The Heart At Center Court

It is dark and raining sideways.

Yet, there is warmth and life inside the gym.

Honey colored wood glows and shines under the lights high above. Neighbors align themselves on long wooden benches close enough to visit and catch up, but most eyes are down on the floor where boys and girls run about in summer shorts and high top shoes on cold winter nights.

Basketball knits little towns together.

Invented during a snowy Massachusetts December in 1891, Dr. James Naismith’s game was a way to keep restless athletes conditioned during the winter months. His superiors at the YMCA International Training School requested a game that was not too rough, would keep track and field athletes in shape without getting injured and could be played within a standard size gym.

The gymnasium came first, believe it or not.

It’s hard to imagine a high school gym without basketball hoops, but I’ve been in some of those old gyms where the out-of-bounds line was just inches from the wall - built in the days before fast breaks and diving saves were likely to take a player careening out of bounds.   

Originally, things were a little different -- there was no dribbling, only passing. The first game was nine players on each side.

Yet even the first public game reportedly drew a few hundred people to watch.  

Spread by the promotion of the YMCA, the game took root in the still largely agricultural United States. It spread to high schools outside of cities and found a special place in the hearts of little towns all over the Pacific Northwest.

It required only 5 players, so small town schools could easily field a team. The equipment needs were not great - originally two peach baskets and a soccer ball - replaced in 1906 with metal hoops and nets and a “spalding ball.”

At a time when the railroad was the fastest way across the country, basketball spread to every tiny town with a gymnasium -- and towns built gyms so they could play it. Girls basketball developed not long after that first YMCA game. The “gentle” wintertime sport being well suited to the farm girls of the Pacific Northwest.

As Rachel Bachman wrote for the Oregonian in 2010, when Naismith was still alive and coaching in the 1920 and 1930s -- Oregon girls high school basketball had become so popular that some schools had two teams. In towns with just a few dozens students in the whole school, two-thirds might play the sport.
As Louise Leininger, who played for Mosier High near Hood River in the mid-1930s told Bachman, basketball was a natural for the resilient girls of rural Oregon.
"We were farm girls," said Leininger. "We were hoisting boxes with fruit in it and things like that."
A backlash against the “unladylike” sport grew in the cities after World War I, but girls basketball hung on longer in rural areas. The traveling basketball teams -- and the fans that followed -- provided a vital social outlet in the 1930s.
When I was growing up in small town surrounded by other small towns -- we had to combine with neighboring high school just to get enough players for a football team,

Yet, when basketball season came, each tiny school could find enough boys and girls to put on the court. Rivalries grew up over generations with the next town over.

Often, schools like Wishram or Klickitat might only come up with 5 players -- so that if someone fouled out, they had to play one short. I recall one game in Wishram’s tiny railroad town gym where they played the whole fourth quarter with three against our five -- and nearly won.

I myself never played. Too nearsighted to see the basket, too vain to wear my glasses back then.

Yet in little towns, basketball has its own gravity. For a couple games a week, the gym is the place to be. I was in the pep band, and then the boys team manager just so I could still be a part of it.

I’ve never thought of myself as a fan of basketball. I’ve never watched a full game on TV.

Yet there is something different about watching the game in person.

I moved to Naselle during the Lyle Patterson era - a time when the little town was well known on the far side of the state for consistently great basketball. Patterson was hired as a football coach and math teacher at first, then took over basketball duties when the position opened up. Over the next 32 years he took little Naselle to the state so many times that they planned the school calendar around state tournament.

His 623-228 record is the fourth best all time in the state of Washington and includes a mountain of district and league titles as well as five appearances in the championship game.  After Naselle he helped Knappa win back to back championships in Oregon.

What’s fascinating about Patterson’s success is that in such a small school, you have to make due with the kids you have from year to year. Short kids, tall kids, fast kids and slow kids -- to consistently come up with 30 years of winning from such uncertain talent speaks volumes.

Yet rural towns where the winters are dark and inhospitable were fertile ground for basketball to take hold and rich soil to cultivate new players year after year. Every kid probably had a hoop up in the hay barn where they could practice their shots and imagine high school glory.

Basketball stars could be discovered in lower grades, their talent followed by a community. Basketball so easily became THE thing with the ability to draw neighbors out from their homes to sit side by side on uncomfortable benches amid the staccato and the shouts, the squeaks of sneakers and the cheers and groans of the crowd.

The amazing journalist David Halberstam probably wrote all this much better years ago. Examining Indiana’s fascination with the sport in a 1985 article for Esquire Magazine, he observed:

“Small towns, villages often, neither grew nor died; they just stayed there in suspended between life and death. In an atmosphere like that, where so little meant so much, there was only one thing that male and often female children did, and they did it every day and every night, and that was play basketball. It was a sport for the lonely - a kid did not need five or six friends, he did not even need one. There was nothing else to do, and because this was Indiana, there was nothing else anyone even wanted to do.”

Yet if the culture of small town basketball developed because of its accessibility, it became a part of the small town community because adults “needed to see it, needed to get into a car and drive to another place to hear other voices” - rituals essential to fending off the loneliness of long hard winters.

“There were few ways for ordinary people to meet one another. Guests and visitors were rare. There was church, and there was basketball, gyms filled with hundreds, indeed thousands of people, all excited, all passionate. In a dark and lonely winter, the gym was a warm, noisy and well-lit place.”

Now I sit in the Lyle Patterson gym and watch my 13 year old daughter who has come to love this sport. I sit with my wife, who like me, never played high school basketball, but still loves to watch the games.  

Maybe eventually the rise of TV and the internet will one day starve small town basketball of this community function. After all, participation in all high school team sports is now declining for varied and uncertain reasons. Fewer kids may tolerate getting back late from far-flung towns with schoolwork due the next morning.Ironically, too much professionalization may be hurting participation  -- year ‘round leagues may be making sports less attractive to the casual athlete with no expectation to play beyond the high school level. Other opportunities, rising cost to play and cuts to school sports programs may also erode away at high school sports.  

As in all things, the future is uncertain.

In the meantime, I sit next to neighbors and strangers. The heat of so many bodies in a wooden box prompts us to strip off winter coats. Between quarters we ask how so-and-so is doing now that she’s out of the hospital, while toddlers climb up and down the bleachers. Generations watch generations of grandkids, nephews and nieces out on the court. Newcomers to town settle in.  

Gym bleachers are much like church pews, except there is more talking amongst the seated, more cursing under your breath and cheering out loud too.

As the lights from the rafters shine on the glass like gym-sealed maple below, as the near-freezing rain pours down outside, it is still warm and lively in this echoing wooden box.


Vine Maple in the Autumn Light

Fall is a gamble in this corner of the Pacific Northwest.

You can find yourself as a punching bag for Pacific storms, one after another battering your ambitions with rain and wind, high water and downed trees.

Or you can have the best weather of the entire year: crystal blue skies and t-shirt temperatures among the yellowing golden alder and maple trees. Postcard days.

We don’t enjoy the New England colors here, but I’ll take our sharp red of vine maple in the autumn light. Watercolor sunsets spiced with the smell of woodsmoke as a hundred cozy fires come alight to fight the chill of the night.

You can’t take anything for granted. You can only aspire to take it all in.

Such bright autumn days are blessings to be sure, appreciated so much more after an “atmospheric river” pounds us for a weekend, reminding us what lies ahead once winter truly comes ashore.

It seems a crime on these days to be inside. “Productive” is the word in my house. Getting things done that need to be done, battening down the hatches for winter, getting hay in the barn, deck furniture tied down or stored away.

To-do lists are longer on sunny fall days.

Through all of it, my wife, Amy, and I will stop at moments and look at each other and the cloudless blue above our heads and soak in the sunlight.

I have learned over the years to carve out time in my so-called “productivity” to appreciate the clear fall days. There is a feeling of guilt, to be sure, when I choose a lazy motorcycle ride through cascading yellow leaves rather than outdoor chores that need to be done. Yet a crisp autumn memory will keep you almost as warm on a dark December day as dry firewood. 


Before the darkness comes

We are not fools, mind you — more ant than grasshopper after all these years.

We start early now, getting wood pellets and firewood in, filling the barn with hay, shoring up fences and putting things away.

We make hay while the sun shines — not just a maxim but a way of life in these parts — we make firewood, repair gutters, repair the outdoor lights before the darkness comes.

Often something will derail our day, our schedule wiped out by an unforeseen event. Equipment breaks down. Animals find a way to get sick or get into where they shouldn’t be. We need to run to town to get this fixed, or to pick up another one of those.

So it goes.

“A pretty day for a drive at least,” we say, and roll the windows down to enjoy the fresh air along the way.

While running errands in Astoria the other day, I met a man who said he’d just moved up from L.A. I smiled and gave the advice I usually dispense to newcomers.

I told him that after 25 years I’ve learned it can rain 100 days in a row here and be somehow different every day. Our coastal clime provides dynamic weather, ever-changing even when locked in shades of gray. There will be plenty enough days when you are soaked to the bone the minute you step outside. There are days when you’d rather just sit by the fire and watch the sheets of rain march across the horizon and cherish shafts of silver light when it slices through the clouds.

It rains from November to the end of June, but we get a few blue-sky days here and there — maybe a whole week strung together in February.

Through the rain, you’ll learn to appreciate those sunny days all the more.

The gift of sunny autumn days

The first storm of the fall brought inches of rain and a taste of what winter has in store. The freshet brought high water to the fields in front of our house, and we scrambled to move things away should it go much higher. Motorcycles went into the basement, tack up in the barn loft.

When the storm moved on, we saw the return of brilliant blue, but the water took a while to drain away out of the fields. Amy and the girls tried to paddle out on kayaks in the field and found little current. When I got off work the next day we went out on the water as dusk approached. In stillness, we glided along the mirrored sunset. We wondered why we had never thought of this before.

Along the way, however, we feel the light of the sun that we know won’t be around forever — something that is easy to forget during August. We watch the maple seeds spin around us as we travel down the road. We watch the western sky for dark clouds and smile when we see only blue. We spot the bright yellow turning amid the evergreen, splashed red with vine maple in the autumn light.

Each sunny day in autumn is a gift — a jewel found on a beach of stones.


The Durable Good

“Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people wanting to be important” - T.S.Eliot

I graduated from High School 30 years ago this year.

I don’t much recall what my ambitions were at 18 years other than aspiring to fame and fortune through the wit of my pen or the sound of my voice.

I’m reaching the point where I need to think more about legacy than aspirations.

We spend our lives collecting totems and objects that signify our accomplishments, our growing economic independence and success. We build messy fortresses of possessions around us.  When we need to move on, these great purchases become anchors, keeping us from sailing on the open ocean of our lives.

When Amy and I were first married -- years before we had children, we’d stop at antique stores and yard sales looking for things cast off by others. We had a big empty house to fill with furniture and art. Twenty-five years and two daughters later, we are tripping over these material ghosts that will not move on to their afterlife. We sell, we donate, we give away things our children have outgrown.

In sorting this flotsam and jetsam of the ebbing tide,  we occasionally stumble upon a treasure -- some object heavy with the weight of significance and sentimentality.

Yet objects only hold this power when they symbolize some accomplishment, or some human interaction that evolved our existence on this earth. Touchstones get their power from a life changing event, a memory of a friend, a loved one lost.

These we tuck away.

Beside the roadways now, yard sale and garage sale signs proliferate. We are starting the season of selling and buying things that will not fade away when their utility to their current owners is exhausted.

At the same time we are surrounded by young people graduating from high school, and heading off to attend college, to serve in the military, to start careers and families.

The contrast is stark in my mind.

Too often we have come to emphasize building and buying of things, and disparage the service economy.

Yet service comes in many forms - including doctors and firefighters, nurses and teachers -- these are all considered part of the service economy - and they create in the world improvements in people’s lives.

Yet when we measure our economy, our focus is on the manufacturing and purchase of durable goods.

Something about this term bothers me.

After all, what creates more durable good in the world than a teacher?

Service is not some second class to creation -- of objects, of wealth, of fame. Our politicians wax hagiographic about factory jobs. Yet service is now the largest part of our economy and it includes people doing much to make the world a better place than they found it.

We all have at least one teacher or coach that touched us and changed our view of the world.

I have had the opportunity to get a taste of teaching by mentoring young journalists through an internship program. I precepted new nurses, taught EMTs and CPR and crisis intervention. I am gobsmacked when a former student comes to me and tells me that something I taught them helped save a life or prevent and violent injury.

I imagine those lives touching others, saving and creating, rippling across time around the world.

That is a durable good.

I used to think that every man aspired to immortality by creating something that would still exist centuries after he was gone. Whether it be a novel, a work of art, or carving a farm out of wild forest -- some material legacy to pass on.

As if doing so keeps our shadow in the world.

Yet the truly durable good is in those who spend their lives teaching, healing, saving and protecting our fellow misbegotten humans.

There is a reason there are never enough teachers, nurses, doctors and police officers.

Dealing with people is very hard -- taxing on the soul. The people we interact with come to us burdened with a lifetime of baggage and we have to fight through to make even a tiny impact on mind or body. It is often difficult to see their quiet everyday impacts on the future.

The coast guardsman who plucks a drowning man from the ocean, the firefighter who cuts a woman out of a wrecked car -- their monetary compensation pales in the light of the number of lives they change in a career.

Yet their life-changing impacts are by comparison much easier to divine.

It is so much easier to undervalue the service of our daily interactions with other human beings, our generosity of time and knowledge.

Patience is the most valuable commodity that no one ever buys.

It changes lives.

Who has more patience than the parent investing a third of their life raising a child -- a child stable and kind and imaginative enough to change the world?

Should those children be blessed with good teachers and kind mentors, won’t their lives in time echo outwards across the centuries, immortal in a million unseen interactions of kindness, healing and teaching.

Isn’t that a durable good?

My father and mother taught me the most durable lessons of my life. My father taught me to work hard and never stop learning. My mom taught me that things are just things, not a one half as valuable as a single human being.

It is no wonder all three of us kids spent our lives serving others. My brother is a paramedic, my sister spent her life protecting children and the elderly from abuse for the state of Oregon.

My sister passed away after only 49 years. At her memorial, hundreds of people came from all over the country. The gathered faces were not her clients, but rather the friends and coworkers, neighbors and children grown to adults that she had touched in her life as a neighborhood mother with a generous heart.

I think of all this in this season of caps and gowns and garage sale signs. Our mark on this earth is determined by the lives of others that we make better. No other metric seem lasting.

It is a hard measure to use. Helping others is hard. Raising good children is hard. Being kind -- just being kind to people who don’t look like you or think like you or worship like you -- having simple kindness in your heart for those not of your tribe is hard.

Immortality doesn’t come easy.

Yet, there is only one way to create a truly durable good.


This and other essays can be found in my book The Huckleberry Hajj - available on Amazon in paperback and ebook.

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