“By the pricking of my thumbs / Something wicked this way comes” – W. Shakespeare, Macbeth
I can’t remember the last time I got excited about watching a Republican primary debate. Oh wait, it was…never. But this week’s Fox News debate was must-see TV for political junkies and, it seems, for the casual observer as well. Donald Trump has injected some hysteria into this soul-sucking process. He offers no specifics for how he will “Make America Great Again” (as his campaign slogan promises). When asked about the economy, the business mogul who has declared bankruptcy several times answers, “I’m really rich.” When asked how he will fix immigration, he says he will build a wall along the Mexican border with a “beautiful door” for legal immigrants, and I don’t know, spider monkeys to chase away the illegal ones? When asked about jobs, he says he will drag all the jobs back from China – but some of those workers make Trump’s own products. He is a traffic accident, and we can’t look away.
Trump certainly strikes a nerve. For two-thirds of the country, he is an ogre. He’s rude, supercilious, uninformed, and just, well, un-presidential. In Thursday’s debate, he roundly dismissed one of the moderators, Megyn Kelly, and suggested via some “angry tweets” after the debate that her tough questioning of him might be related to her menstrual cycle. Yikes.
He claims to love the military, but he said that Senator John McCain, a Navy veteran who was shot down over Hanoi during the Vietnam War and held captive at the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” for over two years is not a hero. Trump says McCain is not a hero because he let himself get caught and Trump thinks heroes don’t let themselves get captured. Military friendly? Yeah, I don’t know about that.
During the debate itself and throughout his campaign, Trump has been hostile to the other candidates, calling them “Losers” and mocking them. Trump most famously claimed that all Mexican immigrants are murderers, drug dealers, and rapists. For a party that has had trouble convincing the country that it is a party of inclusion, Trump is a nightmare.
And yet, Trump is leading the polls for his party’s nomination. Just let that marinate for a second. For the nomination of one of the country’s two major political parties, Donald Trump is the leading candidate.
Nate Silver, the brilliant New York Times columnist and political prognosticator, believes that Trump will eventually flame out. But in the meantime, it’s worth asking why his flame is burning this brightly. One of the reasons, I think, is something Trump himself mentioned in the debate: political correctness. Trump is unapologetically not PC, and the Republican base loves him for it. Trump represents the ethos of the “angry white man” – the lower middle-class, limited information voter that believes others are to blame for their own struggles and romanticizes a past when America was greater than it is now. Trump is the mouthpiece for this, and it’s playing pretty well.
Unfortunately, Trump is drowning out more moderate voices in the crowded candidate field. It was not an electric moment, but Ohio Governor John Kasich had a very good moment answering a question about gay rights in which he sounded authentic, compassionate, and logical. But no one is talking about Kasich, a dark horse and late entry into this race who nevertheless managed to make the cut for the 10-candidate main event debate. Another Republican candidate who did not make the prime time debate, Senator Lindsey Graham, delivered a solid performance in the so-called “Happy Hour Debate” that occurred before. In particular, when talking about Social Security, Graham was empathetic and rational, acknowledging the need to get out of the entrenchment of party ideology to move toward a solution to save the critical entitlement program. Candidates like these who display authenticity as well as compassion and good will, are what the Republican party really needs. Maybe not these guys exactly, but a version of them.
This is a critical moment for the GOP. As a liberal-minded progressive voter who has voted for the Democratic nominee in 5 of 6 elections since I became eligible to vote, there is a part of me that wants Trump to win the nomination because, first and foremost, he won’t win the general election. No independent voter will choose Trump no matter who he’s running against. But I also think that, if nothing else, his candidacy might finally force a sea change within the Republican party. I know some Republicans who are socially progressive but fiscally conservative. There is a middle ground where outliers of both major parties sit. In truth, I think this is where much of the Republican party is. But the base of the party controls the primary cycle, so it’s hard to gain the nomination without pandering to the social issues and anti-everything rhetoric that are dominated by the party’s extremists. If the GOP isn’t careful, they will get Trumped! in this election – and the party as we know it now may never recover.
This I Believe: To Believe in God is to Believe in People
When we study literature, especially poetry, I always teach my students about denotation and connotation. The denotation of the word is what it actually means-if you look it up in the dictionary, you will find a precise definition of the word along with where it came from and other uses. The connotation of a word is what it actually means to us. The connotation of the word evolves and is defined over time through usage and through cultural applications of the word. Normally, the connotation of a word allows for a lot more possibility than the original definition. For example, “gay” used to just mean happy – now it has a different meaning for most people, one that encompasses a lot more. For me, “Christian” is a word that has evolved quite a bit.
I grew up with very religious (Southern Baptist) grandparents, and my first understanding of what it meant to be a Christian came from them. My mom was not too strict about taking us to church, but whenever we stayed with my mom’s parents, we did the whole thing: Sunday School, morning worship, Sunday evening services, and Wednesday night prayer services. Mostly being a good Christian meant being still and quiet in church so my grandmother didn’t get upset. My grandfather sang in the choir, so he didn’t really sit with us. If we were good, we could have gum. I never really considered church that much when I wasn’t with my grandparents – until high school. When I was in 8th grade, my stepfather got assigned to Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs, Maryland. After learning that the schools in Prince George’s County weren’t too highly regarded, our parents decided to put us in private school, a religious school. Having gone to public school all my life, it was quite an adjustment.
Since I was a small child when I went to church with my grandparents, I really learned what Christianity was about in high school. Through a consistent Bible-tinted filter, we were taught basic subjects and how we were supposed to view the world. We attended chapel sermons a few times a week. We had an active youth group, and we were strongly encouraged to attend church every Sunday. I did go to church – first at my school and then at another church down the road. Initially, I was drawn to the compassionate message of Christianity: that God is love, that he made the world for us, that he died for us – and that we should spread that message to others. I loved coming together to worship. But we were also inundated with the messages that hell awaits us with fire and suffering. There is no such thing as a good person, only sinners who need redemption. Nothing you can do in this life is good enough to save your soul. And weirdly, it is a sin to vote for the wrong person. The longer I was involved, the more I began to notice that in church people judged other people based on their clothes and other superficial things. I learned that it was important to have the right costume, say the right things – as if being a good Christian was like acting a part in a play. I was totally immersed, and it gave me a somewhat hard view of the world – so much of the dialogue in church was “us against them” and what base creatures we humans are and what judgment awaits the world. But I was a full participant. I passed out literature to strangers in shopping malls inviting them to “Consider Eternity” and things like that. I shared my testimony with others, implored them to accept Jesus, and I even told people that I believed they would go to hell if they didn’t.
When I first went to a secular college and got out of the Bible Bubble I had lived in during my high school years, it was a culture shock to learn that other people didn’t see the world exactly as I did. I mean, what could they be thinking?? But it helped me to start to consider the things I had been taught and to consider what Christianity looks like from the outside.
Sometimes people ask me if I consider myself a Christian anymore. This is a hard question because of the connotation the word Christian has acquired and how my belief in God has evolved. I still believe in God, but I don’t believe what I grew up believing. My faith has gotten bigger than that. I think God is bigger than that. We are the ones who limit him because we are limited by language. When we can name something we understand it. We want so much to understand.
When it used to thunderstorm outside when I was a kid, my great grandmother said it was God moving furniture in heaven. She could have said that it was the sound made by the electrostatic charge of lightning, but she didn’t have that vocabulary. Instead, it was God moving furniture. It reminds me of Greek Mythology. The Greeks made up myths because myth is what we tell ourselves about our world so that our lives make sense. Rough seas mean Poseidon is restless. Thunder means Zeus is angry, etc. We do that too – we have given God a human face: a large, old white man with a beard. We do that so we can understand him. He’s a father. He cares for us. The Bible itself is full of metaphor – the King James Version of the Bible was transcribed by poets commissioned by King James I of England in 1611. It has come a long way from its original language. It’s fair to think that some things have been lost in those translations. Have you ever played the game of telephone? Whisper a phrase into one person’s ear in a group of people, and by the time it gets whispered around the room, even in a room of people who all speak the same language, it will be a different phrase, maybe even unrecognizable. How can we expect the Bible to remain the same through hundreds and hundreds of years, many different languages, and several translations? How can we cling to every word of it literally when we know poetry isn’t meant to be literal?
Today we have reduced Christianity to a set of political views on what we should be allowed to do with our bodies and our guns. I don’t see those things I was first drawn to: compassion and love. This is what I mean when I say that God is bigger than we have described him. We ourselves have created rules in God’s name, but we ignore some of the logical inconsistencies of those rules. Jesus said help the poor, but many people who claim to be Christians look at the poor as “moochers” who don’t deserve compassion. In the book of Matthew Chapter 7, Jesus said that we should not judge others – we are not worthy to do that, but there is a lot of judgment going around. We have created a framework that we are comfortable in, we use it to hide behind and condemn things (and people) we don’t understand or are afraid of. We have taken the poetry of men and made it our absolute North Star.
The word “Christian” has a decidedly un-poetic connotation now. Too often in today’s society, to be a Christian means to deny, to reject, and even to hate. It means being a part of a narrow political group or being proud of the things we don’t do, what we resist, and who we exclude – that is not something I want to be associated with.The sad thing is, the negativity is the result of the loud mouths of 1% of people who call themselves Christians. There are many Christians who aspire to live a life of love, peace, and tolerance. I know some wonderful Christians who don’t resemble the Mike Huckabee/Pat Robertson/Duggar Family mainstream connotation of that word at all. But their message is not the one that gets played and replayed. I want to be associated with a way of believing that measures goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.
These days, I guess I prefer to think of myself as a spiritual person. Our faith matters because what we believe is a fundamental part of our identity and self-concept. Our religion is a public profession, a badge of courage that announces what we value and what we live for. I don’t belong to any particular denomination and I accept that there are more possibilities than I was originally taught. To be a spiritual person is to let things into my world, not leave things out. I do believe in God, but this is what I believe: to believe in God is to believe in good. To believe in God is to believe in people, to choose to believe that people have the capacity to do and be good, not believe that people are inherently bad or that those who are different should be feared and shunned. To believe in God is to believe in what is possible. In that way, maybe there is some poetry in the idea if we can, as Emily Dickinson wrote, learn to “dwell in possibility / a fairer house than prose.”
The title of this month’s blog is inspired by the NPR Podcast Series “This I Believe.” If you have never listened to it, I highly recommend you check it out.
This I Believe: Civil Rights are Equal Rights
This month, the Supreme Court will rule on marriage equality. In the court of public opinion, the issue has already reached the tipping point. In 1996, the first time Gallup polled on the issue, only 27% of the public thought that same-sex couples deserved marriage equality, but in 2014, the poll showed that 55% of the public now believes that civil marriage is a civil right for all people. (A separate poll by the Wall Street Journal has 58% in support of marriage equality.) That’s an amazing shift, and I can only really attribute it to one thing: people have realized that gay people are not trying to destroy them! That’s right: gay people are just people trying to live their lives. They do not want to wreck your life or your marriage. I am in a same-sex marriage (Thank you, Maryland!), and I can attest that there is nothing about my relationship that adversely impacts the heterosexuals around me.
I believe the experience of actually knowing a gay person is what changes minds and hearts. I did not meet an openly gay person until I went to college, and since I went to college pretty late in life, that was when I was almost 30 years old. It caused quite a bit of cognitive dissonance for me. On the one hand, I grew up in an environment that told me that homosexuals were abhorrent – that God hated them. On the other hand, I knew this nice, funny, creative, and warm man who would become one of my lifelong friends. How could he be abhorrent? Worst of all, he knew I was “religious,” and the idea that he might think I hated him for who he was sickened me. Most of all, knowing him got me to think about what I had always heard and been taught. I always say, if you want your faith to mean anything, it has to be your own – not merely an uncritical repetition of what has come before. I ought to know why I believe what I believe.
There are some who argue that the Bible defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman. Actually, this is not consistently true. In various places in the Bible, marriage is defined as the union between a man and “at least” one woman. Men with multiple wives are described as “highly blessed” in their marriages. Abram cheated on his wife, and the servant woman that he took as a second wife bore him a son. That’s not exactly what traditionalists think of as a traditional marriage.
In fact, there were a variety of marriages that were permissible in the disparate cultures that produced the Bible. Titus 1:6 describes a monogamous relationship. But Deuteronomy 22:28-29 has a less romantic view of marriage wherein rape victims are given by their fathers to marry the man who raped them – after, of course, the rapist pays the girl’s father 50 pieces of silver. In another passage of Deuteronomy (25:5-10), a man is commanded to marry his brother’s widow – even if he himself is already married. This is also mandated in Genesis and Ruth. These are just a few examples of how marriage was practiced in these distinct moments. But we might also argue that as members of a pluralistic society, it doesn’t matter what the authors of the Bible thought. We are a society of many religions and many beliefs – the beliefs of one religious group should not define the rights for all people, especially for an institution that has long been more secular than religious.
I think the key to understanding this is acknowledging that the definition of marriage has always been produced by culture, and culture changes. Now, our culture does not look favorably on polygamy. We do not think a rapist should be able to buy his victim or that having sex before marriage makes a woman unworthy of marriage (and thus more inclined to marry the man who raped her). We don’t think a man should be compelled to marry his brother’s widow. We do believe in marital monogamy. And as we have seen, we are now culturally ready to believe that loving same-sex couples deserve a chance at happiness.
It’s about more than just happiness though. It’s about rights and dignity. When opponents of same-sex marriage argue for civil unions instead of marriage, they perhaps don’t realize that what they are asking for is a version of the “Separate but Equal” fallacy that suppressed African-Americans for so long in this country. They are right about this: our culture views marriage as a sacred right. This is precisely why same-sex couples should share it. We don’t get to pick and choose who gets rights and who doesn’t – in our society, we demand equal rights.
You might not know that much of our country’s philosophy was influenced by the English philosopher John Locke. Locke advocated for natural rights – the basic rights of all human beings to be treated with dignity and respect by virtue of their very humanity. Locke wrote that all human beings are equal in the sense that they are born with certain “inalienable” natural rights. That is, rights that are inherent to every individual and can never be taken away. Locke also argued that individuals should be free to make choices about how to conduct their own lives as long as they do not interfere with the liberty of others. Thomas Jefferson thought these were pretty good ideas – so much so that he put them into the Declaration of Independence.
Marriage is not the only right we are talking about. For example, free speech is a civil right we are all entitled to. What’s hard is that we have to honor free speech even when we don’t agree with what is being said. The Westboro Baptist Church’s message is abhorrent, but we have to respect their right to be abhorrent. We have to respect them because we also respect the rights of union workers and Million Mom Marchers to picket, assemble, and protest. Everyone gets the same rights or else they are not sacred. And we believe that our rights ought to be sacred – that is the society we want to belong to.
In his book, A Theory Of Justice, philosopher John Rawls asks us to imagine that we belong to a group of people who are gathered to plan our own future society, a just and fair society that operates under a Social Contract. Rawls calls this scenario the “Original Position.” In the Original Position, we don’t know who we will be in society, what status we will have. So, we must design our society behind what Rawls calls the Veil Of Ignorance:
“No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”
The goal, then, is to create a society in which you are guaranteed to be treated fairly. You might be gay, straight, black, white, rich, poor, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, male, female, transgendered, fit, or physically limited, but it will not matter. If you have created a truly just and fair society, everyone will have the same opportunities, the same challenges, and the same freedoms.
You might be thinking: but the people who wrote the Bible never imagined that people of the same sex might want to get married. For the most part, I think you’re right: they couldn’t imagine it. Just like there was a time when we in America could not imagine people from different races getting married. We could not imagine that African Americans could be more than slaves. We could not imagine that women ought to be allowed to vote. We could not imagine these things – until we did. Culture evolves because people change. In every instance, we lean into inclusion. I believe we have crossed the Rubicon now with marriage equality and other gay rights, but there are still many important issues for us to consider on our way to a fair and just society. For example, Bruce Jenner’s recent interview and transition to Caitlyn Jenner has pushed transgender issues, finally, into the national conversation. It’s a dialogue that is long overdue and will be difficult. But I have faith that as long as we consistently do the human thing, that as long as we consistently value the natural rights of individuals, we will find our way. As Dr. King so wonderfully said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Next month on Friday Nite Writes: This I Believe – Part Two
I am a teacher, and for me and teachers everywhere, this time of year is a time of many emotions. I am always excited that the semester is ending and that the glorious expanse of summer is just ahead. At the same time, it is always just a little bittersweet because, since I think of my life in academic terms, it marks the passing of another year.
Commencement is the term we use for graduation ceremonies. It’s funny because the denotation of the word is “the beginning or start” of something, but we assign the term to the pomp and circumstance that concludes an educational experience. But I like that the word is forward-looking: it implies that we are ready to begin the next new, exciting chapters of our lives.
I have commenced 4 times in my life: in 1991 from high school, in 1999 from Howard Community College, in 2001 from the University of Baltimore, and in 2003 from the University of Maryland. I have one more commencement in my future. God willing, that will be 2016 from Morgan State University with my doctorate, and then I will be able to retire from being a student.
My road to and through college was not a straight one. I went to a private, religious high school that graduated boys who were encouraged to be preachers and girls who were encouraged to be housewives and Sunday school teachers. My high school coaxed students to consider colleges that prepared young people to be in church-oriented professions: places like Bob Jones University or Pensacola Christian College. If you can believe it, Dear Reader, Liberty University was considered too liberal – we were not supposed to consider that as an option. So of course, that is where we all wanted to go! Show us that forbidden fruit!
I have wonderful memories of high school. I don’t want to brag or anything, but I will: I won an award for “Christian Character,” I lettered in 3 sports (volleyball, basketball, and softball), was a team captain in 3 sports, was a league all-star and MVP in 3 sports, was named a US Army Scholar Athlete my senior year, worked on the yearbook, was the president of my senior class, and earned the title of valedictorian. I gave a speech at my graduation. I was also voted homecoming queen. (Those of you who know me well will appreciate how little I cared about that last thing, but it happened.) High school was a blur of fun things, and even though I was considering college, as a first-generation college student, it was not my main focus or goal but an option. I grew up in a blue-collar family, so I felt no pressure to go off to college.
When I graduated from high school, I had a partial scholarship to attend Liberty University (of course I applied there!). I was also considering the “family business”: I grew up in a Navy family and was weighing whether to join the Army or the Navy. I also knew my step-father was about to be reassigned from Andrews Air Force Base to a new duty station and was considering just moving out and starting my own life, putting down roots here in Maryland – as a Navy brat who had moved all over the place her whole life, this was pretty appealing. Ultimately, I decided to move out on my own and take a few classes at community college. Then, as Frost said, way led on to way, and after a few semesters I ended up putting off college while I worked in the “real world.”
I loved being on my own, but not long after I moved out into my own apartment, I got married, and after that as a partner in a marriage determined to pull her own weight, I worked as a puppet, a pirate, a poet, a pauper, a pawn and a king. Well, almost: I worked at Carvel making ice cream cakes, at a pharmacy as a technician, as a softball and basketball coach, as a bartender, as a vice principal at a private school, and as a Special Police Officer for the Federal Protective Service. It is in this job that life took a dramatic turn.
Many of you will recall the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City that occurred in April 1995. American “Patriot” Timothy McVeigh parked a Ryder truck full of explosives in front of this federal office building that he then detonated, killing 168 people and injuring nearly 700 others. I mention this event because at the time, I was working for the FPS in Crystal City, Virginia. My duty station was a federal building. My beat took me between the Crystal City complex, the Navy Annex, and the Pentagon. I was on that same beat two years later: April 19, 1997. We were all on high alert that day because it was the anniversary of the bombing, and that is when people get a little squirrelly. We got a call that a “suspicious object” was left unattended in the stairwell at one of the Crystal City buildings. This was not a drill.
There are a lot of things about that day that I don’t remember, but a few things will never fade. The first thing I remembered was my training: we had to evacuate the building to make sure all of the workers were safe, but then it was my job to run into the building. It was my job to run back into the building. I was the valedictorian of my class, and my job was to run into the building to look for the potential bomb. I also remembered a conversation I had with my mom just a few days before that. She told me that she was going to start taking college classes. Because my mom chose to have a family at a young age, she had to earn her GED and now, years later, she was going to start pursuing her college education. It struck me that I had no excuse. I had been given every advantage my parents could give me, and I never cashed those things in. I needed to have a path or plan for the future that led me out of the fire, not into it. (I should say now that I have tremendous respect for first responders – that job is not for punks – that is hard, dangerous, and honorable work. I am not worthy.)
The “suspicious object” was found by someone else and was not a threat, but a prank. But it was a metaphorical bomb to me because it blew UP my life. I had to admit that this was not how I imagined things for myself. The next day as I was coming home from work, I took a detour. In a trance, I drove to the bookstore where I wandered into the section called “Classics.” At my conservative high school, we weren’t given the opportunity to read a lot of literature. We read some Romantic poets (Wordsworth), Animal Farm (to remind us how great America is), and Romeo and Juliet (as a cautionary tale: don’t think you can defy your parents). I was starved for literature. I wanted to see the world through new eyes. I stood in front of that shelf of mysterious books, and my eyes fell on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I had heard of that book, so I bought it and read it. I didn’t get it. But I knew that there was something there, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the “green light” and other things in the book. It made me curious to read more. I bought another book after that: To Kill a Mockingbird. And then I read Catcher in the Rye. And then, before I knew it, it was August, and I was enrolling in classes at Howard Community College.
The two years I spent at Howard Community College changed my life definitively. I came there lost and not knowing quite what I sought. I picked a major (Psychology) out of thin air and, because of an amazing teacher, found my true calling. I ended up in her Introduction to Literature class by divine accident (I thought I needed a requirement that I did not need), but that literature class made me want to take another literature class. And another…. After I wrote a paper for one of those classes, the teacher, who was the same amazing teacher from my other classes, wrote a question on my essay: “Why aren’t you an English major?????” I could not answer that. This teacher got me to consider the thing that no one else had: what is it that I love? I switched my major. I went on to finish my undergraduate degree and earn my master’s degree in English Literature. I said yes to some unbelievably lucky opportunities that allowed me to start teaching, and ultimately, I was lucky enough to find a way to make what I love what I do for a living. In Taoist philosophy, it is believed that the “way” becomes clear for an individual when the individual surrenders to what is. The way is at once the beginning of all things and the way in which all things pursue their course. The way is commencement. It is not lost on me that I am able to pay that forward. A teacher changed my life by helping me give in to what I loved. Maybe I will inspire some student somewhere to change hers. And so on, and so on… I try to ask my students every semester: What is it that you love? What is it that you want? I ask them to understand that life is long and that work is part of our identity: it should be more than just earning a salary. Maybe, for some student, that will inspire them to consider their passion and not just a paycheck.
Commencement: the day in 1999 when I graduated from HCC. I felt a renewed idea of my purpose for my life. I felt, for the first time in a long time, like I was going to be able to shape my destiny instead of just stumble onto it. Commencement: I am drawn, every summer, back to The Great Gatsby. I have read that book at the beginning of every summer since 1997. I understand why Gatsby wanted to reinvent himself. I understand his desire to be the author of his own story. I didn’t understand it when I first read it, but it profoundly speaks to me now, and now each time I read it, it resonates more and more. Gatsby helped me get started on a new path, and now, it is the way I commence, in gratitude, welcoming each new year.
Do you have a book that saved your life?
Coming next month on Friday Nite Writes: This I Believe
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight
Drawn after you, – you pattern of all those.
Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.
Poetry or Baseball: an impossible choice to make for this April post. So I decided not to choose. In honor of National Poetry Month, baseball season, and the fact that I am an avid baseball fan, this post is dedicated to things I love in equal measure: baseball and poetry. I have missed baseball. Even though I play with its shadows all year ‘round (the Hot Stove season, filled with trade rumors and free agent watching, has plenty of intrigue to keep me going), there is nothing quite like watching actual games. Bring on the peanuts, Cracker Jacks, hot dogs, and beer! My soul is trapped in winter without my Bronx Bombers. (Yes, if somehow you missed it, I am a Yankees fan. You are allowed to despise me now.)
The New York Yankees are the most storied franchise in the history of sports. Even if you hate them (which many of you do), you have to grudgingly admit that the Yankees have set the standard for excellence in team sports. Here is a bit of trivia: did you know that Yankee Stadium was the first baseball venue in the United States to be called a stadium? Not a park or a yard or a field. A stadium. Yankee Stadium opened in 1923, closed in 2008, re-opened in 2009, and the name has never been changed. It has never been sold to be PNC or M&T Stadium. The word stadium means the same in Greek and Roman languages – it is a unit of measurement. It was also used to describe a tiered structure with seats for spectators surrounding an ancient Greek running track. And perhaps, more interestingly, the word means a stage in a life history.
The Yankees have won 27 world championships. No other franchise in any other sport comes close to that. The Yankees also boast so many great players – players who haunt the history of the game like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Mattingly, Jackson, Rivera, and yes, even Derek Jeter. Someone recently wrote about all of the numbers that have been retired by the Yankees. Pretty soon, they could run out of eligible jersey numbers, as Jeter’s number 2 will surely never be worn by anyone in pinstripes ever again. In fact, no one will ever wear the numbers 1-10 again for the Yankees. That is unprecedented, but not unreasonable given the players we’re talking about here. The true greats are honored with plaques in Monument Park, a sort of mini-hall of fame for Yankees legends. The plaques reside now in a special hall enclosed in the new Yankee Stadium that opened in 2009. The purpose of a monument is that it stands to commemorate historical significance or importance: in this case, the greatest players of the greatest team. I visited Monument Park the first time I visited the old stadium in 2006.
In old Yankee Stadium, Monument Park used to be in the middle of left field. Before the stadium was remodeled in the 1970s, the monuments were even in play – quite a hazard for the left-fielders to navigate. The monuments were approximately 460 feet from home plate, so it wasn’t everyday that a ball would get lost out there, but it did happen. Eventually, Monument Park was moved beyond the left-field fence, and for any true baseball fan, a visit to Monument Park is a pilgrimage worth making. My first visit to Monument Park got me thinking about my brother – we were both big fans of baseball. Someone recently asked me about my brother because I referred to him as I was telling a story about our youth. The friend I was speaking to didn’t know I had a brother because I seldom do refer to him. That is not because I don’t love him or think of him, but because he died 22 years ago.
I have told this story before. I first brought this story to Journal Club in 2001. But now that I am blogging, I will tell it again because I want the record to show this story. It is kind of an origin story for me. It is also a tribute to my brother, Bryan. In “Sonnet 18,” Shakespeare wrote, “So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” He was talking about how his sonnet was a monument to the person he loved. Just like the Yankees have Monument Park to commemorate their great players, in the stadium of my mind, this story about Bryan stands to honor him. You know how in the movie Field of Dreams, they say: “If you build it, he will come?” Yes, I thought: “If I write this, he will be remembered.” Though I have worked on this story for many years trying, without success, to perfect it, the title has never changed. I thought I’d share the very first version of it I ever wrote because somehow it seems the purest.
“Seasons of Perfection”
I have grown to love baseball because every boy always told me that I couldn’t play it. There’s a secret here that boys don’t want girls to know: they can play it, and they can be a lot better than the boys are. My brother Bryan and I played baseball together in little league. He didn’t want me to play because I was a year younger than he was, and way better, and oh yeah, I’m a girl. So my mom thought it would be a good idea if we played on different teams – he for the McMinn County Reds and me for the McMinn County Astros. In high school Bryan worked hard at it, and soon baseball was my brother’s best sport – it was the only sport that he was better at than me, and just barely. In his senior year of high school, he got on base every single time that he came to the plate – not all hits, but still: a perfect season. I really admired that, but I never told him. It’s against the code of sibling rivalry to congratulate one another for anything at all – a stupid code I now think. It’s not the only thing I never praised him for. There is a litany of silences that I regret now in the way that you can only regret things you will never get to do. After my brother died in 1993, my mother asked me if there were any of his things that I wanted. Of all his things, the only thing I really wanted to take was his baseball jersey. The way that I remember him now in this jersey, in his life, is spotless. It’s a trick of the memory to clothe people in their best possible robes after they are gone, like a jersey worn in a season of perfection.
When I was seven, our father took us to a minor league baseball game to see the Chattanooga Lookouts play. They are named the “Lookouts” because there is a great mountain near Chattanooga called Lookout Mountain. It’s the only really prominent thing in Chattanooga other than the famous choo-choo train, and no team of men wants to be called the “Choo-Choos” I guess. We sat very close on the third base side of Lookout Stadium. My dad told me to bring my glove in case there was a foul ball hit our way. I was seven, but he was certain that I could catch the ball if it came near me. He taught me to play ball before he taught my brother. Bryan wasn’t very coordinated when he was a kid. Dad thought that I was a prodigy. Anyway, this was the first and last game my dad ever took us to, and it seemed like it was going to be perfect. A few innings into the game I got the chance that I had been hoping for: a foul ball was hit my way, but it was coming too fast and I was not ready for it. I was lost in the pink and blue fury of my cotton candy, and even though I did have my glove on, it was whizzing past my right ear and smacking the seat behind me before I could even move the mitt. In a perfect world, I would have gotten that foul ball, but that is not how life goes.
When I was nine and ten and eleven, I spent summers with my grandparents. I remember the summer evenings that stretched out lazily into warm, dark Tennessee nights and the apparition of curtains that advanced and retreated eerily in the soft night breeze, carrying the sweet smell of crab apples and wet grass and wood and coal from the shed on the hill. My Papa Odum, a Yankees fan, was a baseball nut. He watched games all day, every day, whenever they were on, and when he went to bed at night, he listened to the games on the radio. It is this ritual of listening that I remember most clearly, the way the game sounded on the old clock radio. It’s the kind of clock radio with the flip numbers, the kind that growled instead of shrieking, the kind that clicked methodically. The sound on the radio was never good; neither was the reception. But Papa Odum always seemed to be able to find “the ballgame” no matter what. The games were quiet and far away. The announcers droned on over the restless buzzing of the fans: “Two outs now, and Mattingly to the plate with nobody on…he digs in and takes a called strike… 0 and 1 the count now on Mattingly in the top of the fourth….the Yankees trailing 3 to 1…” The windows were always open at night, allowing for the most glorious concert of sounds – the baseball game, but not only that; the baseball game and my grandfather’s heavy sleep-breathing; the baseball game, and sleepy breathing, and creaking of the house, and the mad crickets and the whispering rain…
With its tragic ease, baseball is both dull and wonderful in its perfection; but it’s the imperfections that provide the real opportunities for humor and grace. There is a poetic rhythm to baseball that no other sport can imitate, and this is precisely because baseball is about the so many things in-between, the so many lost moments. Like the way that the crowd lulls in lethargy between pitches, between batters, between innings; like our mistakes of silence – things we don’t say, things we’ll never be able to say.
I love baseball because it reminds me to revere moments of imperfect life and preserve them in perfect memory. For me, baseball is a day at the park with a favorite friend, sitting in the stands with a beer and a hot dog, Cal Ripken breaking the streak, cotton candy stuck to the pocket of my mitt, Mike Schmidt hitting his 500th home run, the foul ball that sails just past my head, Harry Carey calling the game for the Cubs, the organ music – out of tune, Sid Bream, with his leg brace on, sliding home to beat the tag and win the ALCS, the seventh inning stretch, the ground ball dribbling between Bill Buckner’s legs, and Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers hobbling into the batter’s box and hitting the ball clear out of the park in October of 1988 in the World Series. Baseball is the great poem of my life, and baseball is still, for me, about remembered seasons of perfection; they are the stuff that dreams are made on, and so much more: the way that we remember the suddenly ubiquitous smell of grass, the first warm, long evenings, disappointment, childhood, fathers, brothers, and histories.
I know it isn’t the First Friday yet. I am violating the protocol of my blog so that I can honor my best friend, Oberon. For over 14 years, my beloved border collie has been at my side every day. He has struggled in the past few months – his mind was as sharp as ever, but his body betrayed him. Today, we let him go on to The Rainbow Bridge. I am unaccountably sad to lose him. I take comfort in the only thing possible: the knowledge that I gave him a great life. He gave me a great life as well.
Oberon is named for a character in Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The character is the King of the Fairy World. The play has long been one of my favorites, so it was a natural, unique choice. When Oberon came into my life, I didn’t want a dog – too much responsibility, I said. I was in my final semester of my senior year of college at the University of Baltimore, I was applying to graduate school, and I was in a rocky relationship with the person who is now my ex-husband.
Why in the world would I want a dog? I gave in – but only if I could choose his name. In every way, he has lived up to his namesake: he has been a magical presence.
To steal a phrase from Tim O’Brien, this dog has been the hero of my life. I could not have known what a blessing Oberon would be. For those of you who own dogs, you know. They are so much better than people in every single category. They never hold grudges. They always think the best of you. They are always genuinely happy to see you when you get home – and they don’t get mad when you are running late. Oberon has seen me through writing my master’s thesis, through my divorce, through a major life change when I finally opened up to the love of my life, through a new marriage, through bad, annoying days at work, through my doctoral program and all the tears and stress of comprehensive exams and the dissertation process, through everything. He has been my constant, my touchstone, the buddy who reminds me that everything looks and feels better after a walk in the fresh air.
He has been a source of continual comfort. Just interacting with him always lifted my spirits no matter what happened during the day. I’ll never know exactly what he thought about me, but I like to think he also saw me as a friend – though Billy Collins has some pretty interesting thoughts about this. (It makes me happy to think of the dogs writing poetry somewhere, out there. Oberon will write Shakespearean sonnets, I just know it.)
In my Philosophy class this semester, we have talked a lot about what happens to our souls when we die. That discussion feels more real to me today. Some believe, like Aristotle, that matter and form exist together, so when our bodies cease, everything ceases: our soul cannot exist apart from the body; but some believe we go on in some form – whether that is to heaven or to Plato’s world of forms or The Rainbow Bridge or just as energy that needs to find another way of expression. When it comes to Oberon (and all dogs for that matter), I guess I prefer to think of his soul as the Eastern Philosophers do: as energy that has always been here and will always be here. His energy is not here anymore inhabiting his body, but now it has been returned to the world. It looks for a new way to interact, but it does not die, does not diminish. That would be an unbearable loss. To know that Oberon’s kind, gentle spirit will reincarnate into another form is the only thing that lets me let him go.
This week we have enjoyed the warmer weather, turned our faces toward the sun every chance we had. We’ve been noticing so much more together: how much greener the grass suddenly seems, the way the air smells different after spring rain, the red buds pixelating all of the trees, and the first smiling daffodils. All this will go on now, without Oberon this time. Today before the vet came to help him transition out of this life, my wife Stephanie and I took one last walk with Oberon. It was something we were both looking forward to and dreading all week long, ever since we made the decision to let him go.
We walked slowly and comfortably in the direction he wanted. He got to say goodbye to his best friend, Colby, a Golden Retriever who lives a few doors down. He sniffed everything, breathing in the world and enjoying every bit of it. I could not help but think that I almost missed all of this – that I didn’t want him. That seems incredible to me now. I would have missed out on so much love and friendship. I am grateful for every day of these last 14 years – I only wish we could have had a few more. I hope it was peaceful, his final act. It was peaceful and heartbreaking for me in equal measure. I just wanted to keep going, keep walking with him forever.
Tomorrow, I do have a post prepared for the First Friday. I hope you’ll come back for that.
Today is the first day of this blog. I avoided writing a blog for a long time because, to me, blogging is the ultimate form of navel-gazing, and somehow it seems like an embarrassing exercise. “Look at me! I have things to say!” But then I realized a few things. One: There are too many blogs to read already, so not too many people will read this, right? I mean, I hope some people will read it, but if not, that’s okay. How embarrassing can it be? Two: I realized that my wife was right: I should write things down more so I don’t lose them (she has been trying to persuade me to write a blog for years). I admit that I occasionally have interesting thoughts. Three: Over the past five years as I have been pursuing my doctoral degree, I have not written much that I would call “fun” – at least not really fun. I would like writing to feel fun again.
The last thing I realized – and this is the point of this post – is that it is kind of hard to set up a blog. Choosing a name is really difficult. All good domain names have been claimed, even if no one is using them. My first choice was “First Fridays” – the last time I was in a real writing group, we met every first Friday night of the month. We called it “Journal Club,” and it was my favorite day of each month. But that name was taken. As a sports fan, I also thought “Friday Night Writes” was kind of a clever play on the football jargon – that was also taken. Luckily, I was able to claim “Friday Nite Writes” as an alternative. It’s an homage to what I hope this blog will be: something that I write once a month and post on the first Friday night – just like Journal Club when writing was fun.
I like to think I’m kind of a Renaissance Girl – I have a lot of interests from politics to literature to sports to philosophy to popular culture. So I will write about whatever. And you will read it. Or you won’t. No big deal. I’ll “see” you on the first Friday of April.