cold takes

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Category: Letter

Renovation

I step out of the office into the family room. Years ago, when we had bought the house, these rooms were unfinished: concrete floors, with rough wooden panels mysteriously fastened halfway up the walls. We attacked those rooms with vigor, with all our poverty and time, took the emptiness and made fullness from it. Baseboard, drywall, carpet, furniture, television, plastic toys that sang mechanical songs unbidden.

You are asleep, burrowed into the corner of the couch, half-draped with a pastel-colored fleece blanket, bright even in the dim periwinkle of the frozen television screen. I am tired, I am waiting for the work to be done so that I can do my work. The baby monitor blinks one green dot from beside you: all systems nominal, for now. And still. And still.

I look at you for a moment, your large lidded eyes, lips pulled a little tight. Your hair is probably dirty; you’re always saying that it’s dirty. I can never tell. It’s just your hair, black, waving downward like a disappointed sigh. We are old, but I am too tired to notice our age. We are symbols now.

You hate when I look at you, so I do it carefully. Mostly I look at your back, when you’re cutting cucumbers that I forget to take with me to work, or picking up plastic ponies off the floor, or reading news. Now, I have a little time; you will not wake up. It’s a motionless sleep, a deadweight sleep. I like it when you’re asleep because then I know you’re okay.

I go back into the office to finish the work, crop images and add HTML tags to code, creating without creativity. I don’t know how long it take, just that I am more tired afterward than I was before.

I come back out to the family room with nothing to say, nothing to add to you. I want to wake you, and wait, and wake you again, and tell you that I love you and watch you frown and ask me why. I hate that you always do but I want to anyway. It is our family room. But the couch is empty.

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The H Word

dino

Dear Sylvie,

You started using the word Friday night, testing the taste of it like a fine wine. At first it was snakes. “I hate snakes,” you said. There were no snakes present. “I hate snakes. I hate snakes,” you added, your tone no more vexed than normal.

“Why do you hate snakes?” I asked you.

“I hate them,” you said, smiling.

Disaster loomed.

***

You start preschool in two days. Today was the open house. We went to meet your teachers, to play with the other children, but mostly to remind you that this was where you would spend nearly every weekday morning for the next two years, to remind us that you’re growing up. The other children hid behind pant legs and spoke in whispers. You bounded in, found your teacher, and introduced her to the baby burrowing his way sleepily into the crook of my neck. You picked up scissors and cut paper circles into pieces for nothing other than the feel of it. You smiled and charged your way through the room, taking in everything, manipulating everything, fearless.

It’s strange having an extrovert for a daughter, watching you work the crowd while I, holding Felix like a shield, hovered quietly at the perimeter. This is a good thing, I recognize: you’re confident, you enjoy other people and you know how to interact with them. Yes, there’s the nebulous future of strangers and boyfriends. But it’s not that. You know what to say to people in a way I never do, and that, more than anything, is terrifying.

***

We took you to the science center on Saturday, mostly to let you play, but also to take photographs at one of the few remaining photo booths in the city. That’s part of your care package: indestructible snacks, changes of clothing, a space blanket, and a care photo and letter from us in case something unimaginable happens. It was a tight fit getting all four of us in there; Felix grabbed your hair at one point, and it was a strain just to keep all four of our heads in frame. We managed, barely.

You gasped at the animatronic dinosaurs, cooed at the butterflies and reeled back from them if they got too close. You looked at bugs and lizards and snakes (for which you were too excited to recall your newfound animosity), but refused to touch the starfish in the tide pool even when I put my own hand on them. “It just feels like a rock,” I told you, as if this were somehow incentive. Instead you asked a random nearby woman to touch it as well. She did, and asked if you would too. You said no.

Then, it was time to go home; Felix was tired, it was afternoon and we hadn’t eaten. I asked you to come and you ignored me, fixedly examining a plastic dinosaur skeleton. I came over and gave you a hug, but you pushed me away. And you said it.

“I hate you, daddy.”

It hurts more to type it now, honestly; now, I combine it with every time you will say it to me in your life. What I did at the moment: I backed away, because I knew I had to. I wasn’t angry, or even very sad. Instead I sat on a nearby bench, staring at my feet like a community theater actor, waiting, trying to look sad. Your mother spoke to you for a few minutes, and finally, begrudgingly, you came over and apologized.

But why wouldn’t you say it? There are so many rules. Wash your hands before dinner, go potty before leaving the house, be quiet while Felix is sleeping, leave when your parents say so. You have so little control over your life, have to take so many things like germs and stains and the benefits of napping on poorly-translated faith. And now you have this one weapon, this one source of power.

***

You’re three. Everything resets. You’ve never been hurt more than an ice pack or a television show can make you forget; when you talk back or fight, and you lose one of your three books at bedtime, the inevitable tears:

“I want three books!”

“But you have to have good behavior to get three books. If you’re mean, you lose a book.”

“I’m not going to be mean!”

The original crime is already relegated. And in a way, this is the desired outcome: we want you to feel safe, we want you to be able to take risks and talk to teachers and enjoy what you want to enjoy. This is just the price of it, a far better price than the alternative, mistrust and fear.

***

You stopped hating me. Well, first you fell asleep in the car, woke up in time to sit in the grocery cart, ask for your cereal bar and to be able to run through the frozen aisles, find your footing in old routines. That night, as we sat on the couch watching a show, you tested it again, carefully.

“I don’t like you very much, daddy.”

“Oh,” I said, careful not to overreact. “I’m sorry. I guess I’ll go do something over here, then.”

I stood up, and you quickly cried. “No, daddy! Don’t go.”

“But I thought you said you didn’t like me.”

“No, I do. I do like you,” you countered, as if I were making it up.

“Oh, okay. I love you, Sylvie,” I said, and kissed her on the forehead.

“I love you too, dad.” We went back to watching TV.

The Dark Days Ahead

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Dear Sylvie and Felix,

It’s late July, two days before my thirty-eighth birthday, more than three months before the 2016 presidential election. This is an absolutely vital time, as they all are, and this was a vital day; the first day when Donald Trump, the Republican candidate, overtook Hilary Clinton in the polls. The political spectrum, stable since Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the death of State’s Rights nearly fifty years ago, may be pulling apart. Everything feels on the edge of something. The scandals are only outpaced by the shootings in various places in the world, the fear, the anger.

This letter is not meant to talk about the good old days, or to share fears of a world falling apart before you can make your way in it (though of course I do). Parents throughout history have always loved their children and rarely do what’s best for them. For a nation founded on opposing taxation without representation, we do exactly that: the national debt is nearly $20 trillion, and the only solution available to your generation will be to tax your own children, as was ours. The environment, non-renewable resources: we have taken more than our share.

This election, momentous as I’m sure it will be, will change little of that. I’m a jaded political science major. I watch the people around me get angry at politicians, and I can only look at the systems that create their incentives, and in some case force their behavior. Adults will always take from their children, because children are powerless, and politicians need votes.

I see all this and my thoughts turn to an old figure named H.L. Mencken. Mencken was a brilliant mind, a powerful journalist and critic, whose apex came at a time, like today, when the the world was transforming. It was the 1920s when the Republican Party, the Party of Lincoln, abandoned its multiracial base to become the representative of Big Business, leaving FDR and the New Deal to claim them among the poor for the Democrats. Mencken would be unclassifiable by modern standards: Pro-science, anti-religion, pro-(for the time) feminism, racist, elitist, conservative. He was an ally of the Mark Twain we rarely talk about: the one who watched America get fall into empire through the Spanish-American War, a bitter, angry, utterly correct Twain, no longer laughing.

It’s hard not to feel that way, lately. There’s a one-liner from a movie that used to be popular:

“You hate people!”
“But I love gatherings. Isn’t it ironic?”

I feel the exact opposite. I like people, or try to, until you get them together and they become political. I’m not sure how jingoistic your public education will prove to be, but even now it’s not polite to talk about the fact that there are flaws with democracy, and that The People aren’t always wise and just, especially when there’s a minority population around to vilify.  Mencken left us with, among other things, a wonderful selection of quotations. The problem is that the way of them leads to madness. His hatred of the unwashed masses, and his belief in his own elitism, led him to a fondness for the nastier elements of Nietzsche, and with it, Nazism. Like Heraclitus, he was fond of war, because wars “strengthened national character” and came at little cost of useless life.

In the end, hating the people for being ignorant is just as faulty as hating politicians for pandering them. The only solution is to change the systems that cause them to act the way they do. People mistrust their government, I believe, because they are disconnected from it; America is too big, too fractured, for the concept of citizenry to mean much anymore. If we have to keep democracy, the only solution I can see is refresh the meaning in the phrase “public service”, the way Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy called for a lifetime ago. To make politics not a lucrative and risky career path, but a specific act of working for the people around you, of seeking justice rather than power.

The trouble is, you can’t just wait for some Mr. Smith to show up, sacrifice himself, and do it. You have to create a system that encourages it. And that’s too complicated for me; I fear it’s too complicated for everyone.

There will be dark days ahead. By the time you read this, those will have gone, and others come and gone as well. I hope yours are more peaceful ones. The world, I think, has never recovered from the invention of the radio, and I hope that the connective tissues that now bind the world — telephone, airplane, internet — finally unlock some secret toward combining all people together rather than just factions. But most of all, I hope that you don’t lose faith in people, even The People, no matter how ignorant they seem. It gets so easy to hate them that way.

 

 

 

Forgetting

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Last night was a forgettable night. We drove up to the grandparents’ house for Shipwreck Day. Felix, you slept downstairs with Mom, with questionable levels of success. Sylvie, for you we inflated your new little portable bed for overnight trips, and you cried into it for more than an hour. You woke up at five.

It’s weird being home. I got invited to my twenty-year high school reunion the other day. I won’t go, of course; not because it’ll be a room full of near-strangers awkwardly establishing a social pecking order (it will); I’m not ashamed of my weight or my career or any of the other standard variables for judgment (that much). Although we go to see my parents regularly, I’ve barely spoken to anyone from my hometown in a decade, and it’s nothing personal. I didn’t dislike high school. I just don’t remember it.

When I was young I knew I was smart, because I was told I was smart. For a long time, that was the extent of my metaphysics. Marriage taught me that I had certain blind spots in my mental processes regarding perception and bathrooms, and teaching taught me about various intelligences (why I remember things much better when I take notes). That was it. Otherwise I figured I was normal, in terms of brain.

You don’t realize that you’re beginning to forget. When elementary school turned to watercolor, I assumed that’s what everyone’s childhood was like. Or maybe my childhood was so idyllic, so calm and uneventful, that there was nothing but invisible warmth to take away. Middle school… who wouldn’t want to forget that? But then, as I got this reunion notice, as I paged through the scanned yearbook, I realized that it was mostly gone. A few snippets here or there that I can withdraw if necessary: my first kiss, on my doorstep the night of Prom my freshman year. Playing Maurice in our class rendition of Lord of the Flies: The Musical. But so much of the connective tissue is gone. My memories are like an aging basketball player’s knees.

The point of all this: I need to write more, for your sake as well as mine. I don’t want that gauze to slip over my twenties and thirties, but I can already feel it happening. It begins with the books. One of the things about aging, one of the defenses you create for yourself as you pass your physical peak, is that while you may not look as good or run as well as you did last year, you’re a lot wiser than that idiot. You’ve read. You’ve learned. And yet when I go back and look at the list of books I read in 2005: I couldn’t tell you the first thing about Lysistrata. I have no idea what Lord Arthur Seville’s crime was. I wouldn’t have known that I’d even read those books if I hadn’t made a note of it. How can I know this and be wise?

I’m not sure. But really, it doesn’t matter. The books, ultimately, can go. They’re not that important anyway, and if they were, I can only hope their lessons work their way into me and create the instincts for my next generation, an instinctual morality. But you two I can’t afford to lose. I need those anguished, pillow-muffled cries, the fact that you, Sylvie, sang “sylvie shiny shell” over and over to the abalone we bought you, and that you, Felix, kept muttering “da” whenever you’d lose sight of me in a crowd. We take photos, we record videos, but there are so many things we miss, that I already miss.

I want to remember them all. But barring that, I want us to read about them.

Forever

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“It’s time for bed,” we tell you. You giggle and hide behind the couch cushion, a flimsy defense even by your standards. You have just turned three, and you are always laughing until you are not. We are not laughing. It is late, and we are tired, and your little brother is crying out beyond your worldview. “Sylvie, will you please come get ready for bed?” I ask, rhetorically.

You do not, so I pick you up, still so easy a gesture. You kick wildly, not to wound, just to communicate. I put you in front of the toilet. “I don’t want to go potty,” you cry.

There are so many things we don’t want to do. “We always go potty before we go to bed. Every night,” I say, too tiredly.

“Let me down!” This is not about potty, of course. Every year of parenthood adds another layer of irony. At first it was the layer of development, the idea that every action had an affect on future actions. Now, it is that, and it also a layer of control.

“I will not let you down. You need to go potty, and we need to get ready for bed. It’s late,” I add, as if this proves anything. I pull a pant leg over a foot, pajamas at the ready.

You lean forward and hit me in the chest, a chopping motion. “Go away, Dad. Go away forever.”

Your mother appears instantly, takes you upstairs to brush your teeth and scold you, while I follow your first imperative, if not the second, retreating to the family room couch to hold Felix. It does not hurt, I think to myself, reacting the way you do when you skin a knee. It should not hurt. It hurts.

You are three years old. You are a beautiful, hilarious psychopath. You know how to love people but not how to understand how they feel. And even in those brief moments when your id gets the upper hand, it can’t last; you’re being pushed forward by the conveyor belt of your own curiosity and energy. You’re the clumsy ice skater who plows into random people.

I don’t really know what to do about it. I put my trust in the liberal philosophers who taught me that everyone acted rationally, that everyone could cooperate if they could see the benefits. How do I teach you what happens when you don’t brush your teeth, if you use the word “forever” like an underline? I don’t even want you to know what forever is, yet, because then you’d have to figure out the opposite.

So for now I’ll go away forever, and tomorrow I’ll come back. It doesn’t hurt that much, as long as I remember what the words mean to you. We’ll pick berries and you’ll refuse to leave the green ones. We’ll swing and you’ll demand I tell you stories. It’ll be fine. We can go on like this forever.

The Rough Day

Crayones de cera

Dear Sylvie,

The evening ended the way it always does: I picked you up and gave you a hug and a kiss, and you patted my left arm roughly and told me, “hug.” Then you sat down with your mother to read your books before bed, and we blew each other kisses as I backed out the door into the darkened hallway.

I went downstairs to catch the end of the game on the radio, but it was already over. I’d missed a win, the first in a while. It was a quarter to ten: a blue, featureless night. I set the alarm to 5:30 and brushed my teeth, and slumped onto the couch. It had been a rough day.

It had started with promise. I came home from work to find you in the possession of new crayons, stronger than your old ones, and you sat at the table and scribbled lines onto paper. The cat jumped up on the table to check this out, and mood altered. “No!” you called out. “No no gato. My picture.” You began to cry. The cat was a visible threat, despite the fact that he wanted nothing to do with your drawing other than perhaps to sit on it and receive pets. But you couldn’t risk that. You couldn’t risk the possibility that he might force you, in some way, to share.

Everything is yours, right now. “My book,” you tell us when we try to read to you. “My milk.” When your mother hugged you and said “My Sylvie,” you answered, flustered: “No. My me.”

You are nearly two years old. Now that objects have gained permanence, they’ve also earned the possibility of absence, and it’s terrifying. This is much a part of you as the omnipresent tears dangling above reddish stain of your chapped cheeks, where the molars stab at you, or the placemat you knock off the table to watch it fall to the floor, or the five plates of food, rice and plums and strawberries and pasta and beans, that spent the evening simmering in the lukewarm air.

“Ice ceam,” you demanded during one gentle sortie, staring at the most recent offering at your altar. “Me ice ceam.”
“One, dinner,” I said, employing your new knowledge of numbers to introduce cause and effect. “Two, ice cream.”
“One ice ceam,” you answered.
It’s working well.

Before the lights went off I read some more Montaigne, one of his shortest essays: “That the Profit of One Man is the Damage of Another.” He’s railing against a long-dead Athenian, who put a mortician to death for profiteering on the death of his colleagues. “A judgment that appears to be ill-grounded,” he argues, “forasmuch as no profit whatever can possibly be made but at the expense of another.” He lists professions who do well when times are bad: doctors in plagues, architects by earthquakes, merchants by the sin of greed. Curiously, he fails to mention his own line of work.

Baseball is equally bad about this. It’s diverting to render baseball as a metaphor for life, but one of its more troubling translations is in the competition: that for all the aesthetic merits, the end results are zero-sum. In last night’s game, for example, Fernando Rodney had his own bad day. In one inning he gave up a warning track fly ball, a home run, a sharp line drive out, a walk, and a caught stealing to escape the game. The natural reaction was that Rodney was terrible, and he probably was; the troubling concept is that it wasn’t really imaginable for him to be fine but the opponents better. Someone has to be bad, to lose. That’s how the game, all games, generally are.

Sometimes, teaching you anything feels impossible; it’s like reading the definition of a word and finding more words you don’t know. I can handle yellow and cat and squash, but causality or sharing seem utterly beyond my capabilities. If Montaigne can’t figure out how trading can help both sides, what chance does a toddler have? How do you teach cooperation in a culture steeped in winning and its obligatory counterpart?

Maybe it’s just a matter of providing examples, a thousand instances of a posteriori to build your values on. Maybe you just have to learn. That sharing makes us feel better about ourselves, that other people being happy is okay, and that losers don’t always have to feel bad about the way they lose. And that your father might still love you even when he doesn’t give you ice cream.

April 27, 2015

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Dear Sylvie,

This afternoon we sat in the grass in the warm sunshine. You helped me water the strawberries, raking the moist earth with your little plastic shovel, flecking your clothes with mud, stepping on the tender leaves with your boots. We collected rocks and you commented on each one, placing them in my palm and taking them out again, organizing them in some inconceivable, shifting pattern. You were fascinated by these rocks: all basically round, all basically beige, some small and some large. I wanted to extract that excitement out of you, distill it into some elixir.

A blue jay flew and landed on the dead tree growing out of our deck. You won’t remember that tree, because it’ll be gone soon: a beautiful cherry that flowered when we bought the house, six years ago, amid one of those random April two-inch snowstorms. It struggled through one more season and then died, branches crumbling in every windstorm, moss shedding onto the deck like the remains of a cemetery bouquet. The blue jay sat trembling on a weak, thick branch, and you cried out to it, “Hello, bird!” For a moment I couldn’t understand why it wouldn’t answer.

We watched birds for twenty, thirty minutes. At first you ran toward them, and they disappeared behind the trees or onto roofs. But you heard the songs with your cupped, little ear; you knew that the birds were never really gone, and that was the thing I wanted to make sure you understood. There were two jays and the shadow of a hummingbird high in the sky. You pointed at them each time and called out, “there it is!” until your mother came home and we had to go to dinner.

It would have been fitting if the Mariners had played the Blue Jays tonight, but they didn’t; instead, it was the last place Rangers. The games are quick these days, and even with a rain delay, I only caught the last half inning as the Rangers attempted one last comeback against Mariners closer Fernando Rodney.  We listened to it while I gave you your bath. Rodney is known for being climactic, in the good and the bad way, of testing the edge of one’s nerves. But this particular story had no climax. The Mariners won easily, 3-1.

We put you to bed, and then I went to bed as well and read Montaigne. Montaigne wrote a little like the way I’m writing now, wrote self-indulgent and personal and pointless recollections that he hoped people might read. They did, and it’s good that they did. The book’s first essay is about idleness, and how the free time of his retirement unleashed rather than calmed his mind. “[It] …creates in me so many chimeras and fantastic monsters, one upon another, without order or design, that, the better at leisure to contemplate their strangeness and absurdity, I have begun to commit them to writing, hoping in time to make it ashamed of itself.” It’s a fancy way of saying that he was a writer, and that he needed to write. It’s an unconscious element of drama, a glimpse of turmoil.

I don’t know if you’ll be a writer, if you’ll feel that same pang of guilt that comes with writing, and not writing. It’s strange that we all feel the need to justify it, as if it’s an element to a story, a character motivation. But even though I’m writing about it, today was no story, had no rising or falling action. Today was just existence, just pinecones and bibimbap and a win expectancy chart that looked like a straight line. You will have your own drama someday, your own Fernando Rodney Experiences.  But never feel guilty for the days that are easy wins.