I lost my father five years ago. I lost my mother five months ago. Both experiences remain equally painful. Somehow, time has done nothing to mitigate the heaviness I carry with me. I am told it will, yet I continue to be incredulous. Turning the pages of a calendar changes nothing. None of the life-death cycle makes any sense to me, especially the paradoxical reality that there is nothing heavier than emptiness.
That’s far more philosophical than I tend to be. But I’ve done a lot of thinking the last few years. Soul searching, if you will. I’ve asked all the questions that one in this unenviable situation tends to ask. What is the meaning of all of it? Is there really life beyond this world? Will I get to see my parents again? How will I ever feel normal again when the two people who anchored my world are no longer here? And like all of those before me who have uttered the very same questions, I have yet to discover any answers.
The loss of my mother and father has created a feeling in me of being set adrift – a tiny boat suddenly severed from its moorings. I feel somewhat confused and unsteady. The world is a very different place when your parents are gone. You see it very differently. Suddenly, I am no longer just living my life– I am thinking about it. A lot. Some days, it’s all I can do.
Becoming an adult orphan has engendered much contemplation of everything that is me, including my own mortality. That is a sobering thought, one that I had managed to escape until recently. Now, I can think of little else. As such, I’ve taken some time to reflect on my own life – where I’ve been, where I am presently and of course where it is that I go from here. I realize, with more than a little uneasiness, that I am only okay with the first part. I can honestly say that I am pleased with what has been. I have a beautiful family for which I am most grateful, a successful teaching career and the good fortune of having published five novels. I’ve enjoyed many other blessings as well. Life has been good to me. In fact, I can’t think of one thing that I’ve attempted to achieve and not been able to.
Here’s a horrible truth, something I have not shared with anyone until right now. This is it. I am no good at grieving.
Now I’m not being melodramatic or super critical of myself. It’s simply the truth. I am no good at grieving. I say this only because others I talk to seem to be . Or at the very least, they appear to be better at it than I am. They offer advice and encouragement that suggests they have figured it all out. I’m envious. This advice many are eager to share comes in the form of statements like you’ll forget about it one day or you have to just let it go and move on. I listen to their words, politely, respectfully. I suppose they mean well. But while I understand what they are saying, I remain doubtful there is any truth there. I know better. Most often I am unsure if the person dispensing the advice has suffered any loss of his or her own although in many instances I’m inclined to think they have not. Either way, the exchange always leaves me feeling inadequate somehow and in need of offering an explanation to all who observe the distant look in my eyes and the dark rings that lie just below before making the same inquiry – Frank, are you okay?
This question has been asked so many times that my response to it has become involuntary, almost robotic. Yes, I’m alright. That is all I ever say. I find it just comes out now, no thinking required. And once it’s said, the conversation typically ends there. Life resumes its normal flow.
What I really want to say when I’m asked if I’m okay is the following: No, I am not okay. I have not been okay for quite some time now. I want to disclose to every person who expresses interest in my well-being what it’s like to carry around this emptiness – how regardless of where I go and with whom I spend my time, it’s always right behind me. How it hangs on my shoulders, this invisible backpack that’s filled with sadness, fear, regret, longing, desperation, uncertainty, memories, love and so much more. I want to explain that while not visible to the casual observer, it’s still there. Even though I get up every day and go to work, and on occasion venture out socially as well, it’s still there. I want to reveal that I never take it off. Regrettably, it goes with every outfit, regardless of color or style. And those straps - the ones some might suggest I slide off in order to relieve the burden – they have become one with the bones and muscles that support the enormous load. When asked that question, Are you okay?, I want to be perfectly honest and say that while the weight in my backpack does feel lighter sometimes when I sit or sleep, the little relief I get is fleeting; it’s only a matter of time before the hardship and strain return. I want to discuss how I’m trying to move forward, to be strong, but that my legs don’t move as fast anymore. I’d like to describe how the color in everything all around me seems to have been drained. Even the photographs to which I cling now so desperately seem to have faded to black and white. It’s all different. My favorite chocolate cake does not taste as sweet anymore. The constellations are dimmed and all of my favorite songs sound as though they are being played in the wrong key. This is my new reality. I’m not sure how long it will be this way. So please forgive me if the question Are you over all of this yet? receives nothing more than a silent stare tinged with a brush of contempt.
Conventional wisdom dictates that life is for the living and that being mired in the past is unhealthy. I not only accept this as truth I embrace it. There is much to love and appreciate in this world. Montauk sunsets. Walks in the rain, the New York City skyline viewed from the 59th Street Bridge and the sound of a child laughing. There’s the warmth of the summer sun, music, flowers and the smell of a cool ocean breeze. And of course there are moments with loved ones still here, those that light our path when life’s more typical challenges leave us feeling weak and forlorn.
Still, despite the beauty and brilliance that this world has to offer, some like me are left no choice but to trudge a bit through these wonderful moments. To lug the backpack with us every step of the way. It’s not by choice. There’s no negotiating with grief.
So when you see this happening to me or anyone else who is grieving for a loved one, be sensitive and kind. Reserve judgment. Don’t critique and don’t feel compelled to impose a better way of toting the load. True, all of us experience loss. But it’s important to remember that not everyone has the same shoulders.
Some time ago, I published a piece in Newsday’s “500 Words or Less” column. It occurs to me, years later, that the sentiments I was trying to impart to local readers are even more apropos – dare I say urgent – than they were when I first sat down to craft the mini essay.
I began by explaining that the greatest responsibility that all high school English teachers have is to illustrate the many parallels between literature and life. Despite the adolescent contention that the classics are dull, antiquated works, literature has the ability to transcend time; it possesses an uncanny knack for evoking insights into the human condition, thereby assisting in the governing of our lives in a more mindful, meaningful manner.
With deference to Father Time, the words of the classic writers remain pertinent today and on occasion actually reveal themselves as being even more relevant than the day they were first penned.
I often consider this when I am in the midst of teaching works like The Great Gatsby or Huckleberry Finn. But never is the connection between literature and life more real to me than when I am discussing Henry David Thoreau’s Walden with my classes. Invariably, the focus of the lecture shifts to lamentations over the transformation of the few undisturbed parcels of earth in my South Shore community into 7-Elevens and Dunkin’ Donuts. This fixation with developing the landscape has created an aesthetic suffocation and also raised compelling questions.
Why must these overzealous capitalists continue to exploit the Earth’s natural beauty? These entrepreneurs journey through life myopically, concerned only with the execution of a deal. Why do we need another CVS or McDonald’s when all we really crave is a little grass and a few trees? It is for this reason that I now find myself spending a lot more time on Long Island’s North Shore, in towns like Cold Spring Harbor and Lloyd Neck, where the topography affords natural barriers to this urban blight.
Perhaps if every business major was required to read Mr. Thoreau in addition to Adam Smith, this exploitation would cease to exist – or at least be mitigated somewhat. Walden is arguably the most poignant celebration of Nature’s aesthetic value and her therapeutic power. It allows us to see that the most valuable land is that which remains in its natural form, undisturbed by blueprints.
Nature’s simplicity offers us a mirror in which the reflection of our lives is cast. In it we define who we are, from whence we came, and where we are headed. Nature restores perspective, reminding us of our position in the natural world. This is, as Thoreau contends, essential to everyone’s happiness and well-being.
Obviously I realize that in the teenage mind, the mini-mall ranks substantially higher in the adolescent hierarchy than a tip-toe through the tulips. These young people, however, will one day mature and need Nature and all she has to offer. It is our charge as adults to share with the next generations the value of hills, lakes and trees – to dispel the belief that these things are superfluous and not really an essential part of our lives.
This should not be too difficult to sell. Curiously enough, this same contingent that treats Nature with irreverence flocks to lakes, mountains and beaches with their families each summer to “get away from it all.” If Thoreau were alive today, he would probably want to know why these people can’t simply enjoy the gifts of Nature all year – why they don’t just make Nature a part of their everyday lives.
The recent Rolling Stone article about Ben Schlappig and his pretty extensive efforts to outwit the airlines and collect enough air miles to support a transcontinental lifestyle, had me thinking about the evolution of the art of collecting; not just what is collected, but how it’s collected. While there has been some dispute over the veracity of all that Rolling Stone reported in that piece, there is no arguing that dedicated collectors take their work pretty seriously, even if that collection is of something as intangible as air miles. Those not inclined to collect “things” have a hard time understanding just what this practice is all about.
There are those who collect stamps. Philatelists. Those who collect old coins. Numismatists. And others who find joy in collecting bottle caps, Pez dispensers, or baseball cards. Unfortunately there are no cool monikers for them. I even knew a man who saved every one of his five children’s baby teeth! Each of these collections in certainly unique in its own regard and as such possesses its own merit, but the art of collecting has been transformed in the digital age.
An activity that used to spurn spontaneous road trips down the interstate now occurs mostly on the information superhighway. Although the desire to collect may not have been diminished, the means through which one curates a collection today certainly has, and I would argue the pursuit has become less interesting and a lot less adventurous. Save of course for Mr. Schlappig whose collection has allowed him to circumnavigate the globe 16 times. But for the average Joe, goodbye neighborhood garage sale strolling, hello online yard sale trolling courtesy of Facebook.
A quick search of #collector or #collecting on twitter reveals just how large the online “collecting community” is and just how varied the items being sought. There are posts seeking first edition books and old rare dolls. Calls for vinyl records or political campaign buttons of elections long lost. Collecting provides one with a sense of accomplishment and perhaps a special connection to one’s past. It can be a way of remembering something fondly, arresting the passage of time momentarily while you revel in isolated memories that these objects you deem to collect conjure.
Serious collectors had always been fascinating creatures to observe. But now collecting has become more of a private affair with the ease and anonymity of websites such as eBay. It used to be that collectors would go to extraordinary lengths and implement some rather unusual strategies in their quest to procure their collectible booty. True collectors would languish for hours in a hotel lobby with pens poised, lugging around duffle bags filled with baseball paraphernalia while waiting for a glimpse of and opportunity to procure a signature from a favorite player. Some would drive for hours in response to a newspaper ad placed by someone claiming to have vintage soda bottles for sale, even though the address listed did not exist on any map. Where are these interesting souls, who were willing to sweat a little and get creative in their hunt?
I myself have accumulated quite a collection of autographed Sports Illustrated covers over the years - although I’m not sure I have gone to the lengths that serious collectors do to obtain a most coveted item. My love affair with the signed SI covers began innocently enough. I was given a my first cover for my birthday - a Tom Seaver beauty that dated April 18, 1983 that boasts the headline “You Can Go Home Again.” It was colorful and alive. The signature was bold and crisp. I was hooked. Since then, covers with names like Rose, Bench, Brett, Aaron, Ripken, Jackson and so many others have found their way on the walls of my office. All have been obtained the traditional way - at the ballpark or at public signings. Well, all except one. My Nolan Ryan cover was obtained in a rather unorthodox manner. But reports of me dressed as part of the wait staff at the hotel he was staying at are pure conjecture and have never been substantiated.
Despite what some non-collectors might say, or the judgment passed from those not in the know, it is healthy to indulge ourselves occasionally. Well most of the time. When speaking of air mile collections, Randy Peterson, the founder of Flyertalk.com said, “He who dies with the most miles wins.” Hmmmm. That doesn’t sound much like winning. Nevertheless, each time we “find” something that is special to us, we somehow manage to grab hold of our past, and relish, no matter how fleeting, the sweet smell of success.
Any time devoted to collecting your favorite item, even air miles, is time well spent. It is just time spent a little differently these days. The only way for a skeptic to truly comprehend the value of collecting is to become a collector. Wish the newbies well, and pray that they don’t choose your collectibles, or at the very least that their Wi-Fi connection is faulty.
America no longer has the time to enjoy America’s past time.
Major League Baseball has announced that it will begin experimenting with a pitch clock at the Double-A and Triple-A levels this season after having tested it in the Arizona Fall League last year. The reason? Apparently, baseball games are just too long.
Someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but aren't leisure activities endeavors that we enjoy? And doesn't human nature dictate that when we enjoy something, we want it to last longer and that we lament the moment when inevitably the enjoyment has to end? If so, then how can baseball games be too long for baseball fans?
Do moviegoers ask the theater to fast forward to the end of a film, just to get to the conclusion in an expedited fashion? Are true book lovers spurred on by how quickly they can fly through the pages of a novel or rather by how long they can remain enveloped in the story? How often is a Caribbean vacation cut short a day or two, just because the vacationers have had enough of the sun and sand?
The answer to each of these questions is no. Why? Because we are always rushing. The point of leisure activities is to do them leisurely. And the longer we are away from the usual grind, the better. Thus, this whole pitch clock proposal presents quite a curious paradox. If we love baseball, and all it has to offer us, how can the games be too long?
Enough with the rushing everyone. Do we really want to make baseball games just like the rest of our lives?
Baseball is a welcome respite from our disposable, frenetic, instant gratification mentality where the beauty of one moment is sacrificed unmercifully just for the sake of the one right behind it. What ever happened to being in the moment, of appreciating what is in front of us before looking for our next diversion? Remember when we used to revel in the ballpark experience, singing whimsically,“buy me some peanuts and crackerjacks, I don’t care if I ever get back”? What happened? Now all I seem to be hearing is “Hurry up out there. I have a thousand other things to do.”
Anybody out there who really understands the game of baseball will insist that Major League Baseball pull the plug on the pitch clock. It only makes sense. What is it that separates our national past time from the other sports we watch so dutifully throughout the year? Maybe some reflection is needed here before implementing any monumental alterations that are slowly encroaching on the sanctity of a storied institution.
Baseball has no clock. That’s sort of the point. Like life itself, baseball has an inherent order and structure. But the game also remains wonderfully capricious, offering moments in time that are blissfully incomprehensible and so intoxicating for no other reason than we never saw them coming. Where would my beloved ’86 New York Mets be today without that miraculous game 6 comeback, made possible by the game being unfettered by time? That’s always been the beauty of baseball. Time does not matter. Baseball, unlike timed sporting events, offers us a glimpse into a world where anything is possible. And with no clock ticking away with cold detachment, those possibilities remain endless. This kinship we have with the game of baseball was best celebrated by Roger Angell in “The Interior Stadium.”
“Within the ballpark, time moves differently, marked by no clock except the
events of the game. Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have
to do is succeed utterly; keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You
remain forever young.”
Baseball time. It is what all of us long for. To be governed by the tenets of the game and not some time piece that imposes limitations. The reality of our every day lives is that we are always on the clock. It dictates everything we do and often interferes with our ability to find peace and happiness. We commiserate with each other every opportunity we have. “I am just so busy, do not have enough time, blah, blah, blah.” So why make it worse? A pitch clock will do just that. We go to baseball games to escape our reality, not to be reminded of it.
Lost in all of the discussion remains why rule 8.04 has never been enforced. For those unfamiliar with this piece of baseball legalese, here is what it looks like:
When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter
within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call "Ball."
Rule 8.04 has never been invoked during play for until now, baseball folks have recognized the value of those seconds - whether it be 12, 18, or 25. Part of baseball’s pageantry, albeit cerebral and not observable to the casual spectator, is the “cat and mouse” that exists between pitcher and batter. Pitch selection is not arbitrary; it requires thought and methodology. And thought and methodology require time. Batters also benefit from that time, adjusting their approach to each pitch while the pitcher and catcher are deciding on a course of action. A pitch clock would all but destroy the artful machinations that occur during the time a pitcher receives a ball back from the catcher and when he is ready to deliver once again. Pitchers may also argue, and rightfully so, the sudden rush to action could even marginalize their performance.
Both effects are enough to make Major League Baseball abandon this foolish idea.
I cannot help but think about my fire-balling protagonist from my The Legend of Mickey Tussler series. Poor Mickey never would have made it out of his first inning if he had to worry about navigating a pitch clock. Pitchers control the game for reason.
Video replay has already tattered the fabric of the game; pushing pitchers to compete with a clock, will completely unravel it.
I have the solution for how to improve the game of baseball. Stop tampering with it. Major League Baseball’s time would be better served extolling the attributes of the game that make it unique rather than trying to change them.