Peripatetic Postcards

I am Legend (Part 2)

Do humans have efficacy? The ability to exert influence over the world around us?

An important philosophical question -- one asked through the ages. Inherent in the debate about whether it is structure or action -- external forces or free will -- that determine our fate. But also a question that informs the "great person/on the shoulder of giants" versus "worker bee/group process" debate, applied to both intellectual production and societal evolution.

"Do humans have efficacy?" is a question at the heart of game theory and it also has, over the years, surfaced in fields as far-ranging as the biological and chemical sciences, physics, history, politics, and even, at times, economics.

It is also a question that can be asked when viewing movies such as the one referenced in this entry's title. Well, for that matter . . . so, too, in just about every Hollywood movie currently produced. Charlie Wilson's War, No Country for Old Men, Beowulf -- you name it. How can a plot live without efficacious humans, natural forces (or sorceresses)? Without one or more characters exerting influence on someone or thing, plots tend to stall and cash registers tend not to ring, accordingly. So, according to Hollywood, humans have efficacy.

Dissolve to final curtain. End of discussion.

But what of real life? Well, that was the question I asked the day after I saw I am Legend, which was the night before I returned to my temporary home back in the U.S. The night that I shot hoops at my sports club.

"Do I have efficacy?"

A question asked not because I couldn't get the ball to fit often enough in the basket; but because of a person I encountered. Quite by accident and then with not such a thrilling answer in response.

The story goes like this . . .

"Mama -- do it again." the short, chubby boy in a tight basketball jersey demands. He chases after the orange ball his Mom has just pushed up and through a basketball goal, fifteen feet away. He catches up with it about a meter before it rolls out of bounds. The way he subdues it is by belly-flopping on it, smothering its sidelong progress.


He looks back at his mom for approval. Then rolls the ball back her way. The mom is pushing thirty, a year or two of being designated plump, dressed in nylon grey warm-ups, that rustle with every step or stretch. "It's been a long time . . . just luck" she demurs, casting a side-long glance my way, aware of the stranger's presence.

My trained eye can see, though, that this is a practiced shooter; a person who once played the game well.

She also has the look. The hoopster's body, at least 'round these parts. She's built like a old-time mailbox. Has thighs the size of cords of wood. About my height -- which makes her tall for a Japanese lady of her generation. And something about the form. Two hands grasping the ball on each side, even tension, drawn up and out from the chest, extended skyward at a 45 degree angled push. Stamping the right foot down precisely alongside the stationary left just prior to release. Heavenly arc -- 10, 15, 18 feet up; 20 feet at the apex. Then a gloriously certain descent: down, down, down -- ever gaining speed. With a luxurious backspin, through the twine at another 45 degree slope.


"Incredible, Ma! Can you show me how?"

Mom's success is an embarrassment. Perhaps, in her mind. She doesn't realize I could watch her shoot all day. Form like that. Beauty to behold. But Mom tosses the ball to her kid and begins to slowly work her way around the track that rings the court. I return to my shooting, taking special precautions not to plunk the lad on the noggin with my three-point medicine balls.

Wouldn't want to make Mom angry. Seeing as how she's built like an old-fashioned mailbox.

The kid and I work out our routine. I get a long three. If it doesn't drop (which is more often than I would care to admit), he allows me a follow. Wherever I can pluck up the rebound, I get to gather, make a fake or a dribble move and shoot. The kid does a good job of covering up, so as to avoid the shower of leather, (cause that really smarts!)

Once (or if!)I get the shot to drop, I give him a go; let him run up to the hoop with the ball cradled in his arms, tossing it as high up as it will go. If it drops I clap for him. If not -- which is most every shot -- I emit an "aw -- almost. Next time for sure!"

Me, being such an encouraging, nurturing kind of human being.

In time, the kid decides he covets my ball. Snatches it out of my hands after one of my rebounds, just as I'm going into my tear-drop runner in the lane. Kid cackles as he takes it off the floor. Me, being such a cooperative, pleasant sport, I let him have his way with me. I take a place over where his ball has come to rest. Sit on the thing, in fact, hoping that it won't actually burst. 'Cause that would be quite embarrassing.

His Mom, still running laps pulls up when she sees what's happened.

"Yuji-kun!" she barks. "Give that ball back to the nice big brother."

"It's okay, it's okay," I say. "I needed a break."

Not really, but what are big brothers for?

"Yuji!" the mother emits in exasperation. But we both know it's all for show. A Japanese thing. She's telling me that she appreciates my kindness and she is letting me know that she recognizes that etiquette calls for her to put up a show of retrieving my personal property from her delinquent son.

The boy giggles, turns to show a mouth full of crooked teeth, then returns to pushing lay-ups skyward.

Since the boy won't comply, the Mom and I have nothing else to do but talk to one another. We're both captive. He has my ball. And since he's her son it's her obligation to keep me company or else otherwise occupied

She's not much in the brain depot, at least based on what can be gathered from the small-talk. She compliments me on my shooting, which is predictable (and not because I shoot so well, but because I don't). Offering up that fluffery may be akin to telling Jack Black that he looks great in his new Speedos, but since it is how any Japanese would break the ice in that situation, I don't take offense. I smile, blush a bit, bow. Then quickly return us to reality.

I counter by saying that it looks like she's played before. And this is where things suddenly get interesting. Because, not only has she, but likely our paths crossed when she did. That all plays out like this:

she: "I played in high school, but that was 10 years ago."

me: "Well, you still shoot great. Have the touch, haven't lost a thing."

she: deferential, dismissive gestures (as only Japanese can offer)

me: "So, where'd you play?"

she: "A place called 'Yamasho' -- Yamagata Trade High School."

me: "Sure, I know Yamasho. I coached professionally over at Yamagin (Yamagata Bank)."

she: (eyes widening with excitement) "You did!? When? When was that?"

me: "Oh, I don't know -- 7, 8 years ago. Could even have been 10. Back when you were there."

she: "I don't recall. I . . . (fearing that she might be offending me) . . . "well, it was some time ago."

me: "Well, yeah -- we played Yamasho a lot. But we usually played the guys. To get used to a faster game. To work on rebounding and handling pressure. We didn't usually play against the girls."

After the conversation peters out, after some awkward moments of regarding one another -- thinking and dismissing various conversational threads, even wondering about this personal query (like why she is now in Sendai with a kid, without a ring on her left hand); working out the social physics of this or that possible unmentionable possibility -- we mutually recognize that it is all too much trouble to try to engineer. So, we settle for regarding the boy. Every so often we sneak peeks to take further measure of one another -- as all humans are wont to do; I study the mole on her cheek, she surveys the hook of my nose and the whiskers across my upper lip; we regard the condensing sweat on our skin, and seek to determine the extent of accreting flesh on our guts.

"Do humans have efficacy?" One often is prodded to wonder.

For the most part we focus on Yuji's progress: shouting out encouragement. After Yuji sinks three more, his Mom says: "time to give the ball back to big brother." And, after rescuing my ball from his clutches, I show them a couple of trick shots I've learned in my endless days and months and years of frequenting gyms. They "ooh" and "aah" appropriately, courteously, on cue. Satisfaction had all the way 'round, it is now time for the lady and her boy to take their leave.

And as they exit the premises, I find it hard to accept that she could not have known. Even if the years hadn't perfectly lined up. For I was storied over in Yamagata, one prefecture over. Me, the foreigner who took over the women's pro club and led them to their first national championship tourney. The first time a team from our northern region ever won a spot in the professional playoff. Sure, we didn't make it all the way through, lost our three game qualification round two-nil, but around those parts, that team, that year, why, we were news!

And their young, aggressive, spitfire American coach? Well, he had efficacy. Say you don't know me, lass? How is that even possible? For . . . l am legend!

Or . . . so I had always thought. Until the night I met Yuji and his Mom.

There are a couple of scenes in Sweeney Todd (no relation) where the character played by Johnny Depp (no relation), Benjamin Barker, is recognized upon his return to London after 15 years in jail, then at sea. First, it's the faux Italian barber (in the movie Sasha Baron Cohen), then a beggar woman (whose identity it would be impolitic to reveal here). But one of the messages of these unmaskings is that you really can never escape your old identity. Someone is bound to remember. And hold you to it -- whether in lionization or derision or blackmail or revenge. The message for Benjamin Barker is that people can reinvent themselves, they can try to manufacture change, but if they ever return to the scene of their earlier life and crimes, there will always be someone there to remember, to recall; a bobby with an eyeglass, magnifying the footprints in the flower bed.

Well, that is the Hollywood version. Out in the real world? For me, at least, Benjamin Barker proves to be no relation either. Because out in the real world a legend constructed can just as easily be dismantled, through the passage of time, the on-ward push of events, the press of people through and away from space. Just ask Yuji's Mom.

I have efficacy? I am legend?

Hell, those are just tall twice-told Hollywood tales.

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