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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.

Chimera

OK, there a couple of significant things about this recently completed drawing:

1. It wasn’t commissioned, nor was it drawn for any express purpose other than I felt like doing a picture of Willie Mays. Prior to last night, that scenario hadn’t happened in a long time.

2. As such, it represents a subtle shift to creating the sort of art that ultimately might say something a little more than, “Hi, I’m a picture of Willie Mays.” Not much more, mind you, but it won’t be strictly representational, like the stuff I do now. Because what I’ve envisioned doing for a considerable amount of time is creating an entire collection or series of ballplayer drawings, comprised mostly of those who played in the ’50s and ’60s, and sort of trying to make a statement about who they were in the baseball pantheon and how we view them. Especially compared to stars from the ’70s and on. In fact, I’d like to do one series of guys like Mays, Aaron, Mantle, Clemente, etc. and then do another of their future peers from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, players who may stack up statistically but just don’t hold that same allure. And I imagine the two series will be starkly different on a visual basis, and to really understand the ultimate statement you’d have to see both collections one right after the other, or simultaneously. It’s important to note that I’m critical of myself for this bias towards older players and I think the tendency needs to be deconstructed, and whatever art results from this idea would examine that.

And what would I find? I don’t know, frankly, but I have some guesses. It’s the kind of thing that would be honed through the work itself. I’ve always found it interesting why I’ve romanticized ballplayers from the ’50s and ’60s (not just from a fan’s basis but from an artist’s as well). The blousy uniforms were far more interesting and the black-and-white photography captured these really great contrasts between light and shadow. On the other hand, try drawing a picture of Nolan Ryan from 1980:

Unless you’re Andy Warhol, what’s the point?

But, you know, that kind of is the point. Especially if I have these motivations that spur me to draw players from one era as opposed to the other, even though I’m a fan of all great players across all eras. There’s a reason why I’m hung up on it, and it’s something that possibly can be explored through my art. The idea that I can do this intrigues me. Barry Bonds and Frank Thomas rival Ruth and Williams in terms of sheer numbers, even when adjusted for the much livelier offense of the past 20 years. But Bonds has so much baggage and Thomas is looked at as being a beneficiary baseball’s offensive surge that it’s blasphemy to compare them to such greats. Where’s the romance in drawing Bonds and Thomas? It would end up seeming more of a political statement.

OK, but what about the players just before them? George Brett, Robin Yount, Ozzie Smith, Carlton Fisk? Great players in their own right, free of steroid allegations and juiced-ball theories, but sexy? Not really.

So yeah, there’s something there, and in drawing these players I’d otherwise feel no particular motivation to draw, I might find something out and end up saying something in the process.

There was an interesting debate yesterday on the Sons of Sam Horn website regarding emotional attachment to players that was disproportionate to their actual skill. What started the argument was one poster professing his love for Jerry Adair, and it devolved into a old vs. young/observation vs. stats shouting match, with predictable responses from both sides.

Now, Jerry Adair is no Willie Mays, obviously. But Jerry Adair isn’t even Dave Roberts, a bit player who managed to take advantage of a singular opportunity and impacted Sox history in a very profound way. But the argument isn’t even about Jerry Adair, really. It’s about old vs. new, and in that argument, old always gets the deferential respect and new always pales in comparison. And despite my not being alive during the ’50s or ’60s and never having seen Mays and Aaron play, to me they’re gods worthy of artistic paean, while Alex Rodriguez is a robotic douchebag and Ken Griffey, Jr is a broken down could-have-been (despite having more than 600 home runs and a Hall of Fame career). Categorizations that are unfair and diminish their place in baseball history, at the very least. I know this. Yet I still find myself wanting to draw a picture of Billy freaking Williams instead of Chipper Jones, who’s at least a contemporary of mine.

So we’ll see if anything comes of this. I’m probably going to give this Mays piece away (I’d like to to paint the pieces in this proposed collection, and this one’s in charcoal), so it’s not like the process is underway,  but the scope of the project is starting to come into focus. I think it could be interesting, at least for me, anyway.

Edit: Or it could be a big steaming pile of bullshit. One never knows, one never knows.

Because I Like to Poke Hornets’ Nests

If you think I left the Paul Pierce drawing alone after all the angst it’s given me, you don’t know me very well. The funny thing is that I spent maybe another hour on it and I bet hardly anyone will notice the difference, which shows you how unnecessarily compulsive I can be. Considering the risk/reward factor (I’ve drawn my way right out of perfectly fine pieces before and ruined them), it’s a retarded thing to do, but letting it sit there when I think I can improve it feels worse.

Anyway, while you may not be able to tell the difference, at least I didn’t trash the piece, either. Here’s the updated drawing:

And here’s a close-up of his face, which is primarily what I re-worked:

By the way, I guarantee you I’m going to touch it up again tonight, but I’m pretty confident it’ll be going under glass immediately afterwards. 

“A Whaaaat?”

Just an update on my earlier post regarding my difficulties with the Paul Pierce drawing I was trying (and failing) to do.

I was able to finish it last night, and I’m happy with it for the most part. I still think it could look more like him, but I’m willing to concede that part of that may be due to the facial expression he’s making. It’s not like it’s his typical face, so in trying to capture that emotion while having it still look like him (in the way that he appears in my mind’s eye), I probably stacked the deck against myself. At least in terms of my own comfort level. I think it resembles him just enough for me to feel comfortable declaring the piece finished and allowing it to be auctioned off, but that “just comfortable enough” feeling, when it’s been present, always constitutes an uneasy peace that I’ve made with myself (as opposed to, say this Ortiz drawing, about which I never had a moment’s doubt).

Here’s the finished piece:

Regardless of the perceived lack of resemblance to Pierce, I like what’s going on in the piece. It has a more rushed/sketchy feeling than I usually render (I’m often guilty of trying to be too fine, usually at the expense of the work). It probably came out that way because after drawing four or five iterations of his face, trying to get it right, and finally settling on a version I could actually live with, I hastily dashed out the rest of the drawing just to get away from the glacial pace I had set.

Anyway, it’s up for auction now, with a bid of $300 on it so far. So between this and the Ortiz piece I donated, I’m responsible for almost $1000 going to fight ALS. As I said in my post regarding the Ortiz drawing, that’s money I’m in no position to contribute out of my own pocket, so to be able to do it this way has been rewarding. Plus, I caught a 3-ton shark in the process… or perhaps the better analogy would be that I caught a tiger shark (“A whaaat?”) in my search for a great white, but hey, I gotta be pretty happy under the circumstances.

I Never Drew a Manny

In his 7 1/2 years as a Red Sox, I never drew a picture of Manny. I’ve seen some great photos of him that would make a terrific drawing or painting, either due to the composition itself or the significance of the event depicted, but I never felt the emotional attachment to him as a person that is a requirement of any subject that I draw. Compounding matters is that Manny was such a polarizing figure that the market for any artwork of him was 50% less than that of someone like Ortiz or Pedro. A lot of fans just weren’t that into him.

I recognize his prodigious talent, I generally supported him through all the “Manny being Manny” antics because it wasn’t like we didn’t know what we were getting when he came to Boston, and I appreciate his role in the two World Series the Sox won during his tenure.

But his aloofness and mercurial ways ensured I’d never feel any sort of connection to him, unlike with Papi or Pedro or even Nomar. The way I feel about Manny is the way I imagine non-cat people feel about cats. Who can understand them? What’s the point?

So I am not saddened in the least by this trade. I do think the Sox will miss Manny’s bat, and if the Sox get to the postseason, I’m sure there will be a moment where I wish he was in the lineup, so in that sense I have a tinge of regret. But it’s only because I root for the Sox. I have no animosity toward Manny, but I feel like I never really “got” him, either, so seeing him go doesn’t disturb me one bit.

But the Sox do seem to have trouble with departures like these, and it makes it difficult when trying to choose a next art project to work on. It’s not like painting a portrait of the family patriarch; odds are that whoever you spend hours on trying to render in charcoal or paint is someday going to leave town in a very ugly manner, and all that time and effort seems like a silly waste (there are a few Clemenses I did that are floating around out there somewhere). I have no idea if the Nomar drawing I gave my brother-in-law back in 2000 still means anything to him, but if it doesn’t, I can’t say I blame him.

Oh, Nomar was a pain in the ass even more than Manny in some ways, but the difference between him and Manny is that I felt like Nomar genuinely cared about the team and the town, but he was an OCD type of guy who wasn’t built to articualte his feelings (and made things worse when he tried), and ultimately he couldn’t deal with the fishbowl that was Boston. All of which I can understand, so I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I still think of him as someone who was in just completely over his head in terms of what was expected of him as a baseball hero in this town and all that came with that, and as such, I feel some sincere sympathy for him. I think he felt like if he played hard and people just left him alone, things would work out and all would be OK. But he suffered through some nagging injuries and then suddenly there were some rancorous and public negotiations leading up to his contract year, and I think he was out of his element when it came to balancing such matters. And then he was gone.

But I’m glad I drew the picture of him, for several reasons. Still am. I don’t think ill of Nomar.

Manny? Manny was a scuba diver from Jupiter. I can’t even pretend to know what the hell was going on in his head, so I just sat back and watched. And it was entertaining, but in an oddly detached way. And when I think of drawing a picture of him, I just kind of shrug and think, “Why?” It’d be like trying to paint someone wearing a blank mask.