Chapter 9 of Mountain High, Valley Low or My Life as a Wishbone: Tales of Valley Stream and Copake Falls, New York: “How I Spent My Winter Vacation, Part 1: ‘BROOKLAAANNN!!!’”

When I started writing this “e-book” series of blog posts, in August 2020, I was shooting for what’s called “evergreen content,” meaning that the months and years in which the chapters were written wouldn’t really factor into the subjects of said chapters, which are, to date: 

  • An insider’s guide to New York Route 22
  • Watching the sun set over the Roe Jan Valley
  • The path along Duffy’s Creek
  • The Harlem Valley Rail Trail
  • Cats
  • Vermin, sprit animals and motherf#$%ing snakes
  • Christmas trees and mulch
  • A big rock with a view and a famously deadly waterfall. 

Despite these very general and innocuous topics, the damn Pandemic kept sneaking into the narrative. 

Yes, the original premise was a guy from Valley Stream, Long Island who had just retired from twenty-five years of teaching and bought a second house in Upstate Copake Falls with his wife because they loved the area, thus becoming human wishbones. But I thought that it wouldn’t matter what particular month or year any of this took place, as long as the setting alternated from one chapter to the next. 

But it’s become clear that the Pandemic of 2020-2021 makes “evergreen content” not only impossible right now, but pretty much pointless. This is a time in history that no one alive has seen the likes of, and no matter what (or where) the subject is, it can’t not go through that filter.

So, if you’re an historian who has happened to have come across any of these first nine chapters in the year 2121, you would realize that the guy who wrote them was ultimately just trying to stay alive until the coast was clear. 

He drove from Nassau County to Columbia County and back again. He hunted, foraged and gathered at nearby grocery and hardware stores in both places for food and supplies. He walked his dog; he took naps with his cats; he did some writing for Pay Pal peanuts; he read books and magazines, he watched TV, he played some guitar, and he did a lot of crossword puzzles. 

As the cold, dark and dreary winter of ’20-21 wore on, he spent most of his time confined to one or the other home and, while the company was always swell, he became increasingly bored and restless as a result. At the same time, he considered himself very, very, very lucky and he tried not to complain. 

Nonetheless, person of the future, I have included the following memo, just for you: 

To: Mr. or Ms. Historian

Re: The Pandemic of ‘20-21

It sucked. 

However, here in February of 2021, despite the disturbing, more contagious and more deadly variants of the Covid-19 virus that keep popping up (how nice), it seems like we’re actually seeing a dim light at the end of this hellish tunnel, though try telling that to a half a million or so dead people, including my father, or the other people who lost family members, or jobs, or homes, or the businesses into which they had thrown their souls. 

Still, we can now safely say that the President of the United States is not actively trying to infect and kill its citizenry. Imagine that. Plus, we survived an attack on the Temple of Democracy by ten thousand of most disgusting and ignorant people in the world, stirred into a twisted, violent rage by that same, now ex-President’s Big Lie about the election in which, by the grace of God and Stacey Abrams, he got his ass kicked to the goddamn curb and he knows it. 

Their insurrection failed, mostly because once they breached the Capitol, these overwhelmingly deluded and dimwitted organisms were too busy posing for selfies to get around to murdering the Vice President, the Speaker of The House or any democrat they could get their hands on. It was the series finale of the four-year, reality TV nightmare that they inflicted on the rest of us, solely to punish us for electing a black guy twice, and for suggesting that maybe they were the damn problem. 

But we survived, and the miserable failed Hitler who tried to kill us all has been as muted as he gets for the time being. Now that we’re back to living in actual reality, we have a real President and a functioning federal government again. Imagine that. More people are being vaccinated than are getting sick, and there are vaccines on the way by July for everybody with the sense to get one. 

Plus, we’re past Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and the Super Bowl, so all the unrepentant assholes who just HAD to get together and spread deadly germs in small spaces don’t have any excuses to cough on each other and thereby kill your grandmother for at least the next couple of months. 

So things are looking up. 

But it’s still necessary to quarantine as much as possible. And it’s still winter. In fact, this has been as close to a good, old-fashioned, pre-climate-change winter as we’ve had in a lot of years. Lots of cold, lots of snow. And by the grace of God and my immigrant grandparents, I live in New York, so I can find ways to enjoy the cold and the snow then come back inside to a warm house, unlike the millions of people in Texas who suffered miserably in the cold this month because the elected officials who are supposed to protect them let their power grid and their water supply freeze up. 

Forgive the digression, but it seems that we can determine from this evidence that the average squirrel has more intelligence, more moral fiber, and certainly more empathy than the people who run Texas. Say what you like about the people who run New York. They know not to get caught unprepared for winter weather. Nobody forgets that shit. 

Of course, even if this were in a non-Pandemic winter, there would be fewer things to do and fewer places to go, because, well, it’s winter. But in the alternative reality of a non-Pandemic winter, some of my favorite troubadours might have come to places a short car or train ride away from Valley Stream to sing for me, and I would have been able to accommodate them, even on a weeknight and even on a pension. And there would be museums and diners and libraries and movie theaters for the occasional change of scenery. 

The troubadours are all home streaming on Instagram, and while there are theoretically places to go for that change of scenery, I haven’t died from coronavirus yet, and I don’t want to, nor do I want to experience any of the long-term effects that survivors are going through, so I’m not going anywhere I don’t have to go until they get to the 55-65 group and I can make an appointment at the CVS as easily as when I got my flu shot, even if that means five or six more months of semi-hermitage. 

For now, everybody who was working at the King Kullen supermarket, the Pets Supplies Plus and the Raindew Variety Store a year ago is still alive and working there today, and we all wear our masks, and nobody hugs anybody. During the Valley Stream weeks, I go to these places, I get what I need, I go home, I stare out the window and I wait for spring. 

But I do love winter weather. As a matter of fact, I love all weather. Every season has its unique charms, and to embrace each one of them when they arrive is among the great privileges of being alive. I wouldn’t live anywhere else but the Northeast for that reason. I’ve never been to Florida, have never had any burning desire to go to Florida, and I sure as hell am not going there any time soon. Apologies to my Floridian friends, but to me, living in a place without true seasonal extremes is, how shall I say, wack.  

Admittedly, as someone with very little natural insulation, I sure didn’t enjoy waking up at 4:45 am to commute to work in winter weather, though it did get the initial shock of cold over with every day. Now I have to rely on my personal trainer to get me out under the sky and moving every morning. He does this by lying on the floor and staring at me forlornly until I put on my boots and my big coat, which is a really effective strategy if you’re thinking about starting a personal training business, but you’d have to be a Labrador retriever. 

We go for walks, we enjoy the weather, then we come back inside so the one of us who isn’t covered in thick fur and blubber can warm up for a while. But as I enjoy my first extended winter vacation since I was four years old, there’s just isn’t much to report on from Long Island. Any “evergreen content” I could come up with involves places I can’t justify going to or people I can’t justify seeing. 

So this chapter is about basketball. 

And since it all starts with reading the morning Long Island Newsday, it counts as a Valley Stream chapter. 

It all started on the morning after Christmas Day on Duffy’s Creek. I was flipping through the paper and Mookie was getting his leg scratched. Upon reaching the sports pages, and since I didn’t have to be anywhere fast, I read an article about the Brooklyn Nets. 

Now, I flip through every single page of the newspaper every single day in Valley Stream. When I’m upstate, I substitute the Berkshire Eagle and the Register Star, so if you want to know about the new restaurant in Pittsfield, Mass or what people are upset about in Hudson, I’m your man. This obsessive-compulsive disorder of mine also allows me to always know who’s winning and who’s losing among the New York Sports teams, who they’re big stars are and how much money they’re making. 

I’m a baseball guy. I’ve been a baseball guy since Mrs. Milne brought the TV on the cart into our first-grade classroom so we could all watch the Mets play the Orioles in the 1969 World Series. I went home that October afternoon to check if the Mets were on my TV, and sure enough they were, and they’ve been there ever since. Thirty-one years after that, I set my personal record by being at Shea Stadium twenty-five times to root on the 2000 Mets, including three playoff games and the last game of the World Series against the Yankees, which was the last professional baseball game played in the 20th Century.  

They lost. 

I’ll take it one step further. I’m one of those nauseatingly sentimental baseball guys. The ones that get all blubbery watching “Field of Dreams” and have the Ken Burns documentary on DVD. At our wedding, Trisha and I gave out autographed baseballs as table gifts, and we had a friend bring along his catcher’s mask and glove so my best man could throw out the first pitch to him.

I named my dog Mookie, then I stood on a line in a sporting goods store to show Mookie Wilson himself a picture of my dog. 

So being a baseball snob, I was conditioned to believe that every other sport was inferior. Football, soccer, basketball and hockey were categorized together in my narrow little brain as “the back-and-forth games.” They were faster than baseball, as is your average sloth, but all they essentially did was go back and forth. 

I pretended to like football from high school and into my twenties because nearly every single person I hung out with was a football fan. That’s not an exaggeration, and I’m not sure how that happened. I never really had a favorite team, and I don’t watch it anymore. I think it would be better if they just played flag football instead of trying to pulverize each other, but I digress again. 

Way back when, I taught English as a Second Language to rich kids from all over the world who were pretending to go to school so they could get visas and hang out in New York. They, and my brother-in-law, who was born in Chile, taught me to appreciate World Cup Soccer, particularly in 1998, when France beat Brazil in the finals. Again, like football, I could sort of see what the fuss was all about, but it didn’t light my soul the way a base hit up the middle with two out in the ninth does. 

Then I started teaching in Queens. There were plenty of good baseball fans among the kids, and more and more soccer fans as immigration increased (not to mention cricket). But “ball” in the city is basketball, and to hundreds of the junior high school kids that I crossed paths with, basketball was a serious a matter as the heart attack I would’ve suffered if I’d played them one-on-one. 

When sizing me up, shortly after demanding to know my age, hometown, marital and housing status, they’d ask me, “you got game?”. And I, at 5’9’’ and 120lbs. at the time, would smile and reply matter-of-factly, “no, I suck.” Then they might ask me who my favorite NBA team was, and I’d have to tell them delicately that I was a baseball fan and didn’t really follow basketball, and they’d look at me sort of the way you’d look at somebody who says, “I really don’t think Tom Hanks is that good an actor.”

In my first year of teaching in Rockaway, I was asked to referee the faculty-student basketball game. To this day, I have to rely on the refs to tell me when I’ve seen a personal foul on a basketball court. But I was going to do it, because first-year teachers don’t say no. Thankfully, my assistant principal, who like me majored in Mets baseball but unlike me had a minor in NBA studies, took over and bailed me out. If I had refereed that game, knives would have been drawn before halftime. 

Nevertheless, for the benefit of having something else to talk about with the kids when it wasn’t baseball season, I always knew what was going on. I knew who all the NBA stars were in the 90’s and the 00’s: Jordan and Pippin on the Bulls, Hakim Olajuwon on the Rockets, Shaq on the Lakers, Patrick Ewing on the Knicks, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, etc. etc. I’d know who was in the playoffs and occasionally watch the games. And I could always tell the kiddies that I watched the great Knicks teams of my childhood, because I did: Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Walt Frazier and Phil Jackson. Ask your grandparents, kids. Those guys could have made a basketball fan out of a duck. 

Jason Kidd was the biggest star for the New Jersey Nets when I was a young teacher. The Nets had a couple of good seasons around that time, but they were usually overshadowed by the Ewing and the Knicks and their annoying courtside celebrities at the Garden. 

But I already had a soft spot for the Nets because I had actually seen them play a couple of times when they were the Long Island ABA team, with Julius Erving (Dr. J.), his cool afro and the red, white and blue ABA basketballs. The first time was at the Island Garden, right next store to the place where we’d get our Christmas trees in West Hempstead. Once in a while, my father, never a sports guy, would get free tickets to see the Nets when they moved to the brand-new Nassau Coliseum, and we’d go so my mom wouldn’t be able to tell him that he never did anything besides yell at me. 

New York basketball in the late ‘00’s and early ‘10’s was mostly average if not outright bad, so not even the kids at school weren’t talking about the Knicks or the Nets. By this time of course, they all had iPhones and Xboxes and Play Stations, so most of them spent their free time out in an alternative-reality ether, which I couldn’t even begin to relate to. But I did think it was pretty cool when the New Jersey Nets became the Brooklyn Nets and chose black, white and grey as the team colors. Snazzy-looking uniforms if you ask me. 

And in my last couple of years in Ozone Park, a new assistant principal came in and put together a team that no middle school in Queens could beat. One of the best students in my Year 25 classes was the star, well on his way to 7 feet tall, the dean’s list of whatever college he goes to and maybe the NBA draft. You couldn’t help but soak up a little basketball appreciation working at MS 202, and maybe part of the reason I’m watching it now is that I miss that city vibe, painful as it is for me to admit. 

Fast forward back to where we were sixteen paragraphs ago: Not going to the city, sitting on the couch, flipping through the Newsday and scratching the dog on the morning after Christmas. From the article about Brooklyn Nets, I found out that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who had both signed with the Nets after winning championships with other teams, were playing together for the first time, and that they had won their first two games of the 20-21 season with neither the Warriors nor the Celtics putting up much of a fight. They had a former great player as a first-year coach (Steve Nash, whom my wife calls “the stern fellow”) and the buzz was that this could be their year. 

So being trapped at home by a Pandemic, I decided to watch the next game, on a Sunday night against the Charlotte Hornets. I saw one of the Nets’ best players, Spencer Dimwitty, suffer a nasty season-ending knee injury, then I saw those Nets still standing come roaring back from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter, only to lose by two points, 106-104.

Trisha, who justifiably had to break my chops for sitting on the couch watching a back-and-forth game, said, “Wow! This is just like the Mets!”

But it was fun watching another live competition on TV again besides Jeopardy. (It was enough that we’re still grieving Alex Trebeck). So I watched the game after that. And they lost again, in overtime. Nether Durant nor Irving was playing, so I got to know some of the other guys. You can’t help but notice D’Andre Jordan, who is 6’8” with shoulders big enough to tattoo entire verses of scripture on them and a more impressive ponytail than my wife’s. I quickly adopted him as my favorite. 

Jan 7, 2020; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Brooklyn Nets center Deandre Jordan (6) reacts in the third quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

And though I’m already sick of the broadcast team on the Yes Network, they did teach me some of the better nicknames: Joe Harris, who seems to never miss a three-point shot, is “Joey Buckets.” Jeff Green, 34 years old and playing in his 13th season, is “Uncle Jeff.” Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot is “TLC”, ‘cause how the hell could you say all that when you’re calling basketball play-by-play? I give Ian Eagle, the voice of the Nets, credit for calling TLC’s baskets “French Dips” and “French Connections”, but other than that, the broadcasters all giggle too damn much and between them and the pathetic fake crowd noises I’m muting the TV more and more every game.

As my first weeks of being the accidental basketball fan unfolded, Durant and Irving were back on the floor together for a game against the Washington Wizards in which they both missed shots with seconds to play and lost by one point, 123-122. 

Just like the Mets. 

But I started to see what makes these guys special. “KD” is 6’10’’ and moves like a man who has oil flowing through his veins instead of blood. “Kai” is 6’2’’, and one of the most gifted natural athletes I’ve ever seen playing anything. He reminds me of the last line of the song, “The Cape” by Guy Clark: “He did not know he could not fly, so he did.” 

And because I flip through every page of the newspaper every day, I knew about some things in the first week of January. I knew that there was this player out in Houston, James Harden, who was unhappy with the direction of his team and wanted to be traded to the Nets so he could play with Durant and Irving. But Durant was ineligible to play for a week because he’d been exposed to Covid-19 and Irving was taking some time off, which everyone said was directly related to the Capitol Insurrection. 

So I find a happy little pastime to take my mind off all the misery and keep me entertained through the winter, and the misery kicks the door in and trashes the room. But I kept watching anyway, as I had nothing else to do. 

Irving never directly said that he didn’t want to play because he was upset about the Insurrection, but that’s what was widely assumed. It didn’t help that he got also caught breaking covid protocols to go to his niece’s birthday party. There were a lot of big mouths on Twitter questioning his commitment to the game and his inner fortitude. 

Here are some things I’ve learned about Kyrie Irving: His mother was Sioux, and he supports the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota in their fight against the Dakota Pipeline, which has earned him the Sioux name “Little Mountain.” He burns sage before games. When the WNBA players opted not to play last year out of covid concerns, he donated $1.5 million towards covering their salaries. He gave $300,000 to Feeding America and helped launch Share A Meal, a NYC charity that has delivered 250,000 meals during the Pandemic. He’s trying to eat a plant-based diet and he had to apologize for punking the press into believing he was a flat-earther, which is funny as hell. 

And I’ll tell you what: If I were an African American professional athlete in this country, I would think that it’s a constant moral dilemma knowing that, at the same time at which I’m serving as a hero and a role model to kids who badly need one, I’m also providing entertainment for rednecks married to karens who pull their kids in close if they see a guy who looks like me coming up the street and yahoos who tried to destroy the country because my people outvoted their people. That wouldn’t be an easy thing for me to reconcile. The same guy who tried to kill a policeman with the pole of an American flag on the steps of the Capitol probably had shit to say about Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem. I wouldn’t want these unrepentant assholes rooting for me to throw a ball through a hoop, either. 

So I’ll appreciate the joy of watching the joy that Kyrie Irving gets out of playing basketball at a level that few mortals can, and as far as I’m concerned, he can take the day off anytime he needs to. 

Meanwhile, in Kyrie’s absence during the first weeks of January, KD was trying to carry the team, but they were treading water. I continued to get to know the other guys, including Landry Shamet, to whom I like to yell, “Dammit, Shamet!” when he misses, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. I also came to appreciate Travis Allen, a young center with afro that would stop Dr J. in his tracks, and Caris LaVert, sort of a Kyrie-Lite, but very talented. 

Then I met The Beard. 

Brooklyn made a big trade on January 12, giving up Allen and LaVert and all their draft picks for the next hundred years to get James Harden. The only thing I knew about him was that he looked like the guy you want to be around when the party gets going. The bubbleheads on TV and the articles in the Newsday were all speculating as to how an elite, MVP player who led the league in scoring three times would get used to sharing the ball. Harden replied that he just wanted to win a championship, which is the only thing he hadn’t accomplished. 

It was an interesting subplot. I kept watching the games.

You might know this already: The man is a magician, a grand imperial wizard of basketball. He passes the ball behind his back and over his shoulder without looking, he passes under other guys’ legs, he passes across court through a crowd of large, sweaty men to put it right into the unguarded hands of Joey Buckets for the three, or up over the basket where DeAndre Jordan brings it home with a pony-tail flyin’, bible-thumpin’ slam dunk. He hits field goals and free throws like my dog marks telephone poles and I pour cups of coffee and he regularly tricks his opponents into fouling him when he drives into the paint. 

Watching Harden, Durant and Irving come together, I finally “got” basketball on the same level I’ve always understood baseball. A baseball game is a Beethoven Symphony. There are slow, quiet movements where you’re drawn into a particular instrument, but you know if you follow along, they’ll be great bursts of joyous noise that will lift your soul and set your spirit free, or sometimes make you weep. 

Basketball is jazz.

 Forgive me for just figuring this out at 57. I was busy learning other stuff. 

A quick Google search credits this idea to a joke by Michael Scott on “The Office”, but Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wynton Marsalis were both on it before that. Marsalis said that both basketball and jazz “reward improvisation and split-second decision making against the pressure of time.” 

To say that two basketball teams are just going back and forth is to say that a jazz ensemble is just playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” over and over again. One of the things I love about baseball is the endless possibilities. As the great Mets’ announcer Bob Murphy would say, every time you come to the ballpark, there’s a chance that you’ll see something you’ve never seen before. You could subsequently say that about every time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hands. But I never realized until watching the Brooklyn Nets this year that basketball is also full of endless possibilities, every time the shot clock starts. 

My Netsies went on a tear through the Western Conference this month, winning five games straight on the road against some of the best teams in the league. The last game of the road trip was tied with two minutes left and ended with Harden throwing himself into Paul George of the Clippers to force him into an offensive foul, thus taking two points off the board and getting two free throws, of which he hit both, after somehow missing two other free throws just minutes earlier, plus a shot by Irving that would have bounced off the rim if DeAndre Jordan hadn’t reached up like he was touching the hand of God to guide the ball through the hoop. 

Nets 112- Clippers 108. A half-game behind Philadelphia for first place with 20 wins and ten losses. If you’re thinking about jumping on the bandwagon, I was the last one on the back, so I’ll help you up. 

One of my favorite bands is The Band. There were five guys, each an exceptional player on one or more instruments. There are hardly any solos in The Band’s songs. But each musician is aware of what the others are doing, and they seamlessly create space for all the sounds to come through individually at the same time you that hear them in harmony. 

All these years, I had no idea they were playing basketball. 

In baseball news, the Mets are loaded with talent and personality this year, and their new owner is a nerdy hedge-fund guy with wads of money who wants desperately for everyone to like him. 

In basketball news, there will be 300 masked, socially-distanced fans at the Barclays Center tonight when the Nets play the Sacramento Kings, the first time spectators have been present in a year. When the Pandemic is over, I’ll be a half-hour train ride away, at least part of the time. Maybe a way to get that change of scenery next February.   

It appears that I’ve become a basketball fan. People can evolve. While the Boys of Summer are doing their stretches down in spring training, and President Biden is shoveling us out from four years of the toxic, deadly incompetence and corruption that at times felt like a blizzard that would bury us alive, I’m enjoying the happy, swashbuckling exploits of Brooklyn’s Boys of Winter. 

Trisha always knows what night there’s a game on. When Jeopardy ends, I walk out to the kitchen to heat up a cup, and on the way, I yell out, “BROOKLANNN!!!”

I also shop, cook and clean, so she’s letting me stay for now. 

Of course this means conflicts are bound to occur in my pathetically, disgustingly cushy little existence. What happens when June comes around, I’m still refreshing the CVS website for my vaccine, Jacob DeGrom is throwing a perfect game with only 80 pitches in the sixth and the Nets, who have never won a championship, are up 3-1 in the finals? And what if both of those games are on the West Coast and the next morning promises perfect kayaking conditions on Long Island or a perfect morning for a bike ride on the rail trial in Copake Falls?

Bob Murphy had another great line. Every spring, there’d be six good pitchers for five spots, or five outfielders for three spots, and all the talk would be about how the manager would decide who plays and who sits. 

Bob referred to this as a “happy problem.” 

I suppose that’s my wish for everyone of good will right now. May we all live to see days when we have happier problems.

Copyright 2021 by John Duffy

All Rights Reserved

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