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In stubborn perpetuity
Brandon Miller, that Raptors women's empowerment clip, and getting out of your intellectual depth.
I love reading smart people when I feel dumb. And if not dumb, then brain-dull, inarticulate. When I feel ideas and language pooling stagnant at my feet, resting there too long without any fresh intake or forced churn. Almost like a deep body craving for a very specific kind of food and its nutrient yield, I’ll have days or weeks where I get the urge to return to old favourites. Will have their names come through clarion clear in my head, my brain in a state of ideological deficiency and desirous of the exact person it needs to renew itself.
There’s something freeing in being intellectually out of your depth and instead of growing cagey or closed in, handing yourself over. Easier to do when you’re just home, alone, reading, but kind of a necessary exercise out in the wider and less forgiving space of the world. This is oversimplifying the current “state of things”, but the general lack of personal accountability we see play out in everyone from political leaders to NBA superstars, or the social media propagated self diagnosing of everything being toxic (a lot of the world is in a sicko state, it’s true) and nothing being anybody’s personal fault, or hostility toward “the media” (turning media into some amorphous front, too) strikes me as an outright rejection of intellectually treading water. A lack of curiosity reinforced by the fear of being wrong, or being informed you’re mistaken and the possibility of that being worse, so instead opting to hold one’s own truths to be self-evident, in stubborn perpetuity.
Beyond how humbling it can be to feel, occasionally, like a moron, to be tossed into, or to dump yourself into deeper cerebral waters forces a stronger and longer lasting mental response. To swim up from that sort of mental murk and start to make sense of the world through a new lens can be so clarifying, so fortifying not of old ideas or practices, but recognizing that the world — in your head or outside it — gets so much bigger when you’re willing to see how small you are in it.
Vivian Gornick always makes me feel small. Not cowed, but tucked away down and outside of things. Made into an observer. Steph introduced me to her writing years ago, with Approaching Eye Level and then Fierce Attachments. This week, after finishing a couple of novels, I beelined right to the copy of Gornick’s Taking A Long Look I’d bought years ago and dutifully shelved beside her other books. There were other books I wanted to get to, especially the recent titles I’d picked up on a layover at my favourite bookstore in Terminal B at the Denver airport, but I suddenly felt a stronger desire to be made a fool of then read fiction that ferried me happily along.
I ripped through the first three essays, all on authors (Lore Segal, Alfred Kazin, Herman Melville) and shot up, rejuvenated. This feeling like what I’d read would continue to settle and spark things in my brain as my brain, sluggish and protesting, caught up. I went back to the end of her own foreword in the book that hadn’t clicked when I’d read it, 10 minutes earlier, but was beginning to,
This book, then, is a collection of pieces written over a period of some forty years that demonstrate, I hope, the apprenticeship of a writer whose critical faculties have been shaped by the hard-won knowledge that reading into material is energizing but reading out of it is infinitely more rewarding.
The New York Times fact checker, at first, made me feel like an idiot. In her first email, she introduced herself and then politely asked whether I had another version of the Dunk Contest story we were working on that was fully annotated. The working copy had annotations — enough annotations, I thought — but I suddenly felt a lurching sense of being so out of my depth that she was referring to something else entirely.
I replied and asked her to please bear with me, but if she could highlight the areas that needed additional annotating, I’d be happy to add. She came back with a numbered point form list I had to do more than one scroll to get through. It was just for the first 500 words.
When I started to answer her questions — we couldn’t say “it was to be” Aaron Gordon’s last Dunk Contest because he was’t dead, can we call Derrick Jones Jr.’s dunk a reverse 360 if he didn’t get all the way around, was Dr. J’s mouth really “hanging open” or was it more agape — I realized how much of the way we write or talk about basketball relies on a shared shorthand. That even people who would hate very much to have the term "eye test” anywhere near them reap its benefits. We’ve all watched dunks that make time appear to slow, or caught our breath on buzzer-beaters that stretch 0.5 of a second out like a soaking wet t-shirt. Endless replays of these in-game moments reinforce that. We know we haven’t actually seen, with our own eyes, basketball manipulate time, but chances are you have a few memories where your brain has reinforced sequences like this for you. Where it’s frankly impossible for you to remember them, as they happened in real time, as reality.
I also realize that the way I write about basketball relies on it very much existing in multiple realms at once. Being bigger than the reality of the action. I rein this in when I need to (though I have asked athletes who dunk often to level with me if time slows up there, been secretly crushed when they say no), but Basketball Feelings wouldn’t exist without that freeform extrapolation.
I came to love the fact-checking process. The way I described it to a couple friends was like two aliens meeting on a neutral planet where they still found a baseline of communication through a shared love. In our case, language. It made me think more critically of my own writing, of basketball, of my writing about basketball. That probing questions like, "Why do you say Gordon is the Dunk Contest's most enthusiastic supporter?” made me dig into experiential knowledge, hunches, and draw sharper lines of trust in myself. That straightforward questions like, “How do you know the contest is about 90 minutes usually?” became metaphysical as much as a good reason to email the NBA and ask. Illustrated the duality (or triality, or more) always at play. That everything, most of the time, is several things, and how easy it is to forget that, or the rewarding light to heavy legwork understanding can take, when we spend too long ensconced in what we already know very well.
So many of the things that range from cringe to mystifying to dangerous in basketball come from an inability to look beyond it. Could be avoided by pausing very briefly to ask, Who am I talking to? and to think farther than the first wave of already affinitive audience that springs to mind. To people who don’t share the same shorthand, or have been affected intensely and personally by violence that basketball can so handily eclipse when basketball is presented as the bigger thing. To people who, despite personal misgivings from tone-deaf past reactions, manage to shave some small sliver of benefit from a very big bulwark of doubt because they believe and want things to get better.
The failure or refusal to do so not a sign of stick-to-itiveness, singular identity or of confidence, but a lazy callowness, a low-grade ignorance. An admission that to be held in some form of elevated standing in a world so small in the grand scheme of everything else is enough; its trappings and hollow protections and comforts, enough.
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