Sunday, May 13, 2012

Remembering Dad on Mother's Day

Last night, while I was looking for pictures of my mother to post on Facebook for Mother’s Day, I ran across the eulogy that I wrote for my dad’s memorial service. This past week was his birthday—he would have been 92—and he’s been on my mind a lot. But he always is; I think of him every time I saw a piece of wood (he could fix or build almost anything) or climb a ladder (he once fell off one and broke his back). For most of my life, he seemed to know everything, until he began showing signs of Alzheimer’s seven or eight years before his death. In the end, he didn’t know me or anyone else, and he couldn’t remember any of the houses we’d lived in or the Cessna airplane he flew or any of the cars he'd owned, except maybe the last one, which we had to take away from him. I delivered this short eulogy on a sunny day in Los Gatos in front of family and friends, and I wanted to remember back past the Alzheimer’s, back to who he really was, or who I remembered him to be.

June 9, 2007

I want to thank Dad for being a good dad, not complicated or ambiguous or demanding. I thank him for being so solidly good—a good man. He was simple in some ways, without an agenda or ulterior motives; he was almost childlike in that way. He valued learning and wonder, and he didn’t seem to care what people thought. He went crazy over handwriting analysis, astrology, self-hypnosis, biorhythms, waterbeds—anything to make life better and more interesting. We kids thought he was kind of a kook; we were embarrassed of him, like most kids are embarrassed of their parents. It took time and maturity for us to understand what a treasure he was.

Dad wasn’t rich, and didn’t seem to care that he wasn’t. His wealth was in experience, in stories, in places he loved and things he’d built. He never talked much about religion, but my guess is that for him, the underpinnings of the universe were a tidy garage, a smooth landing in a small plane, and a sympathy for old radios. He hated television, distrusted politics, and didn’t quite understand art. But he could fix your water heater, and he’d drive out to some godforsaken highway in the middle of the night to replace your power steering hose after it caught on fire again. He’d do whatever it took to get you back to living, so you could get on with your art or politics or whatever it was you liked to do, all things being pretty much equal with him as long as the belts were tight and the lines were bled and the wiring was wrapped and safe, so he could go home, knowing he’d done it right.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

4 Things I Love about Basketball

Lately I’ve been filling out Nielsen diaries—lists of what I watch on TV, to be returned to the Nielsen company, presumably to determine which shows are hits and which are misses. But the Nielsens picked a boring time to monitor what I watch, because it’s May, and every night it’s pretty much “NBA playoffs…NBA playoffs…NBA playoffs.”

There was a time when I didn’t like the NBA. Years ago, I was a basketball purist—I watched only college ball. And every spring, after the frenzy of March Madness, I couldn’t bring myself to switch over to the NBA; after watching those college athletes play their guts out all through the NCAA tournament—which, for most of them, was the peak experience of their lives—well, after that, those guys in the NBA seemed like big, lazy showboaters. But then I got drawn into the NBA playoffs one year, and I got attached to a few players, like Tim Duncan and Steve Nash, who were just as articulate in interviews as they were gifted on the court. So I kept tuning in to see them, and the list of players I admired grew and grew—Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Baron Davis, Manu Ginobili. Now I have my bicoastal-hometown favorites—the Warriors and the Celtics—and my personal faves, the Spurs and Suns. And sometimes another team breaks onto the list, like this year’s fast, young OKC Thunder.

And just as I love the aesthetics of baseball—the slow pace, the arc of the human body as the shortstop makes a throw to first—I’ve found a lot of things to love in basketball, too. Here are four of my favorite things about it.

1) The athletes don’t wear many clothes.
All sports are cults of personality—for most fans, it’s all about the players and their ups and downs, and who we like and who we don’t. But the cult of basketball is more intimate than that of, say, football or baseball, because we get to see so much more of the athletes’ bodies—the shape of their knees, the tail of a tattoo snaking up past a collar, the scratches on their arms from those under-basket melees. And because they don’t wear hats or helmets, we get to see their faces the whole time—every expression, from sour contempt for a teammate who blew the play (think Kobe Bryant) to fierce, foaming, crazy-good competitiveness (think Kevin Garnett). For me, being able to see all this makes for a more personal connection to the players. Sometimes it’s too much intimacy; occasionally a player looks too undressed out there, like I’ve rung somebody’s doorbell and caught him in his underwear. But for the most part, it’s splendid to really see great athletes. And to address the obvious: Frankly, I’m surprised more women aren’t NBA fans.

2) After a free throw, even a bad one, all the teammates touch hands and encourage each other.
It doesn’t matter if that player has missed every freakin’ free throw the whole game—still, the other players walk over to him, touch his hand, and give him a heartening word or two. How often I wish life were like this. Missed deadlines, crappy sales figures, and a-hole customers could all be washed away if co-workers would just go over and touch each other’s hands and say, “It’s OK, we’ll get the next one.” I know that’s un-American, but I can still dream.

3) Jumping in the air is one of the most exuberant things a human can do.
Lots of sports feature jumping, but basketball is packed full of height-defying feats—hundreds of them in every game. And not all of them are part of the play: That iconic shot of Michael Jordan leaping in the air, the one that came to emblemize basketball’s airs-above-the-ground mystique, was taken after his game-winning shot against the Cavs in the 1989 playoffs. Basketball is full of mid-air maneuvers, many of which happen so fast that you can only see them in slo-mo replay. It’s like springboard diving without the water—bodies arch and twist, and still the guy with the ball manages to toss it up into an arc that goes in the basket, game after game. And the shot block—which requires the defender to jump even higher than the guy who’s trying to make the basket—is one of the most exciting and underrated plays in all of sports.

4) It’s deliciously international.
This season alone, NBA teams have players from countries including—among dozens of others—Cameroon, Turkey, Montenegro, China, Israel, Latvia, Venezuela, and Iran. A few years ago, there were times when the Suns had no Americans on the floor at all. Soccer’s the only other sport I can think of where you can see athletes from so many far-flung nations, all competing at the professional level. Just the exotic names—Goran Dragić, Luc Mbah a Moute, Hedo Türkoğlu—are enough to suck me in. It’s like a menu in a particularly intriguing restaurant. And I love to hear players taunt each other in Serbian.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ghosts of Gardens Past

This past weekend, I broke ground on the new vegetable garden. My newly bought townhouse has a small back yard, and I can already see that this garden will be an adventure in rocks and compacted clay. I spent a few satisying hours shoveling out landscaping rock and boxing it up to be hauled away, then pulling up weed cloth and taking a few tentative stabs at the soil with the spading fork. It will need compost and manure, probably several years of it, but I’m game.
All the sweat and back spasms got me thinking about about the other gardens I’ve had over the years, each with its own distinct personality. Those gardens are like big, generous friends I once knew and then moved away from. Until now, I always rented, and I moved a lot. And every time, as I left a garden behind, I felt a hollow hole of regret open up inside me—who would take care of it now? Would the next person just rip this all out? And sometimes the questions were more existential, like: What does our work really amount to? Does it make a difference?

I still ask myself those questions, but even if those gardens are now (shudder) driveways and swimming pools, I still have the memories of all the soul-soothing work I did on them, and I have photos to prove it. So here now is installment 1 of gardens past: the first one.

Garden Past #1: Monte Sereno, 1984–1988

Oh my, look at that flannel shirt! I loved that shirt. This photo says “’87 Garden” on the back, so I was 25. This garden, nestled at the foot of the Santa Cruz Mountains, pretty much taught me everything: double-digging, woodworking, fence building, gopher-proofing, and how to lie on my back in the dirt and watch the clouds go by. In the photo, there’s a bean tower behind me, probably about eight feet high. On the wooden frame are sweet peas, which shouldn’t be flowering at the same time as the beans, so it must have been a cool summer.

I sort of inherited this garden. I was living in a one-room cottage (without a kitchen) that was once the maid’s quarters on a sprawling 1920s estate. Nextdoor were a broken-down greenhouse, a shed that had once held tractors and wagons, some abandoned pigpens, and a woodworking shop. The place had seen better days, and the gardener, who had worked there for more than 50 years, had just retired. I was renting the cottage from some friends, and we were left to take care of the place ourselves. So I had to learn in a hurry how to groom chrysanthemums—there were about 150 of them, scattered between two gardens—and divide iris rhizomes and prune cultivated blackberries. I knew zilch about gardening, so I armed myself with a thrift-store copy of the Sunset Western Garden Book, picked up a few tools at garage sales, and learned by the seat of my pants.

There were coyotes in the woods, lizards in the bougainvillea, and snakes in the grass. But the biggest challenge was gophers; I learned to plant twice as much as I needed and just let them have their share. Many times, in broad daylight, I saw full-grown plants twitch and then disappear, sucked underground. One night my cat caught a gopher, brought it inside, and dropped it, still very much alive, into her food bowl. It sat up in the bowl and looked at us warily. I shooed the cat into the other room and managed to trap the gopher in a jar. Then I walked it out to the end of the driveway and let it go in the grass. To my horror, the gopher turned around and ran after me, coked up on some sort of crazy Don Quixote mission. It chased me all the way into the house.

I lived there for four years and grew everything from squash and tomatoes to wheat and amaranth. The soil was so loamy and good that you could throw anything into it and it would grow. Crops came and went, but I always had two things: green beans and morning glories. At night, to give myself good dreams, I would lie in bed and think about morning glories twining up bamboo poles.

The story didn’t end well. My little house got caught in a property-line dispute between my landlord and a neighbor, and with just a few day’s notice, I had to move out. A week later, the cottage and all the outbuildings were bulldozed, and the place was eventually sold. When I visited it a couple of years later, the new owners had made it into a sort of miniature golf course, with a concrete-banked creek and little arched bridges over it. I don’t think I’ve ever been so sad in my life, so bitter. I drove away, hoping the gophers were still there and raising hell.