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Beyond the Blue Horizon

I once leaned my head on a public restroom wall. The wool/poly blend of a New Era cap acted as a shield, but still. I had been standing over a urinal in the men’s restroom of the Piccadilly Pub in Franklin, and as the reality of the 19-8 defeat at the hands of the Yankees tumbled over me like so many bricks, I kind of slowly leaned forward and my forehead gently met the wall in front of me. I think it was plaster, not tile, but don’t hold me to that.

This is just not meant to be, I told myself. Probably because of something I did.

Because it was personal, of course. How could it be any other way? The Sox, they had my name. They knew who I was. My Social Security number was on file somewhere in the bowels of their offices, a microchip had been implanted in the skin under my forearm, surely all of this was One Big Middle Finger to me and my existence, some sort of moral judgment on my activities to this point. I had not led a good enough life yet. I didn’t deserve any sort of baseball happiness. All their postseason foibles were an attack on me, nobody else. Red Sox Nation? Pfft, what do they know? This is all on me. They’re doing this to screw with ME. For my sins, my failings, my decayed humanity. Me.

So I leaned my head on a public restroom wall. Not something I’d advise doing, generally, even at a place as genteel as a suburban Piccadilly Pub.

It was just not meant to be.

Going into the evening the Yanks were up 2 games to none, but the Sox were back at Fenway and a win would make it a series again. It was a see-saw battle for 3 innings, then the Yankees became extremely rude guests and ran away with things, to the point where one might find themselves leaning against a filmy bathroom wall and wondering what was the point of it all was.

Grady Little had horrifically botched things the year before, clutching defeat from the jaws of victory against these very Yankees at the most crucial moment possible, a rug-pull played on those Sox fans who truly believed the team’s accursed past was simply due to random bad luck. Or bad management. Or personnel failings.

This indignity, this Grady, this Boone, piled on top of Buckner and Dent and Jim Burton and Armbrister and Ruhle and Aparicio and Jack Hamilton and Enos Slaughter. There were generations of men from the corners of New England and all points in between who were sick to their stomachs and looking at themselves in bathroom mirrors wondering why it ever had to be this way. Why? Why?

The Yankees had beaten the Red Sox 19-8, taking a 3-0 lead in the 2004 American League Championship Series. There would be no World Series for the Sox that year, no redemption for those left prostrate by Grady Little’s idiocy the year before. Baseball does not do karma. The game is its own reward, win or lose. A harsh but needed lesson, brutal in its finality.

I separated my forehead from the wall, exited the bathroom, and left the restaurant sometime after midnight on Sunday, October 17, 2004.

Sabbatical

On Saturday I noticed my drawing table had gathered cobwebs. That’s not metaphorical, nor an embellishment. It was real enough that I got a vacuum cleaner and waved at them half-heartedly. There were even some rogue strands that had made the leap to my chair.

I’ve been struggling to determine how or why activities or hobbies get back-burnered or mothballed. It’s not unique, or even unexpected. People garden, and then they don’t. Needlepoint sits idle in a drawer, golf clubs slowly rust in a darkened corner of the garage. Hell, I didn’t so much as pick up a humble pencil with any artistic purpose for almost all of the ’90s. I’ve been there before.

I think it’s like having kids. You love them and are proud of them, but sometimes you’d just like to abdicate your parental responsibilities and simply forget they exist, even as they woozily cry for their insulin.

On Patriots Day

To explain it to those of you not from New England, Patriots Day commemorates the first shots fired of the American Revolution. The battle took place on Lexington Green. The holiday celebrates the initial step of this country’s independence (given its significance, it’s beyond me why it’s observed only in Massachusetts), but with the century-old introduction of the Boston Marathon and the advent of morning baseball at Fenway, it has come to mean much more, all while still symbolizing the spirit of the holiday.

Patriots Day in Boston heralds the debut of spring, the first extended hello to longer days and warmer climes, pitched against the backdrop of live music and pre-noon beers and tailgate smoke. The improbable angle of the sun that renders strange the familiar confines of Fenway, as if seeing them for the first time. And the hamlets and towns and cities along the marathon route who turn out in force to ceaselessly support runners from all over the world, these competitors whose quest is to test the very limits of themselves as the crowd claps and shouts itself hoarse for hours on end in recognition. At times giving them the strength to keep going. Every last one.

The spectators come to witness and celebrate the very best that humans can endeavor to achieve, this challenging of the self (often done in the name of charity or in the memory of the dearly departed); and they do it to provide the psychic energy that may be required for a lot of these runners to be able to finish. And to feed off that incredible strength of will in return. Ask any marathoner or attendee. Boston is different.

I don’t know who did this. I don’t know if Patriots Day was chosen for its symbolism or simply because the finish line provided the greatest concentration of human targets. But I do know this: on Patriots Day, this town simultaneously gives and receives the best that humanity has to offer, and no single madman can silence or defeat this inherent goodness that we are all privileged to share with one another.

Exit the Warrior

Hiding behind the double-knits, cored-out earflap and lazy wrist twirl was the harsh reality that man is mortal and everything is going to end.

Carl Yastrzemski’s immediate predecessor, Ted Williams, lived some kind of charmed life where he could accomplish whatever he wanted to through the sheer force of being Ted. He was a 6’ 3” live wire, a bulldog Picasso or Hemingway with a bat. Yaz? He was you or me, some guy who wouldn’t get two glances on the street, but was somehow able to push himself to the very limits of what he could do and live out there in that ether for 23 years. If Ted Williams was Superman, some freakish alien life form given powers by the yellow sun, then Carl Yastrzemski was Batman, a human residing on the edge of his own capabilities because that is what he was driven to do. Williams left us by hitting a home run in his last at-bat, still lifting that car as effortlessly as he did on the cover of Action Comics #1. Yaz, on the other hand, bore the visible scars of battle, ones dealt not only by foes on the diamond but by time itself. And because of this we identified with him all the more.

I was 12 when Yaz’s Batman avatar began to pixelate and break down, revealing its ugly underneath, a marker of the passage of time. Here he was during the summer and early autumn of 1983, playing out his last season and leaving me to wonder what rooting for the Red Sox would be like without him. At that age, my fanhood was based solely on the identification with the players. The laundry hadn’t really come into focus yet because the turnover rate in my short window of rooting for the Sox was minimal; I was too young and disconnected to feel the pain of Tiant and Lee leaving, and merely impotently aware of Lynn’s and Fisk’s departures. At the same time, I was a virgin to the delicious thrill of a pennant race (I was only 7 in 1978 and couldn’t appreciate the story being spun out of that season at the time). What else was there but to root for this man who had embodied not only being a Red Sox, but also represented the honor bestowed in the fight itself, as opposed to the outcome? The funny thing is that for all my anxiety over Yaz’s impending retirement, it wasn’t like I was seeing anything remotely resembling his prime, as if I knew what I’d be missing. It’s just that he had Always Been There. Not just for me, but for my father. Particularly for my father. This worrying about my father’s feelings about any outside developments whatsoever was a shaky new concept. He was a sophomore in high school the spring that Yastrzemski made his debut, for Chrissakes, surely some bell must have been tolling in his consciousness. And if #8 was getting too old to hack it, then maybe so was my Dad, and then so would I at some point down the road. These aren’t things you want to think about when you’re 12.

Yaz occupies a curious spot in the Red Sox pantheon. A first ballot Hall of Famer who may have been an accumulator more than anything else. Owner of a Triple Crown and a multiple Gold Glove winner, but a reclusive and somewhat aloof person who did little off the field to endear himself to the fandom. Very few kids my age even liked him during his playing days, as they thought he was some old fart whose presence was somewhat comical in contrast to that of Lynn and Rice, and later on, Evans. You look at some of his years and it’s not surprising, these sentiments: .254 with 15 home runs in 1971? .264 with 12 home runs in 1972? His renaissance perhaps coincided with the position change to first base, or with the rising fortunes of the team after its post ’67 doldrums, but as the ’70s progressed he became cagey veteran. Mortal or not, no man was more fearless and determined once he put on that uniform. He was the original Dirt Dog.

The Yaz story that most defines him for me is one from the last-gasp winning streak at the end of the ’78 season which ultimately forced a one game playoff with the Yankees. On Sunday, September 24th, one game into said winning streak, the Sox had forced the Blue Jays into extra innings at Exhibition Stadium. Balor Moore had been pitching for 2+ innings, and in the top of the 12th Moore struck out Rice to bring Yastrzemski to the plate. Moore got a little cute and sailed a fastball up and in on Yaz, who sprawled to the ground to avoid being hit. He got up, slowly collecting himself, and stood in the batter’s box awaiting the next pitch, which he promptly launched for a triple. Blue Jays manager Roy Hartsfield yanked Moore from the game, and once they got to the dugout he dressed him down: “Pitching to Yaz is like being in a gunfight, only if you miss with yours, he never misses with his.”

Yet for all of that, he never won a ring, and to add insult to injury, he made the last outs of the ’75 and ’78 seasons, both with the Sox behind by a mere run (and in the case of ’78, with Remy on third).

The Kid had the same “didn’t win it all” collar around his neck (and had lesser numbers in what would be considered the “clutch” times during his career), but he is not cast in the same light. To me, Ted was Zeus, hurling lightning bolts from on high. Yaz? He was Sisyphus. I learned about the myth of Sisyphus in 11th grade English and I immediately thought of Yaz. Then I extrapolated it out to simply being a Red Sox fan. But then again, none of us were actually rolling that rock up the hill. Yaz was.

In John Updike’s famous essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” he sums up Ted quite nicely as he observed that Ted didn’t tip his cap after his career-ending clout, despite the impassioned pleas of the few thousand who were in the stands that day: “Gods do not answer letters.”

On the other hand, Yaz took a lap around Fenway Park the day before his last game, exchanging high-fives and handshakes with anyone lucky enough to be sitting in the first few rows. A far more stoic man than Ted ever was, he nonetheless placed himself into the open palms of Boston and said, “This is what I can offer you as thanks.” On his last day, as he walked off the field for one last time after being pulled during the top of the 9th, he unbuttoned his jersey and gave it to a boy in the front row behind the dugout before he descended down the steps for good. Carl Yastrzemski was not Superman or Zeus. But he showed us that a man battling against that which limits him — whether it was his own physical attributes or the unyielding opponent of time itself — is as compelling as any myth, while displaying far more honor.

Three Six Five

I was going to go running tonight when I got home from work, but my wife and kids were sitting out on the porch starting their dinner, and that was just enough to push my lazy self into a chair to settle down with them. That and the fact that if I went running, it would be time for the kids to go to bed by the time I came back and showered. Meaning I’d have barely seen them all day.

That happens sometimes. I’m not going to fool anyone into thinking I can get up early enough to go running in the morning before I go to work, so if I want to maintain even the slightest pretense of trying to stay under 195 pounds, I’ve got to go running at night. And that’s basically a whole day of not seeing the kids. Which is collateral damage, but sometimes it happens. The burden of being a fatass.

But I didn’t want it to happen tonight.

The days bleed into weeks and most of the time we can’t wait for whatever moment we’re in to pass, to be gone and tick over onto the next moment… as if there’s some Great Thing out there just over the horizon that would arrive if only this stupid Present we occupy would get out of the way.

Sit down. Look around. Appreciate the smile you see, the beginning of a laugh. Take note of the tactile things: the squirmy toddler as you throw him into the air, or the smack of you high-fiving your oldest child.  Close your eyes… sniff the faint scent of soap on your wife’s neck. The summer evening. Steaks on the grill.

I remember the smell of the sea at Old Orchard Beach as Danny and I stood on the cold sand one June evening many years ago, looking out into the foggy blackness that was the Gulf of Maine. Taking it in, I was astonished that plowing through that kind of unknown was part of his job description. He was in the Coast Guard, and he had told me of stories of sneaking up on unsuspecting drug-running boats as he skimmed across the night water in some kind of motorized stealth dinghy, adrenaline pumping, his hand ready to draw his weapon.

Behind us were the gaudy lights of OOB’s Strip, to our left was the Pier. Danny and I had been bar-hopping, taking full advantage of the 75-cent drafts and quarter-per-play games of pool that were so common among the OOB dives. It was the first summer we were 21, and we were Butch and Sundance. Luke and Han.

I remember the cold sand under my feet once we walked out onto the beach. I had taken off my socks and shoes. The water lured us away from the promise of drinking; there was something about the infinite and dark vastness of the ocean that spoke louder than beer.

The space Dan occupied, it was like that of a brother. This simplest of things. He was at my shoulder, and we talked about a lot, squinting out into that hazy space. Looking down at my toes hidden in the sand; I had burrowed them in there. Dan next to me with his slightly hunched posture, that half-smile he often wore, as if the very idea of life amused him. The short sentences. His laugh. He loved to laugh.

My daughter cut in, asking me, “What are you thinking?”

I looked at her. I was sitting on my deck, the light in the sky fading. I took her in my arms, the scent of her shampoo in my nostrils.

“I was thinking of your Uncle Dan.”

Evolution

I’ve often lamented in these blog pages about how long the artistic process is. How draining it can be.

And it’s true, it’s true. But it’s changing somewhat, and whether that’s due to my own perception/attitude or the simple fact that I’m getting better and the typical stuff that I do has become easier for me, I can’t say. Some of both, although I’m leaning more toward the latter, I suspect.

The two pieces of art posted above represent my output for the past two days. Henrik Larsson on Thursday, Wayne Rooney on Friday. An acrylic painting and a color pastel,  media which take longer than a charcoal drawing, no less. Two months ago (hell, even two weeks ago) this would have been unheard of for me.

And neither of them was commissioned. The Larsson is something I did for myself… I’m a Celtic FC fan, and I wish I could see more of their games, and I was working out that withdrawal through art. The Rooney is for a friend who’s a big ManU fan, but it was something we talked about drunkenly a while ago, and I offered to do it for no profit, just to break into doing soccer art. And I’m glad I made that choice.

The night prior to beginning each of these pieces it seemed as if I barely got any sleep because I was dreaming about drawing and painting these subjects, and it was so intense I felt like I was awake, even if I really wasn’t (I honestly couldn’t tell). And now I’m no longer the guy on the high dive board above an Olympic pool, wondering how I’m going to get down without killing myself, which was how I always felt. Now? Now I’m looking to slice through that water like a knife and fracture the pool bottom with my fist. I attacked that Larsson painting; I just slapped on the paint, and by the end of the day, it was done. I abandoned the calculated and reserved approach I usually take because I felt like I knew what I wanted to do with it in my gut. Every thing else came from that. And I finished a painting. In a day. For me, that’s a feat.

The Rooney drawing was even more interesting because I wanted to do a few slightly weird things from the get-go. I had a vision that was a wee bit different than representational; I wanted to screw with the colors and properties to make Rooney more ominous, like he was some looming beast or alien from a different dimension. Purple sky, greenish hue, liquid shirt. Making his slightly reddish hair orange. I’m not quite sure if I achieved the effect I was going for, but there’s some subjective quality about the piece, which is enough for me.

I’m going to outgrow this genre someday, and I don’t say it out of disrespect, but it’s obviously the natural progression that every artist takes. I think I’ll always be involved with it, because I enjoy the work and it pays well, but on my own time there will be a day when I start goofing around with something else. And I guess I always knew that time would come.

Bottle 2 Tha Face, Yo

A very wise man and I were once having a conversation about the nature of arguments, and our musings led us to realize that the ultimate answer in any heated debate would be to smash a beer bottle against your opponent’s face. What kind of comeback could top that, really?

Him: “You see, I think that if the United States had simply learned the lesson the French were given at Dien Bien Phu–”
You: *SMASH*

Argument over, you’ve won.

Sometimes I need the musical equivalent of a bottle to the face. Usually I listen to music as a mood enhancer (the aural equivalent to having a beer on your porch), not a mood alterer. But when I draw or paint, for some reason I need songs that push buttons, not ones that hold hands. And of course I have a playlist for this (creatively entitled The Art Mix, wordsmith that I am), and it’s chockablock full of a lot of crappy heavy metal that I’d rarely admit listening to. But it seems OK because I can say, “Hey, it’s not like I listen to this stuff on its own, it’s just when I use this playlist!”

Some of it is great for the Memory Lane factor (any of the dozens of 80s hair band songs on there), and some of it is the best of what the genre has to offer, such as early Metallica. But the bulk of the list, the songs that seem to work the best for me, fall into basically three other categories: Tool/A Perfect Circle, Ice Cube, and techno.

I alluded to why I might need this kind of music in a post I made on Sons of Sam Horn in a “Helmet vs. Tool” thread (we don’t only talk about baseball):

I couldn’t begin to try to explain why without sounding like a bumbling and pretentious asshole, especially since music criticism ain’t my bag, but I will say that I often listen to Tool when I’m drawing or painting, as if it were the music itself that was ripping aside some repressed lid off of my id and facilitating the process. Puts me where I need to be.


I have to attack when I create art, and that’s just generally not in my nature. Instead I’m inclined to observe and synthesize and maybe talk about it after the fact, and in the meantime, would anyone like another beer? But this more aggressive music is like the full moon to a werewolf for me. And it’s needed.

Because the piece of paper or the canvas is the enemy. And art takes a long, long time to make. Picture the painting surface not as stretched linen, but as a slab of cement, and I literally have to punch a piece of art out of it. And each power jab, each haymaker, it only creates the smallest hairline fissure with each blow, and it’s the cumulative effect of hundreds and thousands of these punches that slowly reveals the painting as the pulverized cement crumbles away.

Dan Fogelberg is not going to assist with that process.

But Vicarious will. Endangered Species will. Keep Hope Alive will. Never Gonna Come Back Down will. The music is the bottle to the face, no doubt, but am I the one swinging it or the one getting smashed across the bridge of the nose? Either way, it works, so I’m not complaining, but it’s an interesting question.

Endgame

I’ve talked about this in a prior blog post, I’m sure, but when I was very young and first started drawing (around 3 – 5 years old), I used superheroes and comic books as inspiration. This was an auspicious development, as my interest level in characters like Spider-man was intense enough to motivate me to draw quite often. And in doing so, I got a lot of practice drawing the human body, which I think is important, regardless of what kind of artist you are.

By the time I was 9 or 10, I switched from superheroes to baseball players. Baseball cards and each year’s Red Sox yearbook became my source material, typing paper and ballpoint pen my medium. And though I branched out into more traditional/legitimate subject matter through high school, I always drew athletes on the side.

After leaving Syracuse in the middle of my sophomore year, I didn’t draw much for about a decade. Partly out of apathy, but mostly out of spite. I’ve mentioned here before that what got me back into it was drawing gifts for the groomsmen in my wedding party. This is true. But I haven’t brought up what put that idea in my head, what provided a target to ultimately shoot for, the byproduct of which was the first step of creating groomsmen’s gifts.

I got engaged in Scotland in June of 2001. During that trip I took a tour of Celtic Park (home of Celtic FC),  and while we were on the executive level, I noticed that the walls were adorned with a series of very large canvases of past and present Celtic greats*. The tour guide went on to explain that the paintings were done by a season ticket holder, a regular guy with artistic talent whose ability was brought to the attention of the club somehow (I don’t think we got any more detail than that).

So I stood there, looking at them, and thought to myself, Geez, I could do that. Not in a derisive way (nor a jealous one), just a simple and true observation. Of course, I just meant it in the sense that I could draw/paint such things. Whether or not they’d ever be bought or commissioned by a professional club is an entirely different matter, reliant on connections and luck as anything else, but it was the idea that there was such an outlet for some weekend warrior with a brush, that was the galvanizing force. So I could be another weekend warrior, too, and whatever happened happened.

Shortly thereafter it occurred to me that as a newly engaged fellow, I was going to have to come up with some kind of gift for my groomsmen, and being that art was already on my mind, the decision was an easy one.

So the soft-focus goal would be to become a self-sufficient sports artist, doing work like Stephen Holland, Dick Perez, or James Fiorentino. Each piece is hopefully a step toward that.

*Somehwat evocative of Pawtucket’s McCoy stadium, whose murals were not lost on me as a young artist, trust me.