Tuesday, December 29, 2009

...and so it ends.

In August of 2004, I got started on this blog, asking "will I be the careful blog-gardener or the apathetic blog-slum lord?"

In five-plus years and 1126 posts, I was mostly the former. But lately, I've mostly been the latter. In fact, only my commitment to finishing the State Memories Project has brought me here at all lately. I haven't even been posting Letters to Hedgehog for the last couple of months.


I think there are three reasons.

First, life with a baby is quite crazy. It takes away from the quiet, solitary time I used to spend crafting my thoughts for public consumption.

Second, my Facebook account has become my go-to place whenever anything happens that I want people to know. I've had interesting thoughts to share in the past few months, and when I can do that in a few lines, it becomes a status update. On the half-dozen-or-so occasions when I've wanted to say more, it has become a Facebook note. I have more readers there, and they're all people with some connection to me, so I also get more response there.

Third, anonymous blogs like this one have become faded considerably in the past couple of years. My friends with blogs (like Jack Bog and Jim) blog under their names, and they still move along with surprising fruitfulness. I still read them--and I will as long as they're writing. But most of my friends who blog anonymously have given it up. While I have succeeded in maintaining anonymity here--in that first post, I was convinced it'd all fall apart one day, but I was pretty vigilant, and it never did--that anonymity makes this blog less likely to develop any kind of readership (not that it was ever a goal to get readers) and also, importantly, a little less fun to write.

Make no mistake--I've loved doing this. I've enjoyed it just about every step of the way. I think I'm a better writer, thinker, and friend. Indeed, much to my surprise, I've met many friends through this blog--actual people I hang out with (pankleb and Butterbean). That alone is worth the time I've put in. And the rest of you who are out there and have read me and even responded: I thank you. It felt good to be able to talk to people about the big stuff (I went pretty haywire for the last two presidential elections, as well as my new baby) and the little (see how often I write about Life Minutiae?).

But my default reaction to stuff I that crosses my mind, which for so long was "I have to blog about this," is no longer that. It has both been reduced and transmogrified into something that Facebook does more efficiently and for a better, more set audience.

So this is it...the announcement that anyone who has been paying attention knew was coming:

I'm hanging 'em up. I won't be coming back, at least not as TRP.

I'm actually feeling a little sad about that last sentence, since this has been a big chunk of the way I've expressed myself for so long. But I'll still be out there--just on different parts of the web. The referee website will continue. The new baseball website is gorgeous--I'm prouder of it than of anything I've ever done on the old web. And then, there's Facebook, where I'll occasionally write stuff that used to belong here.

But just like thousands of others that are ending lately, this page as it exists no longer suits my needs or wants as a writer or a person. And since I've always believed that a blog is there to serve the purpose of the writer, not the audience (not that I have much of an audience), there's no reason to continue.

If you read this regularly and are not friends with me on Facebook, feel free to send me an email (to the gmail handle of bloggingref). If you tell me who you are, I might fire off a friend request.

It's been fun riding out the blog fad with you, from near the beginning to here near the end. Surf around the past as much as you'd like--I'll keep this on-line, at least for the foreseeable future. But we've reached the end.

You know--the place where the love you take is equal to the love you make.

And we leave it there...with those last few chords of Abbey Road.

Now, I'll take the needle off before "Her Majesty" begins.

State Memories Project: Puerto Rico

I met Efrain during a Montreal Expos/Atlanta Braves game I attended in 2003, back when the Expos were playing several series a year in San Juan since nobody in Montreal seemed to know they existed. Yes, I flew all the way to Puerto Rico for this. (Quoth one friend: “I can’t believe you’re flying all the way to Puerto Rico to go to a baseball game.” My response: “That’s not true. I’m flying all the way to Puerto Rico to go to TWO baseball games.”

Efrain was an elderly man, there with his wife, who noticed me scoring the game. In labored English, he asked me: “Do you always do that?” I showed him my scorebook and said that yes, I always did that. That would have been it, except that shortly thereafter, the Braves turned a double play. Efrain turned to me and said “Six-four-three.” The next play, a grounder to third, I turned to him and said “Cinco-tres!”

Incredibly, my scorebook got us to talk a bit about baseball. I learned that he was a Braves fan, and an Andruw Jones fan in particular. While he struggled to find the word “defensive,” he let me know that he thought that Andruw Jones was the best defensive center fielder he’d ever seen…”and I’ve seen Willie Mays!”

It was marvelous. We were divided by generation, upbringing, race, and language, but we had a fantastic night talking about momentary baseball stuff. It was probably my favorite moment I’ve ever had at a baseball game…and that is saying something.

When he got up to leave for the night, he said “Well, brother, glad to know you.” In only a couple of hours, I got all the way to the appellation of “brother.” And that alone was worth the 8,000 mile round-trip. It solidified in my soul my need to travel far and wide to go to ballgames. Muchos gracias, Efrain.

State Memories Project: District of Columbia

My first trip to the Holocaust museum was in 1994 with Alison. I remember a few specific items from the museum itself. I carried a biography card you carry with you to develop a personal story as you walk through the Holocaust. And I remember seeing horrific pictures of Jewish women forced to strip down and humiliate themselves at gunpoint. There was something in the eyes of one of the women that stuck with me--a bit of “You think you’re breaking me, but there’s a part of me you’ll never be able to impact.” And there was a very grisly bit showing Nazis sawing bones up--to re-use them in some fashion, if I recall correctly.

But at some point along there--maybe the humiliated women exhibit, maybe the bones--I started to wonder whether I wanted to look at these things at all. It wasn’t a matter of wanting to avoid knowledge of the Holocaust--I read all of the captions alongside the exhibits. But once I’d done that, I had to make a decision--a conscious decision. Did I want to look at the naked woman in her moment of humiliation? Did I want to see the grisliness of bones being sawed in half?

Perhaps I was intellectualizing the whole experience, which is probably far from a good thing, but what I started doing was watching my fellow museum patrons to see how they responded. I recall one woman at the bones exhibit who had her eyes in contact with the video for maybe three tenths of a second before she literally recoiled and briskly walked away. I recall others looking closely.

Me? Well, I may have taken a coward’s way out. But it did leave me asking the right questions, I suppose. What is the proper way to look at ourselves at our worst? Can we stare too long? Too short? How exactly are we to act when faced with horror?

State Memoris Project: Wyoming

The summer after I graduated from Kenyon, my girlfriend flew out to Denver to hang out with me before I set off for Teach For America training. During that time, we took a road trip up to Montana to visit my sister. Since my girlfriend was handicapped—a spinal cord injury from when she was a kid—I had to drive the whole way. Incredibly, my dad let us use his Acura for the trip to make the driving easier on me. I was flabbergasted—it was a sure sign that he really liked my girlfriend.

We made it as far as Rock Springs, Wyoming on our first night. While I was there, I remembered that a high school acquaintance of mine (we did play-by-play for the local cable broadcasts of Columbine football and basketball) was a DJ at a radio station in Rock Springs. I found him in the phone book, called him, and we chatted for a while. He said he was the morning guy for KSIT (pronounced “kiss-it”…I know, ick) and asked if there was anything we’d like to hear the next morning. “Well, Lynn likes Madonna,” I said. He asked what time we’d be getting up. I told him.

Sure enough, the next morning, Amy and I got up and waited around in bed for a few minutes, and my old friend said “This is for my high school friends TRP and Lynn. [I guess, to expedite the dedication, he declared Lynn a high school friend by proxy.] Have fun in Yellowstone, guys.” Lynn and I bounced in the bed in a little seated dance as we got a Double Shot of Madonna...”Cherish” and “Respect Yourself,” if I recall correctly.

Haven’t heard from the guy since. Worth a Google...

Holy shit. I wish I hadn’t done that. Literally, in seeing what he was up to, I learned that my high school friend was convicted of a sex offense against a minor in Utah in 2004. I saw his mug shot for his required registration. Sad.

I’ll try not to let that impact the memory of him being so nice to us as we passed through, though, which is still my best Wyoming memory.

State Memories Project: Wisconsin

It’ll be baseball again. This is the last state memory with baseball in it, I promise. I tried to find a memory that sticks out more, and while I have a few (asking my grandma football trivia questions while dropping my brother off at camp in about 1980, hanging out with friends Chris and Rebecca and their adorable kids at the Madison Children’s Museum, abandoning a July 4th fireworks show with Chris and Rebecca on the Milwaukee Waterfront before it started because it looked like rain, and then arriving in the car right before a deluge), this one sticks out the most, so we’ll go with it.

In 2007, Swankette and I did a spring break baseball tour of the Midwest, and it involved a drive up to Appleton for a Wisconsin Timber Rattlers game. It was bloody cold, but we made it through the game in Clinton, Iowa the night before (gloves, hats, long underwear, etc.). So we got to Appleton ready for a tough night. Temperatures were in the 20s and wind chill down around zero. We got to the hotel and called to confirm that they would play the game.

They canceled it. Wimps.

I said that we were in from Seattle, we were not able to exchange the tickets for another night, and was there any way we could get a refund? The person we spoke to on the phone said that we couldn’t get a refund, but we could exchange our tickets for merchandise in the team store…and that the team store closed in 15 minutes.

SOLD! We jumped in the car, zipped to the ballpark, and ran into the store. The man there said “Really? He told you you could use your ticket money here? Let me go talk to him.”

10 minutes later, the guy we spoke to on the phone sheepishly arrived and said that, um, yeah, he shouldn’t have said that, we can’t trade in our tickets for merchandise, but if we waited, he could get us Timber Rattlers baseballs that were left over from last night’s giveaway. It took him a while to find them, and we wandered the frigid ballpark taking pictures. Finally, he arrived, and we donated our tickets to the charity fund.

I guess it’s better that the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Appleton (or whatever) got our tickets than it would have been for us to get a hat or whatever. But it was still a bizarre customer service moment.

State Memories Project: West Virginia

Another baseball memory, once again from the big 2006 trip.

Our West Virginia game was in Princeton, which is, as best as I can tell, the smallest city in the US with an affiliated minor league team. (Population: 6,000). Princeton as a town had absolutely zero to do--not very attractive or interesting. We decided we wanted to just chill for a couple hours in a bookstore—a nice prospect after being together in a minivan for 6 days. So we found a Yellow Pages and saw that the only bookstores in Princeton were Christian bookstores. Wow. So we drove down the road to Bluefield, where there was a Waldenbooks Express in a mall. Two-thirds of the store was dedicated to Christian books, and there were no places to chill. Thus it came to be that we spent that afternoon in a mall food court.

But that’s not the memory. The memory is of the ballgame. A guy saw my Everett AquaSox cap and said “Everett AquaSox?” Wow! I said yes, and explained that we were on a big minor league quest. His response: “You look like those kind of people.” Not sure what to make of that, but nice. He was so impressed that we had traveled so far that he gave us a free sledge-hammer whack at the car (in the “Hit A Car, Not A Pet” promotion). That was nice of him. Then, after the game, I nearly won $100 in the toss-a-ball-into-a-hula-hoop-on-the-field promotion. Came up JUST short.

But what I remember is that the general manager who had recognized us, on the field after the game said “Thanks! Drive safely! We love you!” Under most circumstances, that last sentence would feel really dorky and strange, but for some reason, at Hunnicutt Field in Princeton, West Virginia, it felt okay to me.

State Memories Project: Washington

It’s gotta be the wedding. Hedgehog’s birth was transcendent and wonderful, but it’s gotta be the wedding.

The entire weekend was exactly perfect with two exceptions: the heat and the SeaFair traffic between the ceremony and the reception. But rather than focus on the weekend—the AquaSox rehearsal dinner, the close friends, the family reading and leading prayers, the fantastic minister preaching about baseball, my sister not being able to maintain her composure for prayers, my best friends all singing a Kenyon Chasers hit that broke me 100% down…

well, I’ll focus on a tactile moment.

For the whole year leading up to the wedding, I told Swankette that I wouldn’t cry—that it was not really my style, that she shouldn’t be upset about it. She said it wasn’t a big deal.

But I 100% lost it, and I lost it at one moment exactly.

The ring. Swankette is eighteen inches from my face, and I’ve slipped the ring on her finger, and there she is slipping the ring on mine. And the tactileness of feeling that ring go on absolutely set me off. I’d never worn a ring before! Certainly not on that finger. And feeling that VOW happen…is there anything more beautiful than a vow made out of deep, wonderful love?...well, I absolutely lost it. I cried. I made it through the remainder of the vows, etc., but there were real tears. Then, when Swankette and I turned and knelt in front of the celebrant…much to our surprise, SHE was in tears. And we hadn’t known her that long!

I composed myself until the friend choir sang "Go Ye Now In Peace". It’s a sweet little song—nothing special—but it has incredible sentimental value to me, since it closed every Kenyon Chasers concert. Knowing that all of these people I loved were singing that song that meant so much to me…well it brought the serious waterworks. Repeated, quaking, massive sobs. Tearfest 2005.

I got it together, grabbed the baseball that the minister had used in the ceremony, and waited to greet people outside the church. Tears came and went all night long. I remember my friend Tom Spoon asking “Are you okay? Seriously, man, are you okay?” I wanted to shouted through my tears: “YES!!!”

My friend Andrew made it all better. Quoth he: “Finally. A man as emotional on his wedding day as I was.”

Thanks, Andrew.

But it all started with the ring. She put it on me that evening, and I’ll be buried with it. That’s damn exciting.

State Memories Project: Virginia

Stayed in a hotel in Alexandria one night when my nephew--who was 4 at the time--said something that totally cracked me up. As my sister was ready to take him back to the National Mall, he said, quite simply, "But I HATE the mall!"

But my better memory also occurred in Alexandria. I got together with a HS friend and sorta-kinda-girlfriend when we each were 31. All past stuff was long-since forgotten. Indeed, I had to set aside some current stuff, since she was writing a lot of stuff I passionately disagreed with in her role as policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation. But none of that mattered when we went out on a warm night and found a very cool busker on the streets downtown. He had gathered a crowd by playing wine glasses. He had a whole table of them and played them beautifully. He called up several people for an audience participation number, and I was among those called up. I followed his instructions for how to play a glass--each of us had one--and I kept that low note going as the underpinning for his rendition of the theme from Chariots of Fire.

My friend sat there smiling, watching while I played that note.

Old friends. Can't value them highly enough.

State Memories Project: Vermont

I’ve been to Vermont once: on an early March day in 1990. I was visiting my then-girlfriend over Spring Break at her home in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

We spent one day driving up to Robert Frost’s grave, which, if I recall correctly, is in Bennington—about a 45-minute drive up the road from Williamstown. (Google confirms this location…but says that the drive is only 20 minutes.) I don’t remember the grave. I remember a lot of mountains, and teasing my girlfriend because, to a Colorado boy, these mountains were puny. And I remember stopping at Friendly’s for lunch. It was a calm day—handholding in the cemetery, kissing in a couple of parking lots.

Love (or what I thought love was) and sex were both new then, and having an afternoon in lovely surroundings with my first really serious girlfriend sum up my memories of the few hours I was in Vermont.

State Memories Project: Utah

I drove through Utah as I moved out to Seattle in ’96. Stayed with friends and left my credit card at a restaurant…we managed to recover it the next day. Tipped the person handily.

My second time there was for Nationals in ’04. I had a Public Forum team qualify that year. One of the kids was a 14-year-old sophomore—actually, her birthday was in July, so she wasn’t even 14 yet--and it was I'm fairly sure, her first time away from her parents. I remember how very nervous she seemed…until about ten minutes after the plane landed. Then, she realized how fun this would be, and she had a fantastically wonderful time.

But the #1 memory is of my big sister Debby, who chaperoned for me that year. For her, that trip represented a similar first—the first time she’d been away from her children. She’d spent, I believe, perhaps every single night of her previous 12 years where my autistic nephew had been—and, of course, the two younger sons that were born 2 and 5 years thereafter. So heading down to Salt Lake City to judge some extemp was quite a step for her, too. Like my student, she was absolutely overjoyed at the chance to be on her own. At one point, while chilling out and reading a book uninterrupted, she said something to the effect of “Do you know that I haven’t had a SINGLE PERSON ask me a SINGLE QUESTION all day today? This is fantastic!” We spent some good sibling time together, walking through Temple Square and checking out the sights. We may have been having a little too good a time together, I guess, since one of the many horse-and-carriage operators came up to us and asked if we wanted a nice, romantic carriage ride around town. Needless to say, I totally broke out laughing. The carriage driver asked me why I was laughing.. “I have my reasons,” I said, and decided to leave it at that.

Fun week. I’ve always felt very tight with Debby, so it was great to get so much one-on-one time with her. And I know she felt the same way, even if it was merely to get her first kid-free week since becoming a mom.

State Memories Project: Texas

My most vivid memory from Texas is dark; too dark to be reproduced here, I think. So are some of the others--I've generally hit life nadirs in Texas. But here, I'll try to pick something positive.

Texas is where my friends and I would go when we wanted to get away from Leesville, Louisiana during my two years there. I recall one such instance where my friends and I wanted to see The Crying Game. Rest assured that wasn't going to make the multiplex in Vernon Parish, so we made it a part of a big Saturday: The Crying Game as a matinee, then Knicks at Rockets that night.

I was fortunate not to have been told the secret to The Crying Game before getting to the theater in Houston. Thing is, the movie would have been incredible without the secret--so much intrigue and double-think. But all of us were taken aback when that camera panned down Jaye Davidson's body. "No WAY!" was how my friend Michael described his thoughts. And as we left the theater, I said to my friends: "You're not going to believe this...but Patrick Ewing is actually a woman."

Then we grabbed a bite and made it to The Summit for the game, which was a fantastic one. It came down to Hakeem Olajuwon blocking a Greg Anthony coast-to-coast layup attempt as time expired. (And, looking at the box score, wow! 42 and 12 for Olajuwon, 20 and 15 for Ewing.) Can't get better than that--two really good teams playing a tight game.

Nor can you get better than a long field trip with friends.

State Memories Project: Tennessee

You’re probably noticing a disproportionate percentage of my state memories are baseball-related. That’s because so many of my vacations are baseball-related.

On the big baseball trip Swankette and I took with my geographer buddies in 2006, I was actually invited to a ballpark by a member of the front office of a team. I got an email from a nice guy named Dan saying he’d landed on my website looking for ideas for promotions and noticed I hadn’t been in Tennessee yet. He invited me. We already had a plan to head out that way, so we agreed to include Knoxville and the Tennessee Smokies on our trip, and he upsold me to a VIP package. It originally included a hat and one of us throwing out the first pitch; as there were four of us travelling, I got him to throw in an autographed baseball and an opportunity to announce a batter over the PA system. With my experience as a HS football PA man, it shouldn’t surprise you I jumped at the opportunity to do the latter.

The day was fantastic. My friend's first pitch was true, Swankette still displays the autographed baseball, and the other friend looked great in the hat. Dan sat with us for a few innings on a gorgeous warm night in the Smoky Mountains, and he and Swankette chit-chatted about life working for a minor league club (since she had done so in the past). They really put on a nice show…lots of activity, but NONE of it interfering with the baseball. I loved it.

Then, Dan escorted me up to the press box. I felt bad taking a batter from their PA man, since he was fantastic…a deep, gorgeous basso profundo with just enough of a drawl to let you know where you were. The press box featured mostly good-ol-boys; the scoreboard operator wore a glove. I was chatting with them and preparing for my moment when…WHAP!...Mark Reynolds of the Smokies (who has since been promoted to the Arizona Diamondbacks) absolutely slaughtered the baseball. It banked off the scoreboard in left center. PA guy got out a chart with distances and guestimated that the ball went 441 feet, and announced it as such. He held up a stuffed bear with a heartbeat to the microphone…that heartbeat sound reverberated throughout the ballpark.

Then…my turn. They introduced me as “VIP TeacherRefPoet.”

I tried to channel my PA hero, Bob Sheppard of the Yankees. Go slowly. Savor every syllable.

“Now batting…the first baseman…number thirty-one…Agustin…Murillo.”

Almost unbelievably fun.

He popped out to the catcher.

I am so glad Dan emailed (he’s now a Facebook friend) and so incredibly glad I let him talk me into the VIP package. It was more than worth every penny to intensify the memories of what was, on its own, already a gorgeous ballpark.

State Memories Project: South Dakota

Our family went on a trip to South Dakota in 1973—my dad was the featured speaker at some sort of anesthesiology shindig up there. So all six of us piled into a station wagon and headed to Rapid City.

I was only three years old, but I do have two memories of the trip that endure. The first is not that notable. We were staying in some sort of hotel that felt like a trailer park, at least in my memory. I do remember being in a hotel room and watching Match Game ’73.

The other one is more striking, and will serve as the actual #1 memory from the state. It’s really just one quick visual. I remember looking up at Mount Rushmore while being carried by my mother. What an intense visual! We were at some kind of visitors’ center, either behind a railing or possibly even indoors in front of a gigantic window. But I remember being quite impressed.

Strange. If I was three, my mother and father were both 34—significantly younger than I am now. I remember my parents at a younger age than I am now.

State Memories Project: South Carolina

When Swankette, me, and our geographer friends stopped to see the Charlotte Knights play ball in 2006 (the stadium is across the state line in South Carolina), the night ended memorably. The game, alas, didn’t end. In the tenth inning, with the score tied at 3, a huge storm started. With lightning still far away and men on base for the home team, the umpires let them play in the awful rain for fairly long—five minutes or more—hoping to end the game with a run in the bottom of the inning. But when the Knights’ Casey Rogowski grounded into a double play, they immediately dragged out the tarp and everyone—including us—ran for the parking lot. (They completed the game the next day without us. And, by the way, I didn’t remember Rogowski’s name or the fact it was a double play. I had to dig out the scorebook for that detail.)

After our mad sprint to the car through sheets of rain and with thunder getting ever louder, we sat in the traffic leaving the ballpark to begin the scary drive to our hotel in Hickory, NC. And while we all sat in the car, the Knights decided to set off the scheduled postgame fireworks even though the game technically hadn’t ended. Thus, we were treated to quite a lovely visual: the stadium lights in the foreground, the fireworks behind them, and a lightning storm well behind them. Efforts to capture the dramatic visual in a photo were fruitless, but I remember that combination of natural and man-made fireworks. It was intensely beautiful.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Letter to Hedgehog: Months Seven and Eight

Dear Hedgehog,

I write this during morning boy duty. Your mom and I invented this over the summer so that she could get some approximation of sleep after waking up multiple times overnight to feed you. That's right: a teacher got up at 6 to 7 AM every day over the summer to hang out with you. Remember this when you're a teenager for two reasons: one, it will prevent the "you never did anything for me" teenage attitude, and two, if you know this is a consequence of fatherhood, it will make it FAR LESS LIKELY you'll have unprotected sex.

I'm actually kidding. Because while I don't spend every second of the mornings mooning over you (as this moment on the computer shows), it has become among my favorite times to hang out with you. It's nice and quiet and you're usually in a good mood fresh off your overnight sleep. I just put you on the floor and let you roll around, checking out a bunch of toys and the cat. This morning, you're working hard on the letter D. Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da. Is this indicating an affection for me or for surrealism? Probably neither...probably just phonics practice. Now you eye the cat. now you grab your links and do a 360 roll over towards your mom's old Tigger.

Sounds have become wonderful in the last month. You're a fan of blowing raspberries, which your mom and I enthusiastically join in on. And there's the motoroboat noise at all pitches. That can't be easy to do. A friend reminded me yesterday that the motorboat is a good singing warmup, so I'm starting to harbor fantasies of you singing down the road. We shall see.

Hold on. You've backed yourself into a corner. Have to go save you.

Yeah, that's another thing--you're far more mobile than you were even a couple of weeks ago. You're RIGHT on the edge of crawling...for the past 72 hours or so, you've been getting up on your hands and knees and thinking very intently about what comes next, but rather than moving forward, you sort of do a pelvic rocking. Not that you need to crawl...you're moving around very nicely via rolling and pivoting on your belly. That gets you darned near anywhere you want to go. And the sitting...LOVE the sitting! We put a few toys around you and watch it happen.

You're just grabbed a cup and are talking into it. I'm not sure you understand acoustics yet, but you're into the echo.

I know I've said this before, but NOTHING beats a baby laugh. I'm often surprised at what you find funny. The other day, while your mom slept (never, EVER wake a sleeping mommy), I took you downstairs. We have old lighting down there, with a string-pull to turn on lights. The previous owners have tied up a shoulder-pad on one of the strings to make it easier to grab. While you laid underneath it, I started punching it like it was the heavy bag. You watched it bounce off the ceiling and swing around, and you laughed uproariously. Needless to say, I gave myself quite a workout on that shoulder pad.

Your biggest physical change is that bottom tooth. It now just out a ways, so your smile has this one white bump in it. Awesome.

The challenge is to really, really focus on the way you look and act every day because it's guaranteed to be totally different within a few days. I do think you're more adorable than any baby ever, and it's entirely possible I'd think that even if you weren't mine.

You keep on developing like a good boy. My new goal for you is that you'll win all of the Nobel Prizes in the same year. That'd be awesome.


Sunday, October 04, 2009

State Memories Project: Rhode Island

I was reading a book as I traveled by train from Boston to New York on one of my baseball trips. When the train came to a stop, I looked up and saw the signs indicating we were at the Providence train station. “Huh,” I thought. “Looks like I’m in Rhode Island.” I then resumed reading.

State Memories Project: Pennsylvania

My most vivid memory of Pennsylvania is a bit of a downer. It’s the reason that I quit my MFA in poetry writing and is related to some of my darker moments of the soul. I can recall the 15-minutes-or-so that most rocked my world, but I fear it would take too long—too much backstory. Ask me about it sometime if you'd like. I can give the unabridged version.

So, for this one-page synopsis, I’ll focus on a positive memory…my first poetry reading in December of 1994. Hemingway's, a restaurant on Forbes Street, hosted readings by MFA students—one poet and one fiction writer for each reading. When I heard about it at the start of the year, I signed up for the last date possible (if memory serves, it was Monday, December 5, 1994, but memory may not serve). The goal was to give myself a chance to write as much cool stuff as I could that semester.

A good buddy came down from State College, and I expected a small crowd--just him and a gathering of my friends in the program. Much to my astonishment, the joint was PACKED. Not a seat was empty…and most of the people were strangers. I later learned why: the TAs of intro-to-poetry-writing and intro-to-fiction-writing courses required their students to attend and review one reading during the semester. Since mine was the last reading of the semester, I had every procrastinating creative writing undergraduate at the university watching me at Hemingway’s that night.

In the weeks leading up to my reading, I decided the best route for me to go was to read all of my funny stuff and all of my sex stuff. It was a cheap out, but it was my first reading and I DESPERATELY wanted to be liked. My work paid off. They laughed when they needed to laugh, focused when they needed to focus. If I have any talent, it’s the ability to own a room. My little anecdotes between poems went over nicely. The last poem, “How to Dance,” was an especially big hit, as was one called “Overheard at Harvard.” Some of the poetry was good, some not-so-good, but the fact is, I took a room full of mostly-strangers and had them in the palm of my hand for a half hour. My friends gave me many handshakes and back-slaps. The TAs of the intro-to-poetry classes told me that their students universally liked my reading. I know I liked it too, and I loved—LOVED—the feeling of being in the spotlight with just my poetry to hold attention. I liked it even more than I like singing, acting, or teaching—and that is saying something.

State Memories Project: Oregon

I think the day I decided to marry Swankette is the day that I told her that I wasn’t asking her to marry me. Let me explain.

We took a huge trip down the Oregon coast in 2004—our second annual 4th of July Minor League Road Trip. After games in Seattle and Tacoma, Michelle drove me down the Oregon Coast to the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Lincoln City. That’s a hotel where each room is decorated in honor of an author. She got the Hemingway room, where we had a romantic evening surrounded by many, many dead animals. We then hit ballparks in Eugene and Portland. My memory is of the Lincoln City day.

We stopped at Mo’s to have cheap fish sticks over the ocean, and my nerves got the best of me. I knew that, after two and a half years of dating, Swankette and I were approaching the point of no return. I was pretty sure I wanted to marry her, but hadn’t yet worked through the deep, intense analysis that I give all decisions (let alone the most important one of my life). I was worried that Swankette was expecting a ring that trip; a ring I didn’t have. So, as we waited for our fish sandwiches, I sort of blurted out: “Swankette, I’m not going to be asking you to marry me on this trip. Just so you know.” Yeah, I really was that smooth.

Her response: She laughed. Sweetly. That oh-that-is-so-typical-of-you-to-worry-like-that laugh. It was splendid. It was precisely what I needed. It relaxed me for the rest of the trip, and relaxed me in the relationship. In retrospect, I think that was the moment that I knew it would happen. Her calmness is a really good ballast for my intensity, and that moment proved it.

So I didn’t propose on that trip at the start of July. I proposed at the end of August instead.

Friday, September 18, 2009

State Memories Project: Oklahoma

Two of my all-time favorite students, Katelyn and Sarah, qualified for Nationals in Student Congress at the University of Oklahoma in 2001. On the Sunday before the tournament started, we went to the Alfred P. Murrah Building memorial downtown. It was gorgeous in its simplicity…168 empty chairs…19 of them a little smaller than the others. I’d have to say it’s more impressive than any similar memorial I’ve ever been to.

The day we happened to visit, however, was the day before Timothy McVeigh’s execution. Therefore, quite a few family members seeking closure were visiting, heading out to their lost loved ones’ chairs (only family are allowed off the paths to touch the chairs). Additionally, there were TV crews and cameras from around the country crawling all over the joint.

I remember a woman from somewhere in the Caribbean leaning in front of a camera and saying something like “Barbados says hello! Hello from Barbados!” when the cameraman very professionally and politely replied “Excuse me, ma’am, could you please step aside so I can film the family member down there?” (Paula, my coach at Columbine and one who knows something about media hordes descending on tragedy, later told me that the woman was doing the family a favor by keeping the camera off of them.)

Katelyn, Sarah and I then wandered along the mourners’ fence, where people leave tokens of remembrance for the victims. I was most moved by a Columbine HS discount card…perhaps left by a CHS debater? As we were wandering, occasionally talking about some items we saw, we were interrupted by a professional-looking young woman.

“Hi. Would you guys mind wearing this microphone? Just keep walking and saying what you’d normally say, but would you wear this microphone while you do it?”

Turns out she was from the local Fox station in Boston. We were going to be on the news back there.

If I had it to do over again, I’d have refused the microphone, but I wore it, and Katelyn, Sarah and I wandered the wall, perhaps over-aware of what we were saying, but trying to act normal and appropriately reverent—while miked for an audience of strangers.

It is a testament to the memorial that the dignity of the place won out over the circus atmosphere.

State Memories Project: Ohio

I’m not a fan of the “best years of our lives” label, since there are so many ways to measure that. Nonetheless, Kenyon is #1 in many of those measures. I learned so much, pushed my mind more than at almost any time since, and made friendships that hold strong 20 years later. It is for that latter reason that my best memory from Ohio is not from my actual time at Kenyon, but from a reunion in May 2001.

Chasers, the a cappella group I was a part of, has reunions every four years or so. The only one I’ve been able to attend was that year. Most of the key representatives from my era (which I classify as the classes of 1988-ish to 1996-ish) were there, albeit with a dearth of women. One tenor buddy of mine, brought a camera to record stuff. I showed him my belly button lint. We rehearsed like bonkers, partied like crazy, and put on a concert where I sang my big hit “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” As another buddy put it, “I can’t remember ever getting so little sleep—and wanting so little sleep.” It was basically a 3-day-long party.

On Sunday, after all official reunion activities had ended, we gathered at a married Chaser couple's house in nearby Mount Vernon. I caught up with a lot of people who genuinely cared about what had gone on in my life. One, an English teacher at Mount Vernon High, listened to the latest political travails from my school. Another, a guy who graduated in 1988 and therefore had never shared a day with me at Kenyon or as a Chaser, listened to a particularly difficult life era of mine (the Pitt saga) and nearly cried. That’s how close we were.

But what I’ll remember most is the laughing. The amount of laughing that transpired actually put me in physical pain, but we just couldn’t stop. Almost none of what was funny will translate well here, but I’ll try to highlight the biggest laugh of the day..

We had filmed a really-god-awful Christmas special for the recording studio that we used (the largest studio in Pataskala, Ohio!). Libby Benson, the star of that recording label, was almost unwatchably cheesy that day. The conversation moved forward, and suddenly we wondered…what was she up to?

Hello, Google.

Libby had a website (which I cannot find right now, I'm afraid) that was so hilarious that we couldn’t stop laughing. She had contributed the theme song to the “In Memory of Pets” website, singing about people’s late, lamented Fidoes and Fuzzballs. She received a letter of commendation from Norman Schwazkopf for sending her Christmas special to the troops in Desert Storm. (Fortunately not our Christmas special…I couldn’t have that on my conscience.) And she wrote poetry so bad that we invented a game: the challenge was to read one whole Libby Benson poem, called “Touch Someone,” without laughing. Anyone who could make it through the 25 lines of lamentable free verse without cracking couldn’t get through the last lines, which had a fantastic typo: “if you/really and truly/took the time/to youch someone.”

The whole weekend had been amazing, and it ended with uncontrollable laughter and deep love. I love Kenyon. It fostered friendships deeper and more intense that any I’ve had the privilege of knowing.

State Memories Project: North Dakota

I took the train across North Dakota on my big 1993 trip; I traveled all the way from Elyria, Ohio (the woman who was the high point of that summer lived there) all the way to East Glacier Park, Montana, (where my sister lived) with some intermediate stops for friends and baseball. North Dakota was not one of the stops.

As I headed eastbound, back to Ohio, a young woman sat next to me. She was 18, and I was 23 and very much on the prowl, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I noticed she had fantastic breasts. We talked for hour after hour as I tried to keep my eyes somewhere above her neckline. I even recall us talking about her breasts at some point, and her saying that some of her friends called her “big-titted bitch.”

The train stopped in Minot, where we could get off for about a half hour to stretch our legs. We did so, and I stood there and cracked corny jokes. She paused at one point out on the train platform, looked at me through the twilight, and said something like “You’re weird.” It felt affectionate.

She got off the train to start her new life with her boyfriend sometime in the middle of the night. I recall getting a hug. I don’t remember her name, but I remember the breasts. God, am I ever a stereotypical male. But that’s my best memory of North Dakota.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The health care debate. It's personal, damn it.

My wife goes public with our story.

If a government bureaucrat helps someone else avoid this evil afternoon we had to endure (and evil is the only word for it), then please, let's start socialism immediately.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Letter to Hedgehog: Months Five and Six

Dear Hedgehog--

The last two months have been so busy for the whole family that I didn't ever get around to writing a month five letter. But I'll update you on the whole thing now. This letter with therefore be longer and harder to follow than the others. Sorry about that--but your English teacher dad has earned a few writing mulligans, and I'll cash some of those in now.

I have heard parents say that they simply stop traveling once they have kids because it's too much of a hassle. But your mom and I like traveling so much that we don't want to make that kind of sacrifice. I was certainly brought up that way by my parents...I went on my first hike (forget the destination) at the age of two weeks. Your mom and I are not terribly outdoorsy people, as you've probably discovered, but we do like to go out to the ballpark, and that's a place you've been often already.

Back before you were born, your Grandma RefPoet's family decided that they wanted the summer of 2009 to be a summer we all got together on the shores of Lake Michigan up in the pinkie of Michigan. We've been there fairly often before--I remember three separate times I made the trip to hang out with my aunts and uncles--and even before you were around, we knew we'd want to be there. A chance to play Pass The Baby with all my siblings, all of your cousins, a bunch of grandparents and second cousins...there were 20 of us there in all. We couldn't pass that up. So even after the economy went into the toilet and some of us considered being frugal and cancelling the trip, we all decided to spend the money and go anyway. As I said to my dad, "There are costs to going, but I think there are greater costs to NOT having this experience."

Your mom and I got a really good deal on a plane ticket...to Milwaukee, which is 8 hours from the condo we were staying at. So we decided to make a big trip out of it, heading into Milwaukee, doing a baseball game in Appleton, enjoying a fairly leisurely drive across the U.P., and then resting in Glen Arbor for a week before taking the trip back to Milwaukee...this time via your second cousins in Chicago.

Ambitious? Yes. Foolhardy? We didn't know.

So we decided to test it out before doing it for real.

We determined what a similar drive was from our house in Vancouver and took it as a test.

So it came to be that you had your first real baseball road trip at the age of 4 and a half months. Our seventh annual 4th Of July Minor League Baseball Road Trip was your FIRST annual baseball road trip. We took a 3 hour drive to the Tri-Cities, a 6-hour drive to Missoula, and another 6-hour drive back to Yakima, before doing one-last 3-hour drive home.

(By the way, as a baby, you've already been on Diamondvision screens four times. The cameras seek you out--you're a charmer.)

As we went on the trip, we discovered some rules to go by.

1. If you're asleep, we don't stop. No matter how enticing some side of the road thing is, we pass it up. And until hunger or bathroom needs are horribly oppressive, we'll keep you sleeping and get some miles behind us.

2. When you're awake, we'll stop pretty often to let you squiggle. Rest areas are best. And, indeed, I made a pre-trip list of TONS of state parks we could stop at along the route just in case you needed squiggle time. While you were cranky in the car occasionally, you were always pretty thrilled to be stopped and checking out the trees in some new place.

3. Every stop--even if me and your mom were just getting a candy bar and a bathroom break--featured boob time for you.

4. Sit-down meals are vastly preferable for all of us.

5. Dad is better at entertaining--but mom is better in the back seat because she's better at calming.

6. On the plane, at Alison's suggestion, we brought a bag of earplugs. Before we took off, we offered them to people in the rows around us. On all four legs of the trip, only one person took us up on our offer, although many others said they'd let us know if things got bad. But you never got bad. You chilled through the entire trip--only minor fusses. Our seatmates--who we'd won over as allies with our offer of earplugs--without fail talked about how awesome you were. They were right.

Hedgehog, you were so very good on that first trip! Sure, you got fussy. But I don't think it was the driving, to be honest. I think it was the boredom. Your seat still faces backwards, and when I lean over to figure out what you can see...well, you can't see a blasted thing from back there--just seat and sky.

Once we developed our rules--and perhaps once you had some experience with long trips--you were an absolute SUPERSTAR on the trip around Lake Michigan. And while I won't delude myself into thinking you'll have memories from this age, I can't help but wonder whether you'll come away with a sense of adventure from all of this.

(Incidentally, early returns indicate that you like sand, can live with or without water, and, like the Pacific Northwest native that you are, you're not a fan of sunshine.)

We're taking a quick plane trip to Las Vegas for our Fantasy Football draft next month. You're too young to gamble, but we'll sit by the condo pool a bit and see if we can't bring you to Circus Circus. Even at six months, you deserve as much of the Vegas experience as is possible. (Perhaps you'd enjoy topless shows. The experience for you would be much like the experience at the buffet table for me.)

After Vegas, we don't know when we'll travel next, but I'm confident you'll be ready for action whenever and wherever we go.

I have to tell you how immensely you've impacted my mindset on some things. I attended a student funeral last month...not one of my students, but a great kid who debated for a rival high school. I wanted to be there to pay tribute to her, but more to support her coach, who's a valued friend. I've been to student funerals before, and they've obviously been difficult. But going to this funeral--one for a kid I didn't know nearly as well--was harder than all of the previous funerals put together, and that's simply because of the fact of your existence. They had a slide show, and when I looked at this girl's baby pictures...well, it was just devastating--immeasurably more than before.

I hate it when people say this, but it's true--everything's so wildly different now that I can't imagine what life was like before.

And it's all very fun. My perfectionism frustrates me sometime because I so want everything to go beautifully for you, but it's still fun. These six months have felt like far more than that...time has actually slowed down for me. Summer vacation hanging out with you has helped that, actually...daily morning walks with you in the Beco provided loads of quality time. But I do think I'm succeeding in savoring our time together. In fact, I think that savoring has slowed time a bit--and since I'm given a finite amount of time on this planet, I'm grateful to you for that gift.

Incidentally, you're still good-looking. People coo you everywhere. One woman at the coffee shop even said "Wow, there's a real Gerber baby."

In any event, I appreciate you a heck of a lot. The world is better with you in it. And as you gain more skills (you're right on the edge of sitting, you've started eating (asparagus and bananas are early favorites), I'm enjoying the ride. I just hope you continue to be as happy as you seem.

Much love,

State Memories Project: North Carolina

My first trip to North Carolina was for Nationals in 2002. My second was for baseball—one of the best baseball experiences I’d ever had.

Asheville, NC is an incredibly gorgeous city—one I knew nothing about and was thrilled to discover. I had vegan nachos for dinner, served by a gorgeous tattooed granola girl named Jill. She invited me back to enjoy the fiddler they’d have playing that evening, but alas, I’m not into fiddling.

From my nachos, I went to McCormick Field, probably the most gorgeous ballpark I’ve ever been to. They’ve literally carved it out of the side of a mountain…there’s rock right alongside the left-field concourse. As I closed out my 2005 baseball trip (which began in Miami and ended here), I found myself enjoying a fantastic 1-0 pitchers duel (won by the Kannapolis Intimidators’ Ray Liotta over the Asheville Tourists’ Ching Lo).

But there was more than the game. I won two—TWO—contests that night. First, I won the trivia contest because I knew what former Asheville Tourist had homered in the opening game that season. And second, I threw a tennis ball into a hula hoop on the field after the game. For that, I also won.

After the game, I went to pick up my prizes. For the tennis ball, I won my choice of prizes from a box of cheap crap (I selected a computer mouse in the shape of Jeff Gordon’s NASCAR car). For the trivia, I won a 12-pack of Sierra Mist.

Problem: I was flying home the next morning. What the hell was I going to do with a 12-pack of Sierra Mist?

The answer was walking right by me. The victorious Kannapolis Intimidators were walking by on their way to boarding their bus. I stopped one of their stragglers (hitting coach Scott Long) and asked if the team would like some soda. He thanked me, shook my hand, and took the pop.

The way the stadium was set up, I was able to look into the bus from where I was in the stadium. So I watched as green soda cans popped up throughout the bus, gradually working from the front to the back. It was a cheap thrill. But what good is a gift if the receiver doesn’t know it’s a gift?

I tried to take a picture of a guy in the back holding his soda. It was a bad idea, of course, since it was night and the bus had tinted windows. But the guy saw me and started mugging. I mimed for him to hold up the soda. He did. Then I tried—by pointing at the pop and then pointing at myself—to indicate that the soda was a gift from me.

While there’s no way in hell he understood that, I sort of hope he did. And I hope someone makes it big and remembers my gesture (although, four years later, I still don’t recognize any major league names on the roster).

State Memories Project: New York

This is probably going to be a “you had to be there” event, but whatever. It was a night that I laughed until I hurt, and I don’t see how that can be beat.

Chamber Singers tour stopped in Buffalo in 1992 a few days after we were in Connecticut. We stayed with host families, and after our performance in a church that evening, we started the customary dance of people who didn’t know us trying to find us by asking around. Much to my surprise, a nice woman, 60 or so, walked right up to me. “Are you TRP?” I said I was, and asked her how she knew.

“Well, first I found Josh, who will also be staying with us tonight. Somebody told me to look for a football players, so that’s how I found him [Josh was quite buff]. When I asked him how I’d find you, he said to look for a stick with arms and legs, and that brought me right to you!” This was the first of many heavy laughs that night.

Our host family, the Schlifkes, took us out for pizza, beer, and wings. Buffalo, bay-bee! When we walked into the place, we were pleasantly surprised to find another set of Kenyon men, Neil, Bryon, and my good friend MCMC [see Indiana]. We sat with them and talked all night long.

I remember asking Mr. Schlifke about what was up with the Buffalo Bills, who had recently dropped their second Super Bowl. He responded defensively. MCMC and I, both from Denver, stated that we knew Super Bowl losses well. “In fact,” MCMC said, “Denver has lost more Super Bowls than any other team.”

“No, MCMC," I responded. "The Vikings have lost four as well. Please do your research.”

“I was not aware of the Minnesota issue!”

Yeah, it’s not as funny here.

Later, I started a very, very long story, and when I got to the end of it, I could not remember my host family’s name. So I wound up substituting a lyric from a Brahms song we were doing: “[wrapping up long story]…So, that’s how I became an English major, Mrs….Schaffe in mir Gott ein rein herz…”

Trust me, it was really hilarious. And, like the Connecticut stop a few days earlier, it was a welcome and enjoyable diversion from the daily grind of performances. I appreciated the Schlifkes’ sense of humor, the pizza, and the friends.

As this blog slowly dies...another is born

James Rosenzweig, a former colleague and continuing friend, has started an ambitious and interesting project (with an associated blog). James will read every work that has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction/novels. He's started in 1918 and will go right on forward to the present day. He's blogging as he reads, and inviting comments (it appears one need not read the books to comment on the blog, much like in our English classes...)

Check it out. Read along. Comment. He's an awesome dude.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Strange request from my wife

My wife and I are going on vacation starting on Saturday (baby's first plane flight...wish us luck). We're already more or less all packed--tomorrow I shall clean house so it's nice when we get back here, we'll go to the sports bar for dinner, and we'll get up obscenely early on Saturday to head out of town.

Swankette had a fairly good idea. If we're cutting it close in our connection, she'll Moby the boy and I'll be the Sherpa, responsible for stroller, car seat, and my backpack. And, since it's easier/safer to run quickly with things than with a baby, she'll want me to sprint ahead of her to get to the gate.

She asked me this today. But it's HOW she asked me that alarmed me.

Here's what she said:

"Sweetie, would you be willing to do an O.J.?"

(Remember back when that meant running through an airport? It doesn't really mean that anymore.)

State Memories Project: New Mexico

I was 13 when we visited Uncle Rick and his family in Albuquerque and headed down to Carlsbad Caverns. The caves were gorgeous, and have certainly stuck in my mind. But the move vivid memory is from the restaurant the night before.

The town was Whites City, an assemblage of tourist crap at the opening of the cave. There was, as I recall, some sort of Mexican buffet in the restaurant there. It was quite expansive. I had a thing for hot food, and liked being that far south for Mexican fare. So I piled a whole lot on my plate, including 3-4 jalapenos.

“Are you sure you want all those? They’re pretty hot,” my mother suggested, kindly.

“No! I’ve had these before. I can handle them,” I replied.

What I had had before was, I believe, banana peppers alongside my salad at the Pizza Hut. In case you were wondering, those are NOT jalapenos.

I turned many, many colors. Liquid oozed out both nostrils and both eyes.

It was hell. I think Dante may have written about this feeling.

For about 5 minutes (but it felt far longer), I ran back and forth to the salad bar trying to find something that would take the hothothothot out of my mouth.

Water? Hell no.

Bread? Forget it.

Cola? Surely you jest.

About a billion other things? None worked.

I was stuck with this torturous maximum-spice all over until finally we came upon the solution at the salad bar: cottage cheese made it go away. I don’t like cottage cheese much, but you will never hear me speak ill of it again, as it saved me on this day.

I haven’t eaten a jalapeno since. Nor will I again.

State Memories Project: New Jersey

I stayed with my high school buddy Brooklyn in Weehauken, right across the river from Manhattan, during my trip to NYC for baseball in 1999.

On my last night there, we were in his tiny little basement apartment, and I was lying in bed on the other side of a curtain where he was practicing piano (actually, keyboard). He offered to play with headphones, but I said no--I enjoyed listening to him play. After working on whatever it was he was working on, Brooklyn started playing a 16-bar blues vamp with his left hand. And I’m not sure how we started this game, but I started shouting things that he should play with his right hand while maintaining the blues lick with his left. “Play Hill Street Blues!” I demanded. He’d play the theme from Hill Street Blues while keeping the blues up. (It didn’t sound good.) “Play Flight of the Bumblebee!” He did. It’s not a match for a blues bass line. “Play Rachmaninoff!” He did. Damn hard to do under any circumstances, but even harder with blues on the left hand.

I'm not sure I know anyone else capable of doing this on demand. Nice job, Brooklyn.