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John Christensen (played)

December 21, 2018

John Christensen_marker

Played

4.

I’m gonna read every one of these books, I said when I got the box of my father home. I felt the inevitable failure of this vow almost instantly, as I started and then quickly abandoned one of the weightier ones—Michel Foucalt’s Discipline and Punish, an exploration of the ways in which imprisonment serves as the shaping principle at the root of our gruesome civilization. I got only a few pages into it, all of them given over to an excruciatingly specific description of the methodical torture and dismemberment of a criminal in France in the 1700s. Hoping to keep up some measure of momentum, I then opted for the thinnest book in the pile, which I also found impenetrable and fairly quickly abandoned. It was an early work by Erving Goffman about, among other things, the sociology of play. I found within it a printout of a recent email, an indication that my dad had been reading the book within the last few years. I vaguely remember the email, because after Dad wrote it to me, my brother, and my mom, it sat there a while in all our inboxes without a reply. I figured someone should say something, so I replied: “That’s beautiful, Dad.” He printed out my reply and his initial email and saved it. When I cleaned up his room after he died I found versions of the text in his email message in several places. He kept playing with it, trying to get it right.

***

I suppose what I’m trying to do here is describe a transformation. A baseball card that I never cared about or paid any attention to came into my awareness, and a line of text on the back—“John’s brother, Jim, once played minor league ball”—sparked some thoughts about the notion of play, and I decided to try to play with this baseball card with my sons. So I took it and a few others to the kitchen table with some colored pencils and markers and crayons, and I invited my sons to have at it. They lost interest quickly, but not before John Christensen got played with. I like what happened to him. The marker on his face mutes some of what I, upon first discovering the card, initially read as apprehension. Now he seems more like he’s just playing catch. John Christensen was not far from the end here in this 1988 card, but with the thin, crude smear of color across his face he looks to me as if he hasn’t yet moved to the past tense of the word play.

***

In the games my sons prefer playing with me, everyone is always dying. They die, I die. Everyone instantly comes back to new life every time. It’s exhausting. Every time I die I want to stay that way for a little while, but they want there to be no break in the cycle of death to life. I lie there, having, for example, just been smashed to smithereens by a meteor, which is actually a pillow resting on my face. I was Galactus, omnipotent destroyer of worlds! And now for a sweet moment I’m nothing at all. But they squeal at me.

“Daddy, who are you now? Daddy, who are you now?”

***

Exactly thirty years ago today, John Christensen went from being someone playing major league baseball to someone who once played major league baseball. On December 21, 1988, he was released by the Minnesota Twins, bringing his major league career to an end. I can’t find anything about him after his career ended. Most former major leaguers show up somewhere in post-career incarnations on the internet, but John Christensen seems to have existed only insofar as he was actively engaged in play.

***

As long as you’re alive, you’re in play. Even into his nineties my father kept writing and rewriting that brief cluster of words that I found in the Erving Goffman book and all over his room. He kept wrestling with big ideas all the way to the end. Here’s his manifesto:

Life is a metabolic process of transformation of energy into increasingly complex, diverse, self-reproducing and evolving structures of matter-energy.

The meaning of life—a productive/creative activity—is life itself; the goal of life is more life: more diversity, more creativity, more consciousness, more and deeper understanding of life.

 

2 comments

  1. I enjoyed following your effort to unpeel the layers from your Christensen onion. I’m sure your father would have approved of your search to uncover the deeper meaning lurking within a simple baseball card.


  2. I came across a John Christensen card from the 1987 Topps traded set, which shows him in an obviously airbrushed Seattle Mariners cap. It’s yours if you want it. Happy New Year to you and yours.



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