Saturday, September 25, 2010

the trunk

Some people collect stamps, others collect coins, some take walks looking for birds. I like to read. There are probably many philatelists and numismatists, and birdwatchers who also like to read, but the point is that we all have different hobbies. I have a buddy with whom I regularly have breakfast. He often asks me when I have time to read. I tell him that when you like to do something you tend to make time for it.

For me reading helps me think. Actually read a book in the late 70s which had that as a line in a conversation and it has stuck in my head. The book was called The Last Convertible, and when I read that sentence, I said--"that's me." Books give me ideas for me to consider, accept, or discard--as if they are fuel for my internal conversations. I would likely converse internally with or without books, but the discourse because I read is--I think--more informed.

There are authors whom I read because they have earned a reputation with me. Anything by Anne Tyler for example I typically snort. And some of her lesser known books--A Patchwork Planet for example--has hung around my head for a long time, as has A Ladder of Years and the Accidental Tourist. Not sure I always heed the wisdom of the authors, but the thoughts make appearances in my consciousness long after I've finished the book.

Richard Russo is another author whom I read. The Risk Pool and Bridge of Sighs are special. I was in the library a couple of weeks back returning some cds and saw a book of his on the shelf that I'd heard about but not read. It's called That Old Cape Magic. So, I took it out and finished it recently.

If you think you might want to read That Old Cape Magic, I'd stop here. I won't be giving the whole story away, but if you are like me, and don't want to know anything about a book before you read it, you won't want to read what I write below. (Even though what I will write is far less than some incomprehensibly insensitive reviewers who damn near give away the whole story in their reviews when an objective is not to do just that).

The Old Cape Magic is about a college professor who, when he was a kid, travelled with his college professor parents to Cape Cod for weeks in the summer. He returns there in the beginning of the book, now with his marriage to Joy on shaky ground, and is there in part to discard the ashes of his father, sitting in his trunk, who wished to be scattered on the Cape. During the course of the book the son winds up with both the ashes of his mother and father in his trunk. Yet, for various reasons he can't seem to get them out and scatter them. Several almost comical episodes preclude his attempts, and it seems as if only when he can get the ashes out of his trunk will he be able to engage his wife (Joy) again.

It's a little heavy on the symbolism, trying to find Joy and all. And it's not one of Russo's better books, but still it is hanging around my head. Fortunately, I am blessed with two healthy parents who provided and provide a remarkably sturdy ethical foundation for my life. But if we extend the metaphor some, how many of us are hauling around ashes in our trunks that we either don't want to address or just seem unable to--and it is that which precludes our ability to engage Joy.

Sometimes despite all efforts Joy is elusive. But sometimes it is only an illusion that Joy is elusive and that what prohibits engaging Joy is that we can't seem to get into the trunk, learn from the ashes therein, and free ourselves by scattering them.

Friday, September 17, 2010

cleaning and cleansing

In about an hour I, as well as others from my tribe, begin a 25 hour period of introspection and concomitant self assessment.

This summer I read an article from a religion pundit who claimed that the notion that all religions were fundamentally the same was inaccurate. This claim piqued my interest since that was and is my assumption. That is, my assumption is that while people take different routes to what they consider to be the best way to live spiritually, the ultimate goal of being considerate, loving and self loving, friendly, and giving is the same in all tribes.

After reading the expert's article I still felt the same way. The only thing the author convinced me of was that he has become exasperated by those who do not accept his perspective. Some irony there.

So, while I am no expert on alternative religions I suspect that all religions have some time and prescription for repentance and self assessment. And the objective of this time of self analysis is a removal of the debris that somehow accrues and interferes with the functioning of our hearts. A cardiologist would argue that an unhealthy heart can undermine wellness. Similarly a heart infected by accrued litter impedes our capability to live and love as we should and could.

My favorite part of the day of atonement starts in about an hour here in the East. It is called the Kol Nidre prayer. I haven't missed a Kol Nidre in twenty years or more. I think as much as the message of the prayer, the fact that people all over the world are chanting the same prayer to start this period of introspection is a powerful starting point to my own day of evaluation.

Whatever route we take, I think it is important now and again that we stay on the course suggested by our pure hearts. Old story. My dad is watching me saw a piece of wood. He has used a ruler to draw a pencil line that I'm supposed to move my saw along. Somehow I move away from the line. Dad spots this as he pauses from his own sawing. He tells me to go back to where I veered off the line. I am maybe 7 and I tell him to look how far I am along, albeit away from the line. He tells me to go back to where I veered off regardless of how far along I might be.

It is I think the goal of this day of atonement to examine the forces that made us move off the line, and get back on track.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

going for it

In the epilogue to The Madness of March I write about how sport fans are occasionally disparaged by people who believe they should "get a life".

Today, there would not have been many better ways to spend this day of one's life than by enjoying sports. Since noon Eastern there has been football, basketball, tennis, and baseball to watch on television. In Boston, the weather was beautiful--a great day to run, take a canoe on the Charles, play touch football or kick a soccer ball around. I do have other hobbies, and I do have other "lives", but today was a day to frolic watching and playing sports.

I'm not sure there will ever be a tennis match as exciting as the semi finals today between Federer and Djokivic. And, beyond the fun of watching the game, the match was valuable as a lesson--as so many sporting events can be.

When I played club tennis competitively I used to tell my teammates that when the game was close at the end, it was not a matter of athletic skill. It was a matter of backbone. In the final set of a match it was no longer who had the better serve, it was who had the stomach to win.

Federer is one of my favorite tennis players. He doesn't squawk, he plays brilliantly, and is as gracious on those rare times when he loses as when he is victorious. But this afternoon he was beaten. And he was beaten because Djokivic in the final set, "went for it". Facing two match points on his serve, Djokivic wailed on a couple of shots that, had he not made them, would have made him a loser. But he went for them. He put it on the line, took a chance to be as good as he could be. And he won. In the final analysis, he beat Federer--a man with a sturdy backbone himself--because he had the courage to do what he needed to do--he went for it.

Sports are fun in and of themselves. Today Michigan beat Notre Dame in the last seconds. Last night West Virginia stunned Marshall by scoring two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to come back for a victory. Earlier today, James Madison University, a team that plays in the college football subdivision out of tiny Harrisonburg, Virginia, beat mighty Virginia Tech ranked thirteen in the country.

While sport can be exciting in and of itself, it often transcends itself and provides a lesson to spectators beyond the victories and losses. And today the message in Djokivic's victory--to any who had the courage to listen--was this: if you want to reach the high note--you have to go for it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


I open today's Boston Globe, back from an in and out trip to New York to watch athletes play a game far different than the tennis I play. What they were doing at the USOPEN and what I do when I play was as similar as my cat Pumpkin and a Tiger.

In the Globe I noticed a photo and caption about a convention being held at a hotel very near where I work. It is the Boston Tattoo convention. The photo has a woman wincing as she is being inflicted by a tattoo artist (one assumes, you can only see a gloved hand in the picture).

Tattoos are something I don't quite get. When I was a kid the only people who had tattoos did not travel in my circles. There would be some kid in high school who perpetually had a cigarette behind his ear, awaiting the time when his mandatory English class would let out so he could bolt and go the bathroom or some other illicit spot, to smoke up. That guy would come back from somewhere with a tattoo of boxing gloves one day and make sure to wear a short sleeved shirt. Then sometime when he was thirty he wished he did not have it any more and began to wear long sleeves in the summer.

This is not the case anymore. Now, it seems, that a very high percentage of people in their twenties and thirties have a tattoo. I approached a student last summer who, like most students during the hot months, wore shorts and a tee shirt to class. Because there was no ink on her, I confided my puzzlement about the appeal of tattoos. She was an excellent student and the kind of clean looking bright eyed smiley kid who was in the national honor society throughout her high school years. "Why do so many people have tattoos?" I asked. "They're cool." she replied. "I'm going to get my third around Christmas." Where her ink was, was a matter for conjecture.

I have a number of shirts that I really like. I wear them regularly. But sometimes I like to wear other shirts that typically are not in the rotation. So, I take off the shirts that I regularly wear, and put on the other ones. When you have a tattoo, though, you can not bring in the lefty. It's indelible.

I've been thinking about this regarding tattoos ever since they became prevalent. But another thought entered this a.m. when I saw the photo in the Globe. I had been musing about some ongoing matter when I opened the paper and maybe that is why this thought seeped into consciousness when I read that the Tattoo convention was in town.

What about the other tattoos? That is, what about the tattoos that are not visible. Sure, the guy with the boxing gloves--to me at least--is stuck with a "I put boxing gloves on my arm" message every time he wears a tee shirt. But what about the tattoos that we don't see from people who never went to an inkmaster. How indelible are these--and moreover are they even more difficult to get out. The girl who is dissed by her parents has a tattoo. The boy whose heart is broken as a teen has a tattoo. The girl who goes to the dance all duded up but noone asks her to dance has a tattoo, The kid who gets picked last every time sides are chosen up.

What happens to those tattoos.

I think we can get them out, but most of the time, like the high school kid with the boxing gloves tattooed on his arm, we--down the road--consciously or otherwise choose to cover them up.