Lucky

I toed the rubber. My cleats caught on the edge. I twisted until my shoe came free. I took that as I sign that it was time to switch to my short delivery. That day, as on many, I couldn’t coordinate my arms and legs when I took a full stride and extended my arm. The ball had been veering high, then wide. I’d walked four batters by the third inning and still showed no sign of getting all four limbs in sync. The short stride lowered my speed but gave me control.

I wound up and threw. The ball headed toward the batter’s lead elbow then squirted sideways catching the inside of the plate. The umpire called a strike. The batter had been crowding the plate. He inched away when he dug in for the next pitch. I threw over the middle of the plate. He leaned in to smack it. At the last second, the ball slid away from him. The bat missed the ball by an inch. The batter shook his head in frustration. He dug in close to the plate. His front foot danced in anticipation. The bat twitched. I threw a change up.

I struck out the next batter too. The third hit a pop up to second. I got out of the inning without giving up a walk or a run. And I hadn’t done anything but snap my wrist on delivery while holding the ball with my fingers following the seams. My coach told me to stick with the short delivery. The opposing coach had a chat with umpire while his team took the field to warm up. I heard him say, “That kid’s throwing a curve!” The umpire shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t care.

Seventh grade kids were discouraged from throwing breaking pitches. The strain of twisting an adolescent elbow could blow out an arm before a kid reached high school. But the opposing coach’s tone suggested that he was less worried about my arm and more concerned that his batters had suddenly looked uncertain.

I made it through the next inning with a bit of trouble. A kid misjudged a pitch and squibbed a dribbler back to me. The field was strewn with rocks. Sliding hard into a base could tear up a shin if the runner was unlucky. The ground ball hit a rock just as it reached my glove and bounded sideways. I fumbled after it, but my throw reached first base late. When I returned to the bench, I joked that I hadn’t made an error yet. Brian jeered and said, “What about that ball you just booted?” “It hit a rock!” I said. Brian turned to Mark and said, “He says it hit a rock!”

I got a drink from the cooler and stood by the fence behind our bench to catch a breeze. Tim and Randy came up to me. They crowded close and gave me big grins. They usually addressed me with “Hey, pizza face!” So, I suspected bad intentions. Tim said, “Hey, you’re pitching a great game.” He smiled to let me know that he was my biggest fan, but the tone sounded oily. Tim said, “Randy accidentally tossed his glove into the weeds over there beyond the fence. We were joking around, and he fumbled it. Would you be good guy and hop the fence and get the glove?” Randy looked away from me, but I caught a smirk twisting his mouth.

I had left my glove on the bench. Tim kept sliding his eyes toward it. I knew that it would be gone if I was “a good guy”. I turned to Randy and said, “It’s your glove. Go get it.” Tim suggested that I could be a real asshole sometimes. I agreed.

We lost the game 4-2. I pitched four scoreless innings to finish the game, but our batters couldn’t catch up to the opposing pitcher’s fastball. I struck out the last batter and headed toward home plate. I said to the ump, “Thanks for giving me some calls.” Some umpires automatically called balls when they saw breaking pitches. He said, “You pitched a great game.”

I thought that I’d gotten lucky. My pitches normally didn’t move around that much. But I didn’t disagree with him.

John’s Last Hurrah

The boy sat next to his mother on a charter bus headed to a Cincinnati Reds game. The open windows blew sticky air past his nose, but he could still smell beer. The grownups passed around cans and guzzled. Voices grew louder and ran over the top of each other. The boy wanted to cover his ears but didn’t. He’d heard an aunt tell his mother that he was way too sensitive.

A balding man stood up near the rear of the bus. His gut bulged over white polyester pants. Sweat stains circled under his armpits. He clenched the soggy butt end of a cigar between two sausage fingers. He shouted, “Pull the bus over! I gotta pee!”

Someone cried, “Hang it out the window, John!” John bellowed with laughter. He pulled the nearest window down as far as it would go and pretended to do just that.

A few weeks passed. The boy couldn’t remember much about the baseball game. Maybe Johnny Bench had hit a home run. The grownups drank at the stadium till their speech slurred. One aunt fell into another man’s lap when she stood and waved to get a hot dog vendor’s attention. John shouted, “Ya dumb cocksucker!” at an umpire after he called a runner out at second base.

His mother talked to Aunt Martha on the phone one evening after supper. Mom said, “So we’ll meet at your house and then head to the hospital. How’s John doing? Uh huh. All right.”

The boy’s mother hung up, turned to him and said, “I’m going to a prayer meeting at the hospital. There are snacks in the bread box. Keep an eye on your brother.”

Mom came back two hours later. Her eyes had a peaceful glow. She told the boy, “Well, we prayed over him. I could feel God’s love flowing from me to John.”

“Is he getting better?” the boy asked.

“He does for a while after we lay hands on him, then the cancer comes back and gets worse. We’re going to come more often,” she said.

Mom went the next week on the same night. The boy and his brother drank milk and ate Oreos, wrestled on the carpet, and watched “Gunsmoke”. Mom trudged in an hour late. Lines etched her brows. She took her time shrugging off her coat and hanging it in the closet. The boy waited. He could tell something had happened.

She addressed the closet door when she said, “John’s dying. He knows it and he’s scared. I guess it’s God’s will.”

“How do you know he’s–“

Mom cut him off: “It isn’t hard to tell.”

The boy babysat his brother while his mother attended the funeral. She checked her lipstick twice in her pocket mirror before walking out the door. Her rosary tangled with the keys as she pulled them out of her purse. When she came home, her face was smooth and untroubled. But she said, “I just don’t know what Jocelyn’s going to do without John.”

The boy grew up and became a sixty-year-old man who called his mother every Friday.  They talked about the weather, books, politics. One day she said without preamble, “You know Jocelyn, John’s wife? She passed away last week. I didn’t know anything about it till your Aunt Martha called and told me. She lived alone all those years, never remarried.

“She must have really loved John,” he ventured.

“I don’t know about that,” she said. “Martha told me that she’d been getting along fine, but she woke up one morning with a pain in her belly. It got so bad she drove herself to emergency. She never left the hospital.  She hung in there all those years without John…and then went just like that.”

The man said a prayer that night.  He felt God’s love flowing toward Jocelyn and John.  He hoped it would do them some good this time.

Companionable Silence

My Dad and I, when I was a boy, sometimes took long drives in the country to visit fishing holes. We generally remained silent as the road wound past farms and strips of wood. No one felt sullen. We weren’t cutting each other cold. Dad and I felt a sense of peaceful ease as we shared company. We drifted into our own thoughts from time to time but mostly abided in quiet contentment. A few years ago, we went on an errand to get detailing work done on his car. We might have said three things on the way there. We shared a few thoughts while sitting in a waiting room. But for the most part, we enjoyed the luxury of shared silence.

I’ve had similar moments with my wife, usually at the end of a nature hike. We stood on a mountain in Maine and gazed down at a thick blanket of fog. We caught our breath from the long climb and studied the dense gray mist stretching to infinity. The week after we brought our newborn daughter home, we sometimes looked at her in wonder: our lives had just changed radically. Attempting to describe the intensity of our feelings would have been a waste of time.

Quakers worship in silence. During “gathered” meetings, assembled Friends feel unified with God and each other. Peace and stillness sew connective threads from person to person. The congregation becomes part of a greater weave of hearts and souls extending beyond the four walls of the meeting house. Friends seldom talk about the experience afterward. The intimacy of this form of worship seems almost embarrassing. They give each other inquiring looks that ask, “Did that really happen?”

Silence seems like a great gift whether shared or experienced alone. I feel grateful for quiet moments. They give me the opportunity to forget troubles and anxieties. When I was a boy, I used to climb an apple tree at sunset. I could sit in the branches, catch a breeze, watch flocks of birds silhouetted against orange and pink clouds on the western horizon. Time seemed to halt at the moment when the sun’s upper edge dipped out of sight. The hush of night waited on the threshold, and the whole world paused to take a deep breath.

Reserving Judgment: a Path to Joy

Took a trip to the Winter Park Publix on Friday morning to get supplies ahead of the arrival of Hurricane Isaias.  Almost everyone wore masks in obedience to store policy.  Older folks seemed baffled, as usual, by the directional arrows on the aisle floors.  I encountered several wrong way cart-pushers.  I steered as far over as possible and went on my way.  One woman rounded a bend in frozen foods, ditched her cart and strode straight toward me.  I must have given her a sharp glance.  She sputtered an apology, “I’ve been up and down this aisle three times and can’t find what I want!”  I looked over my shoulder after she scurried by and saw her rooting in a frozen dessert freezer.

I looped back to the magazine/school supply/hardware aisle.  It had been crowded the last time I passed it.  Halfway down the aisle, I encountered a seventy-year-old woman pushing a cart toward me.  She held a poodle on a leash and wore a plastic face guard.  The guard looked like a transparent welder’s shield and did not close off her nose and mouth.  The dog didn’t wear a service animal vest.  I thought, “She’s the whole package of blind stupidity.”

The lady blocked the aisle with cart and dog and seemed oblivious to my presence.  I moved forward anyway.  I’d been dodging the wayward and no longer had patience to wait her out.  She finally noticed and murmured, “Here Ruffles.” She pulled the dog a foot to the side.  I held my breath as I squeezed by.

Judy sat on the front porch when I pulled into the driveway.  As I began to unload the groceries, she asked me, “How was it?”

I said, “Okay.  The cashier and the bagger were friendly this time.  The credit card worked in the reader.”  Then I told her about the unmasked poodle lady.  Judy caught the irritation in my voice and said, “Maybe she’s one of those people who can’t breathe when they wear a mask.”

My mind cleared.  A burden of irritation fell away.  I said, “Thank you for saying that.”

My wife has a talent for finding the good in people, for believing that folks are doing their best.  My portion of forbearance is meager by comparison.  I married her, in part, to live with someone who wouldn’t confirm my darkest suspicions.

We recently discussed “The Book of Joy,” a profile of the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu.  The two share a friendship marked by humor and mutual understanding.  Both men persevered as spiritual leaders during hard times.  The book considers how the two are able to live in joy despite their troubles.  Maintaining a positive attitude is one of the skills they foster.  Their deep contentment comes from the cultivation of an attitude that seeks to reserve judgment and expect the best from others.  They are not naïve, however.  They just insist on dwelling in loving hope.

The Egg Had It in for Me

Near the beginning of the pandemic, baking ingredients, such as eggs, yeast and flour, disappeared from shelves at the Winter Park Publix.  This happened a week after toilet paper and hand sanitizer had vanished.  Anxious customers were more concerned, at first, about issues of outflow than issues of input.  I hadn’t been concerned about either and had to scrounge for supplies. 

Eggs began to reappear a few weeks after the first spasm of general panic had ebbed.  I bought a carton of 18 just to be sure and noticed the considerably lower price per egg.  My usual dozen began to look like a boutique buy.  I’ve purchased the larger carton ever since.

I usually fry an egg for breakfast. I lay it onto a piece of bread coated with melted cheese.  An egg-and-cheese has become part of my morning ritual, and I can make it with my eyes closed.  But I woke up more groggy than usual today and bumped into the kitchen counter on the way to the stove.  The cold, white light inside the fridge stabbed my eyes.  When I attempted to open the egg carton, the lid stuck.

I wedged my hand inside to pry out an egg.  In an eighteen-count carton, the eggs press tightly together.  They sometimes resist.  I tugged on one egg, met its stubborn refusal to budge, and tried another.  When my fingers got a good grip on the second egg, it crumbled inward.

“Shit!” I calmly remarked as yolk and white slimed my digits.  Not content to stay inside its original compartment, the crushed egg seeped sideways and beneath another egg.  I took the carton to the sink counter.  I tried to scoop out the yolk into a frying pan but suspected further treachery.  The yellow gunk tried to slide through my fingers onto the floor, but I managed to catch it with my other hand.  Some attendant white escaped to drip onto the linoleum.  (“Shit!” I calmly remarked again.)

Most of the white, however, remained behind and threatened to ooze throughout the carton.  I imagined picking up sticky, foul smelling eggs for the rest of the week.  I lifted the egg nearest to the flood and found a puddle beneath.  I tried to place the intact egg on a sink divider, but it intended to shatter itself on the sink bottom.  I decided that today was a two-egg day, cracked it into the skillet, and burned the side of my hand.  (“Shit!” I calmly remarked yet again.)

The eggs sizzled in the pan, but a puddle persisted in the carton.  I decided to tip the remnant ooze onto its frying compatriots.  I carefully place my hand over the remaining eggs and tilted the carton.  I fully expected one of the eggs to slip by and shatter on the stovetop but managed to avoid further difficulties.  I used a paper towel to finish cleaning the carton and to scrub the floor near the stove. I used soapy water to wipe down the counter, edge of the stovetop and the faucet.  I had managed to slime them all up.

A few minutes later, I bit savagely into my sandwich.  “Revenge is mine,” I thought.  Then something delicate and chalky crunched between my teeth.  Eggshell.  (“Shit!”)

Shelter: Go to a Happy Place

My mother used to tell me that she didn’t need to watch tough movies. Musicals, comedies and romances worked better for her. She’d lived through hard times, sickness in the family, a world war, the troubled 60s. She didn’t need vicarious drama in her life as life had already provided plenty of the real thing.

I used to think the opposite: tough movies were the only ones worth watching. They had depth and multiple layers of meaning. They touched heart and mind and made me rethink values and priorities. I found the shock of harsh stories invigorating.

Now I’ve drifted closer to Mom’s attitude. I watch musicals, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart comedies, and occasional Humphrey Bogart dramas. Happy endings are fine. The screenwriter should never kill off a lovable character in the third act. Roughing up protagonists is acceptable as long as they find ways to triumph in the end. Give me a redemption story. Keep slow motion train wreck plots to yourself.

A lyric in a Doors song informs us that “No one here gets out alive.” Yup. That’s right. But what about the time we do have? What do we do with it? I feel the responsibility to make life less miserable for those around me. I know that I need to stay informed about the latest phase of the ongoing disaster. But I hit the mute button when the news show talking heads drill deeper and deeper into misery. I tell them, “Yeah, I got it.”

I read, a few months ago, that the most popular movies during the March/April shut down were apocalyptic films about pandemics. Couldn’t rearrange my mind in harmony with these viewers. Now I wonder whether they found strength by facing dramatic representations of their fears. When a bedraggled band of men and women survive until the end credits, when they stand on a plateau and watch a bright sunrise herald in an epoch of renewed hope, the viewers might feel that they too have a chance to make new lives for themselves.

But I’d rather not participate in ersatz quests. I’ve got no taste for fighting second hand battles for survival. Instead, I want to find shelter in a few moments of peace.

I made protest paintings during the Iraq war. I needed to express outrage at senseless killing. Now I’m working on a painting of abstract flowers. Now I’m making a cardboard sculpture of a doggy.


Running Aground in Digital Waters

My computer is trying to kill me. Video files have disappeared; uploads take five hours; gray highlights appear at odd intervals in texts; and familiar pages hide command buttons that had once been easy to find. My laptop is raising my blood pressure. A tension headache throbs in the back of my head...

I recently took an on-line course designed to teach me how to teach on-line courses. I managed to get 100% on all sections after several attempts. I would’ve been content to drift by with a lower grade, but my meticulous instructor, who picked through my offerings with a fine-toothed comb, prodded until all parts met the school’s complete satisfaction. One item I had neglected to cover, until nearly too late, was a quiz testing my ability to remember and categorize information from a video. The spellbinding video described the school’s process in designing the on-line teaching course in which I was enrolled. Had to watch it three times. I regret each viewing.

I’m trying now to make video demonstrations for a Drawing I class. I also have to edit closed captions attached to the videos for grammar and errors in transcription. I’ve discovered, while listening repeatedly to the playback, that I have a hoarse, somewhat nasal voice that honks, when stressed, like a goose with emphysema. I mumble, slur words, and say the word “so” much too often. So, how will I find time to take a communication course in camera-ready elocution?

I’ve slowly begun to get accustomed to using “Canvas”, our school platform, to edit and post items on a course outline. The name “Canvas” remains a mystery, however. I haven’t noticed any similarities between using its functions and painting on stretched linen. None whatsoever.

I have to genuflect before built-in absurdities in the program. For instance: when posting an image on an assignment page, I have to enter an “alt text”. An alt text describes the image to the visually impaired. Folks need to be able to see to take a drawing class, but don’t try telling that to Canvas.

I’ll conform to my job’s expectations and develop new mental calluses. But right now, I feel like I’m sailing into a digital whirlwind. The 1s and 0s have no bad intentions but blow about inside my head in confusing gusts and swirls. I hope the storm calms once the semester begins.

*I am grateful that my school has shifted most courses from classrooms to on-line modalities. I won’t have to enter Room 148 this semester wondering whether my students will be the death of me.

Taking a Breather from Worry

Daughter Annie called Saturday morning to propose an outing to Kraft-Azalea, a small park north of downtown Winter Park. She wanted to get baby Ava out for fresh air and time with grandparents. We met midmorning and found that a good number of the locals had the same idea. The parking lot was nearly full. The dock, shoreline, paths and shady areas beneath the cypresses had visitors.

Small groups hung out near the semi-circle of Greek columns. (The lakeside columns are popular backdrops for graduation and wedding photographers.) But most folks maintained distance and donned masks when they drew near to others. An air of reserved friendliness dominated.

Two pregnant women, escorted by uncomfortable looking husbands, posed beside cypress trees for formal photographs. Other couples, who didn’t look like they were expecting anything more than quiet together-time, lounged on benches. Boaters, kayak and board paddlers crossed the lake near the shore. One family sat on a blanket on the grass. Mom and Dad watched their five-month-old push up from her belly to look at all the pretty sights.

Baby Ava, at nine and a half months, loved to walk (with assistance) in little black booties across the grass. She collapsed onto her butt at random moments to seize tufts of grass, pick up leaves, pine cone needles, Spanish moss and strips of bark. One had to be vigilant to prevent her from stuffing collected items into her mouth. She occasionally noticed a white egret stalking bugs at the base of a stand of cypress trees. She babbled a stream of words at a fountain. Some sounded like slobbery gutturals, but “Mama” and “Dada” came through clearly at irregular intervals.

We found an open bench near the lake as our visit came to a close. A fresh breeze blew across the water sending waves lapping against the shore. Ava watched the surface reflections shift and move as a motor boat passed. She dove from her mother’s lap to mine and back. She sometimes fixed me with a piercing stare not unlike a border guard examining the bearer of a suspicious passport. I jollied her by zooming her up and down. She responded with a gracious smile that acknowledged my renewed worthiness as her grandpa.

We said our goodbyes. I turned on the car’s air conditioner as the temperature had soared in an hour from the low eighties to around 90. Traffic seemed heavy for a Saturday morning, but no one tried, on our way home, to kill us with reckless or aggressive maneuvers. Had an unannounced truce been declared?

Judy and I retreated to our favorite slumping places after returning home. We felt tired but refreshed. A clean gust had cleared away the stale air of isolation. Thank God for parks and babies.

Nocturne

Nocturne (for A.D.)

I’ve been experimenting with different methods for starting a painting. Developing images (abstract or realistic) from random marks echoes Surrealist techniques.

Psychedelic Puppy

Starting with one shape and letting it lead to others (until the canvas is covered) seems unique at first. But that approach owes a debt to Process Art. In Process Art, the outcome is unforeseen and relatively unimportant. The act of making the picture is the primary focus.

Tangle: Painting for Ava

I finished “Nocturne” yesterday. I began it with a drawing based on rearranged shapes specific to a known subject. In other words, I had a preconceived idea in mind when I started the painting. I left room, however, for improvisation. I had no color or tonal scheme in mind, but roughed in shapes using a restricted palette (lemon yellow, white, pthalo blue, alizarin crimson) to create a pattern. On second through fourth layers, I enhanced colors, fused shapes, and added details that emerged out of underlying layers. The end result reminded me of a night time scene. The shapes and colors recalled Arthur Dove’s abstract Maine landscapes.

Esphyr Slobodkina has been another influence. She’s best known as the author of “Caps for Sale”, but was a founding member of the Abstract Artists Association. The AAA, founded in the 1930s, promoted the development of an American form of Modernism.

Slobodkina developed flat shape compositions that referred to natural and manmade forms. She did preparatory pencil sketches and paintings before creating a final version of a subject. Precision, elegance and rhythm are the hallmarks of her best work.

I may eventually settle upon a method that combines elements of the three approaches discussed above. Right now, I’m favoring the technique used to create “Nocturne”. Using improvisation over a set foundation seems like a promising path. Unplanned spontaneity (laying on brushstrokes willy-nilly) leads to thickets of confusion. (Tangled clots of paint remind me of how much I dislike the choppy disorganization of free-form jazz.) Detailed planning and controlled execution, a la’ Esphyr Slobodkina, seem too confining. I need room for discovery.

I used to worry about originality. I realized that I had ripped off and recombined sources in most of my work. Now I believe that genuine expression requires looking both forward and back. Not to mention inward.

Neither Good nor Bad: What a Relief!

I watched a YouTube video entitled, “How to Avoid Anger When Dealing with People”. An Indian sage named Sadhguru told an audience that anger is linked to judgment. We watch other people’s bad behavior, such as the refusal to wear masks in public places, and boil. Sadhguru then stated that our criticism is foolish as there are no bad persons. I snarked, “Oh, kumbaya! Look at all the paisley unicorns in this bright, wonderful world!” Then he went on: “And there are no good people either.” (Huhhh???) He explained: “People are constantly cycling between being good and bad. They are neither.” Our critiques are aimed at moving, changeable targets.

Isn’t that a relief? I waste time worrying about a lousy thing I did twenty years ago. I can’t tell whether that action, when weighed against the selfless moments on my record, makes me a good or bad person. And I wonder if I still have the spiritual mojo to pull off, in the here and now, some of my better moments from the past. I’m no longer that person who volunteered for a torture position at church. I’m just not willing. Does that mean that I was a good but have recently undergone moral decline?

The reply to self-incriminating voices in my head is: IT DOESN’T MATTER. Anthony De Mello cheerfully wrote in one of his books, “I am an ass!” The implication being that we’re all asses in varying degrees from moment to moment.

Overly harsh self-condemnation is an act of egotism. Does the cosmos really care whether I acted like a heartless dick back in 1983? No need to spend all that energy examining motives, tearing apart self-justifications. The universe spins madly on in utter indifference to an individual’s foibles and flaws.

We’re all God’s children, some better behaved, on average, than others. But we constantly shift positions along a spectrum ranging from heartlessness to decency to selflessness. Healthy modesty builds when I remember that I’m just part of a continuum.

What a relief!