The Games Are the Same, I Have Changed

This is the very gym in which I soared to basketball mediocrity in the 1980s

This is the very gym in which I soared to basketball mediocrity in the 1980s

It’s March Madness time again. For those of you not in the United States, or those of you who are my brother, let me explain: March Madness is the nickname given to the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual basketball tournament that occurs in March, involves 64 teams and results–at the end of a madcap two week flurry of high-intensity games–in the crowning of the NCAA National Champion.

If you like college basketball, you go mad for the excitement of this time of year. If you don’t like college basketball, you look at those of us who go mad this time of year like we are mad.

When I was in high school–which was certainly the height of my interest in the tournament–I watched the games as a dreamer. I was on the basketball team at my school (just barely) and I was only a few years younger than the young men playing in the college tournament. They inspired me; I thought there was an outside chance I could, if I worked hard, be one of them. Their bravado, their swagger, their alpha-male charisma–it all made them pretty popular and that was appealing to me. It looked like a good thing to aspire to. Even if I couldn’t be one of them, I could be like them.

I didn’t make it past my junior year of high school basketball. I destroyed my knee. But I wasn’t going anywhere anyway–the knee injury was just the universe saying “since it’s a foregone conclusion that basketball is not your future lets end this here. Can I interest you in a clarinet? How about writing?”

Now I am a generation older than the young men playing the tournament games. I still watch. I like the excitement of the underdog team upsetting the favorite; I like the human drama of the close games; I like to see the perseverance and mental strength required to perform at a high level under the highest pressure; I watch to see evidence of commitment and dedication; I feel for the losing teams when they are gracious losers, if they congratulate the winners despite their own sadness. As I watch now, I find the bravado, the swagger, the alpha-male posturing and chest pounding an annoying distraction. Now I watch looking for good sports, for good citizens. My kids are watching: I want them to see good role models.

Maybe I’m on my way to being a cranky old man, though I will point out I have not yet used the phrase “In my day…”. But I will admit to a significant change in the desires these tournament games stir in me. When I was a kid I watched and wished I could be more like the players. Now I watch and hope the players will be more like me.



Book Review: The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

WhiteWomanGreenBike“It’s a woman’s curse to love bad and foolish men, even when they fuck up miserably.”

So says Sabine Harwood, the white woman of the title in Monique Roffey’s exciting political-historical novel The White Woman on the Green Bicycle. Her curt words sum up her decades-long experiences in post-colonial Trinidad, the setting of the novel.

Sabine and her husband George arrive in Trinidad, newly married and very much in love, in 1956 at the tail end of British colonial rule and the dawn of Trinidad’s Peoples’ National Movement, a grassroots political movement stressing independence and self-determination and led by a charismatic young iconoclast, Dr. Eric Williams. Sabine is immediately disenchanted with Trinidad – the heat, the rawness, the shameful history of racial oppression – but is just as immediately enchanted and charmed by the dashing Williams. She hears him speak, watches him move his masses of followers with his words and she is inspired to begin writing him a series of intimate letters she keeps completely secret from her husband.

Centuries of British rule have created layers of privilege and the opportunity for whites to exploit the native people and resources of Trinidad. George embraces his privileged position and begins using it for his own gain. Sabine grows to resent him for perpetuating the inequality she cannot tolerate and focuses on Eric Williams as the antithesis of her colonialist husband. Williams is lauded as the father of the country (followers call him Papa) and he embodies a hope and a promise of a better future for Trinidad’s black population. The historical facts of the novel are accurate and well-documented , so I’m not giving anything away when I tell you that Williams disappoints Sabine – and the Trinidadian people – when he fails to live up to his revolutionary promises and, instead, settles into the structures of privilege abandoned by the British. He abandons nothing and ends up, in behavior, the twin of Sabine’s husband George, not the antithesis she had imagined he would be, and, therefore, just another fuck-up. “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

trinidadTo say that Sabine is an idealistic character is to severely understate the facts. Perhaps she is all-to-human and makes the mistake of believing people will do exactly what they say they will do. When they fail her, she is quick to condemn them. I found her quite a bit slower and less harsh in turning that judgmental eye on herself. Though I would argue that if inaction in the face of inequality is the sin for which Sabine is quick to condemn, she is equally deserving of condemnation. It is not until the very end of the story that Sabine does much more than complain about conditions and corruption in Trinidad and finally takes action herself. When she does act, her actions are significant and dramatic, though you’ll have to read the novel yourself to determine whether you think they will be effective at bringing about the change she desires. Suffice to say that, agree or disagree with her, you will be effected by Sabine – her actions and attitudes will lead you to question your own attitudes about the issues at play in the novel – and that is a primary pleasure of reading this novel.

Cleverly structured, the book covers fifty years in the lives of its characters, but not in a straight line: it begins at the end, middles in the beginning and ends in the middle (opens in 2006, middles in 1956, ends in the 1970s). It is, despite the political tensions driving the plot, a tragic love story. Beginning the book by showing us the end outcomes for its characters lends a deeper poignancy to the latter half of the book when we see the characters at an earlier time full of hope and untrammeled idealism. The White Woman on the Green Bicycle is an exciting, passion-inducing, deeply engaging book. After reading it, you may be moved to learn about the post-colonial history in Trinidad. I certainly was, and found that the country presents complexities that far surpass its physical size and are still far from resolved.

In a 2010 interview, Roffey revealed that the Trinidad Tourist Board wants nothing to do with her book. That’s a shame, as I found that, in addition to feeling for and pulling for Sabine and George and the other characters in the book, I finished the book, like Sabine, pulling for Trinidad too. The country has badness in it, though it is not bad. It has foolishness in it, though it is not foolish; it has fucked up miserably at times (as many countries have), but as we both witness and experience while reading this novel, it nonetheless inspires deep love.

The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

By Monique Roffey

Penguin Books, 2011

437 Pages