I was in Columbus, Indiana on prom night. The kids were in tuxes and jewel tone gowns, wheeling around in rented American muscle, posing for pictures against the green, rain-streaked Henry Moore arch that I.M. Pei wanted in front of his library, the solitudinous church Eliel Saarinen built in 1942. I imagine they were thinking about getting drunk later, jumping their dates. That was at the front of my mind, anticipation and fear, the tent packed in the trunk of my mom's Toyota, when I was sixteen. Oswego, New York has its own history and aura and thoughtfully constructed public spaces. I never cared about any of it. I wanted to go to the mall just off the highway in Syracuse. A slow parade proceeded down main drag. Two couples hung deathless and wild off the cab of a cement mixer.
I had a headache and I was alone. My partner was going to pieces back in Chicago. I had come to gawk at modernist architecture, and to retreat into the quiet of a strange small town. Unfortunately, you follow yourself places. I walked up to North Christian Church, a spacecraft dotted with a tall single point like a radio antenna searching for grace, to find that it was closed. The congregation had dissolved. I walked to the Dollar General and the self-checkout robot had a southern accent. I took the downtown walking tour and the guide flattened history into petty gossip. He didn't seem to appreciate The Republic newspaper building, the metaphorical heft of its literal transparency; how, when the paper was active, it was arranged like an assembly line, with the reporters stationed at one end and the printing presses at the other. Columbus City Hall, which has twin beams of suspended brick that nearly touch, suggesting the incompleteness of the civic project, community as imperfectly embodied by government, sits across the street from the county jail, which houses mostly non-locals, overflow from the carceral state. Watch it! the salesman in our group said to his son, gesturing at the jail. The son was with his thoughts, kicking at the ground.
I observed the prom-goers for a while, took some pictures of my own, and went back to my room. I was renting the top floor suite in a mansion where the town's family of oligarchs had lived. It was a handsome space. Rich green wallpaper clinging to dark wood. The ornately notched windows overlooked gardens still forming their beauty in mid-spring. I used it to pace and agonize, talk myself into doing things. I wanted to read Deborah Eisenberg, but that didn't happen. I disappeared into my phone and zoomed around, collecting no real information. In the evening, there was basketball. The inn somehow had TNT, but not ESPN. I had to bootleg Thursday's Laker game, the one where Golden State blew them out, on my iPad. Game 3, which almost exactly inverted the score of the previous contest, streamed on ESPN+. The opaque intricacies of billion-dollar broadcast deals added to my sense of confusion, the Camus Lite flavor of the whole trip, but I was generally at ease eating takeout and watching the playoffs. It is at least something I know how to do.
LeBron James moves with a turn-based deliberateness these days. Whatever super-dope he's shooting up or deity he's borrowing strength from can't quite free him from age and plantar fasciitis. The controlled bursts of activity, how you can see him deciding to be twenty-nine again, for this particular maneuver, weighing expenditures against capital reserves, against estimates of what a win will require of him, the weight that win bears within the structure of a hypothetical title run—it occurs to you how much of what he does on the court is mental. Out of necessity, sure, but this Thinking Game he plays now is the culmination of his genius and two decades of data. In all ways beyond the obvious ones, LeBron has never been better. You wonder if, given the choice, he'd transform into his younger self. It would improve his championship odds, but his total understanding of the sport would diminish.
Maybe it's a stupid question. I'm considering it from a writer's perspective. What you might call the athletic aspects of the craft—inspiration, emotion, freshness of experience—are secondary to understanding. You are trying to distill what it's like to be alive and yourself, and in the process reconstructing those things, and in that process trying to pick out some pretty words, that make sense. Understanding is most of it. You don't want to give away any of the precious little knowledge you've come into.
On the way back from O'Hare, the cab stopped under an overpass and there was a molting pigeon perched on the railing just beyond my open backseat window. The bird reminded me of the cat I had put down a week earlier, his sad hunching figure and wet eyes peering out from beneath the living room credenza. I'd had him twelve years, and after three days of acute sickness and disorientation he was gone. Just as the doc came in the room with the drugs, out of exhaustion or affection I'll never know, he collapsed against my arm and let me rub his belly.
The Lakers pissed away Game 5. Up 3-1 on the road, it's hard to summon the necessary urgency. My partner was increasingly haunted. We talked about what we would do, if it got worse. Called an ER. You worry about what insurance will cover, but you also can't know, and besides it is not more important than your own visceral, right-in-the-moment wellbeing. That is why it's such a wonderful scam. We got drunk and watched TV. We searched for solutions, idly and otherwise.
In the third quarter of Game 6, LeBron made an important calculation. Up double-digits, the Lakers were either closing or coasting. You could envision Steph Curry hitting a few threes and Darvin Ham yanking the fire alarm. Inflamed by paranoia, LeBron seized the ball and went to work. He walked into backdowns and converted. He drew doubles and fizzed it to the uncluttered perimeter. He screened, sprinted, and scored at the rim. By the time his salvo was finished, after turning a rebound into a fast break and dumping it off for a Rui Hachimura dunk, the Lakers were ahead by 22 and the series was over.
I don't know enough about modernist architecture to fill more than a few minutes. Glass and steel and stone, an economy of design. You'll notice the building seems to floating over the landscape. I was in Columbus because I liked the look of Columbus, the movie Kogonada made with John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson in 2017. There are energies you want to inhabit, are compelled to search for even if they're probably illusory. I've got a decent job, for the first time in years. There is paid time off.
In the lobby of the inn, I talked to a couple of retired professors who had just rewatched the movie. They traced its themes. I think it's fundamentally about: what do each of us owe our parents? They asked if I had anything to add. I stammered for a while and finally said it is very well-shot. I walked around all day unhappy with that answer. You want people to think you've got more interesting ideas than that. As I traveled north, toward the church I would discover had been vacant for months, I thought about the parallels between architecture and filmmaking, how parks and buildings are designed spaces in which we live. Some detached intelligence draws the shape of a room, and then we fill it with sleep and laughter and arguments and anguish. A scene in a film is like a room. (And the unified film is like a building. No, that distracts from the analogy.) Kogonada uses a lot of static shots in Columbus. He puts the camera in one spot, and then the actors do their thing. They investigate and confide in each other, they sob. Against the sterile gleam of commercial windows at night, underneath allées. A director is like an architect: they frame humanity with aesthetic.
That felt like something. It sounded kind of smart. I didn't see the profs again.
Against a better team, the Nuggets, LeBron's mastery was less consequential. Nikola Jokić was typically brilliant, Jamal Murray got hot for stretches, Anthony Davis faded late. And LeBron didn't have enough, particularly in Games 2 and 3. When he fires 26-footers at crucial moments, it's not because he doesn't want to attack the basket. It's a pragmatic concession. He's determined that his body can bear only the less-than-optimal solution. It works or it doesn't. He's very streaky from deep.
It's beyond doubt sometimes. You would rather be younger. The obliviousness, even, would be welcome. LeBron had 40, 10, and 9 in Game 4 of the sweep.
The memories of recent events buckle and drain of color. There is this one spot, a bolt of wool I'd folded over a chest by a windowsill, that's still covered in a dense lawn of black fur. I'm not ready to put it away yet. In the same room, there's new medication on the nightstand. We take that as a sign of progress.
Good friends are visiting Chicago this Memorial Day weekend. One of them was born in the same hospital as LeBron, months earlier. Their gravity will attract familiar faces, people I don't really talk to but think well of. I want to see all of them, but I fear the question: how have you been? You write this stuff to not have to say it, distance it with intellect and carefully wrought sentences. And I know it's not a real question. It is still difficult to look at someone who knows you, and not feel everything.
LeBron gives content-free pressers. When asked what might augur his belief that the Lakers will contend again next year, that they will improve upon contention and win the whole thing, he made some uncertain noises, spoke of contract lengths and roster construction like it was somebody else's business. This is impossible, but it seems that LeBron often inhabits a pastless and futureless state, not just as a useful public pose but as a reality he actively creates for himself. Regret and worry don't help, and expectation is an invitation to put aside the work. There is solely what's at hand. Down eight, up five. Battery charged at 48 percent, give or take. This is a sublime form of self-realization, being contained within your own intense and narrow thought. It's athletic. But LeBron is not an athlete all the time.
You wish you could put the question to him off the record. That he would get the spirit of it and give it patient consideration. If you could be younger right now, would you? In being younger—quicker, more adept, faster to heal—what would you lose? Losing some things and regaining others, would you feel more like yourself or less? Is that important? I would hope so, but you know, sometimes I'm not so sure.