Archive for the ‘by Josh Wilker’ Category

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Darryl Dawkins

August 29, 2015

DawkinsIn memory of Darryl Dawkins

In 1979, the world was divided thusly:

  1. Those who could graze the bottom of the net.
  2. Those who could grab the net.
  3. Those who could touch the rim.
  4. Those who could grab the rim.
  5. Those who could dunk through the rim relatively small round objects such as a tennis ball or a volleyball.
  6. Those who could dunk.
  7. Darryl Dawkins.

I was eleven at that time, and this hierarchy coursed from my feet to my fingertips with wonder and need. I was in the first group, occasionally, sometimes able with all my might to jump and just barely feel the soft, puffy threading of the net hanging from one of the hoops in the junior high gym in Randolph, Vermont. I started playing basketball that year for a seventh grade team that would lose every one of its games, and so it was the year when I began to identity myself with the bottom of hierarchies. Accompanying that identification was an intensification of a fantasy life built on various notions of power and flight.

That hierarchy gave way over the years to other, more nebulous ensnarements. I never did get to the sixth level. I got close. Once I even sort of pushed one through on an outdoor rim, but because I was never able to duplicate the feat anywhere else I’ve come to believe that the rim was slightly lower than regulation, or that I was dreaming.

Dreams come and go. I’m pushing fifty now, an age when it’s not really possible to envision life as a rising. But life will always be astounding. Think of barely being able to touch the bottom of the net and then discovering that elsewhere in the world someone was able to leap up and dunk with such force that the whole backboard shattered to pieces. The counterpoint to the feeling of losing isn’t winning, exactly. It’s imagining what Darryl Dawkins could do.

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The Benchwarmer Interview

August 25, 2015

Benchwarmer cover finalThe Benchwarmer Interview

The following is a roundtable discussion about my new book, Benchwarmer, with a series of versions of Josh Wilker. (This was inspired by David Ebenbach’s post about his new book of poetry.)

Seventeen-year-old me: You wrote a book? Is it like On the Road? [lights bong]

Current me: No, it’s not really like that. It’s off the road. It’s about when I became a dad. The first year or so of that, kind of losing my shit and whatnot.

Twelve-year-old me: Whatnot? What is whatnot? And when did you become a dad? No way you were as old as Dad when it happened. That was one thing I never wanted to have happen, be a dad that old.

Current me: I was even older! It took me a long time to, I don’t know, get my shit together. Not that my shit was together when the baby came. In fact, that’s when I realized how far from having my shit together I really was.

Eighty-two-year-old me: You wasted your life. It’s right there in the book—getting so upset with yourself that you punched yourself in the head. Who does that? Nutjobs, that’s who. And you know who’s paying for all the blows to the head?

Current me: Who?

Eighty-two-year-old me: What?

Current me: Who is paying for all the blows to the head?

Eighty-two-year-old me: What are you talking about? Where . . . where am I?

Twenty-four-year-old me: Wait, is this your first book?

Current me: No, I’ve written a few. Two “real” ones, and by real I mean they are both intended to be—sorry for the pretentiousness—literary, plus they also have the theoretical element of one day involving royalties, plus another short one that’s also real and that I love but it’s really short so I hesitate to count it, and I know all this talk about counting is ludicrous. Anyway, there were also a bunch of nonfiction children’s books that I wrote for practically nothing when I started getting sick of dealing with belligerent gangs of teenage shoplifters at the liquor store.

Twenty-four-year-old me: Yeah, tell me about it. I’m surprised to see you, actually. I figured we’d be shot in a holdup by now. But so why are you punching yourself in the head? What the fuck are you complaining about? And the kid—he’s your biological kid? Yeah? So you got laid at least once and possibly even with at least some regularity and are maybe even married, yes? Happily? Yes? Jesus Fucking Christ. You got laid, you’re in love with your wife, you’ve written books, and you’ve got a kid to, you know, love and everything and—

Current me: Two kids now.

Twenty-four-year-old me: Two kids! To stand there by your bedside when you’re this guy [uses a thumb jerk to indicate eighty-two-year-old me as the latter is meandering blearily out of the conference room] and about to check out. So what’s the problem? Do you know how lonely it is to be me, and how fucking frustrating to be filling up notebooks day after day with pure shit that no one will ever read? I’m the guy who should be punching himself in the head.

Current me: You did punch yourself in the head. If memory serves—and my memory is already going—you were the one who started the whole practice. Or somebody did. Maybe it was even earlier. Did you start doing that?

Twelve-year-old me: I don’t know. Last year I almost got hyperthermia walking in the ice storm for six miles the day I was so mad that little league team practice was cancelled.

Current me: Yeah, that’s the same basic idea. I don’t know why we want to punish ourselves.

Seventeen-year-old me: [blows out bong hit, coughs for several seconds] So the whole book is, uh, you punching yourself? That’s where I end up? What about beauty, dude?

Current me: No, it’s not just me punching myself. But the few people who’ve read the book seem to seize on that as its defining aspect. I just wanted to honestly show what that first year was like. The thing I wanted to get across more than anything was the beauty. It was way beyond anything I’d ever seen, and it almost wrecked me.

Twelve-year-old me: Ugh. I like funny stuff. Is it funny? Does it have sports? If it doesn’t have funny and sports I’ll just stick with my stacks of Mad Magazine and Sports Illustrated.

Current me: It’s actually all about sports—it’s an encyclopedia of sports failure. It was the only way I could think of to talk about that first year, to use losses large and small to talk about my life. To get through it. Some people think it’s funny. Some people think it’s sad. I laughed while I was writing it.

[Eighty-year-two-old me re-enters the room. He seems surprised that there are people in the room.]

Eighty-two-year-old me: I thought this was the way back outside.

Current me: No, uh. But I think we’re wrapping up, so—

Eighty-two-year-old me: I must tell you in all honesty that I seem to have defecated in my pants.

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Bill Walton

July 2, 2015

1986-celtics-t1You Are the Eyes of the World

Conclusion

When Bill Walton first met the bench, he greeted it with utter dejection. You want life to be one unbroken moment of play, but it won’t be. Sooner or later, you’ll be benched. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the chance to come off that bench again. This happened to Bill Walton when after a long exile as an oft-injured Clipper he joined the Celtics, my favorite basketball team. When this transaction occurred, it was for me like when, a few years earlier, Mark Fidrych was signed to a minor league contract by the Red Sox. Both had been legends of the 1970s not only for their truncated, spectacular professional accomplishments but for the way the two longhaired free spirits represented the wide, spazzy wonder of the times. Fidrych, despite my hopes, never made it back onto a big league field, a failure that weighted the acquisition of Walton with pessimism. Beautiful comebacks never occur, I believed. I had been in junior high school, that national institution for pessimism, when Fidrych arrived for his futile last stand at Pawtucket, and Walton’s arrival in Boston occurred three years later, in the fall of 1985, a few months after my expulsion from high school. I wasn’t sheltered in any kind of institution, pessimistic or otherwise, for the first time in over a decade, was living in Boston with my aunt and uncle, had nowhere to be except to wander around town and smoke pot from a one-hitter and pretend to look for a job and fish the Globe out of the trash, which is probably how I found out about the pulling of Bill Walton into my world from oblivion.

Please just let him be healthy for one season, I said. I remember the words if not the specific moment. Probably I was holding the gleaming garbagecan news in my hands. Call it a prayer.

And it worked. For that one season, 1985-86, Walton’s faulty body miraculously held up, and the Celtics had a dream season just when I needed it most. I’ve never enjoyed anything in sports more than that team, that season, and when I think of that season I think of Bill Walton flicking a behind the head pass to Larry Bird on a backdoor cut. I think of Bill Walton’s uncanny vision, the way he could see the court with something bordering on omniscience. I think of Bill Walton awakening. Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world. I think of Bill Walton beaming with joy.

My guess is that the picture at the top of this post is from the following season. The starting five all show evidence of having been in a game, but Walton, the Sixth Man for the ’86 Celts, seems to have not taken off his sweats in a while. He’s benched. This is what happened to him after that one miraculous season—his body started breaking down again and he never managed to stay on the court for long. It was a disappointment, especially since it contributed to the Lakers being able to beat the Celtics in 1987 and claim the “team of the decade” crown. But Walton mainly seems to have taken it in stride. Sooner or later, you’ll be benched. If you’re lucky, you’ll realize how lucky you’ve been, or maybe even how lucky you still are to have a seat so close to the action.

This past weekend something happened that I can’t quite put my finger on. I was at a golf course where my wife’s parents spend a lot of time. My four-year-old, Jack, likes it there. There’s grass, for one thing, which he doesn’t get a whole lot of in the city. Also, there are golf carts. He loves riding around with his grandpa. So the thing that happened was nothing special, really: Jack rode off in a golf cart with his grandpa. I was on the bench, as it were, to see it. More exactly I was sitting at an outside table overlooking the course. I knew that Jack knew he was about to zip out into the wide greenness and go bouncing over bumps. He was wearing the Avengers baseball cap he had picked out for himself at Target, and it was a little askew, and he was sitting straight up, attentive. I’m at a loss to explain my joy. To see my son happy!

I’m lucky. I’ve been benched, my life defined by the bench, and this has all been through no doing but my own. But to be benched and to see such a thing, to see my life open in such a way.

This weekend I’ll spend all the time I can with Jack and with my other son, Exley, who just turned one and is on the brink of walking, and on Sunday right before they go to bed for the night I’ll be heading to Soldier Field to see Bill Walton’s and my favorite band, the Grateful Dead, in what’s being billed as their last show. My friend Pete will be there with me and has been asking me what I think they’ll play. I’m trying not to think too much about that so that whatever they play won’t have to battle in my head with any hopes and expectations. But I can’t help hoping I hear Eyes of the World. Life is a long, gradual benching, but in that benching, I believe, there’s the possibility of awakening, of seeing, of joy.

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The Astrodome Bench

May 24, 2015

BadNewsBears-300x168You Are the Eyes of the World

Four

I thought my life had more or less taken whatever shape it was going to take. I thought I’d seen all I’d ever see, and anything in my path from here on out would be familiar repetition. I didn’t have the courage to push past that resignation.

Here’s a scene from a game that never happened on a bench that no longer exists. It’s from The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, a 1977 movie with which I’ve long been obsessed. In the movie, generally considered to be a notably inferior sequel to its 1976 predecessor, The Bad News Bears, the titular little league team travels without parents in a customized van from California to Houston to play an exhibition game against the best little league team in Texas in between games of an Astros’ doubleheader. The Texans pummel the Bears for a few innings, and then suited functionaries hustle onto the field to call the game early.

“Time’s up,” one of them says. The head umpire awards the game to the Texas team, which begins to celebrate. The Bears, stunned and disappointed, walk off the field, with one exception.

I can feel myself getting choked up as I start to think about the exception. It’s been this way for thirty-eight years, ever since I first saw the movie in the Playhouse Theater in Randolph, Vermont.

My new book came out a couple of weeks ago. It’s about my eyes, how they were wrenched into seeing something new despite my failing nerve, my resignation. It’s about my first year or so as a father. It’s about my son Jack. I took the day off from work on its release date to celebrate with Jack and my wife and our own little spin-off sequel, a second boy named Exley. We went to the children’s nature museum and both boys had a great time. When it was time to go, Jack didn’t want to.

“Where’s everybody going? We’re not finished!

These are the words spoken by the one player, the Bears’ shortstop Tanner Boyle, who refused to accept that the game in the Astrodome was being called to a halt. It could also stand as the message vibrating through every fiber of Jack’s body when it’s time to move on from a moment he’s enjoying.

That’s life, right? You have to just accept that sometimes the game, the fun, is just over. Right?

Consider a sublimely talented player pictured on the bench in the background of the photo. On the left, in the warm-up jacket: that’s J.R. Richard. In the years directly following the filming of the scene he would become one of the most dominating pitchers in the game. Then in 1980 he would suffer a stroke and never pitch in the majors again. This is more dramatic but not essentially any different from anyone’s story, which is: the game ends.

However, in the moment shown here, the bench has begun to react to a push back against this eventuality. Tanner has begun eluding the two men in suits who’ve been ushered forth from some invisible authority to pull him from the field. The Bears have begun enjoying themselves again. In a moment the Astro on the far right, Bob Watson, will say, “Let the kids play,” and the lone non-uniformed figure in the picture, Mike Leak (William Devaney), the star player’s estranged father, who has recently been enlisted as the previously, luridly unsupervised team’s coach, will pick up the notion and begin rallying the crowd with a chant that will become what the sequel is known for, if it’s known for anything:

“Let them play!”

The chant builds, Tanner keeps eluding the suits. Every time I see this, and I’ve seen it hundreds of times, my eyes moisten.

This past weekend my family went on a charity walk that involved one loop around a big lake. Back in the days when I’d thought I’d seen all there was to see, one loop around this lake would have been nothing. But the sun was beating down and the baby kept yanking off his sun hat and beating his head against my wife’s chest and Jack kept wanting to sprint everywhere but along the route we were supposed to be taking. There were dandelions everywhere, and he wanted to pick them and gather them and blow on them because he remembered that dandelions in another form were capable of this dispersal. I explained that dandelions go through a process, going from one thing to another, and only when they’ve changed to gray dusty bulbs can you make a wish and blow their seeds everywhere.

“The seeds scatter and go into the ground and make more dandelions,” I said.

“Dandelions make dandelions?” he said.

“Right.”

“Why do dandelions make dandelions?”

How do you answer this? Dandelions make dandelions make dandelions. But why?

“Come on, we’ve got to get around this lake,” I finally said.

“But why do dandelions make dandelions?”

I thought my life had more or less taken whatever shape it was going to take. Now I know I have no idea where it’s going or even why. Sometimes—to be honest more often than not—I feel like the suited functionaries trying to wrestle Tanner Boyle into complying with their rules. It’s time to go. Why? Because! But sometimes from where I sit I’m beginning to see, even enjoy, unstoppable endless dandelions seizing the field.

To be continued.

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Bobby Valentine

April 21, 2015

BobbyValentineMustacheGlassesDisguiseYou Are the Eyes of the World

Three

Yesterday I wore a tail for a few hours. It started in the morning when my older son, Jack, not wearing any clothes, as is his wont, walked out of the bathroom with a long strand of toilet paper hanging out of his butt. He’s a couple months shy of four.

“This is my tail,” he said. “You get a tail too, Daddy.”

“I’m not sticking anything in my butt right now,” I said.

“My tail! My tail!” Jack hollered. It had fallen out. “Mommy, stick my tail back in!”

“OK,” she said. She was dazed from being sick for the past few days. Halfway through the process, kneeling, she said, “Why am I always dealing with butts? This is my whole life now. Jack, things aren’t supposed to go up your—”

“Daddy, put a tail up your butt!”

“No more putting things up butts!”

“Mommy!”

You have to also picture throughout this exchange the high-pitched yowling of a screechy woodland ogre. This is the general conversational style of my younger son, Exley, who’s a little over ten months old.

“But, Mommy!” Jack said.

“Eeeyyaaooowl!” Exley said.

“Holy God!” I yelled.

“I’ll give everyone tails!” my wife yelled. “But not up butts! That’s it!”

She tied a rope around Jack’s waist and fastened another rope to it. She looped the belt from a bathrobe around a belt loop above my butt. Jack and I ran up and down the hall a few times with our tails flying around. The younger boy crawled after us yowling. Eventually the yowling turned to crying and I picked him up. Jack got bored without me in pursuit and took off his tail. After a lot of bucking and crying, Exley fell asleep. I eased him down into the bassinet. I noticed that I still had a tail on. I started taking it off and then I stopped. I would be walking to the beach with my family later, then to the grocery store. I’m 47 years old. I was going to do all that with a tail? Out there in society?

“Why are you wearing a tail still?” my wife asked as we walked to the beach.

It was a fair question. I looked like an idiot, surely.

I can’t really explain it. I’m losing my mind, probably? More specifically, I’m excited about my book coming out in a couple of weeks, but I’m also terrified. I don’t remember being this scared when Cardboard Gods came out. Maybe I was. All I know is I’m overwhelmed by anxiety. The process of writing a book for me is one saturated almost perpetually with doubt, but then right at the end, aided by exhaustion, the doubt abates a little and I get this feeling that what I did was OK, that I did the best I could, that I wrestled with whatever was inside me and got it down onto the page in some kind of an artistic form or whatever. This feeling goes away, and the words that were once so close to me go cold on the page, and I can’t make heads or tails of what I’ve done. So I worry that this book will be the door I’ve always worried about, the one that opens to the suggestion that even my best effort is the work of a fraud.

This is the general feeling of fatherhood, too, I’ve found: continual fakery. This is perhaps why yesterday for several hours I wore a tail. On the beach, on a playground, waiting in line to buy bread and beer and wintergreen Trident at the grocery store. Fuck it: Here I am world, the fool, the fraud. For the first time in weeks I felt great.

Which brings me to this great moment in bench-sitting. It was in June 1999. Bobby Valentine was tossed out of a game as the manager of the Mets and shortly after the expulsion reappeared on the bench in the most ludicrously flimsy disguise imaginable.

There are days when you can’t lose. When just sitting on the bench is a victory, even if on the bench you’re a fool, a fraud. Yesterday was one of these days. I sat on the bench by Lake Michigan with my son for a few minutes and watched the swift little waves bash into the shore and beyond that the wide water stretching to the horizon and felt no pain and when I got up to follow Jack to a playground my tail, just briefly, got stuck in a gap between metal slats. One little tug before I was able to go on, a grown man wearing a tail, free.

To be continued.

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Scottie Pippen

April 14, 2015

pippen benchYou Are the Eyes of the World

Two

Sitting on a bench is usually an indication that the world has said No to you, not that you have said No to the world. For a long time I believed my life story was an example of the former, not the latter. My life was out of my hands. I wanted to play, wanted to be a part of things, but it wasn’t happening. This is what I told myself. It’s probably partly true. The other part is that at some point I started saying No to the world.

You can’t say No to the world when you’re a father. Well, you can, but it will cause pain. For example, yesterday I said “fucker” to my son. Perhaps a case could be made that I said it to the room within earshot of my son, that I was just swearing at the world, not at him. However, a case could not be made that, later, I muttered “shut up” to anyone but my son. He is not yet four years old.

What does any of this have to do with Scottie Pippen? Scottie Pippen was good at what he did. He had one particularly bad moment in his career, but it doesn’t deserve to define him. I’m merely poaching that moment to talk about one of the ways in which I tend toward the bench. There are a lot of ways to the bench. Trust me, I know. I’m a benchwarmer. Scottie Pippen took one of the ways in the spring of 1994. He was for that one year, in the absence of the player Larry Bird once referred to as God, the leader of the Bulls. When a big shot needed to be taken in a playoff game against the New York Knicks, Pippen’s coach called for another player to take the shot. There were 1.8 seconds left in the game. Pippen took those 1.8 seconds off. He said No to the godless world. He quit.

What caused me yesterday to say No to the world? I guess I’d have to tell you my whole life story with more honesty than I’ve previously mustered to answer that, but the immediate situation was that my son was having trouble getting to sleep. We have this elaborate, often ineffective, ritual to try to get him to sleep, and while sometimes it works OK, lately it has gone to shit again, and everyone in the house is miserable. I coauthored the whole mess, and yet I’m brimming with resentment about it. My fuse is shorter than ever. I said “fucker” when I was lying down next to my son and he flailed his body and kicked me in the head. Later I muttered “shut up” when he started to ask me a question when I was holding him and singing and dancing. This is part of the elaborate ritual—me holding him and singing and dancing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I know that however we’ve gotten to this point, to me dancing around a fairly large young boy as if he were an infant, I won’t help anything by blowing up in anger on him. But my fuse is short. In those moments I want to quit and sit down and not be a part of this anymore.

I know what it feels like to not have the play called for you. That’s how things felt for a long time in my life, and I know that my general reaction to this was to quit. To not even be a part of the action anymore. It became habitual, but it’s a habit I can’t surrender to anymore. I can’t quit now. Life no longer allows it. I’m in the game no matter what. But inside my body, my flesh, there’s that pull toward the bench. I want to sit down. I want to pout and be null and void of my own volition, so say No and watch the world from a withering remove.

To be continued.

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Bill Walton

April 7, 2015

Walton benchedYou Are the Eyes of the World

One

I am sick of worrying over every sentence, every word, and so without stopping, jamming, hoping to find pure play, I am going to write about the greatest moments in sitting on the bench in the history of the world, starting with this moment captured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1978 and burned into my brain forever as the prototypical image of being on the outside looking in or perhaps more accurately being withdrawn from the game, being so far inside as to be removed from that which brings the most joy: connection with others.

Bill Walton dropped off the face of the earth right around the time of this cover and would not resurface for many years, for so long as to seem as if he had disappeared forever, and so for those years when he was altogether gone—actually he was an oft-injured member of the roster of the San Diego Clippers, which is one step beyond being gone—it seemed he was never going to come back. He had been to me, in his free-spirited ways and his joyous enthusiasm and in his untimely removal from the center of the action, a basketball counterpart to Mark Fidrych, who disappeared from the world at around the same time, the late 1970s, the Malaise Years, and as with Fidrych I had a yearning for him to reappear, to rise from his glum remove on the bench and be what he once was.

Fidrych never returned. That’s one difference between the two. The other is that Walton was when healthy among the greatest to ever play his sport, something that could never be claimed for Fidrych, despite his inarguably great rookie season (he deserved the 1976 Cy Young Award). The more complex Walton was not as magnetically likable as Fidrych, but like Fidrych Walton’s magnetism was based in joy. When his faulty body let him he had a volcanic joy for the game he loved, and he channeled that joy into connection with his teammates. Fidrych’s similar compulsion bubbled up outside the crux of the more solitary demands of his game, most notably when he bounded from the mound to shake the hand of a teammate who’d made a nice play; conversely, Walton’s happy need to share the love was woven into the fabric of his game. His greatest gift as an athlete—besides being a nimble, powerful giant—was vision, a gift he used to become the player generally considered to have been the greatest among all centers in setting up a teammate to score.

But how would I even know this? I never once saw him play during his time at UCLA or with the Trailblazers. His talents were entirely word-based and imaginary to me, but perhaps for that reason they were more intimately known to me. I saw him in my mind grabbing a rebound and in that very instant, airborne, locating a streaking teammate far upcourt and hitting him in stride with the perfect court-traversing outlet pass. I saw him exulting, fist raised, as his teammate scored the open lay-up that Walton alone had seen as a possibility.

And so to see this beauty disappear into the slumping misery of one on the bench was rough. Add to this that Walton’s disappearance from the world mirrored not only Mark Fidrych’s but also my own. I’d been a happy kid, laughing, reveling in the back-to-the-land sprawl and mess and joy-dreams of my parents—dreams shared by Walton above all among athletes of his time—but as the wide 1970s narrowed to a new, more constricted decade I edged into an adolescence that looked pretty much exactly—thematically speaking—like this picture of Walton on the bench. I was not connected anymore somehow. I was benched.

To be continued.

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