Read Everything That Dunks Must Converge

Read Everything That Dunks Must Converge
by Bryan Harvey

Truth & lies in Pixar's 'The Good Dinosaur'

Truth & lies in Pixar's 'The Good Dinosaur'
by Bryan Harvey

A world of child soldiers & cowboys

A world of child soldiers & cowboys
by Bryan Harvey

To their own devices: Pablo Larrain's 'The Club'

To their own devices: Pablo Larrain's 'The Club'
by Bryan Harvey

LA Lakers vs. Denver Nuggets Preview, the Pinewood Derby, and the Art of Sculpting Play-Doh

May 19, 2009

A mediocre artist is not aware of their mediocrity until they find themselves in the presence of a truly great one.

For example, let's say we have a kid named Jack, and Jack is three years old; and Jack loves playing with play-doh. His specialty is to roll the play-doh into one long tube and hold it up like a limp noodle or a floppy phallic symbol. Jack's never seen another kid use play-doh, but then he goes to preschool; and he encounters several other kids his age who also share a passion for play-doh.

In the classroom, Ms. Marks has the students sit at four different wooden tables, the kind with the plastic layer covering the wood. The tables stand just short of an adult's knee, but they seem just right, to steal a line from Goldilocks, to a three year old. At each table, there are four kids, and each one is currently hiding their nerves and excitement in the art of play-doh. Jack doesn't know what to do with his hands. In twenty-two years, he will charmingly tell a woman in a bar, "My biggest fear in public is that I don't know what to do with my hands, so sometimes I drink too fast. If you notice I'm drinking faster than you, would you mind just holding my hand?" He takes extra sips on purpose, and a few hours later he leaves with her, holding hands.

But today Jack doesn't know what to do with his hands. He eyes Sarah, the cute blond girl beside him. He sees that all she's doing is flattening her red play-doh into what looks like a spaghetti sauce stain, and he knows what to do. He starts rolling a limp noodle made out of play-doh. It's going to be awesome. It's going to impress her, and it's going to make Jack and Sarah friends; but Jack didn't count on Michael, who was also at his table.

Michael has already made a bowl. Jack's never seen anyone make anything other than a limp noodle or a stain, but this kid has made something with a purpose. If one waves a limp noodle around in the air, it breaks. Jack is speechless. Jack's hands are speechless. Jack's hands aren't moving. Jack isn't moving. Michael is moving. Michael takes Jack's limp noodle and chops it up into pieces. He puts those pieces in his bowl and covers them with Sarah's spaghetti stain. Michael has made a bowl of spaghetti, but he's not done.

Michael opens another can of play-doh; it's pink, which means it's also flesh-colored. Michael begins to knead the play-doh with his knuckles. Jack doesn't know what Michael's doing. Jack only knows how to roll play-doh, so he looks at Sarah. She doesn't look at him, but he takes solace in the fact that she looks just as puzzled as he does. Michael balls up the kneaded dough. It's dough because he's no longer just playing with play-doh like the other kids; he's baking, which is an act usually reserved for making food, which helps to sustain life. Jack puts his head on his hand and props his elbow on the plastic-coated table. When Michael begins to knead the dough again, Jack feels Michael's knuckles pressing down on his brain, his confidence is being flattened, and while Jack's emotions become one dimensional, a three dimensional statue begins to take shape under the movements of Michael's hands.

By the time he is done, a miniature of the statue of David stands in the middle of the table. The only difference is that the left arm of this version reaches out from David's body, as opposed to reaching for his own shoulder. The palm of the left hand faces up towards the ceiling.

In this palm, Michael places the bowl he created to begin his career as a sculptor, and inside of that bowl, rest the pieces of Jack's limp noodle and Sarah's spaghetti stain; so in the words of today's street dancers, Jack has just been served. Coincidentally, the taunts of the superior talent do not end there; David's noodle is not limp but perfectly erect. Ms. Marks makes Michael cover it with a kleenex, which he fashions into a toga.

The creation now resembles Julius Caesar, returned to the Senate floor with a bowl of his own entrails. If he could speak, he would say, "Enjoy the taste of assassination. My name is eternal, like an aftertaste that no breath mint can cure. " Rome's destiny was to have an emperor. Jack's destiny was to do nothing with his hands but fashion limp noodles. Sarah's destiny was to cover Jack's brokenness, and Michael's destiny was to expose all of it, like the portrait in the Sistine chapel, where God and Adam point fingers at one another.

There is, after all, a competition in creation.

I opened the blue and yellow box to find a rectangular piece of wood and a plastic bag filled with axils and tiny, plastic wheels. My job was to piece them together into the fastest racing machine known to man, or at least to the Cub Scouts that met at The First Presbyterian Church in Athens, GA. My dad's job was to help me do it, and by that, I mean lead me through it.

"When I was young, my cars didn't win anything," he told me, but I still believed he knew how to guide the building of my car into a champion. Kids believe a lot of things. They don't know enough history to know it teaches lessons or might possibly repeat itself. They're seeing everything for the first time, and this block of wood was all I'd ever seen of the Pine Wood Derby. The wood was white pine, but it was filled with creation's unlimited darkness.

I held the universe in my left hand and a golf pencil in my right, and I began to draw a skeleton along its side. Unfortunately, this skeleton was of a man who fell off a sixteen story building, so I flipped the block over and began again. This time I went slower and steadier. My hand crawled over the wood like a tortoise, and there wasn't even a hare to chase. The line was beautiful and ready to cut.

My Dad cut along the straightest parts of my line with a handsaw, and then we touched up the edges with a pocket knife. After he was done cutting, he left me on the deck with the car, the leftover pieces of wood, and a stack of sandpaper. I took a sheet of sandpaper and wrapped its backside around one of the leftover blocks of wood, and then I began sanding the seconds off of my future Pine Wood Derby winning car. When it was all smooth, like wet clay, my Mom took me to the store, so I could buy paint for it. I came home with one container of green and another of orange. I didn't think about how those colors might make my car look like a damn pumpkin, just as I didn't realize that my car still had some rough patches that could not be sanded.

I covered that car in green paint, and before the green dried, I started painting with the orange. I painted an orange bulls eye on the top of the car, a horrible logo for anything about to be entered in a race, and a few stripes along the side. I thought it looked good, but when the paint dried, one could see where the green dripped over the orange and the orange dripped over the green. My car looked like a swamp of uncertainties, but I didn't know it at the time. To top it all off, we added weight to the car by screwing nuts and bolts into the top of it, like two metallic passengers. Then we added the wheels, and my Dad picked up the car to examine it.

He flicked each wheel with his forefinger to make sure each one would spin. When one didn't, he took it out and adjusted it so that it would. Nevermind, that he'd never designed a winning car before. Now was the time. Our time. And we weren't about to let it go, even if our family tree had never sprouted in the direction of victory before. Boughs don't always break off in the wind.

The night of the derby, our car didn't win a thing. I'm not even sure it travelled in a straight line down the track; its wheels constantly bumped against the wooden buffer between the left and right set of each car's wheels. Each match was best out of three, and a car that lost two matches was then eliminated. I got to race that car four times, and four times I lined it up as straight as possible; and four times it stuttered down the track like it was illiterate to racing. I remember that fourth time I didn't even want to line up the car again. I just wanted to go home.

"When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall and down will come baby, cradle and all."

Meanwhile, Jimmy Spencer's car was black and slick looking. The way the light caught it made it look like an oil spill, and with the speed it had, it was like the track it ran on was covered in oil. That car was fast, like lightning and the blinking of Frankenstein's monster's eye. It was truly a revelation.

My second Pinewood Derby was a repeat of my first, only my car was green and yellow, but I had seen things now. The speed of Jimmy Spencer's cars had opened my eyes, and I was now prepared to chase him across Derby tracks, across continents, and across sheets of ice. I wanted to stare down my Creator and ask him not only why my cars had always been slower, but also why'd they been so damn ugly looking too? It's one thing to get beat, but it's an entirely different matter to paint a bulls eye on one's own back, showing the world that you deserve to be served limped noodles, in a bowl, by a statue with an erect penis, which I wish was as bad as it gets.

I wish at this time the fates had just cut me loose, but where would be the plot structure in that? The stakes must be raised, and people must hold out hope for the protagonist. Incremental steps must be taken that lead a hero towards the peak, the light, the summit of accomplishment. If hope is not given, then from where does the tension come? What snaps the branch and brings the cradle to the ground?

My third derby experience involved an entirely different preparation than the previous two. My Dad and I no longer used the hand saw and the pocket knife to shape our car; we used an electronic band saw. The car was more aerodynamic, and I made sure to sand out every rough spot. I thought it looked like the car of the future, like it could be displayed at Epcot center. We filled its belly with bb's we melted down into a hot, silver liquid, and I painted its body a dark shade of navy blue; and it won races, but not enough. The enough would come later. Still, we were learning the tricks of the trade from the fathers, with engineering degrees, who like showing off against eight and ten year olds.

Jimmy lined up his car much quicker than I lined up mine. He probably felt like he didn't need the time. He'd won first place in our den three years running, and he'd won first place in the Pack at least twice. He was used to winning, so why would he take time to line up his car this year, especially against a guy who had only won a couple of races total in three years. The starter pulled the lever that released the cars, and they flew down the slope of the track. My car, painted white with a single blue stripe down the middle, hit the foam pad before Jimmy's car got to the flat part of the track. When we went to line our cars up again, this time Jimmy took more time than I did. All of a sudden, he felt like he needed time when for three years that's all he'd done without. The result of the second race was the same as the first. My car was moving on, and Jimmy's was headed for the loser's bracket.

If it happened today, I would have said, "this must be how Ron Artest felt after Games 4 and 6 against the Lakers."

My car continued to dominate the other Weblos, sweeping every matchup 2-0, and my car was gaining attention from other parents, much like the Denver Nuggets during this year's playoff run. I was beating cars by feet, not inches, and my Dad recalls one man saying, "Bryan's got to have the fastest car out there tonight." I had a grin on my face, and when I walked to set my car up, I walked up there like I owned the track, not with the dread I had three years earlier. Meanwhile, in the loser's bracket, Jimmy Spencer's car did not lose because after champions master the art of winning they master the art of making it dramatic. I was going to race him again.

I didn't care that Jimmy had a winning pedigree. In fact, I smirked at it, like Kenyon Martin smirks at Mark Cuban. I didn't care about where Jimmy had been. I cared about where I was going, the way Nene and J.R. Smith don't care about Phil Jackson's rings, but about how many they can get George Karl. My car was going to win; it hadn't lost all night. Why would it lose now? I could see it in my Dad's face. He was thinking the same thing. Chris Anderson must feel the same way. His redemption story seems to deserve a trip to the Finals after his drug problems forced him to ride around with a green and orange bulls eye on his back, and when he sees the Denver fans, he can tell they're thinking the same thing. They have that look of proud parents, who think their children are on the cusp of something memorable. They feel it. They believe it. They want to know it, and they wonder if Bob Dylan was right--are the times a changing?

Change is the only constant.

Jimmy Spencer dropped his car that night. He picked his car up from the finish line, and he dropped it. I can't remember who he was racing, but the fall knocked a chip of wood near one of the wheels off. I don't remember exactly when it happened, but I know that everyone in that room thought the king is dead; and we were ready to dance on his grave, maybe even eat our spaghetti on it. He had us sensing our habitual normalcy far too often, and now was our chance to break it with a smile. We could feel the stone, sculpted around our mouths cracking with our sudden realization that anything might be possible. Have not's might become have's. Surely, the chipping of Jimmy's car was a sign. Of course, torn curtains have been signs too and so have the crumbling of Shaq and Kobe dynasties, and those events only resulted in three days of mourning and three years without a Finals appearance.

Nothing is done, until nothing is forgotten, and nothing is forgotten.

After Jimmy's bad luck, his car never lost again. He beat my car twice to win the Den championship, and then he beat me twice more to win the Pack championship. I wound up third. People do not tend to remember who finishes third. Second gets remembered for losing. Otherwise, we'd forget the devil too.

That third place finish was the best I ever did in a Pinewood Derby. My Dad and I did everything we could to make that car go faster. We traded cutting the car into a wedge of cheese, that might embarrass cavemen for inventing the wheel, with a pocket knife for a more aerodynamic cut with a bandsaw. It was like trading Iverson for Billups. We thought it would work, but we lost out to someone else's bad luck. We lost out to another object that fell victim to gravity, just like an angel, a piece of fruit, and any human who eats said fruit.

Of course, such falls from grace can create the ultimate loopholes for one side to sustain always being the winner.

One can call it luck. One can call it fate. One can call it destiny, but no one in my family line has won a Pine Wood Derby; and no one in the Denver Nuggets lineage has won an NBA championship.

The Lakers, on the other hand, have won an NBA title in every decade of the League's existence, except the 1960's. They're royalty. They're Jimmy Spencer, and whenever the paupers think the king is dead, the king is not dead, but crawling through a loophole as if it were his mother's womb.

The king receives his right to rule from God, and when his power is about to be seized from him, someone drops a car or Yao Ming breaks a foot, but what is meant to happen happens. It happened to Robert Horry, it happened to Derek Fisher, and it'll probably happen to Trevor Ariza. It's in the threads of the uniform.

We are who we are, and talent is innate. Do the purple and gold colors change a man or do they simply reveal who he always was? Does a sculptor create or does the sculptor just remove excess materials?

Jimmy always had the faster car, and the night I beat him he just hadn't finished constructing it, or finding it. Michael was always better with play-doh than Jack, or at least better at hearing what the play-doh had to say. Jack just didn't know it, until they came face to face. Then he never touched play-doh again.

Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach have nine rings each. George Karl has none and one limp noodle of play-doh. Do you see what the Nuggets are up against? They are battling time, three old hags with a spindle, and every epic story ever written. They are not Odysseus. They are the scoundrels courting his wife Penelope. They are not supposed to win because they lack the miracles to win. They do not fire the arrow through a hundred ax handles. They fall victim to the arrow.

Every hack thinks they are a genius until they encounter true genius, and so far, the Nuggets have encountered no true basketball geniuses. They have beaten an overrated Hornets team and a patchwork Mavericks team, but they have two geniuses before them now, in Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant; and they are armed with a play-doh sword, so how do they win? How does a play-doh sword defeat the sun or even gravity?

A leap of faith.

I saw it last night on How I Met Your Mother. Ted jumped from his apartment building's rooftop onto the rooftop of the building across the street. The last thoughts in his head before he jumps are of his getting left at the altar, beat up by a bar tender, fired, and attacked by a goat all in the same year, but he makes the jump; and in doing so, wipes away all of those first round Denver losses and years that added up to being forgotten.

If Ted Mosby can conquer the forces of gravity that pull one down, then so can Carmello and Chauncey.

So in honor of Ted, I'm making a leap of my own and picking the Nuggets in six. After all, as I said earlier, Jack walks out of the bar holding hands with the girl, and Michelangelo often lost himself in self pity and feelings of worthlessness. I wonder what Jimmy Spencer is doing now and if he wants to race. History can be changed, can't it? We're not all versions of Lost's John Locke, doomed to repeat the same failures and successes over and over again. At some point, we've got to learn what to do with our own hands.

Denver, win, so we can all feel as fresh as Carmello's sneakers and prove we're not so mediocre after all.


beamaw said...

Wow! This was fun to read!

May 22, 2009 at 12:43 PM

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