone laughed. 

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 329: Biomythography - Note 73, Good (Enough) (Pt. 2)

Good (Enough) at Basketball
Part II


Usually, I left the door to my office open. It was my way of encouraging people to drop by with their computer problems. 

I'd been working for a year at Hood College, where I wrote the code for a couple of the large, clustered minicomputer systems. When I wasn't programming, I walked around campus soliciting material because I'd written the systems to dispense information on campus life. Only when I was out did I close my office door.

Sometimes people came to visit. They'd stand in the doorway to talk over their coding requests. Occasionally, they'd sit and chat. My office was a large, imposing place, though. Whoever had occupied it before had stacked it with shelves and filing cabinets. They'd hung art on the wall, four framed watercolor flowers and a map of the campus. My desk sat on a swath of gray-green carpet in the middle. The oak desktop would have held three of me but it only held a microcomputer with access to the VAX clusters.

This was a space created in the remotest corner of the library, near the data center.

Occasionally, other computer staff would drop by. They had completely different jobs - none of them connected well with mine, exactly - but we kept track of one another. Sometimes I helped out the desktop repair crew by fixing the microcomputers that interfaced with my VAX minicomputer systems.

Allen Sullivan, one of our IT staff, knocked on my door one morning. He leaned his head into the office.

"Hey," he said.

"Hey." I'd made a habit of finishing whatever line of programming I was on, so I kept typing. I always wanted to write enough to make sure I captured the essential thought. I hated to lose solutions that had come to mind but hadn't made it into my code.  Allen knew how I worked, so he waited a few seconds.  "What's up?"

"Lunch?" said Allen.

"I was planning to hit the pool."
"Do you have to go there every time?" Allen was the supervisor for our desktop service team at work. He and his crew ate together or played together on breaks. He had a relaxed, easy-going confidence and charming smile. "Why don't you join us in the gym?"

"You guys play basketball. I don't play." For decades, I'd kept in shape by doing laps in the pool no matter what city or town I was in.

"Can you dribble and pass?"

"Probably." I had doubts. It had been over a decade since I'd been on a court.

"That's all it takes to be a teammate." His eyes crinkled as he smiled. He was tall and thin, with a gentle and fairly graceful sense of movement. His accent had a bit of Appalachian twang to it, which made sense to me because he commuted from West Virginia. "We'd sure appreciate it if you try."

When I got to the gym, Allen introduced me to five other guys. That's not a lot, just a three on three half-court game. My intentions of hitting the pool faded. After Allen and another captain picked teams, they let me dribble the ball for a moment before we started. I took a practice shot. I missed.


Fourteen years is a long time to stay away from any sport. I don’t know why some are easier than others. Why does throwing a football or riding a bicycle come back immediately? Why does a basketball shot take practice? My touch, such as it once was, had disappeared before I resumed games at Hood.

The main difference, as I restarted my learning process, was age. At this point in my life, I understood better how to learn. Emotionally, I let go of my preconceptions about sports and instead tried to maintain the mindset of being coachable. 

I hit the playgrounds, a thirty-two year old dad shooting games of horse. Even on the rare occasions when someone else walked onto the court while I was practicing, they drifted to the other end. The younger guys left me alone. I was free to be awful. And I was.

One day, a group of young men on the other end of an asphalt court asked me to play. They had watched me shoot, which might have been deceptive. I'd been playing in the Hood College gym for a couple of months by then. I'd been shooting on playgrounds, too. Although I was still a generally bad player, I had re-learned my basic shots.

Having me in their group made the teams even. Well, in number only.

During the first match, I shot okay and I hit the game winner. The white guys in the group didn't seem to know they needed to guard me or that it would be easy for any of them to do. At the start of our next game, the best player, a muscular black guy, volunteered to 'stop' me. Which he did. 

When you're always the shortest on the court, it's vaguely insulting to get beaten by another short guy. He wasn't more than a head taller than me. Unfortunately, he was simply way better. He moved side to side with ease, possessed a bursty sort of speed that I didn't, and could shoot over me if I didn't foul him. He got so comfortable while guarding me that he started to criticize my game. 

"You got to dribble left sometime, man," he said.

I shook my head. "I'm no good at it."

"Do you want to get good?"

"I'm practicing my left-side dribble."

"You mean," he huffed, "you dribble when no one's guarding you?"


"That's not enough, man." He gave me a knowing smile. "If you have to drive to the right every time, I can just step out father to my left and take the ball away."

We started up again. The first time I drove right, I pulled up and passed.  I'd been thinking about my defender trying to anticipate me but, even with my extra wariness, he barely missed the steal. The second time I drove right, I headed straight for the basket. Suddenly I had no basketball. He picked it away clean.

"Goddammit," I muttered as I took position to guard him. 

"I told you. You got to move left enough so I don't know where you're going."

"I'm not so good at moving left."

After the game, he wanted to stick with the same teams again. My teammates rebelled for a minute but he talked them into it. He turned to me.

"You got to dribble left, man." He tossed me the ball.

"Well, I suck."
"Sometimes you just got to go in and do it."

"Oh. You're going to let me move left?" I started to dribble left handed. 

"No, I'm going to stop you."

That made me laugh. He chuckled, too. We were the only ones smiling, though. Everyone else wanted to play hard and win.

The first thing I did at the start of the game was dribble left, hide behind a pick, and shoot. The shot didn't go in but it was close. 

"It's not going to be that easy, man," he said. His teammate had passed him the rebound. Now I was guarding him.  

All game, I worked on guarding my guy and, when I had the chance, worked harder on finding a way to drive to the left. We both knew his advice was spot on. Sometimes you've just got to do what it takes. There's no substitute. I was going to be terrible, at first. I was going to get stopped. And he stopped me, plenty. 

But it was always that way. I always got into trouble when I was too slow in basketball. It happens to everyone on every playground. You've got to be quick. That day, my defender stayed on top of me. He cut off my passing lanes. He harassed me when I picked up the ball. But there was no substitute for driving left and shooting or passing from the left of the key.

After the game, we sat and chatted for a while. 

"You know," he said. "I can see you've got some ideas. You just need to do this, man, like, a thousand more times. Then you'll be all right."

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 328: Biomythography - Note 72, Good (Enough) (Pt. 1)

Good (Enough) at Basketball

Part I

1977: I was so bad, I'm sure the coach would have kicked me off the junior varsity team if he could. I scored two points in my maroon-and-grey colors during the entire season. I didn't make a field goal; no, I got fouled. Twice. I took two shooting fouls and, each time, landed one of the two foul shots. 

I had a bad attitude, knocked other players down on defense by accident (really - I had no sense of where I was supposed to be on the floor or whether someone was allowed to run by me or through me or what), and I was even bad at practicing. When I was thirteen, practice meant going through the motions someone else told me. 

"Hey, Bricks!"

The coach said to run fast at the basket and hit a certain corner of the square painted on the backboard, so I did. I ran so fast, my layups bounced off the backboard to the top of the key. I acquired pretty much the nicknames you'd expect for that: Brickhouse, Brick Layer, Bricks Slayer (maybe after knocking someone down), and eventually just Bricks.  

1979: Humiliated by being so bad at something that was otherwise fun, I started to really practice. After watching the University of Maryland games on television, I copied the motions of their best shooter, Brian Magid. To my surprise, I immediately improved. Aiming for the front of the rim actually helped.

I already knew practice made me better. Now I learned something more about how to do it. I realized there was a different kind of practice, a kind where you actively tried to get better instead of just plodding through the motions. Admittedly, as a teen it helped to have a basketball hoop in the woods where no one could see me starting out so bad that the squirrels would laugh and, slowly, teaching myself to dribble and sink shots in an acceptable way.

I still used the backboard on most shots, the way my junior varsity coach had said to do, but I also kept copying Brian Magid and thought about the way he described his shooting. I started to listen to what other shooters on radio or TV had to say. 

1980: During a visit to my old school, a couple friends saw me in the gym and asked me to make their pickup basketball teams even. There was an argument about who had to take me, followed by a sort of compliment that was actually an insult delivered to someone else, "Well, at least he plays defense." 

Partway through the game, I realized no one was guarding me. I sank a shot, much to the dismay of my teammates, who were afraid I'd shoot again. Then I sank another. And another. 

At some point during the first game, my teammates started trusting me. They passed me the ball deliberately. The other team sent my first defender away to guard a different bricklayer and they put someone good on me. That should have stopped me. But it didn't. All my practices flashed through me, all the dirt floor and leaves, the slick surfaces in the rain, the ball as I dribbled it off rocks and tree roots, my awkwardness and my adjustments to unpleasant surprises. 

I kept adjusting. My team won. It meant we kept the court. And then we re-picked teams. There were more kids around, better players than me, but my captain picked me again. 

During the second game, a teen ran out of the gym and yelled to one of his friends down the trophy hall outside.

"You've got to see this! Brickhouse can shoot now! He's hitting shots!"

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 327: This Will Be Our Year

Listing to 'This Will Be Our Year' by The Zombies

I hadn't heard this song until a few months ago. It came out in 1968. 

In a way, I wish I'd heard it as a hit in the U.S., but it never was one. The Zombies band broke up before their last album, Odessey and Oracle, got released. Even when I learned about the band, long, long after, I never liked their music. This is it. This is their one song I like. So in a totally different way, I'm glad I didn't hear it until I had lived long enough for it to have meaning for me. 

It's a great love song. It's for couples who have gone through some hard times together.

This Will Be Our Year is optimistic against all sense. “You don’t have to worry, all your worried days are gone,” is a ridiculous promise. The singer knows. But it's a beautiful thought. 

Apparently, this song now gets a bit of play at weddings, or so I've learned from bits of information online. If true, it's easy to see why. 

And I won’t forget the way you held me up when I was down.
And I won’t forget the way you said, darling, I love you.
You gave me faith to go on.

Now we’re there and we’ve only just begun.

This will be our year. It took a long time to come.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 326: Biomythography - Note 71, The Gifted Have Fallen (Pt. V)

The Gifted Have Fallen

Part Five

The Rest of Day Five: 

By the end of the week, the midshipmen on campus had noticed their gifted and talented visitors weren't all rule-keepers. The RA in charge of my dorm, an olive-skinned, dark haired man, a bit heavy for the military but strong, young, and confident, sat us down together in a lounge. He gave us a smile as white as his immaculate uniform. 

He took off his hat and gestured for us to relax. He described what a pleasant surprise it was to have us on campus. He said he hadn't been sure what to expect from our spring break camp. 

"I think it's time for a panty raid," he concluded. 

"What's that?" asked one of the other boys. 

The junior officer rolled his eyes and turned to me. But I didn't know what a panty raid was, either. He seemed a bit disappointed in me. As far as I could tell from his explanation, he thought we should break into the girls dorm, which I knew would be difficult, and steal at least one panty from one drawer. Given what I'd observed about their security, it would be a challenge. I wasn't sure what was in it for me.

Conversely, I might have been willing to shoot half the young men in the room for a kiss from one of the girls, but even as a teen I knew stealing their underwear wasn't going to lead to them kissing us. What's more, the girls seemed constantly pissed off at the boys at camp now. Every meal in the mess hall, I continued with my efforts to make peace between the factions but with less and less success. 

"We'll raise the panties up on a flagpole," our RA cadet concluded. 

I hadn't been listening to him much as he outlined his ideas. Dutifully, one of the other guys grabbed a bunch of us and we cased the women's dorm halls for our proposed break-in. As soon as one of the other boys expressed skepticism, I blurted out it was easy to escape from the buildings but not get back in. I pointed out where the guards were posted. The other boys nodded. Some of them hadn't noticed, before.

"So let's not bother," I said. 

My appeal to laziness won. We split up to go to our last, planned camp sessions and when we rejoined the main group, we played with a frisbee someone had been smart enough to pack. It was a nice way to end. Finally, our parents arrived to pick us up. A few of us waved goodbye to one another with a sense of relief, I could tell. It had been a weird week. 


I felt a lasting effect from my attendance at the spring break camp. Mainly, it gave me the impression the U.S. Navy might be an option for college. 

My parents had always been opposed to the military, even when they worked for it as enlisted soldiers or as teachers at army bases. (The drafted military was culturally a different thing from the volunteer force we have now. Opposition from within was routine.)

Despite my parents' attitude, military service seemed like an honorable choice to me. After the camp, I considered it seriously for the first time. I wondered if I would be a good fit. I still had an awful lot of impulses to kill myself and other people. I didn't trust myself around weapons. But I thought maybe I would get better as I got older.  

A year later, I got a scholarship offer from NROTC. It promised a full ride through college. The offer came with a price, of course, since the Navy had chosen my major, which was to be chemical engineering. When I graduated, I would owe them six years of military service as a chemical engineer. I pictured myself lonely on a college campus, taking orders, angry all the time, as usual, and with access to firearms. It still seemed like a suicidal or murderous idea. 

"You have to take it," my father said. 

"I think this is too good to pass up," my mother added.

A few days later, I asked my girlfriend.

"Of course," she said, nestled in my arms. She lifted her head to look me in the eye. "When will you get another offer? You haven't applied for anything else. So of course you should take the money."

All the other people I asked thought I should take the offer, too. 

But I said no. 

Sunday, November 5, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 325: Biomythography - Note 70, The Gifted Have Fallen (Pt. IV)

The Gifted Have Fallen

Part Four

Navy Camp, Day Five: 

In my Naval Academy dorm room, I lay in the dark, half awake. Every now and then, I rolled over in the twin bed. My roommate's snoring had woken me again. Or maybe it was the car engine heard through the open window. Or maybe it was a rattling sound I heard once. An intermittent noise, it had intruded on my dreams. 

"Wake up, man." 

I blinked. I sat up. The Naval Academy had a lights-out rule. Normally, everything around me stayed pitch dark. This time, I saw a sliver of light under my door. Finally, I remembered: Dave from Boston had said he would wake me. This was it. 

As I got up, I watched a piece of folded-up paper slip underneath my door. It snaked around and tapped the floor a few times. That explained the rattling. I crept out of my twin bed. My roommate kept up his snoring. Nothing seemed to slow down his heavy breaths. At the door, I turned the knob and silently ushered Dave inside. He gave me a wide-eyed, startled look. When the door closed behind us, though, he grinned.

"You were really sleeping!" he whispered with a chuckle. In his accent, 'you were' came out more as 'je're.'


"Holy shit." He glanced at my roommate. I could tell his surprise was about the young, blonde man's snores. Really, the sound seemed unnaturally loud. It made the dorm window vibrate. Fortunately, the repeated series of snorts and snuffles seemed good cover against any noises we could make. We kept our voices low anyway. 

"I scouted," Dave told me. "But you have to look and tell me what you think."

With our swimming towels in hand and in relative silence, we crept through the halls of the Naval Academy dorm. Amazingly, to me at least, the Navy had posted guards. Midshipmen occupied posts throughout the building. They moved around, too. That proved to be to our advantage. I knew how to do it thanks to my playing flashlight tag for years. As the guards moved from spot to spot, we trailed them at a safe distance. We could go anywhere at all, almost, while keeping ourselves in the gaps of their coverage. 

I could see Dave's grin in the dark. He loved our level of sneakiness. At the front doors, though, we waited for the guards to move. And waited. And eventually, we figured out they weren't going to budge. We tried the back doors with the same result. Maybe there was no good way to sneak out.

"Let's try this." Dave pointed to an emergency exit. 
He pressed. We heard no alarm. 

Laughing, we strolled out into the dark walkway next to the building. As an afterthought, Dave tried the handle when the door had already closed behind us. It wouldn't budge.
Staying would not end well.

"Eh." He shrugged. "We'll figure that out when we get back."

We followed the wide, concrete paths across campus toward the athletic center. Along the way, we passed a fountain in the middle of campus. The fountain glowed with the lights around its rim, so we stayed at the edges of its concrete border even though no one else seemed to be around. The fact that we were strolling through at about two-thirty in the morning probably had something to do with it. 

To our dismay, when we at last reached the pool building, we found it was locked tight. Even the windows of the place seemed dark and forbidding. 

Halfway back to our dorm, we spotted the well-lit fountain again. I had my swimsuit on already. I shucked off my clothes, took a dip, and paddled around for a while. Dave chuckled and kept a lookout. After all, the dormitories had guards. Someone might spy us breaking the rules. Soon enough, I toweled off and got re-dressed and we hiked the rest of the way. 
"Shit, those guards are pretty good," said Dave after we padded around the outside of our dorm for twenty minutes. "There's no way in through the doors."

For me, twenty minutes of searching was plenty. I was ready to give up. Or to try to break in through a door or a window. Or to sleep in a bush until people started walking around and I could slip back in. Left to my own devices, I would probably have elected the latter despite the chill in the air. It might not have worked out, though. Dave was shivering already. A while in the cold is not super noticeable but, over time, even a little too much exposure can become unbearable.

I was mad at the guards. They seemed much more alert for people coming in than going out. To my irritation, I believed they would question me and my beach towel entering the dorm even after the breakfast bell. And I had no great explanation for the guard about why I was a camp member coming inside from a campus that was supposed to be off-limits. 

"The first floor windows are locked," Dave concluded. He didn't give up until he'd tried them all. "We'll have to climb up. Hey, you left your window open."

"So?" We strolled to the back of the building, next to the parking lot. My window had a great view of the lot and the guard house next to it. Fortunately, the guard house was empty. The parking area was, too, mostly. We had a clear line of sight to my partly-open window. My roommate liked it that way. I did, too, as a way to reduce his noise although on any other day of the week I would have gotten up to close it when the breeze got too cold. 

"We can climb this building." Dave's gaze narrowed. He had a determined look.

"No way. I black out and lock up on unsteady heights."

"Nothing unsteady, here." He gestured to the blocks of pressed concrete that formed the outer wall. "Look, I'll go first if you're scared."

The word came out like "ski yard" but with a sneer, as if it was ridiculous to be frightened about falling to my death while scaling the outside of a multi-story building. And maybe it was. But I was keenly aware of how heights paralyzed me. They had for almost as long as I could remember. Already, my hands drenched with sweat as I contemplated the climb. 

The back of the Naval Academy dormitory was four stories high. As Dave pointed out, I only had to climb two of them. My room was on the third floor. The parking lot guard house, once we climbed to the top of that, would let us leap to the bottom of the second floor. From there, I saw I would have no real handholds except for the grooves between blocks in the building. Still, only two stories.

"Hey up." Dave launched himself to the guard house. Seconds later, he helped me clamber up.

"You're sweaty," he said, noticing my slick grip. He hopped from the guard house roof to the dorm. He made it look easy. His left hand patted a concrete slab. "No problem, here. Good grips."

The fucker, Dave from Boston, scrambled upward like a monkey. Or like an experienced climber. I took a deep breath, wobbled, and nearly fell from the guard house. That would have broken my bones because a ramp next to the structure ran down farther away and deeper than I thought it should. Still feeling dizzy, I hopped from the one-story roof onto the second story of the dorm. I made sure my handholds duplicated what I had seen working fine for Dave. 

For a few minutes, I stayed where I was, in the wind. I felt the depths whisper beneath me. I heard Dave clambering up and up, farther away. 

After a while, I resolved myself to continue. I saw handhold after handhold. I did something Dave hadn't done and shimmied up between two of the concrete slabs. I'd known I was strong enough for it. But I reached a point where I couldn't see where to put my hand next. I froze. Above me, I watched Dave, a bright shadow in the moonlight, slip through the open bedroom window. That made me sigh with relief, although the feeling was momentary. 

I remember looking back and seeing my death. When I fell, I would hit the guardrail of the ramp next to the parking lot guard house. The impact against the steel bar would crack me in half. Then the pieces of me would continue. As I hovered there, frozen, afraid to move my grip, panting and growing more tired, I felt something bounce off my forehead.

"What the fuck are you doing?" I hissed. My gaze shot up to Dave in anger. I realized he had thrown a wad of paper.

"You have to keep moving," he said. "You've been hanging there forever." 

"I can’t move," I insisted. I hardly even thought about the sound of 'theah forevah.'

"You have to or you will hang there until you get exhausted and fall and die."


"You have to move," he insisted. "There’s a handhold right there."

He pointed to the next corner of a block. To grab it, I would have to push off hard with my left foot, latch with the fingers of my right hand, and trust I could hold myself up with no foothold available for a second or two after that. I might have to shimmy along holding by just one hand at a time for a while until the next grip for my foot. It was a tiny leap of confidence I couldn’t seem to make. I hyperventilated for another half minute.

Above me, Dave threw another scrap of paper at my head. It brushed my ear and sailed over my shoulder.

"Go, goddammit," he hissed. His accent still almost made me laugh. It was so ridiculous. "Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it. Do it."

For ten or fifteen seconds, he repeated himself. His voice grew more and more insistent as he continued. I wobbled, had a black-out moment, and realized Dave was right. I couldn't stay here. Staying would not end well.

I howled and jumped for the corner. A second after, I pulled myself to the next handhold and the next.

"Oh, shit!" Dave backed away from the window.

"Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr." A weird sound escaped from my throat. I felt like an animal, like a dog, trapped and trying to scramble out of a pit. Handhold, handhold, handhold. Stand up. Dizzy. No! Go. Go! Hop up. Handhold. Handhold. In less than half a minute, I slung my right arm over the windowsill and grabbed the opposite edge. I felt Dave's hands clamp down on my forearm.

"Do you need to rest?" he whispered while I hyperventilated again.

"Dave, man, I think if I rest any more I’ll get weaker. Ready?"


And then, oddly, I blanked a little and found myself in the room. I straightened up from the crouch I was in. I stared at my roommate. Unbelievably, he was snoring.

"I know," whispered Dave. "How do you sleep with that in the room?"

I shook my head.

"Do you think he’s faking?"

We stood between the twin beds for most of a minute.

"Sounds real," Dave commented.

"Can you get back in your room without getting noticed?" I asked him. "Do you need to sleep on the floor or something? No point in getting caught now."

"I made it here without getting nicked, didn’t I?" 


Sunday, October 29, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 324: Biomythography - Note 69, The Gifted Have Fallen (Pt. III)

The Gifted Have Fallen

Part Three 

Navy Camp, Day Two: 

In the morning, we rose at our assigned time and kept the appointments on our agendas. For me, that meant breakfast, followed by Navy sports regimens that gave me no lasting memories. Next, we re-joined other sub-groups and toured the computer center. Again, this made almost no impression on me, personally, but my roommate said he was interested in what he called ARPANET. His descriptions sounded okay, especially about the Star Trek game he played when he got computer time, except you had to sit down at a keyboard to do anything. I figured it wasn't for me. I didn't really pay attention to anything more than the enthusiasm of my roommate.

Even then, my new friends pushed my roommate aside as we left the computer center. He was a tall, blonde guy, and nice enough but they didn't like him. He wasn't cool by their standards. 

"Those fuckers," Dave from Boston hissed.

"What, the navy again?" I glanced backwards. The computer room staff had seemed fine. They had acted like our tour was an annoyance in their morning but I thought from their perspective they had it about right. 

"No, the wrestlers." He said it like 'rasslahs.'

"Oh, them." I sighed. Dave had mentioned the rasslahs on our first day. Apparently, a couple hundred of them from a bunch of high schools along the east coast were holding a different camp at the Naval Academy. They were here during the same span of days as our Gifted and Talented program. 

"Didn't you say you wanted to swim?" Dave shook a photocopied program in his fist. He'd gotten his hands on the wrestling camp handouts from a kiosk in one of the naval buildings. 

"Yeah." I shrugged. "That's the only sport I'm good at. And karate, I guess."

"Our camp doesn't get to use the pool because the rasslahs do." He opened the handout and jabbed the marked boxes on the wrestling camp schedule of events. Sure enough, they had reserved the pool. 

I changed the topic to how we could meet at lunch. Our sub-groups were different but everyone had lunch at roughly the same time. Plus we had class together afterwards. I thought that could be funny.

At lunch, I re-discovered how the guys were trying to prove they were brainier than one another and also smarter than the girls whenever they sat in mixed company. How did these guys ever get dates? But after a while I realized, well, maybe they didn't. A bunch of them were my age, a year younger than usual for high school juniors. They had been at a disadvantage on the dating scene. On top of everything else, many of them couldn't drive yet. I couldn't either. I knew what a date-killer relying on parents to drive could be. Maybe these guys had gotten mad at the situation and given up before things even started.

After lunch, Dave and I enjoyed one of our rare classes together. He shook his fist at the wrestling camp banners along the way. On the return trip, he slowed down and grabbed my shoulder. 

"Look," he said. 


"No one is watching. This is our chance." He gestured to the wrestling camp flags and welcoming posters. "Help me take this down."

"Are you serious?" Even as I replied, he was grabbing one side of the main banner. I shrugged and accepted an end of the cloth from him. He sprinted to the other end and ripped it down completely.

"Now we'll burn it." He cackled.

"That's dumb."

"Then let's stuff it in a trash can."

At dinner that night, a Navy cadet stopped by to talk to everyone in our dining hall. He described how someone had vandalized the wrestling camp. They suspected the culprit had come from the Gifted and Talented camp because, well, who else was there? As the young man lectured us, Dave kept laughing and punching me under the table. He was totally not playing it cool. 

But then the cadet swept the crowd with his gaze and described the vandalism. Partway through, Dave and I realized it wasn't us. No one had cared out what we'd done, it seemed. A wrestling coach had found the banner we'd stuffed into the trash can. No big deal. The wrestling camp was mad about much more serious damage. 

After a while of listening to the list of property destruction, Dave whispered, "Holy shit."

There were other vandals in the Gifted and Talented camp. And they were more hardcore than us. 

Navy Camp, Day Three: 

At breakfast, someone older and more serious than a cadet strode in. The other staff in the room saluted him.

"Someone has changed the master password in the Naval Academy computers," he announced. "Those computers are networked to the actual Navy computers. About a third of the Naval Defense Network is down."

He harumphed at his own statement.

"Well, not exactly down. But we can't access our own network. And you know, we'd like to do that."

"Why are you talking to us?" asked one of the girls near the front. 

The officer barely glanced in her direction. 

"The time frame for the master password change is closely associated with the tour this group took yesterday. So I'll tell you what we are going to do. We are going to take your entire group on another tour. We are going to walk through the computer center together. All of us. And I hope someone is going to change the master password back to what it was."

Someone chuckled.

"Yes, my staff thinks it's funny, too. But you know who won't? Anyone at Naval Command. They would want to prosecute whoever did it. Here at the Academy, we would rather treat it was a prank. It was a prank, right?"

His tone insisted that it was going to be a case of high-spirited hijinx and easily corrected, or else. 

"It was your roommate," Dave from Boston whispered to me. 

"No way."

"He went back to the computers after we took you away from him. I saw it. He's rubbish."

"Who the fuck says 'rubbish?'"

At the computer center, a bunch of the cadets who had ignored us during the previous day now stared openly at the collection of high school juniors who had apparently caused them trouble. Deliberately, they all turned their backs. 

"No one is going to see what you do," the officer in charge explained. He also carefully turned his back to us. "But it's still going to get done."

Such was the finality of the officer's tone that we walked the first leg of the tour in silence. After a minute, though, Dave started talking about how he had idears (of all the r's to pronounce, why his accent chose an imaginary one I've no idear) about who done it. I could actually feel the cadets wincing, doing everything but covering their ears as they tried not to overhear him. Fortunately, the other students took a cue from Dave and started chatting, not only about the possible culprit among us but about everything they were doing in the camp. I don't think the computer staff heard from Dave how my roommate had a programming book and diagrams on his dresser (actually, 'dressa'). 

Navy Camp, Day Four: 

In the morning, we ran an abbreviated obstacle course. It was fun. We also reported for a physical, during which a medical corpsman measured me while I was waiting in line, leaning my shoulder against a wall. Since I hadn't been standing straight, I came in at less than 5'5". As a self-conscious teen, I protested and demanded the staff re-measure me. The doctor in charge laughed.

"You're tall enough for the Marines," he said. He swept a white-coated arm around the room and the certificates hung up around the walls. They bore military insignia. "Marines and Navy, that's all we care about. Move along."

At lunch, we sat at the mess benches and I noticed the groupings were different. Dave was no longer hanging out with all of his vandalism buddies. You would think I'd wonder what that was about but, mostly, I didn't. I was more preoccupied with the discovery that I'd offended some of the young women, who I liked and who I wanted to like me back. My problem was that I had tried to come to the defense of my male friends. We had already had a handful of heated arguments over whether women belonged in the military. To me, it was a non-issue because:

 1) They were already in the military
 2) They had been in it for ages
 3) Their presence made it slightly more appealing

There was no point in bickering. It's not like anyone was going to change anyone else's mind. These teens were smart and fairly tough. They had volunteered for a Navy camp. 

Nevertheless, it was apparent that some of the young men thought they could harass young women into changing their minds. My instinct had been to play peacemaker but that got me hated on all sides. About the young men, I found I didn't care. They weren't even fellow vandals. They were rule-followers and seemed to want to join the Navy. I cared about the young women, though. I didn't know precisely what I'd said to them that was wrong but I wanted to fix it. But I still felt I had to defend the idiocies of my male friends. 

At lunch, Dave bragged about our Gifted and Talented harassment of the wrestling camp. One of the girls at our table threatened to report me to my father. She had already told me she was a student at his school. 

By dinner time, I had made a sort of peace. A couple girls smiled at me. We had all together decided to ditch some of the worst young men even though I considered them fellow rebels. For sure, it made our conversation easier. 

Dave cut the women out of our conversation, though, as we picked up our dinner trays. 

"They ain't gonna kiss you," he remarked. 

I sighed. We tossed out the trash and headed for our dorms. 

"You know what?" he said. "We should break into the pool and swim."

"Sure," I replied sarcastically, because this was obviously bullshit. I was used to other teenagers talking about things they couldn't do.

Myself, I spent a lot of time resentfully doing the worst I could with what I'd been ordered to do. A lot of the time, I avoided taking the initiative because that led to fights and punishments and general life hassle. And as someone who had spent a long time doing nothing that I wanted to do, I found people who didn't follow orders and instead did what they wanted to be fascinating.

"Great! I'll get you up at around two in the morning," Dave said. "We'll break in tonight."

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 323: Biomythography - Note 68, The Gifted Have Fallen (Pt. II)

The Gifted Have Fallen

Part Two 

My father gave me a curious look. I set aside the envelope he passed me without glancing up from my book. 

When my eyes got tired of the cheap, pulpy pages, I reached to the style section of the newspaper. From the bottom, I tore a scrap of newspaper to use as a bookmark. I slid it into place and shut the paperback around it. For a moment, I rested my eyes. But then I noticed the envelope to my right, grabbed it, and ripped it open. As I did, I glimpsed the return address, which read Gifted and Talented.

"Ugh." This had to be more unwanted college admissions material. 

Inside the envelope, I found a fancy page with a United States Naval Academy logo at the top. The printing was too good, as if it were all meant for someone else. Along with it, someone had included a computer printout generated by a fancy line printer with multiple colors of ink ribbons. Although the letters were a trifle fuzzy around the edges, they provided blue and black bolded words on the pink card stock. It was kind of cool.

The text was full of weird, formal phrases. Gifted, gifted, gifted, it said. Come visit.

"Why would the navy invite me to spring break camp?" I waved the notice to my parents. "I don't go to camps."

My father put his pencil down from his Washington Post crossword puzzle. My mother ignored us and kept on cleaning pots in the sink. So my father and I contemplated the message together. 

"Did you apply for something?" he wondered.


"Well, this looks real enough." He had worked for the military and later for a federal agency as a civilian, so I supposed he knew what forms the government used for these things. 

The more I re-read the letter, though, the more I became convinced the Navy had made a mistake. They really meant this for someone else, someone gifted and talented and nice and dutiful. Someone who wanted to be in the Navy, probably. I wasn't any of that. Of course, the camp promised a week away from my parents. They even said my parents were forbidden to visit. (They apologized for it but to me it seemed amazingly great, like a fantasy.) I wouldn't have to pay anything to escape my home. And my chances to escape had been rare so far.
"I'm not skipping driver's education," I remembered. That would start at the local public school in the summer. Now that I was sixteen, I wanted the benefits of my four-year-long war of sleeplessness against my parents. I had made them drive me everywhere. I'd made them get up at four in the morning and return home, back and forth, all day for every day I could arrange things on my schedule. Finally, my mother had agreed I should drive. I was determined to make my parents let me take the class.

"This navy camp is free," my father pointed out. "You don't have to wear a uniform. You don't march around. It sounds nice. I could move the driver's ed class."

Wow, my father really hated the military. He hated letting me enroll in driver's ed. I could only guess that he really liked getting something for free. I did, too. 

"The dates don't conflict," my mother pointed out. She could read the notice from four feet away, apparently. She had been glancing in my direction as she worked. 

"Should I go? Maybe it's not real. It could be a scam." Although I didn't assume it was, the offer did seem outlandish. The Navy's description of the camp made it seem too good to be true. 

"They say your invitation is based on your PSAT score," my father murmured. "I don't think anyone not in colleges or military academies can see those."

"It's real," chimed my mother. 

That day, I signed up. The pre-military experience was something I did to myself. It was all for a free vacation, a break from my parents. I didn't foresee how stupid I was going to be. 

Actually, I did have a sense of it. I dreaded my own social stupidity even as I filled out the forms. I anticipated the awfulness of my behavior with a gray-souled, spotty-visioned, hand-sweating feeling of panic. I endured flashes of the same panic, half-days at a time, during the months leading up to the camp. Even so, I didn't anticipate how closely my actions would border upon lethal. I didn't understand what I would do in front of other kids to prove myself cool. Or what I would do for them to be their friend. Neither, I would guess, did the military. 

When spring break came, I packed my bags the day before camp. My vague desire was to take as little as possible with me but the Naval Academy camp had supplied a list of requirements. I met them. The items, such as combs and toothbrushes, have left me nowadays with a vague memory of a backpack and a duffel bag, plus a sense of counting everything twice. The list was a long one. Fortunately, most of my transportation to the Naval Academy, even my arrival and escort through the process, is a blur. 

I must have visited my grandmother - she was five blocks away - but my anticipation of the camp erased my recollections of any other events that day. 

My first clear memory, after a vague sense of meeting other teenagers and standing in lines with them, is of Dave and another, taller young man. The tall one wore his clothes well. He had gotten a reasonably fashionable cut to his hair. The friendlier, more acne-scarred one, though, had scruffy hair and careless clothes.

"Eric? Wicked." He stuck out his hand to shake mine. "I'm Dave."

"Dave, cool." I had no idea what accent he had but it sounded like a bad imitation of British slang from a poor neighborhood. "Where are you from?"



"Where you from?" With his question, he dropped the 'are.'


"Wicked." Every time I would have said something was cool, Dave announced it was wicked. He was not much taller than me, so he was pretty damn short, but he was thin and athletic in his way. His brown hair was thick and his pale skin had freckles.

The taller boy and I made fun of Dave's accent for a while and, to my delight, Dave made fun of us in return. Something about being insulted by him in his ridiculous accent made me laugh. Far from being offended, Dave liked me chuckling at the things he said. 

"You're all right," he decided. It was one of the few sentences he used in which he pronounced an 'r' sound.

Together, because no one stopped us from self-selecting our acquaintences into a gang, we gathered two more young men and endured together what seemed like a many-hours-long afternoon of orientation. The navy announced their schedule for us. They gave handouts. They gave folders with more handouts. The read them to us, although they watched our faces and saw how we felt insulted as they read to us, and they embellished their detailed, long-winded plans. 

Our gang made a lot of comments about the plans. 

“They made a lot of mistakes,” Dave said. 

"Yeah?" I was looking at the schedule. What I saw was a heavy load designed to keep us busy.

“Yeah. They think smart kids are going to listen to them.” Dave paused, mouth slightly open in a cockeyed smile. A couple other boys glanced in his direction as they absorbed the criticism. 

I snorted because I knew what he meant. The military seemed to think that high achievers, if that's what we were, were inclined to follow the rules. They may have even gotten that right in a general way. After all, we had lasted long enough in high school to get good test scores. We had agreed to this camp.  But some of us in this bunch of smart kids had gotten good at eluding and subverting authority.

Kids are kids, smart or not. Bright young men and women who wanted to break the rules tended to get away with more than the average. Dave seemed to be someone good at subverting authorities. Or so I assumed. 

Even at the time, I had the sense that Dave was acting extra badass for us. I'd seen it in myself at times and in other teens, too. We wanted to be admired and liked. As I glanced around at the other young men in our group, I realized we had probably assembled the most rebellious youths in the program. That wasn't saying much. We were, for sure, not as badass as we wanted to be. Already, Dave's background emotional simmer of being slightly angry at everything was making one or two guys nervous. 

My roommate seemed quiet and he was maybe a rule-follower but he was nice. Dave teased him a bit but gave up when he saw it bothered me. He headed off to tease his own roommate.  We all bunked down to rest for the first full day, which included both sports and academics.

Day One: 

My favorite sport was talking to girls. 

I don't remember the actual Navy agenda for the day. What I remember was the girls.  I made a couple snarky comments in the first class.  I had to say them to no one in particular because my new friends weren't in the same classroom. Fortunately, two of the girls in the seats beside me thought I was funny.

It would have been amazing to find rebellious girls among the camp attendees. But when the same girls came to chat with me after the first session, some of my buddies saw what was happening and stepped in to stop it.  It was kind of weird. My new young, male friends were so awkward, I got the impression they didn't even like the idea of talking with the opposite sex.

The girls got that impression, too. They gave me a pitying look and split off for their next activity. 

The same pattern repeated itself all day. I wasn't mad about it. I knew what it was like to be an awkward, teenage guy failing with women. But my gang was full of these guys and they couldn't even realize they were screwing up and fall back to what I considered level zero, which was my behavior when I didn't know what to say to young women: shut up and let them talk. I learned a lot from listening.  But these guys could not resist spouting their opinions even if it led them into making insults or horrible, condescending comments. 

Amazingly, at the group lunch Dave and a couple of his acquaintances amused a few girls with me for half an hour.  But toward the end of our free time, Dave got irritated about something and showed he was particularly good at driving the girls away, too.  He couldn't resist doubling down on his insults. And yet, when he turned to me personally, he relaxed.  He followed me to my next activity and keep cracking jokes until he made me laugh again.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 322: Biomythography - Note 67, The Gifted Have Fallen

Biomythography Note 67

The Gifted Have Fallen
Part One

In the autumn when I was fifteen, I got a plain white envelope in the mail. It was addressed to me, personally, and according to the return stamp in the upper left, the contents came from the University of Connecticut.

When I opened the packet, I discovered a small yellow slip inside. With my left hand, I pulled it out, puzzled over it for a moment, and noticed there was more. I dug into the envelope again and extracted one regular-sized, typewritten page. I unfolded it and read the University of Connecticut logo at the top.

"Another college?" my mother said. I was at a seat by the dining room table. My parents were cleaning up the dining room and kitchen. They seemed to be preparing to cook dinner although I hadn't asked. "It seems early."

This was the third university, I thought, and I was only a junior in high school. I hadn't applied anywhere. I didn't want to go to college. I was done with school. I desperately wanted to end it, to be completely done and free.

After I skimmed through, I paused to reflect on how I'd basically understood nothing on the paper. I didn't want to go to school anyhow and the letter wasn’t telling me what I expected. I thought I'd hear about the campus. This note was different. It basically said, now, now, now.

I checked the yellow slip. It had one of my breaststroke times on it, not my best one but my most recent. The writing marks of the digits were blue. I realized this was the middle page of a triplicate carbon copy. Someone had made a decision based on this. They'd sent me part of the triplicate as an explanation.

With my left hand, I raised the letter once more and looked at it more seriously. I could tell by the first paragraph this was a recruiting message. The University of Connecticut was offering me a $2000 swimming scholarship. They didn’t mention the cost of tuition or room and board at the University. They just said I needed to decide now. I needed to join right away.

“They want me to attend this semester?” I turned the page. The back was blank. I flipped it over to read again. Yes, the essential point was definitely that the college needed a breaststroker for their men’s relay team. If I applied to the University of Connecticut now, they would accept me for the next term. I'd start swimming as soon as I got there.

Someone leaned over my right shoulder to look at the letter. From the nice smell and the padded sleeve of her white blouse, I knew it was my mother.

"Does Connecticut have a university?” I asked her. She frowned at the short paragraphs in the recruitment letter. “Is it a real place?"

"It might be," she said. She gave me a thoughtful look. Then she directed her gaze across the room to my father. Her uncertainty led me to a new line of inquiry.

"Does every state have a university?" I called to him.

"Maybe." He raised his eyebrows. After a moment, he made a decision and nodded. “Yes, probably. I'm pretty sure there's a university in South Dakota. That means every state has got one.”

At the time, I didn't follow his reasoning. Nowadays, that sentence makes sense.

In 1978, we couldn't look things up except by driving to a library and grabbing a bunch of college guides, which we weren't allowed to check out and take home. Plus we were all discovering, bit by bit, we had been taught a lot of traditional wisdom that wasn't true. We had doubts, generally, and always saw reasons to do further reading. But my father's logic was good. It seemed like a weird concept. But the University of Connecticut was probably real. 

As an aside, despite how I insisted to my parents that I didn't want to go to school, both of them were sure I was headed for college anyway. They were paying for me to go to a private prep school, after all, where I was doing well enough, in their view, to skip a bunch of required college classes wherever I went. That was the view of some of my teachers. It was the view coming back from a few placement tests I had taken. I seemed to be the only one who disagreed. I was a shitty student. And college was a shitty idea.

I didn't want to see a classroom ever again. On the other hand, if I accepted a place at University of Connecticut, I could leave home. That had some appeal.

"What do you think?" I asked.

"I think you're fifteen," my mother said. Her cheeks flushed as she realized I was considering it. Her scowled deepened.

"Now, Ann." My father, who I despised, tried to intervene. "He's going to be young when he goes to college anyway."

"He's going to be seventeen, Bob. Not fifteen."

My parents ignored me during their argument. They went on about college for a while and it gave me time to think. Although I hated school, at this point I hated swimming even more. I liked the other kids in the pool, of course. But the mindless laps and the boredom of actual swimming wore me down. These days, I worked out with the National Training Group in Rockville. There, my separation from the girls in the supposedly faster male-only lanes removed the one element to practice that broke up the tedium and made the hard slog through the pain seem bearable.

Also, out of spite I didn’t want to come in on my dad’s side. 

"The girls in Connecticut wouldn’t like me anyhow," I rationalized.

"They'll be nineteen." My mother turned on me. She didn't want to call me unattractive but she was happy to point out the fairly obvious social challenges of going to college immediately. 

"So?" I wanted to contradict her even if it meant turning back against my own point. "I'll be sixteen in a few months."

"They will turn twenty." My mother folded her arms. 

I had to shrug. Probably women that old wouldn't even look in my direction. 

"At least I could see them," I responded. "I'm not allowed to see the girls here." 

That was an exaggeration. We lived surrounded by farms and forests. Our isolation was so effective that any level of hyperbole about it felt true.

"I've driven you on two dates," my mother snapped. 

My mouth opened. I closed it. We seemed to be headed down a conversational road I hadn't meant to drive onto. My mother might win the argument even though I felt completely right. 

There were girls here, not far from me by car. I mostly wasn’t allowed to see them - although I suppose my mother did help me out by driving, sometimes - and they were my age. They sent me letters. I met young women on swim teams and through my lifegaurding jobs. I had gotten a dozen love notes from Mary, who had wanted to date me last summer (although my mom had refused to help out, then), and one from Jeannie, who still made my heart and head ache. And some of the girls, even at school, didn’t hate me completely, maybe. I was still trying to figure it out.

"But Ann," my father said, "it's a scholarship."

"He got one. He'll get more," my mother retorted. 

My mother ended up being wrong, though. No more swimming scholarships arrived. That may have been because I hated swimming and stopped improving. I didn't have the foresight, though, to point out that was the direction I was headed. The argument of 'I am determined to suck' does not inspire parents much, anyway. I'm not sure anything I could said would have carried much weight. 

"We can't turn down free offers," my father warned. "The next one that comes in, we should take it."

We didn't know we would get another, decidedly non-athletic offer a couple months later. For better or worse, the notice would come from the United States Navy.