Archive for Family

Sleepless on Long Island: Remembering My First Pitchback

I’m struck by a memory this morning and thought I’d write it down before, you know, it all evaporates into the mist of dementia. I’m not there yet!

One week when I was young — let’s guess that I was six or seven — my elderly grandparents came to watch us while my parents went away on a trip. This was a rare and usual thing for our family. 

At that time, I was infatuated with baseball and “ball games” of any description. I’d fill hours by playing imaginary games, keeping score in notebooks. I’d throw a Spaulding against the back of our house, perfecting my Jerry Koosman-inspired windup. Whap, whap, whap, endlessly against the red shingles.

Well, grandpa was old and he needed his naps. He slept in my oldest brother Neal’s room — who must have been away at Princeton at the time — which was right next to the target for my incoming missiles. 

The poor guy couldn’t sleep a wink. 

Here’s the amazing part. They could have easily forbid me from doing the thing I loved most of all. Entirely reasonable request. Grandpa needs his sleep. But they didn’t. Instead, the next day, my grandparents arrived with a pitchback they’d purchased at a local sports store. “Here you go, slugger, use this as a target. Just, please, no more slamming against the house.”

Wonder of wonders. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.

Man, I loved that pitchback. Sploing, sploing, sploing. We positioned it under our backyard apple tree and I played for hours every day while Grandpa, I hope, got his rest.

That’s called problem-solving, folks. And kindness. I didn’t fully get it at the time, but I do now. 

Camping Photo, John Muir Quote: Two for the Price of None!

“In every walk with nature,

one receives far more

than he seeks.”

John Muir

 

I enjoyed a weekend of camping with my wife and daughter and our incredible dog, Echo. We brought a canoe and two kayaks. And let me tell you, it got cold at night, close to freezing! I felt a twinge of guilt staring at our big roaring fires in the verdant Northeastern woods, while those devastating wildfires out west still burn. My heart goes out to all those people and living creatures that have been displaced, their homes destroyed, landscapes (temporarily) ravaged. My wife had a childhood home burn to the ground. She’d been out at basketball practice, only to return to a worried crowd gathered outside, her father in tears. So many people must be experiencing that same tumult of emotion and loss. 

So, yes, a moment for that.

But also for John Muir, and the value of getting out into nature, feeling it, hearing those owls at night, the coyotes surprisingly close, and the ghostly calls of the loons across the lake. 

 

Like-minded readers might enjoy my middle-grade wilderness survival story about siblings, Grace and Carter, who are lost in the mountains. A 2019 Library Guild Selection.

 

A Dog Leads With Its Nose

Maggie, my daughter, has an eye for photos. Especially when it comes to our sweet Echo.

This remarkable perspective, his glorious snout, brought to mind the dog Sitka in my recent wilderness adventure novel, Blood Mountain

To write about that character, a mutt lost in the mountains with two human siblings, Grace and Carter, I did some research. Though I’ve owned many dogs and have observed them closely over the years, I didn’t feel ready to write about them. I knew that I didn’t want to humanize Sitka, do a Disney treatment; instead, I wanted to honor the sheer dogginess of the creature. And when it comes to dogs, I learned, it all begins with the nose.

What follows are two brief excerpts from the book that hone close to Sitka’s own glorious snout. 

from Chapter 23 . . .

After a time, the dog moves away, climbs down off the rock face, down into the sun-stippled understory beneath the great shade-cooled umbrella of leaves. A hunger gnaws at Sitka’s belly like a twisting, tightening coil of wire. Imagine if everything a human sees — every color, shape, and texture — arrived with a specific odor. The red of that flower’s petals, the deep-rutted bark of a poplar, the light brown of a wren’s chest, the dropped acorns, the pale underside of a leaf, the shimmering sky itself: every pixel that an eye apprehends, for a dog those details come with singular odor, as different as green from red, blue from yellow. When Sitka sniffs, it is the same as Grace opening her eyes. Sitka inhales and her tail sweeps and she knows a man has passed near here some time ago, moving in an easterly direction. A mosaic of smells, each one a discovery. The creatures of this world announce themselves to her nose: I am. The dog goes to the slow-trickling stream. Movement among the ferns. Sitka stealthily moves to investigate, prodded by the ache in her belly. Plunges her nose deep into the living green world, inhales the data points, sniffs out the whiskered, stout rodent. Pounces with front paws outstretched, and again — there! success! — bites down, gulps, gone.

A huntress!

Sweet vole!

And even in that instant, the dog attends to one who lies restless in half sleep; a soft moan, she wakes. Meal in belly — hair and tail and skull — Sitka will be at Grace’s side by the time she opens her eyes. 

And from Chapter 34 . . . 

The dog smells everything, recent past and the acute present, for a mile in all directions, depending on air currents. The data overload is immense. Mind-boggling to process. But one odor comes clearest. Though Sitka has no direct experience of “mountain lion,” that named thing, something in her DNA recognizes the lurking danger, the predator prowling in the dark, unseen and unheard.

But not unsmelled.

Therefore: known.

An old enemy.

Sitka vacuums in the odors, sifts through the information. The creatures with names she cannot know: squirrel, vole, owl, mole, mouse, rabbit, hawk, raccoon. Another faint whiff troubles the dog: man. A desperate man has recently moved through this area, the aroma of stealth and haste.

And another thing: the trees themselves, hosts to so much life. Tree limbs and tree fingers, tree thoughts and tree intentions. The interconnected roots, thirsty and entangled, talking in their ancient tongues, passing along what they know to each other. This is the wild place, the space of time-before, and now the dog forgets recents pleasures of soft cushions and screen doors, fresh water bowls and proffered treats, long drives with the windows down.

Dog recalls wolf.

The time-before.

The snaggletooth. The vicious bite and muzzle shake. The primal memory of ripped flesh and the warm taste of red blood. The fresh kill.

“What do you smell?” Grace asks.

How does the dog answer?

Sitka sits alert, rumbles low, hackles raised, muscles taut. Danger, her body replies.

She senses danger. 

Amelanchier: My Favorite New Recording Artist, Musician

So: My 20-year-old son, Gavin, released two albums this past month on all the major music platforms (Spotify, Bandcamp, Apple, etc.). After dropping out of music school and traveling, he’s been home with us during lockdown, quietly recording in the basement with a primitive, lo-fi setup. Gavin records under the name AMELANCHIER. The first album is titled “Sparrow Inside.” The second one, “Is This the Doorway?” He plays all instruments himself, mostly a Martin acoustic guitar, along with some tambourine, cello, horn, shaky egg. The two piano tracks were written and recorded last year in school. There’s also two separate singles floating out there that aren’t on either album, 22 songs in all. A month ago, we’d never once heard him sing, never heard a song he had written. He just waited, and waited, and then, like a moonflower that blooms overnight, emerged with these incredible sounds. This is lean-in music, and we couldn’t be more impressed or prouder. You can follow him on Spotify and find him elsewhere. We’re curious to see where he’ll take us. 

 

My Pecha Kucha: Baseball’s Red Thread

I gave a Pecha Kucha presentation a couple of years back at our local Opalka Gallery on the Sage Campus in Albany. The other day I came across the text for it, which comes close to what I actually said that evening (my talk was pretty closely memorized, no notes). I thought I’d share it here, because it brings together two things I love, baseball and my mother, and I happen to be missing both of them these days. The images here are the ones I used for the original talk.

BUT FIRST: WHAT IS PECHA KUCHA?

I grabbed this off the web:

Pecha Kucha is a presentation form of 20 images for 20 seconds. The slides change automatically and the speaker must synchronise their speech with the images. It’s sometimes also called a 20×20 presentation. So the entire presentation always lasts for exactly 6 minutes and 40 seconds.

It started in Tokyo in 2003, designed by architects, Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham. It was soon adopted by fans of alternative presentation styles. Similar to the short-length focus of an elevator pitch, Pecha Kucha relies upon concision and brevity. By applying a limit on the number of slides, the presenter is forced to streamline their content. It also forces the speaker to prepare and practice, as there is no option to go back or skip ahead. Pecha Kucha is also a very visual presentation style. It is based on single powerful images. Striking visuals enhance any presentation. They captivate the audience in a more immediate way than written words.

 

 

On the outside there are two cowhide coverings stitched together with waxed red thread. There are exactly 108 stitches in the sewing process of a major league ball. I feel like that red thread has been woven through the fabric of my life.

 

If you’re a kid, sooner or later you’ve got to unravel one of these things. Inside there’s a rubber-covered cork core and four types of yarn. It’s the yarn I like best, because a yarn is also a long story. My yarn, today, is about baseball. But that’s not entirely true.

 

My mother was the big baseball fan in our house. A huge Mets fan. The games were always on when I was growing up. She’d listen on the radio or watch on TV, snapping the games off in despair when the Mets were losing. And they were often losing.

 

 

Speaking of yarn: There were always balls of it my house. Everywhere you turned. My mother did most of her best work while watching the Mets on television. We still wrap ourselves in her blankets. This remains the world’s second best use of yarn.

 

 

My mother married in 1948. Seventy-two years ago. Around that time, she threw away her collection of Brooklyn Dodger baseball cards. My father had no interest in baseball. It was time, she thought, to put aside childish things.

 

 

It was my mother who taught me how to play catch. I was her little southpaw, the youngest of seven. And I’d ask her, “Am I graceful, Mom? Am I graceful?” And she would always answer, “Oh yes, very graceful.”

 

 

Some nights she’d let me stay up to watch the end of the games. My tired head on her lap, her hand in my hair, a cigarette in the other. She liked “little” Buddy Harrelson the best. Mom always seemed to have a crush on little shortstops.

 

Around this time I invented my own baseball games. I’d write out the lineups for two opposing teams and play imaginary games. I’d roll the dice. A 2 was a HR, a 3 a triple, 4 was a ground out, and so on. Then I’d play again, and again.

 

 

I filled notebooks doing this. Today I’m a professional writer. And I often think that it began back then. There I was, pen in hand, filling pages, fueled by my love of the game.

 

 

In the morning I reached for the newspaper. I loved the boxed scores. Each boxed score reveals a story. I eventually moved beyond the numbers to the articles. Those were the first writers I loved. The game had turned me into a reader.

 

 

The first time I saw a color television set was in my grandparents’ home on 100th Avenue in Queens Village. My grandfather was sitting in a leather chair, smoking a cigar, watching baseball. I stood transfixed. The grass was impossibly green.

 

 

I grew up. Along the way, I lost my friend, Craig Walker, to cancer. This photo was taken on the day we watched Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The ball rolled through Buckner’s legs and we stood and we cheered and we hugged, ecstatic.

 

 

Quick Craig story: My mother was pleased and surprised to see Craig, more than two decades ago, at my second wedding. “Craig! I didn’t know you’d be here.”

“Oh yes,” he said. “I come to ALL of Jimmy’s weddings.”

Funny guy.

 

 

In 2009, I published my first baseball book. Writing it, then finally placing that book on the shelf with my collection of baseball books, I felt like I’d come home. Baseball, of course, is a game about coming home. I dedicated it to my pal, Craig.

 

 

You strike the ball and you journey out like the hero Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. First base, second base, third base . . . and finally to return home again.

Safe. Triumphant.

Into your mother’s arms.

 

 

I began playing hardball again in my late 30s. This is my son, Gavin, who’s now in college. These days I play in two extremely old man’s baseball league, ages 45-up and 55-up. Don’t laugh, for in our hearts we are young.

 

 

Look at these guys. My teammates. We take the field, smack our gloves, and look to the sky from where the high fly falls, drifting back and back, saying, “I’ve got it, I’ve got it, I’ve got it.”

And most of the time, but not always, we make the catch.

 

 

Today my mother is 94 years old. Still a Mets fan. But these past seasons something changed. For the first time, she’s lost track of the Mets. She can’t remember the players, or summon the old passion she once had for the game. It’s all become a great blur in her mind.

 

 

And to me –- my mother losing the Mets — feels like the end of something important. A symbol, a metaphor. A red thread, cut.

 

 

And so hanging by a thread, we return home -– to baseball, to my mother, my sense of well-being. It’s gotten so I can’t think of one without the other. It’s all interconnected. And I now understand that my love for baseball is really just an expression of my love for the other.

Thank you.