Monday, February 01, 2021


"What river have you crossed most often in your life thus far?" A blogger I follow posed this question the other day, and it generated many comments and some interesting discussion.

I'm drawn to rivers. They connote time, dissolution, and renewal in resonant ways; there are several rivers that occupy a large space in my memory.  I have family connections to the New River, where some of my ancestors operated a ferry service near Radford, Virginia. The biggest chunk of my childhood was spent in northern Virginia near the Potomac. I did two years of graduate school in Baton Rouge, and for the first year lived a block from the Mississippi River. I used to go for walks or runs on the levee, dodging the cows (property of LSU Vet School) that grazed on the grassy manmade bank, and taking in the awesome sight of the rolling water. 

I have to admit, though, I rarely had occasion to take a bridge across the Mississippi. Baton Rouge is huddled on the east side of the river, and there wasn't much of interest on the west side.  I've never had a commute, in my adult working life, that involved a river.  I've crossed the Potomac, the Hudson, the Delaware, the James, many of the rivers in North Carolina on many trips, but never on anything like a daily or even weekly basis.

Pondering the question at the top of this post, making my calculations, I came to a surprising answer.

When I was in the middle of 10th grade my parents, my brother, and I moved to Long Valley, New Jersey. Actually, although Long Valley was our mailing address, our house was on top of Schooley's Mountain, surrounded by small farms, woods, and burgeoning suburbia. It was a pretty area in which to make one's home, but it lacked amenities, or at least it did in the early 1980s. Most of the trips we needed to make (to schools, jobs, stores) involved a drive down the mountain, into the town of Long Valley, and then usually through, continuing on to the larger town of Chester, or deeper into the interior of Morris County, into the gravitational field of New York City. 

Every trip through Long Valley meant crossing a short bridge, about as wide as a school bus is long. Twice a day every school day for 2 1/2 years, I crossed that bridge.  Add the times I rode to or from a summer job in high school, or during summers off from college, and times visiting friends in Chester then returning home, I'd estimate I crossed that bridge 1,800 times, give or take.

I moved away from New Jersey after college, then my parents moved away, back to Virginia, a couple of years after that, and it's been over 30 years since I set foot in Long Valley. I never gave the bridge or the river much thought even when I lived there, and I had to check Google Maps to remind myself the name: the South Branch Raritan River. (Call it a mere half-river if you want, but in my book, it counts.)

Rivers are boundaries. Rivers are pathways. The Raritan was an everyday part of this difficult phase of becoming an adult, despite not fully understanding or consenting to anything I was doing. There I was, young and living in isolation, in retreat, on top of a mountain. Going down the mountain was my daily half-asleep morning commute, but maybe there was instinct behind it: to come down to the river valley to seek friendship, to make connections, to grow up. 

Thoughts of Long Valley and Schooley's Mountain pop into my mind more and more often in recent years. My brother took a trip back to NJ last year, maybe I can manage one sometime in the post-pandemic future. I regret that I couldn't find an un-copyrighted photo of the "German Valley bridge." Here is a semi-random bridge shot I took on a day trip with my daughter a couple of years ago,

Nolichucky River, Erwin, TN. Photo by JBJ.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Wes Unseld

Wes Unseld had no flair, and what made him a great basketball player defies easy description.  I grew up in the D.C. suburbs, so Wes's Washington Bullets were my team, and I saw Wes play several times at the old Capital Centre.  But it was Julius Erving of Philadelphia whose poster I had on my wall. Wes Unseld had no posters or highlight reels to his name.

Burly and immensely strong, he stood about 6’6”, a substandard height for an NBA center. He was a slow runner, a poor outside shooter, and as for leaping, well, he was definitely governed by the law of gravity. But in addition to gravity, Wes had gravitas: his poker face communicated calm intensity. He used his bulk to maximum effect, on defense and box-outs and screens. Also, Wes had great hands, strong but dexterous. He spent little time holding the ball, but when he had it he usually did something positive with it: he grabbed tough rebounds, made quick shots in traffic, putbacks and short hooks mostly, and made purposeful passes.

In particular, Unseld became known as the master of the outlet pass, the one that starts the fast break after a defensive rebound.  Let's face it, if a guy gets to have a superpower, outlet passing is a very esoteric choice. But it combined all Wes's gifts: those great hands, that core strength, his quick mind and aggressive attitude. Outlet passes are hard work, they're "hockey passes" that usually don't show up in the statistics. They're a mark of a winner and a leader.

Clearly, his contemporaries saw something special in him. In 1968-69, his first season with the then-Baltimore Bullets, despite scoring at only a 13 ppg rate, Wes was named NBA Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player, a rare double distinction. Perhaps the voters saw Unseld as an inheritor to Bill Russell: the center whose stardom consisted of defense and rebounding rather than scoring. The most impressive stat may have been the Bullets' won-loss record, which improved by 21 games in Unseld's first season.

But no team would inherit the mantle of Russell and the Celtics. The decade of the 1970s in pro basketball was turbulent. No NBA team even defended their league title successfully (in other words, no repeat champions).  The best player of the ‘70s was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but only in 1971 did Kareem’s team assemble enough talent around him to win a title. (He made up for lost time in the '80s with the Lakers.) Most years, one team had to scrap and claw and limp and enjoy a few lucky breaks along the way to win in the playoffs.

The Bullets best exemplify what I mean. With Wes’s rookie year, they started a run of 12 straight seasons making the playoffs, with a constantly evolving lineup, Unseld the single common denominator of all those teams. Defense was the Bullets' calling card, especially in the half-court and in the paint, in Wes's domain.

They won four conference championships in the ‘70s.  In two of those years, they were favorites to win the Finals, but got knocked off.  But they hung around, and in 1978, after an injury-plagued regular season, several things broke in their favor and cleared their way in the playoffs: 

  • Portland were the kings of the West and owners of the best record in the NBA before Bill Walton broke his foot, which doomed their chances.  
  • Philadelphia’s run-and-gun team of Dr. J, George McGinnis, and World Free crashed and burned, falling in an upset to the Bullets in the Eastern Conference finals. (McGinnis and Free would be gone the next season.)
  • At the end of a grueling Finals between Washington and Seattle, the Sonics' Dennis Johnson shot 0 for 14 from the field in Game 7, a historically bad performance and highly uncharacteristic of DJ.

It’s hard for me to think of Wes’s playing career without thinking of Elvin Hayes alongside him. The Bullets would always need a primary scorer to make up for Wes's shortcomings in that area. In the early years that was Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, who had the playground style and scoring potency that Wes lacked. After Monroe left for the bright lights of New York, the Bullets brought in Elvin.

In contrast to Unseld, Hayes preferred to do things that show up in the stats.  He had a trademark shot, a turnaround jumper, and he dunked and blocked shots. He was more fun to watch, and my 14-year-old self in 1978 considered Elvin the star of the Bullets, not Wes.  Later I would learn that Hayes was often considered a selfish player and was not held in the same respect as Unseld. But on the court E and Wes complemented each other. Both of them were later named to the 1996 list of the NBA’s Top 50 players. Each of them had flaws, but the two of them roughly added up to one NBA championship-caliber center.

In that Game 7 against Seattle in '78, helped by DJ's historic goose egg, the Bullets led by 13 at the end of the 3rd period.  But the Sonics mounted a 4th-quarter comeback, and Elvin Hayes fouled out early. Wes would end up with 5 fouls himself, and would struggle to keep Marvin Webster and Jack Sikma at bay. He posted a classic if unspectacular Unseld stat line: 15 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists.  The Bullets held on, winning the franchise's only NBA title, validating a decade's worth of tough play and persistence, and the NBA Finals MVP award was bestowed onto Wes Unseld.  There is poetic justice there.

Wes Unseld died on June 2, 2020, in Baltimore. The obituaries I saw emphasized his long years of loyal service with the Bullets/Wizards, including stints as head coach and general manager after his playing days ended. He was a one-club man and an outstanding citizen of Baltimore.  But it seemed to me there was a shortage of tributes to Wes’s play. Wes was unique, he competed on a team and in an era that deserves more notice, so I decided to share some impressions.

Monday, March 02, 2020

New Holland

What is a staunchly conservative Dutch Reformed Church doing in the tiny, remote Eastern N.C, community of Pantego?

Well, it turns out that 25 Dutch families settled in Beaufort and Hyde Counties, beginning in the 1910s, displaced by WW1 and finding the marshy area around the Inner Banks to their liking.  What's an activity the Dutch are known for?  Draining wetlands.  After that?  Growing cut flowers.  The Dutch arrived as part of the effort to drain Lake Mattamuskeet.  When the drainage project ended, and Mattamuskeet was restored as a wildlife refuge, some of the Dutch turned to raising cut and bulb flowers, and some continue to this day.

(Photo by John Wenzelburger, CC BY-NC 2.0)

Monday, February 17, 2020

Desire Path

You've no doubt noticed the paths that form on a college campus, or in a park, or other grassy place with a lot of pedestrian traffic -- the paths that weren't laid out by any landscape designer, but are created by the footfalls of actual people finding the best ways to get to where they need to go. 

The term for these unplanned user-created trails is desire paths.  It can also refer to deer paths or other non-human highways.  The presenter in the linked TED talk says that the designer's job is to see where the desire paths occur and then to pave them.

Desire Paths would be a good title for something.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020


A potentially fun, fairly easy, and potentially benevolent activity: being a volunteer online transciber for the Smithsonian Institution.  More details here:

Friday, January 31, 2020

founding fathers

Typing the title of this post sent me on a mental tangent: We took my father out for dinner for his birthday last week, my brother and I and our wives.  Dad is a rare specimen, a type that political reporters constantly seek and rarely actually find: a well-informed, judicious, thoughtful political independent: a swing voter.  And Dad despises Donald Trump, which is something our party of five could agree on.  However, as we learned while we chatted over Tex-Mex food, Dad is reading a biography of Jefferson, still a hero of his.  (He may be reading Dumas Malone on Jefferson.  Nobody reads Dumas Malone any more.)  Dad expressed a disdain for Alexander Hamilton, not understanding where the wave of Hamilton-mania comes from.  Something to record about this era in my American life: the shift in view of U.S. history as basically full of racism, injustice, and horror.  This is basically my children's view.  Increasingly it is my view.  For my parents, American history is still a story of heroic (white) leadership, bravery and honor.  I am in the middle here.  The shift is wrenching and it's personal; it's a point of stress in my family.  There is more to write here; maybe another day.

Originally, I wanted to post something today in response to the U.S. Senate folding on impeachment. (Specifically the GOP Senators, and most conspicuously Lamar Alexander, tarnishing his reputation in his last act before retirement.  These people are at their preening pompous worst at moments when they represent the tipping point, the 51st vote.  They love that attention.)  I'm angry and despondent, but trying to come away with a lesson here, more valuable than "our politicians suck."  Yes, GOP pols in this age are craven cowards, but the Trump presidency has revealed the weaknesses and limits of the U.S. Constitution.  Impeachment is poorly designed.  The drafters of the Constitution did not foresee the development of political parties.  And Watergate (which many of us, 10-year old Me included, interpreted as proof that The System Works) was an anomaly, considering that the Democrats had controlled Congress for 40 years at that point, and the U.S. was still in its weird Jim Crow configuration cross-cutting the parties, so that Southern racists tended to be Democrats.  That's the era of bipartisanship that so many in D.C. hearken back to.  Nobody should want to go back to those days.  Full explanation below.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Bounty Hunting

I once met the guy who at the time was pastor of a church in Robbinsville, North Carolina.  Upon moving there, he found the locals to be distinctly standoffish and suspicious.  Eventually someone explained to him that the people who founded the town included several bounty hunters, whose occupation made them aloof and wary, and that fact colored the character of the town many decades later.