Real Mammal

By Caroll Sun Yang

Essay

He snorts Ritalin all night and chases down the white dust with Old Fashioned Sidecars. He asks me to take pictures of him wearing my sheer black panties with striped ruffles and pink-lemonade colored ribbons laced through. He asks me to do this with my cellular phone so that I might later “text” him the “good ones”. He says has plans to save them for some later date, maybe for use as “jack-off material”. I am reluctant at first. A smidgen hurt at the thought of being replaced as his masturbatory focus. I try not to let my face show disinterest in this project, a disinterest verging on disdain. What will be achieved by this activity? He is not gay. He is not usually prone to high narcissism. He is infrequently frivolous. In fact, he harbors contempt for operatic displays. But here he is cut a little loose on pills and Cognac, retrieving my makeup bag and hand mirror.

 

Dear Lobbyist Bowles,

I recently read about the exciting new venture your organization is embarking on and am very interested in the Social Media position you are no doubt preparing to establish. Having just graduated from the number one party school in the entire southwest, I am eager for an opportunity to get my foot in the door and begin my life in the workforce. Making that happen with a well-established movement such as yours would be a bonus. (Everyone wants some job security these days, am I right?)

The cover of Bushnell's most recent poetry collectionMike Bushnell has been making Internet literature for years, and in 2007 he appeared as the force behind publishers Jaguar Uprising and Bore Parade. He also created an alter ego in the form of a professional wrestler called “The Industry,” with which he made promo videos wherein he wore his now-signature face paint and business suit as he screamed threats into the camera. Jaguar Uprising was a chapbook press as well as a sort of shock squad that challenged literary and Internet conventions, while Bore Parade specialized in parodies and tributes to the aesthetics of the publisher Bear Parade.

Today was a day of redemption for those of us that were picked last.  Today, we went to baseball. Baseball didn’t come to us.

Slake Magazine’s Craig Gaines called the game and the challengers were Red Hen Press, Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), and Black Clock Magazine.

It was the first game of the Los Angeles’ indie press initiated Litball.  When you get a bunch of writers together, some of them in matching outfits, the quality of conversation goes up.

Please explain what just happened.

The clock just struck 1:15 a.m. and Iʼm on a flight from Phoenix to San Francisco. We got beat tonight by the Arizona Diamondbacks, but at least we won the series. Later tonight we play Oakland in that ridiculous Interleague series. I hope to get to sleep by 3 a.m. but the DH rule will make it hard to sleep. As I type these words I’m listening to my talented friend Eve Selis serenade me through my headphones. I’m drinking a Pinot, the stars are all out and there’s a full moon. Up here it all works. I love this goddamned blessed road…

What is your earliest memory?

I live my life one day at a time (and sometimes one inning at a time), so my earliest memory was waking up today at 11:37 a.m. and realizing that I slept too much, and probably drank too much as well.

“What the fuck happened to your hand?” I asked.

“Red Sox.”

“Yeah… I hear ya.”

***

In the spring of 1988, I was a sophomore at a small Catholic liberal arts college outside of Boston. Although I majored in Classics, my attentions were overwhelmingly devoted to rugby. I craved the social dimensions of the rugby lifestyle as much as the bone-crushing action of daily practice and weekend matches. And while our club were admittedly the poster boys for hooliganism (a decidedly un-Catholic brand of leisure), we nonetheless took our sport very seriously. We played fall and spring seasons, practicing nearly every day of the week and playing matches every weekend.

As one of the better teams in the Northeast, we competed against some of the best colleges in the country. This meant that while the rest of the school were filling up pubs and parties on Friday evenings, we were all laying low, saving our bodies for the games the next day and our livers for the post-game drink up with the other team.

My priorities were out of whack, I dedicated my time to battering my body from all sides, and I missed out on many traditional college experiences for the sake of my team. But man, I loved those years.

***

On your average American college campus, Saturday mornings are left to scholars and athletes. The former are jockeying for the prime study spots in the school library (wherever that is), and the latter are putting their pre-game mixes together, their game faces on, and if their nerves allow for it, addressing the most important meal of the day.

It was on a Saturday morning that spring that I bumped into Jim in front of the school cafeteria. Jim wore the school’s baseball uniform, with a shiny purple pitcher’s jacket fending off the spring chill. I wore purple and grey rugby sweats over my uniform, my gear bag slung over my shoulder. We nodded and trudged up the stairs together, two soldiers preparing for battle.

***

Jim and I had known each other for years, growing up in the same part of the city and attending the same classes in high school. He wasn’t one of my closest friends, but we hung out occasionally, always having great chats about baseball and music. Inevitably, the discussion would always land on The Cult and their 1985 classic album Love. I was a big Cult fan too, but nowhere nearly as intense as he was.

One day in high school, Jim plopped down next to me on the school bus. He looked concerned.

“Man…”

“What’s up?” I asked.

“I heard something kind of fucked up.”

“Yeah?”

“Ian?  Ian Astbury?”

“Yeah, what about him?”

“I heard he might be gay.”

“Really?  No shit?’

“Yeah.”

“Wow.”

“You know what? I don’t care. He fucking rules.”

This was significant to me, because we went to an all boy’s Catholic high school, where jocks were placed on pedestals and phrases like “fag” and “gay” were recklessly and spitefully used to demean anything perceived to be different or, God forbid, weak. It would have been socially risky to embrace an openly gay artist in that environment at that time.

But Jim didn’t care. He knew who he was and he knew what he liked, and if his favorite vocalist turned out to be gay (which Ian Astbury is not), so be it. Jim loved the music and that’s all that mattered.

Jim was bad ass.

***

As we met on the cafeteria steps that spring morning, I saw that Jim’s hand was freshly bandaged.

For the second time in as many weeks, Jim’s frustration with our professional baseball franchise had taken on a physical manifestation, with Jim pitting his pitching arm against an inanimate object. Predictably, the conflict was brief, painful, and humbling.

I had witnessed the first incident about a week before, when I dropped by to see if he was up for a party. I heard The Cult’s “(Here Comes the) Rain,” halfway down the hallway and found him standing next to his stereo, breathing heavily and seething. The floor was covered with a gaggle of items that clearly belonged on his dresser, but which had recently been swept to the floor.

“Sox lose again?”

“Yup.”

“Hey. You up for heading off campus?”

“Nope.”

I left him to search for acceptance.

On this recent occasion, as we picked up trays and entered the kitchen (Jim holding his tray in his good hand), Jim explained that on the evening before, it was a window pane that received the brunt of his ire. It had been 70 years since Boston had won the World Series and it appeared that 1988 was not going to be the season to end the drought.

As we sat across each other in the cafeteria, Jim’s primary concern was how he would explain the consequences of his choice to his coach.

Jim was expected to pitch that day.

I don’t recall if I was playing at home or away that day. In fact, I don’t remember who we played or whether we won or lost. I just remember sitting across from Jim and shaking my head as I commiserated with his predicament.

***

A few days later, they found Jim’s body.

He had taken his own life in our dormitory.

Having just seen Jim only a few days before, seemingly fine, apart from his concerns with the Red Sox, I was at a loss for explaining what had happened.

I entered the Kübler-Ross grief cycle when my roommate found me in the library.

“Joe…” he began breathlessly.

“What’s up?”

“It’s Jim… He’s dead. They found him in the dorm…”

Shock.

The kind of shock that blocks out all sound and sends the room spinning.

“No fucking way,” I protested.

Denial.

“Yeah man, I just heard. It’s him. Some of the guys are in [another friend’s] room now if you want more info.”

The other friend was one of our buddies from high school. There were fifteen of us who went on to this small college, and we were all relatively close.

On the way over to my friend’s room, I skipped the bargaining stage and dabbled in anger.

That selfish prick,” I thought, “what a gutless way to check out. Why didn’t he come talk to any of us?” I wondered.

Anger soon subsided and depression hit me like a rogue wave when I entered my buddy’s dorm room and walked into a circle of tear-stained faces. There was no testing stage at that point- just acceptance.

***

Jim was not the first suicide in college.

One year before, another guy from our high school, who was one year ahead of us, took his life while visiting his family for the weekend.

Mick was a year ahead of us in high school. Captain of the football team and coming from a long line of jocks, he was cocky, popular, and most beloved by the coaching staff and faculty.

Mick went on to the same college I eventually did, settling in as a smaller fish in a quite larger, co-ed pond. By the time my friends and I arrived on campus, Mick had toned down his swagger. He seemed more subdued and approachable. Certainly not morose. It felt more like he was simply feeling more comfortable in his own skin.

News of his suicide rocked my friends and me. Here was a kid who seemingly had it all- looks, popularity, grades- nothing but pure potential ahead of him. There were no signs- just the final sign off.

Mick’s funeral was packed. My friends and I sat in the back of the church, all breaking down as Mick’s older brother himself lost it, telling his brother’s coffin how much he had always enjoyed tossing around the football before Thanksgiving dinner.

It was an awakening- an unwanted and unforgettable lesson that you never know what someone is enduring at any given moment.

***

I was told that Jim left notes, though the contents were never fully revealed to me.

I know one was to his family, and another to his girlfriend, whom Jim had dated for some time and who was a classmate of ours. Most unsettling however, was the note that he left for Mick.

None of us could get our arms around that. To our knowledge, Jim had not been all that friendly with Mick. Certainly no more or less than any of us. Not to mention that Mick had been dead for nearly a year by the time Jim took his own life.

This detail unnerved me. It pushed farther away the possibility of understanding Jim’s mindset in those final days.

News of this note caused me to consider the possibility that Jim might have been mentally ill, which was not at all easy for me to stomach. Even to this day, the possibility sits like an unwelcome visitor in my mind. Yet one who has a right to be there.

I had always assumed that people who took their own lives were selfish and narcissistic, yet somehow clear minded and therefore responsible for their actions. Conveniently, this also made them responsible for my feelings.

As more sketchy revelations emerged, we all realized that we would never understand what had happened. Acceptance of this uncertainty was our closure.

***

On the afternoon of Jim’s death, I sat in the window of my first story dorm room, staring out at the plush green hill across from the building, doing my best to process what few feelings I could identify.

Then I saw a ghost.

From around the corner of the dorm came a kid with curly blond hair and the red baseball jacket of our high school. Same eyes, same nose- it was Jim.

It was either a bad dream or a horrible joke.

I looked closer as he walked up to me- it was Jim’s younger brother, still in high school. He was an eerie clone of his brother. Despair held his head down like a yoke. I wanted badly to leap out of the window and run over and hug him. Instead I sat there.

“Hey… I don’t know what to say… I’m so sorry about your brother…”

“Do you know why he did it?”

He was somewhere between depression and testing.

“I don’t. I have no idea. I’m sorry.”

He looked down at the ground and continued to walk, as if the answers to his questions had a physical location.

I swung my legs back into my room, put on Love and let the tears rain down my face.

***

I have many regrets from my college years. I should have been a Modern Languages major instead of Classics. I should have drank less and studied more. I should have visited home more on the weekends.

But one of my biggest regrets is that I don’t remember my final moments with Jim more clearly.

I don’t pretend to think there was anything I could have or should have noticed that morning- something that I might have used to prevent Jim’s death. It was clear, even at the time, that Jim’s fatal impulses were well-kept secrets held only by him.  Jim had a plan and he wasn’t going to let anyone try to talk him out of it.

I just wish I recalled more about that breakfast. I wish I could remember more vividly remember Jim talking about his hand. What inning it was when the game went south. Which player’s mistake had been so costly. Who they were even playing.

I wish I could remember what we talked about, period. I just remember sitting across from him in the middle of an empty school cafeteria, looking at his hand. That’s it.

Yet at times I wonder if that final meeting was actually perfect. Two friends sitting across from each other in a near-empty dining hall early on an overcast spring morning, each in our purple and gray uniforms- two soldiers in the same army, heading off to different battles. A private moment that was exquisite because it was so ordinary.

Two buddies having breakfast.

The most important meal of the day.

My mother-in-law has told my two sons, four and six years old, that when people die, they become stars in the night sky so they can watch over the people they love.

The story in my debut novel, The French Revolution, takes place over thirty years, beginning in 1989 and ending in 2019. This put me in the unenviable position of envisioning the future. As I wrote the book from 2005 to 2008, I had to update several storylines—replacing DVDs with web video, adding the Obama campaign, reducing the influence of newspapers. And as much as I tried to keep the story timely, after the book went to press I knew my educated guesses would wind up making me look like a bozo. After all, the weather guy can’t tell you if it’s going to rain with the aid of the world’s most sophisticated technology; how the hell am I, a lazy, research-inhibited, professional liar, supposed to prognosticate anything past breakfast?

Evolution

By Joe Daly

Memoir

The Happy Time Page was a kick in the balls for a kid like me.

On any given Sunday afternoon, 10 year old Joe Daly would have enjoyed building a Lego fortress and defending it against Cold War adversaries, watching the Boston Red Sox find a new and eye-watering way to lose, or listening to KISS albums on the little turntable in his bedroom.

Tragically, that was not how 10 year old Joe Daly spent his Sundays.

No, in those formative years, Sunday afternoons were reserved for the soul-whipping agony of writing for The Happy Time Page.

It was my mother’s idea.

The Happy Time Page was a feature in our local Sunday paper, wherein kids were encouraged to submit essays or poems on a generic subject that changed each week.  The front page featured winning essays and poems, as well as the results of the weekly drawing competition that would make a guy like Ted McCagg head straight for the bourbon. Think of it as a print-version of The Nervous Breakdown, but without all the drugs, sex, travel, and introspection.

The best works were displayed on the front page of the section, with the author’s name prominently displayed beneath each piece.  This is what everyone was shooting for- publication.

The only requirements for the essays were that they be on topic and at least fifty words.  Fifty words.  That’s where I hit the wall.

With a gun to my head (or the threat of television privileges being revoked), I could probably come up with twenty five words about baseball, spring, or some other subject like that.  But fifty words?  That was a whole afternoon, shot all to hell.

See, I had zero ambition to write.  I was as motivated to write fifty words as a heroin addict would be to take a spinning class.  I could speak relatively well for my age, but transcribing my thoughts with pencil and paper (I made too many mistakes for a pen) was a Herculean challenge for both my young mind and my tired hands.

Nonetheless, at my mother’s insistence, I would spend Sunday afternoons slogging through fifty word essays with the speed of climate change.  It would take me upwards of two to three hours to churn out one of those pieces, with my mother requiring me to sit at the dining room table and write until I had a finished product.

During those two hours, after finishing each sentence, I would count the words on the entire page, praying that I had just completed the sentence that brought me past fifty words.  On the odd occasion when I would allow myself to finish a thought even after reaching the fifty word minimum, I would expect the type of recognition generally reserved for Nobel Prize recipients, and would be baffled and resentful when such accolades were not received.

My mother would proofread each essay and returning each to me with several suggestions, all of which I would adopt without debate, simply to see the exercise come to a close.  Although my mother’s own schooling ended at the age of sixteen, she had a great sense of the written word and she would coach me on finding concise and at times, even elegant ways of re-stating my thoughts.

Most of the time she would just ask me what I meant when I wrote a particular sentence.  I didn’t realize it then, but the way we would discuss each sentence and the different ways of expressing a single idea gave me a new approach to writing.  I’m not saying that I enjoyed it, but as the process evolved, churning out fifty words became a less odious task.

When the essay was finished, she would proofread it a final time and direct me to write out a new copy in pen, which she would then drop in the mail the following morning.

I stopped submitting pieces for The Happy Time Page as soon as I reached the maximum age requirement.  I think my mother was bummed.

***

I ignored writing as a form of anything other than homework for the next twenty years.  My first real publication came in law school, when I wrote an article for my law school’s IT Journal.  If my article was approved by the editorial board, I would not only receive academic credit, but more importantly I could add the distinction of “Law Review” to my transcript and resume.

Articles were either accepted or rejected, with a select two or three being published in the school’s law journal, alongside the works of prominent judges, scholars, and attorneys.

To my surprise, I enjoyed the hell out of the process of writing my paper.  Weighing in at a couple hundred pages, the format required that I submit two pages of footnotes for every single page of original thought.  I had an editor who, unlike my mother, received quite a bit of resistance in matters of style and tone.  It was exhilarating to feel passionate about something I wrote.

My friend Michelle also wrote for the Law Review and we agreed that if one of us were published, the other would have to buy a pair of cowboy boots for the lucky writer.  More than anything, we both just wanted our papers to be accepted so we could collect the credit and graduate on time.

When the articles were reviewed by the editorial staff, we were stunned to discover that we were both nominated for publication.   A week later, on a sunny Saturday afternoon on Chicago’s west side, we went boot shopping together.

Here’s how I earned those cowboy boots.

***

The first true labor of love that I published was an article about a band from San Diego called The Rugburns.

I spent colossal chunks of free time on AOL’s music message boards in the mid-nineties, becoming a regular on the boards for The Rugburns after hearing their anthem, “Me and Eddie Vedder.”  Ironically, one of the people whom I met on those discussion boards would, years later, draw my attention to Brad Listi’s blog, and eventually to The Nervous Breakdown.

I found immense pleasure in writing about music on those discussion boards- especially where I would write a lengthy essay on an interpretation of a song or how certain music made me feel.  My posts were pompous and at times self-important, but gradually I learned to discuss music in a way that allowed me to express my point of view without insisting that others agree.  Writing about songs and artists flowed very easily for me, and the writing skills that I acquired in law school helped me present those ideas with clarity and in some cases, persuasion.  I loved the challenge of finding creative ways to express my feelings about music.  Talking about music was a passion, but writing about it was a rush.

One day a girl contacted me about The Rugburns.  She had read some of my posts about the band and wondered if I would be interested in submitting an article for a zine she had just launched called “Lunatic Fringe.”

I agreed and a couple months later, I published my first piece about music.



***

Even after I began practicing law in 1994, music was always my number one passion.  I would much rather be listening to Soundgarden bootlegs than working weekends to impress my bosses.  In 1996, I spent a week touring around the midwest with The Rurburns.  It was one of the most significant experiences of my life.  So much so that when I returned to Chicago, I quit my job as a lawyer and began immersing myself in all aspects of music.  I took up guitar, I expanded my musical tastes into new genres, and at the suggestion of an entertainment attorney, I began studying how the music industry worked.  I had amassed a number of contacts in the music business- artists, managers, and quite a few contacts at some pretty big record labels, and I soon found myself writing promotional biographies for bands.  When a band was in the final stages of preparing to release a new album, their label or management would pay me to write a short biography of the band that would be included with the CD and press kit that was sent out to radio stations all over the country.

The pay was lousy, but money mattered little to me in that regard.  I did it for the sheer enjoyment, although at times it was a character-building experience.  I received a request to do a bio for a solo artist, and without much guidance, submitted a first draft to the artist and label.   The artist’s PR agent ripped the draft apart so ferociously and so personally, that I took almost a year off from writing any other music bios.

Another time a label hired me to do a biography on a band whose music I could not relate to at all.  It was a hard rock band and I’m a hard rock guy, but I just could not get there from here.  Still, I had to sit down with the band and find out what made them tick.  The following exchange actually happened:

I asked, “So what are you guys trying to convey when you play live?”

“Dewd, we just like, want to like, try to you know, like, get people with jobs and shit to like totally forget their day, you know?  It’s like, some guy works like forty hours, you know, and we just want him to come to our show and like, forget about his week.  If we can make just one person forget about their week, then it’s all worth it, dewd, you know?”

“But they could just stay at home and get drunk to forget about their week.  We need to highlight what makes you guys different.  They should forget their week not because they’re drunk, but because your music is memorable.  Does that make sense?”

“Exactly, dude!  See, you get it.  Alcohol only makes our music sound better!”

On the other hand, I had the privilege of writing biographies for some fascinating artists who were releasing jaw-droppingly good music.

To this day, I still take on the odd band bio, although an inflexible requirement is that I actually like the music.

***

SPIN Magazine is, depending on the reader, either a pretentious conclave of indier-than-thou hipsters, or a vital alternative to the commercially-savvy and creatively bankrupt Rolling Stone.  While SPIN can sometimes trip over its own emo-ness, overall it gives exposure to bands and music that other mainstream publications might ignore.

Other than reading the magazine occasionally, my first real connection to SPIN was sleeping on the floor of their suite at the Driskill Hotel during the South By Southwest music festival in 1997.  My college roommate Dan was interning for SPIN, doing a lot of hustling for the magazine for little or no pay.  In return, we received a place to crash, a great view of the main stage, and we got to smoke pot in the suite with The Supersuckers.

Dan went on to secure the best job in the world- making mix tapes to send to college radio stations for the magazine.  He spent his days listening to new (and free) CDs and making mix tapes of his favorite songs. Thirteen years later, I have yet to hear anyone describe a better job.

As Dan became more plugged in at SPIN, he made many connections, one of whom oversaw the magazine’s online column, “It Happened Last Night.”  IHLN featured reviews of notable concerts and events across the country.  They kept a list of writers and photographers in major cities across the country so that when a cool show was happening that they wanted to feature, they would reach out to the local writer and get him or her to the gig.

One day, while literally stepping onto a plane in Cabo San Lucas after an entirely undeserved vacation, I received a text from Dan.  SPIN needed a San Diego writer.  Black Francis (The Pixies, Frank Black) was playing a solo show there that they wanted to review.  They had seen one of my artist bios and wondered if I might cover the event for the magazine.

A couple weeks later, I published my first music article for a major publication.  I remember sitting backstage with Black Francis and Warren Zanes (The Del Fuegos), talking about our favorite pizza joints in Cambridge, MA (where I used to live), and thinking how awesome it would be if this were my actual job.

***

My friend Dana had been a Brad Listi junkie for quite some time.  After hearing her incessantly raving about his writing, I began following his blog, and eventually The Nervous Breakdown.  I instantly fell in love with TNB.  The authors were talented, down-to-earth, and they wrote about subjects to which I could easily relate.  Also, the comment culture was fun and people seemed to actually support each other, with fascinating conversations occurring along with the featured articles.  I chose to lurk rather than participate in any of the conversations.

Dana would pepper me with entreaties to apply to write for TNB, which I resisted for a number of reasons.  Mainly, as someone who had neither published a book, nor had any sort of platform, I was worried that I would have nothing to offer the site.  I am grateful that she persisted because sometime at the end of 2009, I submitted an application.  A month later I received a welcome letter from TNB with instructions on how to get started.  The only thing left to do was write.

I agonized over my first article for two weeks, starting and scrapping ideas for three or four different columns.  Finally I chose to write about my first band back in Chicago, and on a Saturday morning in February, 2009, I began writing.  I finished that evening and spent the next 48 hours proofreading the piece ad nauseam.  Each time I started to publish it, I chickened out and proofread it again.

Finally I threw caution to the wind and hit the “Publish button.”  J.M. Blaine left me my first comment.  As the day wore on,  I began receiving and replying to comments from the very people I had always read and admired.  Nine months later, I have met many of these authors in person and I am in contact with several on a regular basis.  TNB is my online home.

***

As I published articles on TNB, I would post links to each piece on Facebook, asking my friends to take a look if they were interested.  One day after posting a link, I received a note from a college friend whom I had not seen or heard from in close to twenty years.  He had read some of my work on TNB and said he enjoyed them- especially the pieces about music.  He wondered if I might be interested in talking about book ideas.  As fate would have it, he was a literary agent.

***

In July, 2010, I was laid off from my job.  Instead of jumping right into a job search, I decided to see what it would feel like to write for awhile.

I am now in the process of completing a proposal for my first book.  It might never see the light of day, but in the course of the past month, it has been the most fulfilling work I have ever done.  I sit at my laptop in my kitchen or at a local coffee shop, and with the sounds of Sigur Ros, Dead Confederate, or The Stone Roses wafting from my headphones, I write about things that matter to me.  I laugh out loud, I research obscure details about bands and music, and I occasionally run upstairs to sift through papers and photographs to jog my memory as I write.

When people now ask what I do, I really have no answer.  I clumsily say something like, “Well, I’m out of work now, and just writing to make use of the time…”

But once in awhile I boldly answer, “I’m a writer.”

It feels fucking awesome.

***

My mother would have been 77 years old next week had she not succumbed to cancer in 1989.  The older I get, the greater the clarity I have with my past, and especially my time with my mother.  As I look back on those Sunday afternoons in the dining room, wishing I were doing anything but writing for The Happy Time Page, I now see the gift that she has left me.

I am both humbled and grateful.

Thanks, Mom.



Well, like, when there’s two runners on and the smasher clops up so it don’t even clear the podooshkas, and the millicent raises his rooker like, well, then the smasher is loveted automatic then. But not automatic-like because it ain’t automatic. The merzky millicent has to decide that the ball is “catchable,” or “could easily be caught,” because if not the skvater could drop it and then it’s as sure as you’re sitting there that we’ve got a double play, yeah? So some vecks would drop it on purpose so as to give themselves an extra chance, and that’s not fair-like so that’s why they made the rule. And of course this is only in a force play. When the hitter’s loveted, the runners would have to tag the podooshka before running same as ever.

But it’s all bollocks, innit? Because now we’ve got some millicant deciding for a place that should go untouched and always be horrorshow forever, yeah? All just for fairness. Who’s to say what’s “catchable” and what isn’t, viddy well? Never mind fair. No fairness in worldly eegra, but let the most horrorshow moodge win. Not let’s all hold hands until some doomsday kind of thing.

I say when the bloody rule comes into effect the orange between the dva runners and the smasher drat right there, hand to hand, like, in bloody ultraviolence. Let that decide. Yeah, the smasher’s armed with a shlaga, that’s right. But the orange between the dva podoshkas got the sharry, ain’t he? That’s if the millicent was right and the sharry was indeed “catchable” and all that. Let the orange between the dva podoshkas brosay the sharry at full speed right at the smasher’s gloopy gulliver. That would solve the contest right quick. Let the smasher hurl the shlaga end over end at the orange between the dva podoskas, bean him in the litso. Then we’d know who should be taking his podooshka, and who should be limping away to apply ice liberally to the bruised areas.

Not like there’s any lack of oranges in the world, is there? Course not. Maybe if you’re Derek Jeter or someone real famous-like, he could hire a moodge with some real yarbles to stay on retainer-like, someone to storm the bitva and shive away for him. And if it happens just so, please, Mr. Jeter, I offer my services. Could be a right poleszny moodge, right well bean a bollocker who can’t even tolchock it far enough a starry bodoochka could spit her ivories out so far, yeah?

I didn’t give a shit about baseball until I turned 25. Hot days, slow games, the mundane repetitiveness of a guy throwing a ball at a guy with a stick. I’d rather sleep than sit through a round of glorified golf.

Then, three things changed.

One, I moved to a city with Barry Bonds on the team. I’ll fully concede he’s a cheater, a bad teammate, and a jerk. However, he was the best in the game, a lethal clutch hitter, and violently entertaining. I’d plan evenings around Bonds at-bats, lest I miss something fantastic.

Two, I figured out I could get tickets to the best baseball park in America for free. I simply make a little handwritten sign that says “Free Ticket Please” and stand in front of AT&T Park in San Francisco, usually landing a free ticket in less than five minutes. (Try it, it works.) My seat always has a view of the Bay, often with sunset crackling pink across the horizon. The garlic fries are delicious and affordable; bike parking is free. It’s a magical way to catch up with friends.

Three—and the most important variable—I started listening to baseball on the radio. The announcers’ descriptive powers are immense, and took me beyond the mindless commentary of television and into the characters’ heads. I learned the pitcher-batter chess game, how the history of pitches between players affects future pitches and future swings, how the balls-strikes count deeply skews the confidence of pitchers and batters, how fouling off a lot of balls slowly tilts the at-bat to the batter’s advantage. The importance of batters waiting for a pitch to hit and the beautiful talent of pitchers when they never dish up that pitch. The mental funk of a slump, the electric clarity of a hot streak. When to yank a pitcher and play the rookie. The endless joy of clutch play.

Finally, I got it. Beneath its placid surface, baseball cooks a cauldron of mental strength and emotion and guts. It’s the best of the novel in sport form.

Consider the characters. If you fall in with a team, like I have, you probably spend more time with the players than you do with your family—almost every day of the summer, for three hours a pop. Players are usually funny and likeable, and rarely speak in soundbite. My team, the San Francisco Giants, features an overweight Venezuelan nicknamed Kung-Fu Panda; an upgraded minor leaguer who needed ten years to make the big leagues for good; a two-time Cy Young winner called The Freak whose recent pot possession arrest may have made him more popular than his accolades; and a mohawked closing pitcher who dyes his beard and colors his spikes with Sharpies.

Consider the plotting. The season is a marathon, 162 games in which few games truly matter but all of them somewhat do, enough time for storylines to unwind and split and evolve into a saga that usually ends in dismal failure, softened slightly by the hope of next year.

Football’s more popular, the Hollywood blockbuster of our culture, loaded with violent spectacle and huge marketing budgets, invading our home theaters with surround sound body crunches. Their stories are epic and magnificent, D Day and Waterloo outfitted in pads. There’s still nothing bigger than the Super Bowl, a sporting event so huge I was seriously tempted to refer to it as “the Super Bowl of football” so you’d get just how massive it is.

Whereas baseball unlocks the quiet moments. The small adjustments of changing characters, the patience to let a player fight through mistakes and evolve. Hot breezes on a summer day. Incremental improvement over time slowly changing everything. As there is no page limit in novels, there is no clock to race against in baseball—only obstacles to beat. It’s so damn human it hurts.

This week we enter the postseason, the final act. With the pressure to win condensed into a five or seven-game series, strategies shift. Ace pitchers come in as relief; a cold streak can sink a team; every move matters more. Built-up pressures come to a head, capping the ride of the season with a genuine resolution.

It doesn’t get any better than this.

I hit the ball so fucking hard that as I approached second base, I remember thinking I should probably send a letter of apology to the ball’s manufacturer.  “Sorry I obliterated your product.  Nothing personal.”

***

July, 2003, Newton, Massachusetts

To the extent that men playing softball can be taken seriously by the outside world, I assure you that our league was viciously competitive.  To be fair, most of us were competing against the aging process, against the passing of our athletic prime so many years before, and competing against the emotional scalding you endure when you try to explain to someone that you play softball competitively, as they roll their eyes.

But back to the hit.

I don’t even remember if we were winning at the time but I do remember taking a pitch deep into right center field.  As I took off for first base, I recall thinking that it had been several games since I had hit a home run.  There was no fence in the outfield, so the only way you got a home run was to outrun the throw home.  I bore down.

As I rounded second, I lost sight of the ball, which was now somewhere behind me in right center field.  I looked towards “Bips,” our third base coach, for the signal to either hold up at third or to go for the home run.

Steaming towards third, I locked eyes with Bips, who looked back at me as if I had just asked him to name his top five favorite German theologians.  His stare was blank.

I realized that Bips, though physically standing at third, was mentally somewhere in the Bahamas.  I would have to blindly gamble on whether to go for it or not.

I recall thinking, “I’m fast as shit- I’m going for it.”

And so I did.

As I tagged third and made the turn towards home plate, I caught a final glance at Bips, who continued to stare at me as if we were just meeting for the first time (we had known each other for 20 years).  I gritted my teeth and charged towards home, arms swinging to drive my momentum through the final yards.

The ball entered my vision from the left , as I was about halfway down the line.  The throw first hit the ground, then bounced up into the catcher’s mitt while I still had a good three yards to go.

Our league had a rule where you always had to slide into the base when the ball was in the player’s hand or on the way.  This was to avoid injury, both by accident and fist.  So I did not have the option of taking the catcher out.  Instead, knowing I was dead to rights I lowered my right knee to the ground and slid right into him.

What happened next is one of the most horrifying moments of my life.

Sliding forward, my left foot hit straight into the catcher’s shin guard, and then time slowed as I watched my foot bounce back into my ankle, and then seemingly fall out of the joint.  My left foot folded ninety degrees inward and I lost the next 30 seconds.

I have been told that the scream in which I then indulged was of the blood curdling variety, but I don’t personally recall it.  I just lay there at home plate, out, and thinking to myself, “Shit- all these years and I’ve never broken a bone.”

My friend Marty was the first one to reach me from our bench.  He got right in my face, looked me in the eye, and with one of those overly-calm voices that people use when everything is spiraling out of control, said, “Joe, something pretty fucked up just happened, OK?  You don’t want to look down there- OK?  Just don’t look- look at me.  OK?  Just look at me.  You don’t want to look at it.  We’re calling for help…”

I took his advice, never again looking down at my ankle.  Even worse, while I could feel my foot hanging at an obscenely unnatural angle, my right cleat was still a good foot from home plate.

Fucking Bips…

Players came by and checked on me, including the opposing team’s catcher, who offered an apology, though he was completely blameless.  It was simply a freakish accident.

I noticed the wife of one of our players getting sick behind the bleachers, apparently from simply looking at my ankle.  Her reaction confirmed the soundness of my decision to not regard my dangling extremity.


***

The guys in the ambulance were vintage Boston- thick accents and absolutely no sense of propriety.  They were wearing street clothes, too, which I thought was weird.  It was like they had been mowing a lawn when the call came to get me.  The two EMTs in the back were having a field day.

“Jesus fahkin’ Christ, buddy.  What the fahk were you thinkin’?”

“Yah, we only see shit like this in fahkin’ cahr accidents.”

“Buddy, you were a fahkin’ mile from home plate.  Didn’t yah little league coach evah tell you to look at yah third base coach?”

“Jimmy,” one of them called to the driver, “Can you see this kid’s fahkin’ ankle?”

“Holy fahk!” I heard from the front seat.

“Hey pal, you evah have moah-feen?”

“Morphine?  No, never,” I said.

“Well yah gonna.”

“Great.  I can scratch another one off my list,” I said, finding a little bit of humor in this silvery narcotic lining.

One of the EMTs called ahead to the hospital and requested authorization to give me morphine.  He received it and went to town.

After a few moments, I said, “[h]ey, did you guys give me enough?  I’m not feeling anything.”

“Pal, yah lit up like a Christmas tree.  It’s werkin’.”

“You sure?”

“Yup.”

“Then can we put on some Allman Brothers or something?” I said.  “I need something to kick this into high gear,” I said, as I began giggling uncontrollably, still believing the morphine was ineffective.

The EMTs shook their heads at me as I, unable to stop laughing, continued to try to persuade them that I needed more.  Amazingly, I believed it.


***

When they wheeled me into the ER, I was still lying on my right side, clad in my dusty, sweaty uniform.  I had been in this position since the ill-advised slide, frightened to move my left leg at all, due to the freakish sensation of my left foot flapping in the breeze.

The ER doctor was a tiny woman with gigantic empathy.  She smiled sadly as she took a look at my ankle, asked me a few questions, and gently poked my silly little foot.

She said “[i]t doesn’t look like a break, but it’s a complete dislocation.  I’ll be right back.”

I lay there feeling the morphine wearing off and trying to imagine all the creative ways my girlfriend would surely find to call me a jackass.  We had, only weeks before, brought home two golden retriever puppies.

Puppies that were not yet housebroken.

Our “house” being a tiny one bedroom apartment on the third floor of an ancient building on the busiest street in Cambridge.

A building with no air conditioning.

In the hottest month of the hottest summer in a decade.

In that moment, I understood that her summer had just gone from zero to crappy in about an hour.


***

The ER doctor reappeared with two massive dudes in white doctor coats.

“Mr. Daly, you know what we have to do, right?”

Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that they would have to pop my foot back into place.  Missing this detail was likely a consequence of the morphine coursing through my veins.  But drugs or no drugs, the way she asked the question led me to believe that the process would be considerably far from pleasant.

The female doctor began directing the two other doctors to hold me down, which raised my anxiety significantly.  I could not recall any experience in my life where being held down was associated with something fun.

Then she began, “OK, on my count.  One… two…”

Hold it!,” someone shouted suddenly.  I think it was one of the guys holding me down, but I had my face buried in my forearm.  “Give him some more morphine.”

My hero.

They shot me up with more morphine and then got back to business.

“One… two…  three!”

I know my scream was loud because when it eventually stopped, the entire emergency room was silent.  Not a single word could be heard from the waiting room, the nursing station, or the other patients and doctors around us.  Just the beeps of the machines.

But my foot was back in place.

***

My girlfriend soon arrived and she did call me a jackass shortly thereafter, having long mocked me for being a grown man playing softball.  She did take fantastic care of me, which was no picnic for her on a number of levels.  While I spent the next couple months beached on the futon, whacked out on Percocets and red wine and watching “Blind Date” reruns, she had to carry two puppies up and down three flights of stairs easily ten times a day in sticky New England humidity.  This of course earned her both rock star status and lots and lots of bargaining chips in future negotiations.

I attended the final game of the series on crutches.  We won the championship, and the guys gave me the game ball, which still sits on my kitchen counter to this day.  It is the one ball the dogs do not get to chew.

My left ankle has lost a considerable amount of flexibility, and whenever I run for too long, I experience sharp pains through the area.  Still, I came back the next season, although I moved from second base to right field.

When I moved to San Diego a year later, I entered the San Diego Adult Baseball League’s open draft and got taken second in the AA division.  I lasted one season, batting somewhere around the Mendoza line before hanging up my cleats for good.  My ball playing career, which begun at age eight on a tiny field in Worcester, Massachusetts, ended on a dusty field just north of the Mexican border, twenty years later.

Given the constant reminders that my ankle provides me, I reflect on the accident pretty regularly.  I don’t have many regrets with how it all went down, but if I could change just one thing about the entire experience, it would be this:

I would have asked someone to take a picture of me lying at home plate with my foot hanging off.  Seriously, how fucking cool would that be?




kurt suicide scene

A despairing friend called late one night to say that he was looking at a photo of himself as a toddler holding his father’s rifle.

“I have an appointment with that rifle,” he told me. “I’ve always known I was going to end my life with it.”

He’s fine now, thank God, but his remark brought to mind a journal entry I made as a teenager, in which I said that I was sure I was going to kill myself one day; it was only a matter of how and when.

When I was about eleven, I was a good but not great baseball player. I was an exceptional fielder – graceful, even – but only passable at the plate. In hindsight, I imagine much of my problem with hitting was not technique or skill, but confidence. At eleven, I did not believe in most any ability I had in life, hitting emphatically included. I think the only strengths I would have been willing to admit then were scooping up grounders and turning double plays.

All of this said, I was probably about a .280 hitter, which isn’t terrible, especially for an eleven-year-old in a Brooklyn league where foreign-born, over-aged ringers pretty much had the lock on pitching (we had one on our team – a Dominican kid named Pedro who didn’t speak a lick of English and threw so hard that nobody wanted to catch him). But I always felt nervous at the plate, uncertain. I liked running the bases but dreaded actually swinging the bat, and became pretty good at working out walks. That would have been a more important skill if I were fast, but I was not fast. A good, prudent baserunner, but not fast.

I remember a game in May, reaching the final inning around twilight, in which I was 0 for 2, having struck out and grounded out in my first at-bats. I came up with one out and a man on second, and we were down by a few runs. The light was not good for hitting, with shadows sprawling haphazardly across the field, and I took the first pitch on principle. I was hoping for a walk as always, but it was a letters-high strike that seemed to shimmer through the gathering darkness, not just unhittable, but practically unseeable. The next pitch was in the dirt and easy to take – I could see from when it left the kid’s hand it would be low, so I cocked my whole body like I was ready to pounce on it, then made a show of letting it go with disgust, leaning on my front foot and flexing my forearms. After that I fouled one off without thinking – I probably should have let it go, but I didn’t want to look like I was afraid to swing.

All the while, the catcher had maintained that classic patter that catchers do – half intelligible, repeated, meaningless mantras to soothe the pitcher: “Lay it in there lay it there, there ya go, nice and smooth, here we go, here we go,” gentle and regular like the way you rub a crying child’s back to calm him down. I didn’t pay it any mind, not because I was so cool at the plate, but because I was too wound up even to notice. But once they had two strikes on me, the kid started saying, “Easy out, easy out, you got this guy, easy out,” and I knew that he knew that I had made out my first two times to the plate. We were baseball kids and we cared about that stuff and kept track, and tried to remember players not just from inning to inning but from game to game – or that’s what I thought, anyway; I thought the kid had made me for a light-hitting shortstop who was not a threat, and for some reason, in that instant it drove me absolutely crazy. I was not one to look for fights, but I wanted to turn around, drop my bat, and belt the kid.

But just then the pitcher came over his shoulder with the pitch, and right when it was at the top of its arc, still in his fingers and being forced downward and to my right, the last ray of the sun picked out that grass-stained thing like a spotlight in a darkened theater and after that I never lost it. I watched it go from there, hovering in front of left center field, down and across my left shoulder, heading toward the outside part of the plate with a haphazard sort of spin and just glowing. And suddenly, everything was firing on all cylinders: my chest and my shoulders and my legs all got together and brought the bat around like a perfect reflection of the ball, like two dancers running toward each other at breakneck speed from either end of the stage, but you know you’re watching something choreographed, so they’re not going to crash into each other like two dumb kids on a playground, they’re going to spring perfectly into some kind of embrace or harmony. And I met that pitch perfectly, knee-high and an inch in front of the plate, and sent it right back where it came from, up over the pitcher’s right shoulder and four feet above the shortstop, strong and beautiful and unmistakably destined for the gap in left center field, the platonic ideal of a double.

The ball bounced confidently and fast the first time, then lower, and had slowed enough by the time the center fielder reached it that he picked it up barehanded and walked it halfway to second base. A faster runner might have stretched it into a triple, but it didn’t really matter – the run scored, the next batter walked, and then someone grounded into a double play to end the inning and the game. But when that ball jumped off my bat into the darkness, like a scripted answer to what the catcher had said, better than a punch or a sneer or a spitwad or a “fuck you,” I was in baseball heaven.

You win some, you lose some, and some get rained out—but you have to dress for all of ‘em.” —Satchell Paige

I remember the moment when I decided, quite deliberately, to care about baseball.

I was maybe twelve years old, I was at my grandparents’ house, and I was seized by a sudden need to avail myself of the bathroom. Then as now, I hate it when I have to do Number Two and there’s nothing to read. So I grabbed the only printed matter in the house that looked remotely appealing—the sports section of the Morristown (N.J.) Daily Record—and barricaded myself in the can.