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.