Posts Tagged ‘basketball’

Home Court

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

Home court

Old Ball photo by Todd

“There are only two reasons why people fail. One is irresponsibility. The second is fear.” Wally Amos

I have been enjoying the occasional stint in the Mendocino High School gym assisting coach Jim Young with training his most promising basketball players. The ambience of the indoor court takes me back to my two years as a gym rat at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1960s when that university was only a few years old. I was not much interested in academia, and when I wasn’t writing my fledgling fiction or throwing a Frisbee or hunting for pianos to play, I could be found in the field house playing basketball.

A towering five-foot-ten, I was a good shooter, a better passer, a reluctant rebounder, and a fair defender when the spirit moved me. My freshman year, in those days when basketball was still largely a non-contact sport, I was perhaps the thirtieth best player on a campus with a few thousand students, not many of them basketball players. Having honed my shooting skills on a bumpy sloping driveway with an out-of-round hoop, playing in a gym with a springy wood floor and glass backboards and perfectly round hoops was profoundly pleasurable for me.

A month or so into my second year of college, my game took a quantum leap and I began to dominate players who had previously dominated me. Faculty members who frequented the gym began to address me by my first name, and older guys who had previously ignored me, now wanted me on their teams.

One afternoon I was playing one-on-one with Alex, a fellow gym rat a few inches shorter than I, having a silly good time, when into our gym strolled two young men we had never seen before. One was a muscular six-foot-five, the other a rangy six-foot-two. They watched us play a few points and then challenged us to a game.

To my ears, the tone of their challenge was condescending, and to my eyes they swaggered arrogantly as they came onto the court; and the game was no longer a game for me, but a battle, a defense of the one place in the world where I felt strong and competent and respected.

These two young giants—Clark and Zack—warmed up a bit before we played, while Alex and I rebounded and fed them the ball to expedite their warming up. This courtesy seemed to puzzle them, for they came from much less polite basketball traditions than those established in our gym. Clark and Zack were not only taller and stronger than we were, they were both excellent shooters and good ball handlers, and I could tell by the sag of Alex’s shoulders that he had already conceded defeat.

But I was determined to give these supercilious invaders a better game than they expected, and we did just that. I caught fire, we rebounded with uncharacteristic ferocity, Alex made shots I had never seen him make before, and we won handily. Clark, the taller of our two opponents, was enraged in defeat, Zack disgusted, and they demanded a rematch. We agreed, and we beat them again, though it would be truer to say they beat themselves in their furious haste to atone for their first loss.

Following their second loss to us, Clark raged around the gym, his hysterical cursing punctuated by terrible threats, while Zack sneeringly referred to us as “lucky little wimps.” When we wouldn’t grant them a third game, they vociferously suggested our testicles were either very small or non-existent. And so, wishing to avoid physical harm, we bid the sore losers adieu.

The next day, I arrived at the gym to find both ends of the court clogged with games underway. I set about assembling a team to play the winners of the game at the end of the court where the better players usually played, and espying Clark, I invited him to join my team.

“I already have a team,” he said, looking down at me. “And I got winners.”

“Okay,” I said, nodding. “I will continue my hunt for teammates.”

“Hey,” he said, snarling at me. “You know you just got lucky yesterday. Pure luck.”

“You think so?” I said, enjoying my recollections of our glorious victory. “I think it was more home court advantage. We know the terrain.”

“Bullshit,” he said, still seething in defeat. “I’ll kick your ass next time.”

And so it was with great pleasure that I watched Clark’s team get trounced by a team led by an Economics professor who had played on the Duke team that won the national championship a few years before. I always guarded that professor when we were on opposing teams, and I always set screens for him when we were on the same team because he never missed from anywhere unless someone was draped all over him.

Time passed and Clark eventually calmed down and became a fellow gym rat known for being a good guy prone to temper tantrums when his team lost, which was not often. Turns out he had been a high school superstar, set state scoring records, and had garnered a basketball scholarship to Stanford where his anger issues got him booted off the team midway through his freshman year. When Clark was at his best, he was stupendous, but like many great athletes, his impatience and lack of self-discipline were his greatest obstacles to success.

One day Clark and I were playing one-on-one, having a silly good time, when into the gym strolled two young men we had never seen in our gym before. One of them was six-seven, the other six-foot-three. They watched us play a few points and then challenged us to a game.

They were good. Really good. But we beat them. Twice.

Afterwards, Clark said, “They had no idea who they were up against.”

“Home court advantage,” I added. “We know the terrain.”

Gym Rats

Monday, August 15th, 2016

oasis tw

Oasis painting by Nolan Winkler

Jim Young, coach of the Mendocino High School boys varsity basketball team, also happens to be my chiropractor and friend. I had a chiropractic appointment with him on Thursday at 11:30, and the night before he sent me an email saying: “I’m going to put one of my younger stars through a shooting workout right after our appointment. Want to help? 12:15 in the high school gym.”

Just a few months ago I would have declined Jim’s offer, not having touched a basketball in five years and being in dreadful shape as I close in on sixty-seven. However, for the last few months I have been endeavoring to right the ship and even occasionally going to the elementary school to fling a few balls at the rims, so…

While Jim expertly unknotted the muscles in my upper back and alleviated much of the chronic tightness in my neck, he explained how he and I would work together during the shooting workout of the promising young guard Nakai Baker. Jim would do the rebounding and pass the balls to me, and I, in turn, would pass the balls to Nakai, and Nakai would do nothing but shoot.

Some of Jim’s inspiration for involving me in this fascinating exercise sprang from his recent reading of my novel Ruby & Spear, published in 1996, the last time I was able to entice a major publisher to take a chance on one of my books. As it happened, Bantam didn’t take much of a chance and declared the book out-of-print on publication day. Thus very few people have ever read Ruby & Spear, the story of a poetical sports writer and his fantastical involvement with a phenomenal playground basketball player.

The book begins: “Once, when I was young—oh, fifteen—I stood on the western edge of my father’s driveway, focused intently on his finest gift to me, a shiny orange rim mated to a whitewashed backboard—a fresh net awaiting my throw, the summer sun warming my bare skin. I was a rosy tan white boy, longing to flee the oppressive confines of suburban dependency. Nearly all my heroes were great black men who could fly. Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Earl the Pearl Monroe.”

Basketball was my refuge from an unhappy home life as a teenager, and for my two years of college I spent more time in the gym playing basketball than I did attending classes. So when I walked into the Mendocino High School gym with Nakai and Jim—my first time in a gymnasium in more than twenty-five years—I was flooded with nostalgia.

I changed from my walking shoes into low-top tennis shoes, Nakai changed from his walking-around shoes to gorgeous red and black high-tops, and we joined Jim at the west end of the court where he awaited us with three basketballs. Nakai is a slender lad, sixteen, five-foot-nine, who shows little emotion when he plays, though some of that may have been due to being sequestered in a gym with his coach and some old guy with funny hair.

After we took a few shots to loosen up, Jim directed Nakai to a spot some eighteen feet from the basket (a couple feet in front of the three-point line) and the first drill began.

Standing at the top of the key, my job was to pass the basketball to Nakai so it arrived in his hands a couple of beats after he released his previous shot, and I was to time my passes so Nakai could maintain a consistent rhythmic flow of catching and releasing the ball without pause.

It took me a few passes to get in synch with Jim and Nakai, and a few more passes to hone my accuracy and speed of delivery, but since my sole focus was to receive basketballs from Jim and feed them to Nakai, I eventually got the hang of things and greatly enjoyed myself.

On occasion I would not pass the next ball quite soon enough and Nakai would give an impatient little clap of his hands to say, “Speed it up, old man,” and I would endeavor to do so. I made one-handed passes, two-handed passes, bounce passes, fast passes, and the occasional lob, all of which Nakai handled with ease and aplomb.

His shooting accuracy was impressive, his stamina superb, and his range remarkable. A few times in the course of forty-five minutes of nearly incessant shooting, Nakai launched shots from several feet beyond the three-point arc and made a surprising number of them. My guesstimate is that Nakai took about thirteen shots per minute during the time we worked with him, or roughly six hundred shots, most of them from eighteen to twenty-three feet from the hoop, and he showed no signs of tiring until the very end.

He also executed a series of dribbling drills I cannot even imagine emulating without at least a decade of rigorous daily practice. Make that two decades. He dribbled two balls at the same time, up and down the court, and each ball departed his left and right hands at different speeds, and these speeds changed in relation to each other with each of his runs up and down the court. He also dribbled the two balls through his legs and behind his back as he ran, and I said, “Oh my God” at least seven times during his dribbling routine.

We concluded the workout with a game of HORSE, and by the time I made my last heave at the basket, I could barely lift my arms, though I had only been shooting for ten minutes, whereas Nakai had been shooting nonstop for the better part of an hour.

Jim and I bid the plucky lad adieu and walked down from the high school into town, Jim to have a swim in the ocean, brave man, I to stumble to my truck (formerly Jim’s truck) and drive home, there to lie down for an hour to recover from the rigors of feeding the ball to Nakai.

An audio version of Ruby & Spear narrated by the author is available from iTunes and Audible, while used copies of the novel may be had for pennies online.

Traveling

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

Shoe Tie

Shoe Tie photo by David Jouris

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2014)

“The only alternative to co-existence is co-destruction.” Jawaharlal Nehru

We were down on Big River Beach a few days ago, the weather Hawaiian, naked babies frolicking in the sand, the air scented with barbecued lamb and chicken, the river sparkling, the breezes gentle. And joining us in paradise were a dozen or so unleashed dogs gadding about making everything much less enjoyable by depositing piles of steaming dog poop in our midst and trampling our picnics while chasing each other and vying for scraps of food.

The law is clear: dogs are not allowed on Big River Beach unless they are leashed. Yet for some reason, most people who bring their dogs to that beach seem to think they are above that particular law. And when I ask those dog owners, for obvious reasons, to please obey the leash law, their reactions imply that they think I am at fault, not they.

Or as one woman with two enormous out-of-control poopers said to me, “Oh don’t be so uptight. Look how happy they are.”

“A competitive world has two possibilities for you. You can lose. Or, if you want to win, you can change.” Lester C. Thurow

I’ve been watching highlights of the NBA (National Basketball Association) playoffs, and as someone who learned to play the game in the 1960’s and played for thirty years thereafter, the game today is, in the words of Groucho Marx, a travesty of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of a sham. Indeed, the professional game today appears to operate under entirely different rules than those I learned. However, having just read the official 2014 NBA rules, I find those rules have barely changed in the last fifty years.

The two most notable violations that constitute normal play these days are fouling and traveling. According to the official rules, except in a few specific situations, players are not supposed to touch each other, let alone punch and shove. To do so is to a commit a foul, and each player is allowed six fouls in the course of a game, after which they must retire to the bench. Yet today’s players pummel each other all game long, with only the most flagrant and dangerous of their unceasing fouls causing referees to blow their whistles.

The rules also clearly state that a player cannot run around with the ball in his possession unless he is dribbling (bouncing) that ball. Running around with the ball when you are not dribbling is called traveling. According to the rules, there are no circumstances in which a player with the ball may take more than one-and-a-half steps after ceasing to dribble, yet most of today’s professional basketball players routinely take two, three, and even four steps after they stop dribbling and before they shoot or pass.

In one highlight from the current playoffs, Indiana Pacer star Paul George received a pass and then hopped from place to place—three distinct hops—before he began to dribble. Then he bounced the ball a few times, cradled the ball in his massive hand, took three gigantic steps and dunked the ball. Did the referee call him for traveling? Nay. Paul received a standing ovation for breaking the rules four times in the span five seconds. And that is professional basketball today, a game in which gigantic young men earning millions of dollars shall not be bothered with silly old rules.

Oh don’t be so uptight, Todd. Look how happy they are.

Now, alas, there is no going back to playing by the rules because most basketball players today have long forgotten the official rules, if they ever knew them, and kids learn to play the game by imitating their idols. Soon, I suppose, the rules will have to be updated to conform to the new reality. Sigh.

“In the main there are two sorts of books; those that no one reads, and those that no one ought to read.” H.L. Mencken

Grammatical rules are passé these days because unnecessary. Yo.

“Three things make up a nation: its land, its people and its laws.” Abraham Lincoln

What would honest Abe think of America’s laws today, those laws created by the few in power to maximize their profits and enhance their control over the many not in power? What would Abe think of our tax laws that favor the wealthy and wreak havoc on the lives of people with little money? What would he think of our entirely legal yet wholly criminal healthcare insurance industry? We know what he’d think of our new banking laws that allow incredibly corrupt financial institutions to steal money from our government at little or no interest and then lend that money at usurious interest rates and invest in pyramid schemes that inevitably end in disaster. Abe would think these were not laws at all, but crimes against humanity.

But I suppose none of that really matters. On the great scale of things, with global temperatures rising to the point of planetary death, what difference does it make if dogs run rampant on Big River Beach and basketball players travel and foul with abandon and most of what gets published these days is unreadable garbage and our government is a criminal oligarchy?

Maybe that woman with the out-of-control poopers was right and I should try to appreciate the trashing of our planet and society and culture by people zooming around in gas guzzling cars for every little thing and flying to Europe, you know, just for fun, and surfing in the radiated ocean while dogs shit on the sand and nip at the feet of readers lost in the latest Young Adult dystopian vampire novels and soft porn pap for disempowered women.

And yet…having experienced Big River Beach sans growling canines, and having developed a taste for excellent prose and superbly played basketball, crappy dog owners and lousy writers and shoddy basketball just, like, totally gross me out.

Threes

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

InTheRealmsOfGold-SmuinBallet2

In the Realms of Gold (Smuin Ballet © 2012 David Jouris/Motion Pictures)

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2013)

“If you’re a basketball player, you’ve got to shoot.” Oscar Robertson

I recently took up shooting hoops again at nearby Mendocino K-8 School after nearly two years away from the courts. Sadly, I found four of the six hoops adorned with the tattered remnants of their nets and the other two nets verging on dissolution. Shooting hoops on a rim without a viable net is deeply unsatisfying and actually punishes the shooter for success since a ball tossed through a hoop without a net will frequently bounce faraway rather than drop down conveniently in front of the successful shooter.

And so for selfish reasons, but also for the good of our local youth, I went to the school office the next morning with four new nets and presented them to a friendly volunteer who said she would give them to the principal, which she did. The next day I received a phone call from the school principal and she thanked me profusely for the nets. I told her the nets only cost three dollars each, that I would be happy to buy more as necessary, and that I would have put the nets up myself but had no easy way to get a ladder to the courts. She assured me that she would have her maintenance people take care of the situation, and they did.

“The intrigue grows tangled.” Alexandre Dumas

One hears varying accounts of the financial state of our public school system, state and local, with the latest rumors suggesting that things are somewhat better this year than they were the previous four years following the economic meltdown of 2008 and the subsequent takeover of the federal government by the supranational Ponzi scheme operators who are now permanently in charge. However, there is still apparently nothing in the budget to cover the purchase of new nets for the school’s basketball hoops.

What makes this especially poignant and silly to me is that every time I go to shoot hoops at the pragmatically named Mendocino K-8 School, which I think we should rename Little Lake Lyceum, the playground is heaped (no exaggeration) with expensive clothing discarded daily by students in the heat of play and left for scavengers and pissed off parents to deal with when the pampered children return home sans jackets, sweaters, sweatshirts, hats, and backpacks.

Indeed, on a recent weekend visit to the courts to shoot hoops and admire the new nets adorning the rims, I watched a mother and her two children shopping for clothes by carefully assessing each of the thirty-some items of clothing strewn about the playground. In the end, they chose two sweaters and a brand new rain jacket for the youngest child, a 49ers sweatshirt, a down vest, and a brand new backpack for the oldest child, and those kids were thrilled with their new gear. Are these people thieves? Nay. Many of those items of clothing had been on the playground for several days and were destined for the garbage or the Salvation Army. The least expensive of the many discarded items cost more than six brand new nets for the basketball hoops, hence the poignancy of the situation.

“You look at today, it’s a different situation. You have a game that has been transformed into a game where almost every shot is either a three-point shot or a dunk.” Oscar Robertson

I published my first novel Inside Moves in 1978, the year before the NBA (National Basketball Association) introduced the three-point basket in imitation of the upstart ABA (American Basketball Association). Not much would have changed in my novel had my hero’s long range shots been three-pointers, since basketball is merely background to the drama, but the meteoric rise of an unknown little man might have seemed more plausible in the three-point era than in the previous age of two points per basket.

So last week I was shooting hoops at Little Lake Lyceum shortly after 3:30, before which interlopers are not allowed to use the courts, and I was joined by four Eighth Grade boys who asked if they might shoot around with me since they did not have access to school basketballs after school hours, which at first struck me as more poignant silliness, but then made perfect sense when I considered the aforementioned discarded clothing all over the playground. Having completed my very slow routine of shooting baskets to help me get back in minimal aerobic shape, I told the boys they were welcome to join me, and we proceeded to take turns shooting baskets.

To my bemusement, none of these lads ever took a shot unless he was behind the three-point line painted on the asphalt, twenty-some feet from the hoop. When it was my turn to shoot, I shot from close and not so close and occasionally from afar, but these fourteen-year-olds (they told me their ages) never took a single shot that wasn’t a three-pointer. And they almost never made a basket. We played together for thirty minutes. Each of the four well-coordinated boys, all of them on the Little Lake Lyceum basketball team, took upwards of twenty-five shots, and cumulatively they made a grand total of three baskets.

As an experiment, I asked them to shoot from closer range and they proved to be entirely incapable of making anything other than a layup, and even those very close-in shots were difficult for them. I then asked why they only shot three-pointers and they looked at me as if I had asked why they wore clothing or if they played video games. Why, they suggested (and I paraphrase and delete dozens of likes and y’knows) would a reasonable person bother to shoot and probably miss a two-point shot when he might just as well shoot and probably miss a three-point shot?

“You can’t get spoiled if you do your own ironing.” Meryl Streep

Try as I might, I can’t seem to separate the goofy incompetence of those Little Lake Lyceum hoopsters and the piles of discarded clothing on the playground of that esteemed institute of lower learning. Extrapolating further, I can’t separate those incompetent hoopsters and the discarded clothing from my brother telling me that there are now thousands of job openings in the IT (Internet Technology) field in San Francisco for which there are almost no qualified Americans, making it necessary for American companies to continue flying in thousands of well-qualified people from India, Russia, China, and other places where the children most definitely do not discard their brand new clothes on playgrounds.

“Gather in your resources, rally all your faculties, marshal all your energies, focus all your capacities upon mastery of at least one field of endeavor.” John Hagee

We recently attended a play hereabouts, and because the play was so badly written and I couldn’t convince Marcia to flee with me at intermission, once I got over my dismay at having to sit through yet another award-winning piece of junk, I decided to use the time to study how the various actors dealt with having to recite such garbage. And it was fascinating to see how the one really masterful actor in the show chose to speak her lines sotto voce (because the words themselves were so ill-conceived) and how she almost-but-not-quite transcended the putrid script with her subtle physical movements and telling facial expressions, while the other actors lacked the skill (and direction) to do anything other than stand around in stiff discomfort and raise their voices, as if they thought shitty writing might be improved by shouting.

And I couldn’t help but relate the crappiness of the play and the shortage of masterful acting to those goofy incompetent hoopsters and those piles of perfectly good discarded clothing on the playground at Little Lake Lyceum and the tragic incompetence of the people hired to build the website for the new Big Pharma National Healthcare Debacle and the ongoing and worsening disaster at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant and our collective inability to do anything about the vast overriding and killing mediocrity that seems more and more a sure bet to render our beautiful planet uninhabitable.

Then yesterday Marcia and I attended a fantastic concert at Preston Hall, a pianist and cellist playing Brahms, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev—brilliant players playing the works of genius composers. And as a result of listening to that magnificent music, I felt a little more hopeful than entirely hopeless, an illusion, perhaps, but also a relief to be reminded that humans are not inherently mediocre and incompetent. For though I don’t know this to be true, I would bet good money that neither of those brilliant musicians we heard, had they chosen to pursue careers in basketball rather than music, would have only shot threes on their long roads to mastery.

Pass the Ball, Kobe

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2013)

“Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” Vince Lombardi

When I lived in Seattle in 1977, I played basketball almost every day in a gym at Seattle University, the alma mater of the great Lakers star Elgin Baylor who took the Seattle Chieftains (now the Redhawks) all the way to the NCAA championship game in 1958 before turning pro that same year. As a resident of Seattle, I was invited to use the gym and swimming pool of that esteemed university for a small annual fee, which made me feel like the luckiest guy in the world.

I usually played my two hours of basketball in the afternoon, mostly half-court games, but some full court, too, the players coming in all sizes and shapes and ages and colors, some quite good, many mediocre, a few dreadful. It didn’t take me long to get to know the excellent passers and the ball hogs, and whenever I assembled a team to challenge the winners of the game in progress, I picked good passers over great but selfish shooters every time. And when my team of passers played any team led by a ball hog, no matter how good that hog was, we almost always won. The winning formula was simple. Double-team the ball hog, fight hard to garner his misses, make good passes, and make open shots.

I bring this up because much is being written these days about the terrible season the Los Angeles Lakers have had so far, and how Kobe Bryant, one of the supreme ball hogs in the NBA, has actually started passing the ball to his teammates, and lo a miracle has occurred and the Lakers are winning again. What I find amusing about this startling development is that most of the so-called basketball experts continue to blame the coaches and other players on the team for the Lakers lack of success, when Kobe has clearly demonstrated that it was Kobe who was keeping the team from succeeding.

Anyone who has watched the Lakers play this year knows how deadly dull it can be, as it was in that Seattle gym, to watch one guy work so very hard to get a shot off over two or three defenders while his talented teammates stand around stifling their yawns and waiting to see if the ball hog’s shot will go in or not. And because Kobe is a super superstar, no commentator has ever dared shout, “Oh come on, Kobe. Pass the ball to that guy standing unguarded under the basket or to that guy standing alone at the three-point line. What? Are you blind?”

No, he is not blind. He is arrogant and out of touch with reality and told day and night that he is a living god, a brand name, a basketball genius, and superior to any but a few other humans who have ever lived.

What I especially like about this latest development in the storied history of the Lakers—the ball hog finally starting to pass the ball to his teammates—is that millions of people, mostly men, in America and around the world, are witnessing the repeated verification of an important truth about basketball and life, which is that when we share the ball (wealth) and the opportunities to score (thrive), then the team (everyone) wins.

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” Babe Ruth

Another sharing-versus-hogging basketball drama that unfolded last year was the storybook emergence of Jeremy Lin from the ranks of the unknowns into the bright lights of Madison Square Garden where he took over at point guard and led a moribund Knicks team to seven straight victories, and only got his chance to play because the Knicks’ superstar ball hog Carmelo Anthony and the hogacious Amare Stoudemire and two supposedly better point guards were injured. Lin won those seven games and many more by involving all his teammates in the scoring and by following two of the fundamental rules of good basketball: pass to the open man and don’t pass up an open shot. Now that the ball hogs have recovered from their injuries and resumed control of the Knicks, their new coach is urging his gunners to share the ball and play some defense, and so far they seem to be following those dictates to good effect.

Meanwhile, Lin, a threat to ball hogs everywhere, is now playing for the Houston Rockets and playing second fiddle to James Harden. Lin’s down-to-earth statistics in Houston seem to confirm the opinions of many basketball pundits who were skeptical of the phenomenal success of this untried unknown nobody in New York. “See,” the pundits crow, “Lin’s superstar performance for the Knicks was a cosmic fluke.” But Lin was no fluke. The fluke was that Lin was able to expose the NBA system of building teams around a few superstars for what it is: an inferior brand of basketball and a reflection of what is so deeply wrong with the American pyramidal way: a relatively few people hogging most of the money and resources to the detriment of everybody else, and ultimately to the detriment of themselves.

“Great teamwork is the only way we create the breakthroughs that define our careers.” Pat Riley

As it happens, a growing number of NBA teams are abandoning the build-it-around-a-couple-of-superstars strategy for the socialist game of spreading the wealth among all the players on the team, with the so-called bench players (the non-starters) becoming more and more important to teams’ short and long term success.

I vividly remember the last time the Golden State Warriors won an NBA Championship way back in 1975, the year I wrote the first drafts of my novel Inside Moves which celebrates a mythic version of that fabulous squad. Despite the presence of perennial all-star Rick Barry, the 1975 Warriors may have been the most egalitarian team the NBA has ever seen, a team virtually no one expected to make the playoffs, let alone annihilate the mighty Washington Bullets in a four-game sweep of the championship series. But the Warriors of that year were the kind of team that many general managers and coaches are trying to build today—multiple platoons of excellent players taking turns playing great defense and pass-it-around offense for the entire game, with the very best players taking the court for the waning minutes of close games.

Part of the reason for this change in design is that many of the smaller market teams simply cannot compete with the big money teams by imitating the star-centric game plan because they cannot afford to get and keep the premiere superstars in their no-big-television-deal markets, and so to survive in the league they must play a more egalitarian brand of ball. And another reason for this strategic change is that basketball has reached a point, after a hundred years of evolution, where the average NBA players of today, culled from the ranks of tens of thousands of very good American college players and hundreds of international professionals, are among the best basketball players to have ever played the game whether they attain superstar status or not. To relegate players of such enormous talent to standing around while the anointed ones strive to pump up their point totals is both absurd and counter-productive, and the better coaches will have none of that stupid old way.

This year’s Chicago Bulls, for example, deprived of their superstar ball hog Derrick Rose due to injury, are playing fantastic ball by sharing the wealth among ten players and kicking the butts of star-based teams while they await Rose’s return. At the beginning of the year, many pundits doubted the Bulls could make the playoffs without Rose coming back for the second half of the season to save the team, but the Bulls are doing just fine without him. If Rose does come back and can share the rock, so-called, with his comrades, the Bulls could go very far, indeed. But if Rose comes back and tries to play his redundant watch-me-drive-the-lane-and-try-to-score-over-three-defenders brand of ball, the Bulls will fall in the first round of the playoffs.

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” Anaïs Nin

One of my most cherished basketball experiences took place in 1969 in my final year of college at UC Santa Cruz where I was something of a gym rat and played on an eccentric university team that included two professors, one of whom had played on a very good Duke team in the early 1960’s and had a long range bank shot (25-30 feet) that he almost never missed. Why were we allowed to have professors on our team? Because we competed in the local industrial league, not against other colleges, hence our team featured students, professors, and a maintenance man named Tony who was so tall he could dunk the ball standing on his tiptoes.

I was nineteen and loved basketball almost as much as I loved girls. I fancied myself to be one of the better players on campus, which was not saying much, but it was saying something. So one day I was shooting around with my friend Scooter when these two guys we’d never seen before came into our gym and challenged us to a game. I was as tall then as I am now, a shade under five-foot-ten, and Scooter was five-eight on a good day, and he, too, thought he was a pretty good player. The shorter of our two challengers was six-two and had amazingly long arms, while his pal was six-five and built like Hercules. Despite the physical mismatch, and knowing nothing about these strangers, Scooter and I agreed to play them.

“You want to warm up?” I asked, passing the ball to Hercules.

“No need,” he said, sneering sardonically.

“Yeah,” said his long-armed partner, snorting imperiously. “We’re good to go.”

And I thought to myself You arrogant assholes. We are going to kick your snooty asses.

Which is exactly what we did. We passed brilliantly, shot flawlessly, and beat them by plenty the first game and barely beat them the second game. And what made our victories especially delightful was that as we played, it became obvious that these guys were both really good; yet we had magic momentum and the gods were kind to us and we played out of our minds, and somehow we beat them.

Come to find out these guys were newly enrolled freshmen at UCSC, the big guy a high school phenom from South Lake Tahoe where he averaged forty-plus points a game his senior year and turned down a scholarship to Stanford, while his partner had been a star at a big Catholic high school in San Francisco. They both thought (rightly it turned out) that they would soon become kingpins of the UCSC gym, but they weren’t so sure after Scooter and I defeated them.

I played with and against those two guys many times over the next nine months, and every now and then Hercules would say to me, “I still can’t believe you and Scooter beat us. It just…it doesn’t make any sense. We are so much better than you.”

“But we didn’t know that then,” I would reply, smiling at memories of our great triumph. “And by the time we knew, the deed was done, and you had lost, and we had won.”

Shooting Hoops

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2012)

She wanted to be buried in a coffin filled with used paperbacks.” Sherman Alexie

I suppose it’s a good thing we don’t have a basketball court at our house or I might never go anywhere, but if someday housing prices around here fall from insane to merely absurd and we manage to buy our own place, and assuming the house is not on a cliff, I’ll put up a backboard and hoop. In my younger days I had a big sign on the refrigerator that said When In Doubt, Shoot Hoops, and doing so saved my sanity a thousand times. Shooting hoops should not be confused with playing basketball, because one can shoot hoops alone and have an experience more akin to walking meditation than that of a full-blown game of basketball.

We recently watched Smoke Signals, a movie based on the short stories of Sherman Alexie, with a screenplay by Alexie, and we loved it. I hadn’t seen the film since it came out in 1998, and I had forgotten how important basketball is to the story, not in terms of plot, but as a metaphor for the game of life. Smoke Signals is definitely not a basketball movie, nor is it really an American Indian movie, though the film is peopled almost entirely with Indians and set on the Coeur d’Alene reservation. But below the skin, this is a tender and universal story about parents and children and sorrow, and how the unresolved past may impinge on the present and trap us in anger and confusion. Smoke Signals might have been set in Poland or Iraq or San Francisco rather than on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, but that’s where Sherman Alexie came from, so that’s where the movie takes place, with a brief cameo by the inimitable John Trudell as the reservation radio DJ intoning, “It’s a good day to be indigenous.”

The reason we decided to watch Smoke Signals was because something remarkable happened to me this week involving Sherman Alexie (who won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2007 for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.) The remarkable something is that I was contacted by a publisher bringing out a new line of books, each book to feature a well-known writer choosing a long out-of-print book he or she thinks is worthy of revival, and writing a new preface for that book. And Sherman Alexie has agreed to participate in this new line of books if the publisher secures the rights to my novel Inside Moves, which has been out-of-print for thirty years. Now it remains to be seen if this magical confluence will produce a viable artifact, as Buckminster Fuller would say, but no matter what happens I am gratified to know that Sherman Alexie would like to see my book revived.

Coincidentally (if you believe in coincidence rather than mysterious cosmic intervention), a couple months ago I agreed to speak at a screening of the movie Inside Moves at the Point Arena Theater. So on Monday, a few days after hearing about the possible Sherman Alexie/Inside Moves (the book) conjunction, Marcia and I met Texas Jon Jones of the Point Arena Film Club, and Larry and Margy Bauman of Mendocino (esteemed audio book publishers) at the Point Arena Pier Chowder House for an excellent supper, and then we migrated inland to the gloriously refurbished Point Arena Theater, proudly owned by the people of Point Arena, speaking of socialism.

What a gorgeous theater! What a lovely venue. And while an audience of forty watched Inside Moves, I stayed in the lobby and made occasional forays into the theater to gaze at the screen for a few minutes before returning to the lobby to catch my breath. I cannot watch the movie of Inside Moves for more than a few minutes at a time because I get so emotionally agitated I feel I might explode. I used to think my extreme agitation was caused by anguish over the changes the moviemakers made to my original story, but now I understand that the movie is an epic enactment of the foundational emotional challenges of my life, and too much psychodrama in a single dose is more than my little psyche can handle.

At film’s end I took the stage, thanked everyone for coming, told a few stories related to the film, and took questions and comments from the audience. One man said that for him the character of Roary, played by John Savage, rang so true that he wondered if the veracity was born of Savage’s brilliant performance or if this was the nature of the character as I had written him. His question prompted me to read aloud the first two paragraphs from the novel Inside Moves; and as I read those lines, I heard how close the voice of Roary, the novel’s narrator, was to the voice of John Savage’s Roary in the movie.

“My name is Roary and I’m the kind of person that scares people just looking like I do. I’m the kind of person people see coming and lots of times they’ll cross the street rather than walk by me, or if they do walk by me it’s quick and nervous, like they’d walk by a dog they weren’t sure of. I don’t blame them at all because I am pretty gross-looking and I walk funny because I’m a cripple.

“I got hurt in Vietnam. This land mine blew a hole in my upper back and destroyed some vertebrae and part of my spinal cord and part of my brain. I was paralyzed for about a year. Then one day I was talking to this guy Schulz, who was just an orderly, and I told him I felt okay, that I was pretty sure I could walk and use my arms. Next thing I know, this psychiatrist is there telling me that I’ll just have to accept the fact that I’m gonna be paralyzed for life. He was trying to help me face reality, which I suppose was his job, but since I knew I could walk he just irritated me. Sometimes you just know something, no matter what anybody else tells you.”

Which reminded me of a fascinating moment from my week on the set of Inside Moves, a moment when John Savage said to me, “You know, I am Roary. When I read your book, I thought, ‘This is me. Exactly. I am this guy.’”

Then I mentioned to the audience the possibility of the novel Inside Moves being re-issued with an introduction by Sherman Alexie, and the audience cheered. What made their cheering surprising to me was that I had previously mentioned Sherman Alexie to a number of friends, and most of them had never heard of him. But the Point Arena crowd knew him because, I soon learned, Sherman had been to that very theater to present Smoke Signals and to read from his books. It turns out Sherman is the friend of a local English teacher whose class voted Sherman Alexie the author they would most like to meet, and so he came down from Seattle to meet the kids and the people of Point Arena. Is this a small world, or what?

That was Monday night. On Tuesday night, Marcia and I went to the jam-packed Mendocino High School gym to watch the big basketball game between Mendocino and Point Arena, both teams vying for first place in the league. Mendocino, coached by the indefatigable Jim Young, played suffocating defense for the first quarter and built a sizeable lead, only to have Point Arena make the game close by the half. And then with just a few minutes remaining in the game, the score tied 50 to 50, the Mendocino hoopsters executed three beautiful fast breaks in quick succession to go up 56-50 with only a minute and a half to play, and Point Arena could not close the gap before the final buzzer sounded. Wowee!

We came home jazzed from the game and I found myself thinking about how when I played basketball in high school and college in the 1960’s, the three-point shot did not yet exist, and how entirely different the game is today because of that lucrative reward for making a basket from way outside. Indeed, I wrote and published Inside Moves before the advent of the three-point shot; and I wondered if Sherman Alexie might mention that in his preface to the new edition should the gods of manifestation allow such an artifact to come into being.

That was Tuesday night. Wednesday afternoon I went to Raven Big Tree Learning Center (Mendocino K-8 School) and shot hoops for twenty minutes and was about to quit when two young guys showed up and started shooting around on the court next to mine. I took what I intended to be my last shot from the top of the key, the ball swished through, and one of the young men called out, “Hey, nice shot, man,” which for some reason (ancient warrior viscera?) kept me shooting (showing off in my slow motion kind of way) for another fifteen minutes until I was seriously winded and thought it the better part of discretion (forget valor) to quit before I hurt myself.

I arrived home moments later to news that my new CD of piano/bass duets Mystery Inventions had just been played on Echoes, the nationally syndicated radio show, which is the kind of confluence of events that always makes me think of my favorite Buckminster Fuller teaching, to wit: Universe instantaneously reacts to what we are doing right now, though we may think (because of our linear logic programming) that these reactions are in response to actions we took days or weeks or years ago. Which is to say that Mystery Inventions may have been played on Echoes, according to Bucky, in response to that last splendid shot I made on the court at Raven Big Tree Learning Center.

There I was, twenty-five feet from the hoop, the ball leaving my hands and swimming the air to catch the upper edge of the backboard and carom sideways and down through the hoop, the net snickering from the kiss—music of the sphere.

Todd’s reading of the novel Inside Moves is available from Audible, Amazon, and iTunes. Mystery Inventions is available from CD Baby, Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino, and UnderTheTableBooks.com

Flow

Friday, August 26th, 2011

(This article first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser August 2011)

“Flow with whatever may happen and let your mind be free. Stay centered by accepting what you are doing. This is the ultimate.” Zhuangzi

Something happened to me a few days ago the likes of which hadn’t happened to me in eons. I was shooting hoops at the elementary school, playing alone, as is my custom now that I am deep into middle age and easily injured, when I became aware that I was caught up in an extraordinary flow of action involving my body, the ball, the air, the backboard, and the hoop. I think this was what sports commentators mean when they say a player is “in the zone,” playing with seeming effortlessness, yet playing superbly and flawlessly for an extended period of time. A frequently used adjunct comment to saying a player is “in the zone” is “he’s unconscious.”

That adjunct comment turns out not to be true, because the cool thing about being in the zone, and this has been corroborated by many athletes speaking about their in-the-zone experiences, is that they were not unconscious, but rather fully aware of being in the zone yet not consciously controlling what they were doing. That is to say, they were not conscious of making decisions about what to do next while they were caught up in the flow of action because they were, in essence, inseparable from the flow of everything going on.

It is also true that the more practiced and skillful an athlete, the more easily and often she will find herself in the zone; zone being a misnomer since it is not really a place, but a state of being. My in-the-zone moment was probably the result of playing more often these past few months when school has been out and my access to the courts has been unlimited.

My experience of being inseparable from the ecstatic flow began with the awareness of the ball coming into my hands as if thrown to me by an invisible cohort, the ball leaving my hands as if self-propelled, the ball arching high into the air and tumbling down through the center of the hoop, the ball returning as if passed to me by that same invisible friend, my body dancing back from the hoop to a distance I usually, consciously, avoid, the ball leaving my hands again, arching high, smacking through the net, on and on, dozens of times without a miss from near and far, until I had the thought, “This is so fun!” and the ball caromed off the rim into the weeds.

“As far as I’m concerned, the essentials of jazz are: melodic improvisation, melodic invention, swing, and instrumental personality.” Mose Allison

Musicians, artists, dancers, inventors, thinkers…all creative people aspire to be in the zone.

“Memory is funny. Once you hit a vein the problem is not how to remember but how to control the flow.” Tobias Wolff

On the way home from my in-the-zone experience on the basketball court, I fell into a memory of my largest (in terms of numbers of dollars) experiment with money. I was a pauper by American standards from 1969 when I dropped out of college until 1980 when I made what was for me a small fortune through the sale of the paperback rights to my first published novel and the simultaneous sale of the movie rights to the same novel. Shortly thereafter, I paid a large amount of income tax, moved to Sacramento, and bought the only house I’ve ever owned. And then in 1984, just as my movie money was running out, I got married and resumed my practice of making just enough to get by.

Then in 1995, hot on the heels of my divorce and the concurrent disappearance of my house, I made the second small fortune of my life through the unlikely sale of a one-year option on the movie rights to my obscure novel Forgotten Impulses, published in 1980, for one hundred thousand dollars, and the even more unlikely sale of my novel Ruby & Spear to Bantam for twenty-five thousand dollars. In the case of Forgotten Impulses, no movie was ever made, and in the case of Ruby & Spear, Bantam took the wonderful book out of print the day it was published (though copies of both novels can still be found on the interweb for pennies, and you may listen to me read Ruby & Spear (and play all the different characters) at Audible or iTunes). But in any case, I suddenly had, by my standards, another large pile of money.

And I decided to give this second fortune to favorite friends who had very little money and would greatly appreciate some cash. Having spent much of my first fortune on myself, a strategy that brought me little joy and much sorrow, I was curious to see what would happen if I shared my wealth. My hope was that in giving away my fortune I would be priming the cosmic pump, so to speak, which priming would eventually bring me even more money.

As it happens, giving away a fortune in America is not as simple as simply giving money away. First of all, one must pay a large portion of the fortune to the federal and state governments, and this portion is especially large if one is not in the habit of making big sums of money and does not have shelters and deductions and depreciations and such to mitigate the taxes owed. Not wanting to go into debt, I called my accountant and, despite his good-natured assertion that I was insane, we figured out I could give away seventy-six thousand dollars and still have enough left over to pay the taxes I owed, make an impressive contribution to Social Security, and have a few thousand dollars left for rent and food and a new basketball. So I made a list of people I wanted to give money to, most of them artists and poets and musicians working at low-paying jobs while painting and writing and making music and hoping for big breaks such as the two big breaks I’d gotten, and I gave them each two thousand dollars.

Some weeks after mailing out those thirty-eight checks, I got a postcard from Paris from one of the recipients informing me that on the day she got my check she bought a round trip ticket to Europe, packed her bags, and, as she wrote, “I knew it was now or never, so I went for it. Merci!” Another recipient sent me a list of how she spent her two thousand: one thousand donated to a non-profit organization dedicated to spaying feral cats, three hundred for art supplies, six hundred and fifty rent, and fifty bucks on expensive coffee beans. Several recipients said they felt weird taking money from me and wanted to give the money back. When I insisted they keep the cash, they all seemed mightily relieved. And most fascinating to me were the four recipients who never said a word to me about receiving the money, though cancelled checks confirmed they had, indeed, gotten the loot.

Did my giving away my small fortune prime the cosmic pump as I hoped it would? I assume so, though my income for the next several years remained barely adequate to cover rent and vittles, and the Internal Revenue Service did audit me for that year because of what my auditor called “an unlikely income spike.” But money, after all, is not the only measure of how Universe indicates her support for what we do and how we do what we do.

“My hand does the work and I don’t have to think; in fact, were I to think, it would stop the flow.” Edna O’Brien

So today I’m sitting on a bench on the terrace at the Presbyterian, summer fog cloaking the village, and I overhear the following snippets of conversation going on two benches away where six people, four men and two women, are passing pot pipes around and shooting the breeze.

Woman #1: Dude. You were married? For real?

Man #1: So, yeah, I was like totally married. Only she was like thirty and I’m like six years younger, so she just didn’t get me, you know? Like we were from totally different generations.

Woman #1: So are you like…divorced?

Man #1: Totally.

Man #2: Hey, where have you been? Nice shoes.

Woman #2: I was, you know, in LA and like…now I’m out on fifty thousand dollars bail.

Man #2: Dude. Fifty thousand. What did you do?

Woman #2: Lots.

Man #1: Pot?

Woman #2: No. I said lots. Credit cards and shit.

Man #1: Whoa, Dude. I thought you said pot.

Woman #2: No and one of the big credit card things was totally not mine, so…

Man #1: You want to smoke some hash on top of that?

Woman #2: Sure. Why not?

Woman #1: Totally, dude. Go with the flow.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks. com

Sport

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

(This article originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2010)

“If you look deeply into the palm of your hand, you will see your parents and all generations of your ancestors. All of them are alive in this moment. Each is present in your body. You are the continuation of each of these people.” Thich Nhat Hanh

My maternal grandfather, Myron “Casey” Weinstein, went to the University of Michigan in 1918 on an athletic scholarship to wrestle and play baseball. Casey was the backup catcher behind the great Ernie Vick, and proudly recited this historic tidbit even after Alzheimer’s had robbed him of virtually every other memory. My paternal great grandfather, Charles Walton, was a world champion roller skater in the days when skates had steel wheels. His world’s records for sprints and long distances stood for decades after steel skates were things of the distant past.

Even so, my parents were horrified to discover they had given birth to a son, yours truly, who shortly after learning to walk wanted to do little else but play ball. My father was a non-athlete and openly contemptuous of men who played or followed sports. My mother was fond of saying that only boys who weren’t smart enough to do anything else became athletes. I knew this was nonsense because I was one of the smartest guys in my class (judging by the number of silver stars after my name on the class chart) and I adored sports. In fact, the smartest guys I knew, the best guys, were crazy about sports. Kickball, dodge ball, four-square, tetherball, baseball, football, basketball. If a ball was involved, sign me up. I liked bows and arrows and spears, too, but I was most enamored of balls. In an earlier epoch, I would have been a warrior and a hunter. In these modern times I was a ball player. I liked to read and sing and dance, too, but given a choice, put me in centerfield, throw me a long pass, and let me shoot my fall-away.

“I know without our fans and the devotion of our fans we wouldn’t be here.” Roger Daltrey of The Who

Perhaps even more galling to my folks than my constant playing of ball games was my profound love for the San Francisco Seals, particularly the diminutive slugger Albie Pearson, which love was transferred to the Giants and Willie Mays upon their arrival in the city by the bay in 1957 when I was eight. I think I must have been inoculated with some sort of fan virus when I was born at St. Luke’s Hospital in San Francisco in 1949, because shortly after learning to read (circa 1954) I was sounding out articles in the Sports section of the Chronicle and begging for my first baseball glove and bat.

And I listened to the Seals’ and Giants’ games on the radio, which made my parents furious because if I was listening to Lon Simmons and Russ Hodges announcing games then I must not be studying, which meant I wasn’t preparing to become a doctor, which was the very least they expected of me. But what they didn’t understand, and what no one who isn’t a die-hard fan can possibly understand, was that I was not listening to the game; I was living the game. I was a Giant. The team could not exist without me. Adios Pelota! Viva los Gigantes! Long live Willie Mays!

“The boy was beginning to understand that intuition is really a sudden immersion of the soul into the universal current of life, where the histories of all people are connected, and we are able to know everything, because it’s all written there.” Paulo Coelho

From my late teens until I was thirty-five, a strange and wonderful mixture of basketball, delusion, passion, arrogance, ambition, and ignorance took me to places I otherwise would never have gone, and arriving in these places, I interacted physically, emotionally, and intellectually with people I otherwise would never have known.

By sixteen, I had settled on basketball as my main game, though I was a much better baseball player, and my real forte was tennis. Love, however, is irrational, and I loved basketball with a crazy passion. I traveled to parks in dangerous neighborhoods and boldly entered unfriendly gymnasiums in my quest to play with, and against, great players. Looking back on my career as a competitive basketball player, I am amazed by my boldness, for though I was a decent outside shot, I was at best a pesky defender, a mediocre passer, and a wimp of a rebounder.

Still, when I think of the marvelous and strange and intimidating and hilarious and ferocious and brilliant and daring people I met along my basketball way, and of the many fabulous games I played, the friends I made, the stories I heard, the dramas I beheld, the language I absorbed, the elation, the humbling, the millions of calories burned and thousands of gallons of sweat expelled that might otherwise have gone stale inside me and done me harm, I am eternally grateful to my fierce and irrational desire to play with the best players I could find.

Quite recently, after a two-decade hiatus, I took up shooting hoops again, a genteel once or twice a week alone at the grammar school, my sinews and synapses (after the initial shock of soreness) rejoicing to be reunited with the long-missed love of my body’s life—a sweet dance with a big ball on a court with backboard and hoop, a mystic improvisation of trying again and again to shoot the ball through the sacred ring into the fountain of youth.

“It’s like déjà vu all over again.” Yogi Berra

So. At last, for only the fourth time since the Giants moved to San Francisco from New York fifty-three seasons ago, we made it into the World Series. When we beat San Diego the last game of the regular season to clinch the National League Western Division, I cried for five minutes. When we beat the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the playoffs, I cried for three. When we overcame the mighty Philadelphia Phillies to win the National League pennant, I wandered around in a daze sobbing, “We did it, Willie. We did it.” And on October 26, my mother’s birthday (she would have been eighty-eight) I watched a thirty-second highlight on my computer of the Giants’ team bus arriving at Willie Mays’ Park where a crowd of fans chanted “U-Ribe, U-Ribe!” and I burst into tears.

Then last night, November 1, 2010, for the first time in the history of the San Francisco Giants, which means for the first time in my life, and in defiance of virtually every Sports pundit in America, the Giants won the World Series, otherwise known as the whole enchilada, taking the final game of the 2010 World Series in stunning fashion to finish off the Texas Rangers four games to one. And I cried and laughed and danced and cheered and cried some more, and Marcia cried and danced and sang and cheered with me.

I thought of my mother and father and how they never got to experience this kind of ecstatic tearful joy because they never had a clue that sports could connect us to each other in such glorious ways, connect us to an ancient collective desire to transcend the eternal struggle to survive, if only for a moment, so we might bask in the glory of having conquered the beast—our tribe triumphant.

“It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.” Yogi Berra

And when I finally calmed down enough to fall asleep, I dreamt I stood atop the pitcher’s mound at Willie Mays’ Park and sang for the multitudes before the final game of the World Series. I was flanked by Jonathan Sanchez and Juan Uribe. Dozens of huge ravens strutted around the infield. My guitar was black and shiny with orange strings. I was wearing a neon orange T-shirt and black slacks and orange socks and black tennis shoes. My hair was Lincecum long and streaked with orange paint. The enormous crowd was hushed. An eloquent breeze blew in from McCovey Cove, humming in the key of G, of course. I strummed my guitar and began to sing, and Jonathan and Juan sang with me, and we sounded a little like The Grateful Dead and a little like Los Lobos, but mostly we sounded like the Giants.

Last night I had a precious dream,

I dreamt I woke into the dawn,

walked out of my little cottage and

found a newspaper on the lawn.

When I picked up that morning tribune,

it opened to the very front page,

and the headlines oh they told me

it was the dawning of a brand new age

Yeah, the rich folks had all decided

to share their money with the poor,

and the leaders had disbanded all the armies,

not another dollar spent on war.

And they’d stopped building prisons,

put that money in our schools and neighborhoods

and instead of making bombs and guns and things we do not need

we were all of us working for the greater good.

Todd’s web site is UnderTheTableBooks. com

Culture of Narcissism

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

(This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, July 2010)

“Every age develops its own peculiar forms of pathology, which express in exaggerated form its underlying character structure.” Christopher Lasch

A few weeks before my second novel was to be published in 1980, I got a call from my editor at Simon & Schuster saying that Sales had decided my title wasn’t strong enough and they needed a more seductive replacement. Mackie was the title of my novel and the name of its central character, a charismatic narcissist on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As it happened, I was in the midst of reading Christopher Lasch’s remarkable book The Culture of Narcissism, and therein found the expression “forgotten impulses”, which Sales adored. Thus my novel was published as Forgotten Impulses and garnered the following from The New York Times. “Piercingly real eroticism told in an ear-perfect rendering.” Oh, for such a review today.

For those not familiar with The Culture of Narcissism, I will briefly synopsize this seminal work. Seminal is an appropriate adjective, for The Culture of Narcissism spawned dozens of other works in response to it. Lasch, a historian with a special interest in the history of psychotherapy, theorized that the social developments of the 20th century, particularly World War II and its aftermath, suburbanization, consumerism, the movie industry, and the conquest of our psyches by television, created a perfect storm of conditioning from which emerged a society of narcissists: individuals with no reliable inner sense of self, and thus prone to fixations on celebrities and extreme vulnerability to manipulation by mass media. In the 1960’s, psychotherapists in America began to see more and more of this personality type entering therapy until by the mid-1970’s such persons were the norm rather than the exception. Other eminent traits of this personality type include a fear of commitment, a dread of aging (which Lasch posited as the engine of the youth culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s) and the puzzling contradiction that, despite the absence of an authentic self, these people operate as if they are the center of the universe. Combine this narcissistic personality with the dissolution of multi-generational social continuity (neighborhoods and extended families) that marked the latter stages of industrialization and the coming of the technological state, and we have America today: a cultural wasteland populated with people not merely separated from the natural world, but separated from who and what they actually are, i.e. human beings.

Which brings me to Lebron James, a huge and talented basketball player who recently chose to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join forces with two other superstars on the Miami Heat. Larger than life describes what the corporate oligarchy has made of Lebron, so that his decision to switch teams has been declared by numerous sources to be an economic disaster for Cleveland and Ohio and possibly the entire Midwest. The millions of Clevelanders who once worshiped Lebron with fanatical fervor have embarked on an equally fanatical campaign to remove all signs of Lebron’s Cleveland existence; and Spike Lee predicts that when Lebron returns to Cleveland to play against the Cavaliers, the governor will have to call out the National Guard to protect Lebron from the wrath of those he has forsaken.

Because two of my published works involve basketball, several people have asked if I intended to write about “the whole Lebron thing.” I said I didn’t think I would, but now that literally hundreds of sports writers and pundits have branded Lebron a narcissist, I feel compelled to point out that though narcissists may be profoundly self-centered, it is more important to understand them as emotionally fragile and captives of illusion. Narcissists are not, merely because they are narcissists, malicious or inherently evil.

Narcissus, as the myth describes, fell in love with his reflection, and in so doing spurned Echo, a sexy woman ready and willing to give him all she had to give, if you know what I mean. Thus poor Narcissus literally missed out on life as he gazed unto death at his reflection. One may argue that Lebron is certainly not missing out on the Echoes of our culture, that he is living the high life and adroitly wielding power at the top of the steep-sided pyramid that delineates the corporate kingdom ruling and devouring the world. Lebron is, by all the mainstream measures of modern America, one of the most successful people alive. But that assessment assumes Lebron is actually here, in the sense of being true to himself. And having listened to The King (as he is called by his worshipers) speak to the slavering hordes that greeted him upon his arrival in Miami, I conclude he is only sort of here. For he said to that deluded mob, “I chose Miami because this organization is all about family, and that’s what I’m all about.” And I could not have invented a larger falsity than that.

In 1996, long before the advent of Lebron James, I invented and published Ruby & Spear, a Buddhist novel, if you can imagine such a thing, that wondered for a few hundred pages what might happen if a vastly talented black basketball player developed a deep spiritual practice and a profound commitment to family and community before becoming a professional athlete? Would not his playing be imbued with all he had become? And would not the huge and talented Spear of my novel represent the quantum opposite fulfillment of the potentiality of the likes of LeBron James?

Ruby & Spear proved to be my last novelistic adventure with a big New York publisher. Sales (this time at Bantam) killed the book upon publication and fully three weeks before The New York Times declared the book to be pretty good. Hollywood sniffed around the story for a time, but the consensus among agents and studio gatekeepers was that since my black characters were disturbingly atypical and complex, and there was much talk of poetry and art and love and mysticism, and the humor was offbeat and subtle, and the female characters were every bit as strong and important as the male characters, and there was a shocking absence of violence, and the hero was a friggin’ Buddhist with a clairvoyant grandmother…who’d want to see a movie like that?

So today the myriad pundits suggest Lebron acted cruelly when he abandoned Cleveland for Miami. I think he acted predictably. A braver narcissist would have gone to New York, to the really big show. But Lebron, if you’ve ever watched him play, is a classic bully and not particularly brave. More than half of his many shots per game are dunks and few of these are contested. Anyone stupid enough to get in the way of nearly three hundred pounds of Lebron rampaging toward the hoop would surely suffer broken bones in the ensuing collision.

In the game of my youth (those fabled 1960’s and 70’s) Lebron would have been called for traveling every time he went to dunk, or penalized with a charging foul. But Lebron grew up as the game evolved to accommodate his style, which in less dramatic form was perfected by the not-very-talented-but-enormously-huge-and-strong Shaquille O’Neal knocking people over to score. Indeed, this legalized violence has necessitated adding a line in the paint five feet from the hoop, inside of which a player is permitted by the new rules to shove other players out of the way on his way to score. Thus for the likes of little old me, LeBron represents a further devolution of the game into staged bits and circus faire. Yawn.

Friends of mine not keen on sports, roll their eyes when I muse aloud about Lebron. “Why do you care?” they ask. “It’s such a huge waste of time, such a waste of human potential.”

Perhaps. But I was entranced by the spectacle of the overlords of America’s great city states bidding for the services of this inarticulate gladiator, a god to so many in our collapsing culture. The spectacle of billionaires groveling at the feet of this ephemeral colossus seemed a perfect echo of Christopher Lasch’s pronouncement that “Every age develops its own peculiar forms of pathology, which express in exaggerated form its underlying character structure.”

Greed upon greed beyond greed. Insatiable hunger, never to be appeased, even should they eat the entire globe. Buddha’s hungry ghosts unleashed upon the carcass of the dying culture. So it goes.

The first hour of Todd’s reading of Ruby & Spear may be heard gratis at UnderThe TableBooks.com and is available in its entirety from iTunes. The book itself may be had for pennies via the Interweb.

Solar School

Thursday, June 24th, 2010

(This piece originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2010)

Mendocino has a spanking new elementary/junior high school on Little Lake Road about a mile inland from the village, and I am happy to report that her shiny blue metal rooftops are being covered with photovoltaic cells to produce electricity. I was recently at the school shooting hoops on one of the three new outdoor basketball courts, fresh nets affixed to glossy orange rims, and as I huffed and puffed in humbling pursuit of my largely uncooperative basketball, valiant technicians were hard at work affixing the solar cells.

It was a sunny day, and in the absence of students or anyone else making use of the new school, I thrilled to imagine the school’s electric meters whirling in reverse as great currents of electricity flowed from the rooftops into the greater power grid. Such imagining made me happy in the face of the murderous gusher continuing to gush in the Gulf of Mexico. I am aware that solar power is not the ultimate answer to the woes of the world. I have read myriad articles by smart people explaining how electric cars are every bit as bad for the earth as gasoline powered cars. I have read even more articles by these same and other smart people explaining how renewable energy will never replace oil and that we are destined, rather soon, for a new Dark Age of lawlessness and mass starvation. But whenever I stopped to catch my breath from chasing my runaway basketball and saw those fellows affixing solar panels to the shiny blue roof, I felt twinges of hope.

When I was a young man I decided to try to make my living as a musician and a writer. I worked as a landscaper, a gardener, a janitor, a ditch digger, a farmhand, a day care worker, and at several other low-paying jobs. With whatever energy I had left at the end of each day, I practiced music and writing. And for ten years, every person I knew, including my best friends and many smart people, told me with absolute certainty, “You will never succeed as a writer or as a musician. Give it up.” And when I did succeed, these same absolutely certain people said, “I always knew you’d make it.”

Indeed, I have subsequently observed again and again that smart people are often very good at talking themselves and other people out of doing things by stating with absolute certainty that the thing in question cannot be achieved, and they know the thing cannot be achieved because they have the data to prove it. “Oh, so you put in a gray water system to water your garden and conserve water. Big deal. That won’t help. Corporations waste millions of gallons of water every minute. Your little gray water system won’t make a bit of difference. Ditto growing your own vegetables, driving less, having only one child instead of two, vacationing closer to home, carpooling, turning off lights, lowering the thermostat, or cooking your meals with a solar cooker. Won’t help. Don’t bother.”

Alternative energy? Why it takes so much energy to mine the materials for solar cells, to manufacture the cells, package them, ship them, you might as well drive an old Chevy Impala from here to New York and back and stay in air-conditioned motels along the way. Replace oil and coal consumption with wind power and solar power? You gotta be kidding. Can’t happen. Look right here. These are the numbers. Can’t happen. Get ready to subsist on turnips if you’re lucky and huddle in caves and fight off hordes of starving cannibals until you die a premature death.

But I look up at those guys on the blue roof and I can practically hear the electricity being made out of sunlight. Gushers of electricity. I see herb gardens surrounding this new solar school, and fields of tomatoes and squash and potatoes growing where they’re currently gouging out a soccer field. I see these commodious classrooms being used by people who walk here or ride here in electric shuttle buses or come on horses or on bicycles, and I see these people learning from each other, sharing ideas and books and tools, playing music, quilting, weaving, carving, building, making food, feeding each other, and caring for each other.

I don’t think even the smartest prognosticator can predict what humans might do if we allow ourselves to be guided by our creative instincts rather than the analysis of dubious data about things having little or nothing to do with the countless things each of us might do separately and together.

That said, I do think the idea of bio-fuels is horrific on any scale larger than a backyard still, and when I hear about hundreds of thousands of people planning to gather on beaches around the world to protest offshore drilling, my first thought is, “Yes, but how will they GET to the beaches? Because if they’re driving cars, I’m not buying it.” And I agree there is a powerful denial-of-reality mantra etched into our media-warped minds that intones: They (whoever they are) will surely figure something out to solve the crises of energy and food and pollution and over-population and crime and environmental degradation and global warming and the extinction of whales and salmon and krill and phytoplankton so we can go on our merry way living high on the hog, so to speak.

But our collective denial of reality scares me far less than the growing insistence by so many smart people that there is nothing we can do, collectively or individually, that will make any positive difference to the degradation of the planet and society and the future. And I sincerely wish all these smart future prognosticators would spend more time trying to imagine and test new ways to groove efficaciously with the earth, and spend much less time explicating and arguing ad nauseum that nothing we do will make any difference, because I’m enthralled with those solar panels on the blue roof and visions of electric meters whirling backwards; and if I hear one more smart person look up at those solar panels, figuratively speaking, and say, “Won’t help, don’t bother,” I’ll throw my basketball at him. Odds are I won’t hit him, but that will be my intention.

No doubt my years of living in communes informs my impatience with those who pronounce with such certainty that the actions of individuals can’t possibly ameliorate the horrific disasters perpetrated by the likes of BP and the Pentagon and all the other rapacious forces of evil in the world. Had I not proven to myself that I could live happily with few things, and subsequently experienced a quantum improvement in my quality of life as I spent less and less money and used less and less energy as a result of my immersion in small-scale socialism, I, too, might believe that peak oil sounds the death knell for a comfy way of life. Had I not grown, with relatively little difficulty, much of the delicious food I and fifteen other people needed to survive, I, too, might believe that only misery and drudgery and premature death lie ahead. But I don’t think the transition from a greed-based society to socialism will be bad. I think the change will be difficult but ultimately marvelous.

Yes, it may turn out that Things In General will continue to go from bad to worse, and lawlessness and deprivation will soon engulf us all. But Things In General are, for the most part, so stupid and wrong and broken they ought to crash and burn and leave ashes to fertilize the new and very different system we put in place of the old general things. When I read descriptions of how the Mendocino County Supervisors are presiding over the steep decline and inevitable fall of our local basic services, I find their collective myopia and inaction highly instructive. They reveal themselves to be inmates of the larger state and national institutions that would rather take things away from the weak and defenseless than raise taxes on the wealthy. Their stupidity would be comical if the effects were not so terrible for those least able to protect themselves. The obvious solution is standing right in front of our duly elected officials, a perfect hero of a solution named Equality, except our benighted leaders cannot see her, for she wears the cloak of socialism, and socialism is taboo. But I digress.

What I’m suggesting is that there are many ways already known to us that will help spin the meters backwards, and many more ways we have yet to imagine and design and try out. Just because all these smart people have decided things are going to turn out a certain way doesn’t mean things will turn out that certain way or that we should cease our efforts to figure out ways to live less destructively on the earth. Smart people only know what they think they know. And not one of them knows some of the things you know.

We are only doomed to a disastrous future if we buy into those guesses of disaster (and that’s all they are, guesses) and forget that we, individually and collectively, are limitlessly creative. And I predict that if enough of us make it our daily practice to give some of our time for the greater good, however we imagine doing so, all heaven will break loose.

For some reason, Todd is in an optimistic mood this week. His web site is UnderTheTableBooks.com.