Read Old Man Scanlon


10 June 2013

Pencil to paper, my grandson copies theorems out of the text-book, the better to cement them into his mind and make them his own. He's studying for his geometry final exam, and I'm there for backup. As he works problems I ask the occasional leading question, affirm correct answers, maybe raise an eyebrow at careless arithmetic errors. Mutual ribbing at faulty understandings is part of the drill, too. The duty is light, and I have the leisure to reflect on the serious improvements a few months of brain development have wrought in him. You can't get too attached to your mind's picture of your teenager; he'll keep achieving pieces of adult maturity in virtual blinks of an eye. The boy's organization, focus, and attention span are impressive. His elders are palpably relieved.

After close to two hours of congruences, parallels, and perpendiculars, the boy pushes his chair back and announces it's time for a break. He invites Dad to play some basketball; I say invite, but the challenge is always there, either overt or implicit. We gather up the ball, the adult beverages, a cigar, and head down the cul de sac to the hoop.

I may have blurted out some lame-ass bullshit about geometry's application to basketball. It is, of course, useless. Euclid never had to deal with this game of spin, trajectories, and ridiculously imperfectly elastic collisions. Even calculus could not bring deliverance to a player in the heat of the game. Far better for the boy to use it afterward in a moment of calm as elegant verification of what he already knows through muscle memory and hours of practice—and maybe to discover the critical angles and velocities which determine whether the ball drops through the net or pops out after circling the rim.

Dad and the boy—these aficionados of skill—play horse, pig, ox, around the world, shoot-out. The boy is physically adult and still growing. Dad feels no compunction about using his razzle-dazzle shots. With vicious acceleration, the boy dribbles and feints, laughing for sheer joy. Hoping to throw off Dad's rhythm, he elicits outraged delay-of-game protests. He and his father are close enough in skill so that it's no rare thing for the boy to win, and neither is shy in offering his opinion of whose butt is going to be whipped. My only active role in the games exactly matches my ability. Two out of three times I can stop a stray ball if it comes straight to me, not too fast. Otherwise, my part is to observe and revel in the moment.

The athletic tradition in my family was less strenuous. After Sunday dinner at Grammy and Gramp's, we kids and the elder two generations sat around the living room and, in the season, watched a baseball game on the television. (To more precisely date myself, the TV used electron tubes and had to "warm up." It was black and white. It had twelve VHF channels sucked in from the ether through a rabbit-ear antenna. There were no remotes: you changed channels by walking over and turning a knob on the TV, and you had to fine-tune it with another knob. You could adjust the contrast, too. There was no slow-motion instant replay.) My grandfather, belonging to the first generation of his Anglo-Irish family born in the United States, had no trouble adopting the national pastime as one of his sports. However, he'd reached the age at which sitting in front of a TV led pretty much inevitably to dozing off—it was impossible for me to fathom this then, but now I'm all too familiar with the phenomenon. We kids paid little attention to the ball game, but Gramp's snoring was a reliable source of amusement.

It was good to have small places in our lives that were familiar and predictable, even though "random" and "zany" were hardly hallmarks of our nerdish upbringing. It is good now, too, that I can claim to be in on the ground floor of another family tradition, for so these two-man basketball contests are shaping up to be. This evening ritual provides structure and rootedness that are valuable in a culture that's not necessarily always your friend. It will certainly evolve as my grandson goes out into the world, but I have high hopes it will persist in recognizable form for years to come.

Dad will take shuffling baby steps with his walker until he's in position under the net, the erstwhile boy beside him. "Underhand, right-handed, backboard, right-only catch," the geezer rasps. Both of them have long since mastered this shot; most likely could do it blindfolded. I'll be there, getting the hang of my new ectoplasmic form, ready to tweak gravity to ensure the needful results.