Sunday, December 03, 2006

Picking up and Leaving Off

For the last two years, I’ve been playing basketball more or less twice a week at my neighborhood elementary school. Most of us are middle-aged or close to it meaning that many of us are wondering “Just how much longer are we going to try to do this?”

A few years back, I thought I’d run out of places to play. I could actually sort of keep up with the twenty somethings who I’d happen into at the gym I joined just to have a place to play basketball, it was just that they didn’t much want to play with me. It may have been a generational difference, but the parts of the sport I enjoy were really different. Because I was never much of an athlete, I always concentrated on getting other people the ball, switching on defense, setting screens, etc. I’m “Old School”, they weren’t. They were “hip-hop” and I was “no hops”. Their version of the sport was mostly dribble down court by yourself and either pull up and shoot from the three point line or try to drive the lane. If I got a chance to play, I’d pass the ball and then wait to ever see the ball again often going a couple games without even taking a shot.

Anyway, my regular game hasn’t been Red Holzman or Jack Ramsey heaven, even though we look more like those guys physically than we do any current famous basketball players. Still, there’s enough of it that a couple times a night I get the charge that comes from being able to communicate with the basketball instead of words. Probably more important, this several year old game has built a lot of guy camaraderie among the regulars even though occasionally some of the players have been female. The one thing that’s new-fangled about the group is that the teacher who has the key to the gym determines if there are enough of us to play on any given night by sending out an e-mail to which some guys just say “yes, I’ll be there” and others treat as an essay prompt.

Chip Dunbar might have been the most regular of the guys in the regular group. He lived a little more than a block from the school and I’d often see him walking to the game as I rode my bicycle there. Usually, he was listening to his Ipod because the rest of his life was built around music. Chip played bluegrass mandolin (in addition to the violin, the guitar, and having a fine singing voice) and had actually come to California from Atlanta many years ago just because he got an opportunity to study with mandolin god, Mike Marshall. Somewhere in between, Chip got into helping people use Macintosh computers both as a music aide and to help other music types maintain websites, keep fan databases, etc.

He was a fairly big guy, but much of the time he’d hang out around the three point line and wait for his shot which now that I think of it had sort of a musician’s feel to it in that he never rushed it. It didn’t really matter whether you had a hand in his face. He’d make it sometimes six or seven times in a row. If he went inside much at all, he’d usually take this slow developing left-handed hook (he was clearly right-handed) that he also had a way of getting in repeatedly. My wild guess is that over the two years, Chip probably made more baskets shooting over my hand than anyone else’s hand.

It was sometimes frustrating to play with Chip because he had a tendency to hold onto the ball and sometimes didn’t pick up switches on defense. He also liked making calls from the other side of the court from time to time and like most of us would call fouls on plays that hardly anyone thought was a foul. In games when I was younger, this sort of stuff invariably led to fights. I don’t mean fistfights, more like Gorilla-style puffing up and raised voices. Generally, the guys in this game are too old to do that without laughing. I do remember one time that Chip wound up in the middle of one of those things and he walked out of the gym without raising his voice. A day or so later he sent an e-mail apologizing to everyone and saying he just didn’t come out to get into arguments or to play with that kind of intensity.

Over time, I noticed other things about Chip. Even though he shot more than passed, he was always encouraging me to shoot more. Second, he was the guy who often brought new guys to play and made a point of making the new players who showed up feel welcome. In pickup basketball, guys frequently have three personalities. There’s the individual with the ball. There’s the guy as he deals with people on the court and between games. There’s the guy away from basketball. Sometimes, the three have something in common and often they don’t.

Last Sunday, Chip died from a heart attack while out on a walk with his wife. When I got the e-mail through our basketball list, I was surprised by how much it affected me. My own Dad died from a sudden heart attack when he was 50. Chip was 52. I’m 51 (yikes). That’s the obvious part. I think the less obvious bit was that I’d come to admire Chip as I’d gotten to know him. Like many middle-aged people I spend much of my waking life balancing what I would love to do with the things that I have to do in order to make the things I love to do possible. The basketball, my regular writing group, my family, and this blog have been high on the list of things I love to do.

Over time, it occurred to me that Chip was actually one of these guys who’d built his life around doing the things he loved. Whenever we talked, it seemed like he was either giving concerts with his bluegrass (newgrass actually) group Under the Radar,(his other groups were Hijinks, Terra Nova, and Cedar Hill a Georgia-based group with whom he'd just played a reunion concert), teaching music, or playing basketball (apparently he played 4 nights/week).

On Saturday, the day of his memorial service, we had our regular basketball game and put a couple of Chip’s CD’s on a boom box while we played. One of the guys put a copy of the obituary that ran in the local paper on poster board. Just before we started, a guy showed up in street clothes who turned out to be Chip’s younger brother. He looked just him except he didn’t have a beard, which made it a little eerie. After we finished, we hung around and joked about the guy.

They had a memorial service at the same place where I used to go for my meditation group. The room there probably held a hundred and eighty people, but there were about fifty of us out on the deck because we couldn’t all fit inside turning the event into "Chipstock". They started by playing some of Chip’s music. His wife spoke for a few minutes and was remarkably composed for someone who’d lost her husband just days earlier. They then introduced a group of four thirteen year olds whom Chip had been teaching and had temporarily christened the mighty Chiplings.

We'd talked about them a few times because I knew the family and Chip had also once impressed me with his love of his music by telling me how excited he was to hear younger bluegrass musicians at a festival who'd found ways to incorporate punk and rap into the music in much the same way that his contemporaries had fused it with rock and roll. His groups sometimes included songs by the Beatles and the Monkees among others.

The Chiplings were a little hesitant at first though charmingly so. When I saw Chip perform, he served as the spokesperson for Under the Radar and was a bit of a comedian on the stand. The boys did a bit of the same. They then broke into a slightly halting version of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

As they played, they got increasingly comfortable and those present sang along. The sun was out and it seemed like everyone started crying. The presence of kids playing the music Chip loved and promising to carry it on, the perfect choice of song, and all these people there who sprang from all the different communities that Chip frequented all seemed to conspire to say that this is one community, it’s just a matter of listening for it.

Ironically, the only time I ever visited Chip at home was a party a month ago to celebrate the remodeling of his house. There were people with stringed instruments everywhere, a pickup group in every room of the house. I walked into the driveway at one point and ran into a stack of guitar and bass cases which found their way out there because there was no room in the house. The atmosphere was so happy and relaxed, I assumed that his wife, who is also a musician, and he had been having these kinds of gatherings forever. At the memorial service, his wife revealed that it was their first such party in fifteen years.

When someone your own age dies, it naturally provokes you. I got the distinct impression that Chip went with few regrets because he’d been doing the things in life he wanted to do. I’ve spent much of the last fifteen years dealing with schools. For the most part, public schools are frustrating even sad places. They’re filled with kids who often don’t want to be there expected to work on things to which they feel minimal connection and adults who often absorb that frustration. Chip was one of these guys who went to some college then moved on with his life.

One time, he told me that he’d left home in New Jersey and wound up literally wandering the streets of Atlanta until he happened to come upon a guy who ran a roadside flower business. For several years, Chip was one of those guys selling flowers at the street corner from a white paint bucket. Apparently he’d play his mandolin sometimes as he waited for customers. He grew the business into a large enterprise in which he apparently had dozens of employees, many of them homeless or disabled. From that, he made enough money to come to California and take time off to do little more than concentrate on the mandolin. During that time, he got into the Mac, at which he was largely self taught, just solving problems as they came along.

One of the longstanding arguments in education is between those who believe that children should be taught to follow their own internal compass and discover what they love about the world. The idea is that if you learn to love things in the world, you become passionate about them and learn better from following your bliss than you ever would have with more externally-imposed discipline. The other pole is that kids have to be literally forced to learn certain kinds of things, because we all need to know how to do things.

Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking, maybe erroneously, that Chip was one of these guys that proved that what I’ve always hoped was true about school might be true- learning is an extension of joy and one can build a life around pursuing one’s passions.

I’m sure others would insist that not everyone has the talent to do that and Chip was one of the few people who pursued music who could make any kind of living around it. It’s as rare as being able to make your life around basketball actually. People from the other pole would point out that Chip certainly went through a stretch in life where he was selling flowers on a street corner. He also, apparently went through points in life where he got a little excessive. There were stretches where he had to discipline himself and do things he didn’t absolutely want to do.

Honestly, people’s actual lives make lousy bases for educational theories. You’ll find people will claim that some person’s life exemplifies just about any idea you want to promote. Still, I saw on Saturday that there were a lot of people who wanted to remember this one guy well. I don’t know how many of us have that when we go (fwiw, it happens more often when your friends are still alive). Most were there because they knew Chip through one of his passions.

On the day he died, we played basketball that morning. Usually we play to a slightly higher score in the last game. For whatever reason, Chip proclaimed that we should play win by 2 instead of the usual first one to 7, 9, or 11 baskets. As a result the game went back and forth for about 20 more baskets. I don’t know if he played too much that day or he insisted on playing longer because he knew at some level this was the last time. It was a great game. I remember guarding him and having him shoot over my hand time after time, but I made the winning basket on one of my few shots. One of his habits was to say “short” just as he released the ball, then we’d all laugh as we would watch it invariably go straight through the basket making the sort of sweet string music that only basketball junkies understand.

He was the rare mandolinist who could play fast well, but knew how to play slow even better, something that’s really hard to do with an instrument as bright as the mandolin. Part of me wants to say that the guy played basketball like he played music. He refused to get as frenzied about it as many guys do. Maybe, he refused because of his heart condition, maybe it was just something he’d figured out about life. I think I’d normally be tempted to call a 52 years a “short” time to climb the rope of life. I didn’t think that this weekend though. It seemed like he found the sweetest part of the string and made it swing as best he could.

If I make changes in my life over the next few years, I hope it’ll be to do more of the things I love. If I manage that, it’ll have a little bit to do with playing basketball with a guy who would tell me the “pass first” guard to just go ahead and shoot when I’m open. Maybe he didn’t just mean basketball.

Press Democrat Article



At 12/05/2006 01:50:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's definitely precious and too short, life.

Reading your compelling piece makes me realize again that we can't afford on this planet to make weapons instead of mandolins and basketballs.

At 12/05/2006 09:22:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I say yes to mandolins, because violins is not the answer.

At 12/08/2006 10:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. Very inspirational post. I just had this discussion recently with somebody about doing what you love versus doing what you should do to be secure. I'm a big believer in doing what you love for the same reasons you mentioned, (passion leads to great accomplishments). We tend to get trapped in this rat race at the mercy of our employers because we want to buy more things so we "need " our secure jobs. Focusing on passion puts the materialism aside and improves quality of life by allowing to put more value in your time, (as long as you can feed yourself).

One of my prior Quick Quotes on my blog was "You can always make a dollar later, but you can't make an hour later."

At 12/14/2006 02:00:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks Atul...
Yes, every now and then it helps to stop and ask why you do what you do. The answers may be the same, but it's often pretty surprising that we often don't have very good reasons for leading our lives in a particular way. My friend Chip seemed to have done that at some point or maybe just did it instinctively and it seemed to work out well for him.


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