Thursday, December 20, 2012

The End is Near? Then let's make the most of it!

By Chuck Bauerlein

As most folks know by now, the world has been scheduled for its demise for several thousand years now. Just ask any Mayan you can find. 

How interesting is it that the legacy of their prediction out-lived them? It’s ironic, but scary at the same time.  We know worlds do end because theirs’ did, they just picked the wrong date. Why didn’t they see the Spanish coming? 

The notion of the End of Time has us in its thrall today more than most days because that old Mayan calendar has finally turned its page and arrived right on schedule: 12/21/12.

The numbers may remind us of an old Fortran code, but they speak to us of mystery and things unknowable. Therein lay their beauty and their power. We take solace in what the Good Book tells us: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, not the Son, but the Father only. ”(Matthew 24:26). 

Yet we take a deep breath and watch the skies and we glance at the calendar, too.  It is today? We can’t know. But I’m betting not.

I first heard about the Mayan calendar when I was a boy of 10 or 11. At the time, a shudder ran down my spine just thinking about a concept so big as the End of the World. It was stupefying. How could they know? I shrugged and took a look on the bright side of things: at least I’ll be an old man when it happens!

Not long after I learned about the Mayan prediction, I was walking down the hallway of my Roman Catholic grade school. I was out of class because I knew how to help serve mass as an altar boy and the school priest was serving the Eucharist at the high school.
My principal, a nun in the service of the Sisters of  Mercy, stopped me in the hallway wanting to know my business. When I explained it to her she waved me on my way but then she suddenly stopped in her tracks and addressed me. “Charles,” she said, “who is your best friend in school?”

I was taken aback for a moment, unsure what to say. My best friend was a boy from my neighborhood but I explained to her that “he doesn’t go to our school, Sister. He’s a Protestant.”  

She glanced at me sternly and pointed a knowing finger in my face. “Well, you know Charles. He won’t be in heaven with us.”

I was too stunned to answer her. But I never forgot what she told me. And I began to question everything she or any other cleric told me after that. What I thought to myself was something like this: “Oh, really, sister? Do you honestly believe that?” 

Would a merciful God do that? He would consign anyone who was not baptized in the Roman Catholic faith to the eternal flames of damnation?

I became a skeptic that day. I wouldn’t say I lost my faith, but her comment put me on my career path. I started to wonder about everything, especially the things that didn’t seem logical. I went to school to study journalism where we were taught to hold power accountable and to ask impertinent questions of people in authority.  

On the face of it, sister’s comment made no sense. Neither does the Mayan calendar. The staying power of religion has to do with these things we cannot know. But we are witness to death from a young age. In the normal scheme of things, we experience the death of our pets die or we notice when a tall tree come down in the front yard. 

Then our grandparents pass or maybe our aunts and uncles. Then our parents pass too and the idea takes hold: we too will die someday. What will happen to us?   

Intuitively, instinctively we all learn what will happen. Death happens. The inevitable ending we all know is coming happens. 

There is glory in that. And celebration, too. I will be enjoying tonight with some dear friends and former students. I've spent several days decorating the interior of my home with crime scene yellow and black tape; with posters and reminders of violent visions of the end of the world. I'm expecting one friend to bring a human skull....something appropriate I can place on the "Fiscal Cliff" I dredged out of the Brandywine Creek last week and stuck on my diningroom table, surrounded by plastic snakes and fighter jets. It will be like Halloween, only better.
We’ll be listening to a playlist of songs inspired by thoughts of the end of the world, having a few adult beverages and thinking about endings.  It’s what humans do. And believe it or not, we’ll have fun.

We can thank the Mayans for helping us to remember what’s really important: embrace each day as if it’s your last. Because you just never know which one it will be.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mayan Party End of the World set list

A few assorted friends, colleagues and former Literature of the Apocalypse students are gathering to celebrate the winter solstice and to take stock in Mayan predictions of the end of the world. We are ushering in the New Age with a party of raucous revelry and some adult beverages. Here's the set list we'll be listening to as we count down the hours remaining until 12/21/12 turns the calendar page.
disc one playlist
Waiting For The End Of The World 3:27 Elvis Costello  
Antichrist Television Blues 5:10 Arcade Fire
All Tomorrow's Parties 6:00 The Velvet Underground
A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall 6:53 Bob Dylan  
Death To Everyone 4:31 Bonnie "Prince" Billy
It's The End Of The World (And I Feel Fine) 4:07 R.E.M. 
Eve of Destruction 1:59 The Dickies
For What It's Worth 2:41 Buffalo Springfield
Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring 3:13 Traffic  
Origin Of Species 3:06 Chris Smither  
London Calling 3:20 The Clash  
Immigrant Song 2:25 Led Zeppelin  
Time Has Come Today 4:59 The Chambers Brothers  
Don't Let It Bring You Down 2:58 Neil Young  
Waiting Around To Die 2:43 Townes Van Zandt
(Nothing But) Flowers 5:36 Talking Heads
2012 (Bury Our Heads) 3:51 Dengue Fever
Tomorrow Never Knows 3:00 The Beatles

disc two playlist
It's The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) 4:07 R.E.M.  
Highway To Hell 3:28 AC/DC
The Man Comes Around 4:27 Johnny Cash  
Rider 4:25 Okkervil River
Revolution 3:26 Dr. John
Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues 3:32 The Kinks  
Long As I Can See The Light 3:34 Creedence Clearwater Revival  
It's All Over Now, Baby Blue 4:15 Bob Dylan  
Farewell, Farewell 2:40 Fairport Convention
All Things Must Pass 3:47 George Harrison  
Jump Into The Fire 7:02 Harry Nilsson   
1999 6:15 Prince  
Before The Deluge 5:48 Jackson Browne  
This Wheel's On Fire 3:53 Bob Dylan & The Band
Gimme Shelter 4:31 The Rolling Stones  
There Is A War 3:03 Leonard Cohen  
Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down 2:18 Uncle Tupelo
Revelator 6:23 Gillian Welch
The End 2:22 The Beatles

disc three playlist

All Along The Watchtower 2:35 Bob Dylan
John The Revelator 3:19 Blind Willie Johnson
Jesus Gonna Be Here 3:22 Tom Waits
Strange Things Happening Every Day 2:53 Sister Rosetta Tharpe
The Lord Is Back 3:22 Eugene McDaniels  
Judgement Day 4:10 Elliot Randall & The Deadmen 
Going By the Book, Johnny Cash
Dancing With Mr. D. 4:54 The Rolling Stones
Here's Your Future 2:29 The Thermals 
Drunken Poet's Dream 4:21 Ray Wylie Hubbard
It’s Not Too Late 4:27 T-Bone Burnett
Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring 3:13 Traffic 
Lay Down (Candles In The Rain) 3:50 Melanie
Road To Nowhere 4:19 Talking Heads 
Political Science 2:01 Randy Newman
Great Atomic Power 2:46 the Louvin Brothers
Keep The Car Running 3:29 Arcade Fire 
Apocalypse Dreams 5:57 Tame Impala 
The End 11:47 The Doors

disc four playlist

New Year's Eve at the Gates of Hell 3:31 Ray Wylie Hubbard 
Ashes To Ashes 4:02 Steve Earle 
Til The End Of The World Rolls Round 2:35 Flatt and Scruggs
O Death 3:20 Ralph Stanley 
End Times 2:58 Eels 
High Water 4:05 Bob Dylan 
Calamity Song 3:50 The Decemberists 
Die Die Die 2:51 The Avett Brothers 
Earth Died Screaming 3:39 Tom Waits 
Five Years 4:42 David Bowie 
Blow Your Tuneless Trumpet 3:56 The Mekons 
Doom and Gloom 3:59 The Rolling Stones
Lawyers, Guns And Money 3:30 Warren Zevon
No Time to Live 5:20, Traffic
Closing Time 4:02 Leonard Cohen
1999 6:15 Prince 
All Along The Watchtower 4:01 Jimi Hendrix
Don't Say No (It's the End of the World) -- Skeeter Daivs
Mystery Track -- Sacred Poets of the Apocalypse

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Best of 2012: 20 CDs and 20 songs

The best of 2012
1) The Grifter’s Hymnal by Ray Wylie Hubbard (Bordello Records).  You could make a case that Ray Wylie Hubbard invented alt-country. Best known for penning one of the most bad-ass country tunes of all time (“Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother”), Hubbard’s grizzled bearing is the outlaw template by which style has always been measured for Southwestern musicians. This year’s album, his finest ever, firmly establishes Hubbard as one of the genre’s best songwriters. “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell” is not only the year’s most hilarious and timely send-up of Dante’s Inferno, (he assigns the “Fox News whores” to their own dark corner of Hades) it rocks like it’s heralding the Mayan apocalypse. Thom Jurek ends his review of it in All Music Guide with these memorable lines:  “It’s a swaggering, sexy, shake your ass, greasy, deep roots record. It pursues the same mercurial music that bit everyone from Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to the White Stripes, the Black Keys, and Black Angels, down alleys, in bar and bedrooms, across history, myth and space.”  Amen, brother. Essential listening for anyone who thinks musicians my age are irrelevant.
2) Carnivale Electricos by Galactic (Anti). Dr. John’s Locked Down will probably make more end of the year lists than this great party record by the New Orleans soul collective known as Galatic. Both records showcase the city’s vibrant tunesmiths and funky music scene and Locked Down nearly made my ten best list, too. But this record best celebrates a long-unheralded side of the Crescent City’s heritage: the music made specifically for the world’s biggest party, Mardi Gras.  Carnivale Electricos taps into the “Sissy Strut” vibe of the Meters by engaging Cyril and Ivan Neville to sing on “Out in the Street” and its opening cut gets the carnival party started by putting Big Chief Juan Pardo in front of the microphone, backed by the chants of his Mardi Gras Indian tribe, the Golden Comanche. Even old-school New Orleanians will love Galatic's remake of “Carnival Time” which reprises a performance by Al Johnson. Scintillating. If you don’t sway to this one, you better get your pulse checked.
3) Fear Fun by Father John Misty (Sub Pop). A sleepy, sonorous folk album from the former drummer of Fleet Foxes, J. Tillman, Fear Fun sounds like the record the Band might have cut if they’d recorded Big Pink in Laural Canyon, California instead of Woodstock. The trippy Cali vibe is in evidence on songs such as “Funtime in Babylon”, “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” and “I’m Writing a Novel.”   The CD’s cover art is an homage and/or parody of psychedelic poster art that Bill Graham used to promote his concerts at the Fillmore West in San Francisco. You may need the magic of psilocybin mushrooms to fully appreciate the tuneful meanderings of Tillman’s stories, but this album is worthy of the trip.
4) Lonerism by Tame Impala (Modular). The brain child of Aussie Kevin Parker, Lonerism is awash in studio tricks, amplified reverberations and mind-bending distortions that sound tunefully aware of the Beatles’ greatest studio achievements, Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. On “Apocalypse Dreams”, the album’s best song, Parker’s vocals purposely mimic John Lennon’s faraway cries on “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds”. Throughout the recording, producer David Freidman’s has layered an array of sonic burps, bells and whistles that turn Lonerism from a quirky studio experiment into a seamless synth pop masterpiece. If at first it seems too dependent on studio gimmickry, give it time. This one will grow on you.
5) Arrow by Heartless Bastards (Partisan Records).  Erika Wennerstrom’s primal wail (her vocals are as distinctive as any female rocker since Janis Joplin), always is the sturdy foundation of any Heartless Bastard record. On Arrow it’s finally matched in intensity and passion by the inspired performances of her band mates, Mark Nathan (guitar) Jesse Ebaugh (bass) and Dave Colvin (drums).  The Bastards rock harder than ever on tunes like “Parted Ways,” “Simple Feeling” and their statement of purpose, “Got to Have Rock and Roll.” Get it here.
 6) The Lost Kerosene Tapes, 1999 by Bob Woodruff (Sound Asleep).  If you can imagine hearing Steve Earle’s Guitar Town for the first time in more than a decade after his record company refused to release it, you might have that same sense of astonishment in hearing this great alt-country record, buried in the vaults for 14 years and never released before  finally being issued in Europe this year. Woodruff’s stinging guitar work and the passionate way he delivers songs like “Fire In the House of Love”, “Hat Full of Rain” and “Brand New Blue” offer compelling evidence he is an unheralded voices of the genre. This one would have been higher if this were not old material.
7) Wrecking Ball by Bruce Springsteen (Columbia).  This was my soundtrack for the 2012 election, Springsteen’s finest album in decades. A millionaire many times over, Springsteen wears his blue collar roots on his sleeve. I get that some critics think this is ironic or merely a patronizing selling proposition to his legion of fans. The angry tone of many of these songs, his heartfelt angst at how one of our major political parties conspired to hold the nation hostage in a time of hardship, makes me trust the sentiments of Wrecking Ball.  In “Easy Money”, when he sings about bringing his Smith and Wesson .38 to “the far shore” and warns the fat cats “you won’t hear a sound when your whole world comes tumblin’ down”, he’s not issuing a personal warning, he’s calling for revolution.      
8) Signs & Signifiers by J.D. McPherson (Rounder). The way “North Side Gal” romps out of the starting gate, you’d be forgiven for thinking McPherson’s first album will be a 100-yard sprint to the finish. Only “Firebug”, the album’s second single, matches the frenetic fire and rockabilly panache of “Gal”. But that’s not to suggest Signs & Signifiers doesn’t strive for an authentic, wailing Sun Studios vibe that thrums throughout, highlighted by Jimmy Sutton’s thick, thumping plucks on a stand-up bass. These 12 sizzling songs come in under 35 minutes, a casual nod to albums in the 1950s, when short songs were designed for AM convertible radios and two lane blacktops. Play this one on a cross country drive and see if you can avoid a speeding ticket. I have my doubts.
9) Blak and Blu by Gary Clark Jr.  (Warner Brothers). I was prepared to love this CD and can recommend this as the best straight-ahead blues music of the year. When he’s playing raw and fast, Clark rivals the Black Keys for sheer unadulterated ax thrills. And when those horns blare over his those tasty guitar licks, this is a powerful testament to a great new musical voice, balls to the wall noise. “Ain’t Messin’ Around” and “When My Train Pulls In” and “Numb” tear the walls down. But Clark’s attempt at romantic ballads and a try at rap feel misplaced here. This one is worth hearing but his follow up: watch out!  
10) Clear Heart Full Eyes by Craig Finn (Vagrant). Finn, the songwriter par excellence whose manic stage mannerisms and street-smart, detail-rich stories of misbehaving youth and hipster hucksters helped make the Hold Steady America’s savviest bar band, maintains his nuanced eye in this wonderful solo effort. His back-up performers on this record don’t vie for attention, like the Hold Steady do. They provide a subdued sonic palette for this songs that places the emphasis on Finn’s lyrics to good effect.  Highlights include “No Future” and “Terrified Eyes.”

These are my CDs of the year numbers 11 through 20, in alphabetical order. The Carpenter by the Avett Brothers; Algiers by Calexico; Rebirth by Jimmy Cliff; Sing the Delta by Iris DeMent;  Django, Django by Django Django; Tempest by Bob Dylan; Locked Down by Dr. John; On the Impossible Past, by the Menzingers; The Ghost of Browder Holler by Chelle Rose; Port of Morrow by the Shins.

My 20 favorite songs of the year: “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell” and “South of the River” by Ray Wylie Hubbard; ”The Obituaries” by the Menzingers; “North Side Gal,” by J.D. McPherson; “Numb,” by  Gary Clark Jr.;  “Apocalypse Dreams,” by Tame Impala; “Land of Hope and Dreams” by Bruce Springsteen ; “Fire In the House of Love” by Bob Woodruff; “Parted Ways” and “No Future” by Heartless Bastards; “Carnival Time” by Galatica; “I'm Writing a Novel” and “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings” by Father John Misty; “I Need You” and “Alimony” by Chelle Rose; “Default” by Django Django; “Splitter” by Calexico; “No Future” by Craig Finn; “Bait and Switch” by The Shins.; "When I Write My Master's Thesis" by John K. Samuel.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Post-election violence at Ole Miss

Angry students at Ole Miss in Ocford, Miss., burn an Obama/Biden poster after the results of Tuesday's election were announced by the media.

I sent my pre-election blog out to all four of my classes on Monday.

It expressed some trepidation at what might happen after the election if the radical far right fringes of the country heard that President Obama won re-election by winning the electoral vote but losing the popular vote. When I discussed my blog on Monday, I encountered at least one or two voices of skepticism about my worry about violence.

I don't want this to sound as if I am telling those who doubted me "I told you so." But please read the first link to get a sense of why I was worried and why we need to be vigilant about this kind of racist behavior among some Americans. It IS a tangible threat to our safety and to the smooth running of our democracy.

Thank you for reading!

Monday, November 5, 2012

It's not your right, it's your duty: vote!

Tomorrow, I will rise early and walk four blocks down to the nearest voting precinct -- a volunteer fire company -- and stand in line, as early as I can, to cast my vote for Barack Obama.
This year the popular vote will be close again, just as it was in 2000 and 2004. I suspect we may not know who won the electoral vote until the early hours of Wednesday. It may take even longer than that. For the sake of my country, I hope not.

As we approach tomorrow’s presidential election, if sometimes feels as if  America is coming apart at the seams. I don’t know what will happen if President Obama retains his position in the White House but loses the popular vote.  This seems like an increasingly likely scenario as we get set to go to the polls, and it's worrisome and worth pondering. What will happen after tomorrow?
It’s worth pondering because this is exactly what transpired in 2000, when George W. Bush wasn’t declared the winner until five partisan judges on the Supreme Court forced the state of Florida to stop recounting the ballots in a state that was too close to call some 40 days after the election, declaring Bush the winner.

We collectively discovered soon thereafter what should have been obvous: elections have consequences. They matter a lot. When he was sworn into office, George W. Bush inherited a $236 billion surplus, compiled by the Clinton administration after eight years of Democratic rule. Soon after that he emptied the nation’s treasury. First, President Bush instituted a huge tax cut that heavily  favored  the wealthiest  1 percent of Americans. Next he dragged the nation into two foreign wars, started largely because of Dick Cheney’s lie that Saddam Hussein was seeking to purchase yellow cake uranium from Uganda to produce a nuclear weapon.   
By the time he left office, eight years later, Bush he had turned the Clinton surplus into a $1.3 trillion deficit. (It is rarely noted in the national media that many billions of this debt was borrowed from China and that a significant amount of this borrowed money was transferred into the pockets of American defense contractors, such as Halliburton, which Dick Cheney headed before becoming Bush’s vice-president).  

Democrats never fully embraced President Bush because of the way he had won the election, not because Al Gore had won the popular vote but because the Supreme Court had injected itself into the election process and declared Bush the winner.
It may seem “fitting” to many Democrats if that scenario is reversed after the election tomorrow, and Obama retains his office despite losing the popular vote to Gov. Romney.  It could happen. And given the emotionally charged times we live in – and how vitriolic and spiteful politics American has become since the rise of the Tea Party – it is something to worry about.

Yesterday morning on The Chris Matthews Show, Howard Fineman, a senior political editor of the Huffington Post, speculated that  if Obama wins the election but loses the popular vote, it will give the right-wing crazies an excuse to de-legitimize his election and that armed chaos may ensue in isolated pockets around the country. Fineman does not strike me as an alarmist. He is a respected journalist who carefully measures what he says when he is making political predictions. The threat of post-election violence is more real that most Americans want to admit.
For that reason alone, tomorrow’s election is an historic event, and represents a true test of our democratic principles. The nation has not been as fractured as it presently is since the Civil War. How peacefully we come out of this election will, to a large extent, determine whether humankind can govern itself.

If chaos rules the day and, in the next few months, America slides over the precipice of rational thought, we will have our answer.  It won’t be pretty. There will be blood. If we can all manage to take a deep collective gulp, and live with the consequences of a duly elected govrnment, we will buy more time for what the founders called our "grand experiment." We can still set an example for the rest of the world. We will have a chance to show off, once again, our greatest national achievement: democracy.
No matter who wins—and I firmly believe the nation and the world will be better served if we stay the course with President Obama for four more years – the next president will inherit a divided Congress, a growing mountain of debt, and  a tide of rising anger from one-half of the nation’s electorate.  

That’s why this election is so important. Don’t sit on the sidelines and watch. The very least you can do is vote. It’s not your “right” as a citizen. It’s your duty. The whole world is watching.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The happiest day of my life....

....happened 32 years ago today.
It was game six of the 1980 World Series. My favorite team, the losing-est team in the history of American professional sports (you could look this up to verify if you don't believe me) was playing for their first World Championship. 

I was 29 years old and had just spend a pretty great weekend with my fiancee. She was a student at Princeton's Theological seminary and grew up a fan of the Pirates. I was a die-hard Phillies fan and grew up a Roman Catholic.

Something HAD to give. We could never stay married for the long run if one of us didn't change. So we compromised.

"I'll become a Presbyterian," I suggested, "if you become a Phillies fan."

This seemed to make sense to both of us. As soon as she agreed to this, it occurred to me I might some day write my about this in my memoire.  I was sure I'd call it "The Minister's Husband." Seemed like a great movie title at the time.

 We’d met one another in Knoxville, Tenn., at a magazine company called the 13-30 Corporation. I was a staff writer, she was  fact checker. I drove her up to Princeton in early September of 1980. We listened to a late-season Phillies game when I proposed my "arrangement": if you become a Phillies fan, I'll become a Presbyterian.

The Phils were several games back of the Expos at the time, despite having a two bona fide Hall of Famers (Steve Carlton, Mike Schmidt). Several other players in their starting nine also seemed at the time like they might one day make it (Pete Rose, Larry Bowa, Bob Boone, Greg Luzinski, Garry Maddox, Manny Trillo). The Phils were loaded. 

This seemed like a perfectly amenable transaction to her, even though her beloved Pirates had won the series a year earlier. I long have wondered if she'd have agreed if the Pirates had been battling for another world championship.

After dropping her off in New Jersey, I returned to Knoxville to finish out my job at the company. Our grand plan was for me to leave my job in May, come up for her graduation, and get married in May of 1981. Her dad, himself a Presbyterian minister, was going to marry us in his home church on Long Island.

In September, Phillies' manager Dallas Green applied a bullwhip to the "Fightin' Phils" and the team of battle-tested vets caught fire. They won 18 of 29 games that month and clinched the Eastern division on next to last day of the regular season. The team I had grown up rooting for my entire life was going to the World Series!  I thought I had died and gone to heaven. For the first time in my life, I was going to see the Phillies play for a world championship!

I came home for a long-weekend to celebrate my parent's 30th wedding anniversary on October 17th. During the Sunday anniversary festivities I made a terrible faux pas that embarrassed my fiance but that became part of my family's long oral history. 

After playing the most exciting 5-game league championship series in the history of baseball (you could look this up, too) and beating the Houston Astros, three games to two, the Phillies were locked in an epic struggle against the Kansas City Royals. Each team had won two games.

Game five of the 1980 series started right as the family sat down to celebrate my parent's anniversary. I tried to be polite and honor my parents and their moment, but it was hard. For the sake of propriety, I asked my brother Matt, then just 7 years old, to get me a score every a 30 minutes or so. He was too young to know how hard my heart was beating when he'd bring back his "reports" from the den where the game was flickering on an old black and white Victrola.

"It's 1-0, Chuck!" he'd tell me, proud to be able to read the TV screen, but oblivious to my annoyance. I needed far more data to be satisfied with his report. He was unable to tell me which team was winning or what inning it was. An hour later he came back and told me the score was 2-1. Still later, it was 3-2. I wasslowly dying inside. I had no idea who was winning.
My sister served soup and salad first and then a three-course dinner. It lasted hours. Finally dessert and coffee was served and I sensed that soon, I would manage to escape the day’s family obligations and go watch baseball history be made.

My dad chose that moment to address the family gathering, all 30 of us.   His kids, our spouses and significant others and a gaggle of grandchildren. “Before we adjorn, I’d like each of us who brought a guest with you to introduce your guest to us and tell us something nice about them."

Did I tell you I am the oldest of 11 children? That most of us had “guests” at this anniversary dinner and that in the room next to us I could hear the turned-down buzz of the  excited baseball announcers as they called pivotal Game 5 of the 1980 World Series in stentorian tones??
This was all I could bear. I exploded with impatience. “Jesus H. Christ, dad! I’ve been about as quiet and patient as a monk! Can we just end this so I can go in and watch the World Series! It’s game 5, you may know! The Phillies are playing in it! I’ve waited my whole life for this!”

My dad’s shoulders shook with laughter and he waved a hand at my sister’s boyfriend, Michael. "Michael," he said with a smile, "Maybe you better just make your announcement." 

Michael stood up, his face flushed crimson. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small box and turned to Heidi. “I’m so sorry,” he sheepishly said. “I didn’t mean to cause any family disruptions. I just wanted to tell you all that Heidi has agreed to marry me.” Then he handed the engagement ring to my sister.
A loud roar went up and six of my sisters stood up in unison and rushed to embrace Heidi. Then, like a gaggle of angry geese, they looked at me and hissed in one loud voice in a tone of utter judgment: “YOUUUUUUUUU CAD! How COULD you???" 

Then, the entire family (lead by my accusing sisters) rushed into the living room and turned the volume up on the game.  It was the bottom of the 8th inning and the Royals were winning, 3-2.  We all watched intently  and with unbridled joy as the Phillies crawled back in the 9th to score two runs and win the game, 4-3.
I had never been happier in my life! The Phillies were on the verge of a world championship!

I took my fiancé back to Princeton that night to drop her off at school. She had told me about all of her friends in letters and phone calls…..and I had met all but one of them when I had picked her up for the weekend on Friday. Now, on Sunday evening before I left, I wanted to meet the last one, a fellow I’ll call “Bob.”

It took some convincing for my fiancé to find him, and when the meeting finally took place, her reluctance immediately became transparent. We stepped into his dorm room and the room suddenly became alive with an erotic buzz that had nothing to do with me. They eyes locked and smiles came over their faces. I could have been a cushion on a chair for all they cared. I was as insignificant to them as that moment as a spider on the wall. Their blistering fixation seemed to last for hours.

When I mentioned my concerns about this to my fiancé, she laughed at my insecurities and shooed me back to my parent’s house near Philly with a light kiss and a hug.

Two nights later, me and my brother sneaked into Game Six of the 1980 World Series. The Phillies rode Steve Carlton’s broad shoulders  and a clutch hit that drove in two runs by Series MVP Mike Schmidt to a 4-1 win.

It was – until the birth of my son on opening day of the 1984 baseball season  – the happiest day of my life.

But life is a series of ups and downs. I know that now. One can never have too much good fortune in life before the karma changes.

By Thanksgiving, a month after the Phillies championship parade down Broad Street, my fiancé dumped me. And a month after that --  on Christmas day 1981 – she got engaged to “Bob.”

She  married Bob precisely one week after the date I had picked out to marry her.
I have no regrets. I wouldn’t say I stayed in the Presbyterian faith for long. I tried it for a few years out of some sense of obligation to my arrangement with my fiancé. But eventually I thought John Calvin had some weird ideas pre-destination.

Calvin never really figured in the vagaries of baseball when he developed his doctrine.
That was the problem. 

I was too much of a baseball fan to embrace pre-destination. 

Life, like baseball, throws you some curveballs. 

You just have to adjust your bearings.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

My father's "sea ceremony"

Over the Labor Day holiday, I took my three children to Cape May for one final weekend together before my daughter, Isabel, heads off to a two-year stint in Nicaragua with the Peace Corps.

I am proud of her desire to help make the world a better place, but it's hard not to worry about her, too. Will we be able to reach her? Will she have phone service? Internet access? What will it be like living with a family in Nicaragua, while she struggles to learn their language?

She leaves the country tomorrow and it is hard not to wonder when I will see her next and what her experiences will be like.

Before she left, I wanted to honor a request my father made when he was stricken with lymphoma last  summer. Isabel's visit home -- and our trip down to the Jersey shore -- seemed like a good time to perform a "sea ceremony" for my dad, to scatter some of his ashes in a place of special significance to him.

Late on Sunday morning, after we'd enjoyed blueberry pancakes for breakfast, I walked down the block and ordered two hoagies for lunch. Then I iced down four dark Dogfish Head ales from a Delaware microbrewery and stuck them all in an old blue and white ice chest my dad left in my garage before he passed. It took us about 45 minutes to drive up to Corson's Inlet, N.J., a cut of water that separated Strathmere from Ocean City, N.J.

My father left his children with specific written instructions to deposit his ashes in Moose Pond, Maine (where he and my mother used to vacation every summer) "or any suitable body of water." I choose Corson's Inlet because I had gone fishing there with my dad on several occasions while renting a bungalow on the beach from friends of his in Strathmere.

My father always consulted the tide chart in the daily Inquirer before he went fishing so he could time his arrival when the fish were swimming into the inlet from the Atlantic Ocean. He insisted they were feeding then. I took this as gospel. Fishing was his favorite avocation. For many years the front door of his condo in Philadelphia was graced by a plaque that read: "Here resides a fisherman, with the greatest catch of his life!"

In his instructions he insisted that, following the sea ceremony for him, we have a party on the shore with hoagies or pizza and dark beer and that "everybody take a sip, even the kids!"

My sister Trudy had been holding his ashes on her living room mantle since his cremation last September. I took several ounces of his remains with me to the shore, placed carefully in a metallic canister that fit snugly into a coffee cup holder in my car. I thought Corson's Inlet would be secluded on a Sunday morning, and was surprised to see dozens of families on the beach enjoying the sunny day.  

Luke, Isabel and Lilianna, walked a half mile or so with me out to the inlet. A fisherman had cast his line into the surf about 50 yards away, his pole anchored to the sand. I picked a spot near him and placed the canister of ashes on the beach between us. I explained to my children why I had picked this spot and how it had brought back memories of earlier vacation days I had spent with him there. We held hands around the  canister of my father's ashes and I offered a brief prayer, thanking my father for the gift of life and for working so hard and for such a long time to make the lives of his wife and children secure and comfortable.

Then I took the canister into the green/brown waters of Corson's Inlet and poured his ashes into the water. I was struck by the pattern they made as they merged with the rolling sea. A constellation of tiny flecks of ash and bone spread through the water and twinkled like stars. I stayed there for a full minute, mesmerized by this shower of white, translucent  light swirling in brackish waters. Luke, my son, waded into the water and gently pushed the water in the direction of the ocean while Isabel recorded the moment with my camera.

We came back to the beach and unwrapped the hoagies. I opened the dark ales and gave each of my children a brown bottle, including the 16-year-old, as per my father's request. She took two swigs of it, washed down a bite of her hoagie, and let her brother finish it for her.

The first thought that occurred to me, as I bit into my own sandwich, was that I wished my father was there to enjoy the moment with his grandchildren and me; that he would have had a nice time with us. And then I chuckled at my foolishness. Hadn't the pattern of the stars I saw in the ocean told me something? Hadn't it been obvious?

My father's spirit was there with us. He was enjoying the moment; every bit as much as we were.

After his sandwich, Luke looked out at the ocean as calm waves brushed the shore. "Let me see," he said, a quizzical expression on his face. "I think I can remember this." He waited a moment collecting his thoughts. Then he repeated the words of a poem he had  been working on, around the time of his grandfather's death. I hadn't understood them at the time and I told him so. On the beach, though, the light of his sentiments suddenly flashed in my mind and his words shown with eloquence: 

"Wherever I go, I encounter myself"

From the heart of the hogs on the line
At the slaughter. In the fear of the swine

That's thicker than shit, so thick you can't breathe

For the smell of it. To the ease

Of the man who refused to go in-

To his hospital gown or the room he had been.

The self is an ending, and so is permanent—

A handful of grass weighs more than the firmament.

And if Lear gives a sense of the promised end,

So do the Jews in the camps they were penned.

So did the hand pressing over my hand,

Fluent as water reducing the sand,

And my mind which still reduces the man

To a name, and its carriage, and his hand on my hand.

 I felt better about losing Isabel to the Peace Corps for the next two years after we had eaten our hoagies and drank our beers. I was glad she'd been home to share this moment with us. 

I had faith my father would be with her in her travels to Nicaragua. 

I knew he would be as proud of her national service as I was. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

It sure tastes sweet! Celebrating a softball championship

The final game of the Chester County Co-Ed Western division championship ended with a 14-3 victory for the APSCUF Rams. The Rams got hot at the right time, winning their last eight in a row and plowing through two rounds of playoff games undefeated.

After last Thursday's come from behind, extra-inning victory, 20-19, the game on Sunday evening felt like an anti-climax. Kevin Flynn, the team's pitcher and most valuable player, missed that seesaw tilt but was back at the pitching rubber for the championship and in command the entire game.

Eighteen players showed up, so the biggest decision was how to get so many players into the game and still stay competitive. Team captain, Kuhio Walters, and I decided to honor the men and women who had been on the team since the beginning. Eight starters played deep into the game before we went to the bench. Their energy turned a relatively tight 8-3 game into a last inning blow-out.

Fittingly, Flynn caught the final out, a pop-up to the mound. I asked every team member to play to sign the ball and gave it to Flynn for his mantle. Fifteen or 16 of us ended the evening hooking five tables together in the Square Bar and enjoying the rest of the evening with pitchers of Yuengling.

It's not hyperbole to say the season has been one of the best experiences of my life. I wish I could play like I did in my 30s, when I started a softball team at the Daily Press in Newport News, Va. The friendships I made on that team are among the strongest of my adult life. Eight of us still meet at least once or twice a year for brews, golf, cards and camaraderie.

Luke, my son, was only a two years old when I started that team. We called ourselves the Typoz. I remember stashing Luke's baby stroller in the dugout with us, Luke strapped into it, watching the action intently, soaking up the cheers and the atmosphere, relishing the whole experience. My teammates rustled his thick, brown hair for good luck on their way to home plate. More times than not, this small superstitious gesture brought it to them. And it brought luck to Luke, too. That was the making of a baseball fan and player. 

For me, this entire championship season was the most fun I've ever had on a team -- because Luke shared the experience with me. It made me proud to watch him play. He's a good player and I knew when we added him to the roster he'd help us win. He plays with reckless abandon, the way the best players play. To see him stretch routine singles into doubles and to run down and catch fly balls in the outfield was a joy to witness. 

I started the championship game as one of the team's designated hitters. It was my only plate appearance in five playoff games. I hit a hard ground ball to the Baptist second baseman who turned it into a force out at second base. The next time around the line-up, Luke hit for me and then he finished the game in the outfield.

When he scored the winning run in our improbable win last week, yelling and screaming and wearing a grin as big as the sky, my heart flew into my mouth. I almost hurts to be that damn happy. 

Last night, I got to taste the sweetest drink of all...the taste of champagne after a championship, my arm wrapped around Luke, members of the same team. This is why we still play a kid's game. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Kuhio Walters walks on the wild side

There are moments in life you always remember. Little gifts from the gods that make all the aches and pains and tears of life easier to endure.  Last night was one of them: a silly co-ed league softball game that the union guys will be talking and smiling about for years, if only because we were on the winning end of the final score, 20-19.

If regular working stiffs can be part of something epic, that’s what this felt like.  Like Leopold Bloom walking the streets of Dublin on June 16th, having a stout with the boys and living the dream or Lennon-McCartney recording "A Day In the Life." We'll remember this one.

We knew before the game that winning would be a long shot. We were playing the local Baptist church in the second game of a best of five championship series.  They’d beaten beaten us roundly in our two regular-season games, winning both games by the 10 run "mercy rule". We’d extracted an ounce of revenge on Sunday evening, winning the first playoff game 13-9. 

But we were playing game two without Kevin Flynn, the team’s ace and our most valuable player. This is what we all learned about Flynn: he makes pitching look easy. We discovered how hard it really is to lob a softball 45 feet to a small white target and get it to drop gently into a space about one foot  square. 

Flynn has been doing this for three years now and each game he gets a little bit better. He’s learned to put spin on his throws. He varies the arc of his pitches to try to keep the hitters from getting a bead on them. He moves the ball around, trying to tease the brawniest bashers with balls off the plate, giving them pitches they can’t drive. He’s always thinking of new ways to make hitting harder.

You can laugh if you want. It’s slow pitch softball and there’s not much a pitcher can do to prevent the best hitters from smashing even his best pitches. But what we learned last night is that Flynn has impeccable control. He throws strikes. Heck, he’d rather declare bankruptcy than walk a hitter. We just didn’t know how precisely proficient a pitcher he is until he wasn’t on the mound for us in a big game. 

Kuhio Walters, the team captain, replaced Flynn. Walters is our fastest runner and I hated to lose his outfield speed by asking him to pitch. But we had no choice. It would have been nice if I could do it. It’s good strategy to let your slowest player pitch if he/she can throw strikes. But I tried it once two seasons ago and gave up eight runs in less than one inning. Out of a dozen hitters, I walked eight of them.  It felt like I was tossing pineapples to the plate.

On Tuesday afternoon, in the middle of 100 degree heat, Walters and I went out to the diamond to practice pitching, to get him used to tossing strikes. He threw about 50 pitches…and landed less than half of them within proximity of the plate.  When he threw batting practice before the game, I noticed his teammates were lunging, trying to put their bats on his pitches. A lot of his throws bounced in front of the plate. 

This seemed not to mean much when he faced the Baptists in the first inning. They went down on just five pitches. We answered with four runs to take an early lead. In the second though, Kuhio  imploded. The clean-up hitter lead off with a high pop up that he nabbed near the pitching rubber. But then he went cold and walked the next four hitters.  His nervousness reached new heights -- and the inning reached its crisis point -- when next he misplayed two easy grounders hit right at him by the Baptists' two weakest hitters. By inning's end, the score was knotted, 4-4.

The game see-sawed back and forth until the Rams put six on the scoreboard in the 5th to open some distance.  When the Baptists came to hit in the top of the 7th, Kuhio took a 15-10 lead to the mound  and the game seemed secure. 

That’s when Kuhio’s touch deserted him yet again. Sensing his nervousness, the Baptists became selective.  They took six walks in the inning and all six of them scored. I finally replaced Kuhio and asked our shortstop, Manny Otero, to come and pitch with the game tied, 15-15. Manny walked the first hitter he faced and then served up a grand slam home run to give the Baptists a 19-15. This wasn’t a tide turning, this was a tsunami. They had scored nine runs.

Some teams would have called it quits at that point. I’ve been on a few teams what would've had some colorful things to say to a pitcher who issued five walks in the last inning to let a beaten team climb back into a ballgame. Not one word of angst was directed at Kuhio. He’d kept us in a game we had expected to lose anyway, so why moan?  The Baptists were raising Cain on the sideline, hooting and hollering as if Gabriel's trumpet had called them home. Who could blame them? We had them dead and buried and then let them experience the joy of resurrection. 

The bottom half of our line-up was due up in the bottom of the seventh, yet the team seemed serenely confident.  It was almost like they had planned this all along, just for the fun of it. The first four hitters hit singles, the last one flying off the bat of Emilee Hussack, her second hit of the game. Moments later, she scored the tying run scored on a long sacrifice fly to left field. 

The Baptists got two runners on in the top of the 8th but couldn’t push a run across. We did in our half of the 8th. Luke, my son, slashed a double to center field and came whooping and hollering home with the winning run, his arms waving like pinwheels, on Tim Brown’s fourth opposite field hit of the night. 

It was an evening I won’t soon forget. I bet Kuhio won’t soon forget it either. Maybe this is why grown men play a kid's game. From such memories, epics grow.

And I bet when Kevin Flynn shows up for game three on Sunday evening, a whole lot of his teammates will be mighty glad to see him.