Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers out there. I hope it is a good one for you.
FATHER’S DAY, PART 2
With Father’s Day just past, there has been renewed emphasis on the subject of the special role baseball plays in the relationship between a boy and his dad. Major League Baseball’s recent television ads have been slanted this way, for sure. They know a winning concept when they see it. And, who can deny that baseball is often the secret formula that unlocks the doors existing between a man and his son, between a boy and his progenitor?
People tend to get overly sentimental about this. The movie Field Of Dreams – which was openly slanted toward sentiment, unlike the novel it is based on – is a good example. The novel, Shoeless Joe, was terrific; but almost entirely different in basic ways from the resulting movie, which I found pleasant, but not great. However, Field Of Dreams is useful in pointing out how some men feel about baseball, and their dads. Not me, but . . .
A son’s relationship with his father can be complicated, and sometimes not so pleasant, especially during adolescence and young adulthood. It doesn’t have to be, but that was my experience. My father was funny and easy-going on the surface, but was distant and hard to know when you got him up close. Also, he was the disciplinarian at home, even though he really wasn’t suited for the role. But he assumed it by necessity, and therefore represented repression to a son who was contrary by nature and at the time was trying to break free and establish his own identity. Further complications arose from big expectations projected onto me by him. But I am getting off the subject here. Simply put, a father-son relationship does not have to be overtly ambivalent, but sometimes it is.
The thing about baseball is, it can be a neutral ground in this conflict. A love for the game, passed on by a father to his son and nurtured by a mutual interest, can be a place of respite in an otherwise turbulent relationship at the time, and/or a way to resolve old conflicts later on, when both the son and his dad are presumably more mature and can look at their interactions with a greater sense of equanimity. Even if the father-son dynamic is not openly difficult, there is almost always some distance left between the two, I am not sure why. Baseball can be a way to bridge that distance, at least for a little while.
My relationship with my own sons is far from perfect, but not nearly as crazy as mine was with my dad, for many reasons. Our baseball relationship has been steady but not so intense, partly because our conflicts outside of baseball are not as large, and also because I have consciously de-emphasized my own place in my kids’ baseball lives. We go to games and talk about baseball and I have tried to pass on to them the knowledge I have from playing from childhood through high school, but I have rarely formally coached them. This is again in reaction to personal experience, as my own father’s and my relationship, already tenuous in my teenage years, was almost destroyed forever by the two seasons he decided, against my tacit wishes, to be my Senior League coach.
For all the gauzy good feeling about baseball and paternal relationships, I have seen real ugliness in youth baseball. Even as kids, we used to make fun of the minority of the dads who would get all worked up about the games and yell and scream and stuff. We used to call them ‘railing dads’ because during games, instead of sitting in the stands with everyone else, they would group along the fence rails behind the first- and third-base lines, and mutter darkly to each other, and yell at the kids and coaches and umpires on the field. We thought they were a little too intense, if not outright crazy; and I think we resolved to never be that way ourselves, when we grew up.
I have kept that resolution, though it has cost me. I think I have restrained my natural passion when it comes to my kids’ participation in youth sports, for fear of fucking up their childhoods and becoming a total dickhead, like those railing dads I remember so vividly.
But apparently, not everyone has kept the promises we made, as kids. I have seen a new generation of overbearing fathers at games, hovering over everything like a dark cloud at a picnic. And though I have managed to restrain myself, I have at times felt that ugly, creepy feeling that comes when you realize you are way too wrapped up in a kid’s game, probably because in some way you are trying to relive your own glory days vicariously through your children; or, even worse, you are depending on your sweet child out there, standing in the outfield watching an airplane fly over instead of the action on the field. . . you are burdening your own offspring with the task of redressing your failures in baseball, and making up for your own shortcomings at playing a damn game.
One other thing people tend to do when discussing baseball is over-intellectualize it. But, for all the esoteric statistics and heavy theorizing based on them, the real pleasures of baseball are mostly simple and visceral and tactile. Father’s Day afternoon, my youngest son – who gave up organized baseball last season after completing his Little League eligibility, in order to concentrate on the electric guitar – decided he and I should go to the schoolyard down the street and throw the baseball around. I still enjoy playing catch with him and/or his brother, even though I have a frayed rotator cuff now, and every time I throw the ball it feels like my arm is going along with it.
We gathered up some balls in the garage and our gloves and we walked to the schoolyard and stepped through the hole in the 8 ft. high chain-link fence surrounding the campus.
Once my boy and I got to the schoolyard, we stood maybe ten yards apart and started throwing the ball to each other, in a smooth, easy motion. Once we got warm, and started throwing with some velocity, we heard the familiar sound of the ball popping the leather of our gloves. I imagined that, from a distance, it appeared we were engaging in a sort of strange, reciprocal dance … a basic instinct to throw, then catch, catch then throw. Just like it has been done for so many summers, and will be for so many more.
My boy, who I love with all my heart, probably doesn’t understand me any more than I understood my old man, at least in some ways. But, I think he understands how much I enjoy playing catch with him; and he gets a sense, at least, of the silent information the ball carries back and forth as we lob it to each other.
And the best part about it is that by understanding the weight of meaning involved in the simple act of tossing a baseball back and forth, mostly tacitly, with the man who started the whole process that brought him into this world, he has taught me what it means. I didn’t know, beforehand. I am so grateful to know it now.
I only wish I had known 35 years ago. I didn’t, though. I just assumed my dad didn’t want anything to do with me that required effort on his part, physical or emotional, so I never fucking asked him if he wanted to go play catch in the schoolyard, on Father’s Day or any other fucking day. If I had, maybe he would have said, “Okay.” And the world would have been changed in some small but fundamental way.
But that did not happen, and it is much too late for regrets. As it is, I prefer to dwell on the tableau now in front of us. Just a boy and his dad, standing out in the late afternoon sun on the yellow-green grass of a schoolyard, tossing a ball back and forth and occasionally talking, and laughing. There is an easiness between them that cannot be faked, and cannot be denied. They are sharing the simple joy of throw-and-catch, of mindless banter, and of spending some time together, however brief, out in the sweet sunshine.
It is late at night when the darker thoughts tend to come in. I am usually asleep by then; but every once in a while, I’m not.
I used to wonder what it was like, to be older … Well, not too much. One of the greatest gifts the benevolent creator ever bestowed upon me was the self-awareness to know that wherever I was and whatever I was doing at any given time when I was young, it was probably one of the best times I’d ever have. I knew it right then, while it was happening. So I never had to worry, later on, that I didn’t realize how good I really had it, way back when. Oh, yes I did.
Oh, yes I did.
I remember my brother and I had this ongoing conversation/running joke when we were in our late teens-early twenties. We would be sitting in our lawn chairs on the beach, a big 50-something gallon Igloo cooler between us. The sun would be high, its rays glistening off of our coconut oil covered skin. The deep copper color of our hides was made even deeper when filtered through the polarized Wayfarers we always had on, back then. There were attractive young women in skimpy bathing suits and bikinis all around us. Actually, a lot of people would be around us … some were doing what my brother and I were doing, just kicking back, and being reflective; others would be throwing Frisbees back and forth, or walking along the edge of the water, flip-flops in one hand, canned beer in a foam coo-zee in the other. There might be a few Sunfish sailboats skipping across the waves a little ways out and, closer in, people doing various things in the shallower water. And, all the while, the waves from the Gulf of Mexico would come washing in, in rhythm, one after another; and one could hear the noise the waves made, all along … over, in, and in between the noise from the car stereo, blaring out the Stones or Aerosmith or Van Halen or whoever was being played on KLOL-FM that day.
The scene was a near-perfect portrait of what the late 1970’s in America was like, for me and my kind, anyway.
And somewhere in there, after we were both half lit, my brother would lean over to me and say, “I wonder what we’d be doing right now if we lived in Russia? Or Czechoslovakia?”
It wasn’t an idle question, entirely. The people on my mother’s side had only relatively recently immigrated to these shores. My maternal grandmother, who was Czech, was first generation American. My maternal grandfather came to this country at the age of 15, from Russia. So, theoretically, if one or another thing had gone a little differently along the way, my brother and I might not have ever been there at all that day, on that beach, enjoying the all those wonderful aural, visual and tactile sensations. We might have been born and lived instead in one motherland or another, back in Eastern Europe, perhaps under one of the stultifying Communist puppet regimes that were so popular out that way, back in that time. We would have trudged through our mundane, oppressive lives, never having known about coconut oil or babes in bikinis or listening to the Stones and the ocean’s roar simultaneously, slouched in a lawn chair, out in the shining, glistening sun.
I would lean over to my brother and reply, “Probably shoveling coal somewhere, in the snow.”
And we would both laugh. We knew we had it good. Even if we were sometimes more than a little haughty about it.
On the odd occasion that I am awake now, late at night, in the darkness … in the strange hours, as Loren Eiseley called them … The strange hours, when the darker thoughts come creeping in, when men have their most personal conversations with themselves. When, after having gone around all day or all year with a sunny outlook, spreading good cheer everywhere they go, they will that same night, in the strange hours, question their very purpose, their very being, whether the time they are spending here has any meaning at all. Would it even matter a bit if they did not wake up the next morning, and go about their positive rounds, spreading their good cheer?
I think it would matter. As I have grown up and matured (somewhat), I have noticed that I have slowly moved away from my younger days, when I seemed to have surrounded myself with cynical and negative or at least extremely fatalistic folks. Back then, I kind of looked askance at my perpetually cheerful peers. Maybe I thought one had to be moody and dark to really experience the meaning of life. I don’t really remember. I do know it wasn’t always easy for me, feigning the moroseness. To be honest, moodiness and darkness were not really part of my natural disposition. I had a reservoir of it in me that I could draw on, but I wasn’t inclined to immerse myself in it. I think I have come to realize I am something like my father was, in that way. He could be very dark, but normally only in brief, episodic bouts. For the most part he was funny, and he appreciated life’s absurdities, quite a bit.
My old man didn’t suffer fools gladly; but he didn’t mind being foolish himself from time to time, if it served a greater comedic purpose. He was a wonderful storyteller and physical caricaturist. It was his Irish heritage, I guess. All I know is, my brothers and I would beg him to tell us his stories – about his youth, about amusing people he’d come across along the way, about family members and friends … from the time we were kids until we had grown up. We were always requesting new yarns, or asking for a replay of one of our favorites. If he was in the mood, he might launch into an intricate characterization, about one of his family friends … Perhaps our Uncle Don, who was a decent guy and had good qualities and all, but who could at times also be hopelessly pretentious. My dad would start telling us about the time Uncle Don, normally a chinos and t-shirt and Converse Chuck Taylors kind of guy, got involved in a small community theater in his town in the 1970s, and soon started going around everywhere in a black turtleneck sweater and horn-rimmed glasses, with a serious look on his face, and smoking a pipe.
You would had to have known Don, and have seen my dad’s characterization of him, puffing thoughtfully on his pipe and scratching his chin while struggling to elucidate his ideas on method acting, to really get it. All I can tell you is, it killed us. He would have my brothers and I literally on the floor, in helpless laughter. He really had a gift.
It was a shame that the darkness in him won out in the end. I don’t know everything about that, but I know that darkness must have been very powerful; to be able to overwhelm all the good and fun that was in him, also.
When I was younger, I think I was harder on him than I should have been, in my mind. I had the haughtiness of youth going for me, and I thought less of him for his failures, back then.
I don’t think less of him for it anymore. I am older now. I know how fucking hard it is sometimes, just to stay in the light.
When one is young, one simply doesn’t have a long enough experience of living to see the incremental good that accrues in one’s favor, just by getting up every day and not being a negative prick about everything. When we were young, it was so easy to fall into a facile, faux-existentialist stance – you know, the live fast-die young attitude. Cheap fatalism. Don’t worry about the future; you might not have one anyway. It felt so cool to be that way, just wake up every day and roll yourself out of the bed and pull on some clothes, and go out and face the world like Jean-Paul Sartre, Jr., or maybe a wet-behind-the-ears Albert Camus. I shudder when I think of that now; but it felt real enough then.
The sheer stupidity of youth – I don’t suppose very many of us were entirely immune to it. I certainly wasn’t.
And now … and now. I go to bed earlier, and soberer, for one thing. So I miss the strange hours, mostly, which is probably just as well. I get pretty bored pretty quickly with darkness and brooding and lightweight existentialism these days. I realize, too, that by this point, I have mostly surrounded myself with cheerful people, some of them relentlessly so. Good for them. I tell them stories, and make them laugh. They make me feel good, and lift me up with their energy. I am not a Pollyanna and never will be, but I have a longer view with which to operate from now. And I see the value in those who choose to live life in a good and cheerful way.
I remember at my father’s funeral several years ago, so many people came up to me afterward, just wanting to talk about him a bit. It was odd in a way, because he had left town some years before – his hometown, the scene of so many of his triumphs, and tragedies. And he had never once come back. Until that day, I mean.
But various old colleagues and friends, some of whom I knew, and many who I didn’t know at all … all these people came up, and introduced themselves, and then said a few things … how it sure was a shame about the old man, he was a brilliant guy, etc., etc. Too bad things ended up the way they did.
And then, to a person almost, I would see them begin to lighten up a bit. I could see some brightness come back into their features, maybe a small smile, and before long I would hear one or a couple of tales about my father either doing something hilarious or, in a few cases, quite good and altruistic; for all these people in his universe I never really had any idea of. It was a little overwhelming to me; but I stayed until the last person left. I listened to every anecdote, or recollection of an act of kindness, and I didn’t hurry anyone along. I had a sense it was good for these people who knew my father and in some cases loved him, to work back from their sorrow to a state of gentle happiness, thinking about how much fun the old man was; or just how good he was, when he wanted to be.
I think it was good for me to hear it, too. And it makes me smile, thinking of it now.
My father’s life, from the beginning of it to the end, was not all there was to his story. I can see that now. The fact that his son could not fully appreciate all the nuances of it, and all the good in it, within his actual life span was not his fault, and I don’t really think it was my fault, either. That is just the way it works, sometimes. Thankfully, the memory of him, and his spirit, outlived the flesh and blood. I have made my peace with all of it and then some, by now. That is just an extremely gratifying thing. I don’t think I am eloquent enough to express how it feels to finally get to a place like that.
And the funny thing is, I would guess it will be the same for my boys someday, after I am gone. Whatever happens to me, after that morning that I don’t wake up, I am pretty sure they will hear things and have things related to them … they will hear stories about the old man doing crazy or hilarious or sometimes simply kind things … stories that will make them smile when they hear them, and when they think of me. The same way I do when I am reminded of my father, now.
Meanwhile, the strange hours come, and the strange hours go. I am usually snoozing through them nowadays, dreaming of everything from hitting the game-winning home run to diving deep down into the deep, blue sea. And on the odd night I am still awake when they come, I might muse about things a bit; how I have come through so little and so much, so much darkness and so little light, and vice-versa. Only to find, having made it to the middle of middle age, when men are supposed to be brooding on their lives and their mortality and things of that nature, particularly in the strange hours … only to find myself totally unable to brood very much on anything, even in the strangest hours. I have been startled awake … and have found myself, in the middle of middle age, to be mostly at peace, and content, and very happy. Somehow or another.
Somewhere out there, I hope the old man is smiling at this. Maybe smiling at me, too, as I am sitting there in the darkness, in my middle age, unburdened. Unburdened by dark thoughts, or regrets, or fears. Speaking – barely audibly – to no one, apparently. No one in particular. Saying, “I get you now, man. I hope you can get me now, too.”
And so it goes, as the world turns and keeps turning, spinning through the endless darkness. And yet somehow, the force field that is comprised of the endless darkness and the world spinning endlessly through it; and comprised of my father and his father, and of me and my sons, and of everything else we have ever thought of or ever could think of, and of all the people we have known and not known, all along the way, on our endless, spinning journey … somehow, just briefly, almost imperceptibly, the darkened void we are all spinning through is brightened just slightly, has just been made the tiniest bit brighter, by the memory of one man’s laugh, and another man’s smile, just at the thought of it.
As we hope it will always be brightened, by little things such as this.