Random musings on a writer's life & times, with occasional input from acquaintances
Friday, April 18, 2003
Today, April 18, is my son Mickey’s twentieth birthday. He’s no longer a teen-ager, so I thought it would be a good occasion to publish on Writeright a poem I wrote about him when he was in his first year as a teen. At the time, he was an eighth-grader at Sellwood Middle School in Portland. Today The Mickster lives near Bend and works at the newspaper there, taking some time off from college to see what’s to be seen.
Sunlight on the Run
Mickey, you were
my beautiful boy,
hair the color
of the summer sun.
As you scampered
after the soccer
ball, mighty mite parents
smiled and said:
Who's the speedy little one
with all the white hair?
Fair-haired son of mine.
Surfer Mick, the not-so-big
blondie. I knew you --
sunlight on the run.
Now you're thirteen,
and you torture your hair.
Dye it, spike it,
curl it with an iron.
Whack off the back
and draw eyeballs
on your skull.
Shave it down the middle
and call it a Hawkmo.
Mash the remains
under a dirty baseball hat.
What has happened
to my beautiful boy?
People tell me
this is just a phase,
it will pass
like the goose-honk voice,
the sleeping til noon,
the size fifty-two
I hope they're right.
I have aspirations
for you. Aims. Ambitions.
I want to see you grab
your future and go,
use your talents,
I want to see you
live your life
as sunlight on the run.
Thursday, April 17, 2003
Prince of Puke Poetry. How’s that for a sobriquet?
I’ve decided to adopt it in the wake of last night’s incident. I went to a poetry seminar and left the room after five minutes to vomit. Quite an icebreaker for my new classmates and me, if I do say so myself.
You see, I have this swallowing problem. Every once in a while -- lately, approximately three times a day, at breakfast, lunch and dinner -- I begin gagging when I try to swallow food with a rough texture. If I throw up, the gagging quits. If I don’t, it can go on and on. My all time record is 45 minutes of gagging.
This affliction first surfaced about two years ago. I went to my doctor, who referred me to another doctor, who made me drink a barium (I think it was) cocktail in front of an x-ray camera. The x-ray showed I have a weak muscle in my esophagus, and when it is irritated in a certain way by something I am trying to swallow, it spasms and makes me gag. (My son Mickey, ever the wag, observed: “I guess that means eating rocks is out, huh?")
The doctor prescribed pills that head off the gagging if I take one half an hour before I eat. The trick is to remember to do that. I often don’t. And, in truth, for a year or more after the initial siege of gagging, the condition relented, so I didn’t need to remember. In the last month or so, though, the problem has returned with a vengeance.
The gagging triggered a few social mishaps during that first siege. One noon, while I was on jury duty, I gagged as I ate lunch at a restaurant catty-corner from the Multnomah County Courthouse in downtown Portland. There I was, dressed in suit and tie, gagging until I barfed behind a newspaper vending machine on a city sidewalk. Good times! The folks who ran my favorite neighborhood teriyaki joint also became accustomed to seeing me walk out of their establishment mid-meal to stand retching in the parking lot for several minutes before returning to finish my food. But nothing was quite as spectacular as what happened at the poetry seminar.
The seminar was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. When I sat down in my kitchen to eat dinner at 6:25, I realized I’d forgotten to take my pill. I still hadn’t showered, so I didn’t have time to take the pill, stand around and eat at the last moment. So I gambled I could wade through a plate of broiled chicken, potato and asparagus without anything untoward happening. And I almost made it. Celebrating the end of my meal, I took one last big bite about 6:35 p.m. And commenced to gag. And gag. And gag.
I’ll ignore it, I thought. The gagging probably gets worse because I dwell on it. So I went upstairs (gulp, gulp), showered (gulp, gulp) and donned my school clothes (gulp, gulp). I drove to the seminar with my car window down, in case the gagging reached a terminal stage. It didn’t.
I stood outside the classroom in the rain for a few minutes, gagging away, hoping the seizure would run its course, but no such luck. I went inside, fifteen minutes late, and disrupted the seminar with my arrival. The teacher expressed concern that I’d gotten lost. I said no, I have this health condition that’s acting up. I’ll just sit at the back of the room in case I need to leave quickly.
The teacher resumed his opening remarks. My classmates graciously ignored me as I sat, pale and sweating (and gagging). After about five minutes, I noted the telltale symptom -- my mouth began to water. I bolted for the bathroom, which was across a small kitchen from the seminar table. I got the door shut and the toilet seat up before the chicken emerged from my stomach, but there was nothing I could do about the noise. HYUH-uuugGH! Splat! Hyuh-UGH! Something like that. As I balanced over the toilet, I imagined my classmates discussing diphthongs and caesuras a few yards away, listening to me while trying to concentrate on the whys and wherefore of poetics. Ah, the artistic life. I was reminded of Ralph Steadman’s hysterical drawings of Hunter S. Thompson’s drug- and booze-fueled vomiting in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Honest, folks -- it was only chicken! And asparagus. Maybe a little potato.
After five minutes or so, I returned to the seminar. The gagging had stopped. Still gracious, my classmates didn’t look at me. Silently, I thanked them for their discretion.
Ah, well. I was recounting this episode to Mickey this morning via internet instant message, and he responded: “Now you can write a poem about puking at a poetry seminar.”
He even suggested a title: “On the Poem I Thought of as I Puked at the Poetry Seminar.”
That’s when I thought of my new sobriquet: Prince of Puke Poetry. What the hell, I thought, why not roll with it? Turn affliction into inspiration. I will write a book of puke poems. Go around giving readings in which I begin each performance by gagging til I barf. (I’ll need to carry a bucket -- perhaps a gold-plated one.) If Charles Bukowski could be the poet of booze, I can be the poet of puke. Look out literary world, here I come!
And I owe it all to my son Mickey. Thank you, Mick.
Tuesday, April 15, 2003
I was out running yesterday when I saw a young boy in a red baseball cap strolling toward Sellwood Park. The sight shot a pang through me.
His cap was the key. It had a white M on the front, which stands for MADD, which means the boy plays for the MADD Babe Ruth League baseball team. I managed that team through last year. I don’t any more. That boy was on his way to practice, and I wasn’t.
I became a youth baseball coach in 1985, when my eldest son, Joe, was a 5-year-old Little League tee-baller. The manager of that team worked in a lumber mill. He wound up being transferred to the night shift a third of the way through the season, which ended his managing career. A committee of dads, including me, took over to supervise the rest of the season. A low point occurred when I got into an argument with another dad who shouted at my son for making an error in a game.
The next year, I put up the money to sponsor the tee ball team of 5- and 6-year-olds and named it MADD, for Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, to which I belong because my daughter was killed by a drunk driver in 1982. I couldn’t go on the field to help coach until mid-season, though, because I underwent some surgery in late March. That year featured a couple of low points, but from another direction. At one practice, the 300-pound manager showed up with no baseballs. He had seventeen players, but no baseballs. His son, who was on the team, had dug the balls out of the gear bag at home, played with them, and lost every one. This was not good. I drove to a nearby store and bought the team a dozen baseballs. A couple of weeks later, the team was playing a game. One of the 5-year-old rookies hit a ground ball, beat it out for a base hit and then wandered toward second base. The other team tagged him out. He walked off the field mystified. “Nobody hurt,” the gentle giant manager called, ignoring what is known in coaching as a teachable moment. “Good hit, good hit.”
The next year, 1987, I sponsored again, but this time volunteered to manage, too. I was wary of the time commitment, but figured I could strike some kind of useful balance between bellowing at the kids and muddling about in a pleasant but ineffectual daze. I might even instruct a player not to wander off base without deafening him.
So it began. I sponsored and managed a team of 8-year-olds in Little League farm ball that year, then moved up the ladder with Joe through minors to majors. When his brother Mickey, who is three years younger, came up through the ranks, he replaced Joe on the Little League majors team. After he “graduated” at age 12, I dropped back down to farm with my youngest boy, Andy, and accompanied him up through Little League majors and, this time, on to two years of Babe Ruth baseball.
All told, I managed 16 seasons of youth baseball and coached two. Although I quit managing this spring after Andy decided to retire from the game, I am still sponsoring. That boy in the red hat I saw while running was on his way to practice with the 19th edition of a MADD team in southeast Portland youth baseball, now managed by an acquaintance named Rocky Johnson.
I retain many pleasant memories from my managing/coaching days. My teams won two Mount Hood Little League majors championships and tied for another. (They don’t play for titles at younger levels.) Each of my sons and I grabbed at least a share of one championship. Joe’s 12-year-old team won 19 of 21 games and tied for the championship by defeating the team that shared the title with us by one run with a two-run rally in the last inning of the last game of the season. Mickey’s squad went 20 and 0 the season he was 10 years old, becoming the only undefeated majors team in league history, as far as anyone knows. My teams once won 34 straight games over three seasons. Andy, a lefty, went undefeated as a pitcher to help lead his team to a 17-2 record and a league championship his 12-year-old season. He started the first game of that year’s all-star tournament and struck out 11 batters in an 11-2, six-inning win. I was the manager of that team, and we startled the competition by winning our first two games before getting knocked out by a pair of close defeats. In 1993, when Joe had graduated and Mickey was too young to play all-stars, I managed an otherwise Jordanless all-star team that finished third in the district tournament, winning 5 of 7 games and coming within an eyelash of qualifying for state.
More than that, though, I value memories of working and playing with my boys and their friends.
I will always recall Joe’s last day in regular season Little League. As we walked off the field following batting practice before that final game, I was struck by the fact I probably would never coach him in a ballgame again. I wrapped both arms around him and gave him a hug, which undoubtedly puzzled him but made me feel better. That was a watershed day. He is 23 now and very much his own man, but I began the process of letting him become that man on a June day in 1992, when he was the catcher of a team about to tie for a championship.
The memories roll on and on -- such as Mickey, the tiniest boy on what turned out to be an undefeated team, batting in Little league majors for the first time. As the team practiced in the weeks leading up to that first game, I had serious misgivings. Most of his teammates were big, and I mean BIG, 12-year-olds. Mickey looked like a baby lost in their midst. I thought perhaps I should have sent him back to the minors for another year. But in that first game, with the other team matching it’s best fireballing pitcher against us, Mickey stepped to the plate, dug in and hit a screaming line drive down the third baseline. The third baseman speared it in self-defense, recording an out, and I thought -- “Oh, no! That’s probably the closest Mickey will come to a hit all year!” It turned out, though, that The Mickster could crank the bat. He hit .340 that season and became our regular leftfielder. In subsequent seasons, he developed into a fireballing pitcher himself, as well as a solid shortstop and a .400 hitter, making the all-star team as a 12-year-old.
Then there was Andy, who was a special case. A heroic case, in many ways. Andy developed a rare disease, Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis, as an 18-month-old. It eventually left him functionally blind in his left eye, deaf in his right ear and in need of daily hormone shots in order to reach minimal growth standards. He learned to throw left-handed, although he is naturally right-handed, because he had a tumor in his right shoulder when he first picked up a baseball. He learned to bat left-handed because that directs his good eye toward the pitcher. As a preschooler, he underwent chemotherapy and X-ray treatments to fight tumors in his body, but when he started tee-ball he ran with a limp because of a lesion in his hip.
Andy didn’t appear to have much of a future in organized baseball, but his big brothers played, and he was determined to play, too. He dragged Dad out in the yard hour after hour, day after day, year after year to practice hitting a whiffle ball, then throwing a soft tee ball, then pitching a hardball. He grew better and better, building himself into a very good left-handed pitcher with some serious heat and a lot of movement on his pitches. One of my prime memories of his baseball career concerns the first Little League majors game he ever pitched, when he was 11 years old. It was an early-season practice game, and I had already run through the kids everyone thought of as the “regular” pitchers -- 12-year-olds and one particularly talented 11-year-old. “Give it a try,” I told Andy. He strode out to the mound and proceeded to shut the other team down for three innings, looking every inch the cool, calculating veteran. We won, and the other coaches and parents said: “Where did that come from? Is he really that good?”
It came from lots of hard work, and apparently he was that good. He pitched regularly for the balance of that season, then -- as I said earlier -- went undefeated as a 12-year-old as we copped the title. He even developed into a .300-plus hitter. He made the all-star team his last year in Little League and started two of its four games at pitcher. Then he moved on to Babe Ruth League, which is for players 13 to 15, and pitched on two more all-star teams. He is an intellectual and artistic fellow, though, so this year as a high school freshman he is giving emphasis to academics and the campus literary magazine. Baseball has been backburnered.
As a result, I am not managing or coaching for the first time since 1985. I am suffering a bit of withdrawal, I must admit, although my ancient pitching arm is relieved it no longer has to toss batting practice to fifteen kids two or three times a week. With my withdrawal struggles in mind, I offer you this poem I wrote, which appeared in the November 2001 issue of a magazine called Spitball:
What Dad Does
My eldest son's flight lands
while I am managing
his eleven-year-old brother's
Little League game,
so their mother drives by
the ballpark on the way
home from the airport.
When Joe drapes his arms
on the cyclone fence
beside the Hornets' dugout
and grins across the field,
I am coaching third base,
reminding one of my runners
to tag up if the batter hits
a flyball to the outfield.
Joe outweighs me by thirty
pounds, stands two inches
taller, sports bushy brown
hair with sideburns that crawl
his jaw to the point of his chin.
Seeing him is a jolt. Abruptly,
I am in a cluttered family room,
watching a 1982 World Series game
between the Milwaukee Brewers
and the St. Louis Cardinals
on television while pitching
a white plastic ball
to a two-year-old boy,
who clouts it again and again
with a red plastic bat. His fat bat,
he calls it, because it is short
and wide, the shape of a milk
bottle. He smacks liners
off the fireplace, grounders
under the couch, flies
into the corner flowerpot.
He wears pajamas, white
with red pinstripes,
"Li'l Shortstop" written
across the chest. Willie McGee
singles to right. Joey smokes
a line shot off his dad's right knee.
Pete Vukovich glares
in from the mound. Joey pounds
his fat bat on the floor, cackles.
And I am back in the present,
seventeen years later, teaching baseball
to little boys, while my son Joe,
a bear of a man,
travels home from college
to see what dad is doing.
Monday, April 14, 2003
Hidee ho! I’m back. Did you miss me? What, you didn’t even know I’d been gone? Sheesh!
Well, anyway . . . I returned Sunday evening from a weekend trip to Orcas Island, in the San Juans up north of Seattle, where my wife and I went to observe our 25th wedding anniversary.
What’s to say about Orcas Island? Well, it’s green. And hilly. And surrounded by water. And frequently cloud-covered. And coolish -- the kind of place where restaurant waitresses say: “If you want sunshine, come back and see us in August!”
Orcas is named for Orca whales, which during certain parts of the year (but not the second weekend in April) congregate near the island to show off for oohing and ahhing tourists. As you might have guessed, most non-swimming visitors arrive by ferry or private boat. A word of advice for would-be ferry customers: learn the boat schedule before you drive up there. The ride from the mainland to Orcas took an hour, but we mistimed our arrival at the ferry in Anacortes on Friday afternoon and spent an hour and a half sitting in a line of cars waiting to drive onto the ship.
I did manage a bit of fun at the ferry slip, though.
Even after we paid for our ticket, Cookie Jean and I didn’t know exactly what time the boat would leave. The lady who took our money just pointed us toward the rear of a long line of cars and said, “Go wait there.” When we arrived at our spot, we discovered all the engines around us had been shut off and many people had climbed out of cars to walk dogs, talk on cell phones or gab with neighboring drivers and passengers. I decided the time was right for a quick trip to the restroom, a hundred yards or so away beyond several lines of cars. The ticket lady had steered us to line three, marked by a number painted on the asphalt, so I struck out across the parking lot figuring when I finished at the restroom I’d just stroll back to a 3, then relocate our nondescript blue Volvo stationwagon.
I spent a very short time in the restroom, but when I stepped back outside I realized the situation had changed drastically. One line of cars was GONE, and another sped rapidly toward the gate leading to the boat. I sprinted across the lot, found a 3 painted on the pavement and raced toward the rear of the line in search of our Volvo. It wasn’t there! Omigod! I thought. The line started moving and Cookie Jean drove off and left me, stranded dockside hundreds of miles from home in a strange town with no money, no credit card, no identification! She had said before I opened the car door that I’d better hurry, because if the line started moving she’d leave without me. I’d thought she was joking!
I looped back toward the front of the line, searching all the time for the blue Volvo, with no luck. I spotted a fellow who looked like a local (he didn’t seem to be worried about getting on the ferry) walking his dog, so I asked if he knew where this particular boat was headed. Orcas or Friday Harbor, he thought. “Did you see a blue Volvo?” I asked. “Lots of blue cars,” he said, shrugging.
Verging on panic-stricken now, I dodged in and out of moving cars as I raced to the ferry gate where a surly woman in an orange safety vest was directing traffic onto the boat. “Please stay out of the roadway, sir,” she said sternly. “Where is this boat going?” I asked. “Please stay out of the roadway, SIR,” she repeated. I climbed over a guardrail onto a sidewalk. “Where?” I asked again. “I think my wife might have driven on and left me!” “Friday Harbor,” she said.
In my confusion, I couldn’t remember if Friday Harbor was a town on Orcas Island, a town on another island, or an island itself. The traffic woman wasn’t going to respond positively to requests for clarification, though, I could see that. So I turned and sprinted back along the line of cars, skipping past the guardrail again as soon as I was far enough away from the traffic woman to avoid hearing her yell. As I ran back into the wide parking lot from the funnel-like boarding lane, however, I made a major discovery. There were TWO lane threes. I saw a second numeral 3 painted on the asphalt, to the right of the line of cars I had already searched. Panting and sweating, I ran up this second line, searching for the mystery Volvo. Two-thirds of the way back, I found it. Cookie Jean sat at the wheel, working a newspaper crossword puzzle.
“What took you so long?” she said when I opened the door. I collapsed into the passenger’s seat, feeling as if I’d just lived through an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” on television.
After that auspicious beginning, the rest of the weekend was fairly mellow. We drove to the top of Mount Constitution on Saturday and were almost blown away by the wind, but that was about as challenging as things got. Other than that we visited a nifty used-book store in East Sound called Pyewackett Books (named for the magic cat in the 1950s Broadway play and Hollywood movie “Bell, Book and Candle”), poked around the historical-landmark resort Rosario, hiked, hot-tubbed and ate (and ate and ate).
One of the highlights was meeting a real cat, named Dylan, who lives at the Deer Harbor Inn restaurant. He greeted us as we walked up to the restaurant, then followed us inside, where he flopped in front of a wood stove and snoozed off and on for the duration of our meal. Between naps, he sauntered over to eat butter off Cookie Jean’s finger, let me scratch his head, and solicit food from diners at another table. Dylan was a distinctive-looking fellow -- a calico cat, I think you’d call him -- with random patches of colored fur. Around one eye was black fur, and around the other white, with brown surrounding both. Up and down his back and tail he had splashes of brown, tan, black, gray and white. His eyes were bright blue. T.S. Eliot (and Andrew Lloyd Weber) would have loved him, Dylan the restaurant cat with the coat of many colors. I thought it was illegal to have cats in restaurants, because of health laws, but I guess not, huh? Or not in Washington, anyway. Or on Orcas Island.
Anyhow, we had a nice time. I never did see Ma and Pa Kettle, though, or Betty McDonald, who wrote the book in which the Kettles appear, “The Egg and I.” I thought they all lived in the San Juans, but maybe that was at Friday Harbor. Whatever that is.