Friday, December 24, 2010

Your Transport Is Ready, Mr. Jetson

We have finally joined the crowd and added a rooftop storage unit for the car, now that the dog's crate takes up half of the luggage compartment.

The thing looks like one of NASA's experimental flying wing space planes. If only our suitcases were so swoopy. It's soft-sided luggage for us from now on.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Early Season Basketball Report

Michael's basketball team of runts and wallbangers compiled a 2-3 record before the Christmas break. The most recent game was both typical and fascinating. The other team, while not much more talented, jumped out to a lead early as our boys could not put the ball in the basket for the entire first quarter. They play tenacious defense and run interesting offensive plays, but they can't shoot a basketball to save their lives. By halftime, they had clawed back a little bit of the deficit, but Michael was the only one of our players to sink one of the halftime freebie free throws.

The second half was a completely different story. Most of the story, as it turns out, was written by Michael. He turned a steal into a fast-break layup, turned another steal into a fast-break pull-up bank shot jumper, and in the late stages of the fourth quarter, finally put our team ahead on a jump shot off a pass from teammate. He was fouled as he shot; the shot was a perfect swish and the foul call on top of it nearly brought the crowd to its feet. Michael knew the importance of what he had done, raising his fist in the air and grinning like any other veteran basketball player would on the receiving end of an "and one." (He has picked up the nuances of basketball astonishingly quickly.)

Sadly, that was the end of the scoring. The other team sank a basket nearly at the buzzer to send the game into overtime, and they scored a couple of buckets to put the game away. Seconds after the buzzer sounded, Michael appeared at the scorer's table where I was keeping score, crying, devastated to lose after working so hard to come back and take the lead. For his part, he had played exceptionally well, scoring seven of his team's 14 points. He became philosophical later in the day, commenting on how frustrating it was to have a great game personally and still lose as a team. Immediately after the game, most of the other boys felt the same way, initially disappointed to lose, but heartened by their comeback and near victory.

I love Michael's competitive spirit. It is not accompanied by poor sportsmanship, it is pure love of competition. Failure drives him to work harder to prevent failure in the future. We spent the next afternoon in occasional rain showers on the junior high playground shooting baskets and playing games with the basketball for more than an hour... at his request, not my direction.

I have said it before, but I become more convinced of it as time goes on. Competition, and understanding that you have to take initiative to look out for yourself because the world won't do it for you, are tremendously valuable experiences for older children. There is perhaps nothing kids need more than a sense of confidence and self-responsibility as they lurch toward adolescence. In our case, sports have provided those lessons for both kids, and very successfully so. It isn't everybody's cup of tea, but it works well for us.

What Is The Opposite Of "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer"?

'Cause I just did it.

We live in suburbia, but only just. We are surrounded by beautiful open hillsides even as we live close to the densest urban complexes of the Bay Area. Wildlife of all description ranges through the local fields. Deer, in particular, are sufficiently numerous as to nearly constitute an annoyance, particularly for those who try to cultivate roses in their yards.

As in other parts of the country where deer live and breed in abundance, roadways can turn unexpectedly hazardous in a moment. A few months ago, returning home late after visiting a friend, an odd sense of foreboding washed over me as I zipped down the very familiar (and very dark) canyon road near home. At work, we had recently discussed how deer are both numerous and functionally suicidal when it comes to roadways. Not five seconds after I slowed my pace out of the sudden and unprompted concern that a deer could jump out of the brush into my path, a deer did just that. I had just enough time to slow down to allow the deer to have its "deer" moment of staring stupidly at me bearing down on him before he dashed into the brush on the other side of the road.

I wish my deer encounter stories stopped there. They would have until last night.

After spending an evening out, we were returning home on the freeway, cruising along in moderate traffic at normal freeway speeds. Without any warning, my headlights picked up the prone figure of a deer lying in our lane. The car ahead of me, an SUV with better than average ground clearance, had not swerved or even hit his brakes to give me any warning that something bad might be coming.

I had no room to maneuver out of my lane, and insufficient time to do so even if I had. All I had time to do was adjust my trajectory slightly so that I would not hit the already dead animal with my wheels, and pray that the car was big enough to clear it.

It wasn't.

The sickening thud right under where I was sitting told me all I needed to know about whether we would clear the animal unscathed. In the mirror, I could see that the collision with the deer had ripped a plastic undertray off the bottom of the car. Otherwise, though, the car seemed to be running normally, with no problems with oil or water temperature to indicate broken engine components.

We arrived home without further incident, and I inspected the undercarriage of the car. Other than losing the plastic cover, nothing appeared to be broken. On the car, that is. The deer did not fare as well, judging by the bits of fur stuck to various cross braces. Toward the back, sadly, it looked as though someone had dragged a very wide paintbrush dipped in red enamel lengthwise down the underside of the car.

At that point in my inspection, we realized that the garage smelled horrible, like... a dead animal. I immediately pulled the car back out of the garage, and the smell went away. I found myself praying for a continuation of the heavy rains we have had for the last week so that I could drive the car to work and get a free undercarriage wash along the way. Today dawned sunny and beautiful, of course.

Reflecting upon what happened, I realized there were a few lessons we could draw. It could have been far worse. We could have been the car that killed the deer, which would have inflicted tremendous damage on the car and put us at risk of injury to ourselves. (The deer was in the middle lane of five lanes on a busy freeway, which makes me wonder how it got there in the first place and what kind of chaos it caused.) We were lucky that the deer was not lying at right angles to the lane, which would have caused me or, more likely, someone before me to hit the animal in a way that would have disabled the car and caused a traffic accident. Other than losing a plastic panel, the car was not damaged, and it did not leak any fluids overnight. I kept my cool and did not take drastic evasive actions that were unnecessary and dangerous; I did what could be done reasonably within the second or so I had to react.

What I should have done, on the other hand, was to call the CHP to alert them to the problem and have them send somebody to clear the animal from the road. I engaged in the assumption that I think most of us make in this day of 99% cell phone ownership, that somebody else surely had already reported the problem, or that somebody immediately after me would do so. In the moment, I was more concerned about assessing the status of our car and giving thanks that it was no worse than trying to figure out how to contact the authorities. Later in the evening, I checked traffic condition sources, but there was no mention of the hazard. The positive I took from that was that the hazard did not create a traffic accident.

I don't think I have ever taken the life of an animal with a car, and I hope I never do. Last night's encounter was traumatic enough, not necessarily because of the gruesomeness of the event but because of the realization of how suddenly a seemingly innocuous drive can turn unexpectedly dangerous. I console myself with the knowledge that I did everything I could to minimize harm to my family and others around me; it is knowing how little I could actually do that worries me.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Non-Standard Deviation

On my way to pick up Michael from his basketball practice earlier this week (because really, all I do with my time is leap from sporting event to sporting event), I came upon an unusual sight in our town: the brightly flashing lights of police cars and fire trucks. Oddly, they were just in front of our nearest fire station. It became clear that they were attending to a car accident of some sort. As I drove by the scene, I could see that the firemen were working on extracting someone from the car, which had overturned just about in the driveway of the fire station.

The story in the local virtual newspaper reported that the 83-year-old driver suffered only minor injuries, thankfully. The story also contained this curious tidbit: "Investigators said the crash was caused when the driver violated the California Vehicle Code section for deviating from the roadway without signaling."

Interesting theory, but I have a feeling that failing to signal when "deviating from the roadway," a straight and level double-lane street, was not the cause of the accident. I have a suspicion, although I must emphasize this is only a theory, that "deviating from the roadway" was the more likely cause of the crash.

But ring him up for failing to signal, too, boys. We can't have scofflaws like that in our town.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Hoops, Anyone?

Until baseball restarts in February (not counting multiple clinics and camps between now and then, and the player evaluation day in early January), and indoor soccer starts sometime after the start of the new year, Michael is down to one sport: basketball.

Basketball has never been high on the list of sporting priorities for us. For one thing, it is a sport that is not well suited to young kids. It requires an amount of strength and coordination to get a ball into a 10-foot hoop that most kids younger than eight years old simply don't have. Michael's first exposure to the sport was in a low-key summer league two years ago. As it turns out, that was a fortuitous activity because the father of one of his teammates became Michael's baseball coach last spring. At our party for the end of the baseball season, the coach referred back to that basketball team as giving him the idea to draft Michael for his baseball team because of the spirit and athleticism Michael showed on the basketball court. Last winter, Michael played basketball in a slightly more formal league on a team populated by people we knew from baseball, soccer and swimming (an increasingly common occurrence). We all had fun, but it was still a fairly rudimentary introduction to the sport.

The word around these parts is if you want to continue to play basketball, you need to play in the local Catholic Youth Organization league. Back in September, Michael participated in the tryout along with just about every third-grade boy we know from all the other sports teams. Michael gave an accurate accounting of himself as a basketball player: he is short, not terribly strong, and couldn't make a basket.

He looks stylish warming up, though

CYO creates teams based on the ability of the players on each team. In our area, that means there are three teams of third-grade boys, each of which will play teams from other churches on the same level. Michael, unsurprisingly, is on the lowest-ranked team, along with all the other kids who couldn't shoot straight. Coming into this season, it looked like we were headed for a very long, tiresome winter of bad basketball. The players are not particularly gifted at the sport, and the team existed at all only because one parent, a Russian immigrant who has never played basketball, stepped up to be the head coach.

As happens so often in life, the content of the book should not be judged by the quality of its cover. Another parent answered the call to help with the coaching, someone who lives in the next town, doesn't have anybody playing on the team, but knows basketball and loves to coach. His knowledge and enthusiasm have turned a ragtag bunch of kids for whom basketball is perhaps the fourth or fifth priority sport in their lives into a surprisingly cohesive unit that plays hard, is starting to understand the nuances of the game, and even runs designed plays that lead directly to good scoring opportunities. If these boys could shoot at all, they would be pretty dangerous.

Dunks are not going to be part of the game plan

In the first game, they played what was rumored to be a team one level up. The game certainly played out that way, with the other team overwhelming our boys on defense, collecting every rebound and scoring from all over the court. However, in that blowout loss, I could see a kernel of ability and ambition coupled with good coaching that suggested things might turn out okay. Michael was our team’s high scorer with four points, but that only tells part of the story. One of those baskets came on a designed play that the entire team worked to perfection. With our offense arrayed with two players down low, two players at the elbow of the key and one point guard up top, the coach shouted out the play. Michael, the player on the left elbow of the key, ran around the post player on his side, under the basket, and looped back up around our post player on the other side of the key, dropping into an unguarded space on the right side of the key between our post and wing players. The point guard fed the ball to Michael who turned, shot and scored. Our little team of undersized nine-year olds had just run a double screen scoring play that Mike Krzyzewski would've been proud of. The fact that we lost by a score of something on the order of 39-11 really didn't matter. They showed that they were starting to soak up what they were taught.

Planning the next move

The eye of the tiger on defense

We were out of town for the next game, but we heard afterwards that our boys won the game by a score of something like 24-15. Clearly, something is starting to click.

The boys had their third game this past Saturday morning. It was a good match of teams with comparable abilities, or lack thereof. The score was 2-2 at halftime. However, our team was by far the better coached squad, working the ball around with multiple passes to find the open man. It was primarily our inability to shoot effectively that kept the game close. In the second half, we finally made a few baskets, continuing to work hard on defense and play relatively disciplined offense. Michael got another good look at a shot off a double screen (he didn't score this time). He also made a nice dribble penetration to draw the defense, then kicking the ball out to a teammate who buried a jumper. In all, everybody on the team contributed to the 13-5 win (yes, we found a team that had fewer shooters than we do). It is inevitable that our boys will lose some more games, but they are also learning some very good basketball strategy that will serve them well both this year and in the future.

Working on basketball with Michael is a new adventure. We have spent hours practicing and talking about baseball, soccer and swimming, but we have never taken any time to work on basketball. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, we made a couple of trips to the schoolyards where, in addition to just goofing around, we got some good shooting practice in. Michael is also very comfortable on the strategic aspects of the games he plays. When we were playing on the schoolyard, when Michael was dribbling, I set a pick on Kelly who is pursuing him. We all got a good laugh out of it, but I reminded Michael of it the morning of his most recent game. I told him that if the other team played man-to-man defense, he should try what we did at the schoolyard. I told him he should run right at one of his teammates to run his defender into the teammate to get open for shot. I have no idea if any of that would get through, since I'm not sure he necessarily recognizes when the defense being played against him is zone, man-to-man or free-for-all swarmball. At his height, the game is a swirl of arms and legs anyway. Yet he got it. Late in the game, he dribbled the ball toward his teammate in the post. If his teammate had recognized what was happening and simply stood still, it would have been a perfect pick leading to an open shot. Unfortunately, his teammate didn't recognize the play and moved, which allowed the defense to follow the ball. Even so, after the game, Michael asked me if I had seen what he did, referring to that particular play without me prompting him first.

These kids are sponges at this age. They are just getting to the point that they can handle both the physical and mental requirements of the game. We are fortunate to have a good coach who knows how to give these kids enough instruction to make them competitive. Kids know when they are being coached as opposed to when they are being babysat. Kids will accept losses if they know they are being coached well. Kids will be bored with wins if they perceive they are simply being left to participate in an activity. We have experienced a mix of both ends of that spectrum over the last few years. Since basketball season runs until early March, we're very glad, for Michael's sake as well as our own, that it seems that boredom will not be a hallmark of the season.