Archive for the ‘Unsortable Prayers’ Category

h1

White Shadow memories: #6, 5, 4

March 24, 2016

nick9In tribute to the late, great Ken Howard, and his fictional counterpart Ken Reeves, I’m spending the day counting down my ten favorite White Shadow memories (previous memories: 10, 9, 8, 7).

6. Goldstein undergoes primal scream therapy.
The guys attend a late-’70s party in L.A., and while wandering around there the team’s benchwarmer, Goldstein, somehow gets involved with people practicing primal scream therapy. I cried with laughter when Goldstein whole-heartedly puts the practice to use.

 5. Thorpe’s crushed dreams
This one always haunted me. I think it was because at the time The White Shadow was on, I revered the older basketball players in my town, the high school stars, far beyond anything I felt for NBA players. I enjoyed thinking that my school’s star players would keep rising all the way to the NBA. This episode put that dream into Thorpe’s head as one he held for himself, and throughout the episode facts mounted up that killed that dream. Beautifully, Thorpe’s skills as an artist surfaced, giving him alternative, more tangible path into a good future. Even better, the episode climaxed with Thorpe winning a game with a Gerald Henderson-esque steal and score. Kevin Hooks was always brilliant as Thorpe. Like Vince Van Patten (and Thomas Carter, who played Hayward), he went on to become a successful director. I think this speaks well of the culture of the show—it seems to speak of an empowerment similar to that seen with the 1960s Celtics, who saw an inordinate number of players go on to become championship and/or award-winning coaches (Bill Russell, Bill Sharman, Tom Heinsohn, Don Nelson, K.C. Jones, John Thompson).

4. Coolidge gets an agent/Coolidge becomes a TV star.
Coolidge was my favorite. He was funny, cool, and human. I can’t distinguish in my memory between these two episodes, but I think the basic gist was the same: Coolidge’s abundant talents push him outside the circle of the team. He gets fancy clothes, a fancy car, and begins addressing his peers as if from an Olympian remove. Have I ever been as satisfied by a show as when Coolidge, abashed, returns to the team? Doubtful.

h1

White Shadow memories: #10. Mike Warren

March 24, 2016

woo0-064In tribute to the late, great Ken Howard, and his fictional counterpart Ken Reeves, I’m spending the day counting down my ten favorite White Shadow memories.

10. UCLA national champ Mike Warren guest stars

A huge part of my love of The White Shadow rested on the basketball action being a close enough proximity to the real thing to keep the fictional reality afloat. Coolidge, Thorpe, and Coach Reeves could all play, and the others were for the most part close enough to not mangle the whole presentation. (This can happen—see: William Bendix in The Babe Ruth Story, DeNiro in Bang the Drum Slowly, every second of Teen Wolf up until Michael J. Fox’s stunt double for the wolf scenes starts mincing the opposition). The verisimilitude factor hit its peak in the episode guest-starring Mike Warren, who played on consecutive national championship teams at UCLA in 1967 and 1968, earning All-American honors in the latter year. On The White Shadow, Warren played a street ball legend who joins the team briefly before his irreparably damaged moral compass sends him back to other, darker eventualities. The morality tale for the team—even the most talented ballers can fall—was backed up by—and also somehow secondary to—the visceral thrill of watching someone who could really play the game.

h1

Ken Reeves

March 23, 2016

Reeves

I’ve never loved a TV show as much as I loved The White Shadow. As a kid I couldn’t believe it existed, that something so specifically appealing to me was out there. It was the story of fictional Chicago Bulls wide-body Ken Reeves, who after wrecking his knee while vying for a rebound (the picture above is, I believe, his fateful last moment in the big leagues) ends up coaching the Carver High basketball team. The show first aired in late November of 1978, just a month after the seminal moment of my childhood sports fandom occurred—the one-game playoff between the Red Sox and Yankees. I was probably looking for something else to love around then.

***

Here are the stats for the players on that team, as I imagine them (and I have been imagining them for almost forty years):

Thorpe, point guard, 12.3 points per game, 5.7 assists per game, 2.6 steals per game
Hayward, shooting guard, 8.9 point per game, 2.4 assists per game, 4.6 rebounds per game, 1.8 steals per game
Jackson, small forward, 9.6 points per game, 5.2 rebounds per game
Reese, power forward, 10.3 points per game, 6.7 rebounds per game
Coolidge, center, 18.8 points per game, 15.6 rebounds per game, 3.2 blocks per game
Salami, guard-forward, 8.2 points per game
Gomez, guard, 2.8 points per game, 0.9 steals per game
Goldstein, forward, o.7 points per game, 2.5 fouls per game

***

I was ten when it first aired. I wasn’t even following pro basketball that much, but my older brother had started to play on a junior high team, and Tom had nailed a hoop up outside our garage, so I’d started shooting baskets.That was to be the main pursuit of my life for the next ten years. It worked its way into my bones.

***

There’s a basketball hoop outside the building where I work. I’ve never seen anyone use it. On Monday I was walking from my building to the next building, which has in it a little sundries store where I buy gum. I’ve been working on a novel in which a character starts noticing out of the corner of his eye basketballs sprouting up like little mushrooms around the fringe of an unused outdoor court outside his workplace. On my way to buy gum, I glanced over at the court this fictional court was based on and spotted a basketball. It was sitting in a bed of dirt next to the outdoor court. It was cold out. One or two people were staving off cubicle-related heart disease by trudging around the manmade pond by the court, but other than that no one was around. Everyone was inside working. I’d been planning to get gum and return to my cubicle for the rest of the day. But you see something like that, some manifestation of your inner life, you better follow it a little.

So I went and picked up the ball. It was a little low on air and in the cold weather was not very bouncy. Still, it felt good in my hands. Basketball, the game, is in my bones. I love basketball. That thought came into my head today as I was driving home, and I don’t even know where it came from. I wasn’t thinking about shooting at the hoop outside work, and I hadn’t yet learned the news that Ken Howard, the actor who portrayed Ken Reeves, had died. I shot a few baskets. I don’t have any spring in my legs anymore, and I don’t have any range on my shot, so I stuck in and around the key area and sank most of my shots. Ka-swish, ka-swish, kas-swish. What else can instantly connect you to your childhood like that?

***

I remember the first moment when I fell in love with the show. It was in the first episode when the team was helping the coach move. Coolidge is driving the moving truck. Thorpe asks him something about his driving, or about whether he knows how to drive a truck. I can’t remember the set-up, but I remember Coolidge’s reply.

“I ain’t got no license,” he says, smiling.

My brother and I fell out. For weeks we were saying it to one another, two white children in rural Vermont. Our new mantra.

I ain’t got no license. I ain’t got no license. I ain’t got no license.

***

I loved Coolidge, Thorpe, Salami. All of them. But it was the coach that centered the show. I watched the show through my first years playing organized basketball, and the coaches presiding over my own experiences fell far short of the guidance, warmth, and cool of Coach Reeves. The varsity coach in my town was a militaristic shithead who only had two things to go to in his coaching toolbox: caustic berating and hoarse-voiced screaming. The JV coach was a distracted post-college guy with a mustache who seemed to want to be elsewhere. And the junior high coach would be hauled away to prison some years later when discovered to be a child molester (the worst I got was a surreptitious knee-groping on the bench after I scored two baskets in a row). So these were the coaches in my actual life. Luckily I also had Ken Reeves.

If he needs help moving on to the next world, I want to be right in there in the moving truck beside Coolidge.

h1

Tim Krauss

March 1, 2016

Tim Krauss

This card from 1986 feels different than a major league card, flimsier, promotional, disposable. The player’s name is spelled differently on the front than it is on the back (“Krausse”), and on the back instead of the somehow comforting stack of years that you see on a major leaguer’s card there’s just one line of statistics, from the player’s previous season, which occurred with another team from a different organization, in another league, in another city, in another country. The numbers from that year, 1985, are without promise—3 homers, 2 steals, a .244 average. Above them are some other numbers for height, weight, and birth date that further fill in the portrait of a slight, plodding, light-hitting Triple A infielder who’ll turn 28 before the year is done.

But what gets me the most is the stray comma after the birthday info: 9-09-57,

The comma seems to be from the same disordered reality as the figures in the photo on the front of the card. The photo’s ostensible subject strikes a polite pose and smiles, but the slippage in focus of his gaze away from the camera loosens any possible ability of the figure to center the presentation. You aren’t drawn to any one thing in this world, and so you bounce from thing to thing randomly, from the necklace of the infielder to the blotchy sky to the other figures scattered around, all seeming to look with slackened boredom at various unremarkable occurrences.

I listened to a lecture on the drive to work today by a Buddhist teacher named Gil Fronsdal. He talked about how it’s important to pay attention to your body, to really feel moment by moment what you’re doing. There’s a part in my drive when I pull into the left-hand turn lane on Touhy to make a left on Elmhurst. I’m always in a long line of cars for this turn. It was at this point in the lecture when Fronsdal talked about what a waste of time it is to wait. When you are standing there, just feel yourself standing. Pay attention to the moment. Meditate. Breathe. Don’t cast yourself forward in time or strain against the expectations you brought into the moment, the disappointments those expectations bring.

There’s a huge billboard above the lights for that turn for a “gentleman’s club.” It advertises that it’s “full liquor” and “full contact” and that the “dancers work free.” I’m not sure what any of this means except for the liquor part, which I suppose means you can get hammered on any type of liquor you want. I guess you can grope the woman who work there at will and you don’t have to lure them toward you by waving money in the air. I’ve gone to strip clubs two or three times in my life, back when I was the age Tim Krauss is here, and there did seem to be customs around money and contact. On the billboard there was a large photo of a woman’s face. Her head was tipped back and her mouth was hanging open. Her eyelids were almost shut. She looked as if she’d been drugged. The other billboards on this strip of road sell other consumables and services, cheeseburgers, lawyers, liquidation.

The green arrow came on and it was my turn to go. The lecture ended and Fronsdal asked for questions. After some loud feedback a man in the audience ignored the request for questions and made a faintly but flintily challenging statement about how it seemed easy to follow the precepts of mindfulness when things were going OK, but when the body started breaking down or other life crises occurred it got a lot harder. Fronsdal said—he didn’t use these words, but this was the gist—that everyone would be wise to train the mind for when things inevitably start to suck. You’ll never be able to do it if you wait until the end.

And things will start to suck. You’ll lose whatever intermittent ability you might have had to turn on the inside fastball. And that will just be the first of it. All day at work I felt like I had been dropped from a height. I was woozy, weakened. This is closer to the norm than the exception. I never really feel that great anymore, physically, and yet I’m always waiting to somehow become 27 again going on 26, or 25, or 24, on one of those days back then when every muscle felt good and like the next card I drew was going to feel solid in my hand, not some discordant fortune of meaningless punctuation, anchorless desire.

h1

Glen Bockhorn

February 25, 2016

Days up and down they come
Like rain on a conga drum
Forget most, remember some
But don’t turn none away.
–Townes Van Zandt, “To Live’s to Fly”

I’d never turn a baseball card away, but days are a different story. Take today. I didn’t want to be anything that I am. An employee, a father, a friend, a husband, a son, a writer, a scooper of cat shit, a registered voter, an operator of an automobile, a chewer and swallower of food, a speaker of words, a breather of air. I’m not saying I wanted to not exist. I’m of a mind with my father on that.

“I can’t understand why anyone would want to die,” he said. This was yesterday. I’d called to wish him a happy birthday. He’s now 91.

“I want to live,” he said.

“Me too,” I said.

“I can’t hear you very well,” Dad said. We talked for a little while, mostly him talking and me listening. He told me about how he thought he might not ever again be able to walk up the steep hill outside my parents’ house and about an article on Bernie Sanders’ chances and about how humans will have to live through very dark times before a necessary revolution can occur that could save humanity from complete environmental destruction.

“I worry about the future for my boys,” I said, trying to chime in agreeably. It was true, generally, but not really true on a daily basis. On a daily basis, as a father of two intense, unstoppable boys under five, I usually don’t have the energy to look beyond the borders of each pressurized, exhausting moment.

“Well, my hearing aid must not be working so well,” my dad said.

That was yesterday, and today a ferocious wind was blowing all day and the sky was drained of light and I thought a lot about how old I was—not as old as my dad but older than I ever imagined myself being—and this wasn’t so much something that caused me to worry about death but to grow weary of life, of all the gray days. Here I am, closing in on 50, and I’m the same fleshy sack of limitations I’ve always been. I’m never going to make the major leagues. I’m not talking here about any kind of material success but about something else. Early in life you believe that one day you’ll bloom into some perfected version of yourself.

***

I’d never turn a baseball card away, which is why Glen Bockhorn is in my collection. I don’t even remember exactly when he entered the collection, but I can’t imagine a scenario where I would refuse him.

He was a member of the 1986 Buffalo Bisons. It was the last of his eight seasons in pro ball. He was 29, and it must have begun to occur to him that he wasn’t going to make the majors. He’d hit decently throughout his career, thumping over a hundred home runs in professional baseball, and he’d done whatever he could to make himself useful, playing every position on the field except pitcher. None of this would ever lead him to the big leagues.

But Glen Bockhorn is enjoying the moment. Why wouldn’t he be?

“Hey, Glen,” someone with a camera has just said.

Glen Bockhorn turns toward the voice. He’s got a bat in his hands, a shirt with his name on the back. Who couldn’t imagine that everything is still to come?

“We’re going to put you on a baseball card,” the cameraman says, “so get ready.”

Bockhorn

h1

Rich Camarillo

January 29, 2016

Rich Camarillo

Even in a 46 to 10 thrashing there is hope. It doesn’t seem that way in retrospect, but as you’re living through it—and this goes for life too—you’ll constantly be buoyed by possibilities, even as they transform more and more into preposterous myths.

For example, the Patriots took a lead in Super Bowl XX, and after they relinquished it a few minutes into the game they clung to a tie for a few minutes more, and then when the lead was given up it was only by a margin of another field goal. With the first quarter almost complete, the Patriots were down just 6 to 3.

It was my first day of college, and I was out of my mind on throat-shredding hits of potent marijuana from my new friend Tom’s chest-high Graphics bong by that point, so I can’t tell you exactly how much I believed the Patriots could scratch out an improbable win, but knowing my general approach to life—which despite all my complaining is actually pretty hopeful—I’m sure I still believed such a win could happen.

I do remember believing in Steve Grogan. The swashbuckling Grogan—whose specialty in my memory was faking handoffs and then bootlegging for big yardage before either being demolished by angered defenders or, occasionally, scooting all the way in for thrilling touchdowns—had been the Patriots quarterback for as long as I’d been a fan of the Patriots, but by the time of Super Bowl XX he was backing up the functional uninteresting football bureaucrat Tony Eason. I had envisioned before the game that the Patriots would fall behind and that the old pro would then enter the fray to lead a stirring comeback. I got teary-eyed even imagining it, such was my love for stories of stirring old-guy comebacks.

So judging from when Grogan entered the game. I still had hope in a Patriots’ victory even after the Bears had upped their lead to 20 to 3 and, furthermore, had shown ample evidence that the Patriots moving the ball even inches forward would be hard to do. Tony Eason’s last series underscored this perfectly, even suggesting that keeping from moving backwards would be a tall order:

James run left, no gain (Dent).

Collins sweep right, loss of 2 (Marshall).

Eason sacked, loss of 11 (Wilson).

And for a moment, there really was some hope. The Patriots recovered a fumble and Steve Grogan ambled onto the field and, after getting his first pass batted down, completed two passes in a row, for eight and six yards, respectively, achieving a New England first down, which in the context of the game at that point was something like me now, at age forty-seven, dunking on Bill Russell in his prime. The legendary Bears defense quickly shut down any further progress on that drive, and then the Bears scored a field goal on the next possession, upping the lead to 23 to 3.

Grogan completed another 8-yarder to set up another first down on his team’s next possession, and then came a sack, a penalty against the Patriots, and another sack to set up a third and 33. The notion of a third down with 33 yards needed to make a first down pretty much sums up the feel of that Super Bowl in retrospect, but as it unfolded I’m sure I took heart in Grogan’s next play, a 24-yard pass completion, even if it didn’t really do any good.

I probably took even more heart in the following play, a 62-yard punt from the fellow shown at the top of this page, Rich Camarillo. As it turned out, the punt set a new Super Bowl record. More crucially, it pinned the Bears down at their own 4-yard-line. Just stop them now, I prayed, or whatever it is you do when you are hoping life works out despite your current status as a pot-addled seventeen-year-old boob starting college halfway through the year on a mountain in Vermont, just stop them now, and Grogan is within bootlegging distance from the end zone, and after that maybe the team gets on a roll and the Bears start to get tight, etc. This was an incredibly short-lived series of thoughts, as I was reminded of today while perusing the play-by-play:

Camarillo 62 punt downed at Chicago 4-yard-line.

McMahon 60 pass to Gault deep right (Marion).

Soon after that historic-punt nullifier, the Bears punched it in for another touchdown, and it was 30 to 3, the kind of score that has an insurmountable steepness to it. Hope settled down inside me, losing itself in the more generalized tangle of inebriation and confusion. Those were some aimless days.

Sometimes I miss them. But for the most part I guess I have to admit that I’m now in a stage of my life where every day I’m consciously flooded with thoughts of gratitude. I’ve got two kids, four and a half and one and a half, and every day they make me think of Bill Murray’s line about having kids from Lost in Translation:

Your life, as you know it . . . is gone. Never to return. But they learn how to walk, and they learn how to talk . . . and you want to be with them. And they turn out to be the most delightful people you will ever meet in your life.

Even with that in mind, or perhaps especially with that in mind, I still believe life is more or less like being on the short end of a 46 to 10 thrashing. I’m not trying to be gloomy, but how else could it be otherwise when the deal is that you suffer (everyone agrees on this—Jesus, Buddha, etc.) and then it’s over (and what happens after that point isn’t the subject of this essay)? This is not to say that life is not without hope or delight or not to be clung to with deep gratitude. The problem isn’t finding things to be grateful for but finding a way to voice that gratitude. This is why I took some time today to thank Rich Camarillo, record-setting punter, one-rung-helmet aficionado, beacon of hope in the face of the relentless sacking that is life.

h1

Rolf Benirschke

January 21, 2016

Rolf Benirschke

Three things about this card that I love:

The single bar on his helmet. You still saw these when I was a kid. I think Billy Kilmer, the Washington quarterback, was the last non-kicker to wear one. When he was gone it was just the kickers who wore them. What was the point of them? I guess I love things that are pointless and gone.

The rain gear. Can it even be called a coat? I remember these too from my childhood, slightly modified garbage bags draped over the shoulders of kickers and quarterbacks, giving them a brooding, melancholy air as they stood there on the sidelines, waiting. Really the air that they gave off was of impending defeat. You don’t imagine a player flinging one off to charge onto the field for a winning play but instead to watch time run out, powerlessly, and then to move with a slight, lurching limp out of sight.  I don’t know what this says about the things I love.

The name of the player. Kickers all seemed to be from some far off land in my childhood, such completely separate entities from their hulking teammates that it seemed almost a requirement that they speak a different language and hew to odd, Old World customs. This was not the case with Rolf Benirschke, who was born in America, but I don’t think I knew that. I lumped him with all the other guys named Garo and Efren and Fuad and figured he sat aloof in the locker room at halftime eating pickled herring and reading Kierkegaard.

He almost perished in 1978, did Benirschke, but Raiders’ All-Pro Lester Hayes apparently saved his life by tackling him with such customary savagery that it caused the kicker’s ribs to shatter. He was rushed to the hospital where it was discovered that, unrelated to the hit from “the Molester,” Benirchke’s colon was in an advanced state of distress due to Crohn’s Disease. Benirschke nearly died despite the lucky medical intervention, losing 57 pounds to drop down to 123 pounds, perhaps attaining the status of the NFL player closest in weight to nothing since the days of Walter “Sneeze” Achiu. He regained his health and went on to set all kinds of Chargers’ records for scoring and, just after his football career came to an end, briefly hosted Wheel of Fortune. Vanna White turned the letters for him.

What a day I had, is all I really wanted to tell you. It was like any other day, which means I worried about dying, marveled at the beauty, hilarity, and exasperating qualities of my two boys, four and a half and one and a half, felt guilty about not staying in close enough touch with other loved ones, worked pretty hard at my job, and got involved in an email thread with some friends in which the discussion focused on what rock star deaths have affected us the most over our lives but then evolved into an argument about the precise level to which the Eagles (the band, not the football team) suck. Near the end of the day I bought some gum from a vending machine. It had gotten hard from sitting in the machine a long time, a little like the gum that used to come with these cards.

h1

Darryl Dawkins

August 29, 2015

DawkinsIn memory of Darryl Dawkins

In 1979, the world was divided thusly:

  1. Those who could graze the bottom of the net.
  2. Those who could grab the net.
  3. Those who could touch the rim.
  4. Those who could grab the rim.
  5. Those who could dunk through the rim relatively small round objects such as a tennis ball or a volleyball.
  6. Those who could dunk.
  7. Darryl Dawkins.

I was eleven at that time, and this hierarchy coursed from my feet to my fingertips with wonder and need. I was in the first group, occasionally, sometimes able with all my might to jump and just barely feel the soft, puffy threading of the net hanging from one of the hoops in the junior high gym in Randolph, Vermont. I started playing basketball that year for a seventh grade team that would lose every one of its games, and so it was the year when I began to identity myself with the bottom of hierarchies. Accompanying that identification was an intensification of a fantasy life built on various notions of power and flight.

That hierarchy gave way over the years to other, more nebulous ensnarements. I never did get to the sixth level. I got close. Once I even sort of pushed one through on an outdoor rim, but because I was never able to duplicate the feat anywhere else I’ve come to believe that the rim was slightly lower than regulation, or that I was dreaming.

Dreams come and go. I’m pushing fifty now, an age when it’s not really possible to envision life as a rising. But life will always be astounding. Think of barely being able to touch the bottom of the net and then discovering that elsewhere in the world someone was able to leap up and dunk with such force that the whole backboard shattered to pieces. The counterpoint to the feeling of losing isn’t winning, exactly. It’s imagining what Darryl Dawkins could do.

h1

The Benchwarmer Interview

August 25, 2015

Benchwarmer cover finalThe Benchwarmer Interview

The following is a roundtable discussion about my new book, Benchwarmer, with a series of versions of Josh Wilker. (This was inspired by David Ebenbach’s post about his new book of poetry.)

Seventeen-year-old me: You wrote a book? Is it like On the Road? [lights bong]

Current me: No, it’s not really like that. It’s off the road. It’s about when I became a dad. The first year or so of that, kind of losing my shit and whatnot.

Twelve-year-old me: Whatnot? What is whatnot? And when did you become a dad? No way you were as old as Dad when it happened. That was one thing I never wanted to have happen, be a dad that old.

Current me: I was even older! It took me a long time to, I don’t know, get my shit together. Not that my shit was together when the baby came. In fact, that’s when I realized how far from having my shit together I really was.

Eighty-two-year-old me: You wasted your life. It’s right there in the book—getting so upset with yourself that you punched yourself in the head. Who does that? Nutjobs, that’s who. And you know who’s paying for all the blows to the head?

Current me: Who?

Eighty-two-year-old me: What?

Current me: Who is paying for all the blows to the head?

Eighty-two-year-old me: What are you talking about? Where . . . where am I?

Twenty-four-year-old me: Wait, is this your first book?

Current me: No, I’ve written a few. Two “real” ones, and by real I mean they are both intended to be—sorry for the pretentiousness—literary, plus they also have the theoretical element of one day involving royalties, plus another short one that’s also real and that I love but it’s really short so I hesitate to count it, and I know all this talk about counting is ludicrous. Anyway, there were also a bunch of nonfiction children’s books that I wrote for practically nothing when I started getting sick of dealing with belligerent gangs of teenage shoplifters at the liquor store.

Twenty-four-year-old me: Yeah, tell me about it. I’m surprised to see you, actually. I figured we’d be shot in a holdup by now. But so why are you punching yourself in the head? What the fuck are you complaining about? And the kid—he’s your biological kid? Yeah? So you got laid at least once and possibly even with at least some regularity and are maybe even married, yes? Happily? Yes? Jesus Fucking Christ. You got laid, you’re in love with your wife, you’ve written books, and you’ve got a kid to, you know, love and everything and—

Current me: Two kids now.

Twenty-four-year-old me: Two kids! To stand there by your bedside when you’re this guy [uses a thumb jerk to indicate eighty-two-year-old me as the latter is meandering blearily out of the conference room] and about to check out. So what’s the problem? Do you know how lonely it is to be me, and how fucking frustrating to be filling up notebooks day after day with pure shit that no one will ever read? I’m the guy who should be punching himself in the head.

Current me: You did punch yourself in the head. If memory serves—and my memory is already going—you were the one who started the whole practice. Or somebody did. Maybe it was even earlier. Did you start doing that?

Twelve-year-old me: I don’t know. Last year I almost got hyperthermia walking in the ice storm for six miles the day I was so mad that little league team practice was cancelled.

Current me: Yeah, that’s the same basic idea. I don’t know why we want to punish ourselves.

Seventeen-year-old me: [blows out bong hit, coughs for several seconds] So the whole book is, uh, you punching yourself? That’s where I end up? What about beauty, dude?

Current me: No, it’s not just me punching myself. But the few people who’ve read the book seem to seize on that as its defining aspect. I just wanted to honestly show what that first year was like. The thing I wanted to get across more than anything was the beauty. It was way beyond anything I’d ever seen, and it almost wrecked me.

Twelve-year-old me: Ugh. I like funny stuff. Is it funny? Does it have sports? If it doesn’t have funny and sports I’ll just stick with my stacks of Mad Magazine and Sports Illustrated.

Current me: It’s actually all about sports—it’s an encyclopedia of sports failure. It was the only way I could think of to talk about that first year, to use losses large and small to talk about my life. To get through it. Some people think it’s funny. Some people think it’s sad. I laughed while I was writing it.

[Eighty-year-two-old me re-enters the room. He seems surprised that there are people in the room.]

Eighty-two-year-old me: I thought this was the way back outside.

Current me: No, uh. But I think we’re wrapping up, so—

Eighty-two-year-old me: I must tell you in all honesty that I seem to have defecated in my pants.

h1

Bill Walton

July 2, 2015

1986-celtics-t1You Are the Eyes of the World

Conclusion

When Bill Walton first met the bench, he greeted it with utter dejection. You want life to be one unbroken moment of play, but it won’t be. Sooner or later, you’ll be benched. If you’re lucky, you’ll get the chance to come off that bench again. This happened to Bill Walton when after a long exile as an oft-injured Clipper he joined the Celtics, my favorite basketball team. When this transaction occurred, it was for me like when, a few years earlier, Mark Fidrych was signed to a minor league contract by the Red Sox. Both had been legends of the 1970s not only for their truncated, spectacular professional accomplishments but for the way the two longhaired free spirits represented the wide, spazzy wonder of the times. Fidrych, despite my hopes, never made it back onto a big league field, a failure that weighted the acquisition of Walton with pessimism. Beautiful comebacks never occur, I believed. I had been in junior high school, that national institution for pessimism, when Fidrych arrived for his futile last stand at Pawtucket, and Walton’s arrival in Boston occurred three years later, in the fall of 1985, a few months after my expulsion from high school. I wasn’t sheltered in any kind of institution, pessimistic or otherwise, for the first time in over a decade, was living in Boston with my aunt and uncle, had nowhere to be except to wander around town and smoke pot from a one-hitter and pretend to look for a job and fish the Globe out of the trash, which is probably how I found out about the pulling of Bill Walton into my world from oblivion.

Please just let him be healthy for one season, I said. I remember the words if not the specific moment. Probably I was holding the gleaming garbagecan news in my hands. Call it a prayer.

And it worked. For that one season, 1985-86, Walton’s faulty body miraculously held up, and the Celtics had a dream season just when I needed it most. I’ve never enjoyed anything in sports more than that team, that season, and when I think of that season I think of Bill Walton flicking a behind the head pass to Larry Bird on a backdoor cut. I think of Bill Walton’s uncanny vision, the way he could see the court with something bordering on omniscience. I think of Bill Walton awakening. Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world. I think of Bill Walton beaming with joy.

My guess is that the picture at the top of this post is from the following season. The starting five all show evidence of having been in a game, but Walton, the Sixth Man for the ’86 Celts, seems to have not taken off his sweats in a while. He’s benched. This is what happened to him after that one miraculous season—his body started breaking down again and he never managed to stay on the court for long. It was a disappointment, especially since it contributed to the Lakers being able to beat the Celtics in 1987 and claim the “team of the decade” crown. But Walton mainly seems to have taken it in stride. Sooner or later, you’ll be benched. If you’re lucky, you’ll realize how lucky you’ve been, or maybe even how lucky you still are to have a seat so close to the action.

This past weekend something happened that I can’t quite put my finger on. I was at a golf course where my wife’s parents spend a lot of time. My four-year-old, Jack, likes it there. There’s grass, for one thing, which he doesn’t get a whole lot of in the city. Also, there are golf carts. He loves riding around with his grandpa. So the thing that happened was nothing special, really: Jack rode off in a golf cart with his grandpa. I was on the bench, as it were, to see it. More exactly I was sitting at an outside table overlooking the course. I knew that Jack knew he was about to zip out into the wide greenness and go bouncing over bumps. He was wearing the Avengers baseball cap he had picked out for himself at Target, and it was a little askew, and he was sitting straight up, attentive. I’m at a loss to explain my joy. To see my son happy!

I’m lucky. I’ve been benched, my life defined by the bench, and this has all been through no doing but my own. But to be benched and to see such a thing, to see my life open in such a way.

This weekend I’ll spend all the time I can with Jack and with my other son, Exley, who just turned one and is on the brink of walking, and on Sunday right before they go to bed for the night I’ll be heading to Soldier Field to see Bill Walton’s and my favorite band, the Grateful Dead, in what’s being billed as their last show. My friend Pete will be there with me and has been asking me what I think they’ll play. I’m trying not to think too much about that so that whatever they play won’t have to battle in my head with any hopes and expectations. But I can’t help hoping I hear Eyes of the World. Life is a long, gradual benching, but in that benching, I believe, there’s the possibility of awakening, of seeing, of joy.

h1

The Astrodome Bench

May 24, 2015

BadNewsBears-300x168You Are the Eyes of the World

Four

I thought my life had more or less taken whatever shape it was going to take. I thought I’d seen all I’d ever see, and anything in my path from here on out would be familiar repetition. I didn’t have the courage to push past that resignation.

Here’s a scene from a game that never happened on a bench that no longer exists. It’s from The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, a 1977 movie with which I’ve long been obsessed. In the movie, generally considered to be a notably inferior sequel to its 1976 predecessor, The Bad News Bears, the titular little league team travels without parents in a customized van from California to Houston to play an exhibition game against the best little league team in Texas in between games of an Astros’ doubleheader. The Texans pummel the Bears for a few innings, and then suited functionaries hustle onto the field to call the game early.

“Time’s up,” one of them says. The head umpire awards the game to the Texas team, which begins to celebrate. The Bears, stunned and disappointed, walk off the field, with one exception.

I can feel myself getting choked up as I start to think about the exception. It’s been this way for thirty-eight years, ever since I first saw the movie in the Playhouse Theater in Randolph, Vermont.

My new book came out a couple of weeks ago. It’s about my eyes, how they were wrenched into seeing something new despite my failing nerve, my resignation. It’s about my first year or so as a father. It’s about my son Jack. I took the day off from work on its release date to celebrate with Jack and my wife and our own little spin-off sequel, a second boy named Exley. We went to the children’s nature museum and both boys had a great time. When it was time to go, Jack didn’t want to.

“Where’s everybody going? We’re not finished!

These are the words spoken by the one player, the Bears’ shortstop Tanner Boyle, who refused to accept that the game in the Astrodome was being called to a halt. It could also stand as the message vibrating through every fiber of Jack’s body when it’s time to move on from a moment he’s enjoying.

That’s life, right? You have to just accept that sometimes the game, the fun, is just over. Right?

Consider a sublimely talented player pictured on the bench in the background of the photo. On the left, in the warm-up jacket: that’s J.R. Richard. In the years directly following the filming of the scene he would become one of the most dominating pitchers in the game. Then in 1980 he would suffer a stroke and never pitch in the majors again. This is more dramatic but not essentially any different from anyone’s story, which is: the game ends.

However, in the moment shown here, the bench has begun to react to a push back against this eventuality. Tanner has begun eluding the two men in suits who’ve been ushered forth from some invisible authority to pull him from the field. The Bears have begun enjoying themselves again. In a moment the Astro on the far right, Bob Watson, will say, “Let the kids play,” and the lone non-uniformed figure in the picture, Mike Leak (William Devaney), the star player’s estranged father, who has recently been enlisted as the previously, luridly unsupervised team’s coach, will pick up the notion and begin rallying the crowd with a chant that will become what the sequel is known for, if it’s known for anything:

“Let them play!”

The chant builds, Tanner keeps eluding the suits. Every time I see this, and I’ve seen it hundreds of times, my eyes moisten.

This past weekend my family went on a charity walk that involved one loop around a big lake. Back in the days when I’d thought I’d seen all there was to see, one loop around this lake would have been nothing. But the sun was beating down and the baby kept yanking off his sun hat and beating his head against my wife’s chest and Jack kept wanting to sprint everywhere but along the route we were supposed to be taking. There were dandelions everywhere, and he wanted to pick them and gather them and blow on them because he remembered that dandelions in another form were capable of this dispersal. I explained that dandelions go through a process, going from one thing to another, and only when they’ve changed to gray dusty bulbs can you make a wish and blow their seeds everywhere.

“The seeds scatter and go into the ground and make more dandelions,” I said.

“Dandelions make dandelions?” he said.

“Right.”

“Why do dandelions make dandelions?”

How do you answer this? Dandelions make dandelions make dandelions. But why?

“Come on, we’ve got to get around this lake,” I finally said.

“But why do dandelions make dandelions?”

I thought my life had more or less taken whatever shape it was going to take. Now I know I have no idea where it’s going or even why. Sometimes—to be honest more often than not—I feel like the suited functionaries trying to wrestle Tanner Boyle into complying with their rules. It’s time to go. Why? Because! But sometimes from where I sit I’m beginning to see, even enjoy, unstoppable endless dandelions seizing the field.

To be continued.

h1

Scottie Pippen

April 14, 2015

pippen benchYou Are the Eyes of the World

Two

Sitting on a bench is usually an indication that the world has said No to you, not that you have said No to the world. For a long time I believed my life story was an example of the former, not the latter. My life was out of my hands. I wanted to play, wanted to be a part of things, but it wasn’t happening. This is what I told myself. It’s probably partly true. The other part is that at some point I started saying No to the world.

You can’t say No to the world when you’re a father. Well, you can, but it will cause pain. For example, yesterday I said “fucker” to my son. Perhaps a case could be made that I said it to the room within earshot of my son, that I was just swearing at the world, not at him. However, a case could not be made that, later, I muttered “shut up” to anyone but my son. He is not yet four years old.

What does any of this have to do with Scottie Pippen? Scottie Pippen was good at what he did. He had one particularly bad moment in his career, but it doesn’t deserve to define him. I’m merely poaching that moment to talk about one of the ways in which I tend toward the bench. There are a lot of ways to the bench. Trust me, I know. I’m a benchwarmer. Scottie Pippen took one of the ways in the spring of 1994. He was for that one year, in the absence of the player Larry Bird once referred to as God, the leader of the Bulls. When a big shot needed to be taken in a playoff game against the New York Knicks, Pippen’s coach called for another player to take the shot. There were 1.8 seconds left in the game. Pippen took those 1.8 seconds off. He said No to the godless world. He quit.

What caused me yesterday to say No to the world? I guess I’d have to tell you my whole life story with more honesty than I’ve previously mustered to answer that, but the immediate situation was that my son was having trouble getting to sleep. We have this elaborate, often ineffective, ritual to try to get him to sleep, and while sometimes it works OK, lately it has gone to shit again, and everyone in the house is miserable. I coauthored the whole mess, and yet I’m brimming with resentment about it. My fuse is shorter than ever. I said “fucker” when I was lying down next to my son and he flailed his body and kicked me in the head. Later I muttered “shut up” when he started to ask me a question when I was holding him and singing and dancing. This is part of the elaborate ritual—me holding him and singing and dancing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I know that however we’ve gotten to this point, to me dancing around a fairly large young boy as if he were an infant, I won’t help anything by blowing up in anger on him. But my fuse is short. In those moments I want to quit and sit down and not be a part of this anymore.

I know what it feels like to not have the play called for you. That’s how things felt for a long time in my life, and I know that my general reaction to this was to quit. To not even be a part of the action anymore. It became habitual, but it’s a habit I can’t surrender to anymore. I can’t quit now. Life no longer allows it. I’m in the game no matter what. But inside my body, my flesh, there’s that pull toward the bench. I want to sit down. I want to pout and be null and void of my own volition, so say No and watch the world from a withering remove.

To be continued.

h1

Bill Walton

April 7, 2015

Walton benchedYou Are the Eyes of the World

One

I am sick of worrying over every sentence, every word, and so without stopping, jamming, hoping to find pure play, I am going to write about the greatest moments in sitting on the bench in the history of the world, starting with this moment captured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1978 and burned into my brain forever as the prototypical image of being on the outside looking in or perhaps more accurately being withdrawn from the game, being so far inside as to be removed from that which brings the most joy: connection with others.

Bill Walton dropped off the face of the earth right around the time of this cover and would not resurface for many years, for so long as to seem as if he had disappeared forever, and so for those years when he was altogether gone—actually he was an oft-injured member of the roster of the San Diego Clippers, which is one step beyond being gone—it seemed he was never going to come back. He had been to me, in his free-spirited ways and his joyous enthusiasm and in his untimely removal from the center of the action, a basketball counterpart to Mark Fidrych, who disappeared from the world at around the same time, the late 1970s, the Malaise Years, and as with Fidrych I had a yearning for him to reappear, to rise from his glum remove on the bench and be what he once was.

Fidrych never returned. That’s one difference between the two. The other is that Walton was when healthy among the greatest to ever play his sport, something that could never be claimed for Fidrych, despite his inarguably great rookie season (he deserved the 1976 Cy Young Award). The more complex Walton was not as magnetically likable as Fidrych, but like Fidrych Walton’s magnetism was based in joy. When his faulty body let him he had a volcanic joy for the game he loved, and he channeled that joy into connection with his teammates. Fidrych’s similar compulsion bubbled up outside the crux of the more solitary demands of his game, most notably when he bounded from the mound to shake the hand of a teammate who’d made a nice play; conversely, Walton’s happy need to share the love was woven into the fabric of his game. His greatest gift as an athlete—besides being a nimble, powerful giant—was vision, a gift he used to become the player generally considered to have been the greatest among all centers in setting up a teammate to score.

But how would I even know this? I never once saw him play during his time at UCLA or with the Trailblazers. His talents were entirely word-based and imaginary to me, but perhaps for that reason they were more intimately known to me. I saw him in my mind grabbing a rebound and in that very instant, airborne, locating a streaking teammate far upcourt and hitting him in stride with the perfect court-traversing outlet pass. I saw him exulting, fist raised, as his teammate scored the open lay-up that Walton alone had seen as a possibility.

And so to see this beauty disappear into the slumping misery of one on the bench was rough. Add to this that Walton’s disappearance from the world mirrored not only Mark Fidrych’s but also my own. I’d been a happy kid, laughing, reveling in the back-to-the-land sprawl and mess and joy-dreams of my parents—dreams shared by Walton above all among athletes of his time—but as the wide 1970s narrowed to a new, more constricted decade I edged into an adolescence that looked pretty much exactly—thematically speaking—like this picture of Walton on the bench. I was not connected anymore somehow. I was benched.

To be continued.

h1

reasons

October 31, 2013

we wonI intended for this photo to be right side up in this fucking post. I also intended before starting to write the post to Google the words “Sweet Jane” but I hadn’t slept much and was up early and had just named a document, the document used to create these words, “Reasons,” short for “Reasons to Live” or “Reasons not to Bail,” so instead of “Sweet Jane” I typed in “reasons” and the search window suggested these four phrases, apparently the top searches that start with the word reasons:

reasons my son is crying
reasons for missed period
reasons for divorce
reasons why I love you

I’m able to find the first one amusing only because at the moment my son is asleep and so is not crying. He has been around for a little over two years and he cries a lot, often for reasons I can’t understand and he can’t explain. This ongoing situation, my inability to help or even understand my own son when he’s suffering, calls to mind a line in Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson:

And therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.

There’s a certain undefeatable core of estrangement in this life. You can feel it as the agitation behind each of the top four internet searches for reasons. How can I understand this person who came from me? How can I deal with a new needful life on the way? How can I understand a love that seems to be crumbling? How can I understand love at all?

How can we ever be anything but alone? I’m thinking of a line from a song, but not the one I set out to search for this morning: “I hate the quiet places/that cause the smallest taste of what will be.” That’s a line from “Candy Says,” by Lou Reed, who also supplied the lyrics to the song I wanted to search for today and also the song that provided the epigraph and title for Jesus’ Son. He passed away earlier this week, right when the Red Sox were in the middle of battling toward a win in the World Series, and so his songs of quiet places and loss and perversion, of life turned upside down and inside out, have been hovering eerily all around the loud bearded stomp toward triumph.

His songs make me happy. It’s hard to explain why. Easier to understand winning. The win by the Red Sox made me happy. My son was awake and naked, and when he saw the players jumping around on one another after the last out, he wanted to do it, too, so the two of us did a two-man version of the jumping up and down victory scrum. His nudity reminded me of a short, barrel-chested guy I met with my friend Pete while we were at a New York Rangers game way back in the early 1990s. It was between periods. This was before the Rangers had broken through to win the Stanley Cup in 1994, so the team was the longest suffering NHL squad.

“What will you do if the Rangers finally win?” Pete asked him. He considered it for a moment, or maybe he had the answer already set in his mind. I can’t remember anymore.

“Run naked and put up a sign,” he said.

You want to return to the days when you could run naked, I guess. You want to win, to feel all the limitations that have been piling up on you your whole life long to vanish in the winning.

And they do, they really do, for a second. The photo at the top of this page hangs over my desk (right side up). I sit at my desk every morning and write. What are my reasons? I am trying to hold on to something. I am trying to run naked. I am trying to put up a sign. Anyway, the picture hangs over my desk as a happy reminder, a reminder of happiness, and of connection. It was taken in Boston the day the Red Sox celebrated their 2004 World Series title with a duckboat parade. My brother had decked out his car as “the Yazmobile.” He came from Brooklyn and I came from Chicago. We’d been waiting for that parade our whole life.

Life in general is not in synch with such moments of connection and celebration.

“Some people like us we gotta work,” is how Lou Reed puts it in the song I still have yet to Google. Why did I want to Google “Sweet Jane”? Do I really think I’ll find the answer to why the song, from its first chord, always flicks some switch in my head that turns life from work to something else entirely?

I have to go to work today, same as yesterday, same as tomorrow. This last fucking paragraph is what my work is, more or less. Do you notice that it is in a different fucking font? I don’t know why it pasted this way into wordpress from my Word document. There doesn’t seem to be a readily apparent fix. I could spend a long time figuring it out, but I have to go to work and figure similar things out, one after the other, little stupid fucking problems that are beyond me. Like the upside down photo at the top of the page. I took it right side up, and sent it from my phone to my email right side up, and when it appeared on my computer upside down I used a program to rotate it back right side up, but then when I uploaded it to this post it was upside down again. I do not understand all the many tiny ways things go wrong and I am lashed to them every goddamn day. I have to go to work today, same as yesterday, same as tomorrow. No running naked. Unless you count these words written in a hurry beneath a photo of connection and joy, a photo I can’t seem to control. I can’t believe the win I always wished for happened once, and then again, and now three times. I’m happy about it and so not to be trusted. So trust someone who somehow imbued the lines “feel sick and dirty/more dead than alive” with an attachment to suffering life so stubborn as to be a kind of perverse, swinging joy. Trust Lou Reed, transformer of loss, when he sneers at anyone who says life is just to die.

h1

Pork Chop Pough

August 30, 2013

Exif_JPEG_422660 days until my next book comes out.

I have a lot of work still to do before my next book comes out. That’s why it’s 660 days from coming out and not about 365 days fewer than that, as was originally planned. Earlier this summer I officially missed the original deadline for turning in the manuscript of my book.

“Maybe I can still get everything together soon,” I said to my editor. My mental state was a little bit like that of the Henry Hill character in the latter stages of Goodfellas. Helicopters were following me. Still, I did not yet quite see that everything was falling apart.

“It sounds like you’re not that close,” he said. “Why don’t we just take our time?”

Is this exactly what he said? Probably not. But something like that. He was the reasonable person in the conversation, and I was the desperate one.

Writing a book in desperation doesn’t work so well with me. I have a lot of shredded notebooks dating back over the years to prove this. It’s better if I approach the writing playfully. The book I’m working on has grown only when I’ve been able to do this, and then whenever I try to force it forward, it stalls. It goes silent. I go silent. I start counting the days, as if I’m in prison.

It’s no way to go through life. Better to take notice of the here and now.

So here on the first day of my official countdown of the days, and before I turn to my manuscript, and as a way to try to turn to my manuscript in a playful mood, is Pork Chop Pough, who never quite made it to majors. He played in the minors for a long time. Near the end of his career he was a big part of an ESPN article on the Nashua Pride. He is asked in the article why he continues to chase a dream that appears to have expired.

“I still love the game,” he says.

In the background of the photo is my son dropping baseball cards into my guitar. The picture is a few months old. He used to do this more. My guitar was always full of baseball cards. He hasn’t done it much since. It was a little annoying to always be shaking baseball cards out of my guitar, but someday I’ll miss it, I’m sure. I’ll miss making a pork chop for him and cutting it into small pieces, like I did yesterday evening. He was out in the back of our building, playing with his grandma, my mother-in-law. He didn’t eat any of the pork chop chunks. He was too interested in wandering over to parked cars and touching the tires so that his hands turned black with tire grime. All he had on was a diaper and some sandals. He smeared his hands on his stomach.

“Good god, you’re growing up in a parking lot,” I said. I still had the plate of chopped-up pork chops in my hands.