On Sliding into Second Base as a Metaphor for Life

The idea is to make your upper body evaporate while your lower limbs thin into twin javelins. First, commit yourself totally to this risk. Then run as fast as you can, straight ahead. Don’t look back. Don’t look over your shoulder for the ball that may arrive before you. Launch yourself into space just as you near the base; the final leg of this journey must be a leap of faith. Lean back and enjoy it. But stay close to the ground. Hit the dirt like a flat stone skimming the surface of a lake. Sometimes, it’s wise to dissemble: slide to one side of the bag and hook it with your foot as you pass. Perplexing your opponent is never a mistake. As you fall, throw your arms into the air; time to surrender and say one last prayer. You’ve had your chance and taken it. The outcome is out of your hands.

Is this not a metaphor for life, good advice for getting out of a scrape, for surviving a close shave? You’re out there on your own. You’ve managed to find a safe place, however precarious. But you’ve got to move on. Often, someone coming up behind will give you a lift. But if not, you’ve got to do it yourself. In the act of stealing second base, you make it wholly your own. Miraculously, no one expects you to give it back. They respect you for it. Stand up, brush off the dirt, and look around. You’re already halfway home.

On Watching ‘The War of the Worlds’

Last Saturday night I watched The War of the Worlds with my sons. This was the 1953 George Pal version, not the recent Spielberg remake. The boys were very excited. We had prepared a little cinema in the living room, dimmed the lights. I even allowed them to eat chocolate while they watched, an unheard-of luxury. My younger son’s glasses had been slightly mangled in a sword fight with his brother earlier in the evening, so they rested dramatically askew on his nose as if he was posing for a Picasso portrait.

I’ve been enthusiastically sharing—and consequently, rediscovering—my love for science fiction with the boys as they get older. It’s tremendous fun to share with them some of my favorite flicks, especially the classic B movies I used to watch every Saturday and Sunday afternoon as a kid: Earth versus the Flying Saucers, When Worlds Collide, Destination Moon and The Day the Earth Stood Still, which to this day remains one of my most beloved films. I even turned them on to The Prisoner, the cult 1960s British spy series, which used to be on PBS late at night after Monty Pythons Flying Circus when I was I teenager.The War of the Worlds is a truly awful film. It is filled with all the romantic and jingoistic cliches of the 1950s without any of the veiled anti-McCarthite symbology. The hero is as stiff as a board, and the heroine never appears without screaming or bursting into tears. But I’ve always loved the film because of the devastating death ray and those sleek, elegant Martian spaceships (of which I am reminded every time I see an art deco Paris metro station), and because it occasioned my first real confrontation with authority.

I was in the second grade at a Catholic primary school, so I was about eight years old. (The same age at which I discovered aphorisms in Reader’s Digest.) I had just seen The War of the Worlds on television, and somehow the subject came up in Sister Edmunda’s class. I was terrified of Sister Edmunda. She was a mean and unpredicatable teacher. She was very elderly and would often repeat things in class or contradict something she had just said or teach us things that even we as eight-year-olds knew were wrong. Of course, I didn’t realize at the time that she was senile. I just knew that she was a bit crazy, really scary and I didn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.

Anyway, somehow The War of the Worlds came up in class and Sister Edmunda asked: Why did the Martians die? My hand shot up immediately because I had just seen the film and that final image—the dying Martian’s moist green limb, with three suction cups for fingers, creeping from the spaceship and then falling still—was so vivid in my mind. But Sister Edmunda called on someone else, and that person offered meekly: Because of prayer? Yes! Sister Edmunda announced. Because God answered the people’s prayers. This didn’t sound right to me, though, so I tenatively raised my hand and Sister Edmunda acknowledged me with a slight nod. I think the Martians died because they were poisoned by something in the atmosphere, I said. Sister Edmunda’s face darkened. She strode toward my desk in her stooped way and fixed me with her furious, baleful gaze. No, she barked, glowering above my chair. The Martians died because of prayer. Then she went on to lecture me on how God is all-powerful and all-loving and how he vanquished those nasty Martians for us. She then made me stand facing the corner in the front of the classroom as punishment for my heresy.

But I knew she was wrong. The climax of the film comes as the defeated humans cower in a church praying for a miracle, but the Martians died because their immune systems couldn’t withstand our earthly bacteria. That’s a preposterous oversight for a race so technically advanced, but there you have it. The narrator does say at the very end that God in his wisdom provided these bacteria for just such a purpose, but I didn’t believe it. They died because the bacteria got them, and that was it. I never forgot or forgave Sister Edmunda for the humiliation she put me through for saying what I knew to be true. It makes me think of Henry David Thoreau’s dictum:

Say what you have to say, not what you ought.

Nobody, especially kids, should ever be taught anything else. When I asked my sons what they thought of the film, I was very glad to hear them say they thought it was great but a little too “holy.”

Another Road…

Being an addendum to my Feb. 10 posting entitled ‘On Roads’…

I have a little black book in which I write down or paste in all the aphorisms I read and want to remember. It’s vaguely organized by aphorist, but I usually know where in the bulging book to look for something, usually even if I’m not sure who wrote it. While reading some Friedrich Nietzsche sayings in search of something I thought he wrote about iconoclasm, I came across this, which really belongs with the posting on roads:

One day we reach our goal—and now we point with pride to the long journeys we took to reach it. In truth we did not notice we were travelling. But we got so far because at each point we believed we were at home.

On Being An Amateur

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before… A violinist is performing a fiendishly difficult solo at Carnegie Hall. His bow arm is a blur; sweat is pouring down his brow. He finishes with a flourish and the crowd goes wild. “Encore! Encore!” they shout. So he plays the same piece again, and when he finishes the second time the crowd once again erupts into applause and demands more. They’re insatiable. So he plays the same piece again. When he finishes the third time, and the crowd again calls for an encore, he demures. “I really should finish now,” he says. Then a voice comes from out of the crowd: “No, you’ll play it til you get it right!”

I’m certainly no virtuoso violinist, but so often over the past few weeks I’ve felt like an absolute beginner, an amateur. I periodically used to feel this way as an editor. Someone would suggest a new angle to a story, another editor would add a deft touch to a piece, a designer would select a great picture I had overlooked—and I would think: Why didn’t I think of that? You would suppose that after practicing the same craft for nigh on 17 years, I would have perfected it by now. But there’s never nothing left to learn. And familiarity doesn’t breed contempt as much as complacency. You do something every day so you think you know how to do it. But sometimes a lot of experience just gets in the way. Nowadays I feel like a beginner because I’m at the beginning, of a new phase in my career at least. That long, lonely walk back to the drawing board concentrates the mind wonderfully. You have to face the possibility that you really don’t know much after all.There are black spots, for sure. The prospects, or lack thereof, often seem daunting. Sometimes, I think I’m too old for this shit. But in my better moments I know that’s not spoken in the spirit of a true amateur. Rudyard Kipling wrote:

As soon as you find you can do anything, do something you can’t.

That’s good advice if you want to be a perpetual beginner, a professional amateur. The job description has less to do with what you do than how you do it. The word amateur is derived from the Latin amator, or lover, and its original meaning is: to do something for the love of it rather than the money, the perks, the prestige, the distraction from other things you’d rather not think about, or whatever. To be an amateur is to be in love with what you do. It’s not bad work if you can get it. I find I’m doing more and more of something I love—writing. (Now I just need to figure out how to get paid for it.) And that’s why Kipling’s little admonition is always in the back of my mind. As soon as I’ve written anything, I want to write something I can’t—or at least, something I haven’t written yet. You gotta love that.

On Roads

A friend recently told me this story. He was driving through rural Vermont a couple of years ago when he came to a crossroads. There were two signposts, each pointing in a different direction but both bearing the name of his destination. So he pulled the car over, got out and approached a local man who was leaning against a fence. “Does it matter which way I go here?” he asked. “Not to me it don’t,” the man replied.

Crossroads isn’t the right metaphor for the point I’ve reached since losing my job. There are too few potential turning points at a crossroads. This feels more like a node on the Internet, with hundreds or thousands of avenues branching off it. Too many, in fact, to make a choice feasible. It’s like the plasma ball my son got for Christmas. The generator shoots arcs of static electricity, dozens of them, against the sides of the crystal. But when you touch the glass they all coalesce and stream toward your finger in a single, bright blue mass. At some point, probably sooner rather than later, I’ll have to start channeling all those bristling possibilities into a handful (at most) of real opportunities. But not just yet. It’s exciting, and frightening, to see all those options flashing.Even so, I’ve already begun to narrow things down. A few days ago, I passed up the opportunity to edit another magazine. It would have been a great job, making a magazine on a very timely and interesting topic. But it would have meant moving to another continent, something I’m just not prepared to do at this point. After declining the job, I suddenly felt a surge of anxiety. What had I done? Why did I pass on the chance to edit a magazine again and regain financial security? It would have been the safe, maybe even the smart, thing to do. And that’s part of the reason I didn’t do it. If I’m ever going to explore any of the roads that have opened up since I was made redundant, I’ll have to resist the temptation to go down the first road that looks familiar. You can’t expect a change of scenery if you never veer from the beaten track. But it’s hard (is it stupid, too?) to willingly remain in uncertainty, whether it has to do with your job or anything else in life. It’s difficult to stay on a path when you can only see a few steps in front of you. And there is always the risk that the road you finally end up choosing will lead nowhere, and you’ll always regret not taking the more traveled way.It put me in mind of an aphorism by Antonio Porchia:

They will say you are on the wrong road, if it is your own.

No one has criticized the road I’ve been on since losing my job. In fact, I’ve received far more congratulations than commiserations since it happened, especially from people like me who are in their forties. I was surprised to hear how many people secretly wish it would happen to them. But there is a very strong voice inside my head berating me for not going back to what I know. I remember walking through the Japanese garden in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in 1989, just a few days before I left the North American continent for the European one. I laughed when I saw a sign that read: KEEP ON THE PATH. I had just finished selling the few things I owned to finance my trip to Europe. I was heading into the great unknown. If there was a path, I sure as hell didn’t see it. But I instinctively felt I was going in the right direction. Just like now. To a large extent, you make your own road by travelling on it. And you only really know where you’re going when you get there.

Even More Assorted Aphorisms

Being the latest batch of wonderfully wise witticisms sent to me via the Web…

From Matt, my cousin, presumably explaining why he hasn’t been in touch in more than 12 years:

You wouldn’t worry so much about what people think of you if you knew how seldom they do.

From Gavin Bolus:

The hypocrisy of people who say that hypocrisy makes them sick makes me sick.

From P.D. Willson:

Nepotism is best kept in the family.

From Stevens Koziol:

I only know what I know, I don’t know what I don’t know.

From Ed Ciolkosz, quoting Henri Nouwen’s Out of Solitude; not exactly an aphorism but well worth reading and remembering:

When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.