When I was in high school I had a key to my school’s gym.
So sometimes, on weekends when school was closed, I’d go there and shoot baskets. Alone in the long reverb.
I could do that for hours. Finding with a sueded ball a rhythm between hands and floor, finding an arced path to the basket, running back and forth, end to end, laying the ball softly off the glass. Discovering angles. All by myself.
I never invited any of my friends; they never knew a coach had slipped me the key along with a conspiratorial smile. I understood he considered me responsible and that if anything turned up missing or vandalized it would redound to me. And so I shot by myself on Saturday mornings, when most of my friends were still in bed.
The coach probably assumed I’d open up the gym to others, he just wanted me to supervise whatever we got up to in there. Obviously there were other keys in other hands, and other boys who had been warned about the consequences of violating trust who were unlocking doors. I remember pickup games in high school gyms all over our roaming area, which included parts of three states. How we found out about them in that time before cell phones and texting I don’t remember, though at least some of it was simply the product of persistent cruising of parking lots. We knew each others’ cars.
I do not feel any different than I did as that young gym rat; I still like solitary weekend mornings in the newspaper office by myself, before anyone else arrives, before the gentle cacophony of a pandemic-era newsroom commences. There is a thrill in being by yourself in a place made for crowds, to be able to work not only unnoticed but unwatched. I punch in a door code, settle in behind a screen. My fingers move in familiar ways, running through the compulsory exercises, the throat-clearing, finally arriving at that place between drudgery and play where real progress might be made.
We are the people we have always been, products of experience and chance. Nature and nurture and whatever part of free will is not illusory. None of us can claim to be the sole author of our stories, but there are things we must work out for ourselves. I wasn’t going to be Michael Jordan or Gail Goodrich no matter how many hours I spent in that gym, but maybe I needed those hours to work that out, to come to some understanding of my imitations.
Those hours were a useful corrective to the sentimental notions expressed by sportswriters and authors of juvenile sports novels. The universe does not care how much you want something.
It’s hard to imagine that coaches give kids keys to high school gymnasiums anymore. There is too much liability, and our world was different. As a 16-year-old I could order thousands of dollars worth of sneakers for the sporting goods store where I worked; as a 17-year-old I could travel to a foreign country to chase a frivolous athletic dream. I had opportunities that most people never had, and a lot of what was offered was wasted on me. I was privileged in some ways, but no more so than many of my generation. We kept being presented with keys and opportunities to make mistakes.
We made them, as all generations will. We compounded the errors of our parents and foreclosed some options for our progeny. We would like to believe we did the best that we could, but the truth is we could have done far better. We were vain and reckless and human, susceptible to wishful and self-serving notions about our competence and wisdom.
In some ways, maybe we have grown up. Maybe we’ve reconciled ourselves to the idea that we are who we are, that we might never step foot on the moon or onto some stage to heft some gold award. We might understand the world is beyond our trying to reason with it, that the fundamental madness of our kind will cause us to eventually squander all that is beautiful and good. We can only control what is right in front of us, and only to some limited extent. About the best we can do is to be good to one another.
To grow up, we need to accept these limitations.
I know that there are people who genuinely believe the imminent election is the most important of our lives. They may be right. But we will not undo the damage we have done to our world and our dream of America by making an easy choice.
We have to do hard things, and even then we have to face the reality that it will not be enough to hold off the darkness forever. There will always be voices offering us patent medicine and quick-fix schemes, ways we might get rich without much effort or stop the IRS from garnishing our wages. There will always be ways to rationalize our greed, to skirt our obligations. There will always be a way to frame sacrifice as a sucker bet and cheating as a mark of intelligence.
There’s always a way to do what you want, to follow your fear or avarice. Someone will always provide you cover. Even if they disdain you, they will feed you pretty words that you can choose to believe.
I don’t think this election is as important as the next one will be, when all the apologists might be telling us how they never really liked the guy, that they always knew he was unworthy, that they only played along so they could try to mitigate the damage that he wreaked. That they could only control the things that were in front of them, that they never really had much to do with him and his wicked vision. I could name their names, but so can you.
You know the enablers and the Quislings. Those people who would not stand for simple common decency will come asking for your vote again and again in the years ahead. Remember them.
I’ve voted already, and am fairly certain my ballot will count. The signature on the affidavit does not look that much different than the signature on the photocopy of my driver’s license I sent along. The process seemed unnecessarily complicated and designed to discourage one from actually casting a vote, for there are people in power who have determined their best chance of holding onto that power is through the suppression of certain voters, but it wasn’t something we couldn’t overcome.
A ballot is a kind of key, a tool of limited utility. It can let you in the gym, but it can’t transform your future. That takes more than desire and hard work. It takes the favor of heaven. So we can vote, but we might as well pray.
Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.