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Brett Butler

November 17, 2019

Brett Butler

“What is the point of life?”

My son asked me that last night. He’s eight and asks a lot of questions. He wasn’t asking this question rhetorically, as a bitter, narrowing complaint, as I often have. He wanted to know.

I started saying words, haltingly, clumsily. It felt like I was trying to put up an unfamiliar tent at night in the rain. The tent directions in my mind—what I was wrestling toward with my answer—were something along the lines of the point of life being an ongoing attempt to figure out the point of life. What a shit-ass shelter! But maybe it didn’t really matter so much. Before I’d finished jamming the last of my ill-fitting mumbly tentpoles into place, Jack was already asking another question.

“What happens when you die?”

***

In a way the moment has passed, the play in our view over, and in another way it is being extended, is still in doubt. You can see it in the eyes of the standing figure, the square-jawed All-American fellow with the square-jawed All-American name. He has been and will continue to be for some years an excellent  major league, adept at every facet of the game within his grasp to master, which is to say that he wasn’t graced with the ability—from nature, from God, who really knows?—to drive the ball far enough to clear fences with any regularity, but he was fast and smart and driven and highly coordinated, and he hit for a high batting average and drew walks and stole bases and fielded his position well and about as close to flawlessly as anyone has ever come, committing just 41 errors in 2,213 career games.

The prone fielder, who would have an even better career and end up in the Hall of Fame, is shown here in just his second year trying to mask his callow stature with a flimsy mustache, and you can see the very same expression in his face that’s in the cancelled baserunner’s face above him—too immediate to be defined as curiosity, but related: a breathless waking at the core of whatever it is to be alive.

If we’re standing tall, if we’ve been knocked down, if we’re sent here from God, if we’re the product of some accident—it’s the same at the core for all of us:

We all wonder what will happen.

***

This morning I woke in the dark and put on a bunch of layers and a balaclava and scarf and bright reflective coat and helmet and rode my bike four miles or so down Ashland through an icy wind to sit on a cushion for 40 minutes at the Ancient Dragon Zen Gate meditation hall. For many years I meditated sporadically and romanticized about someday attaining enlightenment, you know, bursting into painless admirable bliss forever, but now I just fucking meditate every day. The turning point in this increase in constancy was becoming a father and how that becoming and its accompanying stress prompted me to frequently assault myself with blows to the head. This was no way to live, I finally realized. I don’t punch myself in the head much anymore. In fact I can’t remember the last time I did it. I don’t particularly want to wake up in the dark once a week and ride through the cold and sit on a cushion with my legs aching. I don’t particularly want to sit on a cushion every night after my kids are in bed. But I do it. It keeps the head punches at bay, for one thing, but also the more I do it the more I clearly I see that I’m going to die, and that clarity brings panic and hopelessness and sadness. There’s no way out alive. And so I sit every night plus one morning a week after a long bike ride and sometimes on that cushion I feel everything drop away altogether and for a few seconds there is just life right now, and I have no complaints, no questions, no thoughts at all, and a feeling of gratitude wells up in me for this singular vanishing, this gift of life.

***

If you asked Brett Butler, a devout Christian, the point of life, he would have an answer that could be illustrated by this baseball card.

“I believe if Jesus Christ was a baseball player,” he once said, “he’d go in hard to break up the double play and then pick up the guy and say, ‘I love you.’”

I don’t share Brett Butler’s specific beliefs, but I think his message could be one I could adapt to an answer for my son that would be better than me trying to explain my affinity for staring at baseball cards and writing about baseball cards and writing about life and sitting on a cushion and staring at a wall:

The point is to find something you love and do it as well as you can and try to find love for everyone in the world, even those you might come into conflict with.

Brett Butler would have an even clearer answer to my son’s other question, about what happens when you die. In a 1996 article dealing Butler’s battle with cancer, he said, “I’m not afraid to die. I know if I die, I’m going to heaven.”

***

I know what happens next. Not in life, not after life is over. But I do know what happens next in the moment depicted on this baseball card. The photo on this 1990 baseball card shows a game between the Giants and the Padres in San Diego during the day. In the 1989 season there were only a handful of games that fit those parameters, and in only one of them was Brett Butler involved in a force play at second base. It was the third game of the season, on April 5. Butler drew a walk off Ed Whitson to open the third inning for the Giants. Robby Thompson hit a groundball to shortstop Garry Templeton. Templeton got the ball to Robbie Alomar to force Butler out at second. Alomar threw to first while falling to the ground. His throw was not in time to get Robby Thompson. Butler had succeeded in breaking up the double play. There’s no record of whether he then picked up Alomar and told him he loved him.

***

I don’t know what happens next. But I can tell you that tonight during my pre-bedtime conversation with my older son, he asked me about demons and devils and angels and hell and heaven, and somehow we ended up imagining Spongebob Squarepants getting kicked out of both hell and then heaven for annoying the residents of each place so much with his unwavering enthusiasm for life. The angels in particular couldn’t believe he was so fixated on there being a Crusty Crab for him to flip crabby patties at in Heaven, and when he kept wailing that the Crusty Crab was what gave him meaning they finally booted him out of the clouds and he landed with a thump back down in Mr. Crabs’ office, where the boss docked him for missing time at work.

“But, Mr. Crabs, I was dead!” Spongebob wailed.

“That’s no excuse, Spongebob!” roared Mr. Crabs.

Jack beamed at me as I simultaneously wrote, directed, and acted out this episode. He kept waiting with attention and wonder to see and hear what would happen next, and in the telling and in his listening and in our love I’m reborn.

“So I guess Spongebob was reincarnated,” Jack said. This is a concept that Jack has been drawn to lately.

“Hi, Squidward!” I chirped as Spongebob.

“That’s what happens,” Jack said.

“Oh, no! You again,” I wailed adenoidally as Squidward.

“That’s what happens, I know it,” Jack said. “We come back.”

One comment

  1. I was sure we were headed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PM7da-rVX1g



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