Childhood Lessons

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640px-Gulliver_academy

My wife and I have great conversations after sex. The intimacy of sex makes one feel less vulnerable and more in touch with the core personality.

I also can’t think of a more exciting and satisfying way to spend my time, but that’s beside the point.

I don’t remember how we got on the subject, but I flashed back to my early childhood. My childhood was divided into two distinct eras. The years up to age eight were good years when I felt secure and had few obstacles in the way of my development. The years from eight to early teens were very bad years of domestic violence, financial insecurity and continuous embarrassment.

I’ll go to the dark place someday, but in talking to my wife about early childhood, I discovered that the things I learned in those years gave me the strength and wisdom to survive the bad years.

When I was about four or five years old, I had two best friends and a crush on a little girl. My two best friends were twins named Peter and Paul. They were alike in every way except for one important difference. Paul was born blind.

I remember my mother explaining to me that Paul couldn’t see things and I would have to help him when we played together. I don’t know if I was capable of empathy, but what my mother said made perfect sense to me. If someone has a problem, you help them out.

I helped Paul by pulling him around in my wagon, letting him spend more time feeling the toys before we started playing with them and holding his hand when playing games that required running. I never thought of him as a person with a disability, just as a kid who needed a little help.

A year later I entered kindergarten. I know I made friends there, but the only person who mattered to me was Sandy.

Sandy was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, with beautiful blonde curls, a peachy complexion and sparkling blue eyes. She had a wonderful smile and liked to laugh a lot.

Sandy was also confined to a wheelchair.

I spent all my play time with Sandy. I don’t remember what we played, but we were inseparable, and for some reason I developed an intense pride for her. I had probably seen enough TV to know about relationships between the sexes and how important it was to men that they had a beautiful wife. There I was, only five years old, and I had already found my dream girl. I had ended one of life’s early quests at an extremely young age.

The school had a Christmas party where all the parents and children came together for an evening to celebrate the season. I looked forward to that night with great anticipation because I wanted my parents to see my beautiful girlfriend. Sandy did not disappoint, as she wore a little red velvet dress with a bright red bow in her curls that made her more beautiful than ever. I beamed with pride as the two sets of parents watched us together and smiled with what I took to be tentative consent for us to marry someday.

We moved to a different town later that year and I never saw Sandy again. We stayed in touch with Peter and Paul for a little while, but my father was entering his period of instability and there was some kind of falling out between the adults.

My friendships with Paul and Sandy shaped my personality in ways I did not understand at the time. To say that they helped me develop compassion and empathy is not accurate, because I didn’t see them as people in need of compassion and empathy. Paul was a guy who needed some help with a few things. Sandy was simply a beautiful girl who couldn’t walk. I never attached a stigma to either disability, so it never occurred to me to feel sorry for them because they couldn’t do certain things I could do. I helped them, sure, but they helped me by being my friends.

How those relationships helped me survive the bad times is more important. In early childhood, you are intensely curious about how the world works. Once you think you understand it, that understanding becomes a core part of your belief system as to how the world should work.

So, because I believed that the world was a place where people help each other out, I was able to interpret the act of people hurting each other as a temporary aberration, a deviation from the norm. I didn’t need any religious training to tell me that hurting people was wrong, for if helping people was the way of the world, hurting people had to be wrong. The person doing the hurting needed help so they wouldn’t hurt people any more.

Readers may consider that a naive and unrealistic belief in a world full of violence, but I don’t want to change it. I like a world where helping people is simply what we do.

 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Baseball

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I took this picture in 2006 at Fenway Park. 19...

When people look at pictures of me as a small boy, they’re always surprised at how dark my skin is. In all the school photographs from first grade to seventh grade, when puberty dramatically shifted my trajectory, I had a dark chocolate complexion as if I’d spent my entire life in the Caribbean soaking up the rays.

That’s because from the age of seven to thirteen I spent all my waking hours outdoors in Santa Clara Valley sunshine, playing baseball.

Being indoors wasn’t much fun. My father was a chronically unemployed drunk, my mother worked her tail off to keep us barely above water and our home was full of stained and broken furniture. The shitty surroundings and the random appearances of my unpredictable, forever angry father made it impossible to have friends over due to the terror of embarrassment.

So I immersed myself in baseball. It was a time when every kid played baseball; it didn’t matter if you were any good or not. You could always find someone to play catch, or a couple of kids to play pinky or three flies up, or even enough kids to field a team if you agreed that right field was foul territory. When the kids on the street were inside eating dinner or doing their homework, I’d play by myself, throwing a tennis ball against the garage to create all varieties of grounders that I’d scoop up with an old Rawlings glove that was a bit too big for my genetically small hands. When I had to go inside, I’d scour old baseball magazines and re-read the box scores I’d already scanned that morning. At bedtime, I’d crawl into bed with my mitt and bat, and try to fall asleep on the lumpy, saggy mattress they called my bed.

Fortunately, my parents were both baseball fans, so whenever the Giants were on radio or TV, I could always listen and watch. During those times, we were all on the same wavelength, losing ourselves in baseball to forget about our dreary circumstances.

I played Little League, Pony League and Colt League; I played baseball in school all the way up to my sophomore year in high school. After starting my career as a second baseman, I moved to the outfield, where my speed and so-so arm turned me into a singles-hitting center fielder. My mom always came to my games, no matter how tired she was, and baseball seemed to lift her spirits for a while. My father came when he wasn’t on a bender, sometimes shaming me by badgering my manager in a drunken rant. These moments only affected me when I was sitting in the dugout between innings, for when I was on the ball field, I was completely immersed in the game. It wasn’t the immersion of a great baseball mind, however. Often I didn’t even know the score. It was a Zen-like focus on the particular moment: runners on first and second, the count two-and-one, left-handed batter up . . . better shade him a bit towards right field . . . react to the ball.

I remember one game where I was batting with runners on first and third, one out. I stepped out of the batter’s box to check the signs from the third base coach. He wanted me to bunt, so on the next pitch I faked a swing and eased my bat into the ball, placing it in no-man’s land too far for the third baseman and too awkward for the pitcher to reverse his motion after delivery. I tore down the first base line, made it to first easily and then found myself being mobbed by my teammates. I didn’t realize that I had just driven in the winning run. Rather than feeling like the hometown hero, I felt sad that the game was over and we weren’t going to play any more. It was still light out!

I didn’t want to go home.

I remember my first major league baseball game. Giants and Phillies, night game at Candlestick Park, final score 4-2 Giants. I guess the famous Candlestick wind and fog were creating frostbite symptoms throughout the crowd, but I didn’t notice. I had made it to the big leagues! Afterwards, my dad, in one of his rare nice-father moments, took me to a coffee shop nearby and bought me a maple bar that was probably left over from the morning donut pile but tasted like heaven to me. On the rare moments today when I indulge in a maple bar, I eat it very slowly, savoring every sweet and sticky bite, reveling in a rare, wonderful memory from childhood.

My last wonderful memory of baseball happened sometime in the early 1990’s, before the strike. I’d become a road warrior, and to alleviate the boredom of business trips, I resolved to visit every baseball stadium in the major leagues. I did Yankee Stadium, Wrigley and the abomination that they called The Metrodome.

This particular moment occurred at Fenway Park, before the luxury boxes sapped the ambiance. It was a day game, but began under overcast skies. Then, sometime in the top of the fourth, the sun came out, revealing the intense contrast between brilliant green grass and soft brown dirt. As the pitcher worked through the count, I took in everything: the emerald grass, the infielders in their still-clean home whites bending forward to get into position as the pitcher started his wind up, the light chatter among the fans, the left-field shadow from the Green Monster, the warming, glowing sun. A sense of tradition and history mingled with feelings of absolute enchantment with the beauty of this simple, inconsequential scene. I was entranced.

Baseball today is but a shadow of its glory. The 1994 strike pretty much ruined the game for me, with the ongoing steroid scandal delivering the coup de grace. There are too many teams and too many players in the major leagues, leading to a diluted talent pool and making it impossible to develop an intimate knowledge of player tendencies. Both owners and players are consumed with greed; the game isn’t played as much as it is played out. The World Series is now played at night, darkening the green grass and removing the sense of innocence that is somehow rekindled by the presence of sunshine.

I’ll still watch a game every now and then, searching for something that may be lost in the real world but will always exist in my soul. Baseball will always be connected with the sunshine that made my skin dark every summer and gave me hope that the world was not as dark as it seemed inside.

 

Poetry: Abandoned

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I don’t remember walking in the rain:

There are sparks of memory from that time

When showers pounded the streets and water

Plunged through the gutters, but I was always

Behind a window, warm and dry, confused

That I’d arrived at school without a drop

Staining my shopping mall wardrobe, knowing

The fields would become lakes, empty of life,

And the children would have to play inside

Or on blacktop until the earth was full.

But while I walked to school every day

In permanent sunshine, the long walk home

Ended in darkness—in a cold, dry place

Love had abandoned before I was born.