Love is the time we spend loving

Love is the time we spend loving

“Love … is not a mystery.  It is not poetry, it is not pure, it is not sacred.  Nothing human is.  Love is simply the time you spend loving.  There are no other rules.  That’s it.”

Once again I’ve been knocked sideways by an author and a novel, and once again I am reminded that I actually have not thought every thought I will ever think.  It’s one thing to be out of ideas for the moment, and a far more disturbing thing to think that I’ve thought ’em all, that’s it, no new ideas coming my way.  Inside my head, the same old same old.  Then I read or hear or see something that is delightful, or profound, or terrifying, or comforting, and badda bing, badda boom, the brain is engaged once more.

Today’s brain supplement comes from Rebecca Kaufman, author of The Gunners, a novel about which I had  heard nothing.  I can’t remember how it came to me or how it moved to the top of my pile of books to be read immediately.  The novel is oddly uneventful and understated; the author generously introduces us to her characters , all of whom are friends from a suburb of Buffalo, none of whom lives a particularly dramatic life, and then pretty much steps out of the way.  I would describe Kauffman as an unobtrusive author, a quality that went unnoticed until I found myself unable to put the book down and unable to explain why I was hooked. Nothing wrong with obtrusive; an author’s distinctive voice is generally part of the impact of their work. Salinger is an obtrusive author; Hemingway, McCarthy, Foster Wallace, all distinctly present in every sentence.

I was entirely ready to puzzle through the distinctive impact of reading a compelling book by an author who remains indistinct when I got sidetracked by one of the very few  reviews of The Gunners, this one written by Lily Meyer entitled, “the Gunners seems simple at first but keep reading”.  I had and wondered if Ms. Meyer’s experience had been similar to mine.

Yes, her response to the novel echoed mine, but she quickly asserted that contemporary female writers rarely express emotion so bluntly, making reference to an article by Claire Faye Watkins entitled, “On Pandering”, in which Watkins argues that women are trained to write for men.

“I wanted to write something Cormac McCarthy would like, something Thomas Pynchon would come out of hiding to endorse, something David Foster Wallace would blurb from beyond the grave.”

Meyer also cites Lili Loofborouw’s work in The Virginia Quarterly in which Loofborouw argues that if a novel seems female, readers are unlikely to find it brilliant or noteworthy, and this was where the sidetrack comes in.  Meyer’s point in the review is to admit that she undervalued Kauffman’s novel because the writing seemed simple, and that her  ability to read critically had been undermined by a lifetime of reading with an ear to the voice of the male writer.

I hadn’t considered the distinctive voice to be a characteristic rarely found in work done by female authors, but it’s certainly an idea worth looking at more closely.  My first impulse is to use my own experience as the universal lens, noting that I read a lot of contemporary fiction, almost exclusively the work of contemporary female authors, and, being male, what’s that say about me or them ?

There are two immediate observations to be made. The first is that I like authors who traffic in emotion and the second is that I like authors who make me think.  David Foster Wallace is gone and I’ve been intimidated by Pynchon, but I am waiting for the next McCarthy and the next Kazuo Ishiguro, and the next Paul Beatty.  I am also waiting for the next by Heidi Julavits, Margaret Atwood, Louise Erdrich, Eleanor Catton, Helen Oyeme, Donna Tart, and now, Rebecca Kauffman.

Here’s a moment in The Gunners that I will find instructive and comforting.  Alice, an indelible, tough, flawed but irrepressible character, has arrived at a wedding having had to put her dog, Finn, down.  Alice confesses that Finn was essentially a bad dog, stubborn, cranky, and, she has to admit, stupid, but, “when the time came, I held his tired gray face in my hands, and I said, You are the perfect dog.  You are perfect.  You can rest now. You were always the perfect dog.”

Simple.  Love is the time we spend loving.  Simple.

 

 

Things in the rearview mirror may be larger than they seem

Things in the rearview  mirror may be larger than they seem

In planning to attend the 50th reunion of my college class, I’d decided to spend an extra day after the hoopla and reunion merriment had quieted.  I think I had it mind to linger in order to say a more formal and final farewell than I had in any of my previous celebratory visits.  My feelings about the occasion, and about myself in relation to the occasion, are complicated and surprisingly bittersweet.

I am grateful for the friendships I found there and for the unexpected connection with the physical beauty of the place, both of which conspire to upend me each time I visit. Academically the college was fine and is now considerably better than fine; I didn’t make much use of the opportunities available to me then, pretty much frivoled myself away.  And yet, I’m drawn to the college as I am to no other setting.  The term Alma Mater, mother of/to the soul, is too hackneyed, and too clunky to express what this small college in Ohio means to me.  Ours is a sloppy relationship and not always pretty, not easily communicated, especially as the language of memory demands precision, a summative word or phrase that ties the whole grand, awkward, terrifying, embarrassing adventure into a word or two.  I’m having no luck in finding any.

To be clear:  Even in the golden haze of memory, these were not the best years of my life.

In fact, my college years were by every observable standard among the worst in my life.  I have had more devastating individual moments, but taken as a whole, I have to admit that if the six years between graduation from secondary school and (finally!) graduation from college were to be the measure of my life, the only possible assessment would be of a span both graceless and sad.  So, it’s not that it’s all been downhill from there, and it’s not that I treasure a memory of my best self then; I could, and probably should, be embarrassed to remember myself as I was, but nah, too much self-cauterizing since then.

It is what it was, and I was what I was, and the chips have all fallen as chips fall.  So, why so reluctant to leave this time?

Catching up with classmates had been as instructive as I had hoped; even with the relentless choreography of a 50th reunion, we had time to take time.  We sat at ease in large lawn chairs, looking at the paths we had walked in our first days, simultaneously seeing ourselves then and now, comfortable enough with each other that conversation was rarely of the “remember when …” variety.  Reunions offer an opportunity to consider friendships and to remind myself that I still like the people I liked and like some classmates my younger self had not approached or appreciated.  A particularly kind man has become something of a reunion star having archived most of the flotsam of our lives then, sharing these questionable artifacts with warm generosity.  He was overlooked in my college years; like others in my pack,  I overlooked him.  I am pleased to know that he hasn’t changed, I have, and that I like him very much.

Some of the old pictures passed around help me to understand why I hung around just a bit longer this time.  We all looked marvelous years ago, of course, and it was great to pack a few more memories into the sieve that is my mind, but as each picture came my way, I caught my breath, felt a sharp twist of the heart.  I wasn’t overwhelmed by acknowledging myself as an old person as that reality has been in my face for several years now, but I had forgotten how carelessly joyful we had been, even in the shadow of war and injustice, how small our lives were, how intense.  Many of my classmates were far more responsible than I (ok, all my classmates were far more responsible than I), but even the aspiring orthodentists and lawyers had a capacity for play then that I, for one, have not felt in a very long time.

I’m not rhapsodizing now about merriment lost in the swirl of time, but about undeserved gifts freely given me and,unexpectedly about sadness for my younger self who found joy and friendship in a place of uncommon beauty and who took it all for granted.  I find myself leaning toward the picture trying to … what?   Maybe shake me as I was, caution me about the road ahead, remind me to seize the day and squeeze every last drop from it, smell the roses, pat the kittens, keep friendship alive.  Be grateful.

It took a long time for me to develop a capacity for gratitude; I missed countless opportunities to say thank you over and again.  I think I may have needed an extra day to wander alone summoning memories, breathing thanks into every corner of a cherished place I may not see again, certainly not again in the company of all the friends who gathered last weekend.

Complicated and bittersweet, may be the only reasonable way to describe the emotional soup  served after fifty unruly years away from those privileged years.  Some of the conversations about us from the various college functionaries had to do with the times in which we came of age, about our part in the great shift in culture, about the grand sweep of history, and those retroactive pats on the head were welcome enough, of course, as we like to pretend we had something to do with the parts of the change we endorse and nothing to do with the vile chunks we wish had never been dislodged. It occurs to me often that perhaps we were far less significant than we had thought.  With the benefit of hindsight, and in the wreckage of the recent past, we seem a small smudge, all that remains of a fat bug on the windshield of life.

So, I took an extra day to drink coffee in the empty village, under the banners announcing class events and the sale of t-shirts.  I bought a cap, mostly as to have an excuse for lingering in the college bookstore.  It was handsome, weathered red canvas with the college’s founding date above the brim.  I suspect more than a few of us have stopped in to say farewell since 1824, even before the bookstore sold snappy college gear.  It’s not as easy as I had imagined.  I seem to care a great deal more than I had thought, which is yet another unanticipated gift in returning.

I may get back.  We’ll see.  Might as well; I left my hat on the plane.

 

 

 

Thank You

Thank You

“If the only prayer you say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough” – Meister Eckhart (1260-1328).

I’ve written about the central place of gratitude in a life well lived, but haven’t carried the discussion to the expression of thanks.  Unspoken gratitude is an important part of self-reflection and necessary to living relatively free of resentment, but the act of expressing thanks has significance and reveals generosity of spirit in honoring those who have helped us.

So, two stories about thanks that mattered, both of which come about as the result of my wife’s initiative.

My wife is an exceptionally competent person and apparently has been from birth.  These days her expertise is primarily made manifest in her work with dogs and with the people who own them, but she remains as well an inveterate educator, a gifted teacher, intuitive and creative.  Generations of math impaired students have  recovered from math paralysis as she took the time to observe their work thoughtfully in order to find their particular difficulty with the subject.  In earlier careers she was an EMT and an athletic trainer, all of which is to say that she is particularly able to offer varieties of help in exceedingly diverse moments of crisis.

About twenty years ago, she returned home from an early morning dog training session in Santa Paula with a terrible story to tell.  She and our daughter had been driving into the rising sun, aware of the effect glare and intense flickering sunlight could have on drivers when they saw the car they were following begin to weave, then swerve, careening from one set of guard rails to the other, then spinning, rolling and crashing.  As the car began its erratic swerving, she called 911 and reported an accident in the making.  She slowed and put on her flashing emergency lights, alerting the cars behind her and pulled up behind the crash.  When paramedics arrived, she delivered a concise account of the events surrounding the accident and a detailed report on the man’s condition.  Based on her assessment of injury, she thought the driver was unlikely to survive.

I’d seen her leap into action as a trainer and EMT, of course and had been driving on a country road in Ohio years earlier when an accident took place in front of us.  I had still been gaping when she jumped from our car and quickly got to work.  I wasn’t surprised, then, when she told me of her early morning’s challenges.  There was a bit of adrenalin charge left for her even after the long drive home, but for the most part, ho-hum, just another day on the road.

The story I want to tell is about her, obviously, but more particularly about a phone call that came on Christmas Eve.  An unfamiliar voice asked if she had witnessed an accident on the lonely road to Santa Paula.  The driver introduced himself and described the critical care he had received following the accident; he had been placed in an induced coma for more than a month before much of the surgical repair could take place.  He had been driving home from a twelve-hour shift and had fallen asleep, coming to weeks after the accident had occurred; he had no idea of what had happened.  All he knew was that my wife had moved quickly enough to allow him to recover and enjoy another holiday with his family.

He had called to wish her a Merry Christmas and to thank her for helping him.  Not a big deal in the largest scale of things, but hugely important for him, for her, for his family and for ours.

Constant and kind readers will also remember that all of our dogs have been therapy dogs, trained to adapt to virtually any situation in order to be able to visit patients needing critical care in any sort of facility.  Step on their tails?  Not a problem.  Have a juicy hamburger on your tray?  Won’t touch it.  Hooked up with wires and tubes?  They find a way in for a snuggle without dislodging anything important.  These dogs have pretty much seen it all and loved it all.

They have other jobs as well as they are working dogs and often travel some distance to compete in dog agility trials or to act as ambassadors of goodwill from the canine kingdom.  It happened that my wife had packed them up and taken them to Long Beach, a considerable distance from our home.  They were to meet and greet anyone wandering by the border collie booth in the hope that those considering adopting a border collie would have had the chance to meet a couple up close and personal.  My wife was chatting with a passerby when two women approached, each teary and hardly able to choke out a greeting.  They had seen the dogs and came to give thanks.

Some years earlier, these very dogs had visited a hospital and spent a joyful half hour with an elderly woman who was particularly fond of beasts such as outs.  It was a good visit, similar to the thousands of visits they had made.  The women who had approached my wife in Long Beach told her that she recognized the dogs and vividly remembered their visit with their mother.  It had been hard for them to see their mother in pain as she neared the end of her life. She died no more than twenty minutes after the dogs had wandered to the next room, but they had seen their mother smile for the first time in months, soften, relax as the dogs competed for a place near a petting hand.  It meant the world to them that their mother’s last hour had included peace and joy.

They hadn’t known how to contact my wife or how to thank her, but thanks arrived, and those thanks matter as it happened that those great dogs died too young and too soon.  Now we remember them, and we remember the gratitude that they earned.

A few months ago I belabored the notion that it’s never too late to do better; let’s assume it’s never too late to give thanks.

 

 

 

 

 

My Brain Is On The Clock

My Brain Is On The Clock

The NFL Draft captures the attention of 45 MILLION viewers, draws more than 70,000 people who attend in person, lasts for three days, and occupies the hearts and minds of the nation’s most erudite students of sports from the moment the Eagles hoisted the Lombardi Trophy to the moment Roger Goodell chuffs into the microphone to kick off the festivities.

Let’s think about this for a moment … starting with the 45 MILLION, many of whom  admittedly start out watching the draft but fall away somewhere around hour five.  Still, that’s an extraordinary number of people watching what is essentially football bingo.  Just to provide some perspective, slightly more than 18 million tuned in to see the Astros defeat the Dodgers in the last game of the World Series, the Cavs and Warriors averaged about 20 million last season, fewer fans than watched the year before, when the Cavs took the championship, almost 8 million follow professional bowling, and a mere 2.4 million ponied up $100.00 apiece to watch Floyd Mayweather fight Manny Pacquiao.

There are some interesting questions in any draft season, as there are this year.  Premium quarterbacks establish the success of a franchise and there is some doubt that this year’s crop has the goods.  The top four or five this season are decidedly less promising than some in other years, but, hey, someone has to take them, and at least two will go in the first round if not in the first five picks. Case in point -Josh Rosen. Jim Mora, controversial  former coach at UCLA, tossed Rosen, one of the top two quarterbacks in the draft and his former QB, under a bus by suggesting that as a privileged intellectual millennial, his passion for the game has to be questioned.  Rosen may not be a tough-town quarterback like Johnny Unitas or Brett Favre, but the NFL has welcomed a host of qbs from snappy backgrounds, all of whom could be modeling for Ralph Lauren in the off-season.  If the charge is that Rosen is too smart to stay interested in football, which is what Mora seems to have charged, the best quarterbacks on the field right now would be Chris Leak, now in the CFL,  or Terrelle Pryor, both of whom had single digit scores on the Wonderlic test.

So that’s interesting.

Then there’s Saquon Barkley.  Barkley, Penn State’s running back extraordinaire, is a true freak of nature and the most exciting football phenom since Barry Sanders.  Picking up almost 4000 yards and 43 touchdowns is noteworthy, but anyone who saw Barkley play knows that this guy can bust into daylight with or without an opening.  Rumor has it that Penn State really only had two running plays, which, if you have a Saquon Barkley, is really all you need.  This year’s hot question is whether an NFL franchise will use a top pick on Barkley, knowing the half-life of running backs is about two years and remembering that in the last two seasons top running backs came from the middle of the draft.  Several teams could conceivably pass on the most talented athlete in the draft.

So that’s interesting.

In red-hot franchise news, The Cleveland Browns,perennial doormats of the league, have a bunch of nifty picks and could conceivably jump-start a franchise that has been mired in misery.  The NY Football Giants face the inevitable replacement of Eli Manning and may chose to use their highest pick to land one of those three quarterbacks of questionable value.  Do the Giants take a last shot at a playoff with Manning or shoot the moon for the next franchise qb?  How many quarterbacks do the Broncos need this year?  The Jets … ’nuff said.  The Cards have a plan to keep Sam Bradford on the field for 16 games next season; it involves adamantium and homeopathic treatments in which his knees and ankles will be routinely hit with soft mallets.  Oh, so they could need to draft as well.

That’s pretty much it, so one wonders what will draw the millions to the event once again.  It’s been a while since the end of the football season, but colleges will be playing their spring games at about the same time, the NBA and NHL are starting to shape up the playoff slots, and baseball is in full swing (as it were).  Any excuse for a party?  Makes sense, at least on the sports bar and giant tv screen level.

This may be mere cynicism, or more likely the annual squealing of a fan whose franchise will be drafting nothing but interior linemen, but I suggest that the draft allows us, the uninitiated and unpaid fans, the luxury of second-guessing the analytics guys, the scouts, the coaches, the trainers, and team doctors.  I’ve already mentioned the Browns once; their draft history is so appalling that any of us could certainly have done a better job.  Will they self-destruct again this year?  45 Million people will be tuning in to watch it happen.  Want to make a football junkie drool in anticipation of juicy controversy?  Just trot out the list of top draft quarterback flops; it’s a catnip canape for fans of all ages.

Ryan Leaf (2nd overall),  Jamarcus Russell (1st overall), Akili Smith (3rd overall), David Klinger (6th overall), Tim Couch (1st overall), Joey Harrington (3rd overall), David Carr (1st overall), Vince Young (3rd overall), Jeff George (1st overall),

There are more serious issues to be considered in these parlous times; perhaps brains could be employed in service to other more pressing humanitarian efforts, but, no. Apparently we will once again clamor to see young men, only recently mud spattered and bloody, striding to the stage in thousand dollar suits to shake Commissar Goodell’s hand, jam on the ill-fitting team cap so that ears are flattened and spread, and flap a Cleveland Browns jersey with feigned glee.

If only there were some mechanism that allowed us to check the results with a quick scan of a screen, say, or even on the phone we carry in our pockets.  It’s essential, of course, to have the results in real-time as there are only three months between the draft and the first exhibition games.  I suppose we’ll all just have to settle in for the three-day marathon.marathon starting on April 26th.

My Baby, She Wrote Me A Letter

My Baby, She Wrote Me A Letter

Actually not my baby , or likely anyone else’s, a fiercely independent and highly intelligent friend from my boyhood/adolescence sent on a packet of letters I had written her more than fifty years ago.  She was my best friend’s girl, but one of the few people I trusted with my secrets, and so, I wrote her, more frequently than I had remembered;.

What I find in reading the letters, almost all of which were written when I was a junior in boarding school, is that I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to a friend willing to endure an endless stream of self-absorbed flotsam, and that in retrospect, I was a person I don’t like very much.

I would describe that person as jejune-superficial, naive, clueless, with an appalling insensitivity to those about him.  It seems I was also thoroughly deluded in my conviction that my letters bubbled with wit and wisdom.  The letters are abominably smarmy and self-congratulatory, and, worst of all, fatuous.  I fancied myself something of a writer but writhe now as I read my clumsy attempts to imitate the writers I admired.

Bouts of writhing arrive fairly frequently as I catch myself being myself, particularly as I  veer into grandiosity, but fortunately I experience the full-body writhe only intermittently.  I often think of a little known film, Defending Your Life, which presented Albert Brooks as a fussy, fearful advertising man killed in a car crash, stuck in Judgment City until his life has been evaluated by looking at video footage of his behavior on earth.  Now that is writhe-worthy.  Happily, footage of my life is unavailable for distribution and I am spared much evidence of my foibles and failures.

When such evidence does arrive, as it did with those letters, after the writhing has subsided, I have a chance to see myself, perhaps not exactly as others see me, but with some approximation of accuracy.  It’s not always pretty, hardly ever without some regret, but in that moment I’m given an opportunity to re-size myself, change my perspective, and fish around in the slag heap of my rarely used attributes to find a sense of humor about my inflated sense of self-importance.

OK, Humor.  Check.  This is the necessary step in moving beyond fascination with my own past to the better and more transformative appreciation of kindnesses done me by a host of folks who had lives of their own to patch together.  I am not sure where gratitude goes when it slips away, but I know that my operating system starts to run rough without it.  In my experience, there is an interesting and unexpected inversion in the gratitude self-pity formula.  Whereas it is commonly believed that we can easily absorb a thousand compliments but dissolve when encountering a single criticism, I find that the grumbleverse has little hold on me if I can muster even shards of gratitude.

My son’s middle school had a motto worth repeating.  “When in doubt, go with gratitude.”

So, I look at that pack of letters, consider the care and effort it took to read them, respond to them, save them for a half-century, and return them to me with a kind note reminding me of our friendship, and I am nudged, once again, into grateful appreciation of the people who have been so generous in their kindness to me.  Unlike self-pity, which goes nowhere, gratitude not only provides perspective but also jump-starts my resolution to pay it forward.  While I still have a reasonable idea of my place in the universe, it makes sense for me to lend a hand when I can.

It will seem I digress, but I do have a point yet to express as I remember a documentary recently aired as part of a public television fund-raising marathon.  It’s You I Like is a tribute to Fred Rogers, an authentically kind and decent man with a rare capacity for honesty and courage and an appreciation of children as children that we will likely not see again.  Any of his observations are best heard in his own voice, of course, but I’ll pass one along as the coda of this piece:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

I’m grateful to the helpers.  Even in scary times, they are all about us.  I’m feeling grateful today.  Maybe I’ll have a chance to be a helper.

 

It is never too late to do better

It is never too late to do better

I can’t count the number of times I have heard people say, “I just want to live without any regrets”, which is a pretty tall order, given that most of us inevitably chunk up from time to time, missing a chance to be kind, taking a shortcut that injures someone else, maybe even doing things we had vowed we would never do.  Memory of those things done which we ought not to have done and those undone we ought to have done can weigh heavily upon us at times, and regret usually creeps in, often unacknowledged and always unwelcome.

Regret does not feel great, particularly if it’s the sort of regret that is tinged with shame.  It’s one thing to wish I had invested in Microsoft and another to remember acting selfishly or dishonestly.  Leaving my wallet in the men’s room makes me feel stupid ; not visiting a dying friend makes me feel worthless.  There could be a thousand reasons for having made the wrong choice, and I am inclined to find any one of them which allows me to tuck that regret away, out of sight and seemingly out of mind.  Apparently, however, my mind is a stickier place than I might wish.

It’s troubling; not only does justification and self-deception take a lot of energy from virtually every interaction we have with the world in the present, it doesn’t attend to that feeling of worthlessness or shame that kicked off the whole process in the first place.  I’m going to skip a couple of steps here in the interest of getting somewhere.  Moving beyond regret requires moving into regret just long enough to see things for what they were, acknowledge our part with as much honesty as we can bear, and then do something that does have worth.

It’s easy to say that all we need to do is to get honest and act as honest people do; I guess if it were easy, we’d all do it all the time.  Getting to honesty is necessary in order to move on, and although that’s an important issue in its own right, I’m moving on to regret.

The best advice I ever got came from my wife on a night when I had chunked up most spectacularly.  Her advice to me was succinct:  “Just don’t make it worse.”  It was necessary advice because shame feels really crummy and my first impulse is to do SOMETHING, anything,  to obscure the reality of the situation.  When we have made a mess, it is necessary to take action, but first we have to stop making a mess.  We don’t have to find a different mess; we have to look at the mess we’ve made and change our behavior.

And then?  The past being past, there’s a great deal we can’t undo.  We said what we said; we did what we did.  The suggestion that it’s not too late to do better is essentially a way of paying backward by paying forward.  We work to find a second chance, a do-over.  Not absolution or a free pass.  No, I’m suggesting circling back and taking a second swipe, trying a better, kinder behavior than the one we’ve come to regret, taking the time to attend to a task we had chosen to avoid. We can’t change yesterday, but there is the outside possibility that we can do something about today.

Rather than dropping into a litany of things I deeply regret, I’ll use a relatively benign regret as an example: For years I considered an annual retreat and dinner with colleagues one of the great afflictions pressed upon me by an uncaring universe.  I worked with these people every day; I knew their foibles all too well and had heard their disjointed and indefensible opinions for years.  The event promised nothing but pain, and, being an equal opportunity curmudgeon, I growled to my wife in advance of dinner, pouted and isolated myself during dinner, and then subjected my wife to higher grade growling when we got home.  Grrrr.  Life is rotten, etc.

Year after year, I dreaded the evening, and I had also come to not like myself very much as the glum growling guy in the corner.  I didn’t want to be resentful and cranky; I had to do something.  Jumping to the unlikely insight that I might have something to do with the quality of my experience of other people and regret my small-minded and unnecessarily alienating behavior, I decided I had better act like a grown-up, if only to see if it made a difference.  Against all odds, I determined to change my behavior and my attitude.  My attitude, unfortunately, lags behind my behavior.  I pretty much have to act as if I am a better person in order to start thinking like a better person.  Yeah, attitude lags behind a bit.

Good thing I had the opportunity to grab a do-over.  Annual retreat and dinner arrived again, that being the way of annual things.

Instead of trying to sit as far from conversation as I could, I plunked down between two colleagues to whom I had not shown much respect.  I was determined to make the evening as pleasant as possible for them.  I took the obvious (to a grown-up)  path; I asked them about themselves.  I listened to what they said and asked follow-up questions that allowed them to speak in greater detail about the fabric of their lives.  I asked and asked and asked until I found myself authentically engaged in the stories they told.  We have not become best friends, but I identified with many of the challenges and triumphs in their lives and saw them as people rather than tedious annoyances.

Oh, and I had a great time and came home happy, eager to tell my wife how much I had learned in the few hours I’d had with folks we’d know for a long time.  I hadn’t made things worse, I hadn’t stacked up a new pile of grievances, I’d practiced being a better person than I had been.

Not only did I feel much better, I learned that it is a gift to try to see a person and to hear the story they have lived.  Huh.  People can be interesting if you give yourself a chance to see them; what a concept!   As do-overs go, it was a very manageable task.  My experience is probably not much of a guide as opportunities to find do-overs pop up at alarming rate for me, a function of all those things left undone, I guess.  But still, I can summon patience in the check-out line at Target if I can imagine that the person in front of me probably also has a life to get to , I can summon kindness when giving up a parking space if I can assume that I’m not only one in a hurry, and I can even summon appreciation when unearned gifts come my way if I can imagine that someone has taken the time to think of me.

Grown up?  Not yet, but coming closer, one do-over at a time.

 

UConn

UConn

I’m writing today about women’s basketball, and you know that because “UConn”,  the title of the piece, now brings to mind women’s basketball, but the remarkable accomplishment of a team from a relatively small and absolutely unheralded Northeastern university speaks to more than the Huskies’ dominance in the sport.  Most recent conversation about UConn has been about the danger of a single team’s prominence and its stranglehold on the national championship, even though a feisty Mississippi State team knocked UConn out in the Final Four last season, an anomaly that did not silence the debate.

“Is UConn bad for women’s basketball”?  Back and forth like a series of turnovers at midcourt.

Here’s the thing:  If you have to ask the question, the answer is there wouldn’t be a conversation about women’s basketball without UConn’s transcendent legacy.

Have women’s collegiate sports come of age, particularly since the implementation of Title IX?  Absolutely?  Are women’s sporting events as well attended as men’s?  Not usually, or almost never with a few significant exceptions.  US National Women’s Soccer game tickets may be hard to come by, and final matches at the US Tennis Open are up by more than 30% as more than 690,000 attended in person, in part because American women in addition to the Williams sisters have moved up the ranks.  The highest attendance of any US women’s professional team belongs to the Portland Thorns FC of the NWSL who have averaged about 13,000 per game and a high of 17,653 last season.  In the WNBA, the highest numbers showed up for the 2000 All Star game in Phoenix (17,717) and for the final game between the Minnesota Lynx and the Atlanta Dream(15,258).

At the collegiate level, the University of Utah Gymnastic team leads the pack with an average attendance of 15,000, although as many as 15,600 packed into an arena with a capacity of 15,000 to see the Red Rocks take on the Bruins of UCLA.  The next contender is also a gymnastic program, at the University of Alabama, averaging more than 13,000 per game.  Where’s UConn’s women’s basketball program?  Behind South Carolina, Tennessee, and Iowa State.

So, bad for women’s basketball?  Apparently not, and here’s the argument that carries the most weight.  Although there may not be parity in women’s basketball, and although UConn blows out teams like St, Francis in the first round of the tournament by a score of 140 – 52, leading the St. Francis Red Flash by 94 – 31 in the first half, every televised slamma-jamma-fast break- three point-outlet pass victory brings more viewers to the sport, more attention to the game, and more intensity to the coaching and training of female high school and collegiate basketball players.

Tennessee held the crown for decades.  Coached by Pat Summitt, one of the toughest and most revered coaches in any collegiate sport, the Lady Vols have appeared in all 36 tournaments, 34 Sweet Sixteens, and 18 Final Fours.  In 1988-99, a year in which they won a National Championship, the Lady Vols went 35-2.  Other programs, Baylor, Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Stanford, Notre Dame have risen to join Tennessee as contending programs in any year, and any of them could conceivably beat UConn as Mississippi State did last year.

But UConn’s women hold the top two longest winning streaks in collegiate basketball, winning 111 consecutive games from 2014 to 2017 (buzzer beater loss to Mississippi State) and a streak of 90 games from 2008 to 2010.

111 consecutive games.  What talented young woman would not want to be a part of that dynasty?

Coach Gino Auriemma arrived in Storrs, Connecticut in 1985.  I grew up in Connecticut, and I can find Storrs on a map, but I would bet that most of my readers would need some help to pinpoint the Mecca of women’s collegiate basketball.  Storrs is a sleepy town in the agricultural northeast of the state with a population of about 15,000, and UConn was one of the New England state universities that enjoyed brief flashes of celebrity as one of the men’s basketball teams bounced out of the American Conference and into the limelight.  Julius Erving took the University of Massachusetts to prominence at the end of the 1960’s, and John Calipari and Marcus Canby resuscitated the program in the early 1990’s.  It was UConn’s men who first brought attention to the university winning the NCAA championship in 1999, but by 1995, the women had climbed to the top as well, defeating a Pat Summitt coached Tennessee team with the help of Rebecca Lobo, Kara Wolters, Jennifer Rizzotti, Nykesha Sales, and Jamelle Elliott.  The strength of both programs allowed UConn to become the only college to sweep the tournament with both men’s and women’s teams, in 2004 and 2014.  The men rank sixth all-time in NCAA tournament success, but few of us mark the calendar to watch them play.  Even fewer tune in the hope of seeing them lose.

And that’s where I think the UConn women’s team has had a salubrious effect on the quality of the game as a whole.  They face some strong competition during the season of course, but for every other team, the UConn game is THE game of the season.  Not only does UConn make regular season basketball compelling (and few teams do), they push every opponent to the highest level of their game.  The game is elevated, the stakes are high, and the sport becomes a topic of conversation as is true of no other women’s sport.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, UConn plays superb team basketball.  They shoot threes with the best of the best, but also speed in transition, steal a lot of balls, find the open player, grab rebounds, play killer defense, and never stop scrapping.  They play an elegant, furious version of basketball that reminds me why I love the sport.

Last season’s team had lost outstanding players, played younger, and had to scrap a bit harder.  The loss to Mississippi State ended the streak, but pushed both Mississippi State and South Carolina into greater public attention and brought heightened drama to the current season.  In regular play, the Huskies were 16-0 in conference this year and 19-0 against teams outside the conference.  Maybe not all that much drama.

They face South Carolina tomorrow and, should they move along, either Mississippi State or UCLA in the final game.  I watch golf when Tiger plays and I watch basketball when UConn plays.  I’m hoping they keep this streak alive, race to the finish and play basketball as basketball was meant to be played.

Go, Huskies!