cold takes

untimely baseball shortform

Category: Essay

The Hospital

empty-hospital-600x403

Dear Sylvie,

Last night I had a dream. We were at the hospital: you, me, your mother and brother. I don’t know why we were there. For a friend, maybe: someone giving birth, a happy thing. No one seemed to be upset. But it was something, because you began to show signs of an allergic reaction, hives on your legs and feet, and your mother had to stay, nurse Felix and take care of whoever it was. She sent me with you, to go ahead, go to the front desk and get checked in. She would catch up. So we did.

You didn’t say much, uncharacteristically; you just held my hand as we started walking through lobbies and hallways, in and out of buildings, searching for signs. It was a very large hospital, and unfamiliar, and I realized that I couldn’t find anyone to ask for directions. We just walked along in sunlit, silent corridors, craning necks around corners.

This is what I always think of when I dream of hospitals, I guess. We don’t go to them often; the occasional checkup or shot for you or your brother, an odd ear infection. Your first allergic reaction. In real life they’re mostly waiting rooms, good memories, stickers and antibacterial handwashes. Once as we waited I walked you around the lobbies, chatting at the old women slumped in chairs, naming all the fish in the seawater tanks. But in my dreams, this is where my mind goes: to hospitals without people, of buildings so empty they no longer seem manmade. They have a silence that could even make you silent, as you walked with me.

We never found the front desk. I didn’t look down at you, but as we walked you were getting sicker, coughing more. I should have felt panic, but it was not that kind of dream. As the dreamer, I was not trying to make myself scared, just lost. I am terrible at dreaming because I am terrible at visualization; I do not look at anything, only think about things. Besides, it was all wrong. I am the one who will get sick, I am the one who will someday be at this hospital, dying out of sight. Thus the dream did not end, because I could not imagine it.

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A Reminder

platoscave

Occasionally, as I’m combing through the bookmarks on my browser, looking for nothing, looking for something I haven’t clicked on in a while, hoping something has changed, which means I will have changed: occasionally, I will click on a link called “Millions.”

This is the link.

I have no context for it. I was given the link by Jason Wojciechowski, for reasons I don’t recall. I have avoided learning what The Millions is, or what they are all talking about in this particular webpage: I do not know the book, or the author, or the subject. I don’t want to know; it’s not important. I click on the link, and read the following passage:

“When the men with bluish rifles line up along the illuminated railing of the Ozark Bridge, do not marvel at how the bridge’s support cables resemble your own ribcage.”

I read this the way that sometimes, when I am at home and have done something stupid and unfatherly like leave the front door unlocked or forget to add something to the calendar, I will move into an empty room and punch myself once, in the shoulder. I read it when I have been writing too much and reading too little. It is so easy to write poorly, and I am so tired. I can rest a little, then a little more.

Another quote, this time by Reggie Jackson:

“When you take a pitch and line it somewhere, it’s like you’ve thought of something and put it with beautiful clarity.”

Baseball has been made into everything; that’s one of its virtues, to serve as the template for every possible idea or argument. There are few instances of sport that match the hitting of a baseball in this regard, however, with its indelible fortepiano. That knowledge, almost instantaneous but never quite, that you have got something, created something unique and thrilling. If I were a baseball player, if I were Reggie Jackson, I would never quit, I think to myself. I would keep trying for one last liner. I’d never grow tired.

That’s what the first quote is for: like pinching an earlobe on the fourth hour driving, something to wake you up and hurt you just barely. To try something fucking amazing. Last night before bed I read a short summary of the Allegory of the Cave, maybe for the hundredth time. The old idea that there is something greater out there, that our own existence is gray-scale, shadowy.  That there is a wisdom if we want it.

It’s paternalistic bullshit to me, mostly the idea that there is One Wisdom to have, the typical defensive philosophical stance. But it’s undeniable to look at this metaphor as a writer, to consider writing without the silken cords of our own patterns, our own cliches, our comfortable single-camera lives. The identity we forge in our own borders, the communication with readers and friends who know us, who expect from us.

So, to myself, when I click on this later: close your eyes. Forget the shadows, forget the light behind you. Forget the drive to work, the podcasts, the basic structure of the English language. Find atoms where there are objects, stories where there are silences, rib cages where there are bridges, mistakes where there is safety. Risk being alone in your words, risk not even being able to find yourself in them. Wake up. Go.

On Clapter

Mar 6, 2016; Kissimmee, FL, USA; Houston Astros mascot Orbit works the crowd during a spring training baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Osceola County Stadium. The Astros won 7-1. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

A passage I read the other night:

What has bothered me most for the last few years is that kind of lazy, political comedy, very safe but always pretending to be brave, that usually gets what my colleague Seth Meyers calls “clapter.” Clapter is that earnest applause, with a few “whoops” thrown in, that lets you know the audience agrees with you, but what you just said wasn’t funny enough to actually make them laugh. … As far as writing goes, the only important thing is that it’s funny, and that it’s an original comment. That the audience agrees with me isn’t necessary and probably isn’t even a good thing. It’s so easy to coast by, just hitting the same familiar notes you know are popular and have been pre-tested for effectiveness. The audience will always at least applaud, so you never have to risk silence.”  (James Downey, in an interview with Mike Sacks, Poking a Dead Frog, 2014.)

My wife always wonders why I care whether people read my stuff. I always struggle to come up with a decent answer. This conversation usually begins after I display some signal that some latest piece didn’t find its audience, failed to resonate, as I perform the marital dance of hiding my immaturity. The self-absorption isn’t flattering, but more than anything else she just doesn’t get it -€” she doesn’t need validation from anyone about anything. She’s a strong person who gets things done, and if no one notices her do it, all the better. Her logic: if I made something and it’s good, isn’t that enough?

I try to explain that comedy doesn’t work that way, even the loose version of it that qualifies as baseball writing. Sure, if you’re working through feelings or developing an intricate philosophical system, you can write for yourself, insulated from the world, but when you write jokes you need someone around to laugh. You don’t need them to praise you or feel good about the joke; it just doesn’t exist without them. Humor is about making connections: between concepts, between people. It doesn’t work solo.

The people are the problem. Audiences are difficult things; they have their own perspectives, their own individual desires. Most of all, the system of writing and comedy doesn’t particularly reward challenging people. Good writing forces people to test new ideas, pushes them out of their patterns and their comfort zones. Sometimes it offends, sometimes it confuses, sometimes it just deceives. But it always makes them work. And a lot of people don’t particularly want to work, especially in their leisure reading; the sense of camaraderie that baseball instills is usually enough. There’s no thought required to cheer, or to wordlessly just feel. And so, systemically, the writing that allows people to clap, rather than laugh, is always going to be the safest, most popular work.

I like writing for the internet: the contact between writer and reader is so clean, so quick, so honest. The thrill of writing for me is in its alchemy: you take random ideas, even sometimes just words that seem to conflict, and you throw them in a pot and see what comes out. You never really know until it’s done, even if you think you do, and it’s exciting. But the other part, the meeting the reader halfway, knowing where they come from and getting them to empathize with you and understand your thought process and find something interesting and useful in it: that’s its own roll of the dice. When you succeed, it’s brilliant — and when you don’t, you get silence.

There’s a place for clapter. There’s a sense of belonging, perhaps, a shared rosary. I don’t want to deny that. It allows us to feel active in our participation in something larger than ourselves, the way all sports do. But it can also be exclusionary, political, negative. Sports breeds its own peculiar, shitty nationalism, against people who wear different-colored hats, who use different statistics. Affirmations become cliches, then become commandments. Relaxing becomes living thoughtlessly. It’s the comfort food of writing and reading, the macaroni and cheese that reminds you of childhood, loaded with a week’s worth of saturated fat.

As beautiful as baseball can be, as much as I love it, it’s a shadow world, reality television set before a live studio audience. Its virtue isn’t the game itself, but the fact that we’re all experiencing it and caring about it together. And because of that, there will always be writing and products that look to profit off that motive, to tell the reader what they already know and to praise them for knowing it. There will always be hero myths and origin stories, prophecies and promises, tried and true tactics that flatter and stir the heart. There will always be hot takes, and there will always be clapter. But in the end, it all has to mean something more than itself, has to find some truth, or it’s just telling the same jokes over and over again.

In and Out of Print

I published my first book when I was eleven years old. Fresh off my victory for top fifth-grade writer in my school district (for a landmark collection of poems, headlined by “My Digestive System Makes a Wish”), I set upon my passion project: a science fiction novel. I don’t remember anything about it, now. I typed it up on sunny afternoons on the family Macintosh Plus, and while I still have the floppy with the file, I have no way to read it. It must have been more than five pages long. After spending twenty minutes printing it on the dot matrix, I made a gorgeous cover out of construction paper and submitted it. It was my first hint that I was not a novelist.

I spent my twenties trying to write novels, because I was bad at the guitar and I thought those were my only two options. They rarely made it past a thousand words, mostly because I was a poor, shy, white male and had nothing to write about. A few ideas clung to life for a dozen pages: a romantic comedy about a guy with chronic fatigue syndrome, whose consciousness randomly snaps forward minutes or hours into the future; and a narrative about the afterworld, where lost souls collected in random makeshift purgatory-cities and fought off boredom and despair that caused them to die again, and disappear. Now that I write that, the second synopsis still sounds pretty good. But plot is hard enough without discorporeality, and so it never went anywhere.

I published my second book a couple of weeks ago.

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Robinson Cano, Modern-Day Werewolf

When I was a young boy, around three or four, I had two cartoons. This is not an indictment of my socioeconomic status, but rather my age: this was the early eighties, when entertainment was still in its nascent form. I had two cartoons, and I also honestly owned a set of Pick-up Sticks. The two cartoons were television specials hand-taped onto Betamax cassettes: one Garfield, one Bugs Bunny. Because I was a child and because children can consume infinite animation, I watched those videos over and over.

There was only one problem: I was allowed to watch the Betamax, but I was not allowed to operate the Betamax. My father worried that the forbidden knowledge of the VCR would end in me recording over his collection of Poirot movies, so I was forced to rely on him for the starting, and the stopping.

This is important. It is important because my episode of “Knighty Knight Bugs” happened to be taped over a recording of An American Werewolf in London, with the cartoon ending specifically at the moment when the eponymous werewolf tore out a man’s throat.

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Pacing Hour

In the months after my daughter was born, I spent a significant portion of my time in the little library at the end of my house, in the dark. That was what I called the Pacing Hour – although in fact the durations were often far greater, or the sense of time far more meaningless – as I cradled a tiny being disappointed with life, and circled the small room, an electric fireplace the only source of light.

Pacing Hour was difficult for me. I was tired, of course, though I am always tired. But the baby required a specific kind of non-attention, just enough to prevent me from being asleep on my feet or awake. She had to be held at a specific angle, head on shoulder, weight distributed just so, or she would cry. Switching arms, switching positions to relieve a sore arm: these were impossible. The pace was also specific and mandatory, and became a waltz to an unheard rhythm, a specific number of steps at a specific gait, a turn on the ball of the feet.

I struggle, always, when I cannot think. I think all the time – in traffic, in bed, in the middle of a set of instructions from my wife – and even a moment of boredom, of motionlessness, chafes at me. I tried to listen to an audiobook at first, David Copperfield, but the intermittent cries made plot impossible. I gave up and sank into a state of numbness, a temporary death, feeling nothing beyond her sluggishly breathing into my neck.

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The End of June

jgDan April was a 38th-round draft choice by the Tampa Bay Rays. He did not pitch in April. He barely pitched at all. He came in relief for a single game of low-A ball, pitched 1.1 innings of scoreless relief, and then immediately quit.

He’s one of the few players to know in advance it’s their last game. For most, even if it’s the end of the season, there’s always one more year, one more spring training to get some balls to fall in, to get that curve breaking. And if it’s a demotion, there’s always a trade, a chance to claw back to the bigs. There’s always hope.

June Greene probably knew it was his last game. If not right away, at least by the end.

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The Moment Apart

grass

My wife and daughter have been away for a week, visiting family, and the house is empty. I’ve left all the lights on, undid all the childproofing on the cabinets, cast the dishwasher open with the knives sticking out. These little interruptions happen every year or two: not really vacations, just pauses in real life. Every time they approach, I get excited. Not because I’ll be free of my family, whom I love very much, but because I’ll be free of myself: of routine, of diapers and figuring out what to eat for dinner and showering and knowing what time it is. They’re a chance for me to stop being me, to sink my head below the surface and forget.

Every time I end up miserable and paralyzed. I stare at blank screens, read old writing and sink into watered-down depression. I play twelve hours of Civilization straight, eat DiGiorno pizza and hate myself for it. I still do not shower.

This time I didn’t get depressed. I read a good book, Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh, wrote a couple of small pieces and finished a writing project I’d put off for nearly a year. But I spent most of my six days of freedom tearing at weeds with my hands. I did half a year’s worth of yard work in a weekend. It was boring and I felt happy. The time that I was so desperate for just flew by.

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