Monday, March 31, 2008

Ashley Care and the Pursuit of Peace

A bit more than three months ago I became a grandfather for the first time. If you've experienced it yourself you know that it is a life-changing event, transforming your viewpoint and reordering your priorities.

Obiously, some of my impressions about such things have found their way here, even though this blog is not intended to be a family diary in perpetuity or a gallery of beautiful baby pictures. (I'm not saying that such things aren't highly desirable, so for cute kid pictures and new parent musings just skedaddle over to Brian and Lyda's blog.)

However, my purpose here is to try to weave life experiences and reflections into insights that connect to the values in my mission statement. In that spirit I want to tell you about something significant that begins today and promises to be a challenging but immensely satisfying slice of my life.

My daughter-in-law Lyda has finished her maternity leave and now returns to her classroom to fulfill her teaching contract. When the school year ends she plans to stay at home with Ashley full-time. However, between then and now there is a nine week bridge of time that needs to be covered. Brian and Lyda have asked if I would be willing to care for Ashley during that time.

I am sincere when I say that I was honored to be asked and know that it was a statement of ultimate trust. I did not take the request lightly. It is a major commitment to care for a three month old child all day long. That is especially true now that I've reached a time in life when my body is only rarely described in terms that compare favorably with the lithe frame of Greek mythology's Adonis.

Ashley, of course, was the deal clincher. The opportunity to spend long blocks of time with this child is irresistable.

Some of you are gracious enough to wander into this little corner of cyberspace and reflect with me on the smorgasbord of issues--some serious, some whimsical--that we engage in here. Because of that I thought you should know what I'll be doing over these next two months. Who knows what effect diapers, swaddling clothes, warm bottles, hissy fits, and "glad to see you, grandpa" smiles will have on my views about heritage, diversity, and peace.

I have a feeling Ashley is about to reframe them in deeply satisfying ways.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Batter's Eye

I learned something interesting when my son Jeff and I were in Arizona last week for our five day immersion in baseball spring training. I noticed that the stadiums we visited had what looked like an unfinished scoreboard or billboard in right center field. I asked Jeff, a spring training veteran, what that tacky looking board was doing out there. He said it was the "batter's eye."

Despite being a baseball fan since I was a kid, I had never heard of the "batter's eye." The entry in Wikipedia describes it thusly:
The batter's eye (short for batter's eye screen) is a solid-colored, usually dark area beyond the center field wall of a baseball stadium, that is the visual backdrop directly in the line of sight of a baseball batter, while facing the pitcher and awaiting a pitch. This dark surface allows the batter to see the pitched ball against a sharply contrasted and uncluttered background, as much for the batter's safety as anything. The use of a batter's background has been standard in baseball (as well as cricket) since at least the late 1800s.
Boy, that got me to thinking. One of baseball's canonical sayings is "keep your eye on the ball"--good advice for hitters, but also for defensive players as well. Only the pitcher is excused. They have to keep their eye on the mitt that the catcher puts up as a target. The pitcher's job is to throw sufficiently deceptive "stuff" that they prevent the hitters from keeping their eye on the ball.

But now comes the "batter's eye," designed to clean up the background so that the ball doesn't have to be seen against a fan's shirt or a homemade sign urging attention to John 3:16.

We should all have it so good. In life we all have to keep our eye on the ball as well. I'm kind of wishing we had a batter's eye to help us out. Our backgrounds tend to be cluttered with life's refuse and sometimes we just can't keep focused because of all the "stuff" that masks what we need to see and do.

The author is unknown to me, but one of my favorite sayings is this: "It is not known who first discovered water, but this much is known--it was not the fish." We are often the least equipped to see our own lives with clarity. When we're in the middle of it all, when we're looking out into centerfield and see only an array of shirts and signs, it is very difficult to see our own truths.

When things get tough it would sure be nice to have a solid dark background out there when the high, hard one comes our way.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obama's Grandmother and Mine

Big Heart
Originally uploaded by Golden Emporium

When I was a young boy growing up in Toronto my grandmother took me to Detroit to see my Aunt Margaret. She lived in a high rise apartment building downtown, one I had not previously visited. While the adults were chatting I began to explore and soon my wanderings took me into the outer hallway. As I walked down the long corridor I looked up and came face to face with a black man--a custodian in the building as it turned out. I gasped and a sudden wave of fear washed over me. I turned and bolted down the hall and into the safety of my aunt's apartment.

There was nothing overt in my upbringing to give me a reason to be fearful of other races. I was never taught to feel negatively toward people of color. The racism I experienced in my family was subtle and cultural. For example, my grandmother would lead us through the playful musical ditty, Eanie Meanie Miney Moe/Catch a Nigger by the Toe/If He Hollers Let Him Go/Eanie Meanie Miney Moe. It never occurred to us that the song was racially charged, nor did it seem wrong when my grandmother referred to a Brazil nut as a "nigger toe."

Later in life, as education and experience began to sensitize me to cultural racism, I was appalled to think that racial references like that were to be found in the heart of my own family. It is because of that family memory that Barack Obama's remarkable speech on racism resonated within me with such power. In responding to the understandable firestorm over the incendiary remarks of his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama chose to do more than political damage control. In refusing to fully repudiate the man he described as "like family," Obama found the perfect point of reference in his own grandmother:
I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
Obama's courageous address is an illustration of why we need to take a chance on this guy. He reportedly labored into the night drafting this speech because he felt it needed to be said. He took a politically risky course because the issues are so important to the nation. Instead of scrambling to minimize political vulnerability Barack Obama chose to lead.

As a man with a black Kenyan father and a white Kansas mother, Obama's cultural roots are a bit more diverse than mine. But we both had a culturally challenged grandmother who loved us and who we continue to love, imperfections aside. Our shared memories become tools for the racial healing so urgently needed in our society. In his speech, Obama has framed the issues eloquently and passionately. He deserves our support.

My grandmother, may she rest in peace, was a Canadian with English and Pennsylvania Dutch bloodlines. I am sure she would be distressed to think her insensitivities would be recalled in this way. What I would explain to her is that personal memories and stories are the slices of life that link us together as human beings. Properly used in the cause of justice the stories become not an embarrassment but a blessing.

Note: The photo at the beginning of this blog is not of my grandmother or Barack Obama's. It was chosen because she looks like a grandmother we could all love.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

"The Show" - Sun City Style

In the great baseball film Bull Durham a career minor league ballplayer named Crash Davis (Kevin Costner's best role) uses his limited major league experience to bedazzle the young players, all of whom live and breathe only one goal. That all consuming desire is to make it to baseball's Nirvana--the Major Leagues. In the locker room they call it "making it to the show."

Crash has had only modest playing time in the Majors, but enough to make him the resident expert for those doomed to play on the perennially woeful Durham Bulls, a Class A minor league team. It is far from the glamor and glitter of the Majors so Davis can hold the young players in the palm of his hand while spinning tales of life in the big leagues:
Yeah, I was in the show. I was in the show for 21 days once - the 21 greatest days of my life. You know, you never handle your luggage in the show, somebody else carries your bags. It was great. You hit white balls for batting practice, the ballparks are like cathedrals, the hotels all have room service, and the women all have long legs and brains.
My point in all of this isn't to do a movie review, although I certainly recommend it as a moving and thoughtful film about many more things than just baseball. (Look it up on the Internet Movie Database.)

Actually, this is all brought to mind because my baseball-loving son and I are spending a few days in Arizona visiting some spring training sites and attending meaningless but thoroughly enjoyable games. Jeff has done this with friends for several years. This time I get to be his spring training buddy, which is pretty cool.

We're seeing a game a day in different spring training parks. Our primary focus has been our much beloved but long-suffering Kansas City Royals, scrapping this year to escape from their two decades of ineptitude. We're here to help.

Those who know me, or have read this blog for a while, know that I subscribe to the notion that baseball is life, or at least that it informs life in helpful ways. A couple of years ago I blogged here about Opening Day in baseball and how life needed one. We could all use a fresh start when anything is possible. If Royals fans can believe that anyone can.

I'm here to report, however, that life in the minors isn't as gloomy as one might imagine. There are several municipalities around Phoenix that have built excellent sports complexes that include training fields and a very nice stadium. The facility becomes identified with one or two Major League teams and team loyalty is fostered thereby. Residents, many of them seniors, work as volunteer ushers, concessionaires, souvenir store clerks, and parking attendants. The latter needs a little work. When pedestrians, SUVs, and wheelchairs converge simultaneously in one intersection it becomes clear that elderly men with whistles and waving arms do not necessarily assure public safety.

All in all, life seems pretty good here. Oh, the stadiums are smaller but the amenities aren't bad and the enthusiam is high. I'm guessing it gives the young players a foretaste of what may come. Here they live out their hopes to make it in the Big Leagues.

As for us fans, it's up-close baseball and a lot of fun to experience. Ticket prices are not proportionally lower. But if you're going to emulate "the show" why not do it in pricing, eh?

Cup holders would be appreciated.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Broken Dishes

I was in the living room sipping my morning coffee and skimming the newspaper when the dishes tumbled from the shelf and crashed to the floor in a cacophony of sounds--smashing and thudding and cracking and splattering. The cats flew across the room as if shot from a cannon and did not resurface for hours.

I ran helplessly to the kitchen, hoping to salvage a favorite mug or retrieve dishes used for special occasions. But there was little salvation to be had for the occupants of the middle shelf in the second cupboard to the right of the sink. All they could hope for was to survive as one plate out of a set of four--not really a meaningful life for a plate raised in a plate family. The verdict was a bit less brutal for the surviving mugs. They can be loners, never having to let on that they were once part of a mug community.

I swept up the broken pieces and went searching for the shards of glass hiding in corners, under appliances, and clinging to the bottom of my slippers. Apparently I had ingested an insufficient amount of coffee because my mind started to wander a bit. I began to wonder where this incident in my cupboard fit into the so-called natural order of things. Broken dishes are part of the Cosmos too, you know.

The shelf had tipped because it was missing one of those little pegs you stick into the sidewall of the cabinet. They cost about 20 cents. You're supposed to use four. We had three.I have to admit that I knew the dang peg was missing. It just seemed that some of the dishes were counter-balancing the shelf and holding it in place. I figured it would be okay if I just let it go until I remembered to stop by the hardware store.

Enter the Revenge of the Cosmos. Actually, it's not the wages of sloth I'm thinking about here. I'm aware that a little intervention the day before, even the week or month before, would have saved all this grief. That's the self evident piece of learning.

What I'm wondering about is far less evident and not really answerable. It's had months, maybe years, so why this moment to fall? There was no one in the kitchen. No exterior activity that lightly bumped the shelf into catastrophe. In the silence of the kitchen, with nary a warning, the shelf belched its contents onto the floor.

In Africa they say you die for only one reason--your time has come. I never found that comforting when I was in a car lurching over dilapidated Kenyan highways, the vehicle in the control of an African holding those views. What if his time has come, but mine hasn't? Who decides this?

But to follow the point, maybe that shelf and its contents simply had run out of clock. Maybe it's nothing more complicated than "their time had come." But if you buy that, don't you also have to accept that all of us are just hanging out until the Cosmos notifies us to gather up all our worldly belongings? Seems kind of a cynical way to look at one's life. I don't have a clue how to answer that, but maybe this will tell you something about how it played out with me.

Yesterday I went to the hardware store and bought a whole package of those little pegs to secure the shelves in our cupboards. I consider this a triumphant declaration on behalf of life and its meaning.

And anyway, it was only a couple of bucks.