Crossings

I walked across a bridge two days ago.

It was the bridge I used to walk across every day – but it wasn’t. It looked different. It ended in a different place. The starting point was the same, though.

As I settle in for a day of college hoops championships after a morning in which a sudden snowfall has already melted, leaving behind soggy yellow puddles of icy pollen, I wonder how far I’ve progressed from that starting point.

The bridge - a bit changed in 26 years - I used to walk from my freshman dorm to class. 

The bridge - a bit changed in 26 years - I used to walk from my freshman dorm to class. 

Realistically, I realize I’ve accomplished things. I’ve had a varied and interesting career that is shifting gears into its newest turn. I’ve been lots of cool places, seen many memorable things and met countless amazing people – some of whom even love me.

But as I stood looking at my freshman dorm, trying to remember exactly which window we used to sneak in after-hours visitors, as I waited to see if the train whistle would turn down the tracks under the concrete supporting my feet, I felt unmoored, disconcerted, insubstantial. I have done all those things, yes. I’m also looking to move, again, into another place that has belonged to who knows how many people before me. I hope for bricks steps and azaleas, but wherever I land, it will fall short of porches and dart rooms and bookshelves crowded with school pictures.

I have the sort of bank account that, even with regular contributions from my mother, triggers unsolicited emails offering budgeting advice and investment counseling. I make financial decisions more befitting the college girl hurrying to class across that bridge than a 43-year-old all-intents-and-purposes adult: discount shampoo but top-shelf vodka; no time or money for a haircut again this month but always game for a beer and a bite before tipoff.

It’s an odd feeling, regarding things that you first saw 26 years ago. I don’t exactly remember what I thought I was heading toward as I crossed above those railroad tracks – absent the ambient landscaping – two decades and five lifetimes ago. I’m sure it felt grander than this.

If I could be that 17-year-old again, or the 21-year-old I was the first time I left here, I would do so just for a few days and only if I could tell her not to be in such a hurry. It will all come, I’d say – the bylines, the jobs, the relationships, the Real World – everything you’re not seeing as you rush past, jostling the elbow of the middle-aged woman who clearly doesn’t have anywhere as important to be.

I suppose watching all these conference tournament championships exacerbates this ungrateful self-pity. I covered various levels of these, from the near-empty arenas of the Big South Conference first round to the raucous crowds of the ACC title tilt. I was in a big rush then, too – to get to something bigger and better, realizing too late that it was up to me to make where I was matter.

But, chin up. The NCAA selection show is on, my Gamecocks are a No. 7 seed in their home state, and anything is possible. I love these brackets in their pristine beginnings, as yet unsullied by ink or mistakes. I don’t fill in a blank copy as the teams are revealed anymore, but I still get excited. I’ll print out an online copy as soon as I can and pour over the possibilities, agonize over a few 8/9 matchups and try, as always, to pick the No. 12 Sweet 16 Cinderella. (That’s like fantasy football – everyone knows about it now, but what can you do.) I don’t actually participate in pools anymore, either – takes all the fun out of first-round bracket fires. But I will always fill out a bracket, because one must.

Later this week, friends and I will cheer on the South Carolina women’s team in the first round of the NCAAs here in Columbia. I’m also looking forward to catching up with other friends I haven’t seen for a while. There will be much laughter, no doubt a spot of liquor, and without question a TV – or iPad – in the room.

This rambling emotional roller coaster of a blog entry, which I wasn’t even going to post for my faithful 40 readers because I was annoying myself, demonstrates as well I can, however unintentionally and non-lyrically, the power of sports. To everyone’s relief, the self-pitying whinging has come to a halt –for now – and my thoughts have shifted to bigger things – basketball things.

I’m still kind of a mess, and you probably wouldn’t lose money betting I always will be (depending on the over). But we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

What dreams are made of

I guess it’s a little silly.

This morning, I’ve exchanged texts with the friend I’ve loved the longest about some devastating news for her family – a family that, frankly, has really got enough to handle right now. This past week, I’ve introduced a friend newly diagnosed with cancer to one who’s been fighting it with honest humor and down-to-earth faith for years.

I’ve listened as just a really fucking good person hurt out loud. I’ve seen status updates from friends who are still too anxiety-riddled about our world, our country, our treatment of each other, to sleep.

I’ve faced, again and always, my own fears and desires and questions that have changed form but still wear the same face.

And here I sit, in the same place I sit at this time every year: comfortably ensconced in front of the television, remote at the ready, oddly but familiarly excited to watch one of the best weekends on the sports calendar unfold.

This is the weekend when college basketball’s mid-majors, the little guys, the Cinderellas, fight tooth and Nikes to get to the NCAA tournament via the only route available to them: winning their conference tournaments. These conferences have names like Big South, Missouri Valley, Patriot, Atlantic Sun, Horizon, Summit and Southern. Their championships are contested in tight arenas from which the smell of sweat accompanies the squeak of sneakers through the TV screen and into your living room.

There has already been madness. Jacksonville State, home of the other Gamecocks, booked its first-ever Big Dance trip with a 66-55 win against UT-Martin in the Ohio Valley championship game, solidifying the field’s first automatic bid.

More spots will be booked today and this week, and if history is any indication (and in hoops, it always is), more than a few of these games will go down to the wire. There will be half-court heaves and last-second putbacks, instant elation and split-second heartbreak.

And I’d be remiss not to mention that my Gamecocks women’s team can become just the second SEC squad to win three straight tournament titles with a victory against Mississippi State – a tall order made even tougher after senior center Alaina Coates re-injured her ankle yesterday.

It is a beautiful thing. A small thing, perhaps, measured carefully against the aforementioned sharp edges of the outside world. But I take pleasure and comfort in it.

Last year, I wrote about this beautiful thing in my daddy’s study, surfing on so many sea changes I wasn’t sure which way was up. I was asked questions I had no answers for – none at all, a fact that in itself was somewhat freeing.

A year later, some of those questions have been answered. Others linger, but at least they have been discussed, examined, looked at in a light that brings, if not clarity, then acknowledgment. My sense of self, obliterated by a full-court press of stress and sadness and self-pity and just life, has re-emerged, for better or worse. I will fight to keep it, and it will guide me in the search for the answers I don’t yet have on the days I remember to consult it.

That self is fed by days like this. Sunlight streams through the window onto the napping cat, refracting off my wine glass and my computer screen. It’s 1 p.m., and we’re in the heart of things now. I watch teams I once covered in near-empty arenas, slogging through long days and an idiotic youthful malaise that made me yearn for something bigger and better, not having lived long enough to know that nothing is bigger than a dream 94 feet in front of you.

If I didn’t fully appreciate it then, I do now. And as silly as it may seem, I’m going to indulge in that appreciation all day.

Cinematic land mines

I loved “Moonlight.”

I loved its understated gorgeousness. I loved its performances. I loved the low but captivating light in which it was shot. I loved how it made five million important-to-mankind points without ever stopping to take itself seriously enough to overly emphasize one.

I love Mahershala Ali. I loved Remy from the moment he brought his angry dignity to “House of Cards,” and I loved Cottonmouth’s broken brutality on “Luke Cage.” I vaguely remember him on “Crossing Jordan,” a show five other people and I watched at 3 a.m. on A&E. I loved his description of how he and his ordained Christian minister mother came to terms with his conversion to Islam when he won a Golden Globe for bringing Juan to fabulous, flawed life.

I loved the performances of all three actors who were Chiron. All were mesmerizing and dumbfounding, most especially Ashton Sanders, who conveyed all the unjust heartbreak that is high school in the tension of his neck, the set of his jaw, the silent sea of his eyes. Alex Hibbert is no less a revelation, and Trevante Rhodes, as the adult Black, was walking tangled sinew and mind muscles. When the adult Kevin cooks for him, it was such a pure expression of love that I cried. When Black raises his eyes, finally, to look at Kevin, there is so much said, and unsaid, in that look that it took my breath away and left me concave, panting, searching for the air leached by that gaze.

I love that “Moonlight” won the Oscar for movie of the year. I hate the circumstances under which it won. 

Full disclosure: I was pulling for a “Hidden Figures” upset. That story, so important, so well-told, so absent of the mawkish sentimentality that could have tarnished it, resonated deep within me. I used to live near Hampton, Va., where these ladies worked at NASA. While I adored Taraji P. Henson’s portrayal of actual American hero Katherine Johnson, I stood internally and cheered for Octavia Spencer when Kirsten Dunst’s buttoned-down, acceptably racist-white-woman character at last afforded her the much-deserved title of “Ms. Vaughan.” I owned nothing of these women’s stories; yet, being a woman, I could claim a tiny piece.

I would have been happy with either movie winning the Oscar. I’d also seen, in a last-minute binge, “Arrival,” which I found thought-provoking but nowhere near as effective or affecting.

As I sit here, watching basketball, I cannot help but think. I think about games played largely by young African-American men, games owned and controlled by old white establishment puppetmasters. I will not call these sports that beat within my heart and pump my blood slavery, as some have. It is a despicable word, and to apply it to such – especially with no personal or ancestral knowledge – seems somewhat obscene. I don’t understand the intricacies of the multiple lawsuits pending against the NCAA well enough to attempt to discuss them, even without having consumed two of my beloved Belgians.

I do know that it takes only a modicum of awareness to realize there is labor, or talent – people – generating a huge, entertainment-based profit in which they are legally prohibited from sharing. It’s part of a system that benefits those which systems have always benefited.

For most of my life – perhaps owing to my former profession – a large number of my friends have been men. In several instances that I thank God for, those men have been black. We have gone to dinner and out for drinks and to shoot pool and we have laughed and talked and shared our lives. I have felt looks, from all sides, and judgment of every shade. I have kept talking, and laughing, and sharing.

I thought about this in considering which movie I wanted to win the Oscar. I tried to search my heart. Did I, in any way, feel deserving of any white-gilded congratulations for watching these movies, for seeking them out, for loving them? Do I, in any soul-searing honest discussion, consider myself above the internet trolls who propagate a conspiracy theory or call “Moonlight” a n----- movie solely because I, in that overdone racist tripe of self-apologizing bigots everywhere, have black friends? Appreciate black culture? Have no problem admitting I can – yay, me! – find black men attractive?

I hope not. Here’s the thing. I do see color. I see it and acknowledge it and try to wrap my mind around the message it is trying to convey. I know it is different from me. I think it is sycophantic and self-serving and borderline stupid to deny the existence of the difference. I think the better course of action is to recognize it and try to learn from it.

In the course of my sportswriting career, did I hear people lament that there were no white players in the games historically loved by those doing the lamenting? Of course I did. I do. It is a complicated subject. People joke about the Great White Hopes that come along, and it is meant to be harmless, progressive, enlightened. For the most part, I see it as such. I do not think a system in which the most talented, long denied opportunity, rise to the top is a bad system.

Is that an unknowing, privileged, racist statement? Possibly. I don’t mean it as such. I do not think the Oscars meant to make a dying establishment statement by committing a monumentally embarrassing mistake. I regret that the cast and crew of “Moonlight” were denied their rightful acceptance and heartfelt thanks.

I do not think I saw the best black movies of the year, and in my recent memory. I think I saw the best movies.

I do not think that makes me an enlightened person, white or otherwise. I hope it makes me human.

 

Threads

The stoop in his shoulders stills my breath. For an instant, as my daddy rounds the corner, he is my Pop, the grandfather hunched by years of mill and farm work, the man who eventually could only find relief from the constant pain in as many cortisone shots as the doctor would allow.

I stand in the kitchen in my black-on-not-quite-as-black makeshift pantsuit, momentarily disoriented. I blink and he is my father again, salt-and-pepper beard given over entirely to salt, navy suit baggy on a frame I don’t remember being so thin.

You’ve lost weight? I ask, but am told no, he doesn’t think so.

I grab my keys and follow him out the door. We are going, on a 70-degree Saturday in February, to a funeral.

It’s for my daddy’s aunt, the wife of my Pop’s brother. Her name is Edith. She lived to be 91 and is the next-to-last of that generation, the great aunts and uncles a Sunday afternoon car ride away who lived in houses full of knick-knacks that smelled of lavender. The sisters and brothers indistinguishable to a 6-year-old, the one tall man who played checkers, the other who lived in overalls that smelled like sun-baked earth. Men and women who, through no fault of their own or basis in reality, have seemed old for 40 years.

Gas stations and the Dollar General disappear as we drive farther into the country. The land flattens and leaches color, muddling to the uniform brown of scrabbly pine trees. Mobile homes are interspersed with incongruously large, blindingly white declarations of prosperity, or perhaps just a keen eye for acreage. One house rising on a hill has a fenced-in lot with cows, miniature horses and … a camel. I squawk and stab at the window, leaving the print of my index fingertip. My father confirms my vision.

I’ve looked up directions to the First Baptist church in my phone, a navigational safeguard that proves entirely unnecessary. One left turn off the main road and there it is, brick and stained glass giving way to the utilitarian fellowship hall where lunch is being served before the service.

The wind rearranges my already unruly hair as I tug on the double doors. The smell of things fried in butter hits me seconds before the low waves of conversation. I smile and nod, as does Daddy. We’re fine, thank you, how are you. Who are you? Daddy is equally at sea until my cousin comes up to hug us. Overhead details in our chat identify Daddy, and an initial unease fades in the face of a table laden with potato salad, macaroni pie and fried chicken that I can tell just by looking is going to taste as close to any I’ve eaten since my granny died.

A paper cup of proper teeth-achingly sweet tea washes down lunch, and eventually, people mill over to the sanctuary. Sunlight streams through jeweled windows the preacher tells us are original to the 1891 structure. The pianist plays “In the Garden” as I page through the hymnal. I land on my favorite, “Just As I Am,” and I reassure myself that I remember all six verses, including the last one that doesn’t rhyme.

The mini-sermon isn’t too long-winded. The younger of the two preachers knew Edith and shares sweet stories about visiting her. We are encouraged to turn to God for refuge, asked if we know Jesus. I fiddle with the safety pin discreetly fastened under my jacket.

A sepia-toned picture of Edith as a young woman sits atop one of her handsome husband, gone to glory many years before. I see my Pop in the wave of his dark hair, though Pop’s hair is gray and thinning in my memory. I realize that my father and I, while seated several pews back in the family rows, may be the only ones with the same last name as the people in the photographs.

At the graveside service, I look at that name, carved into the granite headstone. I smile and chat politely with relatives I would not know on the street. I feel guilty and shallow. A cousin who died at 32 is memorialized nearby, and though chunks of my childhood involved his peripheral presence as I caught spring lizards and crawdads in the creek with his little sister, I’d all but forgotten him.

It’s an odd thing, family. This kind, the double helix kind, is nothing we have any say or choice about, for better or worse. It’s a familiar sweater, slightly shapeless from ill-advised hanging, waiting in the back of the closet for the chilly morning it’s remembered. Why don’t I wear this more often, we think, burrowing into its warmth, before we return it to its hanger.

Time wears away threads. My granny sewed. She made my Easter dresses and clothing for the church and, once, flags for the local high school band’s color guard. She taught me as a child, but like the piano I once played, it’s a skill I’ve neglected into rusted obsolescence.

I think of people who share bits of my blood and past, with whom I hiked mountains and haunted used bookstores, and wonder about their lives. So much fades if it’s not part of the front-and-center Facebook universe, a world so vast and so very small.

I wonder how to start stitching.  

The afternoon sun is high and bright as I swing myself into the cab of Daddy’s truck and we back slowly away from the cemetery. The headstone with our name watches us go.

My fingers pick up the needle, hesitate on the keys. I think of the stoop in those shoulders that seems sudden but of course isn’t.

On the drive back, the camel is gone. I return to a hungry cat and pressing deadlines. But I see sunlight shining through stained glass. I hear the piano play.

I close my eyes and listen to the music.

Super Bowl memory shuffle

The first Super Bowl I was alive for took place on Jan. 13. 1974. Miami’s Bob Griese, Larry Csonka and Co. dismantled Fran Tarkenton and the Minnesota Vikings 24-7 in a game venerated Miami Herald sports editor Edwin Pope described thusly: “It was murder. It made the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre look like a draw."

I don’t remember the game myself, as I was four months and a day old. Indeed, I don’t recall that any of the Super Bowls of the 70s made lasting impressions. I know now about the Steel Curtain and Mean Joe Greene (I do remember the classic Coca-Cola ad) and the shrapnel embedded in Rocky Bleier’s knee.

I remember scraps of Roger Staubach’s swan song, Too Tall Jones and Tony Dorsett. I remember Jim Plunkett’s bushy black hair.

Snippets knit together into more substantial stuff around 1981, taking snaps and making plays with Joe Montana. Dwight Clark went to Clemson – I was always clear on that – and The Catch, on Jan. 10, 1982, which lifted the 49ers into the Super Bowl, is one of my first actual sports memories. Hacksaw Reynolds and Ronnie Lott gave me my first clear picture of what defense looks like – an image that has blurred a bit over time.

Washington’s 1983 Super Bowl win against Miami represented the first coronation for the Hogs (Joe Jacoby – robbed again), Art Monk, the Diesel, Dexter and Joe Gibbs. The Redskins’ 1984 beatdown as snow fell in South Carolina at the hands – and feet – of Marcus Allen is the first time I can recall a sporting event putting me in a lasting bad mood.

Ah, youth.

But what truly solidified my love of football, what drove the anchoring nails deep into my pigskin heart, was the wonderful, wacky carpet ride of the 1985 Chicago Bears.

Sweetness and McMahon. Mike Singletary’s eyes. The Fridge (Clemson) and Richard Dent. I had no conception of Buddy Ryan’s genius and only a vague notion of Walter Payton’s place in history, but what I did have was a vinyl recording of “The Super Bowl Shuffle.” Speedy Willie and Mama’s Boy Otis. Backup QB Steve Fuller (Clemson), claiming with a semi-straight face to “run like lightning, pass like thunder.” And my favorite: “My name is Sweetness and I like to dance/Running the ball is like making romance.”

The charmed madness culminated in the Bears’ 46-10 victory against New England in Super Bowl XX on Jan. 26, 1986, and I was hooked. This football stuff was fun.

Gibbs and the Redskins would go on to win two more championships before the long national nightmare that was the mid-’90s and the Dallas dynasty. More iconic names etched themselves in sterling silver. Young. Favre. Elway. Warner. Lewis. Manning. Brady.

The game has not always been as fun as it seemed 30 years ago. We didn’t know about CTE then – well, some of us didn’t. Off-field troubles tended to stay there – for better or worse. Rules changes have gassed up and gunned the product for a fan base whose intelligence is insulted on a regular basis – but never fear; have a team-colored can of crappy beer.

This Super Bowl Sunday, I don’t even have plans. I’m sure I’ll wind up somewhere. I won’t make Super Bowl chili and tape pictures of favorite players to my wall and pack an auxiliary cooler with ice on the porch. But I’ll do something.

I don’t have much of a rooting interest. I remember Steve Bartkowski and Billy White Shoes Johnson, but the Falcons hold no special place in my heart. My disdain for Tom Brady and the Patriots is the same as most of America’s. I’m hoping for a good game, a memorable halftime show from Lady Gaga and that friends who do care will wind up happy.

That seems fitting as of late. I don’t have a huge rooting interest in much these days. Everything seems a little subdued - sounds muted, colors faded. But that’s OK, too. I’ve been around this particular game long enough to know these things, like transcendent quarterbacks and next-level defenses, go in cycles. I’m playing out the final few minutes of the second quarter – or third, depending on your point of view and level of bitchiness. I’ll make some locker-room adjustments, get some fluids, rest a bit and come back out – eventually – rejuvenated and ready to run through a wall. (That part I’ve practiced).

In the meantime, maybe there’s a good Super Bowl retrospective on somewhere, perhaps something with grainy footage and John Facenda’s voice.

And there’s this: Pitchers and catchers report in eight days.