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I have thought more about high school basketball this past week than I did when I played it in high school. Not exactly true, because I’m not really thinking about it so much as thinking, “I used to play basketball. That was a long time ago.”  I don’t really remember much about it other than awful uniforms, long bus rides, and wanting to play but being scared to play at the same time. I don’t have clear memories of this game or that–just vague bits of raucous gyms and silly cheers. I’ve always loved the smell of the gym and the feel of a basketball and the sound of it hitting the floor. Jump shot motions and follow-through and ballhandling drills have stuck with me more than makes sense. It does make we want to get out on a court….

When I first coached basketball, I was 21, fresh out of college and teaching English at an all-boys, Catholic independent school outside of Boston, St. Sebastian’s, C.D.S. It was unusual for a female to coach boys back in the early 80’s, but it didn’t faze me. It didn’t take much to impress those boys–a female making a shot was more than they could comprehend. When I scrimmaged with them, they were terrified to come near me, so I was a star rebounder for the only time in my life. I was an assistant coach and the head coach was completely ignorant of basketball–he taught religion–he might have been completely ignorant of that, too. I remember being in an opposing team’s gym, down by many points. At a time-out, unnamed head coach gathered us round and told the hapless and frustrated boys, “Take the ball down the court and shoot!” Words to not win by.

When I coached girls bball 10 years ago or so, I finally found my stride. Every once in a while I needed to jump in and scrimmage or demonstrate something that when I played in high school or college I probably wasn’t that skilled at. But here, with 30 years on these timid, unathletic girls, I was finally a player. So that was all it took for me to be decent. Beat up on people 30 years my junior. Good times.

Actually, as a coach I’m equally interested in cracking jokes as teaching skills. Too bad I’m not coaching now to impart these morsels to hungry minds: There is no I in team. But there is a me, and those are my initials. And also worth noting–team spelled backwards is meat. Yes, it is true I was an English major. Comes in handy, on the court and off.

Who knew that I would ever have to contemplate what to wear to a hall of fame induction? It’s not sensible (except from a fundraising point of view though they’ve misjudged me in that regard) for me to be inducted into my high school’s athletic hall of fame though that is what happened on Friday. I was one of dozens of women who decades ago were part of the Academy of the Holy Cross Varsity basketball teams from several seasons that were coached by beloved and no longer with us Bill Sheahan. Once we started winning, the team didn’t stop–for 6 years. I, of course, played the smallest role possible in this era. I didn’t lose a game for the team. Sitting on the bench most of my junior year and deciding not to play at all my senior year adds up to a hall of fame career. Well-played! Except I’ve known for oh, about 32 years that it was one of the dumbest things I ever did not to play on the team my senior year so I missed being a part of the season the team broke the Washington D. C. area high school record of 55 consecutive victories and kept on going over the years to 115 or some such. That adds up to a lot of people at a lot of schools hating good ole AHC. It is pretty cool to be reminded of just how many of the girls who went through the program wound up playing in college–when that wasn’t a halfway regular thing to do. My class had girls go to JMU and UVA on scholarship. Others played at William & Mary and St. Mary’s and University of Richmond. Even I played a year in college though I hated it for reasons that included having 3 different coaches in one season–each worse than the previous one.

Off the bench to hug the nun.

Glory Days ahc

I don’t remember much about the era, other than hanging out in the halls waiting for games or practice to begin and having so much fun cheering the varsity romp when I was on j.v.. Catholic girls can hate opposing teams like no other: sorry bout that Regina, Seton, Immaculate Conception. I’m thinking the Virgin Mary wasn’t our biggest fan. The bus rides to games, singing slightly risque versions of our alma mater. “Holy Cross, we sing to thee, pledging our virginity… Cross and Anchor emblems bright, guiding us to heaven’s light….”  Not sure it’s worked out quite as the sisters planned.

It was odd to be back in the gym the other night for the festivities. Lots of semi-familiar faces and familiar names attached to them. I would have preferred that we play an old-timers game or at least play a game of HORSE. I could take most of those gals now. When I coached middle school and JV girls basketball in my 40’s it was clear to me that I was a late bloomer. I was a player with those kids as long as I had 30 years on them. And it is a sad state of affairs that I was in better shape than too many of those young ones.  Now that I’m 50, I still think I could show those punk kids a thing or two, which is funny since when I was a punk kid I couldn’t do much. It’s unlikely I’ve become a better basketball player in the intervening years. But at least my delusions are in good shape.

no more fast breaks

A week or two ago, as I flipped through our alumni magazine from Holy Cross and saw that fellow alum Billy Collins ‘s latest book is called Horoscopes for the Dead, I knew I had found the perfect 50th birthday gift for a friend of mine. She and I are both Scorpios and the last year we’ve had fun sprinkling a little horoscope silliness into our conversations about neighborhood or work or family. For the last year, I clipped dozens of memorable ones from the paper, making messes all over my house. I think I meant to do something creative last Christmas for her, but regardless of the creative tear our horoscope said we were on, I just left the crumpled and ripped pieces of paper to gather dust in three rooms of my house. At some point I put most of them in a folder. Progress of sorts. Finally, with her 50th birthday approaching, I knew the time was now, but I had no idea what to do that wasn’t completely lame. Pasting them on a poster board just wasn’t going to cut it. Thank God for Billy Collins and his way with words! I bought the book (read a few poems myself  and  trimmed the horoscopes I deemed worthy of inclusion. Then I scattered them in the pages.  Minimalist creativity is my favorite kind. Let Billy do the heavy lifting and I get the credit!

Makes sense to me

It helps that most of the horoscopes I’d clipped refer to the creative roll we were on for a while–an energetic arc that was unstoppable until it shrivelled and stopped. It also helps that we don’t put much stock in all of that. It makes more sense to read a Billy Collins poem a day and take that for what its worth.

This friend’s twin sister, who not coincidentally celebrated her 50th birthday last week as well decided she wanted to have a party to honor the occasion. A friend and neighbor offered her the perfect room for the affair–with not a view exactly, but a worldview, shall we say. This 50th birthday party was held in the basement of a funeral home. I can only hope some Billy Collins was recited.

I gave a 5 minute talk last night at Midlothian Middle School to middle schoolers, their parents, teachers, and other book-loving folks, sharing the stage with much better known and accomplished writers Sheila P. Moses, Sue Corbett, Brooks Smith, Connie Lapallo, and Gigi Amateau. It was a most pleasant way to spend an evening, full of stories and inspiration. Look these other folks up and buy their books at your local bookstere. You won’t be disappointed.

I focused on the part of writing where I’m not stuck with the seat of my pants in a chair. Made me think I need to take my own advice! Here’s more or less what I said. Those Midlo folks are chomping at the bit to come into Richmond and take advantage of what it has to offer. That’s exciting to me.

Not me ziplining across the river (which would be cool, but isn't possible yet!), but a WIld in the City guest ziplining across Belle Isle Quarry. I had the pleasure of that trip another time.

I’m doing a couple of things this week that might rattle some nerves—public speaking and rappelling down a 25 storey building downtown as part of Over the Edge, a Special Olympics extreme fundraiser.  I’m doing both of those heart-pounding things this week because I’m a writer. And I feel very lucky to be doing both.

Chester Filbert in Nothing Ever Happens on My Block—one of my all-time favorite picture books– has a perpetual sneer on his face. I’ve been known to have that look, but there’s a big difference between me and Chester Filbert—he doesn’t see what’s all around him—he can’t get outside of his head—of his preconceived notions of how dull his life and his neighborhood is.

Chester says longingly, “Some places have marching bands or haunted houses, courageous hunters hunting, ferocious lions and tigers, pirates and buried treasure…” on and on..  He’s so busy wishing for what he doesn’t have that he misses what is going on right in front of his face.  Disgusted with his lot in life,  he finishes  with “But nothing ever happens on my block., and snarls, “When I grow up, I’m going to move.”

It’s easy to think our lives are dull and boring and for some stretches they are, but here’s the thing. Something is happening on everyone’s block—you have to be out there and be open to seeing it.  To be an effective writer, I need to spend some time stuck inside my head for sure—contemplating, questioning, revising, but I NEED to get outside my head and my house even more—meet people, ride horses, ask questions, rappel, go rafting, try new things, look at art, eat at cool restaurants, explore what’s around. All that feeds my writing and my life.

When I wrote Insiders’ Guide to Richmond, I was well aware that many people say nothing ever happens in Richmond a la Chester Filbert. It’s not D.C. or New York or Chicago.  It’s stuck in the past, dull and boring. Who would ever want to visit? There’s nothing to do! I’ve heard it all. And I don’t believe it!

So I drew on my experiences living here 19 years, being an outdoorsy, involved, art and history-loving, quirky and curious type and wrote an upbeat book that makes it easier to find the good stuff in our city and region.

WIth apologies to Ellen Raskin:

Some places have a free and fantastic Folk Festival along the river, –did you go?! Class IV and V whitewater you can raft through downtown, one of the 50 most beautiful buildings in the country, awesome mountain biking and multi-use trails. Some places have torchlit walks on a Slave Trail, and herons roosting along the Pipeline, a Final 4 basketball team, artsy and involved universities, a Native American village to visit, bald eagles soaring above  the James, one of the best art museums in the country that’s open every day and free!!! And will be full of MUMMIES next month, a creepy crypt under a historic church, sites related to revolutionaries you’ve heard of:  Patrick Henry and GW and  Thomas Jefferson, and sites related to ones you might not have: Gabriel, Maggie Walker, John Mitchell, John Jasper. Some places have a one night internationally-curated light exhibit INLIGHT this Friday night at Tredegar!!!!  NASCAR, recreational tree-climbing, even Mid-lothian Mines Park where 9 year olds once worked down in the shafts doing the dirty work  And that place is Richmond. (And I could go on. For another 300 pages, but I won’t! I didn’t even mention that war you might have heard about….)

Chester Filbert said “When I grow up, I’m going to move.” Once again poor Chester has it all wrong!.  Don’t wait till you grow up to move. Move NOW!  Don’t worry–I don’t want you to move away from home or away from Richmond! I mean MOVE! Don’t stay in one place! Don’t say there’s nothing to do or sit staring at computer or television screens. Get out on your block in your neighborhood, in the city and the region and be active and involved, observe and experience. Think outside the block! Be a part of the world—not apart from it.  Be a part of Richmond–not apart from it.  And if you’re in Shockoe Slip Thursday around 3:45, look up at the SunTrust building and wave!  That’s where I’ll be hanging out.

Hope to see you around town!

After signing a bunch of books and talking to the people at the event, I know I will see them around town. Cool!

So I was right. I really like being right. When both UR and VCU made it into the Sweet 16, I told my sister who used to work at Sports Illustrated for Kids that I thought both Chris Mooney (men’s bball coach at UR) and Shaka Smart (new Richmond deity and men’s bball coach at VCU) would say no to the twinkling lights of bigger conferences and stay in our town to build their programs.

Richmond--Crazy to Love, and I mean that in a good way!

She scoffed. Said I was naive. Maybe, but I thought these guys were a world apart from  the usual suspects in college coaching. They are no doubt ambitious and talented. But they believe they can be successful here.      Yippee. This is very good for Richmond, and not just for basketball players and fans. Bloom where you are planted works so much better when you live and work in a great climate and now both Mooney and Smart are saying this is where they want to be. For good reasons. Richmond is a town that will reward them with love and loyalty, as will their universities. And I haven’t even offered them free food tours for life–yet.  And in the A-10 and CAA conferences, now that perhaps the tournament selection committee gets that parity has arrived, they have perhaps an easier road to the NCAA tournament each year than if they took on an N.C. State or Georgia Tech in the ACC (nowhere to be seen in the Final Four this year).

Forgive my analysis.  As anyone who has watched a basketball game in the same room as my sister and I knows, we have opinions and share them.  With her vast store of knowledge and my endless store of opinions, we analyze the hell out of every game we watch when we’re not obsessively tapping our feet and fingers and jumping up and down and cussing and cheering. Must be our Catholic upbringing. My tiny, retiring grandmother (as opposed to my larger than life, oversized one) would go nuts whenever Notre Dame played.

It’s nice to be able to celebrate the good news that both Shaka Smart and Chris Mooney are staying in Richmond so soon after the disappointing defeat the other night. Welcome home!

I need a new t-shirt! No matter how over-priced and garish the shirt below is, I’m happy to have it…and happier to grab the Final Four shirts that will be available later today celebrating VCU’s stunning run from the first four (really the last four into the NCAA tournament) to the Final Four under the stellar and mature leadership of 33 year-old Coach Shaka Smart. The last shall be first…

So sweet that it's obsolete!

The Rams’ run has been so impressive and so fun to watch. They didn’t even play all that well against #1 seeded Kansas yesterday, so watch out world!  And as happy as Jamie Skeen, Joey Rodriguez, Brandon Burgess, Brandon Rozzell and the rest of the guys look, they have never looked awestruck or over-the-top can you believe it?!  on the sidelines during their victories. They really have believed. Very cool. Richmond could learn a thing or two from them.

The team effort is an over-used metaphor and under-utilized practice in the world at large and on the basketball court, but this VCU team shows the power and beauty of teamwork every game. They are easy to love.  Larry Sanders could have stayed in school for his senior year this year, instead of going into the NBA, but had he, I don’t think the Rams would have been as good because they would have relied too much on him. This tournament they have relied on everyone on the floor to do what needs doing.

I happen to love basketball, so this crazy focus on guys running up and down a court trying to get a ball through a net makes complete sense to me. I am enough of a complete person to know that there are other more important things going on in the world, but here in Richmond it’s already evident how much good this sports nuttiness is doing for the city, university, and region. It is strange that it takes something like this for a city and region to pull together, but I’ll take it.

Oh and by the way, all you writers and commentators coming to Richmond for the first time ever, or writing about us without knowing one true thing, we are not a sleepy southern town, we are the capital of Virginia (and have been since 1780), a capital of culture with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and universities such as UR and VCU here. And fyi, VCU is a vibrant and varied blockbuster of a university with #1 sculpture and nurse anesthesia programs in the country, both emblematic of its acclaimed arts and medical schools. You might want to pick up a copy of Insiders\’ Guide to Richmond to get a sense of the city and region before stereotyping us to death.

All the way!

Happy to let those more talented than I have their say or show off their handiwork. People who use their hands for something other than texting and typing are my favorites. Keep your mind out of the gutter, please.

So, until I get there tmw and get my own photo, herewith a link to Friends of James River Park’s Facebook page to see the  Pony Pasture Natural Sculpture done by sculptor R. L. Croft and Ken Huston of northern Virginia. Croft’s daughter is in school at VCU. More proof that the interplay among Richmond’s natural resources and our other less natural but sometimes still organic resources produces some mighty cool stuff.

Reminiscent of Andy Goldsworthy, he of  Rivers and Tides. Now that’s really cheating, plagiarizing oneself.

What I would give to make Chappel Island downtown, just east of the Mayo Bridge on the north bank of the James, into a sculpture park with winding paths leading to whimsical, mournful, and natural sculptures. That stretch of river has seen it all and letting something other than statues of dead guys on horses tell the story of Richmond and the river would be most refreshing. It would be the perfect marriage of Richmond’s arts and parks. I can almost see it.

The other day while I was stuck in a rut at my computer–somewhere between writing about higher education, jewelry, and Southside Speedway–my friend and neighbor called, in a bit of a bind. She and her husband were out of town and her 11 yr. old daughter felt crappy at school. Another friend had brought her home, but the kid was bummed out and needed an Advil and a drink and such. I was happy to run over to check on her and all was well when the mom returned an hour later.

It was lucky my friend called when she had because I was in the triple threat position–a position I don’t spend a lot of time in these days. As I know from my basketball-playing and coaching days, the triple threat position usually refers to the offensive player with the ball being in position to pass, dribble, or shoot.  As the deadline for my book approaches faster than I ever ran a suicide, I have a new understanding of the triple-threat position: showered, dressed in non-pajama clothes, and teeth brushed. More often than not lately, I’m only 1 for 3. Now that’s offensive.

So if I were really channelling Martha Stewart, I would have had an assistant come up with this months ago and done the photo shoot well before Valentine’s Day instead of three seconds after I made a  Valentine’s Day card for my 4 yr. old nephew who had drawn me a sweet one. Martha would have put it in her mag ahead of time instead of two days after VDay, but you get the picture, or you will in a moment. 

Something tells me she wouldn’t have walked by a fading poinsettia in her hallway with fallen, crinkled leaves surrounding it on the floor (that had been there for weeks) and been struck with anything other than contempt. I, on the other hand, in a twist of my brain I can’t explain, figured I could use the blossoms–the good ones, not the crinkled ones–to make a quick and easy card.

impressive, no?

I don’t want to brag, but yeah I do. If my grade school had been a cut-throat place instead of the more basic suck the creativity out of everyone, I would have flunked art. I couldn’t do block letters to save my life, and I couldn’t consistently recreate the simpy sort of line drawn characters favored by the teachers and the two “artists,” Paul H. and Tommy M., in our class. Both nice guys who I think became engineering/architect types.

Combine my art self-esteem issue with my especial knowledge that poinsettias are named after Joel L. Poinsett, former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, who was born in Sumter, SC where I lived for three years and you have some dull facts that no one cares about. One of only two good places to go in Sumter with kids was Poinsett St. Swamp. I don’t even think I’m making that up. No poinsettias there. So you can imagine how elated I was that within 12 seconds, I had created actual art out of poinsettia blossoms–nurtured nature all by myself. Perhaps I should make another one and send it to Andy Goldsworthy, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the visible Scotch tape might be against the rules of Martha, Andy, and all the art teachers I never impressed.

Thank God for that. Not many people know that my professional stage debut was playing Belle, Scrooge’s fiancee in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol just after I graduated from college.  I was a 22 year old English (and Latin?) teacher for 7th and 8th grade boys at St. Sebastian C.D.S. who had no talent and no interest in humiliating myself on stage in front of a church full of junior high and high school boys, their families, and my new colleagues, but I did have two breasts and they were scarce at the all boys school. Nobody asked the two nuns on faculty to play the romantic partner of the 7th grade boy my English teacher comrade, Carter Harrison, had cast as young Scrooge.  That job fell to me. Excellent idea.  And the poor kid was in my English class, too.

I think of Bill Moore every year at this time and hope he doesn’t think of me. Nothing untoward happened, of course, but sitting on the bench on stage with him, pretending (not very convincingly you can be sure) that we were in love yet unable to come to terms because of Ebeneezer’s caution was so awkward that we didn’t realize just how hilarious it would seem every Christmas since.

Bill played his part admirably; I was merely horrible, but at least seeming stricken sort of went with the part.  I did stay at the school long enough to teach Bill–a good, smart kid– a couple times more, and I’m fairly sure that by the time he was a sophomore selective amnesia had worked its magic and it was as if we had never been made to hold hands and gaze into each other’s shoes in front of an audience of snide and snickering boys. Lord of the Flies got it about right.

A Christmas Carol is a more moving and powerful and lovely book than many people realize who have only seen botched versions of it on TV (or on stage). (I am fond of The Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine.) I do apologize to the audiences we packed in.  It’s possible that my one scene ruined A Christmas Carol for them forever.  I can only hope that the Ghost of Christmas Past gives me a pass on this one.

I’m back!