Like This Blog on Facebook

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Traditions


The other day I was reminded of an old story…

There once was a man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town. And that all the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, 'I'm religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.'



The waters rose up. A guy in a row boat came along and he shouted, 'Hey, hey you! You in there. The town is flooding. Let me take you to safety.' But the man shouted back, 'I'm religious. I pray. God loves me. God will save me.'


A helicopter was hovering overhead. And a guy with a megaphone shouted, 'Hey you, you down there. The town is flooding. Let me drop this ladder and I'll take you to safety.' But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him and that God will take him to safety.



Well... the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded an audience with God. 'Lord,' he said, 'I'm a religious man, I pray. I thought you loved me. Why did this happen?'



God said, 'I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?


Today I was talking about traditions. At one point I recall saying, “I like to think that I am a man of principles.” I do like to think that at my base, I am this. I have always had a deep respect for those who could say that and act upon it. 

I think it is fair to say that I make a lot of mistakes in life, just as many people do. I’m not sure if it is any more or any less than the average person. I am sure that it is not worth trying to figure out. I know myself well enough to be absolutely confident that I will make many more errors in judgment in the near and distant future. However, I like to think that there are a few beliefs I have that keep me from making mistakes in the most important of times--a set of codes if you will. Principles. One of these principles is that you keep traditions.

With this in mind, I am reminded of a Christmas four years ago.

I have spent every Christmas of my life on the ranch in Anatone, Washington that my mom grew up on. It is one of my favorite places in the world, a picturesque place to celebrate Christmas, and the setting of one of my favorite traditions.

Since my parents divorced a decade ago, my dad and my brother have had a deal in place. Every Christmas Eve my brother and I would drive 45 minutes north and my dad would drive 90 minutes south, and we would meet at a little church on a little hill in little Pullman, Washington. There, we would celebrate Midnight Mass. This has become one of my favorite parts of Christmas. It is also one of my most protected traditions.

Well, fours years ago, Eastern Washington, or “God’s Country” as I usually call it, was hit by one of its usual snowstorms. Only this one was much worse than usual.

The entire morning, my brother, mother, and I discussed whether it was safe enough to make it to the ranch. The 100 miles of highway between here and there is a two-lane, icy hell of a drive. After going back and forth about 32 times and consulting the weather report every 10 minutes, we decided that we could make it if we left early. It was also decided that once we arrived, there could be no turning back due to the snow that would fall behind us. This meant, of course, that there could be no Midnight Mass with the Sacred Heart congregation of Pullman, and most importantly, the end of a tradition with my dad. This left me unsettled. My head was a mess and my stomach had an ill feeling. One tradition would be saved, but the other would have to end in the process. My dad, always one to downplay such things, told me not to worry about it, that there was no other option, and to get on the road as soon as possible. But I can’t tell you how hard it was for me to reconcile this decision with myself. (Catholic guilt, I suppose.)
My book of traditions is made of stone. And I am one that believes/fears that when the line of such happenings breaks, it often never gets repaired to its original strength. The precedent makes it easier in the future to have further breaks.

But I understand reason and logic. And both of those said to get on the road and drive.

So we did.

But I will admit that at more than one occasion that morning, I thought to myself that I wished there was a sign to help me/us know what to do. I suppose I was looking for that sign from a power above. But no such sign ever came.

It wasn’t until we pulled onto the highway that we had any idea how bad the driving conditions really were. It was ice as bad as I have never encountered, and it was snow that kept the visibility to 15 feet max. You could just barely make out the dividing lines of the two-way traffic. I will admit that I was scared. But I kept driving. Then, and this was incredibly uncharacteristic of my mom, the car only had less than a quarter tank of gas. Not only does she never let it get that low, we never left town without getting gas. But there we were, unable to turn around, and the nearest gas station about 15 miles away, which would be the last one for a long while. With white knuckles, I drove 20 mph down a virtually deserted highway. We were silent nearly the whole way. And the only thing that would take my mind off the road to any degree was that feeling in my stomach that still felt badly about missing the Midnight Mass. I kept telling myself that there really wasn’t a choice, and there was no sense in feeling this way, but it didn’t help. After what seemed like 3 hours, we made it, and I took a few breaths as I pumped the gas. Then I went in to pay the cashier. When I got to the counter, the lady made a comment about how bad the weather was and told me we were lucky, that she was about to close the place down to get home herself. She asked me which way I was heading. I told her south and she told me she hoped I wasn’t going far. I told her where I was going and she wished me luck and advised that I not attempt it. I told her it was Christmas, and we were going to make it. We had to.

As I left, a man was entering, and he held the door for me. He asked me where I was going, and before I could answer, he said, “I hope you aren’t heading south.” I told him I was, and he said, “I really wouldn’t if I was you.” I thanked him for the advice and walked to the car.

By that time, we had to brush the accumulated snow off the car. And then we set out again.

This next part was strange.

I started driving, but we couldn’t see where the exit from the parking lot was or even what direction we were heading. I had never been in a true whiteout before. I had no idea how serious they could be. We started driving the direction we thought the driveway was, and then it happened.

We came to a halting stop.

I had run straight into a snow bank. I had also high-centered the car. After trying in vain to shovel the car out with anything that was in the trunk and trying to call a tow truck with no cell service, we found ourselves stranded. Furthermore, the cashier had closed the store and left. We were alone. While we were contemplating walking to the nearest farmhouse, a truck drove by and I went over to talk to the driver to see if she could pull us out. She said she didn’t have a chain, but she said the storm was going to get worse, and she feared we would be in even more trouble the longer we were stuck there. She said would go home and get one. After an uncomfortably long time passed, she still had not returned, and a degree of angst set in. That’s when another truck drove by, and this guy had a chain in the bed. He pulled us out, but didn’t ask where we were heading. He just told us to get to a house as soon as possible, all the while pointing-- North.  

We braved our way back home through a blizzard. All the way my mind drifted deep into thought.

When we got back to Spokane, I remember thinking about the sign that never came. But even more distinctly and vividly, I remember the next thoughts in my head. I recalled that story about the guy in the storm. How he kept waiting for God.

God sent a storm that day. He led us to a gas station. He put me face to face with a cashier. He sent a man to hold a door for me and give me advice. And he sent a caring woman in a truck.

And a man to pull us out of a ditch and point me in the right direction.


My brother and I went to Midnight Mass that Christmas Eve-with my dad.

And I am pretty sure that I can’t remember a single sermon from any of the hundreds of Masses I have been to...except that night.

The priest said, “You have all had a difficult journey getting here tonight, but there is a reason you are here. You were meant to be here.”

The next morning, we drove to the ranch, getting there just in time to exchange gifts.


Traditions are traditions.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Answers


“So you are at the end of the journey?”
“Yeah. This part anyway.”
”You have seen a whole lot of places now huh?”
“Yeah. I sure have.”
“Do you have a favorite?”
“I do.”
“So...which is it?”
“It’s the same as yours.”
“I’ve never told you mine.”
“I know.”
“So...where is it?”
“You wouldn’t know it,” I said with a smile and a subtle shake of my head.
So here I am, at the end of the journey. I am finishing this post as I sit here on an airplane destined for America, destined for home. Now with the perspective gained from being at the end, I have sat down to assess the value of this chapter of my life--a chapter that saw great sacrifice for the intriguing promise of the unknown. It was the greatest risk I have ever made in my life. I gave up a sure-thing for the risk and reward of possibility. Since the definition of success is so relative and subjective, I have given a lot of thought to what in fact makes a successful journey. I am now confident that the worth of your journey is measured by the amount of growth we experience along the way and how much better we know ourself, for if at the end we didn’t undergo a growth, why did we do it? 
On these journeys we see a lot of places and sights, we are put into unfamiliar circumstances and positions, and we are altered and inspired by them, but it’s the people there with us along the way that help us grow. Sometimes they are people we know, sometimes they aren’t, and sometimes that person is just a part of us we are forced to meet and learn to understand...but it’s the people that invoke this growth. 
I have made a very difficult decision this year to return to the Pacific Northwest. To return home. It was a decision that at the very least I can say was agonizing. I logged countless hours walking in green hills and down granite street moderating a constant dialogue in my head, and now I am coming home. I understand why I am doing it, even if I find myself unable to perfectly articulate it when pressed to answer why. 
I have encountered a great number of people who have understood this decisions, but I have come across a nearly equal number of people who do not understand why I would choose to leave an outstanding school and the majesty of Scotland with still so much unseen and undone. In many cases I could hear in their voice a tone that suggested that I couldn’t hack it. And on more than one occasion people even suggested this verbally. Again, on more than one occasion, I wasn’t even asked a question. “I hear you're leaving. You don’t like it here huh?” But this was not said as a question, much more as a statement. Or, “International teaching is not for you huh?” I fielded all of these questions while the whole time I believed just the opposite of their assumptions. I love Scotland. I still find the hills and buildings enchanting. Their mystique never faded. Even up to the end, a simple walk to the bakery around the corner caused me to grin at my fortune. Right up to the final day, I found myself stopping mid-stride just to take in the beauty and inspiration of my surroundings. I also love international teaching. The make-up of my classes is a Social Studies and English teacher’s idea setting. On any given day I had 10 nationalities represented in my classroom. For a teacher who craves originality and unique perspective, this is a dream come true. However, I took these questions in stride. I was asked “Why?” by so many people that I developed canned responses to this question. The frequency of these challenges forced me to have them ready at all times. Some people are satisfied with the answer of the professional and educational opportunities awaiting me in Seattle. Some are satisfied with the simple answer of “unfinished business” to see through back at home. Often I would go into length detailing either or both of these until I felt the person understood or at least appreciated my stance. Rarely did I convince anyone though. In the final days I just began giving the concise and most accurate answer and left it at that--without justification. It was this answer that I realized one day was at the heart of my decision. It was just the truth. That answer was simply that I missed my friends and family. I have been away from them for 2 years and I am not ready, and never was ready to say goodbye for any longer than that. 
They are simply too important to me.
I have been blessed with the greatest friends and family that anyone could ask for. As cliche as that is to say, it is the truth. Even though I fell off the face of the Earth at times during my travels, they refused to let us fall out of touch. I will be forever grateful to them for this. I was told when I first moved abroad that these communications would fade, and people would grow disinterested with my adventures, but this never happened. I wouldn’t have blamed anyone for letting this happen. But it never did. As I said, I am a lucky one. I look forward to seeing them all to say thank you, and tell them how much their support has meant to me. 
This brings me to another question I have been asked countless times over the past couple years:
What do I miss? 
I miss being among my friends watching a band that are relatively unknown to the world outside of Seattle. I miss the excitement of hearing that song and that band. I miss that moment--the one where you are torn--torn between wanting the world to witness what you are seeing, wanting everyone to hear this, but at the same time selfishly wanting to keep it for yourself. And I miss the greatest moment of all. The moment where you look at your friends, and say to yourself, “Can it get any better than this?” 
I set out to get an answer for that question. I always suspected that I had one, but I set out to test it. I have travelled a great deal of the world. I have lived abroad. I learned what it meant to be an “expat”. I walked aimlessly hoping to cross paths with inspiration, and at times purposefully to attain the same goal. I taught students from countries that my ignorance kept me from knowing anything about until I had the privilege of sharing a room with them. Over the past 2 years, I have met some of the most amazing, interesting, and genuine people of my life--people that I will call friends years from now. As I said, it’s the people along the way to whom we owe for our growth. I was blessed to cross paths with these people. From the chance encounter with Barbara at a sandwich shop two years ago, to my inspiring students who taught me far more than I ever taught them, to my traveling partners, to those who offered their time, their care, their trust, and their friendship. I thank you. I am a better man for having you by my side through it all. 
Thank you.
I also have had the unique opportunity to start over from scratch. I could have reinvented myself to be anyone I wanted. At times I think we all crave this opportunity, or at least become intrigued by it. A chance at a blank slate. I knew not a single person when I boarded a plane to come here. My past could be fiction and the present my own unimpeded creation. But the truth is I just want to be me. I always have. The kid from Spokane that wants to be close to his family, who wants to have roots. To strengthen the old ones and grow new ones. To be able to say, “I remember when that street looked like...or I remember...and to grow up with people who have known me long enough to call me on my transgressions, appreciate the long road of life with, and be able to reminisce--to not have to provide background and context for every story because the people you are talking with know. They were there. You experienced it together, you felt it together...you lived it together. 
On my final day of school back in June, the last I would spend teaching in Scotland, we had a goodbye ceremony for all the departing staff. I gave a short speech of gratitude and attempted to explain how difficult this decision was for me as it was easily the most difficult decision of my life. Afterward people said their goodbyes. I remember one in particular, and I doubt that I will ever forget it. She told me something that helped me come to terms with the justification that I was still seeking. It was one of those lines that you add to the small bank of profound sayings that you carry with you wherever life takes you. You know the ones. They are the pieces of advice that put to shame any that you see on those cheap motivational posters lining the walls of office buildings. In two sentences she helped me confront any lingering doubt that I still had. I suspect she could sense my uneasiness. 
She said, “I have made many difficult decisions in my life too.” She was talking about the ones that don’t make sense to everyone, but you feel in your gut are right.
“Someone once told me something that helped me make sense of them all.” 
She said,
“This is not a rehearsal. This is your life.”
No...it’s not. And, yes...it is.  
I am taking this life back to the Pacific Northwest. One that will certainly look and feel different than it did 2 years ago, as it has been a bit different each time I have returned to visit. It’s a good different though. I will once again walk familiar streets, and I will crack peanuts in the seats of Safeco again, I will spend holidays with family, but I will be looking at everything through clearer perspective and with greater appreciation. The kind that can only come after a committed journey...
the kind that can only come with growth.
I have made every major decision in my life by one principle: you must always be running to something and not away from anything. The time has come to move toward the next journey. 
This experience has been so rich with confusion and clarity. I am a stronger person who sees the world more accurately now. I made it past the stage of living somewhere but not really ‘living’ there. The stage where your heart is still back home. I closed that door and truly lived here. I just wouldn’t feel confident in this decision if I hadn’t. I proved a great deal to myself. I had goals that I saw through. I answered questions I needed answered. 
And I got the answer to the question I sought the most.
You see, no matter where we go and no matter how beautiful the scenery may be, your favorite place is the same as mine. It’s where you belong. 
I set out on this adventure with many questions. Questions about myself, about people, culture, and about life. And after it all, I was right. The truth is, a Friday night at The Tractor Tavern listening to music with my friends is as good as it gets. But it’s better than that. 
It’s where I belong.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Peace


In life we have moments of confusion and moments clarity. And if we have the maturity and courage to recognize the challenge and possibility of these moments, sometimes they blend together to become the greatest we can experience. They become turning points and moments of growth.
So I would like to tell a story very personal to me. It doesn’t involve a tragedy, though it was tragic to me, and without explanation the full gravity of the moment would have gone unnoticed to anyone present for the actual moment. I did tell this story once when I was asked to give a talk my senior year in high school at a retreat, but since then, I have not mentioned it to anyone. 
As I have made very evident in this blog, I had a love affair with the game of baseball. It   played a central role in my life for many years. Spring has always been my favorite time of year, not because of the beauty and sprouting of life, but because it was the beginning of baseball season. I would spend all winter thinking, dreaming, and preparing. One spring, more specifically one day of a certain spring, will always stand apart from the rest. It was a day that forever changed my life. I was looking forward to the spring of my junior year from the moment I realized that we would have a serious chance to contend for a title. I have pages dedicated to it in the journal we had to keep in my freshman English class. This year was to be the greatest year. We opened at Avista stadium, the grandest stage in the area. A stadium that boasted the original batting cages used by the Dodger greats at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. We won that game, a game that the rest of the city thought we should lose, and the next game we were to play North Central, the preseason favorite. The excitement I had driving to their field a couple days later was something that can’t be explained and one that I truly miss. I remember saying on the way there as I drank my pre-game Red Bull, “After today everyone will know we’re for real. Today we make a name for ourselves.” I was so pumped. All through warm-ups I was jacked and ready to go to battle with my teammates, many of whom who were like brothers to me. We had been playing together each spring and summer for a few years now and some since I was much younger. The previous summer we were just a series win away from going to the state tournament. In many ways, we had grown up together. Games were often the beginning of the kind of summer evenings and nights where you wake up having grown at the exponential rate of adolescence. That team meant so much to me--because I loved baseball and because I loved being part of a team, especially that one. And as a catcher, I was a leader of that team, which I embraced and loved more than anything that wasn’t a person. My intensity and love were seen and known by every person I have ever stepped on the field with. That I guarantee you. I wanted the ball and the pivotal situation to come through me every time. The baseball field was the one place in the world that I felt complete control and confidence. 
And then that spring day it happened...
As is ritual for a catcher, I was warming up with the starting pitcher when a teammate came over to me. I will never forget this moment or the look on his face as he told me something that would have an enormous influence on the rest of my life. He told me that I wasn’t playing. I didn’t believe him. I laughed and shook it off, but he had that expression on his face that people have when they know they are telling you something that you don’t want to hear and might possibly not believe. He told me he wouldn’t joke about something like this, not with me. This was the first moment I allowed myself to believe it might be true. You see, I couldn’t remember ever missing even a single inning since I was in 5 grade. One time I had a coach who tried to rest me the second game of a double header in 100 degree heat. I refused. It was the most defiant I have ever been with a coach. After a discussion in the dugout, he knew that I was not going to sit no matter how practical it may seem on paper or how many coaching manuals preached it. So when this teammate told me that my name wasn’t on the line-up card I walked immediately to the dugout to see for myself, not believing it the entire way. It took me a long time to forgive my coach for not having the guts to tell me in person, as he knew how much it meant to me. I got to the dugout and saw that it was true. As I said at the beginning of this post, no tragedy took place, and in the grand scheme this doesn’t even compare to real difficult events in life, such as loss. But I had an irrational love for this game. This was that difficult for me. It still bothers me a little as I write this. When the team took the field to start the game and I learned what it felt like to sit in a vacated dugout, I began to lose my composure. It’s the only time that has ever happened to me on a field. My world was instantly halted. I felt nothing was ever going to be the same... and it wasn’t. A young prodigy of a baseball player had taken my position, my team, and what felt like everything. I sat on the bench and seriously considered transferring to another high school. I’m serious. I was using everything I had to keep a balance between anger and sadness, and I was doing everything I could to muster the courage to keep from crying. No one wanted to come near me. I don’t blame them. What was there to say? Everyone knew what this meant to me. So I just sat there, stunned and red from anger. I began asking a question over and over in my head. No matter how hard I tried, I could not answer that simple question we all ask when we feel injustice: “Why?” 
I was sitting on a nearly empty bench when it happened. 
I made a promise with God. 
I told him that I didn’t understand this. I felt it was unjustified and cruel. And I told him that he knew how important this was to me and how hard I had worked and for that reason I couldn’t answer the question: “Why?” 
And then suddenly everything became clear. Two words came to me that changed my life. These two words were the only thing that kept me from having a breakdown--one that would have effected every aspect of my life at the time. I have kept them with me ever since. They have been my only weapon at times in my life. I learned them that spring day in that empty dugout. 

“Ok God.”
I spent last weekend doing one of my final bucket list items while I am here in Scotland. I drove to Ayrshire, the land of the Cunningham Clan. I went there to drive the roads and walk the land. And I went there to perform a scavenger hunt of sorts to find some of the ruined castles left behind by Cunninghams many centuries ago. 
In most cases I had nothing but coordinates to find these ruins. Operating in a language of latitudes and longitudes I began my search after traveling the three and a half hours to the region. I had a GPS and a slew of google map directions on my desktop (without an internet connection). After 7 hours (11 total on the day if you are keeping track) of driving the most dangerous roads I have ever encountered, walking through vacant fields, following rivers and creeks, talking to strangers in pubs along the road, and pulling over to consult the maps on my computer every 15 minutes, I had found exactly zero of these castles. And then my computer battery ran out. I half expected this to lead to some deus ex machina moment in which I, freed from technology, stumble upon my destination. However, no Scottish farmer clad in tartan emerged from a field with staff in hand to stand in the middle of the road to stop me and offer directions. I was just lost. 
As I called it quits for the night due to the light fading behind the hills. I saw in my rearview mirror the hint of a sunset. There are a couple of rules I live by: when you see a sunset, stop to watch it, and when you come to a body of water, walk up and touch it. So I turned around at the next exit and made my way west to race the sun to the horizon. When I got to the sea, I pulled my car over on a piece of a field and sprinted to the edge of the water to catch the final glimpses of one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. I stood alone on an empty beach listening to the waves lap onto the shore. I looked up at the sky and spun around slowly taking in the moment and I was overcome by a feeling...completely consumed by it. It was too intense to call happy and not jubilant enough to call joy. 
I was content. I was at peace.
Perfectly content. I knew I was exactly where I was suppose to be in the world at that very moment. I was always meant to be on that beach, at that moment. Everything I have done to this point had led me there. Every success and failure pushed me in a direction to be there. Every happening in my life played a part in getting me there for that instant. I replayed my entire life in my head as I watched the sun extinguish itself into the water. I wanted for nothing and I appreciated all the moments and people that led me there. 
As I left, I walked out and touched the water. Then I looked to the sky and said the one thing that was on my mind. 




"Ok God."







Friday, June 8, 2012

Take What You Need

Why do we hurt others?


 
I have been troubled by the recent Seattle shootings. Shootings happen daily and each is tragic, but this one has been difficult for me to come to terms with. I kept thinking about it throughout the days following. I found that I was diverting conversations to it with anyone who would listen. No doubt, a lot of it is because it was in Seattle, a place I have always seen as relatively peaceful and as a home. We are always jolted more when horrific events take place in our immediate environment or somewhere we are familiar with. I think another, and perhaps larger,  part of it is the fact that it took place in the University District and so close to “The Ave,” which has always been a haven of sorts for me. I think many of us have a place like this we go to. It’s the one we find ourselves at when the world begins to get us down. Often, when I was feeling disappointed in people and the conformity of daily life, I would be pulled toward its promise of uniqueness and expression. I have spent many an afternoon walking the district, and especially, “The Ave,” in search of inspiration and in search of peace--often filling a backpack with some food and a book and heading on foot from my apartment.

The district is a busy area full of action and sounds and overflowing with culture, but it always seemed to mesh together in a manner that seemed peaceful to me. Everyone and everything had a role in making it what is was. Cities often cause a segregation of its citizens, naturally and forced. But all walks of life are represented there, especially this street in particular. It lies as a border between the idealism flowing from the university and the practicality of the city...and it has the feel of such a blend.


After I heard the news of the shooting, I could see the street, just as I remembered it, full of the distinct life I have been trying to describe in this entry. As I read the details of the story, I could visualize all the places. I saw myself sitting in coffee shops and browsing bookstores or walking around aimlessly with my ipod.

And I could see one memory even clearer, as it stood out starkly and disturbingly from the others.

I once took a group of former students down that street on a Sunday afternoon. We walked up and down each side, silently and discretely observing our surroundings. I asked them to see everyone that they passed. Not in a judgmental way. I wanted them to look at each person as an individual with a personality, a background, as a fellow member of their community in the hopes of helping them better realize how diverse our community is and how rich in culture it can be if we open our eyes and our arms. I also asked them to address their stereotypes and judgments. I wanted them to believe that there is no need to feel uncomfortable--that we should be aware and smart, but not afraid in the presence of those we do not yet know--that If you treat people like people, they will act like people.

While, I still believe this, I cannot come close to stating it as fact, and recent events make my case harder to plead. My credibility has certainly taken a hit...but I do still believe this. 

This story hit me hard because it robbed me of some of my trust and faith. I wouldn’t say that I was naive to the possibility of such a tragedy, but I trusted that it wouldn’t happen...not in this place...not in my place of harmony.

A strong theme in my classes has always been the idea of emotional voids. I am constantly stressing the belief that people act the way they do in order to fill voids. From teasing, to bullying, to the cruelest of actions, we are responding to our lacking. In short, people hurt people to try and stop their own hurting. People are always going to have voids. What we can do is recognize their voids or at the very least understand that they are hurting. Perhaps we may even be able to offer what they need. More importantly, we can learn to recognize our own voids and what is causing them, and we can fill them, not with hurt, but with that which we are truly needing.

When we stop hurting others to stop our hurting, we will be on the road to peace.


Until then, I’ll keep walking “The Ave.”



 
I think one of my students said it best by posting this on the bulletin board in my room.


Thursday, March 8, 2012

To My Teacher. To My Friend.

My middle school had one hall. A single corridor lined with classrooms on each side. Each year you moved down a little further in the hall until you one day reached the door at the opposite end...and you graduated. I began the journey with the first door on the left--Miss Gotzian’s. Over the course of 4 years, I made it from one end to the next. And each year I grew a little taller and a little deeper, and I saw my perspective change with the subsequent Fall. At that age, so much changes each year, and everything seems so much bigger than it is, which makes it exciting, and dramatic, and sometimes scary. You’re sure a football championship is the greatest accomplishment you will ever have and a break-up is the end of the world. Our guides at these crucial moments provide us with stability and comfort, and we are shaped in these moments by their advice and their presence. Miss Gotzian was one of my rocks through these moments and she would never cease to be that foundation. I moved down that hall each year, which put me farther and farther from her room as the seasons passed. When I graduated, I moved yet farther away from it. High school, college, and beyond saw me move farther and farther away. But in actuality, I was never far from Miss Gotzian’s room.

16 years later, I am still not far from that room.

The truth is, each year that I grow older and move farther away, the lessons I learned there make a little more sense, the place becomes a bit more sacred, and my respect and love for the teacher whose presence made it what it was, grows thicker.

Something happens within those four walls that never leaves those who were shaped within them. We never saw the world the same way after we left. This was her intention.

Years before I ever set foot in that classroom, two of my cousins had been taught by Miss Gotzian. She also knew my dad for years. She was considered a family friend. When I finally reached that room, she told me something that I still remember very clearly. She said, ‘I have heard so much about you from your cousins, and I have watched you come up through this school. I have been waiting for you.” That was the beginning of our bond. She became my teacher that year, and in the years that followed, she would become one of the best friends I will ever have.

When I got to high school, Miss Gotzian insisted that I no longer call her by her formal name. I cannot tell you how difficult this was. I simply couldn’t do it for years. Eventually, I was able to address her with the name she preferred, but it was only after many loud scoldings (from her) and many apologies (from me). So from this point on, I will refer to my friend, as Jill.

I have always found it difficult to define our relationship. When I said I was going to see Jill, people would ask me who that is. I never quite figured out how to answer that question. I would usually begin by saying that she was my 5th grade teacher. But that always felt far too surface, so I would say that she was a family friend. But again, that didn’t do it justice, so after a long explanation full of comparisons and analogies, I would just say, “She is one of my best friends.”

I understand that people don’t normally have such close friends with 26 years between their ages, but that is just one of the many reasons why our friendship was so special, so unique, and so powerful.

Through my middle school years, I probably spent an equal amount of time in her classroom as I did in the actual room I was supposed to be in. My best friend, Paul, and I would spend most of our time devising methods/schemes to get out of class in those years, and when we got out of class, we always went to the same place. It’s not like Jill stopped teaching when we came by and interrupted her class; we would just become part of it. We would talk with her as she was teaching. We would help her teach. We would find anything to do to try and justify being there. As I said earlier, there was something special about that room. We were drawn there.

In high school, I would make regular trips to her classroom after school. Always unannounced. I would just walk in and take a seat on top of the desk that faced hers, and she would always stop whatever grading or planning she was working on to listen to whatever I needed to say. From dating advice to coming to terms with death, with Jill, there was nothing that you couldn’t talk about. She would listen no matter how silly, serious, or personal. As anyone who has ever truly talked with her would testify to, she had little to no filter on what she would say, and that rubbed off on you. And this leads to one of the things I came to love about her most. When you come to someone with a problem or complex situation that doesn’t have a clear-cut answer, people are often hesitant to offer an opinion. Jill was not one of these people. Jill always gave her opinion. And it was a strong opinion. Her voice convinced you that her words were wise. You never left her company without knowing how she felt. That may be the single greatest quality I will miss about her. She was always friend enough to tell it to you straight. And there were many times that she told me opinions that I did not want to hear...but I heard them. I heard them and trusted. Jill had all my trust.

I craved her honesty.

Everyone remembers her booming voice that you could hear from the hall well before you stepped foot in her classroom. She spoke so loudly, almost yelling, like she was making sure that each word was heard and valued, but she didn’t need to; we were listening. We were always listening.

In college, when life moments happened, or critical decisions had to be made, or if I just needed centering, I would once again find myself in her classroom, sitting on the that same desk that I had been pouring my heart out from for 10 years. One day I stopped by and she was getting ready to teach a grammar lesson. We were talking before her class started and she said, “Why don’t you teach this one?” I was hesitant for a moment, but in true Jill form, she insisted, and I taught it. That was the first lesson I ever taught. As I think about it now, what a fitting place.

All teachers are influenced by those who taught them. Jill was always proud of the fact that so many of her students became teachers, and she always pointed out that they were good teachers. On more than more occasion, she said to me, “You know Zack, I could put one heck of a school together with my students who are teaching now.” And she was right. While I can’t speak for the others, I feel confident that because they are a product of JIll, they must teach with the same values she infused in us. Jill taught me how to use the curriculum and the position to also teach what we felt was truly important: Life. Within her daily courses, the undertones were rich. They were what shaped us. She taught us what true strength is. True Strength. The kind that kept her fighting a merciless disease for years that that would confine her to a scooter and severely limit the usage of her arms. True Strength. The kind that you would have to possess to listen to other people complain about their problems while you battle this...and not just listen, but truly care. Those of you reading this that knew her know exactly what I am talking about. She taught us to serve, to treat people they way they deserved to be treated, to be honest, to live with integrity, to guide, to listen, to have faith, and how to yell with love.

She also taught us how to be humble and to do two of the most difficult things a human can do: ask for help and accept the help that others offer.

She taught us that it is ok for a teacher to tell her students that she cares about them, and if they won’t listen, or can’t understand it yet, to show them.

She had such a message. Some of us became teachers to continue the message. She delivered it to us, and just to make sure we understood it, she lived it out right in front of us each and every day. We all saw it, for some of us it hit home harder than others, but we all received her grace.

And some of us understood that we had a responsibility to ensure that the message and lessons not only made it outside of her classroom--we had the honor of making sure that they found their way into new classrooms. We had the desire to inspire our students and hope that some would hear the message as clearly as we did, and that we would be able to take on the greatest responsibility--inspiring the next generation of teachers to carry on her legacy.

At her funeral, hundreds of students made a pilgrimage back to Miss Gotzian to pay their respects, to say thank you. We were asked to stand up and identify ourselves. So we stood for everyone to see. We stood for her values. We stood for her hours of service. We stood for her voice. We stood for her opinions. We stood for her steadfast belief in God. We stood to acknowledge that we were there, that we had heard, that we are walking in her likeness as a result of her belief in us. We stood because we knew she would do the same for us. We stood for Miss Gotzian.

And some of us also had the privilege of standing for “Jill”.


I found out Jill was in the hospital late at night last week. The next morning I had planned to teach chapter 5 of The Outsiders, a novel taught to me by JIll 16 years ago, and one we have deeply discussed together in the years since. The theme of my lesson was being a ‘real’ person. With a heavy heart, I taught it, and I taught about my teacher, my mentor, my friend, and one of the most ‘real’ people of my life. I told my class about JIll and the influence she had on me and the immense part she played in the fact that I was standing before them. I told them one of my favorite stories about her. I cried in front of them. And just as JIll did for all those years, I showed them that it is ok to feel. It is ok to be real.

I dismissed my class and thought about JIll and all that I had gained from her. And as is natural, I thought about all that I had lost: One of my first calls in triumphs and tribulations, a rock, a voice, an ear, an opinion, a mentor, someone to put me in my place, the constant reminder of the impact one person can have on so many, and the reminder that a teacher’s bond with his or her students does not stop at the door and does not end in June.

I sat at my desk in an empty classroom for some time, unable to move, frozen by nostalgia. That’s when a student walked in and handed me a folded, handmade card. I opened it, and at the top it said, “Mr. Cunningham, I am so sorry for the loss of your teacher and friend.”

And at the bottom of the page, in the most simple of sentences, I received the greatest compliment and challenge of my life.

“You are my Miss Gotzian.”

Your lessons will continue to be taught Jill. We will deliver them for you. We don’t have your voice, but we have your words.




Please feel free to send this to anyone you know who knew Jill Gotzian. Her message needs to continue to be shared.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Last Generation

I was nostalgically referring to the old days with my class recently. No doubt using what has become one of my signature lines, “Back in the day...” (My students recognize the irony of their 27 year old teacher saying this on such a regular basis, which leads to a chuckle each time I utter it.) And during one of these rants, I was asked,

“What was so great about the era that you grew up in?”

It was a solid question, and this is one of the reasons I love teaching so much; you never know when you are going to get asked a question that will invade your thoughts for days. You are constantly caused to challenge everything you say in order to present accurate information. More simply put, you have to be able to back up your words and your opinions.

So what did make my generation so great? The more I thought about it, the more pride and appreciation I felt toward the the era in which I grew up.

It’s hard to argue that “The Greatest Generation” wasn’t the greatest generation. And from my perspective, it’s hard to beat “The Baby Boomer Generation” as the most interesting time to be alive, but there is something special about my era.

Every generation has its unique identity. This identity is influenced by so many factors. Some are as obvious as a war and some are as subtle as a song on the radio. A culture is created through these happenings. Eventually each generation has its trademark moment, it’s historical references, it’s music, prominent figures, etc.

And each has its own childhood.

During the days I was pondering this question, I found myself discussing the issues facing today’s students with a colleague. We were talking about and how much more serious these issues are when compared to those common in our own eras.

Today’s youth are some of the most interesting people you will ever meet. I am fascinated by them each and every day. There are so many levels to them. They are an incredibly complicated generation. They are deep thinkers who are given so much to think about, perhaps too much. They have information everywhere they look. Material is being presented to them at an astonishing rate.

They may not always know a lot about something, but they know something about a lot. They are easily the most informed generation with the answer to any question literally at their fingertips.

They are also the first generation to be robbed of their innocence by the internet.

They are the first generation to have the answers before the questions. What I mean by this is that we grew up ‘living’ and experiencing until a catalyst of some sort piqued our interest. Eventually, we came across something we didn’t understand. We had a question that couldn’t be answered, and then we asked. And if the question wasn’t organically provoked by circumstance, we didn’t ask the question. It was as simple as that. We acquired information as we needed it and at a natural, manageable rate. Today’s children are presented information rather than seeking it out, and they can stumble upon it by a simple click of a blue word.

Technology has made them an intriguing, exceptional, and contradictory group of people.

They are the greatest masters of communication in history. They are also the greatest failures of communication. In many ways, they are more mature at their age than anyone else in history while also being the least mature in just as many ways.

During this conversation with my colleague, we tried to pinpoint the difference between this generation and the previous ones. We also compared our own. Though a significant age gap existed between our generations, we had a great deal of similarities. We eventually came to the conclusion that my generation’s childhood was the end of an era, and like many generations, it is one of lasts. We were the last kids to grow up in a world where you could play football and hockey in the streets until the sun set, and then when it became too dark, could turn on flashlights and play tag into the night (‘Scorch’, as we called it). We were the last generation to knock on doors in the neighborhood to round up enough people to play games. We were the last to have entire neighborhoods as playgrounds. We still built forts in abandoned lots. We heard our parents call for dinner from the front porch.

We were the last generation to have all walked into schools without metal detectors. We still looked forward to a line-up of four good natured T.V. shows on Friday nights as the signature event of the week. We were the last to answer phone calls without knowing who was calling, to not be able to get a hold of someone directly, and to call a girl’s house and have to ask if so-and-so is available. We were the last to grow up and not be able to check where everyone is at any given time. We were the last to memorize phone numbers. We were the last to have to make detailed plans to meet up with a group and not be able to just call someone when you couldn’t find the meeting point or were running late.

We wrote notes the night before school and folded them perfectly and then had to wait until the morning to deliver them. And we even did it face to face (most of the time). We were the last to have blank cassette tapes ready to record music off the radio. We were the last to make mixed tapes. We were the last to go to drive-in movie theatres and theatres that weren’t in malls.

We were the last to have to ask another person questions about puberty and sex. We were the last to have to call friends or wait until school the next day if we forgot what our homework assignment was. We were the last to write papers longhand. We were the last to assume our parents would give the final word to the teacher. We were the last to depend on our parents and older siblings’ CD collection for music. We were the last to buy CD’s at a store, and for that matter, the last to have to own a song to listen to it. We were the last to have cords attached to controllers and computers that weren’t portable. We were the last to live in houses that didn’t have a computer at all. We were the last to use VCR’s and not be able to watch a T.V. show on our time schedule. We were the last to have to wait to tell someone something. We were the last to see a paperboy. We were the last to depend on our parents and trusted friends for answers. And we were the last to take someone’s word for it.

Kids today have so many advantages brought about by advancements in technology. I can no longer imagine living in a world without the internet. It is such a vital part of my daily life, but I feel lucky to have lived in a world before it, if for no other reason than to be able to compare the two worlds. But it is much more than that. I feel lucky because of all the things I didn’t have to do. I didn’t have to express and interpret emotions in emoticons. I didn’t have to wade through, or surf, through the internet at such a vulnerable age. I didn’t have to worry about being bullied even when no one was in sight. I didn’t have to learn at such a young age how few people can really be trusted fully. And I didn’t have to ask questions after getting answers.

And I could just play without having to feel like I was missing out on something--like the world was going on without me online.

People will always be owned by possessions, but now we are owned by a need to know and be in the know. We are owned by our fear of missing something.

Furthermore, technology has taken a complicated world and made it sophisticatedly complicated. It also made it possible to inflict harm in crueller and more sinister ways. Schoolyard fights were largely on the way out by the time I hit school, and I am not an advocate for physical violence by any means. However, which is worse: a fight on the playground or a public slandering on the web?

So many of the issues today have ties to technology, and specifically the internet. We give kids all the information and technology to be independent and mature, and we give them all the tools to communicate in such a manner, but we often fail to teach them how to communicate. Technology progressed and progressed and it all happened faster than parenting, teaching, and even the law could keep up with. We made a world that allows kids to talk incredibly easily and preferably without seeing each other. We put to rest the hallmarks of our own childhood for the sake of progress. Somewhere along the way it was forgotten that you can’t rush youth, and you shouldn’t try.


I grew up in the last generation before the internet-- a time when you had to talk to people landline to landline, paper note to paper note, face to face.

I grew up in the era before the world changed forever. Every generation remembers their own childhood to be a simpler, not easier, but simpler time than the one that follows, but that may never be truer than in this case.


I grew up in the last generation without all the answers.

…and that just may be the answer right there.





Note: In the coffee shop right now as I write this: 20 people, 7 exposed phones, 2 audible Facebook conversations, a couple next to me who has not spoken a word to each other in 25 minutes as they both thumb through their phones, and my favorite quote: “I just don’t understand what Susan means by this post.”

;)

Friday, February 3, 2012

My Best Self (Being alone in a crowded room)

I recommend listening to this song while reading this post.





A good friend of mine recently brought up the idea of being your ‘best self’. I’ve sort of been hooked on that concept in the days since.

What is our best self?

The idea inherently suggests that we have a self that we do not consider our best. A self that perhaps we are not proud of, or maybe one that we are not as comfortable with. Why does this self make us uncomfortable? Is it an issue of perception and subsequent judgment? Is it this judgment that we are uncomfortable with or even fear? Is it the specific people who are judging? While thinking about it, it is probably important to recognize that the initial judgment is our own, for we judge which self we are or were at the time--our best, or the person who is beneath that.

So this ‘best self’ of mine. Who is he? Is he the one that is confident? Is he the one that is outgoing? Is he the funny one? The one that other people like to be around? The winner? The one who sounds smart, or says the right things at the right time? The one who knows when to say nothing and listen? If I manage to embody any of these qualities, does that put me at my best?


I was at a cocktail party recently and while at a table seemingly involved in conversation with others, I couldn’t take my eyes off a man in the room. He walked around. That’s what he did. He walked around, never stopping, fearful that someone might notice that he was with no one. He shifted his hands from his pockets to his side and back to his pockets, in a subconscious routine. He walked with an over-exaggerated purpose, and I watched. I watched because I knew exactly what he was feeling, as I have been there countless times. So I sat at my table occasionally dropping a one-liner to appear engaged, but I couldn’t stop watching this man, alone in a crowded room.

Eventually, I lost track of him.

But I looked for him still, hoping that he had found his niche, but knowing that he most likely excused himself from the party.

It all reminded me of a novel I read, in which the author wrote of the evolution of communication. She divided the growth into ages. One she called “The Age of silence”. In it, she spoke of moments like this, the moments in which we feel uncomfortable. She called upon the reader to think about their hands in those situations and how we never know what to do with them, how they feel as though they are foreign to us. She suggested that this was our hands remembering an age before spoken communication. How they are longing to communicate, but we simply don’t know how to use this tool or perform this act anymore. We have evolved past it, but we still occasionally get caught between that and, well, words.

Maybe we evolved too far, or maybe we just think too much. We want to find the right words at the right time. We want to be our best self.

Again, who is my best self?

He is the guy who is honest. He gets uncomfortable at times, but he recognizes it, and he recognizes that others do too. He doesn’t second guess himself because he doesn’t need to if he is genuine and authentic, and he knows that if he is being either of these things, then he is being himself. That is the best self. The honest one.




“If at large gatherings or parties, or around people with whom you feel distant, your hands sometimes hang awkwardly at the ends of your arms - and you find yourself at a loss for what do with them, overcome with sadness that comes when you recognize the foreignness of your own body - it's because your hands remember a time when the division between mind and body, brain and heart, what's inside and what's outside, was so much less. ”
― Nicole Krauss, The History of Love


“When will you learn that there isn’t a word for everything?”
― Nicole Krauss, The History of Love


“Holding hands, for example, is a way to remember how it feels to say nothing together.”
― Nicole Krauss, The History of Love

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

It is. I am.

I was heading home from an aimless jaunt into the city center around an hour after sunset when I met two men. They introduced themselves, and we began to talk. We probably talked for a couple hours. I’m not really sure. It was one of those conversations I have come to treasure--the ones that fade the relevancy of time. When I got home, I just couldn’t shake two of the questions I’d been asked.


“How big is your community?”
“Where?” I asked
“Back home.”
I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by this. A slideshow of people ran through my mind, ranging from family, friends, students, colleagues, neighbors, baristas, and so on. I could make a case for all of these people being part of my community. I sought clarification.
“Whatcha mean?”
“Your community. Who is in it?” He responded.
This did very little to clear up my confusion. “Well, my community is very large. I’m not sure how to answer the question.” He looked at me the way an old professor looks at a new class of out-of-touch, naive freshmen and said, “Your community. Not everyone around you. The ones that get you. The ones that know who you really are. The ones you could go to at any time for anything. The ones you choose to spend your time with. The ones you keep closely updated on your life. The ones you see often enough to nearly call family.”
“Oh, ok. Let me think about it for a second.”
I took the lump sum of people from my earlier grouping and began to shrink that number--boiling water down to salt. I was thinking for about 30 seconds when he interrupted me and said, “This is taking too long. If they don’t come to mind right away, then that’s not what I am talking about mate.” He looked me in the eye and said slowly and encouragingly, “Now...how many people are in your community?”
I told him my number.

“That’s a good number,” he said.
“It is.”


Then he asked me a question I have been asked many times before, but this time stands apart from the others.
“Have you ever been in love?”
“Yes. I have.”
I can still see his face as he received my answer--the unmistakable expression of pure interest.
“How many times?”
I paused a full second and answered him. The conviction in my voice stunned me, but not as much as the number itself. In that moment, I was more honest with Sean than with any other person who has ever asked me that question, including myself.

“You are lucky,” he said.
“I am.”



I’m still not completely sure why I felt so comfortable offering him this personal answer. Maybe it was the directness of the question. Maybe it was the setting--a purely honest setting: sitting with our backs against a park bench, sharing a piece of cement sidewalk, shadowed and unnoticed, with two men who were wearing the only clothes they owned. Perhaps it was the person asking it--his genuine interest, as he had nothing to gain from my answer, no connections, no judgment. He could do absolutely nothing with it...except know, except relate. And maybe it was just me wanting to be honest.

Two genuine men asked me two real questions. They had no practical reason to do so, but they did anyway.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

With a rake in my hand...


The other day I was at a local pub grabbing something to eat and getting some work done. As I was leaving, I was drawn into a conversation about music with a gentleman as I walked by the bar. I had overheard him from my table, and couldn’t help but put in my two cents worth on the way out. After a few minutes, he asked me to pull up a stool, which I took to mean that I had proven myself to be a credible source on the matter.  I took the seat, and after about 20 minutes our conversation picked up a 3rd patron and shifted from music to other subjects, such as history, education, and ultimately sports. Being in Scotland and in the company of two avid golfers, we spoke for a great while on that sport. I know my golf, and can carry my own in a conversation, though I don’t play the game much myself. However, I clearly didn’t share the passion that these two had for it. After a while, we lost one of our trio, and it was just me and my new mate John.  Continuing from our golf conversation, he asked me what my sport was. I, of course, told him that my love was for the game of baseball.  Telling me that he was not very familiar with the game, he asked,

“Why is it that you love it so much?"

I started to answer quickly because it seemed to me like I should have a ready response for a game that I had devoted so much of my time and thoughts to over the years, but I was surprised to find that I had no idea how to answer the question.

I glanced at the ground just beyond John and thought for a long moment.

Then, tilting my head slightly to the side, a smile turning up the left side of my mouth, I began to explain.

I said, “John, yesterday was a beautiful day: one of those days where you feel guilty staying inside, but you aren’t really sure what to do with your time. So here’s what I did. I filled a thermos with coffee, grabbed a book, threw my glove in the car, and decided to drive down to the river. After about two hours of reading and lying in the sun, I decided to head home. As I was driving back, I passed by a park and remembered the glove sitting in the back seat. I pulled over and broke it out.  I spent about a half hour throwing myself pop-flies and attempted to finally perfect the behind the back catch I have been working on for nearly 20 years now. It was during this that I realized I hadn’t caught a ball in about 10 months, which is easily a personal record for me. I mean John, there was a time that going 2 days would have been unthinkable.” I let this point sink in for a moment, for both John and for myself. “It’s interesting how something can be so central to our lives and our identity for so many years, and then become completely withdrawn from us. Actually, I suppose we become withdrawn from it.” He nodded in thoughtful agreement. “That glove is as much a part of me as anything I have ever owned. I have had it since I was 11. I can remember the place and day that I got it. I can remember breaking it in with Crisco and a hot oven. It’s been with me ever since, and if at any point since that day you had asked me exactly where it was, I could tell you without thinking. It has survived easily over 10 moves in the past 15 years, and when I moved over here, my two gloves were the only items I took as a carry on.” This caused him to smile.

“This is where my love gets a bit irrational though. I want you to know that I realize this part will sound a bit crazy to you.” He nodded I go on and gave me a look of assurance that he would not judge.  I looked him right in the eye and said in a softer, more serious voice, “I will put it on now and then just for the feel and the smell. Not just any glove though, it has to be mine. It has to be the same leather that has accompanied me in every dugout I’ve set foot in. It has to be the one that has soaked up the sweat of my hand, the dirt of the fields, the salt of the seeds in my bag, and the must of the trunk of my high school car. You know how a smell takes you back in time? The smell of my glove does that for me. And to be honest, each time I go to scratch the palm and close my eyes to take in its fragrance, I am a little nervous that it won’t happen--that maybe this time the magic will be lost. You know the old saying that you can never go home? Do you remember the day that you found the truth in the statement?” I paused. “When you finally understood it?” pausing again. “I think a part of me is afraid that one day I will pick up that glove, rub the leather, inhale, and it will just be a smell.  There will be no memory of playing catch with my dad on the side of the house, or hearing him tell me to, ‘Throw the dark one,’ when I had a guy down 0-2…or seeing my parents in the stands of my high school ballfield…or being conned into doing the dishes or mow the lawn in order to play catch…or watching a Spokane summer sun set over a freshly raked diamond as the temperature falls the last degree to perfect. No… I fear that one day, I will simply take in the aroma of leather… The years of sweat, salt, dirt, and Flexall 454 will just be added to the leather, distinguishable, but not magical."

I paused to catch my breath and make sure I hadn’t lost him with that revelation.

“I have been abroad now for well over a year and there are many differences between here and home. I miss certain aspects of the states, but outside of the people, one thing stands out above all. Spring and summer came and went John. I could feel it in the air, but I didn’t hear bats cracking, or gloves popping, or metal cleats on pavement. Since I was little, I swear I have been able to smell the beginning of baseball season in the air. The game of baseball truly does make America special.”

He did his best to look like he understood, but both of us new we weren’t entirely in sync, so I tried to explain further.

“Sometimes I think that everyone should rake a diamond once in their life. But I suppose it wouldn’t have the same meaning. You have to feel an ownership of that piece of land. You have to have a history with it. Some of my favorite moments in baseball were the hour before and after each practice and game when I had a rake in my hand, and I thought about nothing but the game. It was during this time that I would rake the dish, the area around the plate. When I was out on the dirt I would enter a Zen-like state. Every grain of that dirt would be contoured to my approval. Certain parts were raked toward the mound to cause the ball to bounce high and others to cause a low skip. It was my canvas. (I realize at this point that I am talking more and more with my hands, and I put them to rest on the bar.) I understand that it was mostly mental, but to me it meant that this little piece of land was mine, and I could manipulate it to do whatever I needed. It gave me an edge. It gave me a sense of control.” Then, looking like someone who just realized that they had been in love with their best friend for years, I said aloud, “Like no other place in the world, that particular piece of dirt allowed me, without fail, to find perspective. Not just about baseball. It gave me a feeling of peace.”

John looked at me inquisitively and with thick skepticism. “But you must admit it’s a rather boring game, right?” he said.

“No, John. It isn’t. Just recently I remember saying that I am beginning to accept that there are people who don’t love the game of baseball and can’t comprehend it as being beautiful, but I don’t understand it.  I’m guessing you don’t feel that way either. But you have an excuse since it isn’t played over here. For the others, I think it must be because they don’t see the game. They may have been to games, but they don’t see the game. To love it, you have to see the intricacies of each pitch and the constant focus of each player on the field at any given time: an orchestra waiting for the sound of the first note. You have to see a catcher stand up in the 9th with 1 finger in the air and yell out orders,
 “1Down-CornersIn4To1-RollaPairInTheMiddle-OutfieldDoOrDie-WhaddaYaSayNow.”
You have to see how the catcher’s muted conversation with the pitcher over the location and type of pitch about to be thrown dictates the movement of all 9 defensive players. And you‘d have to see the factors that weigh in on this decision, such as the count, the outs, the batter’s tendencies, his position in the box, the runners on base, the pitcher’s repertoire, the pitcher’s fatigue, the score, the inning, and most importantly, where they want the guy to hit the ball.  Only when you are able to see everything can you understand how a 2-1 ballgame can be so enthralling that you lose sight of anything beyond the walls. And only then can you honestly describe it as beautiful.

I realized that this last rant did not explain it well enough for him, or maybe it just bothered me that it had only scratched what I was trying to get at. It didn’t explain the passion. So I continued.

“And I suppose you need to know what it looks like, or hell what it feels like, to catch a guy taking off from first base out of the corner of your eye. You have to know what it feels like to win that moment. That challenge. Sport at its finest—when it is the most simple: A runner challenging you that he can get to the bag before you can throw a ball there. It’s simple; it’s beautiful. And it’s most beautiful because he was out by 2 feet before he began running because for the last 2 pitches you have been watching his every move and you called the perfect pitch up and away with just enough velocity, because you knew he was stealing before he did. Then you get to know what it feels like to watch your opponent trot back to the dugout across the diamond knowing that everyone is watching him, including you, so that you can lock eyes with him for just a moment--just long enough to turn up the left side of your mouth and use your glance to say, ‘That’s right.’ And like he never existed, you crouch down and go about your business with the next guy.

Now and then, I’ll pick that glove up and study it. I can see the variations of its original state. The different colored laces from when they busted my junior year of high school and the old man at the repair shop rethreaded it. (Yes, a baseball glove repair shop. Find one of those these days.) The man who worked out of a little shop and who couldn’t have been making any money at this outdated trade. The man who when I came to pick it up, asked me to catch him up on the local baseball scene and then didn’t charge me for the repair.  And if I look closer, on the thumb of the glove are all of the phone numbers that I have ever had, written in pen, faded, but legible: a written record of our journey. And on the heel are the scratch marks of many years of trying to rub off the etching of Jose Conseco’s signature because I could never get over the fact that the worst fielder in history had his name on my glove.

Even now, I’ll examine it and bury my face in its webbing. The smell always takes me back as I had hoped. Each time it is different and unpredictable. It may be to when my childhood friend, Chris, and I used to play catch at our dads’ softball games. Or maybe it will be when I made 3 errors in one game against East Valley, and I swore into my glove so many times that if it had emotions, it would be scarred to this day. Or maybe when I heard my high school girlfriend say my name from behind the backstop and I realized I was in love for the first time. Or maybe when a dear friend called me to the mound before the last inning he would ever pitch to share a few words with me that I will never forget, in a moment that still gives me chills to think about. Or maybe when I sat in the stands behind the dugout in May of 2003 trying to imagine what my life would be like without this game. Or maybe it will just be a random Monday practice, warming up down the line, talking about who hooked up with whom over the weekend and what an ass so and so is. It doesn’t matter. I loved it all. Every damn bit of it.

You see John, the way I see it, we like sports for many reasons. But those who love them, love them for the purity--the simplicity. In a life that has so many choices and so many ambiguities and so many factors and so many muddy consequences, sports offer rules and boundaries and finite ends. But all of these qualities are just the foundation that allows us to experience the great rewards of the game: the relationships, the memories, the adversity, the pain, the accomplishment, the joy, our childhood. 

We spend our time in many places and settings as we get older, but some allow us to grow more than others.

I came of age on the diamond."



I could have said all of this to John as I sat next to him on that stool. But I would have still felt the way I do now: like I didn’t even get close.

So instead, after he asked me that question, I glanced at the ground, eventually tilting my head slightly to the side, a smile turning up the left side of my mouth and said the only answer I could think of,
      
“Because it’s more than just a game.”