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?"