(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.