In Appreciation of Tall Women

This post should be titled “In Appreciation of Volleyball,” but because I have, until recently, thought of the pastime as a woman’s sport, and perhaps deep inside I was a sexist when it came to women in sports, the title will stay with apologies to follow. I never liked volleyball; I always thought it was a sissy sport. When we played volleyball in high school P.E. I would conveniently interpret my own awkwardness as a result of having a Y chromosome. The open-handed “slapping” of the ball and the lob serves didn’t help my image of it either. As for the rules, I just hated them.There were guys who could punch the ball, which improved my opinion of volleyball, but still I didn’t think the game was for men. Many years later, one of my co-workers started watching beach volleyball. He would copy hi-def images to place on his PC’s desktop. While these photos showed very muscular men performing feats of athleticism, I still didn’t buy into volleyball as a man’s sport. Maybe I didn’t like those goofy hats with the bills flipped up.

I felt better about women playing the sport, which I’m sure was a sexist hang-up of mine. In some ways I think I reflected the time: Title IX had just passed, yet sports scholarships were still not encouraged for young women. Part of my problem is I never sat down and watched girls’ volleyball while I was in high school. If I had, I might have changed my mind right then and there.

I played beach volleyball as an adult only once, and it only had a negative affect on my opinion of the game. It was a Boy Scouts camping trip at Point Reyes and a dozen or so of us set up a net on the beach. I would have rather flown kites, or played with the potato cannons, but the scoutmaster wanted to play volleyball. I ended up on a team with a hyper-aggressive assistant scoutmaster who was hell-bent on telling all the scouts on our team how the game should be played.

As (bad) luck would have it, the ball never seemed to come toward him so he crashed into me every time it came my way, showing the scouts how to perform various setups, saves, and spikes. After eating half the sand on the beach, I bowed out, as did a kid on the opposing side. We ran off and stole one of the potato cannons and a sack of ordnance. I wanted to lead a spud attack on the assistant scoutmaster and the whole stupid game, but I had to be responsible and lead by example. I limited the number of projectiles we fired, and made sure we shot them in the opposite direction of the game. At that time I didn’t know what was a lamer game: volleyball or badminton.

My opinion of volleyball warmed a few years ago when I spent a few minutes watching hordes of young women play the game at the Sacramento Convention Center. The only reason I ended up there was because I was in a deli across the street two blocks from work when three guys walked into the store shaking their heads in amazement, one exclaiming, “Those girls are off the hook!” After finishing my lunch, I walked across the street to where the games took place. I remember how fast the games were and noted the intense competitiveness. This was not the sport I remember from high school. I found out just recently that the event I saw only a few minutes of is the

Volleyball Festival. I also learned that this national event was huge—with hundreds of athletes competing in games not only at the Convention Center but also at Cal Expo and in Davis. I was hoping to attend more the following years but my wife told me that Reno now hosts the event.About two weeks ago my wife asked if I would like to go with her to the NCAA final between Stanford and Penn State. I said yes, not because I was interested in the match, but because my wife and I don’t go out much and I knew she was going with or without me. The next night we were in ARCO Arena, up in the nosebleeds watching the match. My only complaint is that I wasn’t close enough to catch all the nuances of the game.

I had no trouble seeing the incredible speed and power with which these tall women played Then I saw the diving saves and blistering spikes and the amazing speed, aggressiveness, and skill; I was impressed with their athleticism. I also couldn’t help but be a little intimidated—what would it be like to be on the receiving end of one of those spikes! The setups made sense to me. There was a beauty to the movement; the best setups were as stunningly beautiful as a perfectly executed double play in baseball; I was finally getting it.

Some stuff was a mystery to me, but my wife helped explain the changes since our high school days. All the changes are definitely for the better, making the game far more interesting and dramatic; for instance, no more specific amount of passes before the spike and more open rules on service. It is all wide-open and that made the action far more dynamic, unpredictable, and explosive. About a game into the match and I began caring about the teams. I became a Stanford fan. Although, just as in NBA games, I thought the cheerleading stuff was dumb and unnecessary. The only thing entertaining about them was how unsynchronized the Stanford cheerleaders were—perhaps they had Finals on their minds. I don’t think you will ever see an apologetic post on this blog about cheerleading. In an evening of pleasant surprises, the only disappointment was the scoring.

I was still into the match when, on the fifth game, it was suddenly over with the scoreboard reading Penn State: 15, Stanford: 8. What is this half-of-a-fifth game all about? The fact that Stanford lost was enough to make virtually everyone (shy of the Penn State players) quiet, but I was still wondering why everyone began shuffling down the stairs. “I guess that’s how they score Game Five,” my wife said. When the match started she told me that the rules from the 70s when she played high school volleyball, had changed, but she didn’t know all the changes, so even she was a little befuddled. While Stanford forced Penn State to a tie-breaking fifth game (30-25, 30-26, 23-30, 19-30, 15-8), I felt I could watch more that night—why not the best of seven like in other post-season sports? I left that evening with an appreciation for a sport I used to discredit and an admiration of the athletes that I rarely gave a second thought. Perhaps I should reconsider badminton, too. Easy there, Jocko!

On Certain Saturdays

Occasionally, when the weather isn’t prohibitive, I walk to a café about two miles from my house. It’s good exercise—and usually boring as hell. The route I take brings me by a small camper, maybe only 15 feet long and not very tall. I’d imagined it was for sleeping only—no stove or toilet, like some have. On one Saturday, while I was walking by the trailer I saw a man in his forties, and what I assume was his teenaged son, unlatch the back wall of the trailer and set it down, revealing two dirt bikes. As they wheeled the two four-stroke motorcycles out of the trailer and onto the front lawn, a melancholy feeling swept over me. I wanted to abort my health walk and start a conversation with the father figure. I had a thousand questions for him and many tales from my youth I wanted to impart. Even if I’d had the nerve to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger, and he was friendly enough to reciprocate, he would get tired of all my questions and my “When I was into dirt bikes…” stories. Still, the feeling hung with me like a dull ache for many days following the encounter.

First thing the following Monday morning, I emailed someone at work who I knew was a dirt bike enthusiast about some of the changes in the dirt bike world over the last few years. “Ben,” I’ll call him, was happy to fill me in on the details, though, being younger than me, he could not fill me in on all 30 years that I have been away from the sport; in fact, his emails took on a kind of anxious tone when I kept the email correspondence going far beyond his own interest. (Perhaps it was a good idea I kept walking the other day.)

Ben helped me understand why these two dirt bikes I saw, which clearly were racing bikes, replete with number plates, had four-stroke engines—when I followed the sport the four-stroke engine was relegated almost exclusively to the street due to the engine’s weight and poor, low-end performance. California’s green legislation, Ben told me, has hurt the two-stroke motorcycle owners. One can ride a four-stroke dirt bike (also known as a “thumper” because of the low-pitch sound that it makes) year round compared to two-stroke bikes, which can only be ridden when air quality permits; this is determined by the Air Quality Index (AQI). This translates into two-stroke bikers can’t ride on public land during the warm weather months. Also, if for some reason air quality is poor during the cool months, they may not be able to operate their bikes on those days either.

I was a true wannabe dirt biker when I was a kid. For the year or two that he competed, my father was an accomplished novice racer, winning trophies in Enduro, Hare and Hounds (Scrambles), and Hillclimbing competitions. He didn’t like Motocross—what I believe to be the coolest and most exiting motor sport in the world—because “you just go around in circles.” Typically self-effacing, he would come home from a race with a huge trophy, walk directly into the garage, and throw it up in the attic, never to be seen (at least by him) again. I used to go up in that crawl space, set up his trophies—which included awards in auto and boat racing—like a shrine. I couldn’t understand how someone could actually win something like a trophy (and some of them where big, from big events), then just chuck it like an ugly dish won from a coin toss at the State Fair.

In my near 50 years, I have never won a trophy; the closest things I have are the numerous certificates a State employee receives for training. I feel so special when I receive the decoration on multipurpose printer paper and see the blank line where I am supposed to enter my own name, for sleeping through a class on “Professionalism in the Workplace.” Some of my father’s trophies have his name etched on gold plaques.

Though my father was not an expert rider, he occasionally raced with accomplished professional riders like Hall of Fame inductee Dick Mann, who is featured on the 1974 Bruce Brown film On Any Sunday; though my dad admits he couldn’t keep up with the legend. I saw the Brown film with my dad when it first came out and then again just a few weeks ago after all these feelings of longing hit me on that street where I saw those two dirt bikes. I think my dad had hopes that his two sons would ride with him, but when he brought a little 50cc Honda mini bike home that fateful day, we were petrified of the little thing.

Later, when I grew out of my fear of falling and, to some extent, my fear of my father, I asked him for a 125cc Honda Elsinore. By that time, he was no longer interested in dirt bikes; he now ran around in the dirt with a dune buggy. I guess he didn’t want to spend the money on a new bike for me since he sold his last bike, or maybe he thought I was just all talk. He later bought me a 70cc Honda. I don’t recall what happened to that bike. However, I do remember riding that bike and my mom’s old 90cc Hodaka, but he only took me out to an OHV park a couple of times to ride it. I usually went out to the gravel pit (now William B. Pond Park at the East end of Arden Way in Carmichael) and played around there.

Similar to how I watched the Oakland Athletics when I was playing little league, I kept up with the professional racing side of the sport, subscribing to Dirt Bike magazine. I had my favorite riders, just as fans of baseball have their favorite players and teams. Only a Motocross maven like me would call it an honor to be clocked by Brad Lackey’s handlebars when we went to Livermore to see an International Motocross. It didn’t feel like an “honor” at first—more as as if I had just walked into Barry Bonds’ wheelhouse as he was swinging for the Bay. I saw all the leaders go by—Swedes, Fins, Belgians, and Germans, then I leaned over to get a better look and Lackey came in close with his lime-green Kawasaki. The next thing I knew I was grabbing my arm and trying not to faint.

I would have loved to get the future World Champion’s autograph next to the big bruise; alas, it would have faded away much as the bruise did. What paled in comparison to the Lackey bruise was the bruise I received by a line-drive foul ball in a 1972 ALCS game at the Oakland Coliseum. I don’t even remember the batter’s name. Who cares who that Baltimore Oriole player was; I got a black, blue, purple, and sickly yellow bruise by Brad Lackey! I would later get 500cc World Champion Roger DeCoster’s signature on a cool 8×10 glossy of him on his Suzuki when I saw him at Carmichael Honda a few months after the race, but I misplaced it. If I ever find it, I will probably also rediscover the banquet program with the autographs of the future 1972-74 World Series Champions; yes, I had a dynasty on a 1968 fund-raiser program and I misplaced it.

In my correspondence with Ben, he also told me about Monkey Butt!, the book written by Dirt Bike magazine’s first editor, Rick Sieman. (The title comes from a condition, the author states, where a person has been riding dirt bikes for so long that his rear end starts to look like a monkey’s ass.) The next day, Ben came down with his worn copy of Sieman’s book. I didn’t ask to borrow the book and felt somewhat awkward taking it, but after I started reading it, I was transfixed. Monkey Butt! is poorly written, poorly edited (if edited at all) and—for someone like me who experienced this subculture (albeit from the cheap seats) some thirty years ago—a blast of a read, typos and all.

The book is a collection of very short essays that range from the whimsical to the outrageous to the occasionally poignant. Sieman is not an accomplished writer; his style is provincial at best, but what better voice for this subject? A friend once told me I was a fool to read Dirt Bike, he told me Cycle World was a better-written and more serious motorcycle magazine. In retrospect, he was correct, but that wasn’t the point—Cycle World was more like the Establishment: proper, sober, and shiny—like a chrome stock fender. Dirt Bike was the Counterculture: irreverent, funny, and as gritty as a Carlsbad berm.

Sieman captures the excitement of experiencing a brand new pastime much like the Bruce Brown film so beautifully celebrates. However, Sieman’s book goes back to the dusty alleys where street bike enthusiasts would tinker with top-heavy, ill-handling road bikes that were stripped down for racing in the desert. The book chronicles the rise of a different kind of motorcycle club dedicated to dirt and desert racing, documenting the synergy of this movement with the evolution of the two-cycle dirt bike to meet these hungry new enthusiasts’ demand of lighter, faster machines. Just like in surfing—which was gathering momentum at the same time—southern California became the Mecca for the dirt and desert racing subculture. In typical American style, dirt bike racing became an “American sport,” despite Europe’s legitimate claim to the pastime. Monkey Butt! is a remembrance of this discovery.

While the first half of the book focuses on the early, developing years, the second half is mainly about the battle between off-road bikers and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the other “eco-nazis,” as Sieman calls them. This part is where my love for the dirt bike runs smack into my liberal politics. Still, Sieman puts up a strong argument for desert racing, claiming that the ecosystem of the Mojave Desert, just to name one, is always in a state of change:

“One sandstorm in the Mojave can move millions of tons of sand and dirt over hundreds of miles. One flash flood can tear away the base of a mountain. How can this compare with a set of tire tracks over shifting sands? If all the dirt bikes in America got together and rode around in a circle for a month at a spot in the Mojave, one sandstorm could wipe out every evidence of them having been there. Overnight.”

Still, I know there are other arguments that support the abolishment of desert racing, such as the endangerment of the Mojave Desert Tortoise and other wildlife, but that does not stop developers from creating fire roads, mines, and other types of development that do just as much damage. If Sieman is very critical of the BLM, he equally doles out harsh words about the American Motorcycle Association. He believes they have been impotent against these powers and act like a puppet for Japanese motorcycle corporations who do not support the very people who buy, ride, and race motorcycles because they want to avoid making waves in the U.S.

Reading the book only exasperated my longing for a time I never truly experienced first-hand. I was more like a third-string high school football player, permanently pined for the season, watching my teammates win the State Championship. With each story in the book, I recall names and events that I knew of, but because of either my age or my situation, I was always on the outside looking in.

My last bike was a 125cc Yamaha Enduro DT-1, but I never rode it in the dirt—it was my ride to and from high school for a couple of years. When I got my first car, I was already deep into listening to and writing about rock music and movies, and lost interest in the dirt-racing scene. I never returned to the dirt bike world. Bruce Springsteen, The Clash, and Bob Dylan had replaced Joel Roberts, Roger DeCoster, and Dick Mann in my personal pantheon.

The years went by and I only heard bits of news of the dirt biking world: There’s this thing called Supercross, kind of a combination of motocross and, I don’t know, football? Anyway, it takes place in a stadium where you have an assigned seat as though you’re at a football or baseball game. Hell, that’s no fun; you can’t freely walk around the track to the best berm or the starting line or finish line, where you are inches away from your hero and his handlebars. Ironically, Dirt Bike was instrumental in organizing the first Supercross: the Superbowl of Motocross held in the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1974. Then there’s the latest thing that I’ve seen on TV, Freestyle Motocross (or FMX) where riders take dirt bikes and try to do daring, artistic moves way up in the air. It looks more dangerous than Motocross, but it still is kind of lame; the whole thing flies in the face of real Motocross, where you want to get as little air as possible. Also, FMX is not a race, but rather something contestants are judged on—like figure skating. Anyway, I guess this old fart is out of it.

On another Saturday walk, I find myself spying on the dirt bike family getting ready for the races. I have my mobile phone to my ear, as though I’m talking to someone, and I stare through my dark shades at the father and son checking out their bikes. The trailer door is down and is now a ramp. (Oh, the trailer is more spacious than I thought, and the amenities!) The father starts one of the bikes. It has an electric starter. Hmm, that seems kind of sissy compared to the old kick-starting method in my day. They look over at me standing in the middle of the street, “talking” to someone on my mobile phone, and then father says something to his son that I can’t hear over the thumper’s pulse. Perhaps they are wondering if I am some kind of wannabe. They don’t know half the story.

Loose Cannons and Gun Control

One winter when I was a teenager, my father, brother, my brother’s friend (I’ll call him “Bob”), and I took up pheasant hunting. I am not sure how this came about. I think my father’s fishing buddy had suggested hunting. It was an interesting venture, but I am sure I never want to do it again. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed hunting for fowl to an extent, but as the season went on, some things developed that confirmed to me that I didn’t want to be around guns.

Before we could go blasting away at the birds, we needed to take a gun safety class. One of the things the instructor taught us was that even when everyone in a hunting party knows that a shotgun is empty, it is rude to point that gun at someone. While this seemed like a very reasonable thing, Bob took this piece of gun etiquette to a ridiculous level. Whenever one of us was cleaning our gun and had the barrel removed from the stock and firing mechanism, Bob would absolutely freak out if you pointed the empty barrel at him. Turning the business end on you and the back end towards him would net the same response, and even having the disconnected barrel on the table with one end pointing in his direction would send Bob under the table yelling, “Stop it!”

Bob’s hypersensitive attitude aside, gun etiquette and safety is nothing to joke about. On one occasion, we invited another kid from the neighborhood (I’ll call him “Chris”) to go skeet shooting with us. At the time, the pheasants were illusive, and the only thing we enjoyed shooting were clay pigeons. My dad bought a little clay pigeon shooter and a few cases of clay pigeons for us to practice on. The clay pigeon shooter was like a spring-loaded, side-arm catapult that acted like a Frisbee flinger. The clay pigeons looked like small soup bowls turned upside down, and shot into the air by the shooter. We had a lot of fun shooting clay pigeons, but for all the power that clay pigeon shooter had, we wanted to try our hand at real skeet shooting – where the targets were fired from a farther distance, at a faster speed, and the direction was unknown to the shotgun operator. So, we loaded up our shotguns, ammo, and neighbor Chris and went out to the range.

I believe some of us could have died that day on the range. Chris, who had absolutely no experience with firearms, couldn’t understand the concept of keeping his shotgun barrel pointed down. He kept it level, and whenever the range employee tried to teach him something, Chris would turn to him with his shotgun pointing wherever he was looking. Each time, he swiveled past my brother, Bob, and me we would scatter, yelling at Chris to point the barrel downward. Even though he didn’t have a shell in the chamber, we were well trained, to avoid the muzzle. Then the guy from the range – red-faced and frustrated – would pull the barrel down and range-ward, took a deep breath, and told him not to point a weapon at anyone. Then he’d give Chris a shell and tell him to load the gun but not close the chamber. Chris didn’t hear the second part and closed the chamber. As all of us screamed at him to keep the chamber open, he swung around, pointing the shotgun at all of us once again. All that needed to happen was for him to slip up and squeeze the trigger, and some/all of us would have been worm food. The range employee caught the swinging barrel and told him to point it towards the range and the skeet shooting commenced. When Chris’ turn was over, we all sighed with relief; someone took the shotgun from him, and the potential for catastrophe ended. Still, he wasn’t the only one who was dangerous with a firearm.

A short time later, a kid I went to high school with (I’ll call him “Paul”) received a shotgun around the same time we started getting into hunting. It turned out to be a foolish decision by his parents. Paul wasn’t an emotionally unbalanced kid, just a little too squirrelly to handle the responsibilities of owning a shotgun. We heard tales of him discharging his weapon in his backyard, and the first and last time I ever visited him at his home, he had the gun down from the rack in the front room and was pointing it at things like a vase, the TV, a window. His oblivious parents got him a shell press for Christmas with enough empty shell casings, shot, primer caps, and gunpowder to light up Carmichael.

Paul would tell us stories at school of how he would modify shells to create a bigger bang – chalking the casing with as much powder as possible and adding some heavy-gauge shot so he could see just how much damage he could do firing at some poor, defenseless 2×4 or one of his sister’s “missing” dolls. No question, this was scary stuff, but it’s all good. Squirrelly Paul finally ran out of powder and, on a dull-gray day with nothing better to do, Paul took one of his casings, installed a primer cap in it, put the casing in a table vice, pumped up his Daisy BB gun real powerful-like and then started taking shots at the primer cap from across his father’s workbench. When he finally hit the cap, it blew up, launching the cap across the workbench, lodging in Paul’s forearm. His father, hearing the screams, came out and saw the damage his son had done and finally had enough of Paul’s mischief. Rumor has it that before he dismantled Paul’s pyrotechnics lab, he took out a pair of needle-nose pliers from his tool kit and pulled the burning cap out of Paul’s arm – no doctor, no numbing agent, just one fed-up dad taking care of his mischievous son. I occasionally see Paul. He appears to be a nice, calm, responsible person, his Ted Kaczynski days behind him.

Our own experience with shotguns turned out less eventful than some of my acquaintances.’ Absolutely no funny business with the shotguns and, aside from a whole mess of shattered clay pigeons, we shot only two pheasants in all our outings, and that happened in one day. (See picture of this humble blogger holding the two lucky birdies.) We would have bagged a few more over the season, but accompanying us were the two most undisciplined German Shorthaired Pointers known to the hunting world. We would be walking an alfalfa field early in the morning, skunked as usual. Then a jackrabbit would dart across the field, and the two “trained” dogs would take off after it barking up a storm. Straight ahead, but just out of range of our guns, a bunch of pheasants would flush – pheasants that would have been game if the dogs were knew anything of their breeding.

When we did get the two birds, no one really knew who got them – we all shot at once. When we landed one of them, it was still flopping around…and it was at that moment I lost my taste for hunting. I don’t know why I’m such a sissy when it comes to killing mammals and most critters larger than a pot roast; I can kill spiders, flies, and other pests, but I just have a thing about larger animals. I guess it’s kind of an anthropomorphic thing – it is closer to a human. This, of course, doesn’t stop me from telling ranchers to go ahead and slaughter them steer. I’m waiting for my steak. I guess I haven’t thought this out thoroughly. A guy I work with has a picture of himself and a dead deer he presumably killed – the proud hunter holding the buck by the antlers. I don’t know why I have a problem with that kind of stuff; I don’t mind venison – especially jerky! Anyway, I used to wish that I shot wide that day, but only God knows. This incident didn’t stop me from finishing-out the season; I just wished I didn’t have to shoot again. In fact, I didn’t.

Getting up at 5 AM on a winter morning was tough for me, even though I was a teenager, but at least we were walking these fields. Duck hunting is something completely different. With pheasant, quail, dove, or turkey hunting, you are always moving; with duck hunting, you are standing still in waist-deep freezing water. I tried duck hunting one time. My neighbor Pat invited me when he found out that I hunted pheasant. He told me about how much more enjoyable it was than pheasant or quail hunting, which he also did.

On one very cold winter morning, we parked his truck and walked to a blind he said he used quite often. Pat let me borrow a pair of waiters. They were excessively big, but Pat told me since I wouldn’t be walking around much, it didn’t really matter. What mattered to him was the orange shotgun safety patch I had my mom sew on my hunting vest. I figured I needed to add some flair to the otherwise drab apparel, and the patch I got for completing the class was all I had. Pat said the bright orange in the patch is visible to fowl and may cause ducks to stay out of shooting distance; he also thought the patch was straight-up gay, which in retrospect he was right. I couldn’t help but comment on how cold the water was. Pat reminded me in an annoyed whisper to be quiet, but I couldn’t stop my teeth from chattering. Some time later, I let out a small chuckle when I noticed the floating bubbles in the water were actually thin slices of ice. Pat shot me a mean stare, then looked at my patch again and rolled his eyes.

After not seeing one duck in range for over an hour, Pat left the blind for a while, telling me that he may know of a better location where the ducks may not be flying so high. When he returned with what looked like an instant case of herpes, I asked him what happened to his face. He nonchalantly told me that he had been “rained on,” as if it was something all duck hunters experience from time to time. If the freezing cold weather, immobility, and the fact that ice slices were conspiring to create a skating rink around us wasn’t bad enough, this “rained on” crap was too much. But what was I supposed to do? He had the keys to the truck. Later, I found out that being hit by shot falling from the sky does not hurt or cause shot herpes (my term) – Pat must have caught spray from a discharged shotgun leveled. If he would have been any closer to the center of the spray, he might’ve been seriously injured, and I would have got to ride with him in an ambulance with a heater and warm blankets!

After spending three hours in a giant glass of iced tea, Pat called it quits. On the way home, Pat stopped at A&W for lunch. While the sun was up, my wet jeans were ensuring that even if it hit 80 degrees that day, I still would be miserable until I shed my denim. When Pat ordered a root beer with his lunch, I told him he was crazy. It was at this time that Pat introduced me to the concept of “Reverse Chemistry.” He told me that Eskimos often eat chunks of ice to keep warm. “You see,” he explained, “when the ice hits your system, your body melts the ice and warms the water and, ultimately, your body.” So I ordered a root beer, too. A word to the wise: If you think slamming down an ice-cold A&W Root Beer is going to make your frozen nuts drop again, think again. I sat there in his unheated truck, my teeth chattering through a Teen Burger and a side of calcium deposits, breathing to myself, “Come back, duck blind, all is forgiven!”

Of the few gun tales I have to tell, this last one is the shortest…and darkest. It is also, praise the Lord, the only one of which I do not have firsthand experience. Daniel was an early childhood friend of a friend. Though he lived just around the block, I lost touch with him in my early teens. In his 20s, Daniel became a member of the National Rifle Association. He was also trying to recover from PCP poisoning. I know very little about what happened to him other than he must have smoked pot laced with the pesticide and was later arrested while having a reaction to the drug. After his loving parents had taken him in and tried to help him recover from this very serious problem, he had another reaction that led him to gun down both his parents. His last act as a free man was to call the Sheriff’s Department and inform them of what he had just done.

By the time Daniel murdered his parents, I was completely out of the hunting thing. I remember thinking to myself when the news broke, “Whatever happened to our shotguns?” My guess is, we sold them. With all the gun violence happening in this country over the last 30 years I can see why there are people who want to control the manufacturing, purchasing, and use of firearms. While I have never felt that we should ban weapons used for gaming, I do believe we need to remove handguns and automatic weapons from the market. As for hunting weapons owned by not-so-stable people like Daniel, we need to be far more thorough in our screening and maintenance of gun ownership records. I know this sounds like a red-tape nightmare, but there must be a way to do this effectively. There is something far more important at stake than protecting free enterprise and our “right to bear arms.” I think Daniel’s case is a good argument for that. As for the other loose cannons I’ve been lucky enough to dodge, I haven’t seen a reasonable gun control proposal yet that can keep you safe from the lunacy of puberty.

Hoop Dreams

I’ve never been good at sports, and my interest in professional sports has always been inconsistent, at best. When I was a child, I followed the Oakland As and spent many a summer’s day trying to catch Reggie Jackson’s home run balls, but I spent most of my time out in right field devouring Colossal Dogs and peanuts while my brother studied the game, kept score, and remembered the starting line-up. I was even less interested in playing sports, participating in only three uninspiring years of Little League before hanging up my cleats. I put a great amount of time and energy into fantasizing about being a great athlete.

One of my two favorite pastimes was playing tennis against the garage door. The garage was no match for my powerful forehand and dead-spin backhand, but my career came to a crashing halt when I served a blistering foul into the lamp mounted above the garage door, shattering the glass, the bulb and my dreams of being a great garage-door tennis player. The other, less destructive waste of time was playing basketball alone in that same driveway. I knew that if I played against my brother, my next-door neighbor, the golden boy down the street or just about anyone not on crutches, I’d get creamed. Sure, I might learn something, but that wouldn’t be any fun. It’s funny how faux-good you can become at something when there’s no one there to test how really bad you are. I could spin the ball on my finger, transfer it to other fingers and dribble the ball between my legs. (I had to stop to perform this magical feat, but who cares?) I also could transfer the ball from one hand to the other around my back real fast-like.

While many of these tricks amounted to zip when it came to playing against real people, it didn’t matter; I was playing an imaginary team, and the imaginary crowd marveled at my ballhandling. The imaginary opponents shuddered at my wizardry, too. The coolest thing I could do was shooting with one hand. Forget about whether it was wise or not; since there was no one around to shut my game down, I was the king of the (driveway) court. Ultimately, someone like my brother or a neighborhood kid would come over and mess up my game, but there came a time when I marveled more than just my imaginary players.

The first time I applied these tricks in front of someone besides my thoroughly intimated imaginary competitors was during a high school P.E. class. When we split into groups for basketball, weights, tag football and slaughterball, I chose basketball, and by pure luck (and it would never happen again), the most clumsy, awkward schleps in the school signed up with me. While the future Marcus Allens and Ryne Sandbergs were playing flag football and lifting weights, I was with the guys who would probably grow up to become computer programmers and lifetime HO train enthusiasts still living with their mothers. I knew something was amiss when we picked teams for the first time; I was immediately perceived to be the franchise player and was snatched up first. This has never happened before or since. I was usually the handicap, the guy a team gets stuck with because they got first-pick and chose the super-jock.

There I was among a bunch of guys who allowed spittle to collect unchecked on the corners of their mouths and hiked their gym shorts up hopelessly way too high. I probably should have taken this time to be humble and help out these guys who were worse off than me, but I didn’t. I became the terror of the blacktop for that one semester, the Michael Jordan of these slobbering schleps. Actually, I secretly called myself Rick Barry. I remember watching moments of Golden State Warrior games where Rick Barry was the star. I recall the commentator repeat over and over again, “Barry, top of the key, two points!” There wasn’t much of a “key” to be at the top of on the blacktop, but since I couldn’t shoot too far beyond the free-throw line without looking like a girl, it didn’t matter.

Also, since my “muscle memory” at what was roughly the free-throw line was fairly decent, thanks to all the times I was imaginarily fouled during those imaginary games on the home driveway court, I stunned the schleps with those fancy one-handed shots from that distance, which might as well have been half-court for all they were concerned. The great thing about that semester on the blacktop was how these guys figured I was too good to mess with. Nobody tried to double-team me or slap that silly one-handed shot away. I was given all the room I needed; it was a turkey shoot.

If I was the Rick Barry among the schleps when it came to hoops, there was another semester when I was the Archimedes among the remedial math clan. After getting transferred out of my freshman pre-algebra class I remember walking down the hall towards my new math class, transfer papers in hand. I could hear what sounded like chanting ahead of me. As I drew nearer I figured out what they were chanting. I stopped to ensure I read the room number correctly on the transfer papers. They were chanting the multiplication tables! “Three times three equals nine; three times four equals twelve…” When I opened the door a football coach was at the head of the class leading the chant. He didn’t break the cadence, only waved me over, took my papers, and pointed to a chair in the back of the room. When I sat down I received the final blow of humiliation: the kid to my right was from our Special Education program. By the time nine times nine equals eighty-one I recognized a half-dozen more kids from Special Ed. So here’s the equation:

{ x = has a need to review six-grade math + can be taught by a football coach + is attended by >= 7 “special” students }

We can deduce that value x /= a room full of German rocket scientists.

It turned out I had a knack for remedial math. Never mind that I should have had this stuff down in elementary school – I was the wunderkind of the class. When I handed my tests in long before anyone else the other kids would look down at their half-completed tests and back up at me like I was some kind of egghead. I was a genius among my fellow classmates. When that semester ended I returned to pre-algebra where I struggled with the concept of letters in math equations and squeaked by with a C or a C minus. I never looked back after that. I graduated from high school and earned a BA in a university without taking another math class. Needless to say, I struggle when it comes to determining tips and sales tax.

I often think of those blacktop days, but I cannot translate how much I liked to play hoops back then into watching the sport today. My wife likes watching basketball, especially during March Madness and the NBA Playoffs. I’m so removed from the drama that all I can think of while watching parts of the games is how nice or dumb some of the uniforms look and why that Steve Nash guy doesn’t do something with that hair. I also like to try to find a player who doesn’t have a visible tattoo – kind of like a dynamic “Where’s Waldo.” As you can tell, I’m pretty emotionally detached from watching the actual game.

I have attended a few Sacramento Kings games, though, and I think some of the guys I know at work would have killed for the seats my wife bought for our friend Mad Dog and me some years ago. It was a post-season game, and we were about 10 to 15 rows from courtside on one of the corners near the aisle. While the fans were going ape all around me, I sat and wondered how cynical the presentation was. Keep in mind, I spent summers as a kid watching major league baseball, albeit not very attentively. What struck me is how the whole presentation was set up as if for people with A.D.D.; when the ball wasn’t in play, the cheerleaders were jumping around or that big diamond vision thingy was putting on a not-so-entertaining show. When the game was over, my ears were ringing, like the first time I saw the Ramones at the Warfield, but with none of the satisfaction.

Occasionally, I look in on the “Over Forty” basketball league at my club. These guys are twice my size, in very good shape and talk street hoops lingo like “cutting teeth” (ouch!). Sometimes after they have left and before the volleyball net goes up for the next group, I get a chance to dribble down memory lane. There are usually only a few guys on the court, so I can shoot a couple of hoops alone, but it’s not quite the same. That semester on the blacktop is long gone, and so is my muscle memory; now I need to be almost under the net to make a shot. Occasionally a fellow club member will invite me to play a quick game. I should do it. What would it hurt? I might learn something. I guess I just like to dream.