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Who's ever ready?
Damian Lillard goes to Milwaukee, and notes on clarity.
I lose cleanness as I travel down the coast. In my sense of days, their structure — real and imagined. In how much I’m carrying, a growing collection of sentimental odds and ends gathered in the pockets of my bags or tucked into my notebooks and books. More books. So many that I need to ship some home from San Francisco before I continue south. Cleanness in the clarity of the work I set out to do, though I knew that was coming. Travel and its cheating sense of momentum always nudges into the things I’m writing, which is one of the things I love about it but I’ve also never had a project this big to keep straight, while travelling for it. A book, the book as it’s come to be referenced in revered to downplayed tones by friends and me (respectively) I’ve seen who ask about it (I think I keep forgetting to put that information here as a topical aside, so — I’m writing a book).
I lose the cleanness in my clothes, the crispness in the intention they were first packed with, creases and lines now folded and refolded many times. Luckily I’ve been able to run a couple loads in some of the places I’ve stayed but my shoes — the mesh of my sneakers that were splashed over with bile on the Pacific Coast Highway then soaked in a bucket at Sea Ranch, now fringed with dried grass and canyon dust from morning walks with Shanon and her dogs; the fine coating of dirt, a ruddy brown silt from the coastal meadows of Northern California at home in the soft creases of my red cowboy boots, wiped off to wear on the drive to San Francisco and now, knocked around a splintering wharf in Santa Barbara — will carry it all home.
The cleanness of the land disappears the father south I go in California. To start in a place like Sea Ranch, with its communal and architectural intention. A community built to mimic the land it was built on. The slanted and sharp right-angled roofs and awnings matching the windswept cypress, every exterior finished in wide vertical boards of fading timber in aging patinas from copper to umber, tawny to grey. The land, sharpened and softened by the salt air and scoured in the sun. The land, its clarity, the focal point. Then San Francisco, dense as it is, its volume of buildings and bustle structured in latticed and elevating order. Its slopes swinging down into neighbourhoods distinct enough for your brain to organize an internal map but not so severe that they don’t blend, and every hill you’ll find yourself climbing ends in a plateau to gain your bearings from, some much more introspectively than geographically. Like the peak in Buena Vista Park I scaled from its west side, up timber steps built uneven into the dirt instead of the winding paved path on the other side, that broke open into a towering eucalyptus grove with views of the Golden Gate made miniature, a whoosh of sudden air on the crown of my head as a big red-tailed hawk made the same climb after me. And finally L.A., which I couldn’t see down on flying into because while I paid extra for a window seat, the one I got was where the plane’s seating sometimes stutters, puts a row next to the wall between windows. So wending in from Burbank Airport on the 5 and 134, looking down from the freeway’s ledge onto the sprawl of Glendale, coming into Eagle Rock and Highland Park, there was no gradual acclimation. Only the main streets with their traffic and deceptive proximity, easy to forget how far one thing is from anything else when the way you see it is from a car, and the residential sides of tight-packed bungalows, every free pocket of unused space grown over with cacti, carpeting succulents, flowering jasmine bushes, rubber trees, cascading climbing ivy in waxy variegation, prickly pear with nopales big as dinner plates, fig trees, exploding birds of paradise, geraniums gone to wild stem, bougainvillea knitted into chainlink, giving way to dense citrus and feathery olive trees, giant ficus, flapping banana tree fronds and no matter where you look, spindly and towering lone palms. Gone is the certainty, simplicity, the brightness of order, replaced by smudging and glazed light no matter the time of day, the growl of motorcycles and shot transmissions, squawking parrots and whenever evening settles, the eerie call of coyotes tangling together and flooding in from whichever canyon’s closest.
L.A. always takes me getting used to, and usually I do it by walking. This time, to the Mexican grocery a few blocks away as the moon, a few days from full but still huge, lifted watery gold out of the hills to the southeast beside me. I stole glances over when I chanced taking my eyes from the uneven and lilted sidewalk, ducking under trees left to tilt out over them, occasionally stopping to snap quick photos of mechanic garages made etherial. On the walk back, loaded up with key limes, mint, loose bottles of Topo Chico beading with condensation in the bag, a stubby bunch of tiny bananas and red plums, it was a cool silver. I noticed my shoulders drooped, the light sheen of sweat on my bare limbs cooling. Not clean, but easing to what that feels like.
I see the Dame to Toronto speculation, I put my phone down and go back to writing postcards on the hotel bed in San Francisco. It’s a quiet and firm moment of “no”, one I feel assured in for the Raptors and for Lillard. For the Raptors, because there is no big trade coming there. The franchise, from the end of last season to the present, has not made cohesive sense, but a big trade for Lillard or anyone else is not going to address that. For Lillard, because what has already taken forever tends toward more of the same.
Adam pointed up the hill we were climbing, waving a hand to indicate a line of land over the top of the long ridge running through Richmond to Wildcat Canyon. Over there, he explained, the climate goes to desert. One environment ceding into another a few hundred metres from our feet and the storm drains under them that warn in bright blue stencilled letters anything dumped is gonna go straight to the Bay.
After the de Young and before we said goodbye, Melissa and I stood watching a swing dance group gathered in Golden Gate Park. Their movements, the very sense of their gathering, vigorous and oblivious.
There’s something for everyone here, she said with a light smirk, meaning California, But sometimes I feel like I’m losing myself in it.
Going through the museum, after leaving the expansive Kehinde Wiley ‘An Archaeology of Silence’ show with his soft and emotionally sweeping kaleidoscopic canvases and somber bronze sculptures, we can’t remember any of the artist’s names we’re talking about. But through our descriptions — their eras, associations, how their work resembled other work we’re walking past — we manage to communicate each one.
The light and space guy, I say at one point, and Melissa nods.
He’s got a piece behind the museum, she says.
She takes me through the garden to the James Turrell, a conical open-ceiling dome inside a circular maze.
Stand in the middle and talk, she instructs.
Tentatively, I do, and feel two and too many layers deep in my own head for how the sound dampens and reflects back on me.
On my walk alone out of the park I pass a tiny rollerblading track crammed with a dozen skaters and their own DJ, cut through the Lily Pond where a guy who looks like Lawrence Ferlinghetti sitting on a bench watching the news on his phone smiles up at me and says hello, loop through the National AIDS Memorial Grove, choking up, and finally a drum circle gathering under eucalyptus trees tall as ten-storey buildings with a guy who’s dragged out a didgeridoo, double his height, to join in.
California is only ever itself, but that’s plenty.
Are any trades clean? Cutting, maybe, in their curtness and cold precision, but those separations all still take time to callus, heal over.
We get used to the volume and veracity of deals at and in the immediate days following the NBA’s trade deadline and free agency period. The cascade of them like a deck of cards reshuffling and in their speed, reeling to remember who went where. Most front offices want to get things done before the summer starts to stretch, before the team at the other end of a floated trade has time to reconsider or the behaviour of the people involved begins to drag. James Harden and Lillard are anomalies in that they’re big enough stars their gravity doesn’t dampen the longer things take. Though this part — stars taking a long time to shift because the teams they’re beholden to are ostensibly taking forever to decide the details, and the ones they’d like to broach grow skittish, shy — feels new.
In that newness, a profound lack of clarity in the sense of what we’re used to. Of urgency, of certainty, even of intent. Harden and Lillard have both swung and shifted all summer when they talk about where they want to go. There’s a reported detail in Chris Haynes’ story on the Lillard-Portland split that I’ve seen people jump on with such intense reactions that to me, it becomes indicative of their own sense of finality — where it is and how fast they get there — rather than where they stand on team-sided machinations:
Lillard then said if a deal couldn't be worked out with the Heat, he would prefer to rescind his trade request and return to the Trail Blazers.
Cronin's response to the seven-time All-Star was that there was no coming back.
Whether you land on Lillard having the flexibility to rescind or Cronin being correct in not letting him, your inclination likely has nothing to do with the ongoing, drawn out, now operatic (in acts and intermissions) terms of the trade. It’s about where you draw your own lines. Someone looking at this who’s in the process of stalling or putting off a decision is going to lean into Lillard playing it loose, and someone who’s been burned by a renege in their life when it mattered will edge toward finality. These aren’t the only scenarios, and any one person has probably felt both, maybe simultaneously, depending on where it is they’re standing.
At present, I’m of the mind that you can’t say you want to do something and then, when the conditions don’t play out exactly as you’ve imagined in a best case scenario in a vacuum, not only put it off, but pretend like you never said anything in the first place. Down this road, accountability has no footing. I don’t like going down this road, for anything.
God, this city can break your heart. The thought comes unbidden on the train to the airport. Speeding up from underground through the undulating buildings of south San Francisco, the peninsula spreading out and up toward the sky on either side, then, the flashing wince of the Bay unfolding to the east whether overcast or sunny and the long span of the San Mateo Bridge, a comfort to me since the last time I was here driving over it, half asleep and gone so soft. It all works as a welcome coming in and a wrench leaving. In that momentary choke, I gain an appreciation for the brusque, unyielding, almost scolding post office worker who sent me away from the counter twice earlier that morning for not being ready.
You have to be ready, she says explicitly. Meaning the box I constructed and wedged full of the books I got in the last week and haven’t sealed, thinking I can borrow her tape at the counter. In the wider scope of what she’s saying, I realize I’m not. To leave, to quit climbing these hills to their highest point to turn and look breathless, panting, down over the city at whatever view it’s just given me. To be heading to the airport again. To go further south. To be away from home for so long. The apprehension of going back tied up in the quiet missing. The apprehension borne out of what it means, the fall halfway gone by then, tumbling into winter, to the end of another year. The missing, well, we all long for home, some part of it whether its comforts or its people, when we’re gone.
What a fundamentally mixed up feeling it is to think you’ve missed out on living somewhere you’re meant to, like the place and your life, their entry points to each other, never lined up.
I thank her for her patience when I leave. In the processing part of shipping the boxes I’ve finally hauled up, 45 minutes later, ready, she softens. She swaps one kind of tape for another. This is stronger, she assures me, wrapping the packages as I pictured her doing all along. I feel a warmth flood me that isn’t equivalent to the packing tape. Who’s ever ready?
Lillard has always struck me as someone who wears his responsibilities as a uniform. Not the jersey and the shorts, but the meticulousness of a uniform. The methodology, the pride, the intricacies, the motions of putting one on over the undershirt and tension sleeves, signalling a shift from one mode of being himself to the formalized other. A uniform offers structure, protection, clarity, limits. In the climate of today’s league, those things have started to fray.
After the party, up a big hill in Glendale, I ask Shanon to go stand in front of a giant cactus, bigger than the house it’s in front of. She goes gamely over, balancing on the curb, happily wobbling from the night we just had. In the viewfinder of the disposable camera I watch her pull her face serious, then watch it break, while waiting for whatever moment I know I’ll know is the one to press the shutter. It comes midway through another serious-to-laughing transition, caught between the clarity of the two. To me, it’s the underbelly of clean intention, the soft buffer where one decision shifts into the next, where someone’s most true. Those are the moments we’re lucky to know our friends best.
On the drive home Victor slows the car to idle, headlights flashing on the tawny hind end of a coyote that slinks out of the road and slips past a parked car, down a driveway, disappearing into the smudging dark. The three of us strain forward in our seats and squint after it. Maybe the constant shifting between points of clarity — human and wild, manicured order and sprawl, haze and visibility, isolation and the intention needed to see people, plus light that always seems softly diffused — is what gives L.A. its latent sense of promise. The absence of clean divisions makes for drifting, dreaming.
The Bucks offer clarity, nothing but. This is a workaday team, most content putting themselves through the paces. The strain and effort is what gives them their borders, their lines. Another meaning of lines: dialogue. When Giannis Antetokounmpo talks about basketball it becomes a fundamental force, a whetstone to scrape away what’s vertiginous about the rest of life.
Lillard’s joy, I’ve been thinking about it, when was the last time we saw it? Not habit of motioning to his wrist, checking for the time after another automatic shot, but tromping down the floor, unwieldy, fists bunched, arms swinging up to the crowd to demand a reaction.
The hardest part for Portland fans is the franchise let the lines grow so blurred between what was being said (“I wanna be the one, the star that wants to be here”) because of what was being anxiously asked of him (“Are you going to leave?”) like clockwork, three or more times a season, that the rote motions of certainty wound up deluding Lillard’s integrity. You shouldn’t have to ask that hard and that often, of anyone you’re closest to, where it is they stand when you’re right there next to them.
On the return from a walk I usually do when I’m here, up a giant hill in Highland Park and down its other side to York Street, gawking at every bit of living scenery along the way, I feel a whoosh of air on my head. Familiar. I look up in time to catch the notched tail of a red-tailed hawk before it banks, wheels over the plateau to the other side of the hill. A deft line from the last city to this one, and all the days in between, in less than a second and a held breath.
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