Wednesday, October 31, 2007


In the last few years, when we were living a few blocks apart in Chicago, my musician brother and I had this habit of playing guitar and singing together when the two of us hung out. And periodically we’d figure out something cool to share with his crew at “open mic night.” This night was in the warehouse space he and his friends lived in and used as a concert venue for the music scene they were a part of. We would set up a stage in the living room cum concert hall and all our friends would get together and drink and play songs for each other all night. It was just performing for friends, but it was still a performance. He loved hosting those nights, being a ubiquitous presence on the stage, being a part of many of the acts. He’s an extremely nice guy, and can’t say no to anyone. Ever. But especially to anyone who wanted to play a song with him on those nights. And everyone wanted to play with him cuz he could play any instrument well enough to back you up while you tried to be a rockstar for 5 minutes. And maybe you got swept off the stage with the broom cuz you sucked but at least there was the rule that the sweeper had to get up next and rock harder than you. And usually my brother backed him up too, so at least none of us were fooling ourselves into believing we were actually better than anyone else, even the seth, really.

So, sometime last year we’re hanging out, not really thinking we would play anything at the open mic night that Friday, cuz its already Tuesday night, late, and we haven’t thought of anything to cover. But he and I and my roommate are on the couch chatting in the mostly darkness and seth grabs the guitar and starts playing the rhythm part of a slow song we both are in love with that season. I start to hum the melody as he half-sings the harmony, and our voices are really close in timbre and tone and its still and sad and beautiful. “lets do this one Friday night.” And my roommate, who has been listening with her eyes closed says “please, it was so pretty. Everyone will love it.” So, he shows me the chords and how to strum the rhythm and I bumble thru it a bit. “okay, so if you do that part, ill play slide over it in the solo sections and it’ll sound nice.” “show me again? I cant get the rhythm right.” “just listen to the cd, you’ll get it.” And I try, but Wednesday night I’m busy and Thursday I practice but it doesn’t sound right and I call him and he has rehearsal with someone else. And I worry cuz my hand isn’t really strong enough for bar chords and it doesn’t feel natural enough to perform yet. And then it’s Friday and before we set up I have him show me again but I don’t want to tire out my hands right before the performance, so I rig a couple lights while he sets up the sound and aaron puts up chairs and sean gets the keg. And then everything is ready and people are showing up, and we have drinks in our hands and I ask seth when he wants to go and he says “later, I dunno. I have to perform with like, 4 people tonight. Ill let you know.” So I sit back and it’s a full night and there are lots of newbies in the crowd and on stage and not all of them are very good, but we are a generous group when we’ve had a few beers, and since everyone gets up at some point we only sweep people off when they are being self-indulgent or really, almost purposefully bad. So, boy is up on stage quite a bit, doing solos, playing with his band members or friends, backing up a couple of girls who wanna sing covers. And later on there is this moment when his patience gets tried by this girl who is free-styling over his drumming and she never comes to an end, doesn’t think to finish up cuz she’s drunk and not paying attention to how bored her audience is and seth is drunk and annoyed and I can see the frustration climb up his face and I wish I could sweep her, but don’t have enough confidence in my own act to follow it up. And after that I ask him if we can go up soon, and I realize he’s forgotten about our song. And I almost tell him we don’t have to go but he feels bad and says “yeah, let’s go.” And we get up at this late point in the night when the audience feels like talking back and my fingers are a little dumb and he’s kinda sloppy and we do sibling banter as we set up and the audience quiets down cuz they love us as a duet, they think we are really cute and they know we usually do really quiet songs. And we start—I am supposed to start, which is unusual for our performances, and I cant find the strumming pattern, so I use this other one I know and he looks over at me with a question eyebrow and I shrug. And he tries to go with it. And im also supposed to start the melody but I forget the words so we stop and start again.

At this point I realize I have this piece of gum in my mouth but I don’t really have time to spit it out, and swallowing it makes me gag, so instead I just tuck it away in the back of my mouth. And we start over and he kinda shakes his head like things aren’t really coming together musically and my fingers fumble and he tries to cover it and I realize how desperately unprepared I am for this performance. And it makes my hands shake a little bit and I look over at him and hes not really in performance condition, not for a slow, quiet song that takes concentration cuz you can hear every mistake. and im making quite a few. And then I realize id never practiced playing and singing this one before and I cant remember the lyrics and play the right chords simultaneously. So by now we have restarted 3 times and the audience who loves us is getting bored. They wont sweep us, but it’s a bit embarrassing by now. But I tell myself its okay, its late and no one is at the top of their game. So I buck up, and open my mouth to start over one more time knowing ill get it right this time and we will get thru the song somehow and itll be okay even with so many false starts and seth will not feel like he had to carry me thru the performance like he did with so many other people that night. And my jaw lifts, bringing the gum with it and somehow it snaps right into the mic . and it carries thru the room as I start the first note of the song. And he stops playing and turns to me sharply. I look over at him and he says, on mic, “did you just snap your gum?” in the most offended tone and before I can say “yeah, sorry” he has turned to the audience , which is dead silent, and says straight into the mic “did she just snap her gum?” there is ascent coming from the room and he goes on, indignant “I cant believe she just snapped her gum. How unprofessional” and I hear the facetiousness in his voice, but he is still pointedly making fun. not that hes actually upset, but its still all at my expense on stage in front of the whole crew. And yet, im thinking ‘thank god he’s given up trying to flounder thru the song. This is my chance to exit without getting swept or making people suffer thru another performance of a dumb girl trying to be a musician. And there he is, railing about how unprofessional I am and how all he asks for is a little respect—“am I right or am I right?” he asks the audience. And im up out of my seat, swinging my guitar off my shoulder cuz its my turn to act indignant and offended. I say “that’s it. I cant work with him.. I give up.” And everyone reacts strongly to this. They aren’t used to this kind of confrontation. I realize im overcompensating for my embarrassment with mock rage that people are taking more seriously than I meant them to, but its too late to back down cuz tim is up out of his seat trying to diffuse the situation, trying to get us to play another song with him, but ive decided to go with the strong choice ive made and act the part. So I hand tim my guitar and say “you deal with him, I refuse.” And I storm off stage. Seth is now telling tim how he is right to be upset with me and in the back of the room someone calls “siblings and alcohol don’t mix” and I flip him the bird before sitting down. He is still harping on my gum and tim is trying to get a new song started when I realize how much fun seth his having with this scene. And I refuse to let him have all the fun. So I make another strong acting choice to escalate things to high drama—I walk back up to him on stage as he mentions my gum I take it out of my mouth and stick it to the center of his forehead with my thumb. the room makes a groaning noise, a combination of enjoyment and dread and I storm away and sit. And try to not burst out laughing. That whole thing was so fun. I have no anger left, I don’t care that my brother just shot down any pretentions I had of being a serious musician in a room of musicians, cuz im not. And i know it. I am, however, an actor and felt that my performance was stellar. Now seth and a couple friends are in the middle of a very sloppy rendition of something and my roommate is fretting about the state of my relationship with my brother and whether we will be able to reconcile and I am just highly amused. he might not even remember this moment tomorrow and I had a lot of fun getting so upset and blowing up at him and having him yell at me and then be completely done a minute later. That’s why we get along. We are family and work the same way and don’t have to worry. We can call each other out and blow up and boil over and be frustrated and mean, but never really try to hurt each other. And we both know that. And hes just enjoying being mean for once in his life and im enjoying watching him be over the top.

And it gets better. A couple of songs later when its clear to everyone that seth has just had way too much to drink and is being sort of categorically an asshole for once in his super-nice-boy life, I laugh with glee when he refuses to be swept and yells into the mic at the person trying to coax him off stage “MY PARTY!” I have to keep myself from applauding. He has one-upped me as usual—taken the performance to new heights. Or depths, if you prefer. He wins once again. “MY PARTY” he insists in a 4 year-old kind of drunkenness, insistent and convinced of the truth of the statement. “am I right or am I right?” he asks. And we really cant deny him. He is right, tho it was somewhat bad taste to point this out to all those who had tried for a few minutes of fame even if he was necessary in the background to make it happen.


I left town the next morning for a couple days and then had a lot of work to catch up on so when I saw him for the first time after that night it had been a whole week. We are at Sunday dinner at mom and dad’s and I start right into a conversation with him. I pause, confused by his sheepishness, until he says “I’m sorry about Friday night.” I start, taking a second to get what he’s referring to. “oh, god, don’t worry about it, id almost forgotten.” id already told a friend the whole story to make him laugh and knew then that I had no hard feelings. “you’re not mad?” “no, why would I be. I let it go that night.” “everyone told me you had been really mad. I guess I offended Margaret later and she wouldn’t talk to me most of the week.” “oh, no worries, I’ve just been busy. Besides, I was the one who stuck gum on your forehead.” “really? I don’t remember that.” “damn, that was my favorite part.” He can see I take it all as a big joke and I think he feels a little put out. “I’m sorry if you were made to think I was angry. And I’m sorry I didn’t call you this week to let you know I wasn’t I honestly didn’t think about it.” I feel bad for a minute and then think that’s what he gets for being drunk enough to have to rely on other people’s interpretation of events. “no one can hold a grudge when they know you are never like that. It’s not like you will be an asshole like that again for at least a year.” “yeah. I just don’t know if I will be able to live that display down. Everyone keeps using my phrase back at me.” He sounds a little harassed, and maybe he deserves it. “which one? ‘my party’?” “no. god, I barely remember that. I cant believe I said that.” A chagrined chuckle emerges from him as I grin from ear to ear and tell him: “well, you weren’t wrong, bro. they just hate to admit it. I mean, am I right or am I right?”

everything in china is safe

So we are riding our bikes back home [to our apartment on the campus of Hai-Zhong Middle School,] having just finished dinner at You Yi Si, the only restaurant in town that serves western food of any kind—han bao bao (fried chicken sandwiches) and xiu tiao (French fries). And we are 2 of 4 foreigners in this whole town which by Chinese standards is a small farming town—not in any way a center of culture, though it does have this really rich, competitive, boarding school, where we work teaching conversational English to middle school kids.

Anyway, its midwinter and it’s chill and damp and we are headed home to our cold apartment on campus to get under our big heavy comforters and watch a pirated movie on my laptop. And, not surprisingly, we ride past some people shooting off fireworks. This happens in at least 3 locations in town every night when it gets dark enough. It’s one of the few things to do in town.

And I know the Chinese invented gunpowder for this exact purpose, and they know how to make them, the probably supply America with all of ours, but I’ve never 1) been this close to people setting them off, and I mean actual rockets that are red and green and explode in the standard bloom shape, and 2) seen one explode maybe 30 ft above an intersection where people are walking and riding their bikes and kids are playing.

And I know I should be more worried about the SARS epidemic that has just hit the news, or protecting my mental and emotional health which is strained living under a very stringent, repressive, communist government/school administration, or fearing that every one of my kids will have their beautiful, bouncy energy and curiosity for life squelched out of them through the mind-numbing educational system, but instead, I’m freaking out about the personal safety of the guy setting of fireworks with a faulty cigarette lighter on the street corner and whether the rocket will shoot straight up, or somehow angle itself toward my head.

I should feel exhilarated by the celebratory nature of these loud expressions of joy—I’m sure it’s someone’s birthday or some happy occasion for the family, but I can’t handle when everything reverberates and I feel like my chest is being knocked on and the shrapnel rains down upon us. It feels like a war zone.

But they tell us we are safe. So what can we do but believe them, even as all the evidence points to the opposite? Like the sign posted near the back gate of campus: “SARS: Smile And Retain Smile.” Gallows humor, maybe, but its better than crying every night.

ostbanhof, vienna. track 4

So im in a train station in Vienna and I stumble upon this weird travel induced ritual that I had never seen before. It’s a left luggage auction. This event must happen at traveling hubs all over the world but im shocked to run across it cuz id never thought about what happens to lost baggage that isn’t claimed. Apparently, they set up a table in front of the luggage room, with a bunch of chairs facing it, and a station worker takes out each bag or package abandoned by its owner and auctions it off, contents and all. The auctioneer describe each piece on the auction block—what its made of, if it has a tear or a burn hole—surface things only, nothing about what’s inside. Then he starts the bidding. At least, I think that’s how it goes, I have only an uber-basic knowledge of German. But from what I can gather, this is what one does on a lazy Saturday morning to get rid of things no one seems to want. Cuz all the people bidding are really chill about the whole process, not even looking like they have any stake in acquiring these pieces of luggage. But I dunno, Im feeling an underlying intensity to it all that doesn’t just come from the anticipation and competition of an auction. See, everyone looks bored, but no one leaves, cuz this is so the opposite of boring. Cuz this is a secret auction—no one actually knows what they are getting inside any of these bags. I mean, here is a ton of stuff on sale here that people felt was worthy of taking with them from one place to another. Who knows what you could find in any one of these mysterious pieces of luggage? Right now, no one knows what or whose it is, where it came from, or where it was headed, but think of what you could learn when you opened one up!

As I watch people bid on this treasure trove, I notice that even after they have paid for their little jewel they don’t even peek inside it. This apparent lack of interest seems absurd to me cuz im hooked on the thrill of the chase. The only reason to bid on something, in my mind, would be to dissect it and glean from its contents something about its owner. Maybe even figure out what happened them or why they didn’t retrieve their stuff. I almost raise my hand to bid on the next duffle bag but I only have maybe 5 euro to last me till I get to Prague after dinnertime. Besides I already have a backpack.

But what would it be like to arrive at a train station with no luggage, buy one of these bags and just head out on a trip with only what was inside it? Is there toothpaste? Underwear? If so, is it clean? Would the clothes fit? Maybe there are only cans of beans, and if so, did someone remember to pack a can opener? Who packs like that anyway? And while im at it, who leaves what they packed at a train station, never to return? I would be at a complete loss without the pack at my feet. I spent a week before I left, packing and repacking it, carefully weighing the usefulness of each object versus the space it took up, not to mention its heaviness. I pared down to only the essentials for this month-long trip thru Europe. So much so, that even backpackers at hostels ask me how long I plan on traveling with so little stuff. But does the stuff in this pack represent who I am? Would someone get accurate information about me from what they would find here? A couple shirts and a skirt id never wear at home, too many handiwipes and a film canister full of hair goop. That’s not me, is it? My all-purpose soap, my pen and travel journal. That makes a bit more sense. But then, is there any combination of things i own that would really give someone sense of who I am? Id like to think im a bit more complex than that. And Im sure the original owners of all this baggage, these careless people im imagining, would feel the same way. But its from these odds and ends that we end up constructing the stories of our lives, and these are the things that stick around to be picked up by someone else and pondered after we have left this world behind.

its hard to explain

I dunno, its hard to explain. You are in this foreign country, where everything looks different than what you expect, so that’s disorienting, and people are speaking in a language that you don’t know, and that’s alienating, and then you cant read any signs anywhere unless they have pictures, and all of a sudden you understand how isolated you are without language. And you walk around with the constant sound of unintelligible speech in your ears and your senses reach for anything you could possibly understand, and it’s exhausting.

But then you start to notice visual things on a different level and you glean information by body language and context and you get really good at charades and sound effects because how else do you impart meaning? I explained to my English students in China why I had missed 3 weeks of class by pantomiming (with noises) my appendectomy.

They found it kind of hilarious and kind of vulgar, but who knows the word for appendectomy in a foreign language?

So, you get good at describing complicated things in the few simple words they know, you get good at completing unfinished sentences and deciphering imprecise meanings. You get really good at phrasing English in the word order of that country’s language. You lose the possibility of nuance and tact. You don’t understand what is unspoken, since you are barely catching what is spoken.

And as a last resort, you use the phrases in their textbook because you know they memorized them exactly like that, assuming that’s how people actually speak.

Hello. Hello, how are you? Fine, and you? Fine, thank you.

But then, wonder of wonders, language actually works for communication.

I’m sitting on a bench on campus of the Chinese middle school where I live and work, thinking about my lesson plan for the afternoon.

Enter Sam: about 11yrs old, really energetic and likeable, always in a good mood, sharp when he’s paying attention. He’s trotting past me and when I look up, he stops. He makes a tiny bow and says “Hello, Rachel.” I smile at his formality, his respect for his teacher and out of both delight and politeness, I say “hello, sam. How are you?” he responds as he has been taught, “fine, and you?” at which point I realize we are acting out a lesson from class and I never bothered to learn my lines. So I say, “fine, thank you.” And he nods. Successful transaction. I nod, he skips away.

This exact scene plays out about once a week for the rest of the semester. We both enjoy it and sometimes we even spice it up with new vocabulary from class, and sometimes we just ask each other how we are. And we are doing fine. And we feel that legitimately, and want to know it sincerely, and at some point I realize it doesn’t matter what we say, but that we have a moment of connection, and I am grateful to same and his script. It’s the one thing I know for sure will work.

kisses from peterpanek to you (yes, you)

Have you read Rilke's letters yet? Do it soon. He understands why this growing up thing is so hard. Here, listen.

"Sex is difficult; yes. But they are difficult things with which we have been charged; almost everything serious is difficult, and everything is serious. If you only recognize this and manage, out of yourself, out of your own nature and ways, out of your own experience and childhood and strength to achieve a relation to sex wholly your own (not influenced by convention and custom), then you need no longer be afraid of losing yourself and becoming unworthy of your best possession."

For me, it's all about the boy. The boy haunts me. Maybe he haunts everyone, I dunno. He's the one who doesn't grow up. He's my favorite. He is Timmy, he is Peter Pan, he is whatever boy I'm all about, He is me when I'm feeling most myself and then he is completely the other. God, He is flight. He is freedom and spontaneity and escape and possibility and success and height. To Get High. Literally. He is a drug, he is a lover, he's a shadow, he is an ideal, he is a fucking fury. He is everything to me and yet he is nothing. He's who I want to see in the mirror, and then he's you half the time.

He started as a feeling about myself. As a kid I was an all out tomboy. Okay, so not much has changed, but still…even back then I had short hair. Boy short. I loved it cuz it helped me fit in. Cuz I was always one of the rough and tumbles, my gruff little husky voice mingling, my soccer playing on par, my tree climbing skills competing with the best of the boys on my block. And I only wore blue boy clothes, if I could help it. So the hair just completed the image. I can't tell you how many times some kid would come up to me on the playground and say, "are you a boy or a girl?" and I would want to hit them or run away or sometimes I would feel like crying, but always I would say, "what do you think?" like they were so stupid that they had to ask. Cuz I was always so angry that they needed to know so bad. I always felt that it was the height of rudeness, not that they couldn't tell, but that it mattered. That my private body parts were allowed to be part of blacktop conversation. I wanted to say "it's none of your business" but that wouldn't really make sense to a 7 year old. Not that it made sense to me at the time either, it's just what I wanted to say. Sometimes I'd say, "why does it matter?" and they would look at me like I was an alien or something, which I wished I was so I didn't have to feel like I was caught in between two polar opposites—I didn't discover the gender spectrum till college—"cuz it DOES," they would say. It does matter. People need to know what side of the coin you are on so they know how to treat you. Cuz all interaction is gendered. Nobody knows what to do with you if you don't fit into either/or.

Then this feeling was given an image with Timmy. He was my favorite cousin. He was a mischievous little imp, a total instigator, but he also was the one who looked out for us younger kids. He was the golden child, always making everyone smile, becoming the favorite of our entire hot-blooded Italian clan. My adoration of Timmy bordered on worship. He knew it and was gentleman enough not to mention it or let it affect how we played together. God I remember his face-- the barely contained laugh in his smirky smile--when he had thought of some great game to embark upon and he was about to let me in on the fun. His eyes would really shine like stars. (second to the right and straight on till morning) I followed him around like a puppy dog. Loyal to the end. Which came in the form of an inoperable brain tumor, causing a gut-dropping descent into death when he was nine years old. Nine years. He never got to live beyond that. He'd be almost 30 now. I can't imagine him at that age. I don't want to. He will always be a little boy. And I'm so jealous of that. Both the 'always' part and the 'boy' part. Cuz my way of grieving him has been to keep his image of eternal boyness very real inside of me—make it my ideal and my shadow. And still I catch myself believing I can keep alive that time when we were both young and invincible, by finding someone who fits his role, or by acting out his part myself. The boy who would not grow up.

And then this image became a reality with Peter Pan. When I was a senior in college, my dorm mates and I declared war on our friends who had an off-campus house named "Pirate House". We pronounced ourselves the lost boys and had a crowing contest to see who would play Peter. I won. We each played a part and stole their jolly roger flag which started us pranking our way thru our last months in neverland before graduation. it was fun, but I realize now I wasn't just playing. That year I was learning to navigate the world Peter Pan inhabits of being a 'betwixt and between' not a human boy, not a bird either, but an eternal youth who can fly—who is capable of anything. Cuz here's the trick—this is why Peter Pan is such a fascinating dramatic character--cuz he is a young boy, but is traditionally played on stage by a grown woman. So there is this gender fuck going on where this actress, like her character, will never grow up to be a man only because she is not male and she will continue to look like a boy specifically because she chooses to not look like a girl. So you're refusing to play by the rules of society not by refusing to physically grow up, but refusing to act out your gender role, which in a lot of minds is how you show that you are grown-up. Such a refusal puts you betwixt and between where anything is possible. And when I say you, I mean me, but I also mean you.

Cuz now there is this potential with you. What kind? I don't know. Cuz if asked "are you a boy or a girl?" I would answer one way and you the other, yet in practice we go back and forth. And neither of us knows how to navigate between where you begin and where I end mostly because the shapes we have don't keep still long enough to fit together—like Tink never standing still long enough for you to see her. But if I'm not playing woman and you aren't playing man are we both playing boy? Is that okay? Are we playing for keeps? what roles aren't possible at this point? Cuz there is a lot of ground to cover in the betwixt and between. And tho I have no idea where we might land, all I really know how to do is take your hand and try to fly.

missing the friendly confines

The other day I was walking my wet bike home from work thru the park on Capitol Hill, when I came across a little league game. I would have walked past it, except the team that had just retired the side and was flooding the dugout near me had on Cubs jerseys. I had a breath of nostalgia run thru me and stopped to feed the homesick hunger my teams colors evoked in me. I leaned my bike against a wall and half sat on the horizontal crossbar. So as I watched the kids throw and catch, the former a little wildly, the latter, rarely, and the dads talk about opening day at Safeco Field and the Mariners prospects this year, I realized how much baseball is a part of my life.

I am from Chicago, where we have two teams (one for each major league) that personify two sides of town (north and south) and unite (or divide) families and friends city-wide. And the loyalty is fierce. I mean, I was mildly interested that the White Sox were in the World Series last year, I was even grudgingly happy for my friends who are diehard fans, but, oh I wish I could even begin to tell you what it was like for us two years agothe euphoria of that time when we were watching our boys in blue in October, as Wrigleys ivy was turning red and our hopes were so high it made us dizzy. But I cant revisit that. Not yet.

My love of baseball is deep. Its in my bones. As I watched the mini cubs' center fielder drop a fly ball, pick it up with his mitt and take three big hopping steps before deciding where to throw, I felt not only his emotions but the movement of his muscles. How hard it is to pick up a baseball with your glove tip, especially wearing your older brothers glove thats just too long for your hand to snap shut. Standing so near this game I can feel myself a part of so many other games as a kidI can bring up the tangy smell of the aluminum bats we used, can taste the grit of the brown dirt that clung to us, whether from sliding into second or just kicking our cleats dirty while sitting in the dugout. I can feel the supple leather of my mitt, the acid on my tongue when tightening a knot on it with my teeth. The sharp scent of the bruised grass from shuffling my feet in center field, the sting of sweat in my eyes, the slick of the catchers mask on my forehead and chin. These things are comfort food for my brain.

I hear the coach cheering and my vocal chords know the drill Go, Cubbies! almost croaks out of my own throat unbidden. The sky here is a predictable, but unfamiliar dark and shifting grey, allowing a respite from the rain for a few good innings at leastI never had to play under a sky like this one, in fact, what I remember most about playing little league is looking out beyond center field at the tangerine sun sitting in ready position just over the fence, looking for a fly ball to come its way. Playing outfield was never that bad when the late afternoon sun is backing you up.

Okay. So Im talking about nostalgia here. So shoot me. But its a passed down kind. I come by the love of this game honest, from both sides of the family tree. Baseball seems to be the one thing my grandfathers had in common. They were very different menone a hard-headed, hot-tempered engineer, and the other a level-headed, soft-spoken banker. Or so Im told, they both passed away before I was born. But I have heard my parents tell of their memories of each of their fathers listening to games on the radio while fixing stuff around the house. These memories always surfaced when we were painting the garage or stripping the trim on the house; always when Grandpa Foxs old transistor radio had been pulled out and tuned in to catch the static roar of fans punctuated by cracks of the bat. I sometimes confuse my dads memories of the baseball stars of his youth and pick-up games in the park with my own. He had such a mythic attitude towards themthe golden days of the game. Maybe it was no different then, maybe its Dads nostalgia colored, like mine, as it was understood by a 10 year old. But still, in some ways that feeling is tradition, something reverently enacted in deference to earlier timesa bit of how I feel when I hear Casey at the bat the way I smile when I see Babe point with his bat, even if Ive only witnessed it on old film stock in retrospectives Its a cultural phenomenon shared thru timeharkening back to the good old days whatever those are. Its a part of the root structure of so many Americans identities. I mean, Ken Burns did an epic series on it for Christs sake. Its about as American as you can get.

But there is something about baseball that I dont understand, cuz it can be boring and slow. And kinda pointless, and kinda weirdly individualistic, what with the role of a pitcher and everyone batting one at a time. Much more so than other team sports like soccer which I love and wish America would join the rest of the world and start treating as a professional sport. But baseball is an American sport, and being American, though Im not proud of that outside of the ballpark, it makes some sort of crazy sense to me. Of course its individualistic. Of course it is more popular than soccer here. Its statistics and averages and probabilities are tempting figures; the desire to see men run in a circle is so compelling it itches, and till a long fly ball is caught every breath in the stands is held tight. But why? I dont know.

Because this sport is also oddly difficult. The skill required in hitting a 90mph fastball with a bata ball 3 inches in diameteris kind of obscene. The concentration and stamina it takes to be ready for any given fielding opportunity, and then to actually perform each of them is monumental. Not to mention the patience and attention span needed to hurry up and wait. How on earth did we decide it was a good idea for children to play this game? Attention span alone, not to mention eye/hand coordination and reflexes, but dealing with personal tragedies like striking out every time you are up for 9 innings straight, or dropping the ball that allows the winning run to score, and the juvenile shunning that accompanies them, my god. Separately, these are hard things to do, but all at the same time? When I think of all of this, I remember some painful moments and vow to protect my progeny from such humiliations. I cant lie and say all my memories are good, but I can say they are vivid and very much a part of who I am whether I want them to be or not.

And sometimes I dont. sometimes the whole baseball and apple pie thing makes me gag. Whose country, whose history is this? Not a lot of people I know. And most of the time I wouldnt be caught dead identifying myself as American in any way, especially not having to do with the grossly overpaid and self-aggrandized professional sports culture that has been created. But still, baseball gets to me. I choke up at the seventh inning stretch, if not the national anthem. I get caught up in it like a dramatic movie, and most of all, I remember the feeling of putting on my mitt on a mid-summer afternoon and having it feel like a part of my hand. I revel in thinking about how my ten-year-old self, along with my brother and neighbors, used to play whiffle ball (just like dads stick ball, but plastic) in the alley behind our house, home plate spray painted on the cement. Third base was a section of the garage door, so you were counted safe as often with your hands as with your feet. And there were two people per team, so there were tons of ghost runners who were exactly as fast as you and couldnt be tagged out, but a force totally counted. I loved those times most when it was more dark than dusk and from center field (the only field attached to our super-narrow diamond) I could hear the whir of the whiffle off johnnies fingers, almost feel the power of the cut seth made with the thin bat, sense where the ball started hanging in the air and be ready to catch it and tag the bag before annie reached it. Of course then wed have to call the game cuz dads headlights were shining in our eyes and he was waiting to remove third base and park the car. That time of day always meant we were dirty and sweaty and sick of arguing over phantoms and it was time to eat dinner.

So its nostalgia, so what? Its like home cooking (which I also miss, by the way). But why baseball? Is it just shared experience? Maybe its like learning a language when you are small and forever after being able to speak like a nativemaybe baseball got soaked up in the sponge of my young mind in a way that indelibly marked methe memories of childhood too strong to overcome logically. These kids all the way out here in Seattle are having a very similar childhood experience to mine just outside Chicagosome details are different, they play on Astroturf for onebut most things havent changed. First basemen have to have good reach, shortstop is an enviable position, pitchers have a lot of pressure to deal withthese are givens in all our minds and the kids that grow up in Manchester England, though they speak our same language (albeit strangely) they dont understand the meaning of a pop fly at the bottom of the ninth with two outs like we do. Maybe I stopped today for a moment of something that reminded me of home in this far away place Ive thrown myself. And maybe its to feel more at home in this new city, having something in common with these people that surround meat least we all love baseball, even if they dont eat white bread or have greasy spoons here. Even if snow is an exception in winter and coffee culture reigns. At least we all love baseball. Too bad the mariners arent national league.

24 hours of Flu

this is what spending way too much time in my bed, more often with a fever than not, has done to me. im blogging. sheesh. this is all your fault, j. the next few posts will be things that i have written, stuff that has been posted and/or performed elsewhere, but i guess it should all be in one place, so....