“You Can Hit Off This Guy!” – On line drives and creative home runs

baseball

The following event is a true story.

It was the bottom of the ninth with two outs and the tying run on first – a typical nail-biter scenario for baseball other than the fact that I was the one next up to bat. The significance of my being at bat was tri-fold: 1) I hadn’t had a base hit all season; 2) therefore my teammates had no confidence in me and; 3) subsequently I had no confidence in myself.

At the plate I faced a kid rumored to have a weak arm. With a little luck maybe I could get a hit, see what happened after that. This was a straw to grasp for. Maybe I would get lucky.

The first pitch zinged over the plate and the umpire shouted out a definitive, “strike!” Familiar, and anyway what did I expect? I hadn’t even swung the bat.

The next pitch flew at me and kind of hovered. This time I did swing, and the metallic echo of the aluminum as it contacted the hard white ball manifested in a shiver down the handle of the bat. The ball careened overhead and out of play. Foul ball, strike two. Things were going as expected.

The third pitch whipped through the air and dove outside the plate as the umpire shouted, “ball!” and the runner at first bolted for second. The ensuing bounce and bobble at home assured a stolen base. Suddenly things grew tense. Everything hung in the balance. Chance was floating above the field, apparently drawn by the cruel irony of my situation. We were halfway home, and halfway finished, and it all depended on how I swung my bat.

From the dugout someone shouted, “You can hit off this guy!”

The bulky plastic batter’s helmet was hot and heavy on my head. My scalp itched and there was sweat running down my face. The sun felt like a spotlight. The crowd was silent but for a few children squealing across the lawn behind the bleachers. The inevitable was about to happen.

The fourth pitch whizzed through the air. To my eyes it was growing bigger, spinning, the white orb of it filling my vision like an asteroid on a collision course with the planet of my head. A sensation appeared and then grew inside my chest. It spread with electric resonance into my shoulders and through my skinny little arms. Reaching, I swung the bat in an awkward arc and knocked the ball straight down the third base line.

Chaos ensued.

The runner at second skittered halfway to third as the baseman scrambled to find the ball. Coaches were shouting and waving. The road to first stretched out before me like purgatory. When had the distance become so great? I quietly contemplated. Who in the world had decided that such a distance was reasonable in the face of these urgent circumstances?

I jammed my foot into the soft dirt and almost stumbled. My legs had become incredibly soft, boneless, barely sustaining the weight of my body, the enormous batting helmet tugging backward on the dome of my head. My feet were spinning but I was going nowhere fast.

After an impossible delay I made my way toward first base. The third baseman had found the ball and sent it across the diamond like a speeding bullet of destiny. Long before I arrived the ball sailed past my vision, off the glove of the first baseman, and out of the field of play. The runner at second was rounding third and I was on my way to second. As the tying run crossed home plate an errant toss to second from first sent the ball to midfield. The coach at third waived me on, and exasperated, because really I wanted to be done for a moment, I bolted for third, glad at least that some feeling had returned to my legs. And upon reaching third I was sent toward home, the impossibility of pulling off this tiniest miracle looming before me like a great cosmic joke. I had nowhere else to go, however, and so I rambled on. The ball, that most egregious device of pain and frustration in my childhood, pursued me like a hornet as I hurtled home.

I don’t recall whether I slid, dove, and ran through upright, but the fact is, if I didn’t beat the ball I tied with it – and the tie goes to the runner.

The elation was surreal. All manner of bouncing, waving, jumping teammates converged on the plate. I was half lifted into the air and carried away. I don’t remember the sounds of the crowd, no flash of bulbs, and no pre-teen girls swooning over my accomplishment. I don’t think I looked back to where I had just been. For all I remember that was the last baseball game I ever had to endure the agony of playing. Probably not, but it was the most memorable.

The creative life is full of strikeouts. No matter how much practice one puts in there are going to be a lot of whiffs. While none of us set out to swing and miss, we also know we can’t hit many homers – even if only in-field homers – without taking swings. Let this be a shout from the dugout for your creative life. “You can hit off this guy!” Once you get that in your head you’ll be fine. Swing away.

Tell me more: is there a childhood experience that influenced your call to creative living?

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Proper Perspective When Your Pet (Project) Dies

gerbilFritz was, in a manner of speaking, a very good friend of mine. He had come into my life after the untimely demise of William Jr., a mouse I had caught in a live trap, relocated to a hamster cage, and befriended before he escaped and later had his neck snapped in a regular trap. So distraught was I over the murder of my friend William Jr. that my parents, no doubt grief-stricken and ashamed, promptly replaced William with a more suitable rodent – Fritz. Fritz the gerbil.

Fritz lived in the same rodent cage that William had occupied, but being a gerbil he was incapable of escaping the narrow bars that William had so deftly Houdinied through and remained safely in my care. In hindsight I can’t say much that’s positive about keeping a rodent for a pet. Maybe rats. Rats are smart. Gerbils, not so much. Perhaps that is why one day, many months after Fritz had joined my pre-pubescent world (a world in which animals were superior to humans in every way), he inexplicably attacked my little brother, scurrying at the finger my brother offered through the narrow bars and biting clean through little toe-head’s fingernail. I’m sure that whatever prompted Fritz to bite my brother was related to the fact that the next day, much to my shock and horror, I found Fritz laid out as if stretching after a great sleep, eyes squinted closed, long rodent teeth exposed in a grimace, legs reaching fore and aft. A stretch he never recovered from. Fritz was dead.

I was a sensitive child. Fritz’s death broke open the flood gates of my lament in a torrent. First William Jr., now Fritz the Gerbil. Sobbing, I carried my deceased rodent out to the edge of the field where William had once lived. A golden field of weeds and mouse holes and dirt stretching a quarter mile to the next neighbor’s house. There I dug a shallow grave in the chalky earth and chunked Fritz in the hole. It was as unceremonious as that. My grief passed relatively quickly. In a few weeks the hot summer days cooled toward fall. The winds picked up. Life returned to normal.

We had dogs. These dogs were only a little wild, being otherwise fairly well-mannered, and it must have been by these manners that they allowed Fritz to rest in peace for a proper amount of time before excavating his remains. I had no idea they had been at the grave until one, wind-swept afternoon I spied the flat, papery corpse of my former friend quivering on the grass tops of the yard. The discovery did not shock me. To see the shell of what I once held in such esteem now little more than a cardboard replica of that ideal was an epiphany of hilarity. Fritz the finger-nibbler had become Fritz the Frisbee . . .

For the next several weeks Fritz circulated the yard like a discarded ad, making the rounds in a swirling wind, at times near the edge of the electric fence that penned in the neighbor’s horses, at other times next to the brick patio where the family often enjoyed its evening dinner. Fritz was no longer what I had hoped he would be – a great friend and lifelong pet – but his presence continued to serve a purpose. His remains became an unexpected source of humor about the nature of life.

A different story: in 2012 I completed a 560 page novel that was going to be my great overture. A masterpiece on the first try. When I brought the printed baby home and laid it heavily on the kitchen counter I felt such a sense of pride. A living masterpiece of such girth and depth that I had no doubt it would live of its own accord and carry me along to experience all the dreams I had eagerly appointed it.

Novel

Alas, this pet project died, too.

Like Fritz the gerbil and William Jr., I put a lot of expectation on a thing that was never going to hold up.  My book was unfinished, and I didn’t have the vision at the time to know how to make it stand up. I was still seeing rodents as the king of the jungle.

Here is an important lesson I’ve learned over time. We must never go into a venture dreading the outcome. Many things we engage in don’t meet our initial expectations. When we create art we are attempting to give real world presence to the things that live inside of us. When at first they don’t succeed, we grieve. And that is fine. But the ghosts of our deceased endeavors still linger, and when we later catch sight of them they usually make us laugh. We laugh because we have changed. This is the purpose of the creative life – change and growth, and once in a while great hilarity.

My book failed because it is not right yet. One day I plan to try that story again. I may never get to it. It will toss around in the yard meanwhile and I will laugh when I see it. And if somehow I never see that book again then, well, it will have gone to the place it was meant to go.

I never owned another rodent. I continue to own a lot of stories, and I expect to have a new book coming out soon. These things, these new pets, are perpetual in the creative life. We can expect some of them to die. With proper attention to what we are supposed to learn about the process, however, I think it’s possible to finally meet some of our expectations.

Maybe you already have.

 

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