Nov. 4, 2010

Losing Steps

by Stephen Dunn


It's probably a Sunday morning
in a pickup game, and it's clear
you've begun to leave
fewer people behind.

Your fakes are as good as ever,
but when you move
you're like the Southern Pacific
the first time a car kept up with it,

your opponent at your hip,
with you all the way
to the rim. Five years earlier
he'd have been part of the air

that stayed behind you
in your ascendance.
On the sidelines they're saying,
He's lost a step.


In a few more years
it's adult night in a gymnasium
streaked with the abrupt scuff marks
of high schoolers, and another step

leaves you like a wire
burned out in a radio.
You're playing defense,
someone jukes right, goes left,

and you're not fooled
but he's past you anyway,
dust in your eyes,
a few more points against you.


Suddenly you're fifty;
if you know anything about steps
you're playing chess
with an old, complicated friend.

But you're walking to a schoolyard
where kids are playing full-court,
telling yourself
the value of experience, a worn down

basketball under your arm,
your legs hanging from your waist
like misplaced sloths in a county
known for its cheetahs and its sunsets.

"Losing Steps" by Stephen Dunn, from Different Hours. © W.W. Norton, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the cowboy comedian Will Rogers, (books by this author) born in Oologah in what is now Oklahoma (1879). In those days, it was called Indian Territory. He himself was part Cherokee and got the nickname "the Cherokee Kid." He grew up on a big ranch, and he learned to rope as a boy. When friends stayed over at his house, they would wake up to the sound of young Will yelling "Catch him! Rope him!" in his dreams.

He tried some school here and there, but he didn't like it, and he dropped out to work on ranches, traveling to Argentina, South Africa, and Australia. He got a job as a roper in the circus, and moved on to vaudeville, where he was a big success. He moved from just doing stunts to incorporating stand-up comedy in his act — commentary on the daily news, one-liners, and riffs on politics and culture, all delivered with an Oklahoma twang. Everyone loved his act, so he started writing a daily newspaper column, "Will Rogers Says," which was read by about 40 million people a day. On top of all that, he acted in more than 70 Hollywood films. He died in a plane crash when he was 55 years old.

He said, "America is becoming so educated that ignorance will be a novelty. I will belong to a select few."

It's the birthday of writer Sterling North, (books by this author) born on a farm near Edgerton, Wisconsin (1906). His mother died when he was young, and he was raised by his older sister, who was a poet. He followed in her footsteps and became a poet himself, and a critic and novelist. But he is best remembered for his children's books, especially Rascal (1963), based on his childhood in Wisconsin and his adventures with his beloved pet raccoon.

In Rascal, he wrote: "No one was concerned about the hours I kept. I was a very competent 11-year-old. If I came home long after dark, my father would merely look up from his book to greet me vaguely and courteously. He allowed me to live my own life, keep pet skunks and woodchucks in the back yard and the barn, pamper my tame crow, my many cats, and my faithful Saint Bernard. He even let me build my 18-foot canoe in the living room. I had not entirely completed the framework, so it would take another year at least. When we had visitors, they sat in the easy chairs surrounding the canoe, or skirted the prow to reach the great shelves of books we were continuously lending. We lived alone and liked it, cooked and cleaned in our own fashion, and paid little attention to indignant housewives who told my father that this was no way to bring up a child. My father agreed amiably that this might well be true, and then returned to his endless research for a novel concerning the Fox and Winnebago Indians, which for some reason was never published."

It's the birthday of the poet C.K. Williams, (books by this author) born in Newark, New Jersey (1936). His two greatest passions in high school were girls and basketball. He was a good basketball player, 6 feet 5 inches, and he was recruited to play in college. But then he wrote a poem for a girl he was trying to impress, and she was actually impressed, and so he decided he should be a poet instead. He dropped out of college to move to Paris because that's where he thought poets should live. He didn't write at all while he was there, but he did realize that he didn't know anything and should probably go back to college. He said: "It was an incredibly important time. Not much happened and yet my life began then. I discovered the limits of loneliness." He went back and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, and started publishing books of poetry, books like Tar (1983), Flesh and Blood (1987), and The Singing (2003), which won the National Book Award.

He wrote: "Poets try to help one another when we can; however, competitive we are, and we are, / the life's so chancy, we feel so beleaguered, we need all the good will we can get. / Whether you're up from a slum or down from a carriage, how be sure you're a poet? / How know if your work has enduring worth, or any? Self-doubt is almost our definition."

It's the birthday of novelist Charles Frazier, (books by this author) born in Asheville, North Carolina (1950). His family had lived in the same region for hundreds of years — he said, "I am triply qualified for acceptance into the Sons of Confederate Veterans." He tried writing a few stories when he was in his 20s, but they weren't very good and he decided he should go into academia and read other writers instead of trying it himself.

But 20 years later, he got the urge to write again. He knew he wanted to write about the history of western North Carolina, and he started taking notes, doing little bits of research, but he didn't have a plot yet. Then his father told him the story of one of their ancestors, a man named Inman who was wounded in the Confederate Army, and ended up deserting and walking all the way home, across North Carolina, to his small town at the foot of Cold Mountain. As soon as he heard the story, Frazier knew that it would be his book. He said: "I was pretty suspicious of writing a Civil War novel. I didn't want to write a novel of the battles and the generals and those famous personalities. There have been a lot of books written about that — good ones and bad ones — and I didn't want to add to the bulk of that literature. But I realized that there are two kinds of books about a war: there's an Iliad, about fighting the war, and about the battles and generals, and there's an Odyssey, about a warrior who has decided that home and peace are the things he wants. Once I decided that I was writing an Odyssey kind of book instead of an Iliad kind of book, I could move forward with it with some sense of happiness." So Inman became his Odysseus, journeying back to the woman he loves, who has had her own hellish experience through the years of war.

But even after lots of research, Charles Frazier couldn't find much more information about the real Inman, so he fleshed out the details from his own imagination, reading through letters and diaries from the Civil War. He took time off from teaching, and every day when his daughter got home from school she would read aloud what he had written, so he could make sure it sounded like real dialogue. For a while he only showed his manuscript to his wife and daughter, but finally his wife passed it on to the best-selling novelist Kaye Gibbons, whom they knew through a carpool group for their kids. Gibbons said: "I have never told anyone to quit their day job and write, but I told him he needed to jump off that cliff. I made a promise to him, that if he worked on that book and continued, that he would make more from this book that he would in five years of teaching. I had such faith in it."

And she was right. In 1997, he published Cold Mountain,and the first print run of 25,000 copies sold out within a week, and it spent months on The New York Times best-seller list. In 2006, he published Thirteen Moons, also set in the western mountains of North Carolina.

In Cold Mountain, he wrote: "The window was tall as a door, and he had imagined many times that it would open onto some other place and let him walk through and be there. During his first weeks in the hospital, he had been hardly able to move his head, and all that kept his mind occupied had been watching out the window and picturing the old green places he recollected from home. Childhood places. The damp creek bank where Indian pipes grew. The corner of a meadow favored by brown-and-black caterpillars in the fall. A hickory limb that overhung the lane, and from which he often watched his father driving cows down to the barn at dusk. They would pass underneath him, and then he would close his eyes and listen as the cupping sound of their hooves in the dirt grew fainter and fainter until it vanished into the calls of katydids and peepers. The window apparently wanted only to take his thoughts back. Which was fine with him, for he had seen the metal face of the age and had been so stunned by it that when he thought into the future, all he could vision was a world from which everything he counted important had been banished or had willingly fled."

From the archives:

It was on this day in 1922 that a British man named Howard Carter discovered the tomb of King Tutankhamen. At that time, most of the tombs in Egypt had been emptied of anything of value, but Carter had found references to a little-known pharaoh whose tomb had never been found. So he got funds for a series of excavations, and on this day in 1922, one of the site workers needed to set down his water jar, so he kicked some rocks off a flat spot on the ground and noticed that it looked like part of a staircase. By the end of the day, Carter had uncovered a series of steps that led to a sealed door. He waited three weeks to enter the tomb with his patron, Lord Carnarvon. When they finally went inside, Carter said, "At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flame to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold ... everywhere the glint of gold."

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