A Tough Lesson This Father’s Day

Posted in Family, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 27, 2016 by Mike

Alice Wren’s floaties.

No one expects to jump into a swimming pool to rescue his young daughter on Father’s Day, but that’s what happened to me just a few short days ago. And let me make it clear right out of the gate: I wasn’t the hero.

We were enjoying a beautiful Sunday afternoon at the community pool with some of our neighbors. We’d ordered food, had a couple of beers, and passed a few idle hours between the water and the shade of the umbrellas. Three families, each with young children between the ages of four and eight. Our daughter, Alice Wren, is the youngest. She’s not a fan of going underwater so Alice wears floaties on her arms when she’s at the beach or pool. The swim class she took at UNCW last year helped some but she’s a long way from swimming independently and cannot tread water or keep herself afloat without inflatable assistance. She adores the older kids who live nearby, especially the girls – Veronica and Audrey – who are fun and smart and good swimmers.

The pool was pretty crowded—families everywhere, people swimming all around the pool, throwing balls, lounging on noodles, diving for coins and trinkets, dads launching their kids from their shoulders. The shallow end was crammed with the little ones, with babies held tight by their new moms and toddlers bouncing tirelessly on waterlogged feet.

I was at the table with the adults. Ted Johnson, our neighbor and friend, was facing the pool and said the words that changed everything, “Hey guys, is everything ok with Alice?” I turned around and looked into the pool and saw her instantly. She was right near the rope separating the kiddie pool from the deeper swimming lanes—it’s where the bottom of the pool begins to slope downward and the water level was at Alice’s mouth and nose, and rising. She wasn’t waving or making any noise at all, but she was certainly in trouble.

In an instant I was running towards the pool. For some unknown reason, in the small gap between the table and the edge of the pool, I shed my shirt and tossed it over my shoulder while in mid-air over the water so it wouldn’t get wet—a detail that is symbolic in ways that I don’t fully understand yet. I landed a few feet from Alice, slogged a few steps through the waist-deep water, and scooped her up in my arms. I told her she was OK, told all of the shocked faces around us that she was OK, and patted her back hard as she expelled water down my back between hard sobs. I vaguely recall turning back to the poolside table I had just left so dramatically and pointing to Ted and mouthing Thank You. We walked to the edge of the pool where Carrie, my wife, leaned down and said, “Give her to me.” So I passed my child up to her frantic mother and stood there in the shallow end like a man cut loose from his old reality, stricken and alone.

Alice ended up vomiting up more water onto her worried mother as they paced around the periphery and I returned to the table with our friends and tried to make sense of what had just happened. As we discussed and watched her condition—she seemed healthy though she was quiet and visibly shaken, understandably—the prevailing fear was the thought of potential secondary drowning. For those of you that missed that piece on your local news affiliate, secondary drowning (which we actually confused with dry drowning, as it turns out – click here for how they differ) is somewhat rare but could happen if a person takes in water, it gets in the lungs, the victim appears to be good though lethargic, the lurking danger sloshes around, undetected, the individual goes to sleep later, has an pulmonary edema in his or her sleep, and never wakes up. So, though we considered secondary drowning a remote possibility, our own crushing guilt and raw fear led us to the car and a frantic ride to the Emergency Department in Scotts Hill.

Carrie drove and I rode in the back beside Alice’s car seat, anxious to keep her awake and engaged. Our fuzzy understanding of secondary drowning led us to the conclusion that if she fell asleep, she may never wake up so it was my job to keep her awake. It was like she’d been drugged; she could barely keep her eyes open and it was all I could do to keep her from falling asleep. I sang to her, asked her endless questions, squeezed her cheeks and made farting noises, pointed out a hundred things in the passing scenery, and told Carrie to hurry. She had put on the hazards and was keeping it together remarkably well despite the fragile state of her young daughter in the backseat.

At the clinic, she was evaluated and given a chest X-ray, which came out with negative findings of fluid in her lungs. The prognosis was good and the PA said that she was going to be fine. Our pediatrician’s office had been called and their protocol for these situations was conservative, erring on the side of caution. They wanted Alice to spend the night in the hospital for observation, figuring if something did arise it would be most prudent to have her near a medical team in those crucial moments. So Carrie and Alice Wren took an ambulance to the downtown hospital—which Alice voted the coolest ride she had ever taken—and Foster and I checked off items from an unending list of things they would require during their sleepover. We drove down to the hospital to visit and resupply the girls.

To Alice, her stay in the Betty Cameron Women’s and Children’s Hospital was like a resort vacation. She had a doting team of wonderful nurses, a suitcase full of toys and books and games and Wonder Woman pajamas from home, her sure and steady mother, and a kid’s recreation room that was expertly designed to distract young people from the pains, fears, and boredom of protracted hospital stays. We were very fortunate. This is an indisputable fact. And there was no greater reminder of that than walking down that long hospital corridor and wondering who was behind the other room doors. What horrors had brought those other children there? Car accidents? Cancer? How long would they have to stay? Who was getting the worst possible news? Even more, who was leaving without the gravely hurt child they had brought in? These thoughts haunt me still and I can’t help but feel that we merely stepped into that terrible place, had a peek, and were fortunate to back out of it without a scratch.


Alice cooks in the hospital’s recreation room.

Horrible stories in the news have a way of numbing us. The observer stands at a safe distance where he can make judgements and recreate the scenario in his own imagination, reacting more admirably, making better decisions, and acing the parent test the other parent flunked. Those stories make us feel comparatively safe but simultaneously vulnerable. Most parents, me included, think we’re on the ball. We’re all over it, completely tuned in to every moment. We are vigilant and the threats are kept away by the triple sentinels of laser focus, foresight, and a weird animal intuition that develops when you bear young. But we had a lapse of attention. There’s no other way to look at it. And believe me, any criticism issued from another parent pales in comparison to the criticism we’re raining down on ourselves. Any real or perceived cries of How could they let that happen? are background noise to our own defeaning, pulsating, shrieks of guilt and self-accusation. Not to each other, thankfully, since the complete lapse of attention happened on a shared watch. We co-own it and return to our combo-guilt whenever we look at her.

When seeing those same horrible stories on Facebook or the news, it’s hard to imagine that there’s a little person behind the picture that is eventually posted—the picture that was taken at school or during a candid childish moment that caught her essence, and now, in death, has to tell her whole life story in one simple image. There was a little life force behind the headlines—you lose sense of that when you read the story. It’s impossible to fully imagine what the child was like. What his little personality was like, how he or she touched and impacted the lives of friends and loved ones and classmates. And you think of the moment in those stories when you realize it’s never going to be the same—you can almost pause the scene and look at the frame of time when everything changes. The moment when the alligator explodes out of the seemingly benign Disney lagoon, when the dad closes and locks the car door while the toddler snoozes in his car seat.

When I pause that day’s events in my mind’s DVD player, I often stop at my jump into the pool—when I stripped out of my shirt. Why was my stupid shirt so important in those frantic seconds and where was that quick thinking and attention a few minutes earlier when Alice was making her way down the steps of the swimming pool without her floaties? She told us later that she was going out to be with Audrey and Veronica. She must’ve felt like a big girl at that moment and didn’t stop to think about her floaties. Once she was down the pool stairs she maybe thought she could walk all the way to them, and when she was suddenly on her tiptoes and swallowing water she couldn’t process the issue or comprehend the danger. I try not to think about what she was thinking because I can’t bear to think that she was wondering why daddy wasn’t helping her yet.

The fact that this happened on Father’s Day intensifies it all. My young daughter spent the night in the hospital on Father’s Day due to, at least in part, a momentary lapse of my attention. But another dad stepped up huge. Ted Johnson – what made him notice? There was another grown man, likely a father himself, standing practically night next to her in the pool as she inched into ever deepening water. How did he not notice? It’s not his job to see her, assess her swimming skill level, and scoop her up just in case—but he was right there? Ted had to identify her from 50 feet away and recognize the signs of an emergency situation, of a potential drowning, words that are painful to fathom or say when it’s your own kid in the water.

There’s an alternate scene that I visit sometimes. When I rewind the action to the moment where Ted is about to sit down at the table and he sits in another chair instead, one facing away from the pool. And no one notices Alice walking across the shallow end. Not one notices she’s in trouble and I can’t watch the alternate scene beyond that part. Forever, it will be Ted noticing and me not noticing and the gratitude and guilt will bubble together endlessly in a stew of memory. But I thank Ted, I cherish my friend and neighbor for having my back like no one has had it before. My love and appreciation and awe for the magic he pulled that day will endure long, long after Alice Wren has hung up her floaties. And on each Father’s Day, I hope he feels that profound gratitude.


Getting back on the horse.



People Everywhere

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2016 by Mike

people_final-01My wife is a “People person” but I’m not talking about the bipeds all around us, I’m talking about the magazine. My wife wants the latest issue of People with us on any kind of trip. It’s a must, as much a sure thing as underwear or a near empty tube of toothpaste. She sometimes forgets and I will buy her one and place it with her pile of stuff to take and she will always be happy and surprised by my thoughtfulness. “Aw, honey,” she says, “a new People! Thanks!” This is a lay-up for any guy that needs points.

But even if you like to read People, a subscription is a horrible idea. I encouraged my parents to get her a 6-month subscription for Christmas last year. We are now months into the subscription and any gift would’ve been a better option. Anthrax, socks, anything.

They do not stop. A weekly circulation seems way too frequent at this point and maybe they should add words to the covers as the subscription goes on:

Month 1 – People

Month 2 – More People

Month 3 – Even More People, Wow

Month 4 – The Few Remaining People Not Yet Written About

Month 5 – People We’re Covering Again Since It’s Been Four Months Since We Last Talked About Them

Month 6 – Good Lord, What’s With All the People

So we have stacks of unread Peoples on our living room coffee table. Once in a while I will thumb through some issues, feeling awful that money from my parents and countless trees were sacrificed for the pile of fluff before me. If I stick to the stories that actually interest me, I can read a whole issue of People in 35 seconds, counting the page turns. I will read them while we are watching something on TV and offer up small criticisms as I go, surely depressing and annoying my wife. During one flip-through I may say any or all of the following: Why? Who cares? I don’t even know who any of these people are!

When you think about it, the subject matter is a well that will never run dry. We’re talking about People. People! Billions of them. There will always be billions of them. Granted, there’s a celebrity thrust to the magazine, but many of the pages are devoted to regular old people. So you’re always going to have celebrities, that’s a revolving door, and you’re always going to have people doing regular old extraordinary things. Barring a nuclear event, they will always have people to talk about. And even if there is a nuclear event, the publishers would probably unveil Mutant People just to keep the subscriptions going.

And the departments! I don’t give a shit Who Wore It Better. I don’t care how the dress looked on Taylor, nor do I care how it looked on Kimmy K – line them up side by side, each wearing the same dress that I don’t care about, and my boredom is near crippling. I don’t care what they think about current events, and I don’t need to see them selecting an apple at a fruit stand to remind me that they’re people that shop. I know they’re people that shop. And the asinine crossword puzzle that is designed for the mentally impaired? There is at least one hilarious clue in every puzzle – if you are currently bored with an issue of People, go directly to the crossword and find it! It’s there! Clue: 1980’s TV show starring Mr. T , The _ -Team (1 letter)

I am not sure what People could do to make me happier with them. I think it’s me – maybe I’m just not good with People. But I do know what we will not be getting for the last six months of the year. Good thing People has a website.

Alexander Hamilton’s Other Valentine

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2016 by Mike

With all of the hoopla around the Alexander Hamilton musical and the exaltation of the just discovered genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda (who else gets invited to the Rose Garden to freestyle rap?), I wanted to bring another historical labor of love to the foreground. A Hamilton project that was released before Hamilton projects were cool.

Back in 2000 I was given a thick script that would change the direction of my life. I was living in Beaufort, SC at the time, working at a performing arts center as a PR guy. Besides classrooms rented out for art and dance instruction, the place featured a massive performance space that was home base for a local theater company. We were putting on a production of Shelby Foote’s Shiloh, an ambitious civil war drama that required a huge number of soldiers, which was a challenge to cast given the smallish pool of young professional actors in the tiny community. So I got a part in the play, though I’m not really an actor, and performed many other functions given the “all hands on deck” requirements of community theater. As it turns out, being a “floater” has served me well while jumping between oddball jobs along my meandering career path.

Enter Michael Bober from New Jersey. Mr. Bober, aka “The Bobester,” was an old friend of Shiloh’s Director, Peter Holland, and had come down to visit and videotape a performance. I liked Bober immediately and, at a late-night party after one of the shows, he told me about a film script he had just finished. It was a self-financed documentary film project called Favorite Son, and the title referenced the close, almost familial, relationship between George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Bober had completed the script and now hoped to shoot it in the coming months—Favorite Son was going to be something of a meta-documentary film, with fictional characters working on their own documentary film about Hamilton to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the infamous duel with Aaron Burr. (2004 was the bicentennial of the notorious event that took place in Weehawken, NJ.) Bober’s love of venerable French directors would influence the style—so it would be less Ken Burns and more Truffaut. He told me all of this while I was half-stoned and I pretended to understand his references to French New Wave film and hinted that early American History was a keen interest of mine (lies!) Though I was merely an inebriated rube nodding along to impassioned, high culture dissertations, I was so convincing that The Bobester left me the script and asked for my feedback.

So I read it, scribbling things in the margins when duly entertained or confused. I’m still struck by its breadth of subject matter. I flash to the first days with Bober’s script when I pondered how in the hell all of the information could fit into a watchable movie. Not only did it tell the history of Hamilton and the period players that helped shape that history, but there were pages and pages of dense yet lyrical script about the regional Lenni-Lenape tribe, a careful deconstruction of the treasonous story of Major John Andre and Benedict Arnold, what could be thesis notes about agrarianism versus industrialism with the Great Falls of the Passaic River in Paterson, NJ as a backdrop, and richly-detailed academic reflections on William Carlos Williams and Washington Irving, two luminary writers that wrote about the local geography and history and helped to inspire Bober’s vision. It was like everything that he researched before writing the script was interesting and must be included and imparted to the hypothetical audience. It reminded me of a time in 9th grade world history when I basically highlighted entire pages of the textbook since every bit was enthralling and worthy of remembrance and future inspection.

I mailed the marked-up script back to Bober and somehow, a few weeks later, was invited to come to north Jersey to assist in the upcoming shoot. Peter and I both went to help with the production and I felt like I’d been given a scholarship to film school.IMG_4185

One of our first tasks was to act as location scouts—a surprise considering we were two southern hillbillies who had never been to that part of the country. Being in and around New York City felt like the center of the universe. Every site was a cool place to shoot since everything was so new and exciting. We dubbed this particular affliction yokelvision, where everything looks spectacular through new eyeballs—and we both had it bad.


Our eventual locations took us all around northern New Jersey—Weehawken, Radburn, the banks of the Hudson River, the Great Falls in Paterson, Ringwood State Park—up to Tappan and Tarrytown, NY, down to the revered memorials of Washington, DC, and the Virginian presidential estates of Mount Vernon and Monticello, and to the southern tip of Manhattan—Trinity Church, the New York Stock Exchange, and finally, indelibly, The World Trade Center. We shot down in the PATH escalators and at the top of the South Tower exactly one year before the 9/11 attacks, with much of the haunting footage becoming unusable in the middle of the editing process. How could we include shots of all of those commuters riding the escalators up from the subway to their office buildings when some of them would die in the rubble a year later? And whatever we were trying to say by including these images in the first place would now be a totally different comment.

Beyond scouting, I got a lot of other production experience. Editor was my main job but I was also script super, boom guy, craft services, transportation, foley artist (if you watch the movie, I challenge you to identify the sound effect that was used in the duel the moment the bullet hits Hamilton), and about a dozen other titles and their attendant tasks. Anyone that has worked on an independent film will recognize this insane division of labor.

The historical and artistic nuances of the documentary format created even more interesting jobs to perform—applying for grants, researching historical correspondence, negotiating print usage with major art galleries. We would visit museums in Rhode Island, DC, Williamsburg, scrub through classic films like America and Birth of a Nation to drop into the timeline to support long passages, mine letters from the fathers of the country that would become voiceover to cover all spaces in between–this multi-media approach with live action, art, and film played side by side in the same sequence. All of this stuff had specific places to go and I was frequently amazed by The Bobester’s complete vision.

Regardless of the level of effort, it’s hard to attract much attention or interest without some star power. As it turns out, we had some. Michael Emerson—who ended up playing Benjamin Linus on the chronophrenic, ABC hit drama Lost—provided the voice of George Washington. Yes, it’s strange now, the thought of Ben melding with the Father of Our Country, a tidbit that should warrant a limited re-release of the film. At the time Emerson was less known although he had won an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series for The Practice. Although Lost has been off the air for nearly a decade, I imagine there are people still out there rewinding scenes on their DVDs, looking for clues. I can’t tell you that there are Easter eggs in there that connect Favorite Son to Lost but I wouldn’t put it past The Bobester to have some little blue index card somewhere in his office that says, “Dharma Initiative?”–like he had a premonition and wasn’t quite sure what it meant or how to fit it in.

But not every project is going to be a smash hit. Not everything strikes like a lightning bolt and electrifies its intended audience. Alas, few people even know the film exists. It’s like a giant temple that took the concentrated labor of many men and many years to build and it’s now sitting in an overgrown and remote jungle. But let’s jump cut to another metaphor. The film is also like a bustling train station. It’s busy and fast moving, with people coming in and out, it’s a little confusing sometimes—you’re not quite sure what’s going on or where you’re supposed to be. The sound is distracting and changes volumes erratically. But by being there you can be sent off into many different cool directions—wherever you want to go. Go to the indians, go to the literature, go to the history, go to the landscape, the period art, go to the geography. It’s all there and if you slow down and look closely, there’s some beautiful stuff in every small place you look.

Click here for link to the video

Turning Music Into Stories

Posted in Music, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2016 by Mike

iphone ideas

Ten random songs came up on my run yesterday. My iPhone was tuned to Pandora’s Steely Dan station, (thus the bounty of Steely Dan songs in the following list) but the overall selection of tunes was based on sonic algorithms unknown to me.

I found myself inspired by the lyrics coming into my head and thought, if you excised certain lines from basically any song, putting focus on those lines would be a great way to generate writing ideas. Whether you’re a poet, songwriter, novelist, or unclassifiable dabbler, droughts can affect the creative juices now and then. Why not go to a readily available source (your smart phone) to help generate inspiration?

From those ten random songs, I pulled interesting lines and thought it would be a neat exercise to build stories from them, using the words as pre-selected epigraphs. So use any of the following epigraphs to launch your next great short story or novel (or short and silly Facebook post). Or pull from your own Pandora playlist, if you don’t like these. Share anything you come up with! If nothing else, you will be reminded that Donald Fagen is a master lyricist.

It was still September when your daddy was quite surprised to find you with the working girls in the county jail. I was smoking with the boys upstairs when I heard about the whole affair.

S. Dan


Woman, let’s stay together. Loving you whether times are good or bad, happy or sad.

Rev. Al Green


There’s a special place for lovers, one we understand—there where neon bends in daylight sky. In that sunny room she soothes me, cools me with her fan. We’re drifting. A thousand years roll by.

D. Fagen


Listen to the wind blow. Watch the sun rise. Run in the shadows. Damn your love, damn your lies.

F. Mac


The things that pass for knowledge I can’t understand.

S. Dan


You know, I saw Miss Lucy down along the tracks. She lost her home and her family and she won’t be coming back. Without love, where would you be now?

T.D. Brothers


I said to my reflection, “Let’s get out of this place.”



I am so into you I can’t think of nothing else.

Atlanta Rhythm Section


The mourners are all singing as they drag you by your feet. But the hangman isn’t hanging and they put you on the street.

S. Dan


Like a gangster on the run, you will stagger homeward to your precious one. I’m the one who must make everything right—talk it out till daylight.

S. Dan



Stealing Words

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , on April 17, 2016 by Mike

FullSizeRender (2)

When my parents came to visit a few weeks back, Mom brought a book of poetry we’ve had in the family since I was little. It had been in their stuff all this time and she thought my kids would enjoy it. Just seeing the cover brought back a forgotten memory of a time in grade school when I was given an assignment to write a poem on any subject I wanted. At the time I thought I had nothing important to say and couldn’t think of a single original thing to offer, so I plagiarized an entire poem from the book. This makes me ashamed all these years later, especially since I ended up majoring in Creative Writing and have spent much of my adult life tinkering with words in one way or another. But back then, maybe it was 5th or 6th grade, when I decided to cheat rather than be creative, I figured the subject of the poem would have to be a simple one since I was a kid, and the length should be on the short side since I would need to copy the whole thing word for word. I also knew it couldn’t be a famous poem that the teacher would recognize–I would love to hear my logic on that one, all these years later–written by a poet no one had heard of. Again, my selection process was a joke. I was a little mountain kid with zero knowledge of poetry or poets or what the teacher may know about the subject and could’ve just written something of my own in half the time it took to plot and execute my scam. So I chose a shortish poem about birds written by a dude I’d never heard, copying it verbatim for a grade school assignment, leaving in a few words that I would not have known and themes I would not have grasped. The memory of what happened next is fuzzy but I do recall getting a note back from the teacher saying that she doubted that I was the author of the poem I had turned in, but I can’t remember any punishment. So I’ll share the poem, decades later, and give the proper credit. I know now what I didn’t know then: We all have something to write about.

The Eagle

He clasps the crag with hooked hands;

Close to the sun in lonely lands,

Ringed with the azure world, he stands.


The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;

He watches from his mountain walls,

And like a thunderbolt he falls.
Lord Alfred Tennyson

The Noises at Night

Posted in Verse, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2016 by Mike

(Click here for audio)

Sometimes at night when I’m in bed

A sound floats in that’s filled with dread


A caterwauling from outside

Does speed my heart and bump my hide


It sounds just like a screaming cat

Or a spirit-hunting devil rat


My wife and I will share a look

Pick up a bat or bedside book


We listen for a snap of limb

Anticipate it crashing in


And as we scan the empty yard

And with relief let down our guard


A shape does form from darkened night

And steps into a band of light


It’s fur is matted and unclean

It’s hideous – it’s snarl obscene


That limp would give a snake the creeps

And fill with fear the shark that sleeps


And there again’s that horrid cry

That clamps my throat and sands it dry


But then I realize what we see

Out way beyond the dogwood tree


Is not a cat or rat or dog –

It’s the legendary Hampstead Hog.


I heard the story late one night

Told by a man sat to my right


At Jebby’s bar despite the game

I didn’t even learn his name


But he was pale and struck with fear

I was the only one to hear


I settled up and bid farewell

And then forgot his twisted tale


But now I recall what he said

His words assemble in my head


I make the cross, swear on my life

And say this to my wide-eyed wife


“On moonless nights, as bodies rest

The legend says it comes to test


The decency and common good

Within a chosen neighborhood.


It comes into your yard and prowls

Pierces the night with wretched howls


It lies down on your very lawn

And cries, and moans, and carries on


Until you have to make the call:

To lend a hand or let it squall


The gentle soul that kneels to help

Gets happiness and years of health;


The one who screams and slams the door

Gets unmet dreams and nothing more.”


Remember this next time you’re scared –

Though dangers come from everywhere


Be brave and help all things in need

And you’ll be blessed for your good deed.

hampstead hog

Shooting from Deep

Posted in Family, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2016 by Mike

I’ve never had a good memory and as I approach middle age, it’s getting harder to recall instances from my past with anything close to crisp precision. Everything is gauzy and disconnected, with only snippets surviviIMG_3971ng intact. My local library’s section on memory is maybe 5-6 books wide so I checked out Marilu Henner’s Total Memory Makeover for lack of a better choice. Oh, Marilu Henner? She was on Taxi in the late 1970s and I loved the show as a kid, but borrowing her book made me feel as girly, self-conscious, and out of style as if I’d just bought a Thighmaster.

But Marilu Henner, as it turns out, is one of only a few people on the planet with Highly-Superior Autobiographical Memory. These people are able to recall, with stunning detail, any day of their life—what day of the week it was, what they wore, the big news stories, what they had for dinner, and so on. I don’t need my memory to do all that, I just want to remember better. I feel a huge disconnect from my past and I hope there are tools in her book to help me pave those muddy, pot-holed dirt roads that lead back to my earlier memories.

Books we read can permeate our lives in unexpected ways. While I’m reading Henner’s book, I’m also reading Pat Conroy’s My Losing Season, a touching memoir about his years as a college basketball player at The Citadel, among a hundred other themes. I pick up Conroy before bed or when my computer’s booting at work or on the treadmill to distract me from the pain of exercise or when I’m embarrassed to be seen with a Marilu Henner book. Pat Conroy’s lyrical prose has always enchanted me and the way he writes about the South Carolina Lowcountry—a place I also inhabited for a few key years of my life—teleports me back to those mossy, oak-lined streets that dapple light like no other thoroughfares in the world.

Conroy died about a month ago after a quick decline from pancreatic cancer.  As a tribute and a way to hear his voice again and remind myself that at least that essential part of him will never die, I’ve gone back to read this book. I picture Marilu Henner and Pat Conroy waiting on a bench by the bus stop, patient and still, standing by until I call them back to the quiet places of my mind, those pockets of reading time between work and sleep and the lunacy of domestic life.

So maybe permeation is a natural thing with these books, along with a weird overlap. I spend a lot of time investigating artifacts from my memory with Marilu, then go back to Conroy where he mines his own head to reveal his 20-year old self that suited up for The Citadel basketball squad, the young Conroy that came before the writer Conroy. Likewise, through memory, I’m getting reacquainted with my younger, ball-player self. It’s like we all meet in a half-lit gymnasium—Marilu, young Conroy, old Conroy, young me, and old me—a bizarre lineup indeed, each of us laced up and taking part in these dreamy pick-up games.

When I close my eyes and concentrate hard enough I can smell a hot gym. I can hear the hollow echo of a rubber ball pounding against hard wood and the squeak of dozens of pivoting and cutting sneakers. I can occupy that space between dribbles when anything can happen.

My vivid basketball memories are strewn across many ages and settings. I remember getting called for traveling two straight times down the court in 6th grade—I had replaced another point guard (Marilu says dig deeper and I come back with the name and face of Chris Embler, much to my surprise) and I couldn’t quite figure out when I could take the two allowed steps. And I remember the crowd’s palpable disappointment in the new guy moving the ball down the court like a fullback on the run. I wasn’t ready for the spotlight—it was Chris Embler’s spotlight—and back then it felt as bigtime as Madison Square Garden. See, I suffer from an embarrassing lack of coordination with footwork. I couldn’t skip for a long time and my brother and stepdad would laugh at me mercilessly. Picture how you would simulate galloping while astride a broomstick—that’s how I skipped. And though the first memory (traveling in basketball) brought up a totally random ancillary memory (skipping like a goon), Marilu says to welcome what she calls sporadic memories as they still fill in the blanks. The initial memory also led to another embarrassing memory that took place in an aerobics class when I was out of sync with every other participant and then yet another memory where I couldn’t learn dance steps in a play where I was Brer Bear and the young cast had to dumb down the dance break enough for me to do it. (Marilu pats me on the shoulder and tries to give support, knowing that I will be spending a lot of time retrieving memories that make me look like an idiot. You know, Marilu, maybe that’s why I forgot all this shit in the first place?)

I don’t remember much of anything from my elementary school teams, even though I played as early as 3rd grade. All I can recall are some of the goofy team pictures and the vaguely familiar faces of the boys and my young, thin, boufy-haired effeminate self but I can’t retrieve a single memory of those games. Fast forward to maybe 7th grade, as I lay on the floor of the French Broad Elementary School gym with the other boys on the team practicing our form and follow-through—shooting up towards the ceiling, and the balls in their magical rotation descending towards our soft, awaiting fingertips. Then I remember being in the middle of a game, willfully ignoring open teammates (Kevin Gregg) to try to score and pad my puny stat sheet and my coach (Mr. Martin) reminding me that it’s a team sport. I remember taking an elbow to my braces-filled mouth and having loose wires and braces digging into the hamburger meat of my upper lip – and having to bring my wrecked mouth to the orthodontist (Dr. Taylor). Then I’m on a series of long bus rides returning from away games with my girlfriends from different times in my life (some were cheerleaders, some were players on the girls’ teams) when I was all hands and they had to deploy a staunch defense in the face of my relentless offense and how old that must’ve gotten to every one of them (names withheld to protect the innocent).

I must’ve shot on 100 different goals–Cookie’s house, the court in the public square in Cozumel, the goal by the dunes on Hilton Head, the empty echoing gym of Monmouth University, the goal at The Cave in Campobello where I learned the art of dribbling on gravel—same game in a hundred different locations. Our driveway in Weaverville, where I lived from 2nd grade to my freshman year of high school, played host to countless 2-on-1 contests. Scott Hardister and I would play against my older brother Dave into the darkening evening and my mom would yell down from the deck for us to come in and eat and we’d play until the food got cold (sorry, Mom), taking the same shots from our same sweet spots. Then we’d come in and eat and do it all again on the Nerf goal in the den.

I had a lot of time as a kid to improve my game and add weapons to my modest arsenal but, once I got to high school, all I ever wanted to do was shoot from outside. I was a mindless animal and the 3-point line was my invisible fence. Crossing it would cause a shock of indecision and disorientation—8-foot jumpers were harder and required a whole different set of shot mechanics so I camped out behind the line and waited to launch bombs. When a mob of guys would descend on the gym between classes for epic games of 21, I remember lighting it up. I could run and gun and shoot from deep. Though those memories run together, they are pleasant to think about, and I feel that for a string of years, at least during hot streaks, I was a real shooter. And though I was a guppy in a small, whitebread pond and we’re talking about games of 21 between classes, I was draining bombs at will.

High school games were different. I had no confidence in my skills in the more formal and pressurized game scenario, against kids that weren’t my buddies, in front of people in bleachers all looking directly at the court. I made some but missed most of my high school field goal attempts. Coach Lasher, a macho guy who could deflate my confidence with one withering glare, usually played other teammates who could penetrate or shoot closer, anyone whose game had evolved beyond standing out beyond the arc waiting for a clear moment to heave one up. For our opponents, it wasn’t hard to figure out my strategy and this oversight didn’t even occur to me until long after graduation, when a revelation like that meant nothing.

Add up all the camps and hours spent in driveways and gyms, watching endless plays on televised games, throw in some teenage insecurity and a tough coach, and you somehow end up with a kid stuck at a perimeter fence with only one option in mind. There was a single play drawn up in my head—launch a three if you’re open and haven’t shot one in a little while.

My career high was 17 points against Spartanburg Day School when I hit five 3-pointers in the second half. It was the only time when one of my shooting streaks happened in an actual game and I don’t know how or why it happened then. I was never able to harness it again. The other memorable highlight was when I was elected by my teammates to participate in the 3-point contest at Furman University’s Team Camp. I made it to the finals and came in second to a guy who hit 1 or 2 more than me in the 45-seconds we had to drain as many as we could. I have no idea who the winner was but I like to think it was Steve Kerr and why not, it’s my highlight reel?

It’s weird because I remember having a good reputation as a passer but can’t recall any standout assists. It’s like my selfish memory wants me to be the star of any clip its held onto and doesn’t see the appeal of a firm bounce pass.

While the team dynamic is central to the game, basketball is also one of the few sports you can play by yourself. All it takes is you, a ball, and a hoop to put it through. We have a goal at home and to hear my 7-year old son dribbling and shooting out in the driveway fills me with an athletic kinship, a connection nearly as deep as blood.

I know he’s out there imagining valiant battles between teams, with him embodying every single player. I come out to join him and he says, “Carolina is beating Notre Dame 144 to 68 and Brice Johnson just made a three-point play,” summoning players and concepts that he heard on last night’s telecast. I tell him to work on his dribbling and learn to go left or right, show him the difference between a spin move and crossover, walk him through the artful fluidity of the pick and roll. I try to instill the team mindset early as we execute improvised drills together. It dawns on me that I may be using my son to make up for my own shortcomings from decades past, but I let it go since it will only make him better—it’s up to me to play it off as nothing more than wise instruction rather than the psychological baggage that it probably is.

There are a lot of benefits to having kids but a major one is getting to play games again. Even better, you get to go back to the very beginning and go over the basics. You catch and throw and explain the most elementary of rules and basically do the sport all over—and going back to the beginning can spoil an adult. If you have an adjustable goal and little kids that are just developing their skills with basketball, you get used to having it set to a low height. A regulation basketball goal seems impossibly high after shooting for years on an 8-foot goal. The rim may as well be nailed to the top of a telephone pole. Getting it up there relies on the muscle memory of long unused muscle, muscles that have atrophied in these middle years and forgotten how to do their job. They can’t handle the assignment anymore. Shooting beyond that familiar arc on a regulation goal is a ludicrous proposition now. It’s a heave that could slam off the backboard or fall feet short, depending on how much leg I give it.

Foster has just concluded his rookie basketball season with some other 1st and 2nd graders. His team went 7-1 and he learned a lot in just a few short months. Since the early games that I once played are now lost to me, I wonder if he will remember his first basket and how perfect it looked? It’s hard to imagine that all these moments will be fuzzy memories when he’s an adult, if remembered at all. He will need his own Marilu book to help dig them up, his own Conroy to give them meaning and poetry.

Every skill and point yet to come can be traced back to this pollen-coated concrete driveway. When I go to his games, I will shuffle into the gym as an aging dad. My son will be the player and I’ll be the ride. The skills I had will be decades away and my peak a distant hill on the hazy horizon. I will take my seat in the bleachers and feel his adrenaline in my blood.




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