Entries Tagged as 'Life'

We Have Lingered in the Chambers of the Sea

The polyester double-knit Red Sox uniforms of the ’70s debuted shortly after the second Watergate break-in. They were antithetical to the tradition synonymous with Boston, but everybody else was doing it. The blow-dried Disco Strangler ethos of the decade was just beginning to take hold, bringing its synthetic fabrics with it, much as the character-filled Scollay Square had given way to the concrete brutalism of Government Center. The Red Sox were being swept asunder by baseball’s version of urban renewal.

So yes. Doorlatches were taped at the Democratic National Committee and the Sox began wearing V-necks and pants with elastic waistbands. Duane Josephson was one of the CREEP burglars. He was caught and he’d never play another game, spared from ever wearing the new unis. Maybe he got off light.

Selling out to the nascent era’s fashion didn’t completely haunt the Sox; they went on to finish in second place that year, ultimately foiled by both the strike that cost them an irreplaceable ½ game in the standings and by Aparicio falling as he rounded third, but it was the best winning percentage the team had posted since 1967. Reclamation project Luis Tiant also found a permanent home in the starting rotation. The Sox’s youth movement was beginning to blossom. Mario Guerrero was in the Symbionese Liberation Army. He would go to spring training in 1974 straight from Berkeley.

Mustaches grew and gold chains slithered down hair-covered chests like lava through the pines. Mirror balls spun and 18 ½ minute gaps were listened to, people began jogging and leaving their keys in communal bowls at suburban parties and forming long lines at gas stations. A President resigned. Judge W. Arthur Garrity ruled that Boston’s schools were unconstitutionally segregated. Nobody liked the solution.

Saigon fell and The Gold Dust Twins came to Fenway and played 81 dates a year. Fred Lynn’s grace was delivered from magical terrycloth wristbands, Jim Rice’s power came from his defiantly modest Afro. Beachballs bounced around the bleachers, floating lazily through the marijuana haze. Cutoffs and flip-flops and Bud Man bucket hats reigned. Amity meant friendship. A fly ball by Carlton Fisk clanged against the left field foul pole, then a bloop single by Joe Morgan broke hearts. October’s spotlight burned bright.

In the cold of winter, Peter Seitz made a ruling. In Boston, police escorts in riot gear rode alongside school buses. People wore leisure suits.

Ted Landsmark had an American flag swung at him and Graig Nettles dumped Bill Lee on his shoulder. America celebrated her 200th birthday. Lynn, Fisk and Burleson didn’t sign their contracts until midseason, which drove drunkard and probable racist Tom Yawkey to his grave. Darrell Johnson was fired. A Gerbil was hired. He set off metal detectors at airports.

Hair spilled over collars. Everyone squinted as if looking into the sun, mouths slightly open, top row of teeth exposed. They shined their Corvettes and IROCs while listening to Foghat on the 8-track. Someone thought to test the water from sump pumps in Love Canal.

The Red Sox showcased their might in 1977 as George Scott returned to Boston and hit 33 taters while making the world regret those tight-fitting uniforms. Butch Hobson hit 30 home runs from the 9th spot in the order. The sun shone warm and the Force was with us, until it wasn’t. Even the Force needs pitching.

Cocaine residue clouded glasstop tables. Husbands and wives wondered how to ask for divorces. Kids hunkered down in paneled rec rooms, striped tube socks pulled high, MAUI 76 emblazoned across their faux football-style shirts. The Brothers Gibb, deities in champagne satin suits, communicated with us through the radio. We didn’t fully understand what they wanted, but they made white people dance and everybody was scared as they waited for the clock to strike midnight. Too much glow, too much Have A Nice Day. Everything was goldenrod or avocado or burnt umber.

Then the ‘70s sent us their herald, Dennis Eckersley, who was formed when lightning from the gods struck California beach sand. Babylon 1978 was complete, and that strong summer sun became a searing glare as the Red Sox blew a 14 game lead to the Yankees. The Gerbil had benched or banished half the team’s talent. Dwight Evans was beaned by a Mike Parrott fastball. Butch Hobson rearranged elbow chips in between throwing errors. A Massacre ensued. But there was a still a little time left in the season. The Sox fought back hard enough for eight more days to force a one game showdown for all the spoils, as if they could sense an era was drawing to a close, leaving everything on the field as they valiantly shielded their eyes against the magnifying glass that hovered squarely over Fenway.

Then lounge lizard Mike Torrez yielded a popup home run to Bucky Dent as Yaz leaned against The Wall, head hanging, cleated red Spot-Bilt kicking the warning track cinders, the blood draining out of his body.

A Pope died. A new Pope was named. He died. Congressman Leo Ryan took a flight to Guyana, concerned about a cult. Stan Papi was on the tarmac, waiting. There was a gunfight. 900 people drank Flavor-Aid. End scene.

Next spring the Red Sox went back to buttoned jerseys and belted pants, embracing their Calvinist roots in order to quell this madness, penance for flying too close to the sun. Embracing mediocrity in the process. The schedule became a reason to watch Yaz get 400 home runs and 3,000 hits and not much more. To watch his last few golden years as Lynn and Fisk and Burleson were pushed out of town and the hope of postseason baseball subsided. A players’ strike. The summers stultifying in their meaninglessness, the klieg lights of October dimmed. Longingly thinking of cherry red batting helmets and V-neck pullovers, because even though the tumult had been heartbreaking, it was never dull.

Sober night fell, no longer set to the thumping bass or soaring strings of the discotheque; a glass of milk by the bed instead of a Schlitz tall boy, a tablet of Anacin instead of a line of coke and a Valium.

Spaghetti-thin stirrups pulled high under the calf-length hem of the uniform pants, the lovely striped sock rendered invisible.

The John Wells Jr Memorial March to $100K

Every year, the Sons of Sam Horn (a Red Sox discussion board I belong to) has a fundraising drive or two to benefit local charities, typically The Jimmy Fund or Mass ALS. The site does pretty well with its humanitarian endeavors, having generated anywhere from $30,000 – $70,000 each year for its causes, most of it directly from members.

This year SoSH has decided to devote the entire 12 months to raising money for the Jimmy Fund in honor of one of our members who recently passed away, John Wells. The target is an ambitious one; we hope to raise $100,000 over the course of 2011. There are a variety of events being held throughout the year to help attain this goal… road races, bar nights, polar plunges, and our annual midsummer online auction, among other things. Full details regarding the scope of the project can be found here (and you can follow the drive’s exploits on Facebook here).

I’ve donated artwork to the site for its charitable online auctions in the past, and members have been kind enough to pay generous amounts for these pieces in the name of fighting cancer or ALS. This year, given my personal attachment to the mission and the challenging goal that has been set, my intention is to create at least five pieces for donation with the hope that they can generate $5,000 toward the cause. This may entail producing a limited number of prints of each piece and selling those in addition to the originals, but a cost/return assessment will need to be done, as well as squaring away any concerns about copyright issues. It may well be that prints will devalue any potential bids on original artwork; SoSH’s member base is relatively small, and maximizing supply and demand will be key to reaching my goal of $5K.

I’ve already started working on the pieces for the auction, which will be held in July. I’ll post them as part of my blog updates as they’re completed, I’ve already got one down, finished on New Year’s Day, appropriately enough.

Keep an eye out here throughout the first half of 2011 for news and updates on SoSH’s fundraising efforts. Thank you.

You’d Think I’d Know By Now

The T ride home after a night of beers at the pub is almost as good as the night out itself. It’s the disparity: during rush hour, the subway cars are stuffed with people, all these stinking people with their elbows and knees and backpacks and purses and perfume and blather and bullshit. It’s like some sort of Navy SEAL psychological torture training just to try to get home with a shred of your humanity intact, to not want to move to a cabin in the woods and never see another goddamn face for the rest of your life.

But the T at 11:30 at night, several beers in your belly and hardly a soul around? Bliss. Oh, the station still smells like wet dog, but late at night you’re one of the only people around. The subway car rushes up like it always does, pushing hot air before it, and the doors slide open and you’re hit in the face with that same stale pee smell, but now the seats are mostly empty and there’s no one standing in the aisles.

And you sort of saunter over to a stretch of unoccupied seats and sling yourself down into one, letting your legs stretch out before you, an arm thrown casually over the metal backs of the row, enjoying the space. And the car moves, taking you somewhere and you can really get lost in your thoughts, which is an impossibility if you’re riding earlier in the day, when you’re just trying not to purposefully elbow the nose of the braying jackass next to you into his brain, delicious as the thought might be.

And you’ll always have evidence of those solitary late-night rides, no matter how much your head was spinning, no matter how many of the evening’s jigsaw pieces go missing, never to return. Because you can just pick up your iPod and click on your Recently Played list.

I woke up the other morning on the couch, tongue a little dry. Head a little achy. Waking up on the couch isn’t incredibly rare, I have trouble falling asleep and will sometimes lie awake watching mindless TV until slumber comes, but I usually manage to get up at some point during the night and slip into bed. Sometimes I don’t.

On this morning I hadn’t fallen asleep watching TV the night prior, though, I had been Out. And so began the oft-repeated dance of filling in the blanks.

Out? I asked myself. Out, I answered.

With who? Some former co-workers. Yes.

And as my brain eased into the familiar choreography of The Reconstruction, I sort of half-rolled over, still fully clothed, and fished my iPod out of my pocket to cut short this charade. Squinting, I held it up and thumbed to my Recently Played list. I blinked at the songs on the screen, looking them and up and down and sideways, slowly realizing I had played only the first two on the list over and over the entire T ride home.

Jeremiah Freed – Jeremiah Freed – “Again
Jeremiah Freed – Times Don’t Change – “Blinded”

Ah, yes. Slumped down low on the seats of the T car, one hand probably shading my eyes, the other holding the iPod, listening to the same two damn songs repeatedly for 40 minutes or so. Click. Back. Click. Back. Click.

Are any songs worth listening to that many times in a row, let alone ones by a band named Jeremiah Freed? No and definitely not. But it’s there, right there. The iPod ain’t lying.

Jeremiah Freed is (or was, I doubt they’re still recording) a band from Southern Maine of modest local renown at the beginning of the Aughts. They played squarely earnest rock and had a minor radio hit with the aforementioned “Again”. They were obviously a far bigger deal in Maine than they were anywhere else, and my attachment to the two songs has very little to do with the scant talent exhibited in their writing or musicianship, but as more of a time-and-place thing. I had just moved to Portland as the band experienced its burgeoning popularity, and I profoundly enjoyed living there in a way that had me convinced it was my homeland in a past life. So hearing this middling rock band on the radio three or four times a day during this honeymoon definitely created a favorable mental association for me, regardless of the music itself, which is otherwise unremarkable.

Except. But.

The two songs feature a kind of cynical self-awareness that I tend to favor anyway. Granted, it’s all the more resonant because I have since left Maine, which for me was like leaving the warm embrace of an Eva Mendes. So I romanticize “Again” and Blinded,” yes, but that self-flagellation is in those songs to begin with, independent of me and my feelings about Portland. And now I live on the South Shore in Massachusetts and have to commute 90-120 minutes to and from work each way, half of it on the effing T. So on the way home from a night out I end up listening to a forgettable band from Maine through a Harpoon-induced haze, just to hear lines like these over and over and over, banal as they are:

Anyone can see that I’m the same man I’ve always been
Anyone can see that we’re as blind as we’ve ever been

Or

‘Cause I know that it’s the same
When they all come back again
You think I’d know by now

You think I’d know by now. I don’t even know the context of the line; who’s coming back again? The lyrics are pretty stupid, except for that one last line…which isn’t even a lyric, it’s a common saying, the kind of thing I’d be thinking to myself on some T ride home even if it weren’t blared through earbuds directly into my brain. You know, looking around, at This. This Subway Car, These Jeans, That Person Over There, That Station Whizzing By, This Night Sky Above My Head, That Moon Looking Down. Everything, the pieces of which have combined in such a way that has me sitting and listening to Jeremiah Freed (of all bands), and I wonder if there was any alternate route I could’ve taken that would have led to songs like this meaning nothing to me, and the answer is, of course, yes. And that I probably recognized each and every turning point at the time but did nothing about it. And this behavior will likely continue. Same as I’ve always been, blind. You’d think I’d know by now.

So the songs work for me. That’s how it goes.

The Burden of Dreams

I went back to school to get my degree in the late ’90s after a lapse in enrollment of 8 years. I ended up becoming pretty friendly with a girl who was in a lot of my classes, she was an older student as well (not as old as I was, but in her mid-twenties), so we started a lot of study groups together because it wasn’t like we were doing cool college kid things like getting drunk and going on road trips or anything.

In getting to know her, I gradually found out that she hadn’t enrolled in college right out of high school because she had moved around the country a lot and never really knew where she was going to end up in any given year, so she would pick up a class or two here and there and that was it. I assumed that maybe she had been in the military, or perhaps her husband or boyfriend was, but I didn’t get too much into it because I figured she’d talk about it if it were relevant.

Toward the end of our last semester (spring 2001), during one of our classes I mentioned I had visited Memphis — a  friend of mine moved there for a while, somehow it was germane to the topic — and this girl commented that she lived in Memphis for about a year because her husband played baseball there.

“Who, the Chicks?” I asked, referring to Memphis’ Triple-A team.

“Yes. Well, no… they changed to the Redbirds the year he was there. But yes, the same team, basically.” I hadn’t been aware of the change.

“What’s your husband’s name?”

She told me*.

*I don’t want to print his name here, for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I don’t want to single him out. There are millions like him, and his story is symbolic anyway.

I nodded my head in an I-didn’t-know-that fashion, not that I’d have had any reason to know (I had never heard of the guy). She was married, I was soon-to-be engaged, but neither of us talked about our significant others. I didn’t ask any further questions about her husband, because I knew he hadn’t played in the majors by that point, and if she was going to Framingham State College full time I assumed his baseball career was over.

I looked up his stats online the next chance I had. It was a little more difficult to find minor league statistics back then, and I had to go to a few different sites to gather enough info to come close to a complete picture, but a couple of things jumped out at me.

Second round pick out of high school.
28 HR, 106 RBI in High A in 1997.
27 HR, 83 RBI in AA & AAA in 1998.
Then he fell off the table 1999, and was out of baseball after that season (an abortive comeback in Nashville hadn’t happened yet). In looking at his other stats it was clear the guy never hit for average and whiffed a lot, but man, that’s a lot of home runs for the minors.

With this sparse information, I began envisioning some unfortunate injury history, or a backstory that the stats would never illustrate. I sure as hell wasn’t going to ask my friend about it, I’d have felt uncomfortable doing so. We both graduated that spring and kept in touch via email for a little while, but I haven’t had contact with her in quite a few years. But I always remembered her husband’s name, because to me it’s become symbolic for all of the failed careers of former prospects.

As the web became more saturated with information and search engines became more efficient, this guy’s picture came into sharper focus based on the available numbers alone. Two seasons spent in rookie ball, two in low-A. He was 22 before he ever even got to high-A, which was his breakout season. The dude was obviously a hulk (6’3″ and either 210 or 290 lbs, depending on what site you trust most), but given the level of competition and his age I guess it wasn’t that alarming he hit 28 home runs that year. He did make the leap to Double-A and Triple-A the following season as a 23 year old and hit 27 home runs, but racked up 179Ks in doing so. Without seeing so much as a single highlight clip of his, my immediate assessment was that I bet he couldn’t handle breaking pitches. Either that or he had no bat control whatsoever; if he was lucky enough to hit it (regardless of pitch), it usually went out of the park, but hitting it was the tricky part.

It goes without saying that steroids weren’t nearly at the forefront of my mind 9 years ago as they are now. Looking at his stats today, that’d be my first guess, fair or unfair. His power numbers dropped severely his last season in Triple-A, and he was essentially out of baseball after that. Maybe after having two pretty good years on ‘roids, he got off of them, thinking his own talent would make up the difference, only to discover he was wrong. Or maybe he was clean, but did have an injury, one that sapped his power; a bad back, wrist trouble, knees. Maybe he ate his way out of the game… Baseball Cube lists his weight as 210, but B-Ref lists it as 290.

Or maybe he just couldn’t hit a curveball.

But he had two pretty good years in the minors for someone with his skill set… he was never going to be Tony Gwynn, but he might have had the chance to be Rob Deer or Pete Incaviglia. Whatever the reason, he was good, but just not good enough. And while there’s failure in that, I wonder if he looks back and thinks for a summer or two he had it… no matter what he’s doing now or who he has become, he had it, and I wonder if that makes him feel satisfied or empty.

A wise and thoughtful man once said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Those who are blessed with just an iota of talent are actually cursed.” I mean, better not to be talented at all, if your iota isn’t going to be enough to actually take you where you want to go. All that iota does is make you aware of your own shortcomings. The untalented stroll around in ignorant bliss. The truly talented shoot across the sky like a comet and the in-betweeners look up at them from back porches, beers in hand, faint smiles on faces.

I’m an HR recruiter, and one of the more fascinating things about my job is to see what brought people to where they currently are, professionally speaking. Partly because it’s my job, but mostly because it’s a story. I see dozens of stories each day. Often I have but a piece of paper from which to discern the clues, but occasionally I meet the most qualified of these folks and get to chat with them about their story. I’d do this for free (ask some of my friends, they know this all too well), but getting paid for it is one of the few instances of my own professional life dovetailing with my wants. Hearing these stories gives me hope. Why? Because they are usually haphazard. They are not meticulously planned, even those that are among the most successful. We are not drones, organisms born from hexagonal chambers and shuffled off to our destinies from the moment of birth.

The biggest quirk to these stories? Oftentimes, what we are best at is not what we are paid to do. Or rather, maybe we are better at getting paid well for something heretofore unconsidered. Nobody grows up thinking, “Someday I’m going to make people think I’m really indispensible,” or, “I’m going to network with the best of them.” It’s bullshit work and should hold no value in a decent society, but it is a valuable skill nonetheless. As valuable as showing up every day and showing up on time, things anybody should be able to do. But not everyone can, and fewer people do.

Hitting straight fastballs thrown by go-nowhere pitchers three years younger than you? Writing navel-gazing drivel on a blog? Fly fishing? Not everyone can or does these things either, but these are not commodities. Just because you’re better at it than the average cat doesn’t mean anything. It’s not something that can be pursued on a professional level. But what if it’s what you’re best at? And all your eggs were in that particular basket, but it’s just not good enough?

Better to be a number-cruncher, no? The drone? The worker who gets things done, just because that’s what they were born to do?

Probably.

But there’s an art to this uselessness. Because whether or not the former second-round pick thinks he gave it his best shot, or if his stomach curdles up every night when the lights go out as he thinks about missed opportunities, he should be able to look back and think for a brief summer or two he was one of the best at doing what he wanted to do. Or at least the best of what he could do. The swing of the bat, connecting so forcefully on the sweet spot that it almost feels like you’re swinging through air as if you hit nothing, the ball arcing through the muggy air, dusky in the setting sun. Rounding the bases. I did that.

Putting a baseball where no man, not even Willie Mays, could ever catch it. Doing it a lot, even as the shadows grow ever longer on your career, closing in, the writing on the wall in permanent ink despite your hammering pitch after pitch over the fence. Because what else are you supposed to do? Give up? Even though your fate has been decided? Walk away? No. You do what you do, and see what happens.

Eventually the end happens. Everyone hits their ceiling. Few have the benefit of having it defined so clearly in columns of statistics.

And when the numbers tell you you’re done, you hang ’em up. Take your bonus money and maybe go start a construction business. Someone somewhere looks at your story, your resume, and sees some zigs and zags and wonders, “I’d like to hear that tale.”

Why?

Because it’s in all of us. Whatever you’re best at sucks, and you have to work the diagonal to find your way in the world, and people like success stories. Makes the impossible possible. But the iota of talent is like a childhood pet; a fond yet dim memory, kept on call for when it’s needed. You grill burgers and dogs in the backyard, sun on your face, calm in knowing that you had Something once, however fleeting.

Or maybe you live a life wracked by regret, wondering what could have been. Not even over never making it to The Show, but simply wondering why you were given a gift that could only bring you so far, in a career path that dictates failure unless you break through that envelope. Or maybe you had the Real Deal gift but your body betrayed you, even in your youth; a 24-year old man with a torn tricep, or a slipped disc. Or maybe you took PEDs, and if so, well, I don’t know. I don’t know.

Or maybe, just maybe, you really weren’t good enough, no matter what. In fact, that’s likely. There were people out there better than you at what you did. Better at trying to beat you. And what do you do then, after getting punched in the mouth, your teeth rattled, blood welling under your tongue? You better do something, that’s for sure.

We all have to do something.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Lost in Translation, and the Personal Response to Film

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;

–Alexander Pope

In all the film talk that I’ve taken part in or read about over the years,  Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has become sort of a litmus test about what kind of moviegoer you are. Unlike most films that that fall into this category, however, the results of the test aren’t as stark; it’s not like a Fight Club or a Memento… I think it just guages your personality/temperament rather than your ability to understand or appreciate film.

Anyway. I saw Eternal Sunshine when it came out and liked it fine. Went with my wife. It was probably one of the last films I saw before my first child was born, an arrival which ended my theater-going career. Not a bad trade-off; I do thank Christ every day that I live in the home video age, though… in contrast, I give you my parents: they were married in 1968, my oldest sister arrived in 1969. My middle sister in 1970. Me in ’71. They were movie-going folk. Were. How did they hack it? Midnight Cowboy. Five Easy Pieces. The Last Picture Show. A Clockwork Orange. The French Connection. The Exorcist. American Graffiti. The Godfather. All missed out on, only to be caught on network TV years down the road, sliced and diced, panned and scanned on a floor-model Zenith you had to kick once in a while to restore the color. Damn.

But back to Eternal Sunshine. I liked the conceit. I like mindbending movies, your Blade Runner, your 12 Monkeys, so obviously I like Charlie Kaufman and I dug Eternal Sunshine, but it didn’t really stay with me in any way. Not sure why; it just didn’t. I remembered Kate Winslet’s hair.

But it’s been brought up time and again in other films discussions I’ve had, and since Netflix won’t see fit to send me any movies ranked higher than #7 on my queue, I figured I’d give it a second chance and threw it onto my list accordingly. It arrived the other day.

I watched it tonight, and I cannot overstate the impact it had on me. This was great movie. Was it a Great Movie? Damned if I know. But it immediately became the kind of film for which I’d buy the DVD, which admittedly might not be saying much (I own over 200). But I really felt like it said something about the need we have for other people and the importance of life lessons, good or bad.

Yeah, OK. So why didn’t I feel that the first time I watched it? I was with the same girl, living mostly the same life, except for the kids, an aspect of relationships which isn’t touched on in the film at all. Why the dramatically different response?

I’m not sure. If I had to guess, I would think that I was inhabiting a more shallowly idyllic and somewhat ignorant stage in my relationship with my wife at the time, and the movie’s themes didn’t speak to me as deeply as they did now, 6 years later. Taking stock of regrets. Holding onto fleetingly beautiful moments. Feeling as if one’s soul is intertwined with another’s across various planes of existences.

For me, the stakes got a lot higher once I had kids, and the corresponding highs and lows got far more extreme. Are there moments that I’d like to have erased from my memory? Yes. Yes, there are. But what would that do? What would be the point? It’s because of those trying times that I’ve become somewhat of a man, even if I had to be dragged kicking and screaming along the way.

I just didn’t feel the urgency between Carrey and Winslet the first time I saw the film. Tonight, it fairly leapt off the screen. The disparity was striking. And I’m sure I’d have gotten into an internet slap-fight with the 2004 version of myself had we both posted about Eternal Sunshine back then, our opinions are so divergent. Which kind of makes you stop and say, Hey, what’s going on here? Because how can I feel so confidently about my impression of a film if it’s going to change a few years down the road?

Which brings me to Part Two of this post. Kind of unrelated, but not really. I give you a supreme example of this phenomenon. Lost in Translation is another cinematic litmus test, maligned by its detractors as an empty vessel of a movie, an artless blank slate that requires the viewer to provide all the emotional fuel. If you’re one who has longing in his or her heart it will work for you, and if you don’t… well, I guess the movie won’t work for you, but of more concern for me, it means you’re not human. But hey, that’s just my take.

But Lost in Translation. A shell game of a movie because it relied on the viewer’s personal response to the film. Well, duh. Well. Duh. That’s called going to the movies. I’ve always believed in that anyway, but after seeing Eternal Sunshine again and having a vastly different experience with it, the belief is validated.

This is why I always try to couch my statements about movies in wussy terms like “I think,” or “in my opinion,” instead of stark talk like “this film is,” or “that film isn’t“. It’s not me equivocating; it’s an acknowledgment of the subjectivity of the medium.

I don’t know what my point is, by the way. Just wanted to get it out.

It’s Just a Stupid Song

Shinedown. Shinedown, for Chrissakes.

I was assaulted by this song for most of last summer. You know, “Second Chance”.

I just saw Halley’s comet, she waved…

It felt like an unholy piece of corporate rock pap birthed by the union of Daughtry and Nickelback. The kind of song where you hit the seek button upon hearing that first recognizable strum of the guitar.

Whatever, I would tell myself. It’s just a stupid summer song.

But then I got a call at the end of August that my cousin had killed himself, the kind of shocking event that drops the floor from underneath your feet, but as you fall into that irreversible abyss you think about it and maybe you realize it wasn’t that much of a surprise at all. Not at all.

Then I’m on a plane to Phoenix to claim him, his brother flying across the country from Maryland to meet me, where we will converge and ponder the incongruity of us hugging in the desert. And the whole flight I was alternately trying to sleep or read so that I didn’t have to consider why I was on that plane in the first place, with this incomprehensible mission looming in front of me, secure in the knowledge that it was going to suck and that I had no idea what I was in for. Like, a Through the Looking Glass kind of suck.

And ultimately, I was right and then some: a few days later I’d end up behind the building of some bar in Arizona, crouching on red stone gravel under a few mesquite trees in the twilight, trying to yank a sob from my unyielding chest, unable to cry even though I wanted to. The tears would be my salvation, but I couldn’t conjure them.

And when I went back into the bar, red dust still on my heels, disgusted at myself for having failed at this simplest of tasks, I looked up at the rows and rows of TV screens. Someone had made a DVD slideshow of pictures of Danny, his kids, of him with his family and friends. They were on all of these TVs, 20 or so flat screens and one huge pulldown, and a buddy of his had put some musical accompaniment to it. The song that happened to be playing as I entered was the aforementioned “Second Chance”.

I just saw Halley’s Comet, she waved
Said, “Why you always running in place?”

Tell my mother
Tell my father…

And I crumbled. And I embraced that crumbling like it was the closest person I have ever known.

* * *

My son lurks. In a good way. He hangs around, he observes. He soaks up stuff, even things unsaid. If I’m on the computer, we shoot the breeze. Or I draw in my studio, he scribbles some stuff alongside me, asks some questions. I listen to music when I do these things, and I kind of assume he can’t even hear it, like it’s a language he doesn’t speak, even though he’s five years old and can tell me who sings “Don’t Worry Baby” or “Debaser”.

I was sitting in front of my drawing table today, looking at the blank space, a beer sweating on the shelf next to me, just kind of zoning out. Because the stereo was on, turned up loud, of course, since it was my basement studio and no one was going to object. It was Shinedown’s “Second Chance,” but I wasn’t really hearing it, I was thinking of red stone dust and a cousin who was my own age but no longer there.

My son kind of crept up to my side, which he is wont to do, and when I turned to look at him, he plainly asked, “Is this song special?”

I opened my mouth.

“Yes.”

Upon Induction

In the end, it was the casual bat toss after the follow-through. Just sort of a shovel pass to get the piece of ash out of the way, the coda to a compact swing, the dot on the i that was a well-struck sphere of horsehide. I found that it crept its way into my own swing. First, it was the flip of a yellow plastic wiffle ball bat. Then I did it with a 26-ounce or 28-ounce aluminum bat in Little League, on the rare occasions I hit a ball on the screws in the first place, the kind of stroke that justified such a subtle flourish. Finally, as I grew older and settled into suburban mediocrity, it was with a 32-ounce Easton softball bat, the weapon of the workaday warrior.

As reliable as the tides; a pop-up or a stupid groundball to third would result in a disgusted drop of the bat, as if it was the sweating droplets of suck that infected my palms. (Get away! Get away!)

But a laser shot from the sweet spot? That spry push that sent the bat suspended for what seemed like an eternity, a gently falling space station from Kubrick’s 2001, Strauss providing the soundtrack.

That was Jim Rice to me. And that flip is embedded in whatever part of my brain controls my motor skills, such as they are. I still do it now, 20-plus years after I ever saw it on a consistent basis.

* * *

Jim Rice wasn’t even my guy. Yaz was. I was old school like that, even at 7 or 8, and I felt that Yaz was the respected elder of the team and he warranted that deference. The other players? Hey, they were great and all, but Yaz… he was the one the Greeks would have written about.

Probably so, but little did I know at that age that Rice was a guy they’d celebrate, too. A man of such natural strength. I laugh today because in all the highlight reels we’ve been inundated with this past weekend, Rice actually seems small. Not tiny, but he wasn’t a hulk. He wasn’t 6’ 4”. He didn’t have improbably bulging arms. There’s a Sports Illustrated cover from 1979 with him and Dave Parker on the cover, and you might look at it and in comparing the two you’d think to yourself, This is man who 46 home runs and 15 triples the year prior? Ballplayers from yesteryear look fairly shriveled compared to this era’s ‘roided up monstrosities, but here’s Rice standing next to a peer. But nobody said he was small or wiry then, because he wasn’t. He wasn’t Hank Aaron, an everyman whose extra gift was lightning wrists, he was a strongman in a normal-sized (if incredibly fit) body.

But he wasn’t my guy. Nobody other than Yaz was. And by the time Captain Carl retired, I was 12 and too old to direct that child-like awe towards another player. By then I was wise enough to see behind the curtain and realize that it was just laundry that we were rooting for.

* * *

Rice signed with the Sox three weeks after I was born. His induction into the Hall of Fame happens at another curious moment in my life, one where I still feel like I have a lot to offer this world in one way or another, but the basic path has been chosen for me at this point. It’s how I work within that path that will dictate the rest of the story.

As I watched NESN religiously today, I pondered this man whose professional career encompassed my entire existence. It wasn’t so much about Jim Rice and who he was, but what he represented. To me. My five-year old son, subjected to all of this, asked me at one point, “Does Jim Rice play now?”

“No. No, he doesn’t. He played when I was a boy. Like you.”

“Have you drawn him?” This apparently is a sign of legitimacy.

“Yes. Two within the past month, actually.”

And I looked at the TV screen as Jim Rice sent a frozen rope into the corner, tripling as he chugged around the bases in a polyester double-knit road grey V-neck, bold red helmet leaving a streak in the bad late-70’s video production.

He played when I was a boy.

Of Wax Paper, Baby Food Jars, and Jason Bourne

I’ve been painting a lot recently, and it’s been interesting because I never made a serious pass at it until a couple of years ago, and even then, I approached it tentatively… two paintings in two years. I’ve touched on this before, but it was an elephant-in-the-room situation, something I had been avoiding all along because of my unfamiliarity with it, and that avoidance only grew stronger over time.

I’ve picked up the pace a bit in the past six months (four paintings in that span), and what’s interesting is how naturally it’s come. I’m sure lifelong painters could have told me that drawing and painting skills translate well with one another, but it’s not like I ever asked, and besides, why should that be the rule? I doubt I can sculpt; yet that’s an art form. A brush seems pretty different from a pencil point or a pen nib when you think about it.The irony is that using a brush suddenly seems like the most natural thing in the world, and not only that, the most effective. It’s like I’ve been using rocks all my life to try to slay some menacing bear and someone just handed me a gun. The “Holy crap!” moments come crashing in like the tide. Relentless, but in a good way.

You know what I feel like? I feel like Jason Bourne in the film The Bourne Identity, at the early stages of the movie when he returns to mainland Europe, suffering from amnesia. He spends the night on a park bench in Switzerland (he has nowhere else to go), is rousted by two policemen, and before he knows it, he’s dispatched them with martial arts moves he never even knew he possessed. You can see the mixture of confusion and appreciation in his face.

I’ve got wax paper palettes taped down to glass tabletops in my basement studio, recycled baby food jars full of self-mixed opaque polymer washes of various colors, notions for which came bubbling up from my subconscious for no other reason aside from the certainty that they would work. I’m sure these are long-honored tricks. If I had applied myself earlier in life I’d know them already. It’s not even that they’re all that clever, that they’ve saved me from wasting money on real palettes, even though they have. It’s just that I understand the properties of the medium despite my limited exposure to it. And the point isn’t to crow about it; no, far from it. Again, if I wasn’t such a slacker I’d have found this out long ago.

But it just feels like if you’ve never ridden a bike before, and someone hands a Huffy to you and says, “Go for it.” And you hop on it and start pedaling and you go. For someone like me who has uselessly thrashed around in trying to find his way through the universe, releasing this thing which is so clearly embedded in my DNA is nothing short of weird. And it’s not that it’s earth-shattering, and it’s not that it will change any lives (not even my own), but just imagine if you were air-dropped into Brazil and found to your amazement that you spoke Portuguese. Some little part of yourself that you never knew existed was unlocked and stepped to the fore. It’s been almost 38 years and I just realized this, only now.

The Kid

Ted Williams’s 1941 line is as follows:

.406/.553/.735, 1.288 OPS, 235 OPS+ (8th highest single-season mark). The .553 OBP was the highest single-season figure until Bonds’s 2002 (.582) and 2004 (.609) seasons.

His last season (1960), as a 41-year old, he put up a .316/.451/.645 with an OPS+ of 189. Which was three seasons removed from what might be his most amazing season of all, given his age: his 1957 .388/.526/.731 (233 OPS+) at 38 years old.

He is the all-time leader in career OBP (.482), second all-time in career OPS+ (190, to Ruth’s 207… Bonds is 3rd at 182).

These are the most basic of statistics, but in light of the current SABR-heavy focus on how production is measured and with today’s players’ numbers as a convenient framing device, Ted’s numbers seem all the more fanciful. What would it be like to see this guy play now, especially given his larger-than-life persona and all of the off-the-field stuff that constantly swirled around him? Let’s not forget his role in bringing the Jimmy Fund to the forefront of the public eye as well as his war hero status. Someone once said that a movie can never be made about Ted Williams’s life, because John Wayne is dead.

In the mid-80s I went to an Old-Timers’ Day at Fenway with my father. We had seats in the boxes along the 3rd base/left field line, past the bend where it juts out toward left field at an angle. Ted played left field that day, and in the lull before the start of one inning he was casually glancing at the crowd. He happened to be looking at the area where we were seated, and my father (as emotionally reserved a man as you might find) hesitantly raised his hand to Ted, giving him a wave, all the while seeming like he couldn’t believe he was actually doing it. My father was born in 1946, and Ted was his first (and probably only) idol.

It wasn’t very crowded that day (the Old Timers’ game preceded the actual Sox game, and not everyone had arrived yet), and Ted spotted my father’s wave, and raised his hand in return.

My dad nodded to him and put his hand down, then turned to look at home plate with a smile so forceful it seemed as if he was trying to repress it for fear of his face falling off or something, his hands clenched into fists out of sheer joy. He said nothing, which was par for the course with my dad, but even if he had wanted to I don’t think he could have. I was 14 or 15 at the time, and I thought to myself, Holy crap, my dad is a kid again.

Ted’s ability to make that happen is far more impressive to me than any OPS+ he ever put up.

Ted died the week before I was married. I immediately knew that I wanted to draw a picture of him for my dad, but all my art stuff was packed away in anticipation of moving in with my wife after the wedding, and I had no place to draw it, to boot. But I was insistent, so I went to the local AC Moore and bought a charcoal pad, a couple of sticks of black and white charcoal, an eraser, and a mat and frame. And I got to my parents’ house, went upstairs to the room I grew up in as a child, sprawled myself out on the floor and drew the thing.

It wasn’t very good for a couple of reasons. I hadn’t drawn much in ten years, so I was rusty, only recently having picked up the hobby again to draw gifts for my groomsmen. And the conditions were less than ideal (maybe others work well while lying down on the floor, but I don’t). Plus the stress of the upcoming wedding was getting to me, and I didn’t have a whole lot of time to work on the piece. But I finished it and gave it to my dad the day of my rehearsal dinner. I think he appreciated the gesture, and given the timing (Ted’s death and me getting married), I’m sure it held more significance. But in the back of my mind, I really wasn’t happy with the picture. Which is kind of an artist thing, so I wasn’t all that surprised, nor did it stop me from giving it to him.

But I’ve always wanted a do-over. Even though any doofus would know that there’s no way my dad would prefer some new and supposedly improved piece over the one I drew for him in the wake of Ted’s death, and just before I got married, no less. So it wouldn’t be for him, but rather for me and my peace of mind.

Almost seven years later I finally got around to taking another crack at it, this time in color pastel (which is how I would have done it in the first place, if time and materials weren’t such a factor):

Knowing that I slayed that particular dragon was enough for me, so I donated the piece to an auction benefiting the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation last week. Sometimes these things work out OK after all.

In the Land of Skinny Ties and Hockey Hair

When I’m drawing, I ruminate. That’s the word. I ruminate about the subject matter, usually… it’s inevitable when you spend several hours hunched over a piece of paper under the circular glare of an artist’s lamp. My mind has to go somewhere. And I’ve always felt better about a drawing when I was able to connect with it on a particular level, so this rumination is good. As if my firsthand knowledge would infuse it with more life, more magic, more… something. On the other hand, if it holds no significance for me and my mind takes me to dead ends as I work, you can bet that’s going to be a bad piece of art.

I did the Bourque and Evans pieces back-to-back a couple of months ago, just before Thanksgiving. This artistic visitation of the Reagan era was by pure happenstance. The Bourque was for my cousin Chris (he of pogo-sticking/deck-crashing fame… Baltimore still bears the psychological scars). He was in town for the holiday and had been none-too-subtle over the years about his desire for a picture of Ray. The Evans was a commissioned piece, to be given as a gift by the buyer to her cousin. So I spent a good week-and-a-half banging out these two drawings, thinking about the individual athletes as well as the time period when they flourished in this town, and of course this led to thoughts of me and who I was back then. Because it’s hard to believe that it was 20 – 25 years ago.

One reason that sports fascinate me is that they provide a natural marker to the passage of time. You could watch The Godfather on 34 separate occasions over a span of 20 years and you get sucked into the story each time because it’s the same, no matter when you watch it. Maybe you think about when you first saw it, but it’s a fleeting notion. On the other hand, you happen to flip to ESPN Classic and they’re showing Celtics-Rockets from 1986 and you think, “Holy crap, those shorts aren’t flattering! And I completely forgot that it was Jerry Sichting who took down Sampson in that game!” You can watch the Celtics or the Sox for decades, but it’s an organic and spatial thing, ever-evolving, each moment a living time capsule.

I was in high school in the ’80s. Bourque and Evans were my guys at the age when I first begin to see athletes as people, however incomplete or inaccurate that vision was (and always will be). Not just men wearing my team’s pajamas anymore, identifiable only because of the logos on their chests. Not players who came before me: swings frozen in time, photographs forever tinged with yellow, backstories needing to be told to me as if they were fables. No, these deeds unfolded before my own adolescent eyes.

And I drew those guys back then, of course. When I was in high school I just assumed I was going to make my living as an artist. I didn’t really know how or in what way, but I never addressed the thought head-on because it was the thing that I was obviously most talented in, and that was enough. Everything would work itself out. But at the same time, a nagging and probably subconscious part of me didn’t want to commit to it, either. Mostly because I didn’t want to have this one thing that I was in sole possession of given over to someone else and have them determine what I was going to do with it. A boss. A customer. Whatever. I’ve bagged groceries and cut plastic lenses for light fixtures with table saws and created computer-aided pattern templates for fat men’s clothes, all with varying degrees of success and for different rates of pay, and it never bothered me too much because those aren’t things I’d ever do on my own time. Tell me to do it and I’ll do it.

But tell me to draw something that I didn’t want to? Open myself up to criticism of an idea that wasn’t mine in the first place? This perversion of my gift? And get paid absolute peanuts for it?

Outrage!

It goes without saying that I was dimly stubborn (stubbornly dim?) about the matter. Not that I was wrong about it — I was dead-on in my assessment — but it was naive. Back then it was all about integrity and whatnot. Now? While I realize that you’ve gotta do what you can to make buck, exploit any avenue that separates you from the competition, it doesn’t change the fact that I know I’m not psychologically built for that kind of artistic employment. And that’s a shortcoming, not something to be proud of.

So I look back and sort of shake my head. I don’t know if they were wasted years, rife with opportunities not taken. I don’t think so… like I said, I’m pretty sure that was never going to be the path for me. Better that I short-circuited it myself pretty early on, rather than finding out one day when I’m 45, I guess.

But on the positive side, those years marked my first steps toward independence, that hopelessly awkward transition from boy to teenager to young man. A feeble and staggering gait towards self-sufficiency and self-determination, the dawning realization that my gift was big fat fucking zero in the Life’s Profession department, over before it ever began. And weaving its way through that, the arteries that supplied blood to the muscles and organs, the fabled Best Years of Your Life. I got my driver’s license. Had a couple of jobs, could see movies whenever I wanted to, went to some parties. Discovered beer. All the while feeling the tectonic plates of my existence grinding against each other, the continental shelf entitled Girls shifting and passing over the one called Goofing Around. Good things. Finding a purpose, even if it was to get her to say yes, or to find someone who could buy booze for you, or to do just enough to avoid failing Trigonometry.

On Friday or Saturday nights, the grocery store where I worked would close down and some co-workers and I would hang out in the parking lot afterward, throwing around a football until the manager shut off the lot’s overhead lamps, usually about an hour after we punched out.

We’d fling our aprons onto the ground, shouting and whooping as we scuffled around the asphalt in our workboots, tossing spirals as our car radios broadcast the feats of an Evans or a Bourque through rolled-down windows.

Freedom

My first drawing of the new year. Non-commissioned. I just think Lincecum has a great delivery that’s full of energy, even when captured in a still. It’s always jumped out at me, and I’ve been planning on doing a drawing of him for a while. I’ve been pretty busy with a lot of commissioned work for the holidays, but once the season was over, I had some free time. I had a blast doing it… the time flew. Charcoal is a very quick medium anyway, but this piece took only two hours to finish.

I don’t think it’s any surprise to me that the pieces I’m most happy with are ones that I chose to do myself. Usually all I see are the flaws in any drawings I’ve done, but there are a few where I wouldn’t change a thing, and they were all non-commissioned. 

I’m sure it’s psychological. I had serious trouble with being told what to draw when I was in college, which didn’t bode well for my educational or professional prospects, at least as an artist. The fact that I can do it now is due to a few things… I still have some control over the process because usually I’m given a subject but have free reign on the actual composition. (“I’d like a drawing of Ted Williams, I’ll let you choose the source material.”) I also think I’ve matured somewhat over the last 19 years. And finally, I can’t complain about the money. I’ve done worse things for a buck, something I had no foreknowledge of when I was school. An office career provides perspective. So I can usually bang out whatever drawing is required, but sometimes it feels like a struggle, and I rarely like the finished product. That doesn’t happen with the ones I’ve done on my own, and certainly not with this Lincecum, which is one of my best pieces, I think.

Just more food for thought.

The Fight

You throw.

You throw because you have no choice. To do otherwise would be to admit defeat. So you throw and you throw and you throw. The source material is a puzzle to be solved and you are but a thief trying out different combinations.

The paper is your enemy. It will be bent to your will. And as each permutation of pencil and eraser fail, your resolve only grows stronger. You must embrace failure as part of the learning curve. Because somewhere in the back of your mind you’re thinking to yourself, I got this beat. This stupid 2-dimensional image. I got this beat.

Charcoal or pastel dust being ground into textured paper.  The tricks aren’t working, so you improvise. And as the outcome hangs in the balance, there are no worries because a mantra keeps repeating itself in your mind:

 I’m the best that ever was

 I’m the best that ever was

 I’m the best that ever was

True Romance: 15 Years Gone

Maine Medical Center, northern New England’s largest hospital, sits on a bluff in Portland known as the Western Promenade, overlooking Route 295 and the Fore River just before it empties into Casco Bay. It was built in 1874.

Growing up in Massachusetts I had little knowledge of Maine, and would not be consciously aware of any of this until 2001.

* * *

I was standing on the sidewalk on Beacon Street, cast in the yellowish glow from the streetlight above, my legs somewhat unsteady and my lungs breathing fresh air for the first time in eight hours. The screech of the C Line reaching its terminus poked through my drunken haze, causing me to look up. Cleveland Circle.

My apartment was a couple of blocks away, down Comm Ave via Chestnut Hill Ave, towards BC. A short walk. It was close to midnight, probably time to pack it in, unless someone suggested grabbing some late-night chow, which was advisable. I had just spent the equivalent of a work day drinking within the puke-scented confines of Mary Ann’s, cheap beer from shitty tap lines, no food eaten in that span except for the time I ran across Beacon Street to the CVS to get myself a Snickers bar (Because it really satisfies, because it really satisfies, I kept telling myself as I hopped over the T tracks that bisected the street). That might have been around 7:00.

Shadowy faces of my companions under the harsh glare of the streetlamp. We were waiting for someone to say something, not quite ready to quit on the night, but trying muster an idea that would provide the inspiration to just get us to move.

My friend Rob glanced casually to his left, looking beyond the Dunkin’ Donuts, across Chestnut Hill Ave, past the Ground Round. To the Circle Cinemas. A slight grin stole across his face.

“Wanna go see True Romance again?”

I looked at my watch. 11:45. There was a midnight show.

Rob and I had seen True Romance earlier that afternoon, the day of its premiere, September 10, 1993. Our two friends with us at Mary Ann’s, Marjie and Jon, had not. But Rob and I hadn’t shut up about the movie all goddamn day (in between my commandeering of M.A.’s CD juke and shushing everyone to listen to the guitar solo in Dinosaur Jr’s “Start Choppin’” for about eight or nine times in a row, of course). And after being subjected to our rapturous and relentless endorsement of the movie, they were sufficiently primed to see it.

I opened my mouth. Speaking was a deliberate act at this point.

“Yes. Yes I do.”

So the four of us began to drift toward the theater, pulled like we were in the grip of some tractor beam, foolishly thinking we had made the conscious decision to go see this movie once more.

Glass doors swinging open. Cinema lobby pristinely bright, redolent of popcorn and melted butter. Pay your money, get your ticket, they let you in. God bless America.

A sweating plastic cup full of Cherry Coke cradled in one hand, the size of a mortar shell, ice swishing back and forth. A pack of strawberry Twizzlers clasped in the other. Falling into the plush blue fabric seat, ass slung low to the ground, head lolling back and looking at that vast expanse of screen, waiting for the images to start flickering and tell their story. Lights dimming.

And I sat through True Romance again, eleven hours after having first seen it, a shitfaced and open-mouthed grin on my face the entire time.

* * *

That spring I had somehow managed to get myself into a relationship with a girl who had no interest in me and would generally bong hit herself into oblivion in order to avoid our pathetic attempts at sex. In her defense, I’d have to say it was a justifiably sound strategy on her part. That this lasted for almost 5 months was testament to my naïveté, although I console myself now by saying that stupid is par for the course when you’re 22.

We started dating in April, she graduated from BC in May, and after a month or so of her fruitlessly searching for a job in Boston, she went up to Maine to work at the lobster restaurant where she had waitressed the past two summers. I had never really spent any time in Maine before, and at the very least, I figured my periodic visits to see her would give me the opportunity to explore parts of that strange and unknown state.

But it was the beginning of the end of us, mercifully enough. Because after two weekend visits (one in August and one in the beginning of September, Labor Day weekend, on her birthday), I began to worry more about the miles I was putting on my car than the state of our relationship. I didn’t think dumping her was the sort of thing I should do over the phone (despite the nagging feeling that she’d greet this development enthusiastically), so I made one last trip up on the Thursday after Labor Day to do the deed, and met her at the restaurant as she got off work. But instead of ending it right then, I proceeded to get bombed with her at the restaurant’s outdoor bar overlooking the water.

The next morning, I woke up and dumped her, as pre-emptive a move as I’d ever made to that point in my life. Smash cut to me in my car, driving south from Brunswick on Route 295, zipping past Portland and its hospital perched on a hill whose existence I was indifferent to, knowing it only as some random brick building I could see from the highway. And I was free.

I was going to be back in Boston by mid-day, it was a Friday, and I was going to get hammered and unleash my pent-up frustration on the unsuspecting streets of Allston/Brighton that night, but I had one thing to do first:

I was going to see True Romance.

Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs had been released that past winter, and it was such a refreshing jolt of pulp that it instantly made his next project worth keeping an eye on, and True Romance’s script was written by him (sold before Dogs even went into production, no less). I had a movie friend, Rob (a goofy bastard, but someone who loved film as much as I did), and he and I were going to catch it at some point that opening weekend, it was just a question of when. Being that my calendar was suddenly clear, it would now be that afternoon, the day of its premiere. Rob was waiting to go to grad school in Ireland — he would leave later that month — so he could do things like go to weekday matinees. The benefits of a liberal arts education.

I stopped at the Kennebunk rest area and called him from a pay phone, heady with the news:

“Meet me at the Dedham Showcase this afternoon, we’re going to the 1:00.”

* * *

At around 3:00, I walked out of the Showcase feeling as if someone had just hit me over the head with a large board. True Romance was trash, but it was dizzyingly beautiful trash. At times I crave cerebral (and sometimes inaccessible) film, but on occasion, you just have to sit back and admire the home run. It was like eating a Big Mac with a tub of ice cream and washing it down with a Schlitz tall boy. The most decadent Big Mac I had ever eaten, the sublimely sweetest ice cream I ever tasted, the coldest and crispest Schlitz I ever drank.

Rob and I felt like we were in on some earth-shattering secret, having just seen one of the greatest popcorn movies of all time, and having seen it first, no less. Just three other people had even been in the theater with us for the 1:00 show. Out on Route 1, in front of the theater, cars came and went, oblivious to what had just transpired. A blank blue sky stretched out overhead, unknowing. We had information. Our molecules fairly vibrated from the life-altering experience we just had, and it was as if we were both John the Baptist, knowing Things that others did not.

Keyed up, I drove back to my apartment on Comm Ave, Hans Zimmer’s Orff-evoking score still drumming in my head. Rob followed me in his car. I grabbed a case of beer along the way, feeling the rumble of the idling liquid-fueled Saturn V rocket that was the combination of me breaking up with my girlfriend and seeing this film within a span of 6 hours, knowing that blastoff was but a dive bar away. Arriving at my apartment, we power-slammed three beers apiece, then lit out on an unsuspecting city. I left the following note for my roommate, Jon, who would be getting out of work at 5:00:

“Free at last. At M.A.’s, meet us there.”

And once we entered the cool and dank confines of Cleveland Circle’s finest establishment, I proceeded to drink my face off. Jon and Marjie joined us later.

* * *

Snapshots of a life not quite real. Remember ViewMaster Clickers? A sort of hybrid between binoculars and a virtual reality visor, utilizing flimsy little cardboard wheels with tiny slides along their outside edges inserted into a slot on the viewer’s top. A chintzy little internal slide projector. Looking raptly through those lenses, you could be transported to a new world, probably Barbie’s Dream House or the Hall of Justice, the typical six-year old’s Louvre or Sistine Chapel.

The thing about the ViewMaster was the trigger. You pushed that button down with your index finger, spring compressing, the little cardboard wheel turning inside the ViewMaster, rotating the disc halfway down toward the next “slide” on the outside edge of the wheel. Letting that springloaded lever slip off your fingertip would snap the wheel up to bring the next image into view.

A garish photo lingering before your eyes, almost too close to comprehend as reality, and then you’d press the lever, and then… blackness. The gear inside the ViewMaster could be heard. The anticipation of the next image could be felt. And then the lever would swing back up, the next slide being revealed in all its wonder and glory. The world’s slowest strobe light.

Imagine letting your eyelids slowly slip closed, then opening them and seeing something completely different. But as fantastical as that new image may be, it’s the blackness in between that dictates the story, despite what your eyes tell you.

* * *

As it turned out, for all of the zeitgeist that we were sure True Romance would generate, nobody cared. They just didn’t care. It grossed $4 million in its opening weekend, $12 million during its total theatrical run.

But it has gained status on home video. I’ve owned three separate copies of the film: VHS, bought in 1994 when it was first released; the initial Director’s Cut DVD, picked up sometime in the late ‘90s as I was switching my library over to that format; and the unrated 2-disc version with the Scott and Tarantino audio commentaries, which I should have known to wait for in the first place. Not that I could’ve waited.

The thing I remember most about the day I first saw it was this indescribable giddy feeling: This why I go to the movies. The film’s two conversational showdowns – Slater/Oldman and Walken/Hopper – those are a master class in creating tension through subtext, and both are settled with big bangs. If you have an inner thirteen-year old somewhere within the recesses of your heart, where everything is couched in terms of bullets, drugs, witty movie references, and hookers with hearts of gold, this movie should strike a chord.

When all is said and done, I go to the movies to have fun. This movie was fun.

I watched True Romance again last night, a fifteenth anniversary viewing, sitting on a couch my wife and I had bought together at Hub Furniture in Portland, Maine. Maine, where we lived for four years from 2001 to 2005 after my wife randomly got a well-paying job up there. Maine, where I worked at Maine Medical Center for three years, the hospital where two of my three children were born. The hospital that overlooked a stretch of highway I passed through several times way back when, including a drive home to Boston on the morning of Friday, September 10, 1993, on my way to catch a movie.

And as I watched Christian Slater attempt to pick up a prostitute by telling her that if he had to fuck a guy, he’d fuck Elvis, there were actually three people occupying that corner spot on my couch, each existing in a separate dimension with a shared nexus: A thirteen year-old boy whose wildest dreams were somehow telegraphed onto the screen before him. A twenty-two year old young man who was aimlessly free and just beginning to sense the control he had over his own life, driving by some building on a hill in some city he neither knew nor cared about. And finally, the thirty-seven year old husband and father watching this movie now, his wife beside him, his children slumbering away off in their bedrooms as he looked at the images flickering across the screen, sensing that boy and young man within.

Two Octobers

Complicity.

What was my father thinking to himself as I sat hunched over in my bed, my face buried in the crook of my arm, failing miserably at not crying?

I could almost hear him: I did this to him. Like if he had been a reformed alcoholic who watched me take one drink too many and careen into an endtable, lamp flying, me muttering to myself, “Who put that there?” That flawed gene, that came from me. This is all my fault. Years had slipped by where it had seemed there would be no repercussions, no piper to pay. Maybe the bullet had been dodged. But no, no… not on this night.

October 27, 1986. The Red Sox had lost Game 7 to Mets, my first dance with the fickle mistress of postseason baseball (I was fifteen). I had made it through the aftermath of Game 6 OK, angry as hell, of course, but with jaw set and focusing on the fact that there was still one more game to play. So what the hell was happening now?

I had stepped across that Sox fan threshold and finally understood what it meant to live and die for this team. And there I was, fucking crying, and I couldn’t control it and it wasn’t fair and I didn’t know why I had to feel this way at all. I had thought I held it together in the immediate wake of the final out, just morosely slinking off to bed, but once the darkness settled in and the reality of days without any more baseball and the tortured joke of how it all went down caught up to me, and it happened. I cried. Like each breath was being torn out of my lungs. I was fifteen, for Christ’s sake, but I still couldn’t help it.

And my father came in, and I wouldn’t look at him, I kept my face smashed into my arm as if this would somehow deny the reality of what was happening, and I think part of him had to be wishing he never nurtured my love for the Sox in the first place, never took me to games when I was very young, never sat and talked baseball with me, as if all of this could have been avoided if I just never cared about it to begin with. Complicity.

His words to me weren’t historic, not bathed in the glow that inspires orators, but they were pragmatic and heartfelt. There would be next year, he assured. He was careful to point out that my grandfather, his father, had followed the Sox for his entire life without seeing them win a World Series, and we had to appreciate what was given us (Poppy had passed away in 1983).

But it didn’t help, not at the time. And despite my grief over this love for a team that my father had passed down to me, despite his own role and accountability in what I was feeling at the time, I think he was proud. Because I cared that much. Cared too much, in fact, although that was really an impossibility, when you think about it.

* * *

Scott Rolen had just flied out to right field, making the first out in the bottom of the ninth. I told my wife to go get our five-month old son out of his crib and bring him down for this.

“Can’t you wait until there’s at least two outs?” she asked.

“Edmonds might hit into a double play.” Pujols was on first.

She went to go get him.

There were maybe sixteen people in a room that was designed to seat 6. Kitchen chairs had been brought in, people were sitting on the arms of couches. I had driven two hours from my home in Maine to watch Game 4 at my sister’s house in Massachusetts, weeknight be damned. My wife didn’t quite understand why, just as she didn’t understand what was to be gained from waking an infant to witness a moment he wouldn’t possibly ever remember. But I had to watch the game with my dad. I had to be with my dad. And my son had to be there, too.

I sat on the floor at my father’s feet. He had the corner of one of the couches. We were faking being at ease, but not overly so: even false hubris would smack of the preconceived notion of celebration, therefore taunting the baseball gods.

Back in the top of the third, when Nixon got to a 3-0 count with the bases loaded, we both simultaneously muttered, “I bet he’s got the green light on this pitch.” And indeed he swung, missing a homer by a few feet and scoring Ortiz and Varitek in the process. And the game progressed to its preordained conclusion, but you still had to wait for it to get there. And in waiting, you start thinking of all the ways that things could go wrong. But then it gradually became clear that none of these bad things were going to happen, and the Sox were indeed going to win the World Series, but you had to wait that interminable moment or two until victory actually arrived. Because baseball does not run on a clock. You had to get the outs.

Such anticipation regarding the Sox was audacious, considering their calamitous postseason history, but then again, the Cardinals were fucking cooked. Absolutely dead, and it seeped out of their pores the entire game. We could smell the stink of it in Hopedale, halfway across the country.

So in the bottom of the ninth my wife stood in the living room cradling my stirring son, and once Edmonds struck out, I shifted from my sitting position to a kneeling crouch. I threw a glancing look back at my dad, wondering what was passing through his mind, and saw that while his face was one of guarded calmness, he was grinding his palms together with such force that the veins on the backs of his hands stood out. And my eyes flitted back to the TV, intently watching Foulke face Renteria, and as soon as the hopper back to the mound was stabbed, the room erupted. Me leaping out of my crouch and instinctively grabbing my father, burying my face in his shoulder as I once buried it in my own arm on another October night long ago, crying just as I did then but for entirely different reasons, a long journey that we had taken together finally having come to fruition.

I held him for a lot longer than I care to admit. The embrace had its origins in baseball, but it became an opportunity to silently thank him for everything he’d ever done for me, to simply show him how glad I was that he was my father. He who had handed down to me this wonderful gift, wrapped in horsehide and red stitches.

When I finally let go of him, my wife put my bleary-eyed son in my arms. He was not crying. No, his face bore the serene look of the starsailor gone through the other side of a black hole, beholding a new universe, one where it just so happened that the words Dent, Buckner and Boone held no weight, nor would they ever. And I gently brought his forehead to my dampened cheeks, baptizing him into this strange and euphoric unknown.

Phantom Limb

This is all gonna make sense in the end.

 

The above picture is of 1961 Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis, Syracuse Orangeman running back and leukemia victim who died at the age of 23. The piece was done on commission for a friend who went to Syracuse, which she was going to give as a gift to a friend of hers who was also an SU alum.

This sort of thing is exactly the type of piece that I do, and while I prefer action shots to portraits, the source picture was this gorgeous black-and-white photograph that lent itself very well to charcoal. Add to that the significance of the event (Davis hoisting the Heisman the night he had won it, first African-American recipient in the trophy’s history, died less than two years later), I was more than happy to draw it.

And, of course, I went to Syracuse myself. For three semesters, anyway.

My thoughts about college run all over the map. In a vacuum I think it’s a tremendous experience that every 18-year old kid should be required to go through, but once you start taking cost into account and what the return on that investment will be, it starts to get dicey. Throw in the fact that it’s sold as a bill of goods vis-à-vis future employment, yet at least half of the kids enrolled at any one time are going to end up doing the same type of job whether they went to college or not (and that’s presuming they even finish, which a good portion won’t), and the whole concept strikes me as a big fat fucking shakedown. And I say this as a recruiter working in an employment office, one who looks at resumes on a daily basis and interviews candidates to try to determine if they’re qualified for the job I’m trying to fill, so I have to be able to discern this type of stuff.

College should be required for the life lessons alone. It instills independence, it encourages critical thinking, it fosters responsibility and accountability, and in most cases it exposes the student to a far more culturally diverse landscape than their high school or hometown ever provided. College can also knock you on your ass, but it’s important to get your ass stomped once in a while.

What it does not do is guarantee you a job, any job (let alone one in your chosen field of study), nor can it possibly justify its cost. Those are realities. And if so, then at least 50% of the kids going to college have no business being there. I went to Syracuse for three semesters in 1989 and 1990, and at that time it cost $25,000 a year, and I was an art major, of all things. If I had actually been a diligent student who applied myself and lasted all four years, my parents and I would have been $100K in the hole, and for what? Maybe I’d have been a better person for having had that much time at college to explore my art, but a $100K is a steep price to be a starving artist. Jesus, even if you’re going to major in Finance or Accounting that’s a tough effing pill to swallow, except these days the pill costs $200,000. Most would be better served by using their first year’s tuition as a down payment on a house and the next three years of tuition towards the mortgage, all the while working at real job, gaining that much more experience (as well as equity) in the process.

Of course, we live in a world where college degrees are required for most white-collar jobs, so there’s that. But frankly, if you’re just going to college to play the paper chase and that’s it, you might as well go to a state school.

On the other hand, would I have paid $100K to magically have the experiences I missed out on by dropping out of college early? In a heartbeat, presuming I had that kind of cash to spend. I did go back and finish ten years later, at a different school and under a different major, and while I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment in doing so (and ultimately got more out of it at my advanced age than I ever would have in my late teens/early 20s), I felt like I was marked in some deeply weird way just the same. And in the end, even after getting the degree, I still feel like I never really exorcised that ghost. For eight years, from the time I left Syracuse to the time I enrolled at Framingham State, I walked around under the acrid grey clouds of a nuclear winter, hidden from the eyes of God, wandering somewhere east of Eden with a whistling hole in my soul that refused to close. So even now, with my whole education dilemma miraculously rectified, I still have dreams where I somehow fell short.

Amputees imagine pain in limbs that no longer exist. I look at my leg, which had been symbolically shorn off at the thigh in the metaphysical car crash that was leaving Syracuse, and despite the limb that magically sprouted from that stump upon graduating from Framingham, I still wake up clutching at the perceived empty space. Despite the flesh and bone so clearly there. Persistence of memory, or simply haunted.

The car crash was my fault, by the way. All my fault. But I don’t think there was much I could’ve done about it. And as I alluded to, even if I had avoided it, I’m not sure the alternative would have been better for me. Given this knowledge, from both my time as a student and as a recruiter who hires college grads and experienced workers, I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do when it comes to my own kids and their college plans. I may not have to worry… with some kids you never do. They’ll get their good grades and do everything they’re supposed to do and generally take care of themselves. I’ll endorse whatever choices that kid makes.

But the kid who seems like they might have one foot planted in another world, some dimension where rules and expectations and laws of gravity are like a foreign language that everyone else can speak but the kid? I don’t know what to do about that kid. That kid is fucked. And I hope I’d be able to step in and guide him or her somehow, but I doubt I could have been guided at that age. Maybe I could pull it off, having gone through what I have, but it would require making some really important decisions, birthed via an ugly and bloody process. There would be casualties, and with no guarantees that the right path was chosen in the first place.

May my children grow up to be accountants, or left-handed fireballers out of the pen.