The smallest communicative symbol on this card, the hyphen joining the positions inside the baseball in the lower right corner, identifies Ed Kirkpatrick as a major league handyman. He crouches in the posture of the second of his two hyphenated roles, but he does so without wearing a chest protector or shin guards, ready at any moment to toss aside his catcher’s mitt for a first baseman’s glove or, perhaps more likely, to walk back to the bench. That’s the implication of the hyphen in a hyphenated cardboard identity. You might be useful but you aren’t terribly important.
I have a job at which I might be useful but I’m not terribly important. My job is to test the suitability of hyphens, among other similar tasks. When not at my job, I write, so when I am presented with the dreaded question “What do you do?” I usually hyphenate that rendition of myself, sometimes putting the “writer” part in front of the hyphen, sometimes after, the hyphen a kind of permanent scar in between the two things. I sometimes attempt a healing of the scar by writing about my job, and whenever I mention this job in my writing it comes off as a complaint, implying that my life should be pure creativity and growth but isn’t. Why must there be cubicles, long bus rides, boredom, upgrades, meetings, processes, layoffs, anxiety? But the truth is I’m glad I have a job, and if I were any kind of a decent honest human being I’d wipe the constant grimace off my face and even smile for the camera about having a job, as Ed Kirkpatrick does in this 1975 card. If I may veer into religious diction for a moment, as a hyphenated Jew-Christian who was raised neither and who just spent the Passover/Easter weekend as if Jesus was only the lesser Alou and Moses was only a hyphenated outfielder-first baseman from the 1980s: thank you Lord Almighty for my job. Life could be a hell of a lot worse. Word of calamity is always so close at hand as to seem inevitable. We took a walk this past weekend, my wife and baby son and I, and near the end we passed a flier for a candlelight vigil. Someone was shot a few blocks from our house last Thursday, a gang thing I guess. Ed Kirkpatrick was the card I picked at random from my shoebox this morning. I knew him only as a hyphenated guy on a card from my childhood, so I checked the internet and learned that soon after his playing career ended he got in a car accident that put him in a coma for five months and left him paralyzed. He kept going for many years beyond that but died of cancer in 2010.
I have to go switch to the other side of the hyphen soon and head for the bus. Throughout the first half of my long ride, the bus fills with community college students about as old as Ed Kirkpatrick was when he first started playing pro ball, a teenage phenom seemingly destined for stardom. By the time of this 1975 card, Ed Kirkpatrick’s first spectacular years in minor league ball were far behind him, as was a sputtering major league start with the franchise he came up, the Angels. He’d moved on to the Royals, where he’d played well, if not superlatively, and by now, on his third team, he’d settled fully into his major league identity, a useful if not essential handyman.
The community college students chatter. They complain about teachers, recite their philosophies, brag that this girl or that girl is “on my balls,” and explain to one another that they soon will be transferring to a better college. This last snippet doesn’t surface every ride but it’s definitely the most common topic of conversation among the students, I’ve noticed. I’m here, yes, but the real me is somewhere better, just a step or two into the future. I’m glad for the extra elbow room when the bus pulls up at the college and the bus discharges all these youth, but the ensuing silence among we few solitaries who remain is always a little sad.
The bus ride goes on for quite a while after the stop at the community college. I could spend it watching my breath, trying to get back to what Shunryu Suzuki called beginner’s mind, but instead I listen to Howard Stern on my satellite radio. Suzuki was a Zen teacher who helped establish the practice of Zen meditation in America. His book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, was an important one for me, but the practice I once believed would grow stronger and stronger until finally I was “enlightened” has instead flickered in and out like a bulb connected to faulty wiring. Unlike the “other” Suzuki who brought Zen to America, D.T. Suzuki, Shunryu Suzuki didn’t stress the idea of satori, of a shattering moment of enlightenment, in his teaching, but he did stress constancy. Watch your breath every day. Watch your posture every day. Straight spine. Beginner’s mind.
It was easy to seize on the idea of beginner’s mind, of being open to each moment, when I was the age of the community college students who ride my bus. It’s a little tougher now. Life is full of tedium, repetition, and I’m complicit in it. I complain about tedium, yet this is the life I’ve built, and I did it for a reason. When the bus empties out at the community college, the few of us left behind are all sitting alone, scattered throughout the bus, older, beyond the years of promise, looking out the windows and worrying.
Ed Kirkpatrick is not worried in this 1975 card. He never attained the satori he seemed as a teenager to be destined for, and by now whatever uniform he wears must certainly seem tentative, but none of this troubles him. Within a couple years he’ll move to another team, then another, then be nudged out of the big leagues altogether. Not long after that, car accident, coma, paralysis. Finally, gone altogether. Here and now, he is everything you would want for yourself or for anyone you love. He is glad to be a part of something. He is glad to have a place. Who knows what transfers will occur a step or two into the future? What can you do but try to take a breath and let it out with a little smile? What can you do but try to assume a solid yet relaxed stance for receiving? Where can you ever be but here and now?