Monday, March 2, 2015

THE RELUCTANT ATHLETE: Part Three

From the age of twelve, work became a big part of my life. I started out, like a lot of boys, with a paper route. My dad, Whitie, thought it would be a good idea.  He felt I needed to man up. The implication was that if I wasn’t going out for any sports, the least I could do was learn how to earn my own spending money, and not just be sitting around the house “with my nose in a book all the time.” It would build character for me to get out and see what earning money entailed, to see that it didn’t grow on trees, that there were no “free rides”.

The first paper route I had was for a morning newspaper, the Dayton Journal Herald. The city of Dayton was over an hour away from Wapakoneta, my home town. And the Journal Herald didn’t have an arrangement, like a number of other Ohio newspapers did, with the local Newsstand—actually not a “stand” at all, but a storefront business—so each morning the Dayton daily’s distributor delivered the local carriers’ bales of papers, hot off the press, to the Post Office across the street from the Newsstand. Although the Post Office counter was closed behind a heavy rolling metal curtain at night, the main hall of the building was open twenty-four/seven, to allow patrons to get to their PO boxes. So it was the perfect place us for paperboys to get together with our papers.

The job entailed getting up at five in the morning, pedaling my bike up to the Post Office, cutting open my bale of papers with a pair of wire-cutters I carried for just that purpose, rolling my papers to a proper throwing size, slipping a rubber band around each one, packing them into my delivery bag, and then making the rounds of my paper route, which started a few blocks north of downtown Wapakoneta and extended almost to my house in the west-side Oakwood Hills addition. I would arrive home in time to wash up, have breakfast and catch the school bus or ride my bike back to town for classes.

Reba Mae, my mother, was less convinced than Whitie that this was such a good idea. She was concerned about my health. The year before, I’d been seriously ill, having caught infectious hepatitis. I’d spent several weeks in bed, so sick I could barely look at food.

Illness was something Whitie and I had shared that year. He was experiencing one of multiple nervous breakdowns that he was to suffer, from the time I was five years old on.  That year, when I was eleven, his manic depression was rampant and he spent weeks on end holed-up at home, mostly in the room he and my mother shared, curtains drawn and sleeping throughout much of the day, while Reba Mae took over for him at our family restaurant, the Teddy Bear, running both his shift there and the house until he got better. So while my older sister and younger brother were off at school and Reba Mae was off at work, it was just Whitie and me there at home, in our new house on Kelley Drive.

For all the company we were to each other, however, my father and I might as well have been each on his own planet, instead of just down the hall from each other in our separate rooms. We were mutual aliens, he trying to purge himself of a crippling inner sadness that seemed to know no cure, and I, biding my time until my young liver turned from a volatile jelly-like state back into a properly functioning organ. One of us only knew the other existed by the creaking of the hall floorboards and the sound of the toilet flushing or the water running. Neither of us was eating much (with the state my liver was in, I mostly subsisted on weak tea and saltine crackers or dry toast) and neither offered to make anything or do anything for the other. In the harsh light of day, we were both painfully thin and pale, my own pallor a ghastly shade of yellow. But we were entities more separate than if we’d been living in a boarding house. If we saw each other at all, it wasn’t until Reba Mae and my sister and brother got home in the evening and my mother prepared supper. And even then our contact was limited since Whitie often refused to come out of his room to eat and, at my sickest, I took my frugal meals in bed.


I remember feeling guilty. I realized how depressing a climate Whitie and I were creating for the rest of the family and how worried my mother must be for both of us. For my part in this silent, blue environment, I was full of remorse.


Still, when I got to feeling a little better, so I could sit up for more than a few minutes at a time, I began to take a strange comfort in this illness, and because I did, I reluctantly began to understand, somewhat, how Whitie must feel holed-up there in his room. Hepatitis had become my shield from the world. The fact that I was so ill meant nobody expected anything from me. I was sick! There was nothing for me to do but stay in bed and get better. Once the early symptoms of the disease were past, however, I was free to do what I did best—read and write—all day long. In fact, it was part of the routine established between my mother and me “to keep me from getting bored.” In addition to bringing me my homework assignments from my fifth-grade teacher, who lived less than half a block from the Teddy Bear, every few days Reba Mae would bring me a new batch of books from the public library, and once I had finished my school work, I would almost obsessively gallop through that outside reading between naps. Then later, I would try my hand for a couple of hours a day at writing stories of my own.

After a couple of weeks of hanging out in my room doing what I loved most in the world, I began to feel safe and unassailable there. Even though I knew it wasn’t normal or healthy, I started developing a feeling that I never wanted to leave that room again. It became my world, my safe harbor, a miniature planet on which, despite my illness, I was in complete control. And through the books my mother brought me, I could live the most exciting adventures in my mind, traveling to exotic destinations without ever changing out of my pajamas. Whitie, I understood, must feel much the same way: safe, unaccountable, unassailable, immune to the demands of others, in complete control of something for a change, even if only of this hundred square-foot space.  

But remorse eventually got the better of me. It became impossible for me the read the sadness in Reba Mae’s face each day when she came back from work to find the house in the same morbid stillness it had been when she’d left and both Whitie and me still barricaded in our separate rooms. Somebody had to break this stay-at-home stand-off and, on the spur of the moment—one afternoon when I went by the kitchen door and saw my mother sitting alone at the dining table crying—I decided it would be me.

As soon as the yellowness had drained from my eyes, I emerged from my room one early-spring day, fully dressed and, donning jacket and cap, declared myself cured and told my mother I was going for a ride on my bike. She was too elated to tell me no, and instead smiled a little dubiously and said, “Well, all right, but don’t go far and don’t over-exert yourself. You’re just getting over something serious and you’re still very weak.”

As it turned out, her warning about “not going far” wouldn’t have been necessary. Within a very few blocks, I had run out of steam and had to laboriously walk my bicycle back home, panting and feeling awful the whole way. When I stumbled in the back door, she looked at me and said, the smile draining from her eyes, “Are you all right? Gosh, your lips are blue!” And with that she rushed me back to bed. So it was that I learned a new word: relapse. And I never could hear the term after that without picturing myself half-walking my bike and half using it as a crutch so as not to collapse, and wondering how I’d ever make it back home.

But perhaps my premature outing served a purpose, because that evening Whitie got up, and that same week he started back to work, and began going to the psychiatrist again. For my part, I spent another few weeks in bed, guilt-ridden the whole while by the fact that I couldn’t have felt more at home there.

So it was little wonder that, the following year, when I was just starting to gain back some of the weight lost and to regain something like an appetite, Reba Mae was less than anxious to see me hopping out of bed at 5 a.m. to ride my bike around in the dark delivering newspapers before school. But Whitie was on a manic high right then, being so assertive that he was hard to recognize. And when he was like that, weakness wasn’t something he easily tolerated. Working would be good for me—get me out of the house, give me a taste of reality.  

At first, I wondered how I would ever remember all of the houses I had to go to each morning. And the first few days, Reba Mae and I did the route together in the car until I learned the streets. She made it fun, almost like a game, and I quickly learned that each house had defining traits to help me remember it: an aluminum initial on a grill over the screen door; a nameplate hanging beneath the yard-light; shingles, stucco or tongue-and-groove siding; a lawn dwarf, a birdhouse, or a metallic-glass ball on a pedestal; a friendly dog; an unfriendly dog; a distinctive weather vane; a certain kind of wind chime on the porch, or any of a number of other distinctive features. In no time at all, I had learned the route and was ready to do it alone —even if, on the foulest of mornings Reba Mae was still apt to say, “Let me take you today. It’s just too awful out for you to do your route on your bicycle!”

Though I wasn’t particularly crazy about having to get up so early, especially as autumn progressed and the mornings turned frigid, and although staying awake in class got to be an issue, Whitie was right about one thing: Making your own money was a game-changer. Suddenly, I not only had new options and increased independence, but also a logical explanation for not doing the things I didn’t want to do, like going out for team sports. Those things were child’s play. In rural Midwestern society, work was serious business that superseded everything else. And a lot of things might be forgiven of a boy who worked compared with one who didn’t.

In the meantime, at school I had joined the band. I was studying percussion and loved it. Being a drummer took a great deal of brain-muscle coordination—precisely what Whitie had always claimed I didn’t possess. But as it turned out, I was quite good at this new coordination-intensive skill. I apparently had a talent for it. Who knew!
That, of course, quickly led to my wanting to also join some kind of pop band outside of school. For that, I needed a set of drums. A friend of my sister’s, who was three years older than I, was selling his old set to buy a new one. He wanted ninety dollars for it. I asked Whitie for the money.
“If I thought you’d stick to it,” my father said, “I probably wouldn’t mind. But how do I know you will? I mean, you’re not very good at sticking to things, are you?”

I didn’t say anything.

“Are you?” he repeated. “You know, baseball, basketball, and so forth...”

Still I didn’t respond.

“I just don’t want to put a bunch of money I don’t have into something like this and have the drums just sit around later.”

“They won’t,” I said. “I’m good at this and I really like it.”

“Well, yeah, Danny, but what if tomorrow you quit liking it?” he said. “Then what? I mean, you are kind of a quitter. I mean, be honest. You need to be more responsible. Maybe you should save up and buy the drums yourself. That way you’d appreciate them more.”

With that, he considered the subject closed.

I sulked. Eventually Reba Mae intervened. He wasn’t being fair. Hadn’t they paid for my sister’s trumpet when she joined the band? That was different, Whitie felt, because she stuck to things. She wasn’t a quitter. They eventually reached a compromise: he’d let my mother lend me the money to buy the drum set. But I’d be required to make weekly payments until the loan was paid back.

I grudgingly accepted the loan, determined to prove I was more than good for it. Very shortly, I found a bigger, better afternoon paper route with The Lima News, headquartered in the industrial city of Lima, Ohio, fifteen miles away. Its routes were run out of the back room of The Newsstand, operated by Russ McLean. Mr. McLean was good about letting me browse the racks in his shop before and after I delivered my papers each afternoon, after school. It was there that I started reading Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, as if I were in a lending library. I read “stolen” snatches of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone magazine and Classics Illustrated, as well as of Time, Life, Look, Newsweek, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and other popular adult-audience publications as well. All of which fed my other passion: writing.

As I became aware of how liberating it was not to depend on my father for money, I sought more of both cash and independence. Keeping busy was, I found out, almost as safe a haven as holing up in my room. Who could expect more of an adolescent who kept busy every waking hour either in school or working for his own keep, instead of looking for trouble?

Before long, in addition to the bigger and better paper route, I had also started picking up extra work among my newspaper customers, mowing their lawns, raking their leaves, shoveling their snow, and doing any other odd job they might trust me with, as well as volunteering for kitchen work in our family’s restaurant whenever I had spare time on Saturdays or in the summer.  This allowed me to pay off my drum set in short order.

If Whitie was notoriously stubborn, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree and once the drum set was mine, free and clear, instead of finding the good in the lesson my father had sought to teach me, I tacitly and obstinately vowed to myself never to ask him for anything again and that vow was to form part of the emotional barrier he and I erected between us for a number of years afterward.

The most emblematic symbol of that division would continue to be team sports, which he loved and which I no longer simply avoided, but adamantly opposed. We asked and expected nothing of each other and chose to be strangers from that point on through my high school days.

To be continued




Wednesday, February 11, 2015

THE RELUCTANT ATHLETE: Part Two


The Kennedy Era sparked in me a new interest in physical activity and sports. I mean, don’t get me wrong: I was still a bookish kid who could happily spend long hours indoors reading, writing, listening to music, drawing and watching some unusual TV favorites for a kid my age—Leonard Bernstein’s singularly didactic children’s concerts, Walter Cronkite’s documentary series called The Twentieth Century, and a Saturday morning English murder mystery theater among them—as well as some of the more normal TV kids’ stuff. But I was also an outdoor boy in all four seasons of the year. I played “war” and “cowboys and Indians” and sandlot ballgames and shot hoops with the neighbor kids and shot my BB gun at birds and telephone-line insulators and got my share of split lips and bloody noses like most other Wapakoneta, Ohio boys, and I fished and hiked and rode the wheels off of my bike in spring, autumn and summer, and sledded and skated in winter, and hung out at the city pool and took every swimming course available during summer vacation, and so on. But because of the apparently insurmountable deadlock between my dad, Whitie, and me over organized sports, I had, up until then, avoided them like the plague. Why bother, if Whitie had already convinced me I’d never be much good at any of them, even if he still wanted me to play? If it was true, as he said, that I was innately clumsy and uncoordinated, what was the point?
But I greatly admired John F. Kennedy (another view not shared with Whitie, who, dyed-in-the-wool Republican that he was, considered JFK a socialist, a crook and a liar), and President Kennedy had a really healthy obsession with fitness. He made getting America into shape a major goal of his administration. What first seems to have set off alarm bells with one of America’s most popular (and unpopular) presidents of all time in the years of progress, affluence and general peace that followed World War II and its aftershock, the Korean War, was that a growing number of officers and men in the US Armed Forces were failing their physical training tests. Kennedy’s presidential predecessor (and five-star general) Dwight D. Eisenhower, had already founded the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, but Kennedy, a former naval officer himself, breathed new impetus into the program.
As a first challenge to the council, the president introduced what would come to be known as “the Kennedy march”. This was not his idea originally, but emerged from his discovery of an executive directive by “Rough-Rider” President Teddy Roosevelt challenging Marine Corps officers to complete a fifty-mile hike in just twenty hours. This made JFK wonder how many modern-day military officers would be able to pull off such a feat. So he decided to find out. He showed the Roosevelt document to Marine Commandant David Shoup and asked him to take the idea as his own and recommend it back to the Executive Branch. Shoup did as the president asked him and Kennedy responded enthusiastically that if Shoup’s ultimate report showed that modern Marines were as fit as their predecessors in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, he, JFK, would “ask Mr. Salinger to look into the matter personally” and give him a report on the fitness of the White House staff as well.
Salinger wasn't about to do the "Kennedy march"
This reference was to Kennedy administration Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, a former naval officer as well, but a rotund, cigar-chomping, armchair sports enthusiast in his reincarnation as Kennedy aide, politician and, eventually, major journalist. And the indication was that part of Salinger’s investigation into White House fitness would include his own participation in a fifty-mile endurance test.
Fat chance! Salinger joked incessantly about the challenge but cleverly avoided the walk. Ever the reflection incarnate of his brother’s policies and more invested in the JFK legend than big brother “Jack” himself, however, Attorney General Robert (“Bobby”) Kennedy made good on the chief executive’s dare and not only did the fifty-mile hike in twenty hours, but did so on a wintry day in snow and slush, inadequately shod in sturdy leather oxfords instead of in footwear more suited to the test and to the weather. Salinger latched onto Bobby’s walk as proof positive that the White House practiced what it preached and declared the president’s challenge won.
But President Kennedy wasn’t satisfied with this alone and extended the presidential fitness program to other levels of society. “The age of leisure and abundance can destroy vigor and muscle tone as effortlessly as it can gain time,” he wrote. “A single look at the packed parking lot of the average high school will tell us what has happened to the traditional hike to school that helped to build young bodies.”
JFK made fitness a national priority
So there was no longer any avoiding the gym in junior high and high school. In many public schools, such as ours, Phys-Ed went from being elective to being a required course. That was how, in the sunset of the Kennedy era, I met Mr. G, my seventh-grade gym teacher.
Other gym teachers I was to have tended to be a lot like that Peewee League coach of years before—jaded, lackadaisical, former high school sports stars whose fame hadn’t followed them to college and for whom professional play was only a frustrated childhood dream, guys who were content to divide the class up into “shirts” and “skins”, toss up a basketball between the two best players and let nature take its course for the duration of the period. Or failing this, to roll a bunch of “kickballs” out onto the hardwood and sit back and laugh their proverbial asses off at a lightning round of a Darwinistic “game” called, alternatively, “dodgeball” or “bombardment”. In this “game” the “rabbits and mice” in the class were lined up against the wall and were forced to dodge, dive, roll and feint in an effort to avoid being “creamed” by the whistling orbs fired at them by “the fittest”, whose ultimate goal was to hit their targets in the crotch so as to delight to their agony as they squirmed on the floor, or to smack them square in the face to see how far the blood flew when their noses splattered, even as the “coach” with stifled glee, would good-naturedly chide, “All right, guys, no hitting in the face or below the belt, now.”
But Mr. G was different, a true sportsman, coach, teacher and disciplinarian, he was bent on helping all of the kids in his classes to reach their full potential. A former All-State wrestling champion, he knew that fitness was about more than pitching, dribbling, batting, kicking or passing a ball. And he started out by actually training us, teaching us the routines of calisthenics and how to build muscle, cardiovascular resistance, balance and coordination, body-building that we could do anywhere with nothing but the weight of our own humanity as equipment. And when he saw us gaining strength, he started teaching us new skills: tumbling, acrobatics, rings, horse, parallel bars and rope-climbing. Now and then he conceded to the whining of the “team-players” and we played a game of basketball. But these games too came with instruction. He called time-outs and corrected the moves of those already well-initiated but also patiently taught the rest of us the basics of the game—proper dribbling, how to feint and pass, how to drive, to complete a lay-up, to make long shots and short.

He was on top of us from beginning to end, pushing us to be the best we could be, whatever our skill level was. But his specialty was, of course, wrestling, and that activity he taught with such exquisite insight that he was capable of turning the legendary “ninety-eight-pound weaklings” of the old Charles Atlas body-building ads into lean and mean fighters who were slippery as eels on the mat.
Between his precise wrestling and patient tumbling instructions, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t nearly as clumsy or physically inept as Whitie had led me to believe. In fact, these two sports activities quickly taught me to trust my body and my instincts, to fall and roll, to break holds and apply them, and before long, I became a fairly effective wrestler. I had leverage in my long arms and legs and learned to use it to advantage. I didn’t win every bout, but I wasn’t, by a longshot, losing them all either. Suddenly, I had game!
That year, Mr. G started working on me to join the basketball team. He knew I was an enthusiastic member of the Blume Junior High band and that this activity would conflict with football (his second love), but basketball was a team sport option for male band members. I told him I was “no good at that sort of thing.” Even my dad said so.
Like a lot of teachers, Mr. G was a breakfast regular at the Teddy Bear restaurant that Whitie owned with two of his brothers, Red and Chuck. So Mr. G said, “Well, I’ll talk to Whitie, but at the risk of contradicting him, that’s just not true. You’ve got height, long arms and legs and really good hands. All you need is some speed and practice and you could be a really good player. If you did the practice and training, you’d be up to speed in no time.”
I said I’d think about. But if Mr. G had imbued me with new self-confidence before, he had now become my hero. He had virtually lifted the “clumsy-uncoordinated curse” from my head and given me authoritative permission to be whatever I wanted to be and do whatever I wanted to do.
A few days later, when Whitie came home from work, he said he wanted to talk to me. He sat in an armchair in the living room smoking a cigarette and I sat on the hassock in front of him. Conversations like this weren’t very common between us and I was a little nervous, wondering what I’d done wrong.
He said, “I was talking to Mr. G today. He said you said I’d told you you couldn’t play basketball. I never told you that, Danny! Hell, I’d be delighted if you played basketball, or any other sport for that matter.”
“Well,” I told him, “that’s not exactly what I said. What I said was that you said I was too clumsy and uncoordinated to be good at any sport.”
“Oh now, Dan, I never said that!”
“Sure you did! A lot of times.”
“All I meant was you’re not a natural. You’ll have to work at it, you know? Anyway, Mr. G wants you to go out for the junior high basketball team.”
“And how about you, Dad?”
“Well, hell yes, Dan,” he said. “I think it’d be great for you to do that.”
Again, I said, “Okay, Dad, I’ll think about it.”
“Well, don’t think too long, buddy, or the season’ll be over,” Whitie said, but he was obviously pleased.
A little later that same month, on the twenty-second of November of 1963, President Kennedy made his infamous sojourn to Dallas, Texas, where an assassin’s bullet would snuff out the life of one of the most brilliant minds ever to preside over the White House. I, like millions of Americans, was stunned by JFK’s death and lived in a haze of mourning for some time afterward, as if affected by a truly personal loss.
Eleven days later, on December third of that same year, Mr. G went home from work and, at 5 p.m., promptly collapsed and died of a massive heart attack before the horrified eyes of his family. He was just forty years old. I couldn’t believe it. Not even when I visited the Siferd Funeral Home downtown and saw the coach’s body lying in state, surrounded by weeping friends, family and athletes of all ages.
For several days after that, I had trouble eating or sleeping. I felt guilty because I wasn’t thinking of his family’s loss, but of my own. I’d just lost the only sports mentor I’d ever had, the only man who’d sought to convince me I was as able as any other player, the only one who’d truly made me believe that I could be whatever I wanted to be, that I had game.
Finally, after several sleepless nights in which I was racked with anxiety, I got up from bed one night, butterflies churning in my stomach, and, seeing a light in the living room, went in to find Whitie, watching a late-night movie, as he often did, and eating a bowl of ice-cream.
“Hey, Danny,” he said, keeping his voice low so as not to wake up the rest of the family, “what’s up?”
“Can’t sleep,” I said, clutching the front of my pajama shirt with both hands just over my milling stomach.
“What’s wrong?”
“I dunno. Nothing...Everything.”
He was silent.
“Dad,” I said. “I’m not going out for basketball.”
His expression changed so that I saw in his eyes how this announcement had made his heart sink. He set his bowl of ice-cream on the side table next to his chair.
“I thought you’d made up your mind, Dan,” he said. “What’s the story?”
“You know,” I said, my voice quavering, “Mr. G and all...”
“He’d have wanted you to play, Danny. Don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“So?”
“So, yeah, I’m letting him down and I’m letting you down, but, uh...I just can’t do it. Not right now.”
“Well, I’d for sure like to see you play, but that’s not the point, whether you’re letting me down or Mr. G down. The point is not to let yourself down. Not to be a quitter, you know, like with Peewee League...”
“Long time ago, Dad. How about we let that go.”
“Well, but here you are, quitting again...”
“No, not quitting, Dad. Just never starting.”
“Well, I wish I could talk you out of it...”
I didn’t answer. 
“But I guess,” he continued, “you’ll do whatever the hell you want, like you always do. Just sayin’...”
“I guess,” I muttered. Then I stood up to leave, and he picked up his ice-cream and turned his attention back to his movie.
The interview was over and I’d become a disappointment to Whitie... yet again.
To be continued...    


Sunday, January 25, 2015

THE RELUCTANT ATHLETE: Part One


“Geez, Dan, you’re the only kid I’ve ever seen who can trip over his own two feet standing still!” Whitie said, laughing.  This struck the other kids at the picnic—cousins and second cousins all—funny to the point of hilarity.
He—my dad, Whitie—must have seen the hurt look in my eyes as I scrambled to my feet and brushed myself off, because he said, “We’re not laughing at you Dan’el, we’re laughing with you. And everybody “laughed with me” some more.  (If you were laughing, you were obviously one of the winners).
It was a family reunion and we were playing whiffle ball. Whitie was the only adult playing. The other kids had tried to talk their dads into playing too, but after a heavy picnic lunch—fried chicken, hotdogs and hamburgers, potato salad, deviled eggs, ham salad, beans and franks, huge bags of potato chips, heavenly hash, three bean salad, scalloped potatoes, macaroni and relish salad, Waldorf salad and an assortment of pies, cakes, cookies and brownies—on this hot July day, they got turned down flat.  But to my surprise, my dad was the only one to say, “Yeah, what the hell, I’ll play,” before stubbing out his cigarette, downing a cup of coffee drawn from a gallon Thermos, and following the kids over to an open area of the park where we quickly laid out an ad hoc baseball diamond: “That bench over there’s first, that bush is second, that maple’s third and this here’s home plate.”
I hadn’t asked Whitie to play like the other kids had asked their dads. I figured the answer would surely be “no,” so why bother? But Whitie could be full of surprises depending on his drastic mood swings. When he decided to play, however, I couldn’t help thinking it wasn’t that he didn’t like playing a little ball, it was just that he didn’t like playing it with me, since he always seemed to have better things to do at home than toss a ball around with me or show me some of the boxing moves he knew so well, or put up a backboard and shoot some hoops with me.
Today, by some odd bastardization of the rules, Whitie ended up being permanent pitcher as well as a sort of coach-slash-umpire for both teams. I found it incredible to see him on the imaginary mound calling the pitches as he threw them: “Fast ball...Slow ball...Curve...Look out, now, here comes a knuckle ball...Grab a towel, kiddo, here comes a spitball...hahaha, swing an’ a miss...” I couldn’t recall a single time he’d done this with me at home. Reba Mae, my mother, was the one who’d taken charge of teaching me enough about baseball so I wouldn’t be too embarrassed to play some sand-lot ball with my cousins and a few friends. She was always a good sport, playing some pitch and catch with me and popping me some flies to catch (she’d played some softball as a girl and could bat incredibly well, but she didn’t have a mitt so I had to throw the ball back to her gently).
Peewee League had been a short-lived disaster that was forced on me and in which I mostly haunted the sidelines until I got bored and quit...which, I suppose, was the coach’s ultimate idea. Somebody had given me a mitt. I was a southpaw and it was a right-handed mitt (in other words a mitt that went on the left hand), so I was obliged to learn to throw with my right. This meant I seldom missed a catch but couldn’t throw for crap. When I played the outfield (which was most of the time...the further out the better, my team-mates felt), if I accidentally caught somebody out it was difficult to throw hard enough with my right arm to pull off a double play, so sometimes, after the catch, I’d quick shed my glove and give the ball a heave with my more powerful left. But for lack of practice a long pitch with my left hand always went wild. Long story short, I could throw with either hand...though not good enough for anyone to be impressed. And the same was pretty much true of batting. No one seemed interested in helping me develop my switch-hitting potential, least of all the volunteer coach who was usually hung over and smelling of booze for morning Peewee League practice and pretty much left the playing up to the kids who already knew how, telling the others to “have a seat on the bench for a while.”  
On the drive home from the picnic, Whitie said, “That was pretty fun, wasn’t it Danny?”
“What was?” I asked, playing dumb though I knew exactly what he was talking about.
“Playing some ball,” he said. “You had a good time, didn’t you?”
I didn’t answer.
Didn’t you, Dan?” he insisted.
“Not as much as you, obviously,” I said with sullen apathy.
He clucked his tongue with irritation and then very ostensibly ignored me for the rest of the trip home, chatting with my mother and sister and now and then saying, “Whacha doin’, ‘Clody’ boy?” to my little brother, Jim (‘Clody’ to Whitie), who was dozing on Reba Mae’s lap on the passenger side of the front seat, as if to let me know I’d offended him and was being intentionally left out of the conversation. I kept wanting to apologize, to say I had indeed had a good time, mostly because it was nice to do something fun with him for a change, and why couldn’t  we do that more often? But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was as angry and disappointed with him as he was with me. Kind of permanently angry, both of us. So why should I be the one to capitulate?
And that was pretty much the standoff that Whitie and I maintained as I was growing up. Baseball, that all-American link between father and son, blended into any kind of organized sport and became the barricade we erected between us for our impasse. When it first took shape, I can’t say exactly, but sometime between the time as a preschooler when I inherited Whitie’s love of boxing, sitting on his lap to watch the Friday Night Fights on our big black and white TV, and the time when I was old enough to play Little League baseball (and didn’t), that early rapport was lost and I decided not to do anything I knew he would want me to from then on. The feeling got to be kind of mutual.
He was passionate about organized team sports and had pretty much played them all in his youth and now watched them all on TV. But I viewed that as something he didn’t want to share with me in any hands-on way, so why should I feign interest? I saw other dads getting involved with their boys’ sports, encouraging them, pushing them to be as good as they could be, rooting for them at their games, correcting their techniques, buying them the best equipment, even coaching their teams. Whitie didn’t do any of that. It was as if he’d given up on me before I’d ever gotten started.
It wasn’t that Whitie didn’t want me to play. On the contrary, he would have liked for me to have been the “normal” sports-loving son most men want to be represented by. (Indeed, that was precisely the point of my rebellion). Rather, it was that, from the beginning, he let me know that he had no real expectations for me. In fact, he basically said I should just play for fun and try to do the best I could, because I was a guy and guys played sports, period. But he felt I’d probably “never be really, really good at sports.”  So...okay, I figured, game over!
The guys on his side of the family were, he observed, of the quick, light, agile kind. Even his dad, who’d never played team sports, was a lightning-fast, highly capable and very dangerous fighter, though he never weighed more than a hundred and fifty pounds soaking wet. It was, then, a question of genes. Not better or worse, he consoled me, just the way things were. Some guys had it and some didn’t.  Some were “naturals”. Others had to work at it. Still others would just never have what it took. The indication was that I formed part of the latter group. 
I took after my mom’s side, Whitie often clarified, “Big, solid, German farmers...Strong, don’t get me wrong, but pretty slow and pretty clumsy. I mean, don’t take it the wrong way, Danny, but let’s face it, you are pretty awkward.” Then seeing the look on my face, he might add, “Well, but don’t worry, you might outgrow that, once you grow into your hands and feet.”
When he said things like that, I used to picture Grandpa Vern, my mother’s father. By no stretch of the imagination could I think of him as slow or clumsy—German and farmer though he was. In fact, words like “rugged”, “rawboned”, “lightning fast” and “lethal” sprang to mind when you spent any time with Grandpa Vern. I figured the fact that he’d never played organized sports had more to do with his having grown up out in the country and only having gone to school for three years, and in a one-room rural schoolhouse to boot, than with any lack of the required physical prowess.
In my own case, it wasn’t that I didn’t like physical activity, but that organized sports had become my nemesis. I had been consistently convinced by someone whose judgment I couldn’t help but trust—my father—that I would never be any good at them. It sounded like a sentence and felt like an illness, a disability diagnosed by an expert on the subject: Whitie. So at first, I avoided them out of embarrassment, and then grew to hate them and to consider them enemy territory.
Instead, I turned to the activities that my city-raised father abhorred: trekking along rivers and creeks, camping, bike hikes to parts unknown, fishing with my father’s father, hunting with my mother’s father and both those activities with friends later on. The great outdoors was fine with me as long as it didn’t involve diamonds, courts, pitches, courses or playing fields.       

         To be continued...

Sunday, January 18, 2015

WHY I SAY ‘JE SUIS CHARLIE’

When eight of the highly creative people who formed part of the staff of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo were murdered at their desks earlier this month—along with four other unfortunate people who were randomly killed in the attack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time—I couldn’t help identifying with them far beyond the normal anger and compassion that terrorist violence awakens in any right-minded person. My first thought was, in fact, “That could have been me.”
Nor did I think of it right away as merely another instance of Muslim fundamentalist violence. Rather, I “lived” the attack, first and foremost, as a violent assault on freedom of expression in a nation and a city that have long honored razor-sharp satire as a traditional and highly-developed art form.
Reading about the attack carried out by two fundamentalist gunmen, who claimed to be the agents of vengeance for the Prophet Muhammad and who invoked the name of Allah while slaughtering top members of a team of creatives whose only sin was the ability to think, reflect and question in a bright, audacious and humorous way, I couldn’t help recalling the first nine years out of a total of thirteen that I spent working as a journalist for what was then Argentina’s most outspoken newspaper, the English-language daily known as the Buenos Aires Herald. I refer to the years from 1974 to 1983, when I had the privilege of first standing shoulder to shoulder with and later helping lead a small team of journalists with an almost obsessive-compulsive interest in reporting what practically no one else was willing to, and in defying every kind of threat and pressure exerted in a vain attempt by the de facto government to get them to stop.
The great difference between then and now, I was thinking, was that back then we were facing an internal threat, first by a rogue populist government that suspended constitutional guarantees and took the law into its own hands even before the military coup, and then by a far rightwing dictatorial regime that overthrew the democratically elected if out-of-control administration. And we were also confronting the latent threat of violence from the urban terrorists who opposed both regimes—since our banner was that of liberal democracy, the rule of law, and egalitarian justice, principles that neither side in the civil strife of those days shared with us. The threat to Charlie Hebdo, meanwhile, came from an external source, one that is seeking to impose its will via terror and destruction on the world as a whole. But then again, as it becomes wider spread, the Muslim fundamentalist threat is also turning more and more internal, as brain-washed, self-disenfranchised losers like the two fanatical brothers who carried out this heinous act become the “enemies within” in Western democracies, only too glad to offer up their stunted, pathetic lives to serve the fundamentalist designs of the crazed “evangelists” of “faith by murder”.
While in contemporary use the term fundamentalism has come to be equated with religious fanaticism (and for some people—mostly those who have never read the history of the Christian Crusades or lived in the US Bible Belt—Islamic fundamentalism), there are clear basic elements of fundamentalism in every closed society. Or in other words, in societies ruled by an elite that doesn’t admit the rights of others to their own beliefs or to their own expressions, or to their own desires beyond the dictates handed down from the pinnacle of power (even when that pinnacle is only the toad stool on which village tyrants stand). Thus any sort of totalitarian or dictatorial political philosophy is essentially fundamentalist, since all of them are based on “a cause”, even when their only real purpose is to accumulate control and power.
That was certainly the case of “my” dictators, back in the days of what was known in Argentina as the “National Reorganization Process”: In what was clearly a dichotomous message, their pitch was that they had cut short an admittedly questionable “democracy” by armed force in order to “preserve the Constitution” (parts of which they immediately suspended and the rest of which they made subject to the decisions of the military junta) and to “defend Western and Christian values” against the advances of “godless communism”. The way they planned to do that was by jailing and/or killing everybody who didn’t agree with them. In the words of one of their most boisterous exponents, General Ibérico Saint Jean, who served as military governor of Buenos Aires Province during the worst repression, “First we’ll kill all of the subversives, then we’ll kill their collaborators, then their sympathizers, and right after that the ones who remain indifferent, and, finally, we’ll kill the faint of heart.”
This bears obvious, if ostensibly opposing, similarities to the “holy war” of the Islamists, the ultimate purpose of whom is to “destroy the West” and, according to the words and deeds of the most fanatical of their ilk, to kill all of those who do not convert to their brand of Islam. In the midst of this sort of government-sponsored or extremist-imposed lawlessness and terrorism, the task of authentic democrats is to become ad hoc “authorities” themselves: moral authorities, authentic defenders of democracy and of the basic rights that go with it, which is precisely what the editor of the paper I worked for did, and what we continued to do after he was eventually forced into exile after direct threats to his family. We continued to exercise our rights as democrats even when the country’s illegitimate rulers told us we no longer possessed any such rights. We continued to defend the right to free expression the best way anyone can, by exercising it fully and boldly in the face of tyranny. And we continued to do our duty as writers, thinkers and journalists by defending human and civil rights as a whole, in demanding that other people’s rights be restored and respected, despite the risk to our own safety that doing so signified.
This is an important point to bear in mind, because it has a lot to do with why je suis Charlie, and why you should be too, if you genuinely value freedom above all else. Because whether or not you agree with Charlie Hebdo’s politics, or viewpoint, or style of expressing itself, by doing so in defiance of every kind of legal and illegal warning and threat imaginable, its artists, writers and editors were also exercising your right to freedom of expression and mine, as do a number of other defiant and creative people around the world who day by day refuse to be told what they can and cannot say or represent. Like, for instance, Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi, who was recently sentenced by a Saudi court to ten years in prison and to fifty lashes a week for twenty weeks, for writing frankly in his Internet blog. Or like the people around the world who publicly protested that sentence against Badawi and managed to get his case reviewed by the Saudi Supreme Court, despite his already receiving the first fifty-lash flogging and languishing in jail for exercising his and our right to free expression. 
This past week, I posted a controversial Charlie Hebdo cover on my Facebook wall and appended a je sui Charlie legend to it, inviting others to do the same if they were true believers in freedom of expression. Surprisingly few of my Facebook friends did this. And even fewer of the friends of those who did followed suit. One friend on whose wall I had posted it later posted the response of one of her friends on my wall, which made it clear that even if he was indeed repulsed by the Charlie Hebdo murders he wanted to make it clear that as far as he was concerned “Je ne suis pas Charlie” (he was not Charlie). Why? Because he didn’t believe in the “disrespectful way” in which the cartoonists and humorists of Charlie Hebdo treated the Islamic culture or, in fact, how the magazine disrespected everything many other people considered sacred or beyond reproach.
That is, of course, his opinion and, fortunately, his right. But sadly, I felt, he had missed the point, as had my friend, perhaps, in reposting his criticism on my wall as a kind of comment as to the possible error involved in my embracing Charlie unconditionally, even if I was shocked and disgusted by the murders. The point I feel they may have missed wasn’t whether or not I agreed completely with Charlie Hebdo’s often over-the-top satire, but whether or not I—and everyone else who gives frequent lip service to it—actually believed in its writers and artists’ right to free expression.
This past week, the US-based Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) conditionally defended Charlie Hebdo’s right to free speech, but called for greater understanding and respect. Some Muslims clearly consider Charlie Hebdo to be anti-Islamic because of the satirical cartoon images of the prophet Muhammad that it prints....
Which brings me to a brief aside: It has been pointed out that the most fanatical of Muslims would probably consider anti-Islamic any caricatures that Charlie Hebdo or any other magazine might print of Jesus as well, since Jesus, the key figure in Christianity, is also a minor prophet of Islam. So even if non-fundamentalist Christians were to take any such images in stride, if you were to poke fun at Christianity you might still get targeted, ironically enough, by normally rabid anti-Jewish Islamists for disrespecting the image of a prophet who was known in his day as King of the Jews. I mean, with fundamentalists, you just can’t win! They’re a touchy lot who are eminently offendable and defy appeasement, so why try?
And then there’s the viewpoint of unapologetic atheists like political comedian Bill Maher, who believes that if religions are free to publicly express, espouse and promote their beliefs in God, then atheists should and do have just as much right to publicly express their view that all such beliefs are a crock. By the way, what Maher said regarding the Charlie Hebdo massacre was, and I quote: “These assholes in Paris who shot cartoonists this week, they don’t like it [being on the wrong end of a joke], and as a jokester, I just have to say, the world needs to stand as one and—to quote the immortal Dick Cheney—say, ‘Go fuck yourself.’”
But anyway, what the CAIR’s Executive Director Nihad Awad said about all of this was that, “Just as Charlie Hebdo has the right to publish, we have the right to peacefully challenge negative portrayals of our religious figures. The answer to speech one disagrees with should not be violence, but should instead be more speech promoting tolerance and mutual understanding.”
Fair enough, and Awad is right. The whole idea behind free speech is just that: that it is free and open to everyone, so as to permit an exchange of opinions and ideas, which are the bloodline that nurtures a free society. And to paraphrase Voltaire, it’s my right to disagree with what someone else says or to question how they express themselves, but if I’m a democrat who truly believes in free speech and individual liberties as a whole, then it’s my duty to “defend to the death their right” to say what they say and to express it however they express it.  
Edgar Hopida, Communications Director for the ISNA, was quoted by the Huffington Post as saying that, “While we respect everyone's right to freedom of speech, even when it offends and disparages our religious traditions, we also have the right to address and peacefully challenge a narrative that encourages anti-Muslim bigotry, Islamophobia and xenophobia...” And up to there, I’m in complete agreement with him. But after that, his opinions wondered into the minefield of prior censorship, when he said that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons “only incite already increasing anti-Muslim sentiment...” adding that, “if [free] speech or expression incites people to commit violence and harm on others then it should not be allowed in our society.” The fact is that if Mr. Hopida were allowed to decide what was and wasn’t allowed in terms of “free” speech, according to whether or not it wounded his fragile sensibilities and those of his brethren, he wouldn’t be living in the United States, but in some fundamentalist state where telling others what they can and can’t say and do is the order of the day. And as long as Charlie Hebdo is published in France, he won’t be able to get away with deciding who can say what there either.
Pope Francis, for his part, was disappointingly unhelpful as well. One has come to expect bold, out-of-the-box thinking from the Argentine pontiff, but this time his response couldn’t have been more mundane and tended to reflect his own latent fundamentalism. While he indicated that it was unacceptable, of course, to murder a group of writers and artists armed only with their pens and pencils, he tacitly justified the fundamentalist rage that ended their lives by going on to say that religious freedom and freedom of expression were fundamental human rights, but that they were not total liberties. “There is a limit,” the Pope said. “Every religion has its dignity. I cannot mock a religion that respects human life and the human person.” And then, to bring his point home he cited a colloquial example by saying that if somebody called his mother a dirty name, “they’re going to get punched in the nose.”
Whether the pontiff meant it to be or not, this last hinted that, in a way, the dead artists and writers at the French weekly were asking for what they got, which is a little like saying, I don’t think the girl next door should have gotten raped and I’m sorry it happened, but then again she did wear her skirts awfully short and her neckline awfully low. It might have been more excusable coming from someone who had never lived through a period of harsh repression, but back in the days when he was still a priest, riding the subway in Buenos Aires and carrying his lunch, Pope Francis lived through the same dictatorship that I did and should know the price paid for intimating that victims are the authors of their own fate and he should know too the value (all too often in human blood) of free expression and the uncompromising nature of its genuine defense. Overwhelming silence in the Argentina of his day cost tens of thousands of lives and ruined tens of thousands more. Even as Pope, he hasn’t earned the privilege of overlooking that.  
The other point that needs to be made here is that Charlie Hebdo’s satirical criticism of Islam is aimed, not at Muslims, but at Muslim fanatics, whose modus operandi is to attack, vanquish and murder anyone who doesn’t agree with them. In fact, the French weekly’s editorial policy as a whole is aimed at poking withering satirical fun at everyone and everything that seeks to violate the natural rights of the individual to do what he or she pleases and to believe (or not believe) whatever his or her own heart and mind dictates.
The fact is that the magazine’s editorial policy is all about taking to task and “ridiculizing” everything that it feels undermines liberal thought. It is all about being stridently anti-establishment and non-conformist, about boldly representing, by its own description, left-wing, anti-racist thought and about satirically jerking the chains and punching the readily-emotional buttons of the foremost representatives of contemporary religion, politics and culture. It is not an “anti-Muslim” publication, but an anti-establishment one, taking on—with the same even-handed, poison-pen precision—the political extreme right and the established religious dictates of Roman Catholicism, Judaism and Islam alike. Murdered former editor Stéphane “Charb” Charbonnier described the magazine as reflecting the viewpoint of “all components of left-wing pluralism, and even abstainers.”
The other thing worth pointing out is that, despite the fact that Charlie Hebdo has ridiculed just about every icon possible and incurred the anger of leaders and celebrities from all walks of life—and while they might get a papal punch in the beak if the dare insult Bergoglio’s mother—the only two instances of violence that the magazine has suffered (a bombing in 2011 and the mass slaughter carried out this month) were both perpetrated by Muslim fundamentalists, who thus win the je suis Charlie prize for intolerance.
A voice that Voltaire (and George Washington) might well have applauded was that of writer Salman Rudshie, who, himself, long lived under death threats from Islamic fundamentalists. This past week, Rudshie said: “The French satirical tradition has always been very pointed and very harsh, and still is...The thing that I really resent is the way in which these, our dead comrades ... who died using the same implement that I use, which is a pen or pencil, have been almost immediately vilified and called racists and I don't know what else...Both John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela use(d) the same three-word phrase which in my mind says it all, which is, ‘Freedom is Indivisible.’ You can't slice it up. Otherwise it ceases to be freedom. You can dislike Charlie Hedbo...But the fact that you dislike them has nothing to do with their right to speak.”
From mid-1974 through early 1983, I lived in a climate in which I became accustomed to existing, first, with the threat of death by proxy involved in being part of the support team for courageous editorialists, and, later, with direct threats to my own life and to the newspaper that I worked for, as I devoted my own efforts to expressing the paper’s political and moral line. Asked, on occasion, why I did it, when it wasn’t my country or my fight, I’ve always replied that, on the contrary, opposing tyranny and violent fundamentalism of any kind is everyone’s fight no matter where it happens, and that for writers, journalists and political humorists, it’s not a choice, but a moral and professional obligation.
Seen from that vocational viewpoint, I fully identify with the murdered staffers at Charlie Hebdo. But I also identify with and am grateful to them for defending everyone’s right to free expression by exercising theirs with such uncompromising passion and self-sacrifice. And that’s why je suis Charlie. How about you?