On Monday, March 23 at four a.m. Central Time, on the dot, my cell phone alarm woke me up from a two-hour nap.
I was behind the wheel of a rented Hyundai Elantra, at a rest area off the eastbound lanes of Wisconsin's Interstate 94. I was in between -- headed to the airport in Columbus, Ohio, via Indianapolis, en route from a first-weekend subregional NCAA Tournament pod in Minneapolis. I had been on the road for five long months, and it was time to go back home to Rhode Island. My basketball season was over, and all that remained was the annual closing statement that I post to this website once all the small-college teams are eliminated. Epilogue, the Fifth was simple formality, because I'd written it in advance.
What I'd done was write the epilogue of epilogues. I explained why and how, I thanked everybody, and then I closed with an end.
In this world, we are judged by what we do, and what we do makes us who we are. You and I, as human beings among billions, are owed nothing -- no recognition, no love, and no resources. Regardless of belief, we earn rewards and penalties based on what we attempt and achieve, and each endeavor moves the world forward into the future. Inaction and inertia are their own punishments; the world simply forgets and passes over those who do not do.
I don't know what I will do next. All I know is that I can no longer do this. My body will not allow me to continue, and this mission no longer fits into my life in a way that makes sense. So I will stop here, at the end, with a loss. It always ends with a loss; everything does.
I'm reminded of what Neil Young wrote as he pondered his own disappearance into inconsequence. "It's better to burn out than to fade away," he famously said. I've thought a lot about this sentence during the last few months, and I've come to disagree. The explosion at the end may be glorious, but it's a big, selfish fireball that burns and transfigures all that precedes it. I choose to go quietly.
Sitting in that rest area, staring out into a night far more dark blue than black, I felt the full weight of the end. I contemplated everything that lay on the other side. There were persistent and unexplained health issues I needed to address, random seizure-like attacks and severely distorted hearing. I was also preparing to file for divorce; that was based on a mutual decision six weeks earlier. My first order of business after returning home was to move my wife's belongings into a mini-storage facility, before she returned from her year in Iraq with the Navy.
I no longer had a weekly paycheck, and I'd been relying on donations since being fired by ESPN.com in January. Without a sportswriting gig to directly support my travels, I knew my accidental career as a sportswriter was over. I had to close the site that I'd poured so much of my energy into, and go back to what college prepared me for: trading computer code for money.
Operating under the assumption that Season 5 was the last go-round, I traveled around the United States on a farewell tour. It was organized the way a farewell tour should be, with the goodbye at the very end. In Louisiana and California and Virginia, as I left arenas and gymnasiums and oversized shoeboxes for the final times, I lingered for a while. I was aware of the last conference tourney, the final Selection Sunday, and the last time I'd navigate through the blue curtains behind the scenes at the NCAA Tournament.
In the cold clarity of 3 a.m., however, my decision didn't seem so clear-cut anymore. Saying goodbye meant leaving behind friends who wouldn't have any further reason to stay in touch. It meant breaking promises, and letting a lot of people down. Throughout the five-year journey of The Mid-Majority, I loved the feeling that I was carrying several thousand readers with me in the back seat, that I was some kind of overenthusiastic tour guide driving through a unexplored alternate version of America that I'd unintentionally stumbled upon. I loved showing my readers what I found along the way.
As minutes and hours ticked by, as the sky changed, what was once a final answer became a 50-50 proposition. The sun rose against the far end of the fields, and it looked just like a shiny penny balanced on its edge. I internally debated if this was leaving or flat-out quitting. I prayed for lucidity, and wondered what the right reasons were. I weighed the burdens of reality against the madness of continuing a costly enterprise, one that I loved too much to leave behind.
In the end, I chose madness.
For two days, I sequestered myself in the Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Airport. In a hotel long on atmosphere, which is also a cellular hotspot for good ideas, I tried to figure out fundraising and logistics for a fully reader-funded sixth season of The Mid-Majority. I was going out on a limb with this, and I had to figure out how to live there.
The change of plans necessitated a change in composition, so I rewrote Epilogue, The Fifth
. I added 2,500 words and two Roman-numeraled sections, and the end went like this instead:
It always ends with a loss. But there's a caveat, an exception, an asterisk with some fine print so small you need a microscope to read it. College basketball is not like life, thankfully so, because that loss is never terminal. Though it's ruled by the greedy and corrupt, Our Game is not like many other sports; there is no strike or lockout or disruption to fear. There is always another season, just as beautiful as the last, and it's waiting for us on the other side of summer. It seems so far away now, with all these recent losses so fresh and painful, but it will come in time. Our Game always offers another chance... if you dare to take it.
And then the summer came.
Six weeks later, I sat in a hospital examination room in Providence. It was my first session with an HMO doctor who didn't know me as anything more than a manila folder, so it was more like a question-and-answer session in a psychiatrist's office.
"When did you first experience these attacks?"
I clearly remembered the first one. It was early April 2008, right after I'd returned home from Season 4. Ever since I started writing about sports for money, I struggled to get back in shape after five months of sitting, driving and eating Papa John's pizza in press rooms. I gained 30 pounds right after my last marathon in 2005, and I could never run faster than a 9-minute mile after that. I could never string together very many of those.
So I was huffing along on Daggett Avenue, through my quiet Pawtucket neighborhood, on the second mile of a six-mile loop. As I passed the gates of our local graveyard, I was hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat.
That's what it felt like, anyway. I doubled over, then tried to straighten myself. I puked up a mixture of items I didn't remember eating. My body went cold, like a quick wave that passed as soon as it came over me... it felt like I was being flash-frozen. My head was spinning. I sat down in a grassy area against the graveyard fence, my arms around my knees, and I waited for the feeling to pass.
When it did go away, the sky was darker than I remembered it. I'd blacked out for at least half an hour. Then I got up from the ground, dusted myself off, and completed my slow six-mile loop.
"How often do these occur?"
I had vertigo and tinnitus all through the summer, but I didn't have another full-on attack until November. I was driving at night through North Carolina. Suddenly, my head started to swim, and I felt that sudden freezing feeling again. The blue gas-food-lodging sign on the side of the road separated into three, a triple exposure, a lot like the CMYK color separations I remember from design school. I was instantly covered in sweat. I started breathing hard and rhythmically, because I felt like I would pass out if I didn't take in enough oxygen. I pulled off the highway, and somehow guided the rental car into a hotel parking lot through the white static in front of my eyes.
When I came to, it was morning.
Things like that started happening about once a week. The attacks happened at night, sometimes in the morning, and occasionally in the afternoon. I could never get them to cooperate with my writing schedule.
"When was the last one?"
It had been a couple of months. I remember that I was in Cleveland for the MAC tourney, which would peg it to the middle part of March. By then, the attacks weren't predictable but the routine was. I knew that I had to go somewhere quiet and tune out the world for a couple of hours, so things could take their natural course.
"It sounds like you travel a lot. How often are you out of town?"
From November to March. Basically, from the beginning of college basketball season to the NCAA Tournament.
"Of that, how much time do you spend driving?"
Lots. I fly into a city, rent a car at the airport, then drive around the area going to college basketball games. I can put in as many as 2,000 miles per week, and five or six games. I'm always on the go; I even sleep for a few hours in the car when I have to. Then I return the car after about a week, annd fly somewhere else. Then I do it all over again.
"Wait, rewind a little bit. Did you say you sleep in the car?"
Sure. It's really cost-effective, and I'm always on a very tight budget.
"With the car running?"
Well, if it gets cold enough.
"I'm going to strongly suggest that you not do that anymore."
He put me through a battery of tests, and performed a couple of scans that I figured would reveal a "preexisting condition" instead of an "initial diagnosis." But there wasn't any traceable state at all. I didn't have a tumor or real actual brain damage. Instead, I promised that I would take it easy on the carbon monoxide.
I was scheduled to fly to Nigeria in June with a Samaritan's Feet volunteer team, to help distribute shoes to the poor. Over the summer, I worked on a book with Manny Ohonme, the founder of the charity; my trip was supposed to represent part of my research. But Nigeria is one of a select few countries that denies entry to anyone who can't produce a "yellow card," which is printed proof of a booster shot to guard against yellow fever. It's a big problem in developing nations, and it can cause jaundice and kidney failure.
Most vaccines introduce a small amount of the disease to the body. That's so the immune system can recognize and repel the real thing. Because of this, the yellow fever shot is not recommended for those experiencing sudden attacks or seizures.
"Given your recent history, I'm going to strongly suggest that you don't take that shot."
So I went to Peru in July instead.
Carbon monoxide poisoning wasn't my only health consideration this summer. Shortly after my first attack in April 2008, I woke up with damaged hearing after an afternoon nap. There was suddenly this weird layer of static over everything, like the noise between FM stations. Music sounded strange and distorted.
All through the summer, it was never quiet inside my head. There's that old game that bored kids at the seaside like to play, where they hold a shell to their ear to hear the ocean. For me, the shell was inside
my left ear, and I couldn't get it out.
I couldn't understand what people with low voices were saying. When men talked to me, especially over the phone, it sounded like the wah-wah trumpets from "Peanuts." Because men's college basketball coaches are all men, and since most of them have the kind of deep voices that come with advanced age, writing 10 conference previews for ESPN.com was nearly impossible once summer came. The ringing and static became so bad that I couldn't sleep more than a few hours at a time.
Before my wife left for Iraq in June, I could still hear her clearly. She kept telling me to go see a doctor, but I never did.
My friends know that my right eardrum was punctured on a flight back in 1996, and they deal with me accordingly. I always tilt my head to favor my left ear. Back then, the doctors weren't able to do anything but tell me to wait for things to work themselves out. This time, I figured that my ear treatment was in my own hands this time too. A decade ago, I kept the ear clean until the infections went away; after that, I simply got used to partial deafness (80 percent hearing capability) in my right ear. I still can't use the phone on that side.
So I used the same approach in 2008 that I used in 1996. I cleaned out my left ear with vinegar, hydrogen peroxide and over-the-counter "swimmer's ear" solutions. Then I waited for the healing magic to begin. It never did. I started realizing I had made a big mistake.
All last season, I struggled with hearing issues, as well as the vertigo that came whenever my brain got too confused -- especially when I first woke up. I never told any of my interview subjects that I couldn't really hear what they were saying over the static; how does one put that across in shorthand? I tried to pass myself off as a non-deaf person as well as I could.
I became good at it. I learned to control the involuntary brow-crinkling that occurs when you don't hear something correctly. When I asked questions, I spoke softer than usual -- my attempts to talk so I could hear myself drew the wrong kind of attention. Nobody ever caught me writing loopy gibberish into my notebook, but I did it so I could look busy. I would listen to the tape later, in the car, at full volume.
As it turned out, Major League Baseball 2009 became the "season of the inner ear infection." Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds was on the disabled list for a while
with a similar hearing condition. A player from my own favorite ballteam, Denard Span of the Twins, was sidelined with the same symptoms.
Members of the 24/7 sports media would ask them questions about it, they'd answer, and I'd say, "Yup, I know what all about that's
By then, it was July, and I finally checked myself in to get my ears fixed. The doctor gave me all the proper antibiotics, which cut off the ongoing cycle of recurring infections for good.
I paid the price for my inaction, though -- the damage to my left ear was lasting. Over the summer, I made appointments with a brilliant young audiologist in Boston who tested my hearing. My challenge was to communicate to him which frequencies were affected.
So he had me play a little keyboard to identify which notes sounded "off." He asked me to bring in a CD of songs I'd heard beforehand, ones that I knew had "wrong notes" in them, to better identify my missing frequencies. I made an iTunes playlist called "140Hz Hell" of all the songs I'd likely never hear correctly again. I was born with perfect pitch, even though I never used it for anything constructive. Now it was a curse.
In August, I ran out of office visits, and there was no way I could afford to pay out-of-pocket for a specialist. So I have to accept that there's usually to be a dissonant disconnect between the musician and me, especially if they're playing a cello.
A life lived online invites and inspires projections. When we share a selectively-edited existence with strangers, whenever our homes are turned inside-out so the public can see inside, we yield control of our "character" and our lives are given over to the interpretations of others. A collection of similar attributes might exist in the beholder's eye, creating the illusion of true simpatico; this is a dynamic as old as literature itself. Without it, storytelling has no power.
Cara and I met online in 2001, in a web community about a TV show we both liked. Through that site, she found my "online journal." (The word "blog" wasn't common yet.) That site was full of 2,500-word entries, just like this one is, but I had a gimmick. Each post was divided in three parts and centered around a particular, unspoken theme. (I was trying to do different stuff with the internet even back then.) As with websites I'd build later on, it attracted a devoted cult audience. I told stories about my childhood, my upbringing and my relationships, and I used that then-new medium to make some sort of larger point about love, religion, nostalgia, happenstance, or anything else I was thinking of.
She and I quickly became online pen pals. It was a safe and asexual context, since we were 2,000 miles apart. We were both in bad and stressful relationships at the time, and we offered each other advice based on the opposite gender's perspective. We both found ourselves with partners we came to know altogether too well. We had discovered weakness, flaws and unflattering frailties, all of which never surfaced during initial rounds of dating.
People usually don't communicate online unless they feel an immediate need to. So we fell out of touch for three years, until she e-mailed me out of the blue during the summer of 2004. We were both free of those bad relationships, and she'd moved from Phoenix to Boston -- a relationship made more sense now. We started talking on the phone, and during seven- and eight-hour conversations, a mutual fascination grew. In the fall, I took the train up from Philadelphia to meet her.
We decided to get married. It all seemed very natural, since we'd known each other for so long. It was as romantic as any of those stories in books; one day, we wandered around the streets of Wilmington, Delaware, searching for a church that would marry us. On November 1, 2004, it finally happened in a courthouse down by the Delaware shore.
Real life was a struggle back then, and 2004 and 2005 were times of great transition for me. In the early 1990's, I helped run a small software company that dated back to the dot-com boom; we navigated through the crash of 2001, but we were no match for a killer loop of outsourcing and offshoring. It was tough trying to cobble enough freelance work together to pay rent and bills, and pony up $1,500 a month in child support for my illegitimate teenage son. But I distracted myself during spare hours with a new basketball blog I'd created.
The Official Wife of the Mid-Majority and I lived separately for a year, as I dismantled the firm and tried to get my finances in order. She told me that everything would be alright, because love would always find a way. She traveled down to Philadelphia on the weekends, taking the cheap bus because we never had much cash between us. She'd undergo long layovers at New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal, sitting on that dirty tile floor for hours in the middle of the night.
In the fall of 2005, I left Philly behind and we moved into a house in Rhode Island together. We weren't prepared for the immediate shift in the winds; there were disagreements and arguments, separate bank accounts, and finally couples therapy. The halcyon days of endless phone calls, thoughtful e-mails, blog comments and bus rides were over. Proximity poisoned us.
That's when I began writing for ESPN.com, when I became an actual paid sportswriter. It was a seemingly impossible leap from one world to another, and it was the fulfillment of a childhood dream. I went out on the road from January to March, trying to learn more about the game I'd been entrusted to cover. I tried to expand the scope of my first 100 Games Project
, and I wanted to get better every day.
But when I came back home, my wife was usually nowhere to be found. She spent long hours at work. She enrolled in night school. During the weekends, she watched violent TV shows and courtroom dramas that she knew I didn't like. We became two strangers under one roof, with no common purpose.
Finally, she volunteered for the Navy Reserve in a time of war. She spent the summer of 2007 in boot camp and "A" school. So it was no surprise that in the spring of 2008, her unit was assigned to Iraq. There were tears when she left in June, but when I dropped her off at Logan Airport in Boston, that was the last time I ever saw her.
While she was overseas, we barely communicated. We talked on the phone only once. On the morning of February 7, five months into her tour, we calmly agreed on the inevitable, and we drafted up a verbal marriage settlement agreement. All the details were hashed out in two hours, over e-mail, with no lawyers. I would be the plaintiff.
In July, as I sat in the courtroom gallery before my walkover divorce hearing, I thought about how easily magic transmogrifies into mistakes. I contemplated the vanity of me right, you wrong
. As I waited for hours (one of the downsides of having a last name that starts with the letter W), I watched husbands and wives exact revenge on each other for the simple betrayal of unmet expectations.
Underneath their disappointment, I sensed such yearning and hurt. As the parade continued on, I could tell that all the litigants wanted was to return to that simpler time, before the dopamine and norepinephrine and fascination burned off. Each chosen one was once an incomplete picture, back when the holes and breaks could be filled in with selfish hopes and dreams. Now the puzzles were all filled in, and the known quantities were offensive and detestable. Some had rediscovered that intoxicating feeling of newness with others. All that was left of the marriage bonds were broken homes, cursed children, and rich lawyers in expensive suits.
Not all of us are blessed with the ability to put words in compelling order. Most don't know where to begin. But we're all accomplished authors in our own respective rights. We create complex characters inspired by friends, celebrities, and people from movies and books. Then we expect those we cast in the roles to act out the parts in the exact same way we've sketch them. Deep down, we all want to direct.
I loved and adored my wife. Eventually, though, I finally realized that there were four people in that marriage: two real people, and two fantasy projections. She didn't break my heart, I broke my own.
During the late stages of Season 5, I would occasionally find myself driving between games on long, open stretches of empty two-lane U.S. highway. Once or twice, I might be cruising along at 80 miles per hour. The square top edge of an oncoming tractor-trailer would peek over the next hill, followed by the burning eyes of its headlights.
I thought about how easy it would be to unhook my seatbelt, wait, wait
... and in one quick motion, yank the left side of the steering wheel down. The timing would have to be perfect, the impact would have to be precise. I didn't want to take anyone with me.
I wasn't depressed or crazy. I wasn't some tortured soul, undergoing some deep existential crisis. I was simply letting the end enter my mind, and I was thinking clearly and calmly about it. The more I thought about it, it started making a lot of sense, in a very casual and reasonable way.
I remember when the Atlantic 10 tournament was in Philadelphia at the Spectrum. There was a fan-participation game during time outs, sponsored by an airline. I hope I'm remembering the rules correctly here, but there were five logo discs placed on the court. A contestant would come out of the tunnel with their suitcases, and they'd shoot baskets on successive discs until they missed a shot. That final disc would be turned over, and whatever location was on the bottom was where they had to go. The limo was outside, waiting to take them to the airport, and they had to leave right away. (The destination always seemed to be Washington, D.C..)
But that's how I saw death -- as a surprise ticket to a surprise place. I didn't pretend that my religious beliefs gave me any control over where I went; at the time, death seemed like just another portal in a hallway full of doors. I didn't have any romantic notions of the hereafter, and I knew that most of those concepts are constructed to keep people from feeling afraid. And I wasn't scared; I was damaged, hurt and breaking down, but I wasn't afraid.
All I knew was that wherever I ended up, it had to be better than where I was. Maybe there would be a cure for pain there. My body and heart wouldn't hurt anymore, and I wouldn't have to deal with sudden, unexplained and temporary debilitation. Maybe I'd get some new parts. I wanted to be able to hear Tony Banks' keyboard solo from "Cinema Show" again, the way it was originally recorded, and I couldn't do that here on earth anymore with the tools I had.
In retrospect, I wasn't taking death seriously enough.
Over the summer, my sensei died. Thomas Rubick, the best teacher I ever had, whom I wrote about at length in "Epilogue, The Fifth," died of brain cancer
on a Sunday morning in July. It was the same week I left for Peru.
Before Thomas passed on, he wrote his own obituary
. He titled it P.S. I'm Dead
, and his widow sent it to us hours after he left. "Finally the cancer won and I died," he wrote. "And because cancers are incredibly stupid, so did it."
When I read that, I immediately recognized the gallows humor -- thinking about death in the spring didn't frighten me, but that did. I measured my own cavalier, speculative attitude about the end against the strength of a man whose body was taken over by a disease dead-set on extinguishing him. I felt so intensely ashamed, and I was despondent in my mourning. It was a devastating time, and a humbling period as well. But I didn't have time to lose myself in sorrow.
Four days later, I boarded that big, wobbly 777 airliner in Atlanta bound for Lima. I settled in for a long non-stop southbound flight over the Equator. All around me, there were Peruvians headed back to their own country -- good practicing Catholics flipping rosary beads, mumbling prayers in Spanish, intensely rocking back and forth. They didn't want to die before they returned home. I went ahead and crossed my brow and chest too, just in case, and prayed for protection.
I didn't want to make light of dying anymore.
Love for self can be difficult and frustrating; each of us is trapped in a machine that keeps breaking down, one that is guaranteed to stop working altogether someday. Love for another requires transcending selfish desire. Ultimately, that love becomes an exercise in disappointment management, and it's often unsustainable on its own merits.
But there is no love as ridiculous, irrational or tragic as that for a simple game. The game needs effort and attention to survive, but it offers so little in direct return. Any reward for this love is only a reflection of one's effort, and nothing more. The game will never belong to anyone; the game will always find other, stronger lovers. It will forsake all those with failed ability and exhausted strength. The game will forget you when you're gone, and keep on evolving.
Despite that, there is absolutely nothing in this world that I love more than college basketball. That's why I started this site five years ago, why I travel to over 100 games per season, and it's why I came back for more.
I had my human doubts and moments of weakness, but I managed the physical pain. I handled the end of my marriage, as difficult as that was. But I couldn't bear the thought of losing this. My love for the game explains everything I've done, and it's why I went through all of this. The game wouldn't stop to reflect or pause for a second if I disappeared or died... but it could never break my heart.
The Mid-Majority is a love story, about basketball. Season 6 is specifically dedicated for those who can truly recognize and comprehend why
; to all others, every word will be written in language you do not understand. This season is for all who know the difference between pastime and life's work. It's for anybody who understands why this crazy and irrational devotion is so different from the scheduled and momentary flirtations that are often mistaken for this love.
Season 6 is dedicated to the darkness beyond the edge... the formless void that frightens away the casual, weak and the not-quite-serious. It's ascribed to the question, "How far would you go for something that can't love you back the same way?" This year, we want to embody that answer.
But everything's different now. Nothing that was so firmly in place a year ago today, when the picture seemed so big
, is in place anymore. There are no more Sports Bubble
subsidies to rely upon, no more guaranteed resources or promises of completion. The end is not built into the start this time; Season 6 could end at any moment. But love drove us to fix body and mind this summer, and come back stronger than ever. Love pushes us forward today -- back to the road, back into a complicated and unsure future. There is no time for fear or regret, there is only time to do
Because in this world, we are judged by what we do, and what we do makes us who we are. You and I, as human beings among billions, are owed nothing -- no recognition, no love, and no resources. Regardless of belief, we earn rewards and penalties based on what we attempt and achieve, and each endeavor moves the world forward into the future. Inaction and inertia are their own punishments; the world simply forgets and passes over those who do not do.
We choose to do, because we choose to love.