Below is an excerpt from a story I wrote three years ago called “The Wink”. The story, set in 1994, recounts a championship baseball game I played in and serves as a tribute to my father. He turns 63 this week.
…At the height of the evening’s drama, dad looked down the first base line and into my soul. The sun sank behind the tree line. Crickets hummed. Fingers crossed. All those eyes locked on me– the players, the crowd, the entire cast of 90210. A swirl of voices screaming at me “C’mon Jay” and “You ain’t nothing”.
I felt myself collapsing under the weight of my own adolescences. Failing at 14, on this stage, would be cataclysmic and undoubtedly afford my parents years of monthly psychiatrist co-pays.
Dad knelt and ran his hand across the points of grass. Then, as subtle as the advent of the moon and as natural as the setting sun he winked at me.
I climbed back into the batter’s box, choked up on the bat and shortened my stance. Just like dad had taught.
The pitcher reared back.
The ball tinkled off the bat and rolled toward the dead space between the pitcher’s mound and first base.
I dropped the bat and tore down the first base line. The first baseman retreated to the base. The pitcher leaped off the mound.
Dad was still kneeling. The sun at his back. Helplessly watching his son struggle in a world full of giants.
The evening sky erupted in a collective burst of cheers and moans.
Dad moved in behind me and put his hand on the small of my back and calmly said, “Check your signs.”
I looked across the infield. The Pirate (our 3rd base coach) ran his right hand down his left sleeve.
On the next pitch I took off for second.
On the next pitch the best hitter on our team, Brian, a 7th grader who had hit puberty long before I did, ripped the next pitch out to right-center.
I sprinted toward third. The Pirate hopping up and down waving me home.
Things were quiet in the car.
Every so often dad and I would look at each other and smile. Still speaking in signals.
As we rounded the corner and headed home I asked,
“Dad, why did you wink at me?”
I felt the weight of the championship trophy in my hands. The sky shifted into deep purple. Single suburban houses with yellow porch lights flicked by.
Dad looked across the car and said, “Because I believe in you.”
We slid into the driveway. Safe from the scrutiny of the world. Dad and I sat sharing the silence. Smiling at life.
Dad cut the engine. I looked up at him. His eyes moved toward mine.
And then somehow it becomes 2014.
There were many nights when I convinced myself Write on Fight on would never happen. When I would fall into myself and teeter on the edge of failure.
When I thought it would not be worth the work. When my kids pined for attention or when I couldn’t muster the energy to find a single word that satisfied me. When the blank Word document was as menacing as a strapping pitcher with facial hair and a propensity for destroying twerps like me.
Sometimes I failed. Sometimes I didn’t swing.
Then sometimes I see a baby-faced 14 year old boy in baggy blue baseball pants standing in the on-deck circle. His head rattling in an oversized helmet. Scared out of his skull. Scared of everything. And I see my father- a young man, strong and proud. He genuflects in the sweet green grass with the sun behind him and he winks at me and admires me the way fathers secretly admire their sons.
Then the pitch comes.
And I’m scared.
But I swing.
It’s 2005 and I’m sitting at the kitchen table leafing through The Philadelphia Inquirer. Mom is at the stove whipping eggs. The coffee percolates and the TV weather man urges us to keep the umbrellas handy.
Mom whirls around, offers me a plate of bacon and eggs and tussles my hair. I’m 25 and in a few weeks Cindy and I make settlement on a little house to start our little lives together.
It’s a scary and exciting season in my life. And as seasons go, you never understand their significance until many seasons have passed. Until you realize that your past experiences were preparing you to deal with future problems.
As I eat my eggs, my eyes find an advertisement in the paper for an amateur stand-up comedy contest for teachers sponsor by Chuckles Comedy Club. The contest boasts a $1000 grand prize and the honor of being crown “Philadelphia’s Funniest Teacher.”
It happens to all of us–when the gleam of a possibility arrives we’re electrified by the “What if…?”. Our heart quickens, our speech is fast and light and our imagination is seduced by the promise of grandiose achievements.
I see my name in big black letters stamped on a glowing theater marquee. Jay-Z is standing behind a microphone. He calls my name and “Big Pimpin” breaks over the speakers that causes a thunderous cacophony of applause and screams and women faint and men nod in respect and admiration as I saunter across the glossy stage. There are fireworks and acrobats. Beyonce is there. I’m standing behind a microphone basking under a solitary stage light. My jokes inspire walls of riotous laughter that roll in like waves. I smile, my eyes glint in the spotlight and as I slide my hand in pocket I realize that I’m the envy of everyone in the room.
I snap open my flip phone (remember it’s 2005) and dial but before I punch in the last number something happens. Something always happens in the moments before you leap, before you dive into an unknown world.
“What if I fail?”
My heart quickens.
“What if no one laughs?”
A nervousness flutters in my stomach.
“What if I’m booed off stage like B Rabbit the first time he’s at The Shelter?”
I see the black letters of my name melting like wax on the marquee. I’m on a glossy stage, behind a microphone, under a column of light. My eyes are wide, darting. I open my mouth but nothing comes out. I’m sweating and shifting my weight and there’s silence. A hard, loud silence that you feel more then hear. I look to my right and Jay -Z storms toward me, stops and pegs me in the ear with Beyonce’s sparkled stiletto. The spotlight clicks off and I’m alone on stage, cupping the side of my head, drowning in silent darkness of my failure.
I’m looking at the incomplete phone number and I feel the Four Horsemen of Failure: Concern, Doubt, Distrust, and Fear charging hard towards me.
I tighten my lips, snap close the phone, finish my eggs and convince myself it was a dumb idea and I would’ve failed miserably and I’m better off not risking the embarrassment.
For the next few days, between eating eggs and packing boxes I was gnawed by the familiar “What if..?” paradigm.
“Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.”– Ralph Waldo Emerson
And then, hours before the sign-up deadline, in a fit of either insanity or brilliance, I simply thought, “Fuck it. Even if I fail, mom will still make me eggs and Cindy will (hopefully) still marry me.”
This time, I snapped open my phone with confidence, punched in all seven numbers, left a message and a few hours later, a gruff voice called me and told me I was to report to Timothy’s Bar and Grill in West Chester, Pennsylvania next Saturday at 8 pm and that I would be the first comedian of the night. Gruff voice explained that the contest was a single elimination, three round contest. The best comedian advancing each week until the final round.
My stomach bottomed out. A streak of hot panic blazed up my chest.
For the next few days I jousted with the Horsemen. I wrote jokes, erased jokes, and threw out jokes. I watched hours of stand-up which only ballooned my self-doubt. I listened intently to the cackles of my inner critic. I entertained the idea of not showing up. Calling it off. Running away to Mexico. And I was convincing myself I was going to fail and that this simply wasn’t worth the effort or the embarrassment.
Days before the show all I had was a trashcan full of unfunny quips about relationships, politics, drive-thru windows and old people.
I’m 25 but look like I’m 18. In fact, as a teacher I was often mistaken as a student by both teachers and students. So I thought if I filleted my insecurities, if I had the courage to make fun of myself that people may laugh, at me or with me, either way I didn’t care.
So I committed to writing a 3 minute set about my insecurities.
My boyish looks, my fear of Victoria’s Secret and my pubic hair.
I felt that if I had the audacity to talk about the most private of things in public I had a good chance on winning or at least earn the “Effort Award.”
But then the strangest thing happened– my self-deprecating jokes were not only good enough to win the first round, I road them all the way to the final where (triumphant trumpet sound) I was but crowned “Philadelphia’s Funniest Teacher.”
I spent the next few months doing open mic nights, earning a little stage time, bombing some nights, killing others but ultimately I decided to hang up the microphone.
12 years later, when I hear the galloping Horsemen I return to the lessons learned that season. I’m reminded that despite my initial fear I didn’t die.
Of course, I didn’t know it at the time but my experience with stand-up comedy was laying the foundation for what I attempt do every week on this blog (without the 2 drink minimum). I attempt to tell my story truthfully, unadorned to entertain anyone who’s awesome enough to stop by and listen.
We often forget we’re just animals in fancy clothes and funny hats. When we sense fear, our primal instincts kick in and we run. But as the smartest animal in the schoolyard, we know that avoiding fear will only compound fear. And we also know that those who avoid risks will spend their entire lives just dangling from the monkey bars.
I’m on Flight 1990 from Philadelphia to Puerto Rico and in the middle of reading The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson when a panicked voice breaks over the intercom, “CODE RED, CODE RED!!!”
A worried stewardess rushes up the aisle.
A nervous current catches and spreads across the cabin.
Passengers rise from their seats, careening necks out into the aisle.
“CODE RED! CODE RED!”
My buddy Pete, is on my left, middle seat, slips out his ear buds, looks around then looks at me.
“What’s going on?”
“It’s a CODE RED.”
“What’s a CODE RED?”
I don’t know but…
Another stewardess hustles down the aisle, passes our row and disappears into the back of the plane.
The cabin air turns soupy. The muddled passenger chatter becomes clearer in pitch and panic.
“What’s going on?”
“What’s a CODE RED?”
The stewardess who disappeared reemerges in the aisle. She is holding a red duffel bag. Her eyes are wide and she’s out of breath, “Just stay in your seats, PLEASE!”
Pete’s eyes grow wide, “CODE RED. That doesn’t sound good.”
A few hours earlier, Cindy is watching me pack a suitcase, arms crossed, and chewing her bottom lip.
“Jay, what time is your flight again?”
“Text me when you land?”
“You’re going to be ok? Right?”
I jam a few t-shirts in the suitcase, look up and smile, “Relax, I’ll be fine.And plus, if something goes wrong while we’re 10,000 feet in the air there’s not a lot I can do.”
“Stop it! Don’t say that. You know how I hate planes.”
Cindy moves across the room, her eyes fill and she hugs me as I wonder if I packed enough t-shirts to last me through the trip.
Another nervous stewardess rushes past us with a red duffel bag in her hand. Pete and I look at each other.
I turn toward the window. A blast of pale white light slices through the clouds, through my little window and I hear Cindy’s distant, nervous voice asking, “You’re going to be ok? Right?”
As CODE RED chaos swirls about the cabin, I attempt to distract myself by leafing through The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and conveniently find the line…
I see practical enlightenment as becoming comfortable with the idea that some suffering is always inevitable–no matter what you do, life is comprised of failure, loss, regrets and even death.
I scan the cabin, look out the window into the blinding pale light, listen to the nervous twang of my fellow passengers and privately ask, “Is this one of those times? Should I get comfortable?”
The last few years of my life have taught me that
sometimes a lot of times things get, as Manson writes, “fucked up” –like a “CODE RED” on an airplane floating 10,00 miles above the Atlantic Ocean.
And in these moments,when you’re at the mercy of fate and circumstance, our power resides simply in how we respond to such circumstances. Consequently, this is both empowering and unnerving.
Life is like this flight I’m on. It’s expensive and uncomfortable and suddenly when everything seems to be gliding along, you’ve got a CODE RED on you’re hands. You panic. You sweat. You loss your breath. There’s nothing you can really do about it. And you realize that you and this plane ride is a beautiful metaphor.
Because most of my pain (and probably your’s) is caused when we try, with all our human strength, to control the uncontrollable.
Manson attests that life would be much more fulfilling and joyful if we simply stopped, “giving a fuck about things beyond our control”. Like people’s opinions, or how much money our neighbor makes, or if your plane is experiencing a CODE RED.
If you don’t mind obscenity, if you’re looking for some honest, tough-love perspective that will both tug at your heart strings and punch you in the gut, then I would recommend Manson’s book.
And in case your flying American Airlines in the future, a CODE RED is a medical emergency. In the case of Flight 1990, a girl fainted. I saw her at baggage claim. She was fine.
Maybe screaming “CODE RED” over an airplane intercom is a bit excessive.
Because, “CODE RED” translates to ” WE’RE UNDER ATTACK… SAVE YOURSELVES!!!” ( Or at least it does in my mind.)
Also A.A.– maybe you should consider changing CODE RED to something less alarming, something less likely to cause mid-air heart palpitations, something subtle and unassuming like “Elmer Fudd” or “Banana Pancakes.” or better yet, “Elmer Fudd eating banana pancakes.” Just a thought.
16 years ago I’m jammed in a Penn State frat house with my buddies Pete, Jack and a few hundred other rambunctious Nittany Lions.
There’s cans of Natty Light and shots of Jagermeister and a cover band thrashing through a version of Blink 182’s “What’s My Age Again?” in the living room.
We’re young and thin and wild and drunk and clueless and unconcerned with mortality and consequences.
Suddenly, 16 years later, Pete, Jack and I are crammed, shoulder-to-shoulder Puerto Rican nightclub. La Factoria is a decaying factory that was converted into a labyrinth of bars, cocktail rooms and dance floors. The three of us, each a little softer around the waist, stand in a tight circle like we had done 16 years earlier. Our shirts are collared and tucked. Pete is bald. Jack is sporting streaks of gray. And I take the same medication as my 63 year old father.
The speakers thump Hispanic dance music. No lyrics. No chorus. Just a relentless thump thump thump that instigates an earthquake in my prostate. We shout about how loud and how crowded it is, how it’s hard to breathe and how young these “kids” look.
We look out of place. We look like we should be on a golf course. Or waiting in line for cornbread at the Golden Corral.
We acknowledge that La Factoria’s emergency doors are not properly marked and there’s exposed wiring snaking across the ceiling. Above the thump, someone shouts, “What if there’s a fire?” We shake our heads. We stretch our legs. Someone yawns. Someone checks their watch. We calculate the hours of sleep we could get if somehow, in this very nook of time, by clicking our loafer heels we would be magically delivered and tucked into the embrace of our clean hotel bed sheets.
Over the course of the weekend Pete and I held a semi-serious conversation about making good decisions. A conversation that began when we had the intelligence to forego shots of some back alley Puerto Rican liquor distilled in a spackle bucket.
Pete and I have a long history of bad decisions and spackle bucket liquor that when we finally made a collectively good decision, we were so excited, so proud that we called our wives the next morning and told them all about it.
And yes, in the star-spangled eyes of the United States of America–we’re both adults.
I know (and certainly feel) that I’m not 20 years old anymore (just writing “Jagermeister” gives me chills) but it’s hard for me to believe I’m 36.
It just sounds so mature and sophisticated and yet I find myself thinking, “Ok, so I’m 36, like when do I officially become an adult?”
I don’t know.
Maybe you become an adult when you truly understand that your choices have consequences.
Or maybe when you accept that your choices are your responsibility.
Or maybe when you attest that every choice you make is fixed with some weight of importance.
Or maybe when you finally have the maturity to realize that your choices are a reflection of who you are.
Or maybe, just maybe, even though our bellies swell, our eyesight diminishes and our bladders cop an attitude– no one actually ever grows up.
I wanted to write a post themed on why during these days of political and social turmoil it’s crucial to reminder yourself that…
“Yes Dylan, I’ll get you a drink.”
…to breath and to remind you that it’s moments of great emotional discomfort that…
“Yes, Chase 7 plus 8 is 15.”
…provide us with an opportunity for growth. And we must remind ourselves that…
“No, Haley this is how you spell continent…c-o-n-t-i-n-e-n-t”
“Yes, Dylan mommy is in the shower.”
“Yes, Chase you can have a bowl of Fruit Loops.”
“No, Dylan you can’t go outside.”
“No, Dylan you can’t watch TV.”
“No, Chase I didn’t get your Fruit Loops yet.”
“Why? Because I’m writing a kick ass blog post about staying calm during this season of political turmoil.”
“I know I just said a bad word.”
“Turmoil is anger, confusion”
” Confusion is… just ask mom when she gets out of the shower.”
…See, I’ve learned that the only thing we can control in life is how we react. Our reactions…
“Haley, can you please chew with your mouth closed.”
“Because I can’t hear myself type. Literally. The keyboard is 6 inches from my ears and I can’t hear the little clicks. And I want to hear the little clicks. I need to hear the little clicks.”
“Because those little clicks are much more soothing then you sucking the gluten out of that pretzel.”
… Our reactions define us. And though we can’t predict what happens next– in our lives, in the world around us, our power lies in how we respond when…
Dammit…Chase just fell down the steps.
I’ve got to go.
P.S. He’s fine.