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Baseball and the Passing of Time

August 6, 2016
Baseball endures because it feels timeless. It feels timeless because it endures. Or as Jerry Seinfeld said, we’re really just cheering for laundry. The players come and go, usually without notice, but we care while they’re wearing our laundry. Yet occasionally the arrival or departure of a player feels like it’s marking something more significant. And so it was in Seattle for me Tuesday night, watching my beloved Red Sox play the Mariners. This year marks 45 years since my first trip to Fenway (in an earlier post I tracked down the box score of that game against the Orioles), which means I have seen generations of Red Sox come and go. Tuesday I saw both.
Barring any further coincidence between the Sox’s schedule and my own, I will not watch David Ortiz play in person again. No player better marks the transition from the Red Sox I grew up with (so close, but never the big win) to those of the last dozen years (Three rings. Three? Rings!). My boyhood hero, Carl Yastrzemski, did so much for his teams, but twice came up one World Series game short (in fact, he made the last out of both Series he played in, plus the infamous Bucky Dent playoff game in 1978). Big Papi felt the pain of 2003 and the subsequent glories of 2004, 2007, and 2013. He has hit so many clutch home runs that they kind of blur together in a single, late-inning montage of clutch and victory. Yaz bore the unfair brunt of his team’s failures; I remember fans booing him in the early 70s, presumably for not winning the Triple Crown and going to the World Series every year. Papi told the world not to f*** with Boston after the marathon bombing and probably could have been elected governor of Massachusetts while still playing. He’ll certainly never pay for a drink in the Commonwealth for the rest of his life. When he retires at the end of this year the Sox will lose their last link to the curse-busters who overcame the Yankees down three games to none. He helped change the psyche of a city, a region, and a Nation. He gave me memories to last several lifetimes.
Earlier today the Sox called up Andrew Benintendi, the first player they drafted last year. He was tearing up Double-A and was deemed worthy of a shot at the bigs. With a lefty starting for the Mariners, Benintendi began the game on the bench but came on as a pinch hitter in the seventh. He later struck out to end the game (but had two hits in his first start the next night). Watching him in left field alongside Jackie Bradley Jr and Mookie Betts, I thought of Jim Rice, Fred Lynn and Dwight Evans, those kids who gave me such hope in 1975 and who looked to rule the Fenway outfield for a decade or more. My grandfather, who (with my dad) brought me to Fenway on that August night in 1971, would have said it reminded him of Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, and Stan Spence. And so it goes, back to Tris Speaker, Duffy Lewis, and Harry Hooper in the outfield of the brand-new Fenway Park a century ago.
The night was like many of my youth in another way: up 4-0 in the 8th, the Sox lost 5-4. Robinson Cano hit a three-run homer to break my heart again. But no matter. I saw more than a baseball game. I saw the passing of time.

Around the World in 11 Days, Leg 2

December 13, 2015

Route: Seattle to Singapore
Flights: 2
Stop: Seoul
Airline: Korean Air
Air miles: 8088
Time Zones (inclusive): 11

I don’t talk much when I fly. Because I travel so often on one airline, Delta, I’m almost always sitting with other very frequent fliers, either in first class or in an exit row. The latter usually provide more leg room and, until 24 hours before departure, are only available to passengers with at least silver medallion status. We just don’t have much to say to each other. Most of the chatter is of the “this one time I was trying to get from Austin to Allentown, and of course there was a delay,” etc etc. I am tired of these war stories because there’s usually an implication that the airline is so much dumber than the person telling the story, and while the airlines are far from perfect, especially when it comes to customer service, they really do know what they’re doing when it comes to scheduling, weather, and other logistical parts of flying. I am quite glad they put safety first, and that crews have rules regarding how long they can fly in a day, because I don’t want them taking chances when the consequences are so high. I also have a hard time hearing about how tough these road warriors have it when they’re sipping on their second free gin and tonic in a cushy first class seat they didn’t pay for. I’m not alone–most of us just enjoy our drinks while looking at email on our phones or making a last call to a client, assistant, or spouse before takeoff.

I never noticed how little I talk while flying until this week, when a cold and a fairly packed teaching schedule (I’ll amass 13 teaching days and 8 travel days between November 8 and December 13) left me with almost no voice on Thursday. I realized I’d need to minimize conversations until Monday’s workshop here in Singapore–and that’s when it dawned on me that I would have almost no reason to talk during that time. I would eat meals by myself, travel by myself, sit on two planes for about 18.5 hours, then spend today in my hotel room here. I would have to talk only to servers, agents at airports and hotels, and flight attendants. None of these conversations would involve more than a few words. Today my throat feels pretty good, and my voice, while still a bit hoarse, is better. I hope it can hold out until Friday–four workshops in the next five days will provide a real test.

All this time saying so little to other people means that internal dialogs take over. I debate whether I should have alcohol and caffeine on these long flights. All the travel web sites say they make it harder to sleep, and they dehydrate, which is a real problem because airplane air is really dry compared to most climates (it’s so humid here in Singapore that even walking slowly outside made me sweat in less than 20 minutes on a cloudy day). On these flights I opted for Korean beer (not great, but the only other choice Korean Air offered was Bud), and a glass of wine, and a coffee and a tea. (This was over two long flights.) I debate meal choices–should I have the Korean option, since I like it and I’m going to spend two weeks there in May? Or should I have the more familiar chicken and noodles? I go for the latter–sitting among so many Koreans on both flights, and still new to the cuisine, I would feel like a real poser if I’d gone for the bibimbap. I debate how to spend my time: read for work, read for fun, watch movies and TV, listen to podcasts, etc etc. I ended up doing most of these–again, lots of time to try lots of things–and even played some Bejeweled while waiting to take off in Seoul. I was happy with myself that I finished One Second Ahead, about cultivating mindfulness at work. I watched three movies (Bridge of Spies, Match (resisting Patrick Stewart is futile) and American Ultra; I liked them in that order) and two Big Bang Theory and two How I Met Your Mother episodes. I switched to podcasts (mainly On Being and Effectively Wild, both of which I strongly recommend) when my eyes tired. Reading and watching so much can give me headaches, and my eyes are where I feel the lack of moisture in the cabin. Of course I slept, too, off and on.

The flights were easy. It was my first time on Korean Air, and they are top-notch. Not as glamorous as Singapore Air or even Cathay Pacific, but the food was great, the cabins clean and comfortable, there were plenty of media choices, and the attendants were friendly and professional. I am starting to learn Korean, and they tolerated my practicing “hello” and “thank you” and “fish, please” with my gravelly voice and rookie pronunciation. With less than an hour’s layover in Seoul, I was nervous that my bag would not make it. The travel sites all say to pack extra clothes, just in case, and I did that this time, moving non-essential stuff out of my computer bag to make room. I thought my odds were pretty good when the gate agent at Sea-Tac put a “short connection” tag on my bag, and sure enough, it was there to meet me in Singapore.

I forget how far south Singapore is; it lies just a single degree above the equator. Here’s one way to describe the distance: the flight from Seoul was over six hours, and yet we crossed just one time zone. But the destination is well worth the journey. From the mints waiting for you as passport control reviews your paperwork, to the warm weather, safe conditions, prevalence of English, and wonderful food options, I regret only that I’m here for such a short time, and that, because my workshop site and hotel are out by the airport, I won’t get to walk the city. I think this is my seventh time coming here, so I expect to have another chance on another trip.


A Departure, an Arrival

October 21, 2015

Yesterday I marked two anniversaries. One was very hard. It was a year since my mother-in-law Barbara died. She’s the first of our kids’ grandparents to die. Although she was being treated for lung cancer, her death was sudden and surprising. It still feels very strange not to see her at family gatherings, to eat her macaroni salad or to pour her a glass of wine. It was much more pleasant to mark the other anniversary. One year ago yesterday I entered the Won-Buddhist temple in Chapel Hill for the first time. At 6:30am I joined two kyomunims (priests) and two other laypersons for one hour of meditation. We bowed, chanted, sat in silence, chanted some more, and even sang a bit. The simple beauty of the temple inspired me, and the deep resonance of the large bell ringing calmed me even as it awoke me to the moment. I knew that morning I wanted to return, but mourning kept me away for a few days. Over the year I have meditated there often, spent a weekend learning 8-form tai chi, studied the Diamond Sutra with a small group, met a Prime Dharma Master Emeritus, and participated with the sangha (community) in other ways. I have spent time in other meditation settings, but this one immediately felt like a spiritual home. I am now preparing to take a dharma name, and in the spring I will travel to Korea with nearly two dozen other members of the temple to mark the centennial of Won-Buddhism. As with Barbara’s dying, my spiritual rebirth in this place has been both sudden, and emerging for some time. I am grateful for knowing Barbara, and I am grateful to know the Won-Buddhist temple. May both continue to shape my life.


Waking Up

July 7, 2015

My plan was to just go across the street from my Seattle hotel to a Starbucks, grab a quick bite, and sit and read for a bit. But as soon as I hit the sidewalk, the warm air and light breeze pushed me to walk farther. I kept going up Third Avenue until I found another Starbucks. It had a couple of large overstuffed leather chairs, kiddy-corner beneath tall tinted windows—a perfect spot to enjoy the sun and a skinny latte while I read. I could not remember the last time I had sat in a Starbucks without my computer. I relaxed into my book as others came and went in the nearby seats.

Karen sat down in the other leather chair when my mocha was almost gone. Three years ago, before joining Open Table Ministries, I would not have noticed her. She had a faded purple coat hanging off her shoulders. She had a walking boot on her right leg, which was covered with flaky skin. She had a hospital ID on her right arm and wore what looked like a hospital top, but both looked worn, like she’d been out for a few days at least. She set down a double-bagged paper QFC shopping bag. She had ordered what looked like an iced coffee, but didn’t drink from it for a while. She slumped into the chair, eyes closed. When she had summoned the energy, she gulped down two-thirds of her drink without stopping, eyes still closed, face twisted like it hurt to swallow. She then reached into her bag for some whole-wheat bread. No butter, no meat, just bread. She pulled it in chunks, not whole slices.

After a couple of minutes I leaned over and said, “Excuse me. Since you drank that so fast, maybe you’d like another? Is it iced coffee?” She nodded, glancing cautiously toward me for just a moment. When I brought it to her she let it sit on the side table for a while. Every movement—reaching into the bag, chewing and swallowing—looked slow and painful.

Then it was like the caffeine had suddenly done its work. Her eyes opened. She looked over at me, then away. I made eye contact, then kept reading. Then she began to talk of a man who was leaving tomorrow, who had decided to give her a $10 bill to remember him by, but who gave it not directly to her but instead to his brother, who in turn gave it to his girlfriend. This was most unfortunate, because the girlfriend was a witch and had burned the bill. There was also a ring she’d had since she was a child, engraved with her name on it. The ring, too, had also made its way to the witch, so now it was cursed. The witch drew satanic symbols on money that she didn’t burn, and once Karen had come upon one of these bills and walked through a store holding it as far from her as she could. She spent that money fast, before it cursed her. Karen has an apartment, but many people have died in it, so she puts a cushion by the door at night and she huddles in a corner, behind police tape, so she won’t die there too. The man who is leaving has also squandered her inheritance—millions lost, she told me.

Karen spoke in turns with sadness, mild anger, irritation, and resignation. When her energy eventually waned, I gave her a $5 bill with the assurance it bore no symbols or curse. She looked at it and said she waited to hear what “the president” had to say to her. First, “Here we are again.” Then, “Well, Karen, it’s up to you.” I wished her well and returned to the sunny sidewalk.

Karen is the kind of person I would not have noticed before I started sharing meals with homeless people in my community. She is the kind of person whose life is so easy for someone with as much as I have to ignore. She is the kind of person who reminds me, when I make my self available to the moment, how varied and rich life is.


The Other Side of a Flight Delay

May 24, 2015

I’m sitting in O’Hare. My flight to London is leaving from the end of the K gates in Terminal 3. Our 4:40 pm departure has had two announced delays totaling three hours, and a third is surely imminent, since it’s now 7:20 and we have not yet started to board. You’d expect a fair amount of fist-shaking, threats never to fly American again, and promises to write letters of complaint. I’ll admit I’ve wondered how much of the $700 fare difference I might have paid out of my own pocket to have flown on Delta, my preferred airline.

But as I look around me, affairs remain surprisingly calm. Access to screens helps, of course (the young woman sitting across from me has just shifted from flying her thumbs over her iPhone to her iPad Mini … and back). A couple is watching a movie together. A group of twentysomethings is playing Head’s Up. But there are also kids playing with each other, and plenty of smiling faces sharing conversations. There are two orderly lines of passengers rebooking their connecting flights. Most of us appear to be dealing with this. Maybe the later departure will make it easier for us to sleep on the plane?

My TripIt app just buzzed my phone. We are delayed another hour. The automated American system has called with the same information. No announcement in the gatehouse yet. As long as the flight doesn’t get canceled, I think we’ll be all right. Not the reaction you might expect in the middle of a holiday weekend.


Why Do Baseball Announcers and Analysts Not Understand Stats?

June 29, 2013

I’m watching the Fox game (Yanks/Orioles–yeah, now it’s OK for me to see the O’s), and Joe Buck is saying his usual silly stuff. Just now: “Lots of people said it was a fluke last year when the Orioles went 29-9 in one-run games, and 16-2 in extra inning games, but they’ve shown that’s not true. Their bullpen is good.”

So I went here, and this year the O’s are 12-11 in one-run games, and 5-3 in extras. So yeah, Joe, last year was a total fluke. They still have a good record, but their bullpen is 14th in ERA and batting average alllowed, and 18th in on-base-plus-slugging allowed. Mediocre at best; not hurting the team, but not a key to their success.

I don’t watch a ton of football or basketball games, but the announcers don’t often strike me as guys who don’t get stats, or who misuse stats. But some baseball announcers seem proud of their inability to understand stats.


A Day (almost) of Watching Baseball

June 29, 2013

Today I am home from a week-long trip to Seattle. No one else is home. Equipped with my Roku box, subscription, and MLB Network on my cable box, I was planning to spend 12 hours watching baseball. But, thanks to MLB’s antedeluvian blackout rules, I was forbidden to watch the first game of the day, the 1 pm Nats/Mets game. That’s because North Carolina lies within both Washington and Baltimore’s blackout territory. This means that not only can no other team try to broadcast its games into NC, but that the O’s and Nats can choose which of their games I can watch. And since the Regional Sports Network for my area (MASN) has not come to terms with my TV provider (AT&T), I don’t get to watch *any* Nats and O’s games. And without any need to worry about competition from other RSN’s or other teams, MASN is in no hurry to negotiate. And that is because of the misguided thinking that lies at the root of the blackout scheme: that showing games on TV reduces interest in attending a team’s games, and thus is bad for the team.

Apparently this reasoning extends to the first days of radio–teams feared that, with the game available at home, no one would want to come to the park. The opposite is true, of course–exposure to the game increases interest in it. Yet here we are, nearly a century later, and teams still think I will want to drive 5 or 6 hours to watch a team because I cannot see them on TV. Further, I am supposed to want to support a team which won’t let me watch their game today … which they are playing in New York. That’s right–my interest in watching a team whose games I can’t see is supposed to compel me to fly to NYC to watch them. All of which is to say that I spent three hours watching Wimbledon–and reminiscing about one of the more amazing days in my life, just 52 Saturdays ago–instead of the Mets and Nats.

The blackout map is ridiculous–fans in Iowa are banned from watching six teams. The Blue Jays get to black out all of Canada, the second-largest country on Earth. And even though I am nearly as close to Atlanta as I am to Baltimore, I can watch the Braves but not the Orioles. Further, the blackout also applies to my subscription–I pay $120+ a year to see my Red Sox play, but the O’s can blackout those games for me too … unless I am traveling to, say, Seattle, where my viewing is not perceived as a threat to the Orioles. The map is finally being challenged in court, and I hope one day that every baseball fan can watch every game made available to them, or for which they pay a premium to see.

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