Monday, December 22, 2008

Waiting for Comfort and Joy

Note: Christmas is, among other things, a time to remember (recycle?) old stories. What follows is one of mine, first posted last year about this time. I don't remember what was happening then--it was probably pretty quiet; I think the sky may have been blue, and the sun may have been shining; all in all, I suspect it was shaping up to be a lovely day . . . So saying, many thanks to all of my friends and family who have followed the Blinding Insights this past year. I hope you all have a lovely and peaceful Christmas and a prosperous 2010.

* * *


Christmas past

In the twilight, a gray-haired stranger stumbled on the cobblestone street. A tall man wearing a battered top hat touched him on the shoulder. “Are you all right, sir?” the tall man asked.

“Yes, I'll be fine,” the stranger said. “Excuse me.” He paused for a moment to regain his balance, then made his way to the side of the street and sat down on the curb.

The tall man wore a brocade vest and a tailcoat. A blonde boy holding a crutch rode on the man’s shoulders. A crowd milled in the street. There were other men in top hats and scarves, bundled against a chilly coastal fog. There were women wearing bonnets and full skirts over layered petticoats. On the adjacent street corner, between a handsome Romanesque mercantile building and an oak tree clad in Spanish moss, a band of carolers huddled under a lantern and sang,
“God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay . . .”

Alongside the stranger, a thin man with a light beard and gold wire-rimmed glasses sat on the curb with two small girls, the smallest on his lap and the other in a wheelchair. The girl in the wheelchair had yellow blonde hair like the boy riding on the tall man’s shoulders; she appeared to be about the same age as the boy. The girl pointed. “Look!” she exclaimed, “It’s Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit!”

“I see them,” said her father. “I think Tiny Tim needs a chair like yours.”

Tim leaned his head around Bob’s neck and said, “Hey Dad, can we get a funnel cake?”

“Sure,” Bob said. He swung the boy down on the sidewalk. Tim dropped his crutch and scampered off toward a row of kiosks redolent of pastry and smoked sausage.[1]

A red carriage drawn by eight Clydesdale horses approached in the distance. The crowd cheered. A sign on the wagon came into view. It read, “Budweiser Salutes
Dickens on the Strand, Galveston Island, 1990.”

The stranger spoke to the bearded man with the two little girls. “This is a nice holiday festival,” he said. “Are you getting into the spirit of Christmas?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” the man said. “Life isn’t exactly a Victorian Christmas card.”

“True enough,” the stranger agreed. “Anyway, do you live in Galveston? What are you doing here?”

“Yeah, we live here. But I guess what we’re doing is . . . we’re waiting.”

“Waiting? What are you waiting for?”

“I’m not sure, exactly. Something good, I hope. My wife is, shall we say, ‘Great with Child’ -- number three -- and we’re waiting for that. Hoping everything is going to be OK. It was a difficult pregnancy. She went into preterm labor at six months and almost lost the baby. That’s one thing. Then there’s my job. I work as a researcher at the medical center here, but I’m on soft money and I don’t have tenure. My grant funding is looking very bleak right now. I just had a meeting with my boss, Hirschfeld, and he said the decision hasn’t been made about whether I’ll even have a job next year. So I’m waiting to find out what’s next. I need to publish more. I have one article that came out this year, but nobody cares. I’m worried about getting laid off, because we’re deep in debt. Our daughter had to be in pediatric rehab for a long time and we thought our insurance was going to cover it, but it didn’t. So we owe the hospital thousands of dollars. They sent it to collections and we’re getting these calls. It’s embarrassing. Then we bought a house, too, and that turned out to be a big mistake. They said the U.S. Navy was going to build a new home port here on the island, and all the houses near the Bolivar Ferry station were supposed to go way up in value. So we bought a little house near the ferry, just a few blocks in. Her parents and mine loaned us money for the down payment. But then Congress scrapped the Navy home port, and the housing market fell. Our house is now worth less than we owe the bank for it. And, you know, this place is prone to hurricanes. We had to evacuate last year for a storm coming in, and we spent four hours stuck on the Gulf Freeway going nowhere. We tried motels and there was 'No Room in the Inn' and no stable in the back! People don't realize this, but the 1900 storm in Galveston still ranks as the worst natural disaster ever to strike this country, in terms of loss of life. Six-thousand people died back then. There was no advance warning, no seawall protection, and no route of escape. I just know there’s going to be another terrible storm sometime. The Big One is coming. It's part of life here, like earthquakes in California. We don't know when. We’re just waiting . . .”

The stranger had been listening patiently to this rambling tale of woe. He was silent for what seemed like a long time. Then he spoke to the bearded man. “I have some good news for you,” the stranger began. “Things will turn out all right. The hospital is going to forgive your debt for all those pedi-rehab bills. In a few weeks, your son will be born. He’s going to be healthy. In about eighteen years, he’ll be a 6’2” shooting guard on a high school basketball team. Your daughters, too, will grow up and go off to college. Eventually, they're going to be happy and productive global citizens. That paper you just published with your colleagues will get a lot of attention. Sometime in the spring of this coming year, you'll get a call about a job in North Carolina. You’re going to sell that little green house over in Fish Village by the ferry station. You’ll take a loss, but it won't matter; by the time your son makes the varsity team you’ll be living in a house by a forest, worth many times more than your place here on the island. And by then you’ll be long past worrying about the likes of Hirschfeld. Another mighty storm will strike Galveston one day, just as you expected. Lives and buildings will be destroyed. In the aftermath, the university will lay off thousands of employees. But you won’t be here. You’ll be living on higher ground, a professor at Duke Medical School.”

“You have quite an imagination,” said the bearded man. “But you know what? There’s something very familiar about you . . . Have we met somewhere?”

“No, I'm sure we haven't. Well, I mean, not in the way you think. It’s complicated. You see, I gave my son this gadget for Christmas. And he just wanted me to try it out.”

“A gadget . . .”

Yes. Have you ever wondered, as a ‘thought experiment’, whether you actually exist? What if it turned out that you, and the entire world you know, were only a reflection of somebody else’s imagination -- an elaborate digital simulation made of memory fragments from another universe . . .”

“You mean, like, Plato meets the
Matrix?

“Kind of like that. The point is, none of this is real. And I guess nothing is perfect, either, including that machine. For example, you couldn't possibly have heard of the
Matrix, and I don’t think there would have been cobblestone streets in Galveston in 1990."

"What are you talking about?"

"Oh, never mind. Merry Christmas.”

“Same to you! And I didn’t catch your name . . .”

“It’s Matt. Take care of yourself, and your girls -- especially the one ‘Great with Child’. I have a feeling we’re going to meet again someday. Maybe sooner than you think.”


* * *

Christmas future


“Dad, I really want a
UniSim-T3 for Christmas,” the boy was saying. “It’s all I want, just that one present.”

“And why do you need a thing like that?”

“Because it's the most amazing thing you've ever seen in your life. You have no idea. I tried one at Josh’s house. If we had one, you could use it, too, anytime you wanted. You would love it, Dad.”

“They’re way too expensive.”

“But the price has come down. You can get a
US-T3 for twenty-nine something.”

“Thirty-thousand dollars is still a lot of money for a toy.”

“Dad, this is not a toy! We are talking about a universal simulator with time-travel functionality.”

“Time travel?”

“Yes, it simulates time travel. That’s why it’s called a
si-mu-la-tor, Dad. It taps into the Global Data Stream -- directly -- and it builds a model of any time and space you can think of. It’s very authentic. It uses the total archive of the extrapolated physical history of the planet, the entire human document, all the linked genealogies and the genome repositories and millions of actual human brain downloads. . . ”

“Not to mention all those ‘blogs’ from the twenty-teens, I suppose.”

“Right, and the data from the social networking sites and the ‘e-mails’ -- they’re in there, too. You didn’t ever use ‘e-mail’, did you Dad? Wasn’t that before your time?”

“Of course I did! Every single day, when I was a young man in my first job, I got dozens and dozens of e-mail messages -- hundreds, some days. And then I would sit there and write e-mails responding to all the people who had written to me.”

“No kidding. Were you insane?”

“Well, no, this is just how we spent our time.”

“Whatever, Dad. It’s all in the Stream now -- in the GDS -- and that’s how the
UniSim-T3 works. It recreates everything. You just get inside there and snap on the datacap, let your mind go and you’re there. It’s multisensory and interactive and completely integrated. Absolutely seamless. You would never know it’s not real. You meet people and talk to them, but then if they're too boring, you just think them away, and boom! Electrons to the wind. Then you go someplace else, find other people in some other time. Can you imagine how much this would help me with my homework?”

“Of course it would -- if you ever did any homework. And where do you think we’d put this thing, anyway? Isn’t it like a huge box, the size of your mother’s closet?”

“No, no, not
that big! It would fit in the garage, or on the patio . . . Come on, Dad, what’s your problem? It’s Christmas! This is my last year at home before I go to college. After I leave, you may not see me again for a very long time.”

“So maybe I should get this uni-thing and then I could just simulate
you. Or not. And as for Christmas, when did it become the Season of Emotional Blackmail where children hold their parents hostage to buy stuff they can’t afford, don’t need, and won’t even want by this time next year? Have you ever thought -- even once -- about reaching out to people less fortunate than yourself? Maybe give a gift to one of those kids from underprivileged families? I see them driving to school in those old beat-up electric cars.”

“Dad. Those old cars are cool now. Those are not the poor kids you’re seeing, trust me. But whatever, OK? I will do something generous for somebody else. And I’m still getting a
UniSim-T3.”

“Son, did I ever tell you . . .”

“About your deprived childhood? Yes, you did. And about the time when all you got for Christmas was some sort of pathetic
iTrinket -- a tiny telephone or a little music player or some other lame device that doesn’t exist anymore. Poor you.”

“OK, so you’ve heard all my stories. Then let me tell you one about your grandfather, the one you never knew. He was quite a storyteller himself. He grew up in Ecuador in the mid-twentieth century. His parents were Christian missionaries there, as you know. And according to the story, Christmas was coming, and all he wanted was a bicycle. He was a little boy about seven or eight, and having a bike was his great dream. He thought that if he just got that two-wheeler, he would be happy forever. So his father found a used bicycle that somebody in the city of Quito was getting rid of, and he bought that and put it under the Christmas tree. It was an old red Schwinn -- a little worn and scratched, a little rusty -- but it worked. On Christmas morning, your grandfather saw the red bike and he was filled with joy. He rode it every day, for many months. But then he began to wish that his bike could be shiny and new-looking. He asked his father if he could paint it. And his father said, well, painting a bike was a difficult thing. Pains had to be taken. It had to be done right, or not at all. The bike would need to be taken apart, and the rusty parts sanded, then painted with a primer and finally with several coats of enamel. His father promised that he would help him do it someday, but that day never arrived. His father was a missionary doctor, and his missionary work came first. So the boy, your grandfather, asked his mother if she would help him paint the bike. She said yes, she would. And so she did. She took him on the bus to a paint store in Quito. Together they picked out a can of lime green paint, the color of the house they lived in. And the boy said, ‘Mom, we need to buy a brush, and a can of primer, and some steel wool to sand it, like Dad said.’ And so they bought these things, too, and rode the bus back home. When they got home, the boy said, ‘Mom, will you help me take the bike apart and sand it with the steel wool, the way Dad said?’ His mother, your great-grandmother, said yes, she would. So the two of them got out some screwdrivers and wrenches and pliars and took that bike apart -- down to the last sprocket, bolt and loose nut. They laid all the pieces on the floor on newspapers. The boy spent all day sanding the pieces with steel wool. Then he painted it with the primer. When that dried, he brushed on the green paint, first one coat, and then two. It was dark outside by then, and finally his dad came home from the hospital. The boy rushed to tell him what he had done. ‘Dad, Dad, come look at my bike! We painted it. Mom and I painted my bike!’ And your great-grandfather looked at all those pieces of a bicycle spread out on the floor, and he was displeased. He said lime green was not a good color for a bike. He said there were brush marks. The rust pocks had not been sanded smooth. And then the boy felt embarrassed and disheartened and went to bed. The pieces of the bike were moved into the attic. The boy tried to reassemble the bike himself, but he could not. His father said 'one of these days' he would help him put the bike back together, but he never did. And so the bike remained in the attic in pieces. A couple of years later, your grandfather’s family left that house and returned to Minnesota for a time. Your great-grandmother and the children went first, leaving your great-grandfather in Ecuador awhile longer to tend to his medical work. When the doctor came to rejoin the family in Minnesota, he said that he had found one of the workers at the hospital in Ecuador, a poor fellow, and had given him the pieces of the old green bike. The worker was thrilled to have it, he said. He had put it all back together that same day, and the bike worked fine. He said the man was very grateful for this generous gift -- it was like Christmas -- and he thanked the doctor and he thanked God.”

* * *

Christmas present

“We need to spend less on Christmas presents this year,” I was saying.

“Sure. But we say that every year.”

“This year I really mean it. Have you seen the
Visa bill this month?”

“Just think of it as travel points, not dollars.”

“No, seriously, I am really worried about the economy. People are expecting Obama to work some kind of miracle. Like he's going to part the Red Sea."

“Things will turn around.”

“But what if we actually have another Great Depression? My dad grew up in the 1930s and still remembers how bad things were. That’s what made him so frugal and anxious for the rest of his life.”

“Some of that is genetic. Your whole family gets depressed.”

“Probably so. I guess it also made him take a lot of responsibility at a young age."

"Unlike certain people in your current family . . . "

"Ah, well. You know, I was just remembering this story Dad used to tell from his childhood in the Depression. He was only a little kid but he got a job delivering newspapers. Every morning he would get up before dawn and walk his route. In the winter there was deep snow and subzero temperatures, you know, in Minnesota. So he did this, day in and day out, and saved up his money for two years. Then he took the money and bought a brand new bicycle for himself. It was a thing of beauty. It had these unique, custom wheels -- very fancy and unusual. But the first day he had the bike, he parked it outside the public library and somebody stole it. Somebody actually stole this child’s bike. He was devastated, of course. He told his father about it, and Arvid called the police. The cops took a report but they said he’d never see the bike again. Well, several weeks went by, and my dad was just longing for his lost bike and waiting to see if something would happen. Then one day my dad notices somebody riding a bike -- some other bike -- but it’s got these special wheels on it, and he says, ‘Hey, those are the wheels from
my bike!’ And so he asked this guy where he got the wheels, and one thing led to another. The whole thing unraveled and it turned out that this other boy -- my dad’s friend, actually -- had stolen the bike and disassembled it to sell the parts piecemeal. I mean, he had taken it apart down to the last sprocket, nut, and loose bolt. He figured he could make more money that way. He sold the seat to one guy, the handlebars to somebody else, the frame, the tires, the wheels, even the chain -- he sold that to somebody as a separate thing. Whenever I heard this story, I always imagined that maybe this boy had to steal because his family was so poor in the Depression they needed the money for food. It all seemed too sad and unfair and, you know, he was even my dad’s chum. Anyway, the boy confessed. He said he was very sorry and he wanted to make it right. He went out and found every last one of the people he had sold the parts to, and he bought them all back. Then he put the bike together again and returned it to my dad. My dad said he forgave him, and he really did. So there you have quite a story of reconciliation. And redemption.”

“Unlike the 'bike story' from your own childhood . . .”

“Yes, but it turns out there’s a new ending to that one too. I don’t think I told you this, but one night when Dad was here last spring, around Angela’s graduation, I recounted that tale for Matt to hear. The parallels are pretty amazing. Dad was sitting right there. It was after dinner -- you had already left the table -- and I dragged out that old chestnut about my bike when I was a kid, and how I took it all apart and Dad never helped me put it back together, and then how he gave it away to some poor guy as an act of charity.”

“And what did your Dad say? When you told that whole story
again in front of Matthew. . . I mean, it makes your dad look pretty bad.”

“You know what? He told me he was sorry. After all these years, he just said, ‘I’m sorry.’ And I said, ‘Dad, it’s all right. I forgave you a long, long time ago.’ But he’s like, ‘No, I am sorry, really.’”

“Well, that’s something.”

“Yeah, and so I said, ‘Dad, do you remember what happened the
next Christmas after that?’ And he didn’t remember. So I reminded him. We were in Minnesota, and I just wanted a wristwatch for Christmas. That’s all I wanted. And so my parents gave me a watch. It was a mechanical wind-up watch with a red secondhand and a calendar window. They gave it to me on Christmas Eve. And I was so happy with it. I can vividly remember sitting up in the balcony at First Covenant Church at the candlelight service, you know, just gazing at that beautiful little red secondhand lurching around the face of my watch, around and around. I remember seeing the ‘twenty-four’ turn into a ‘twenty-five’ at the stroke of midnight. And the next morning, we went skating on the creek up in Harris, and I took off my new watch and put it in my pocket; I didn’t want to bang it up if I fell on the ice. But what happened was I skated onto some thin ice and fell through -- up to my waist. It was so cold, and I climbed out of the frozen creek and ran back up to the house to get warm. I took off my wet clothes, and my Aunt Janet immediately threw them in the dryer. I waited in front of the fire for my clothes to dry. A little while later, Aunt Janet came into the room with this terrible look on her face. In her hands she carried a cereal bowl containing all the parts of my new watch, which had just gone through the dryer. So there was my watch in a hundred little pieces, with the red secondhand sitting right on top like a stray cat whisker. I was so sad. But I took the pieces to my dad in a plastic bag, and to his credit, he felt really bad for me. He didn’t scold me or anything. He didn’t buy me a new watch, either, but he found a jeweler somewhere in Minneapolis who was able to take all those tiny pieces and actually put them back together into a watch. That's Depression thinking for you. But it was also, you know. . . a miracle."

From the living room, on the stereo, a jazz singer was bending the notes of a carol:
“. . . Oh, tidings of comfort and joy.”



* * *
On that one day
The unforgiven will be forgiven
The unreconciled will be reconciled
The flood waters will recede and
What the mighty storm destroyed will rise again.
Everything taken apart will be put back together
And all that was old will be new again
The waiting will be over
The Hoped For will come and
The tears will be for joy.

* * *

[1] [This anecdote is documented in a handwritten letter from my mother, Charlotte Dillon Swanson, circa 2000, shortly before she died. I dimly recall the incident at Dickens on the Strand in Galveston, but I had told my mother about it some years earlier. She vividly remembered it, probably embellished it, and, as was her custom, reminded me of this and other salient events of my life in a letter sent for my birthday--JS].

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Toondog

I. Canine Sibling.
It was a classic “good news/ bad news” joke. The bad news was that a certain member of our family had flunked the 4th grade and would never be allowed to return to Ephesus Elementary School . . . The good news was that she was a Golden Retriever.

She came to live with us in the spring of 1994. Her name was Penny, but I dubbed her “The Toondog," for some reason I've long forgotten. Maybe it was the way she made us all laugh sometimes, like a cartoon dog.

She was trained as an official assistance animal for Angela, and the two of them became constant companions. Penny wore a red backpack with a button that said, “Don’t pet me. I’m working.” (And when you took off the red backpack at the end of the day, it was as if she had another button that said, “It’s Miller Time.”)

Penny would open the sliding-glass patio door for Angela by tugging on a rope tied to the door handle. Angela would drive her wheelchair through the open door, and Penny would pull the door closed behind her. Sometimes this took a few tries. (The refrigerator door worked on the same principle but the angle was much easier. Penny never had any trouble with that one -- something your average dog only
wishes he could do.)

The Toondog could do a few other things. The most useful task for Angela was picking stuff up from the floor. If Angela dropped her book, a piece of paper, or a toy, Penny would immediately retrieve it, unbidden, and hold it up in her teeth where Angela could reach it. This worked with almost anything, the possible exception being food.

The dropped-food scenario posed a behavioral challenge (not to mention a cognitive puzzle) for Penny. If she did what any other dog would do with a wiener on the floor, she got a reprimand for going against her training. If she did what seemed like the right thing -- retrieve the wiener intact in her mouth and hold it up to Angela -- there was no reward in that, either. But just leaving a wiener lying there was a distraction and didn’t make any sense. Who could figure people?

Penny went everywhere that Angela went. She rode the bus. She went to restaurants. She attended services at Church of the Holy Family Episcopal (were she tried to take communion a couple of times.) She slept beside Angela’s bed every night. And in the fall of 1994, Penny went to school. The two of them were in the 4th grade.

She drew a lot of attention from the other students at first, but the novelty wore thin when the kids were told they couldn’t touch the dog. Penny sat quietly in class beside the wheelchair. The months went by. Things appeared to be working out perfectly. . .

Then one day in the spring, as the students were filing back to class after lunch, Penny’s leash slipped from its hook on Angela’s chair. The Toondog saw an opportunity and just decided to make a break for it. She took off like a bat out of hell -- straight out the door, across the lawn, and through the pine trees towards Ephesus Church Road.

A chase ensued, with Angela’s teacher, her student assistant, the school security guard, and finally Mrs. Maniloff the principal joining in hot pursuit. None of these frantic adults, on foot, was any match for a three-year old Golden Retriever on a glorious romp with no interest in being captured.

The basic situation was this: a trained and registered assistance dog worth thousands of dollars had bolted from her 4th-grade human companion in a wheelchair and was running all over east Chapel Hill wearing a red backpack with a button that said, “Don’t pet me. I’m working.”

Penny eventually tired of her frolic, wandered back to school, and turned herself in. The posse of educators, administrators, law enforcement officers, and assorted municipal authorities all breathed a collective sigh of relief. And then they got pretty ticked off.
(If you are a dog, you do not want to humiliate these people; it will come to no good end.) From that moment on, the proverbial handwriting was on the wall: Fifth grade wasn’t going to happen for Penny.

The next year, Angela went back to school alone. The Toondog stayed home and took early retirement as a
Helper Dog Emeritus.

* * *
II. Midlife message from an aging companion.
It’s November, 2008, and I’m in the first half-hour of the Tuesday seminar, surrounded by postdocs and a few faculty colleagues. I finish my cup of coffee and take a deep breath -- then notice something strange. What is that smell?

But of course, I know what that smell is. Everybody does. I glance discretely under the table and turn my foot slightly, just enough to confirm the source of the odor. It is right there, squashed and ripening in the tread of my sandal.

Toondog. I know you can't bark much anymore, but this is a fine way to get my attention. What's gotten into you? It's only thirty feet to the woods . . .

Suddenly I realize that I’m not the only person in the seminar who is smelling this. And we have ninety minutes to go. The ventilation is not that great. After a moment of contemplation, I extract my cell phone and try to look extremely startled, hoping that my body language will say, “Folks, I have a call coming in from the Obama transition team. Excuse me, but I’ve got to step out and take this.”

I get up and stride purposefully out the open door of the conference room. Aware of the gaze of the assembled scholars behind me, I take an immediate right turn into the men’s restroom. Then I realize this is a mistake. (Just in terms of impression management.)

Toondog. Where was this, anyway? Right there in the garage by the car? I guess the last joke is on me. Literally.

* * *

III. Beloved friend lost.
The Toondog would have been sixteen years old in December. Her face had grown snowy white with age. She had been retired for many years from her work as an assistance dog. She stayed with us after Angela went off to college. She took to following Pam around the house wherever Pam went, which was both endearing and rather annoying. But then she stopped. She went into a slow physical decline, until eventually she couldn’t stand up on her own anymore. Dr. Redman said she had tumors. Near the end, she became incontinent and just stayed in her bed and coughed.

Last Friday, on a suitably dark and rainy autumn morning, Pam and I helped Penny into the minivan for a final outing. We were going to see Dr. Redman. Pam choked back tears. The Toondog was oblivious.

At the animal hospital, they showed us into a room. We lifted Penny and laid her gently on the table. Dr. Redman shaved her leg and found a vein. Pam cradled Penny’s head and kissed her nose. I watched a syringe full of blue fluid slowly disappear. Dr. Redman listened for heart sounds. Then he looked over at Pam, pointed his finger toward the heavens and said softly, “She’s up above.”

I like to think so. In my dream, I see the
Toondog Redivivus in some parallel universe. She’s running headlong through the spring grass. Angela is running beside her this time. There are some waterfowl flying north overhead, but Mrs. Maniloff and the rest of them are miles and miles behind.


* * *
In Memoriam: Penny (1992 - 2008)

“ . . . She possessed beauty without vanity,
strength without insolence,
courage without ferocity,
and all the virtues of man without his vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning flattery
if inscribed over human ashes
is but a just tribute to the memory of
the Toondog.”

-- Adapted from the inscription on a monument in the garden of Newstead Abbey, Newfoundland; quoted in Lord Byron’s poem, “Epitaph to a Dog.”

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Spread the Regular

My friends, let me introduce myself. I’m Jeff the Sociologist and I am a Regular American. I like a six-pack just as much as the next obtuse middle-aged professor. In fact, I was on my way home today after getting a prostate exam from Larry the Doctor, and I picked up a sixer of Beck’s Octoberfest, which I’m hoping to share on election night with my old buddy John the Insolvent Investment Advisor and my spouse Pam the Nurse Practitioner, while trying to keep it out of the hands of Matt the East Chapel Hill High School Student.

The way I see it, this election is all about Regular Americans. Me, I wear steel-toed shoes, for heaven's sake. Actually they’re steel-toed Italian sandals, and I didn’t know about the steel until the sandals set off the metal detector at JFK airport on my way to Barcelona to embark on a cruise. Just the same, steel is steel. It all comes from Western Pennsylvania as far as I know, so I’m walking around with the pride of the American Rustbelt right there in my Bacco Buccis.

Anyway, I was pretty ticked off a couple of weeks ago when I found out the world financial system had collapsed and most of my retirement nest egg had been, shall we say, “redistributed” down the toilet. I placed a call to my pals Hank the Treasury Secretary and Ben the Fed Chairman, seeking some friendly advice about how to fish all that money back out of the crapper, but those two Regular Americans were on a conference call with Joe the Plumber trying to ask him the same question. (After all, the man is nothing if not a toilet specialist.)

When all this happened, I was somewhere at sea between the French Riviera and the Amalfi Coast listening to Josh the Cello Player in a tuxedo on Deck Four. I was also keeping an eye on CNN World Edition (which is Regular American news delivered in a British accent), and then Frank the Lugubrious Norwegian Cruise Ship Captain came over the public address system to announce there were rough seas up ahead. Boy, he wasn’t kidding. That Frank, he is one straight talker, let me tell you.

I high-tailed it up to the ship’s library to check my e-mail and got a message from my colleague Marvin the Psychiatrist about the fate of our research grant application to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which had just joined our personal investment portfolios in the toilet. (By the way, Marvin the Psychiatrist is also a Regular American like me and John the Insolvent Investment Advisor.)

What happened is the NIMH review committee decided to “spread the wealth” and ran out of spread when it came to Marvin and me. This was all bad news, but then I got the idea that I could make up for it big-time in the onboard casino, which offers much better odds than the NIMH Royale.

I headed down to Deck Three and ran into my mother-in-law, Val the Children’s Opera Book Illustrator, who had just thrown out her back carrying three buckets of quarters redistributed to her from a slot machine. (Val the Children’s Opera Book Illustrator is also a Regular American just like my father-in-law Norm the Billy Graham Crusade Consultant; we all went on this Med cruise together for the sake of Family Values and to avoid talking politics.)

I still had a few bucks in my pocket and so I proceeded to generously redistribute that to the casino through the very same slot machine that had just disgorged all those quarters to the Mother of Pam the Nurse Practitioner. My wallet was now filled with sweet bupkiss.

All this redistributing wealth got me thinking about my old nineteenth-century colleague Karl the Political Economist. Boy, was he ever a regular guy. The dude lived hand-to-mouth trying to support seven children with no job except for sitting around in the British Museum writing imponderable works of social theory.

Four of his children died and the other three weren’t looking so well, but then Frederich the Textile Company Heir decided to spread some wealth in the direction of Karl the Political Economist. This seemed like a great idea to Karl. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” he wrote one day.

Karl the Political Economist had no idea how famous he would become for those words, among others. But there you go. Fame -- it's like quarters from a slot machine. One day you're a nobody, and then you hit the jackpot and get so famous the world almost blows itself up over you.

The only problem is, Karl didn't deserve all the credit -- and he knew it. He was an honest and a humble fellow. Were he alive today, I think he'd be embarrassed by all the hysteria, and would reluctantly appear on TV to set things straight -- probably on The O’Reilly Factor with Bill the Apoplectic Pundit. Karl would come right out and admit that he wasn’t quite smart enough to think up such a grand idea himself, having almost flunked out of the University of Bonn in eighteen-thirty-something. (The truth is, Karl the College Student had spent a lot of time with his drinking buddies in a frat house called the Gulag Kibbutz.)

“Bill the Pundit,” Karl says, “I have something to confess to you and the world. That whole 'spread-the-wealth' thing was not original with me -- and God knows Frederich didn’t think it up. The fact is, I stole it from the Bible. I’ve never been too keen on Christianity as a belief system -- too may Rabbis in the family -- but I’m impressed with the tax policy.”

“Are you crazy?!” Bill the Pundit screams.

“Listen, Bill,” Karl goes on, “I have a dream today. In my dream, I see my four little children in the park at the edge of a small crowd, and they’re all listening to a guy who lives on the street, called Joe the Preacher. And they ask him, ‘Joe, what should we do?’ And Joe the Preacher says, ‘The person who has two coats must share with the one who doesn’t have any, and the person who has food must do the same.’”

“But that’s socialism, you miserable pinko!” Bill the Pundit rises toward his trademark apoplexy.

Karl’s eyes glisten and he drones on, “. . . and then I see a world where people come to believe this and where all the believers are one in heart and soul, and nobody calls any of his possessions his own. Instead, they share everything they own. . . . None of them needs anything, because everyone who has land or houses will sell them and bring the money received for the things sold and lay it at the apostles’ feet. Then it will be distributed to anyone who needs it.”

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” Bill swears. “It’s Karl Freaking Marx! Somebody call Homeland Security!”

Karl stops reading from the Gospel of Luke and The Acts of the Apostles and walks off the set of Fox News, back into the mists of history to scratch his boils in the British Museum, hoping Engels has a six-pack somewhere.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Skylight Diorama

-- For Daniel

September can be a cruel month in the Piedmont of central North Carolina. It taunts you with a cool night -- makes you think the fall is finally here -- and so you break out your old favorite blue sweater and the next day suffocates you.

Last week there was a guy in the Caffe Driade singing and playing the guitar on the patio under the pines. He wasn’t bad. He had written his own ballads about people longing for love and getting on trains and leaving each other. But then he started talking between his songs -- sharing how he used to be a lawyer until God called him to attend divinity school, and how the main problem with our culture is that we’ve lost the ability to mourn.

Across the room near the bar I saw a psychiatrist I know who specializes in electroshock therapy for people with severe and intractable depression. The doctor looked like he’d had a tough day at work. On the scale of general mournfulness, I would say his face fell somewhere in the range between Elie Wiesel and Edvard Munch’s
Scream.

In seventh grade my friend Bernie taught me how to make a sound like a train whistle. What you do is put two fingers in your mouth and blow as hard as you can while simultaneously making a sort of reverberation with your voice. Done right, this produces a shrill noise, which most people find irritating. But it does sound remarkably like a train whistle.

When the born-again lawyer started percussing his guitar and indicating that he was about to sing yet another song about a train heading off into the night, I thought of old Bernie and did the railroad whistle, big-time.

My daughter was not especially amused. “Dad. Are. You. Completely. CRAZY?!”

My train whistle is not
that obnoxious, really -- it’s mainly just startling. Something you’re not expecting to hear on a quiet evening in the Caffe Driade while listening to a recovering lawyer/troubadour sharing his life story with an incognito brain shockster and a few other sedate white people.

The attorney-in-redemption sang on into the night, rolling down the rails toward the distant lights of Oblivion. It felt pretty sticky out there.

* * *

What with all that steam in the air, it had to rain. It poured for several hours the next day, and about three o’clock Pam called to say the skylight in the kitchen was leaking. “You might want to come home and put up a tarp and call the roofer,” she said.

The roof guy arrived and he was a huge man with an equally formidable-looking pickup truck. He plunked an extension ladder up against the house and said, “Join me. Let’s see what the trouble is up there.”

I followed the Man Mountain onto the roof of 115 Forest Ridge Drive. I pointed out the spot where I thought the leak was coming from. He settled into his work, taking apart the skylight and peeling away some shingles. Then he stopped and looked straight at me. He revved his power screwdriver a few times and said, “So whaddya think of the Election?”

When you live in a college town full of liberal Democrats marooned in the Deep South, this is the sort of question that can give a person pause. Especially considering the particular setting in which it was asked.

I launched into punditry. I handicapped the turnout in the Rust Belt swing states. He responded by citing some poll numbers on the split among Evangelicals, and opined about the fallout of the mess on Wall Street. It was all “On the one hand this, and on the other hand that.” Like CNN up there on the roof.

I suggested that the blogosphere was a mixed blessing for politics; it democratized public discourse while adding to its general mendacity. He said he agreed with that, and noted that the traditional newspaper business was in big trouble.

“My dad is an investigative reporter,” said the roof man, “and he’s retiring. Nobody wants to read the paper anymore.” It turned out his father had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997.

I told him I always enjoyed reading his father’s articles in the Raleigh
News & Observer. After awhile, I said I should be going down. He said he would stay up there and finish fixing the roof.

I lingered for a minute and gazed through the skylight into my own house. It was kind of a mess down in there. I wondered if it ever occurred to people to clean up for the roof man. Somebody was calling our ancient Golden Retriever from another room, and I could see she was having trouble getting traction on the hardwood floor in the kitchen. She fell down a couple of times, then finally came to a stand and ambled out of my diorama of disheveled dreams.

* * *

Angela and I spent the weekend in Maryland, visiting her fiancé Al who has muscular dystrophy and lives on a ventilator. We celebrated Al's twenty-sixth birthday. But driving home Sunday was sad. Angela said it felt like we were going in the wrong direction. The subject of death came up. She said death was weird, and I agreed with her on that point.

We saw a sign on I-95 for a restaurant called the Virginia Grill and I thought we should stop there for lunch. We followed the signs into a pretty town by a river. We found the restaurant and parked the lift van, then discovered there was no wheelchair access.

When I inquired in the restaurant, the people looked stupefied -- like I had asked if they might possibly have a retractable roof so that my daughter could descend for lunch in her flying saucer.

I walked back out to the van and told Angela there were too many steps up to that restaurant, and no ramp.

“Let’s get out of here,” she said. “This place gives me the creeps."

“There are a lot of places like this,” I replied. "It's small-town America for you."

“Not it’s not. This is the
Truman Show.”

For a fleeting moment I imagined she was right; that we might just look up and see a cleft in the sky with a movie director peering down, trying to figure out how people like us had wandered onto his perfect set.

America -- what was that, anyway? I recalled another time we'd come to see Al. It was a few years ago, before his operation. Al and Angela, and Al’s mother Lois and I spent a warm Saturday afternoon on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The four of us stopped together in a row at the Lincoln Memorial and I read the Gettysburg Address out loud. Then I noticed some tourists taking our picture. Maybe they thought we were actors in some kind of a living diorama. Quite the American tableau: Two young people in wheelchairs. Two older people standing beside them. Two black, two white. ". . . Far above our poor power to add or detract."

Back on the highway we missed the I-85 junction just below Richmond, and ended up on a two-lane road across southern Virginia. It was about thirty-five miles of exquisite heartache. Rolling fields of hay and cotton and tobacco gave way to the pines and little brick Baptist churches, white steeples scattered like breadcrumbs in the forest, pointing the way home.

In a field between a trailer and the Apostolic Holiness Church we saw some kids playing softball in bare feet. Beyond them, and past one more abandoned farmhouse with its tin roof collapsing on old lumber, a new strip mall was rising on a scraped-over homestead.

A bluegrass singer on the radio mourned Five Generations of Rock County Wilsons. The last fifty acres didn’t mean a damn thing to them, the song said. They just came and blew it all away. Then we lost the station and searched for a new one. Dr. Pepper Schwartz was cheerfully promising you could find your soulmate on Perfect Match Dot Com.

I looked over at Angela. She sighed. Tonight I would put her in bed with her telephone and she would talk to Al for a couple of hours, like she does every night. Someday, somebody should write about the two of them and it would be a love story for the ages. I would do it myself, but I think any bard with lesser literary chops than Shakespeare should probably leave this one alone.

What I could do, though, is maybe write some lyrics for a blues singer in a bar, about a white-faced, deaf and demented old Golden Retriever who slips on a hardwood floor. As seen through a skylight, looking down, while talking politics with a roof man whose father won the Pulitzer Prize but can’t catch a break from a generation who would rather sit at their computers reading blogs.

I rolled down the window and got a whiff of October up ahead.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Leap

-- For Pam, on our twenty-fifth anniversary.




A lot of things happened that first year when I met her in Ecuador, and I can still play back the scenes. The night with the full moon on the boat in the Galapagos, when the crew caught lobsters and steamed them for supper. The walks with her in the late afternoon by the ruined hacienda house below my parents’ place north of Quito, watching the sun disappear behind the snowcaps. We listened to the Cumbia bands in the clubs downtown and danced into the morning. We parked on the overlook below the Guayasamín gallery on a crystal-clear night with a million lights glittering in the valley and stars falling out of the sky. We drank Argentine wine on the patio of a tiny restaurant by a baroque cathedral in Cuenca -- it was early evening, nobody else there -- on the day she bought me the white Panama hat and the gold chain. There was the time I got stranded behind some angry strikers burning tires on the Panamerican Highway and I broke a date with her and couldn’t call and she thought it was a lame excuse. (I should have just walked around the burning tires and the
manifestantes and caught a bus into the city.) There was the cloudy afternoon when I bought a ring in a shop by the Palacio and the jeweler who promised he knew English made a typo in the inscription and engraved it “Allwas yours.” And the night she insisted we go visit Señor Parche after his wife died, and we sat with Señor Parche in his living room with the maroon upholstery covered neatly in clear plastic, and the old man wept and she hugged him and cried too.

There was all that. And then this: I leave the flower stand with a dozen red roses and a spring in my step. I cross Avenida América and head up Villalengua, never breaking my stride as the street goes steep on the slope of Pichincha. It’s a crisp afternoon in Quito.

I stop in front of her apartment, but my finger hesitates on the doorbell. I coif my hair with my hands and loosen my tie just so. Then I ring. There’s no answer. I am pretty sure she’s in there. I ring again. I wonder if something is wrong.

I step back on the street. Then a bright balloon filled with water descends from the roof. It splats on my head, drenching my face and my clothes and the roses and all. The water is like melting snow and I shiver in the Andean air.


“Hey! It’s Carnival, Mister!” She calls down from the roof. I’m startled at her voice but it’s like music and I look up at her. I’m a little mad but I think she’s the most beautiful creature, with the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. A minute later I’m inside drying off and getting warm. She lays some eucalyptus logs on the fire.

A month later I cross over to her side of a candlelit table at the
Terraza del Tartaro and look down at the city lights. I pause for a moment, then take her hand and I’m an idiot and have no idea what I’m doing. I leap off a cliff into thin air and ask her to spend a lifetime with me. She says sure, why not.

* * *

We got married in a Presbyterian Church on a muggy August day in Miami in 1983. We drove away through the rice in her dad’s ancient black Delta 88 – it would be cool now – and at the hotel in Bal Harbor I forgot to leave the keys for the valet parking guy. The manager sent champagne up to the room but otherwise wouldn’t disturb our night, so the car sat in the hotel driveway till morning. The bellhops gave me grief, but when they saw her they were jealous and rolled their eyes. Then we flew off to Jamaica.

In Ocho Rios we woke up with the sun and drank Blue Mountain coffee in bed. We played chess on the porch and watched ponies running in the surf. We snorkeled in the azure sea with the fish of every color until afternoon and then climbed up a waterfall. We walked by a pink house that was Noel Coward’s and ate dinner in a fragrant garden, sipped rum and danced to a Reggae band on the white sand under the stars. I remember her laughing and laughing.

Back in Miami we bought a luggage rack for the top of the Olds to make room for all her stuff. Then we headed up I-95 to New Haven, Connecticut, and the rest of our lives.

At the reception in the President’s Room in Woolsey Hall, I introduced her around. Professor Erikson took one look at her, then turned to me and said, “Young man, even if you never finish your dissertation, I’d say your fieldwork in Ecuador was a smashing success.”

* * *


On Christmas Eve in New Haven there was snow on the way. “I have to run an errand,” she said. “Come with me.” I climbed into the passenger side of her 1970 yellow VW bug, her pride and joy.

“Where are we going?” I asked. She drove through the Yale campus, then west down Dixwell and into the poorest neighborhoods of New Haven. We passed blocks of once-handsome Victorian cottages boarded up and tumbling down and marred with graffiti. She parked in a housing project by a huddle of young men who looked to me like gang members.

“We’re not getting out here,” I warned.

“I am,” she said. “I know these guys. There’s a couple of families here that I visit and I got them something.”

I stayed in the car. She reached in the back and pulled out a shopping bag. It was full of small boxes wrapped in Santa Claus paper and silver ribbons. She got out and approached the young men. She talked and joked with them for awhile. She was wearing her blue Visiting Nurse uniform with a badge.

The young men called her by name. They smiled when they saw the gifts. “Thank you,” they said. “Merry Christmas to you too.”

Then the snow fell and covered the empty wine bottles in the street.

* * *

The crash happened on a cold, wet day in October, 2002, in my forty-fifth year. I left Chapel Hill in a torrent of rain that morning, and by the time I turned onto Whitfield I couldn't see the road. Maybe I should have stopped, but I kept driving through the storm and then my mind wandered and I starting thinking about all the things I thought about: I’m in the second half of life and what does it amount to? What would become of our children? There was so much work to do and I didn't have tenure and my grants weren't getting funded. And my marriage . . . Why were we like this? What happens to people?

On the turn down the hill before Whitfield meets Erwin, there was water flowing over the roadbed, and my car hydroplaned and spun out of control. I went off the highway and smashed head-on into a utility pole. The impact of the crash broke the pole and it came down and the power lines fell, too.

I was injured in the crash. Five ribs were broken and my spleen was shattered and I had a lung contusion. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I saw smoke coming from the hood of the car and power lines dangling just beyond the windshield. I managed to crawl out the window. I thought that I might die.

It seemed like a long time before anyone came. A man stopped and approached me. He kneeled in the downpour and held my head and comforted me. He told me that help was on the way. I remember thinking I was putting the man in danger because of the fallen power lines and the gas leaking from the car. Finally the police and the ambulance arrived and the man disappeared; I never saw him again. The paramedics worked on me by the roadside. They put an oxygen mask on my face and started an IV in my arm. They braced my neck and my head and loaded me on a gurney. One of the men took my wallet and got the phone number and called the house.

On the way into Duke Hospital, I coughed blood and felt excruciating pain. In the ER there were nurses and doctors hovering over me, but I felt terrified and alone. And then she walked in -- like she owned the place. It was the most amazing thing. She was as calm and collected as the experienced ER nurse she had once been. She wore her Duke Medical Center badge and found the attending physician and asked him "what was the verdict." He told her they were working up some internal injuries. He said they would do an MRI and then take me straight into surgery. She came to my side, leaned down and kissed my cheek. She smiled and held my hand. She said the doctor would put a tube down my throat in a minute and then I would fall asleep and the pain would stop.

“You’ll be fine, Mister,” she said. “I love you.”

* * *

It seemed like a good idea at the time. We were in Ft. Lauderdale at the beach with the kids and it was August 20, 2008.

“Let’s drive down and have lunch at that hotel in Bal Harbor,” I said. “It was twenty-five years ago today -- Mom and I got married and we went there on our wedding night.”

We piled everybody into the rented minivan, loaded Angela’s wheelchair in the back, and headed down I-95 in another soaking tropical storm. On the way, I told them the story of leaving Grandpa’s Oldsmobile in the hotel driveway with no keys in it.

“Arriving at destination!” said the disembodied voice with a British accent from the GPS box.

“Where is it, Dad?” Matt asked.

There was a hole in the ground where the hotel had once stood. I stared at piles of concrete rubble and recalled the eighth-floor balcony where we had sipped champagne and gazed out at the lighted pool with the palm trees and the vast Atlantic Ocean beyond. A quiet night that spoke of infinite possibilities.

In the lobby of the next condo over, I asked the doorman if he remembered the hotel. “Oh, they tore that down just a few months ago,” he said. “But they’re building a new one on the beach here. It’s going to be spectacular. That land was too valuable for something so dated.”

* * *

I walk back out to the minivan through the rain and suddenly we’re young again. We’re sitting on a park bench at the edge of a village green. It's a dappled summer afternoon in a tiny town in New Hampshire. The yellow 1970 VW bug is parked on the street behind us. We’re on our way back from a jazz festival in Saratoga Springs with our friend Jeff Leifer, and we’ve just stopped to get something to eat. Leifer is joking around and we’re laughing. And then we notice a solitary old man, slowly making his way across the green. He is gray and stooped and carries a walking stick. He’s wearing a sweater and a flat wool cap in the summer. The old man gets closer and then he looks straight at us -- meets our eyes and sees that we’ve been watching him. He walks on by, towards another park bench, and we think maybe he’ll sit down. But he just stops for a moment, looks back at us, takes a flying leap over the bench and clears it by a mile.

* * *




Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert
-- Isaiah 35:6


Thursday, August 7, 2008

A Few Great Moments in Baseball

One. He stepped out on the porch of the small tin-roofed clinic and found ten patients still waiting. They were sick and poor and had traveled a long way to see a doctor. He was tired. Then he looked down and saw me standing out there in the grass.

“Dad, it’s time for lunch!” I called to him. I was seven years old.

“I’m coming,” he said. Then he disappeared inside. I walked back across the mission yard to our house.

Later in the afternoon he must have glanced out the window and noticed me walking around with my oversized baseball glove. “OK, let's play some catch," he said.

I didn’t know how to catch or throw a ball. Nobody played baseball in the rainforest of Ecuador. But the glove was old and worn. Dad had bought it from another boy’s family who lived in Quito. I got it for Christmas. The boy’s name was written across the glove in huge black capital letters: “Melvin Christiansen.” I blotted out Melvin Christiansen’s name with a felt marker and wrote my own name underneath.

Dad stood a few feet away and tossed the ball in a slow arc. I held up my glove and the ball bounced off and rolled on the ground. The glove was a useless appendage designed to enhance a skill I did not possess.

“No, not like that,” he said. “Like this. Use both hands.” He stretched out his hands like he was holding an imaginary world.

I tried again and he worked with me, and then the rain came and he had to go back to his patients.

“Don’t worry, Ol’ Buddy,” he said. “Pretty soon we’ll be going back to Minneapolis on furlough and then you can really learn how to play ball.”

* * *

Two. You could hardly see Dave Jarzyna’s small face under the Twins cap, but he had a look of pure joy when Jim “Mudcat” Grant hit a home run in the sixth game of the 1965 World Series against the Dodgers. Dave leaped into the air, screaming “Mudcat! Mudcat!”

We were watching the game on a tiny black-and-white television set in the cafeteria at Portland Elementary School in Richfield, Minnesota. Our principal, Mr. Rundell, was a big baseball fan and he had herded us all in there to watch the Twins' historic World Series debut.

I didn’t have much of a clue what was going on. Fortunately, I had Dave Jarzyna to explain the mysteries and nuances of our national pastime. “Mudcat is a
pitcher,” he said. “Pitchers don’t hit home runs in the World Series -- they just pitch. This has never happened before!”

Dave was given to hyperbole. He probably knew this was actually the
second time in history that an American League pitcher had homered during a World Series game. A Cleveland Indians’ pitcher named Jim Bagley had done it once before -- in 1920.

The Twins went on to win that game 5-1, tying the Series at three games apiece. Two days later we were back in the cafeteria to watch the final game. Hundreds of children sat in rows and stared at the little TV. We strained to see Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva as they came up to bat.

Dave Jarzyna's heroes tried desperately to hit against Sandy Koufax, the best pitcher they’d ever seen. They came up short. The Dodgers won the World Series and we shuffled quietly back to Miss Olsen’s third-grade class. My friend Dave had tears in his eyes.

* * *

Three. I finished speaking and people clapped and I returned to my table below the dais.

“That was a good speech,” said the stranger with long dark hair. “They’re all writing checks.”

“Thanks!” I laughed. “But I hope it wasn’t too long.”

It was -- too long. I scanned the audience of prosperous and graying alums sitting around the ballroom that night in the Los Angeles Bonaventure Hotel. They did not appear to be writing checks. They were poking at rubbery chicken cordon bleu. But he was interesting. He made sardonic quips. We got to talking. After dinner we continued our conversation in the revolving bar atop the hotel. I asked him if he lived in LA.

“Yeah,” he said, “I live here now. I moved away for a few years, but I came back. I’m from Southern California originally. Actually, I grew up in Santa Barbara. You may know my dad -- he worked at the college.”

I had never met his father, but I knew the name and had seen him on campus. Rath Shelton was a beefy man with a big soup-strainer mustache.

“Why did you go away?” I asked, “And what brought you back?”

“I wanted to play baseball,” he replied. “I played in the minor leagues for six years -- with the Baltimore Orioles organization. I was a second baseman.”

“That’s amazing,” I said. “Professional baseball. You must be really good.”

“Unfortunately not quite good enough for the majors,” he laughed. “I came back to LA and I’m writing a screenplay.”

“Really?” I said, trying not to sound skeptical. “A film?” I asked politely what his movie was going to be about. He said it was about a minor league baseball player.

“It’s a comedy -- sort of,” he said. “And there’s some sex in it.”

He seemed like a nice guy. I was sorry his dreams of a major league career had not panned out. I wished him well. Silently, I hoped he would find a decent job doing something he liked.

* * *

Four. Dan Tweed’s family and friends and a few academic colleagues assembled to remember him in the Sarah Duke Gardens. He died young of lymphoma in the winter of 1997. Dan had loved to walk in the Gardens in the spring when the tulips bloomed and the wisteria made a bright purple roof over the gazebo at the top of the terraces. But this was a bleak day in January.

One of Dan’s closest friends from his Colorado days was eulogizing him, talking about how much Dan had loved the outdoors. I looked at the gray, colorless sky and remembered another day a few years earlier.

That other day had brought a glorious spring afternoon and Dan and I were sprawled on the mint-green grass beyond the outfield of the old Durham Athletic Park. We talked about work and watched the Bulls game and tried to keep track of our two small sons, both named Matthew. The game was dull and scoreless for a few innings and then the hometown crowd came alive as one of the Durham stars knocked a ball over the fence in left field, just missing a billboard-sized wooden cutout of a bull, captioned with the words, “Hit the bull. Win a steak.”

“You know this is where they made that movie,
Bull Durham.” Dan said. I was a newcomer.

“Yeah, I heard that,” I said. “I once met the guy who wrote it. He was a minor league player himself.”

In 2003,
Sports Illustrated named Bull Durham -- written and directed by Ron Shelton, starring Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon -- the greatest sports movie of all time.

* * *

Five. On another sun-drenched spring afternoon, I drove straight from work to Cedar Falls Park to watch Matt’s game. I arrived late. The second inning had already started. I didn’t think it would matter.

“Matthew got a base hit and you missed it!” Danny Pollitt chided me as I found a seat next to him in the bleachers. I glanced down the row of parents and saw Greg Jones, the new Dean of Duke Divinity School and father of Ben, one of Matt’s teammates on the “Atlanta Braves” of the Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation League. Greg held a sheaf of papers in his lap. The Dean appeared to be multi-tasking.

The Braves were losing in the sixth inning. Their opponents had runners on first and second with no outs. I was talking to Danny, droning on about my research on schizophrenia and violent behavior. Danny was listening politely with one ear but watching the field at the same time, taking everything in. He’s a sports guy; no matter how small the venue, it’s always about the game.

Suddenly the parents broke into wild cheers and I heard people calling my son’s name: “Matt!! Matt!!”

“You missed it again!”
Danny shouted. "You've got to pay attention!" But I had seen it -- sort of. Matt was playing second base and had caught a line drive. The boy on first had already lurched off the bag on a fool’s errand and Matt ran to tag him out. Then he turned and hurled the ball to the third baseman, who improbably caught it and tagged out the remaining hapless runner for a triple play. This was a small miracle that would not have happened in a game played by boys over age twelve.

The Braves were ecstatic.

“Dad! Dad, did you see it? Did you see my play?” Matt wanted to know, after the game.

“I saw you,” I said. “You were the greatest.”

Then I told him about the time I watched the real Braves play once in Atlanta in 1970. We were visiting my Uncle Tom’s family and he took us to a game in the stadium. A black man stepped to the plate and swung mightily and smote the ball into the heavens. I couldn’t see it, but it didn’t matter.

“That’s Hank Aaron right there,” Uncle Tom said. "One day he'll pass Babe Ruth's record. Then he'll be the greatest ever.”

* * *

Six. It was a Saturday after Matt’s year-end birthday and we were in a post-holiday slump. His friends were gone and school hadn’t started and the shine was off the new stuff.

“There’s nothing to do, Dad,” he complained. I dragged him to the Chapel Hill library to find a book. In the youth fiction section I happened on a paperback called
Slump with a picture of a glum-looking kid about Matt’s age on the cover.

I glanced at the dust jacket flap and read the author information. The book was written by a sports journalist who had worked for CBS. He had also been a PR executive -- Director of Marketing and Broadcasting for the Minnesota Twins during their 1987 World Championship season. He was credited with helping the Twins set an American League attendance record of 3 million fans. He had been awarded a Twins World Series ring.

His name was David Jarzyna.

I wrote him a letter. I asked if he remembered the missionary kid from third grade -- the one who brought all the weird stuff for show-and-tell. He wrote back immediately. Of course he remembered. (Who could forget the twenty-foot-long anaconda skin, the blowgun, the spear, and the feathered headdress from the Amazon jungle?) He sent Matt an autographed copy of
Slump. The inscription read, “To Matt. Always avoid slumps -- Dave Jarzyna.”

* * *

Seven. On Father’s Day, 2007, I took my dad and my son to a Durham Bulls game. We sat behind the third baseline and watched the Bulls beat the Indianapolis Indians 7-3.

I remembered that long-ago afternoon in Ecuador when Dad tried to teach me to play catch. He was thirty-seven then. He was eighty now.

I tried to talk to Dad over the din of the crowd, but he couldn’t hear me. In the lull at the seventh-inning stretch I asked him if he still missed my lovely mother. “Yes, I do,” he said, “But you know, one of these days we’re all going to see her again in heaven. We’ll all be together then.”

I thought of heaven and recalled the closing scene in that movie where a young ballplayer walks out of the mist and plays catch with his son in the twilight. They’re the same age. It could be Dan Tweed and his son. It could be a lawn by a cornfield in the Midwest or it could be the edge of a rainforest.

* * *

Eight. It was Father’s Day again, 2008. Matt gave me a copy of an 800-page tome by John Feinstein, called Living on the Black.

“Dad, I know you’re not really into baseball,” he said. “But I thought you might like this book. It's the story of these two pitchers . . ."

I had heard John Feinstein's sports commentaries on NPR. I was sure he was a great storyteller.

“Thanks, Buddy,” I said. “I know I’m going to love it.”

* * *

Nine. Baseball is supposed to have nine innings and I wanted this story to have nine parts. But what I’ve just written is pretty much everything that’s happened to me involving baseball. Unless you count the time I was passing through Logan Airport in the fall of 2004 and noticed that the Boston Red Sox had won the World Series, breaking the curse of the Bambino. So I bought a Sox World Series cap for Matt. Then I thought, what the heck, I’ll get one for myself, too. I’m not a Red Sox fan -- or any kind of fan, really. But I like to wear the cap when I go on vacation to the beach in South Carolina. That’s where I am now, as I write this. I think the hat goes well with my Friedrich Nietzche T-shirt that says on the back, “Why does man exist?”

Oh, yeah, and there are supposed to be nine players. So this story has Mudcat Grant, Jim Bagley, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Sandy Koufax, Hank Aaron, Ron Shelton, Babe Ruth (himself the Bambino, of the broken curse), and Matt Swanson. What a team.

* * *
Extra Inning. (Sometimes the game just keeps going . . .)

It was May, 1986, the morning of my graduation, and I had settled in to my seat in the magnificent Woolsey Hall. After six years of hard work to arrive at this day, I was filled with a feeling of accomplishment and anticipation of the moment -- imminent now -- when I would stride across the stage and receive my diploma imprinted with those two Latin words: “Philosophiae Doctoris.” And I was filled with something else: I really had to pee. Bad.

The ceremony was about to start, but I decided it would be better to make a fast break for the men’s room now, rather than have to get up in the middle of the program (not ruling out the nightmarish possibility of needing to excuse myself right as Dean Thompson would call my name.)

Walking quickly out the back and through the foyer, I entered the men’s room in full academic regalia. I found myself standing at the urinal next to two men even more splendidly attired than I, sartorially speaking. To my immediate right was A. Bartlett “Bart” Giamatti, President of Yale, and to his right was Cyrus Vance, former U.S. Secretary of State under President Carter, and then a member of the Yale Corporation.

I had walked by Giamatti's house on Hillhouse Avenue every morning for years on my way to the Sociology Department, but had seldom seen him -- and never like this. Except for a certain tinkling-on-porcelain, it was silent for awhile. Then Bart said to Cy, “I think this may be the year for the Sox."

That was the year the Boston Red Sox came closer to winning the World Series without actually doing so than any team in history. They came within one strike. The Mets won.

A year later Giamatti, a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan, resigned the Yale Presidency to become President of the National League, and shortly thereafter Commissioner of Baseball. Giamatti's name became a household word when he permanently banned slugger Pete Rose from baseball for gambling on his own games -- a sanction that effectively kept Rose out of the Hall of Fame.

Eight days after the Pete Rose agreement was inked, Giamatti died suddenly of a massive heart attack. Some said Bart's personal anguish over the decision had killed him.

The 1989 World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s was dedicated to Giamatti’s memory. Pete Rose, via his lawyer, sent polite condolences to be quoted in Giamatti's New York Times obituary. At Yale, among other lavished honors, a prestigious endowed professorship in English literature was named for Bart.

In late summer of 2004, I found myself standing with a champagne glass in the Searle Center at Duke Medical School. I had dropped by the reception for Dick Brodhead, lately of New Haven and about to be inaugurated President of Duke. Bill Fulkerson, the head of Duke Hospital, introduced Brodhead with these words: “Ladies and Gentlemen, I see here that Dr. Brodhead was formerly appointed the A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor of English at Yale University. Before I let him speak to you, I’d just like to say that if I ever get an endowed chair professorship around here, I would really like it to be named for a Commissioner of Major League Baseball.”
Ha, ha.

Brodhead stepped to the podium. “Thank you, Bill,” he said. “And one of my first priorities as President will be to have you named the Bud Selig Professor of Medicine.”

But then it was fall and time to get serious.

* * *
"It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped, and summer was gone."
-- A. Bartlett Giamatti, The Green Fields of the Mind