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Mondale-Ferraro ’84

October 18, 2018

mondale-ferraro

In the first inning of Game 4 of the 2018 American league Championship Series, Jose Altuve struck a long, hard drive toward the right field stands because doing everything well on a baseball field, including hitting baseballs long and hard, is what Jose Altuve has been put on this earth to do. Mookie Betts sprinted toward the ball and made a perfectly timed leap because doing everything well on a baseball field, including sprinting fast and leaping high, is what Mookie Betts has been put on this earth to do.

What are the rest of us on the earth to do? I don’t know, but I guess most of my limited time has been spent watching, cheering, booing, feeling powerless, feeling amazed. Also: remembering. All the things that go into being a fan.

Mookie Betts was unable to catch Jose Altuve’s drive, apparently because a fan reaching for the ball caused Betts’ glove to close up just before the ball arrived. The initial ruling on the field was that this was a case of fan interference, and this call was confirmed by the remote team in the employ of Major League Baseball that is charged with reviewing such matters. If I were an Astros fan, I’m sure I would have been incensed by the ruling. But of course I was elated by it, because rooting arbitrarily for outcomes beyond my control to go one way and not another way is apparently what I’ve been put on this earth to do.

And now, the day after, I find myself thinking about the fan who became part of the game and, by virtue of the already classic status of the game, baseball history. He’s stuck in my mind because of his cap. As has been noted (but—to my astonishment—not at all delved into, or even wondered about!) in some recaps of the incident, the fan was wearing a “Reagan-Bush ’84” campaign cap.

Had I seen this cap in my young adulthood in New York City in the 1990s on, say, a skinny fellow with bad posture at a Pavement show, I would have read the cap as irony, but my guess is that it wasn’t worn in 2018 by this Houston Astros fan in irony but rather with straightforward nostalgia or perhaps more likely (judging that he wasn’t really old enough to remember that era) as an identifier, as in, This is who I am and this is the world I want: White American men reigning without ambiguity, without challenge.

So I don’t know, fuck that guy, I guess.

In 1984, I was 16, still too young to vote, but I would have voted for Mondale and Ferraro, those hopeless losers. God, they didn’t have a chance. That’s how it goes sometimes. The pendulum swings. But I didn’t know that then. I just thought there were winners and losers, and I had a pretty good idea which side I was on. Back then the Red Sox, those seminal shapers of my identity, were in a long, long stretch of, at least as I saw it, getting hosed continuously by “the breaks,” and in fact in 1986, right smack in the middle of the presidency championed by last night’s fan—just weeks before I cast at age 18 what I assumed, growing up rooting for Carter and Mondale, was a useless first vote in a November election—the Red Sox suffered the most painful chain of breaks of all when a series of relievers allowed a lead to erode and, finally, disappear altogether on a ground ball struck by a player named Mookie.

But that’s all in the past! Now even when a reliever looks for all the world to be on the Greyhound Bus to Schiraldiville, things somehow work out. Now the Mookies are on our side, hitting long hard drives and making impossibly difficult and beautiful plays in the field and even centering bizarre controversies that end up in our favor. So if that kind of thing can turn around, maybe other things can too.

What I’m saying is that a fan may or may not be something worthwhile to be, but all us fans, at least in the land of Mondale and Ferraro and Reagan and Bush and all manner of other absurdly divided polarities, still get a chance to be a part of the action, to determine the course of this game.

What I’m saying, among other things, I guess, since I’m feeling kind of hopeful today, is: vote.

rather

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Americans

June 26, 2018

Lazer_Moishe

Last Saturday night I dreamed about my father for the first time since he died. We were at a social gathering at someone’s house and it was time to go. He and I were going to walk together to the bus stop. Most of the dream slipped away from me upon waking, but I remember the feeling of assurance that he and I would be walking together. The bus stop was far way, but he would have the strength for the walk. We would walk. We would talk. But I got hung up in that house trying to find umbrellas for both of us. When I finally got outside with two umbrellas he had gone on ahead of me into the rain.

Later that day, Sunday, I told my older son what I could remember about the dream.

“But what happened next?” he said.

“Nothing. The dream ended. It changed to another dream.”

He looked at me with his blue eyes. Earlier in the night he’d been goofing around with crossing his eyes, and when he got tired of that he started messing with my watch, pulling the dial out to stop it. But he didn’t do any of that now. He just looked straight at me like the boys in the photograph at the top of this page are looking at you.

“Maybe you’ll dream the rest of it tonight,” he said.

***

My father is the younger boy, the one on the left. He’s about the age of my younger son, who just turned four, and the other boy, his brother Dave, my uncle, is two or three years older, about the age of my older son. The clothing they’re wearing seems like it’s from some far-off place. The photo was taken in 1928 or 1929, less than a decade after my grandmother and her two oldest surviving children, my Uncle Joe and Aunt Helen, fled the Galicia region in central Europe to reunite with my grandfather in New York City, who’d fled to America a few years before.

Fled.

As is common in the stories of how families come to live in America, fled is the correct word, illustrated most vividly by the family tale of the death of a third child born in Galicia to my grandfather and grandmother. In the story, which takes place during World War I, a soldier entered the inn run by my grandmother’s family and demanded food. My grandmother was holding the baby in her arms. She said that they have no food, that the last group of soldiers coming through took it all. The soldier pressed the blade of a bayonet to her neck. She had blue eyes, my grandmother. Maybe the soldier noticed this.

“We have nothing,” she said.

The baby fell sick and died soon after. The story goes that the sickness began with the terror flowing from my grandmother’s arms into the soft, warm flesh of the baby.

It was a time and place for such stories, according to “The Jews of Galicia under Austrian-Polish Rule, 1867–1918,” by historian Piotr Wrobel:

Jews who remained in Galicia under Russian occupation [during World War I] faced a worse fate [than those who had fled to Austria]. Their status was “equalized” with the legal position of Russian Jewry. Galician Jews were removed from self-government bodies and the civil service, they could not live in the countryside nor leave their districts. Their civil rights were withdrawn and their religious sensibilities insulted. Frequently, they were accused of spying or siding with the enemy. Almost every Russian unit upon entering a city, and later the last units to depart it harassed and robbed the local Jews. Some of these events turned into regular pogroms, which lasted several days and caused the death of many Jews. Collective responsibility was enforced; Russians took hostages and executed innocent people to terrorize the civilian population. The Jews were harassed also by bandits in “no man’s land” between the fighting armies.

***

Sunday, after I woke from my dream, the sun came out and stayed out. We went for ice cream. I got a chocolate cone and finished my younger son’s chocolate cone too. After that we went to a playground. My boys played together on a structure that they pretended was a spaceship and I sat on a bench with my wife. I looked at her and at my boys and could not understand what I’d done to deserve a day like this, a life like this. After a while she and I started looking at her phone for ideas for a sign to bring to a protest march next week. But I don’t know how to put what I’m feeling into words.

***

Neither boy in this torn photograph is smiling. Dave’s chin is tucked in, his head down just slightly, so he’s looking up at the camera a little, giving his expression a tone of intensity. He’s not without some apprehension, even fear, but he also seems determined. His hand is on the outside, covering the younger boy’s hand, protecting it. The younger boy, my father, seems more open, curious. The world for him would not be something to withstand, like a blow, and then overcome, but something forever baffling and amazing.

The two boys will discover the world together. They’ll discover art and books and Bach and Handel. They’ll discover beauty. They’ll survive their impoverished childhood, as will my Uncle Joe and Aunt Helen, but two of their siblings will not (in addition to the baby who died in Galicia, another baby will die in New York City). They’ll survive the Depression. They’ll survive the suicide of their father. They’ll serve their country during World War II. They’ll find work and work hard and find love and love deeply. They’ll have children of their own. They’ll have grandchildren. They’ll grow old.

At the end of Dave’s life, my mother drove my father to see him. Dave was just about gone, unable to talk, unable to open his eyes to see his brother one last time. My father reached out and held his brother’s hand. My father hummed Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” As he hummed he began to feel something in his own hand. His brother’s hand was moving to the rhythm of the song.

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Fred C. Harris and Brendan C. Boyd

April 13, 2018

harris and boyd

Here are several things wrong with The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book:

  1. The title. Good lord, what a long and difficult to remember title! I’ve been steering people toward it for many years, and for most of those years I had to look up the title every time. And that’s just when I was steering people toward it in writing. Whenever I had the ill-advised compulsion to recommend it verbally, I would get about halfway in and abandon ship. “The Great American Bubble . . . uh, the Baseball Card Trading . . . ah, fuck it, never mind.”
  2. The fact that two guys wrote it. Good literature can’t be co-authored; the medium depends too much on the singularity of voice. Somehow, however, Fred C. Harris and Brendan C. Boyd did it. The interplay of their voices seems exactly like what I imagine was the genesis of the book: two men in their late twenties cracking each other up late into the night over beers, reminding me of all the nights I got drunk and talked and laughed with my friends in the back of the International Bar near the pulsing jukebox and seemingly so far from the era of our childhood that we usually ended up talking about, just like Fred C. Harris and Brendan C. Boyd.
  3. Its lack of structure. Slapped between its covers are two longer essays in the front, one short essay in the back, and a bunch of scattered sketches in the middle. The essays are probably just fine—I don’t remember. I haven’t read them since I first read the book. On the other hand, the sketches, which take up under a hundred total pages—some pages jammed with text and the cards they’re describing, others with just a few words and asymmetrical chasms of white space, still others that are odd little thematic one-offs, such as a page with pictures of umpires backed by the word “Boo” repeated over and over, another populated by a long list of baseball nicknames—have brought me back countless times, never in any particular order. You can just open the book like the I-Ching and read any sketch and be lifted smiling out of the unstructured malaise of life. (It’s also arguably the world’s greatest book to read on the shitter.)
  4. The lack of an overarching narrative. All my favorite books—On the Road, The Catcher in the Rye, A Fan’s Notes, Jesus’ Son, The Basketball Diaries, A Mother’s Kisses—grab me and pull me through the story of a life. This book doesn’t bother with that. Why then do I love it so much?
  5. That it may have caused me to waste my life. I first read it in the late 1990s, on the recommendation of one of my International Bar cronies, Pete. I was about the same age as the authors, and their hilarious, skewering odes to the journeymen of their childhood surely had something to do with my decision, a couple years later, to stave off insanity while spending a winter in a cabin with no electricity or running water by writing about my own childhood journeymen in a notebook by the light of a kerosene lamp. It’s been nineteen years now, and I’m still writing about my journeymen. The longhairs who wrote this book did it once, got it right, and moved on with their lives. I keep trying to get it right, but the truth is no one will ever do it as good as these guys did.

* * *

In related news, I’ll be appearing alongside some great writers—Dan Epstein, Joe Bonomo, and Ricky Cobb—and will be reading from my own work and the miraculous output of Fred C. Harris and Brendan C. Boyd this coming Tuesday, April 17, at the American Writers Museum in Chicago. For more details please check out the link here.

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Rusty Staub

March 30, 2018

Rusty Staub

After a specialist removed the breathing apparatus, it took my father about an hour and fifteen minutes to die. He was lying on a hospital bed in the critical care unit. His eyes were closed, and his swept-back hair and tipped back head made it look like he was flying, or like something invisible inside of him was flying out and casting his body back down to earth. My brother and I spoke later and discovered we were both watching images from our father’s life flash through our mind, as if the invisible ascension was passing through us as it rose. The images were vivid and quick, one giving way to another and another, a whole life compressed in a quickening kaleidoscope of light and love and loss. How can we even say we belong here? How we can we say this when we’re bound to leave?

***

I got this card not that long after my family moved away from my father. I was eight, in my second full year of collecting. I was in a new place. I wanted to belong. I was drawn to these cards.

The sun is shining on Rusty Staub, on his pale face, on his wavy pale orange hair, on all the colors of his bright uniform, the white and the blue and the hint—as if his personality filtered into the very fabric of the franchise—of orange. This moment of genuine happiness and ease was it, what baseball was for me: fun, sun on my face, some kind of belonging.

***

There were no last words at the bedside; the stroke had taken care of that. The night before the stroke was just a normal night. My mother made my father a meal he liked, and after it he refrained from his usual quick retreat back into his room. My mom finally realized what was going on.

“Are you waiting to hear me rehearse my lecture?” she asked.

He said something to the affirmative.

She had been preparing to teach a course on the history of printmaking and must have mentioned that she wanted to run it by him, just like she’d been running things like that by him for years.

“Oh, I’m too tired,” she said, “let’s just do it tomorrow.”

He probably then said OK and shuffled off to his room.

He was always there to listen, my father. He was there for my mom and for my brother and for me and for his few close friends, all big talkers and dreamers who needed a guy like my dad to listen. So it’s fitting that the last words of a listener were about the act of listening and an implicit affirmation that he would be available another time, any time, forever, to listen.

***

Rusty Staub never stayed in one place for long. A few years in Houston, a few in Montreal, a few in New York, a few in Detroit, back to Montreal for a moment, then Texas for another, then back to New York, to where my father too always returned. But everywhere Rusty Staub went he belonged. Everywhere he went, he emanated openness, friendliness, familiarity, somehow reaching out into the stands and out of a piece of cardboard to make you feel like you belonged.

***

I have always held these baseball cards between myself and death. How could there be death if someone could be a grown-up and play baseball really well and enjoy it like a kid and could also be named Rusty? How could there be death if Rusty, who already seemed like he had been around forever when I first met him in these cards, could outlast my own childhood in the 1970s? How could there be death if Rusty was still somehow miraculously lurking in the dugout into the mid-1980s, still ready to grab a bat and pinch hit. What a beautiful thing it was to see Rusty Staub amble out of the dugout to pinch hit! Who else would you rather see? Who could communicate the core message of this game and this life better than Rusty Staub? The message is not, it turns out, that there’s no death. Life is fleeting, life is suffering, life is to be enjoyed.

***

In the last minutes of my father’s life we were standing around his dying body and talking, my brother and me and my mother, about the restaurants he took my brother and me to on our visits. Mom remembered the “place with the round tables.”

“The Knickerbocker!” I said.

I used to get chicken in a basket at the Knickerbocker. I loved going there with Dad and Ian and getting chicken in the basket. I thought about that as Dad lay there unconscious, struggling for breath. I thought of all the restaurants he took us to in the 1970s and early 1980s. Our lives intersected with Rusty Staub’s for a little while as he went from restaurant to restaurant and we went from restaurant to restaurant. Life is fleeting, life is suffering, life is to be enjoyed. My favorite restaurant that Dad took us to occurred to me, an Italian place on MacDougal with pictures of actors and athletes on the walls. The last words spoken around my dad in his life were a restaurant I’m hoping tonight Rusty Staub, now also gone, enjoyed.

“And Monte’s,” I said.

They had a thing they did at Monte’s: they greeted you as if they knew you. After I left childhood it dawned on me that they couldn’t possibly remember us from one summer to the next, but as a kid I believed it. I believed.

My father took his last breaths as I thought about that place of warmth and happiness and belonging.

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Mickey Lolich

March 19, 2018

Mickey Lolich

It’s hard to find the words. That’s what’s been happening to me lately. It happens a lot to my three-year-old too. His older brother, Jack, is hyper-verbal, and he started talking early and hasn’t stopped, but it took a lot longer for Exley to find the words, and perhaps because he’s growing up in the shadow of his brother’s constantly babbling multisyllabic oratory, he still gets upset when he can’t express himself clearly. When he was younger this would result in tears, but now he rages, and he’s bizarrely strong, seemingly able to throw as hard as, say, Mickey Lolich, who, I noticed a few days ago, before this card was ripped in half and chomped, struck out over 200 men six years in a row, every year from 1969 until 1974 (and in one of those years he topped 300 Ks). But I digress. I was talking about Exley’s raging cannon. We’ve all been beaned by him. Earlier today, he wailed Jack in the head with a canister of Play-Doh and dinged me in the nose with an arm from Mr. Potato Head. It happens all the time. My wife is the Ron Hunt of the house, racking up HBPs on a near daily basis. The worst incident, though, was two weeks ago, when Exley, frustrated during dinner with his inability to find the words, whipped a fork and struck my grieving widowed mother in the head.

“That hurt, Exley,” she said pretty gently, I think. It’s hard to be clear about some auditory details of the moment, because I was also roaring.

“GOD FUCKING DAMN IT, EXLEY!” I roared.

Those were the words I found. What can I say? It’s hard to watch the tines of a fork strike your mom in the temple because of your son. It’s hard to watch your mom suffer at all. I realized when she came to visit, the first time I’d seen her since my dad’s passing in January, that parenting two young children and working full time and overtime at my job has kept me relatively cushioned from that state of torn-up wordlessness called grief. My mom was not so cushioned from it. She moved slowly the whole visit and sometimes stopped moving altogether and just cried.

Anyway, she went home and I went back to the daily routine of going to work and coming home and ducking flying matchbox cars and carrots and Transformers. I came home today and found this card on the kitchen counter. It had been on my writing table downstairs, and for a while had been the next card in the deck I’d pulled from my shoebox as a way to move through my year even before my dad’s death shredded my quaint writing project. Now I’m just trying to keep moving. I should have just written something, anything, about Mickey Lolich days ago and moved on, but instead I found a 1979 trading card produced to promote the James Bond movie of that year, Moonraker, and I fell into a long, flailing, futile attempt to put meaningful words to how my dad used to take my brother and me to movies every summer, movie after movie after movie, including Moonraker, but I can’t find the words. Then Exley brought Mickey Lolich back into my awareness. It’s the first time one of my cards from my childhood have been damaged by my children. I wasn’t mad. These cards mean a lot to me, but also, in light of other disintegrations, they don’t mean shit. I told Exley who the player was. Exley found some words.

“I ate Mickey Lolich,” he said.

That’s all I can say for now, but I’ll share this video of Exley and my father from the last time I saw my father. Exley probably won’t remember his grandfather, but he was a fan of his grandfather’s homemade soup.

Near the end of the clip you can hear my father ask, “Is there a video store in Asheville?” He probably wanted to rent a movie he’d seen recently so he could show it to me. He loved movies, from the time he went to see King Kong as a little boy to the time he took my brother and me to Moonraker to the time he ate soup with my son and thought about some fucking Daniel-Day Lewis period piece probably and wanted me to see it. It wasn’t a Daniel-Day Lewis movie that time, actually, but I can’t remember what it was. I wish I could. He may have mentioned it himself, but he gets drowned out by the other soup eater.

“All gone,” Exley says, finding the words. “All gone.”

 

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Sergio Ferrer

February 27, 2018

Sergio Ferrer

Where is my father?

My father is in a box of ashes in Asheville. My father is at Shea. I am at Shea too. It’s 1979. There’s hardly anyone in the stands. The planes headed to and from Laguardia roar over the field every few minutes, causing my father to press his fingers in his ears. “Let’s go, Mets!” I shout every once in a while. My brother does too. My father grimaces down at the New York Times. My father buys us hot dogs and soda. He buys me a miniature plastic bullpen cart, the kind shaped like a baseball with little bats in front propping up a roof shaped like a Mets cap. I love it. I vow to hold onto it forever. But where is it? Where is Shea Stadium, for that matter? Where is Sergio Ferrer?

Sergio Ferrer spent the entire 1979 season with the New York Mets, the first time in his nine years in professional baseball that he didn’t spend some or all of the season in the minor leagues. And yet he only appeared in 32 games, and most of those appearances were so brief that they didn’t include a trip to the plate. He faced a pitcher only 9 times all year. I never noticed him, or if I do I don’t remember, so it’s like he was never there.

My father is in my bones and muscles and organs and blood and in the bones and muscles and organs and blood of my two sons. My father is in my gentleness with my sons and in my brooding desire to be left alone by my sons and in my periodic explosions of frustration with my sons and in my desire above all for happiness in my sons.

In 1979 Sergio Ferrer had 0 hits. All year long: nothing, and when it was over his major league career was over too. He got into some games that year as a defensive replacement, others as a pinch runner. In others he warmed up the pitcher if the catcher was busy switching into his gear. He sat. He perhaps occasionally held a bat, remembering what it felt like to connect. He waited.

My father is in the tiny scribbles of his handwriting on small white pieces of note paper in virtually every one of his books in his bookcase, his writing so tiny that it’s virtually unreadable, except you can always read enough to know that he was grappling deeply with what he was reading, all his life long wrestling like Jacob with the biggest ideas, the unknowable and unknown, wrestling for understanding, illumination, blessings. My father is in the tiny scribbles on pages in two folders now in my possession, one of the folders titled “My Jottings” and the other titled “My Musings.” Last year he ushered me into his room and showed me where he kept these folder. He knew it was getting near the end of the line, and he wanted me to know about his musings and jottings. The musings are handwritten and thus difficult to decipher, but the jottings were transferred at some point to a computer file that he then printed out on a dot matrix printer that makes all the lines faint and every third line seem italic, randomly emphasized. These jottings are his diary, starting in 1970 and running to 2011. It’s a slim folder. The entries themselves are usually short, and months and even sometimes years go by without an entry. The heaviest period is in 1979. The flurry of entries start with this one:

6-24-79
On June 24, upon getting up with her rocker mom fell and broke her hip.

Two days (and two entries) later, there’s this entry:

6-26-79
I am witnessing the unraveling of personhood, of the sweet and loving soul that is my mother. How she fights its dissolution, increasingly obsessed with her few possessions—her book with the names and addresses, birthdates, etc., her sweater, photographs. . . .

I weep uncontrollably . . . . 

I still haven’t wept uncontrollably. I haven’t really wept at all. I stare at baseball cards. In this one the distinct outline of the player’s worrying face stands in stark relief against a ghostly background. This creates a sense that Sergio Ferrer is not even really there at all but instead is a cardboard cutout. He could be lifted directly out of the purgatorial blur. Who would be left? There seem to perhaps be some figures in the background, but you can’t be sure. And anything happening here at this stadium that no longer exists in a year of losing and nothingnness might just as well not be happening at all.

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Johnny Bench

February 23, 2018

Johnny Bench

It’s my father’s birthday. I would call him. He would begrudgingly accept the call. “We didn’t celebrate such things when I was a child,” he would say. “We didn’t have gifts.” Then he would turn the conversation away from himself. He never really had anything, not as a kid, not as a young man, not as a middle-aged man, not as an old man. He lived more or less like a monk, except monks don’t have a closet with five identical blue button-down shirts to wear to work in the office of a city agency. Up until his retirement he worked, always. When I was a kid the other adults in my family were often “finding themselves,” which is a term from the 1970s meaning “not making much money,” but my father worked. Picture his years as having the year-to-year repetition of what you see here in the 1979 and 1980 baseball cards of Johnny Bench. You fall into a line of work. One year gives way to the next. There’s a repetition of tasks, a constraint of motions. All the money my dad made grinding out a modest living as a researcher went to his family. What did he ever spend any money on? Wheat germ? He barely even owned any cups. When I called my old high school friend Bill to tell him my dad had died Bill remembered my dad serving him some milk in a bowl. He had plenty of books, but most of them were bought on the cheap from the Strand. At some point before my memories started up he bought a huge desk that he hunkered over until the day he died. I went through that desk a few weeks ago. There were a lot of toothpicks and hearing aid batteries. He was a wealthy man in terms of toothpicks and hearing aid batteries. Also: vitamins. In his bathroom there was an arsenal of vitamins, enough vitamins to bury a hippo. He must have spent several thousand dollars on vitamins throughout his life. He wanted to live. He wanted to keep living. In the end his life was taken from him quickly, which was a mercy, because a few years ago when it looked like he might be teetering on the edge, I flew down to rush to his hospital bedside and saw terror in his eyes. And why not? Death steals everything, even when all you have is some toothpicks and the collected works of C. Wright Mills. It steals every memory, every thought, every touch. What the fuck is all this about anyway? This senseless coming and going? One year gives way to the next. You fall into a line of work. Johnny Bench slugged home runs and gunned down baserunners. Johnny Bench knew glory, maybe even transcendence. My father went to work in an office every day. I go to work in an office every day. There’s a repetition of tasks, a constraint of motions. I sit down on the couch at night after the boys are asleep and try to think of something to tell my wife that happened that day that seems worth telling, but the last thing I want to do is talk about work. I have books, most of which I got on the cheap. I’m reading a book about William Blake right now. My father liked William Blake. He used to come up to visit us in Vermont when I was a kid and look at our sheep and quote William Blake: “Little lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee?” William Blake had visions. I don’t have visions, not anymore. When I was a kid I had night terrors. It was like seeing through the flimsy facade of this world into what lies beyond. You might think you’d want to get a glimpse of something like that but you don’t, at least not when you’re a child. These glimpses started when I was six or so, right after we moved away from my father, right before I started collecting baseball cards. I still have those baseball cards in my possession, and I guess I will until I die, two shoeboxes of fragmented cardboard scaffolding over the absence of my father and the terrifying face of God.