Saturday, January 28, 2012

Holden On

I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.

For the past three years, I’ve been teaching freshman English again, just as I did earlier in my career. When I review my school’s reading list to prepare my curriculum each summer, there are some titles that I hem and haw over, unsure as to whether I want to give that book a go again. And then there are others for which I have no such doubts; I know I’ll be teaching them. And I know some of my students will be glad that I did.

It’s been 61 years since J.D. Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye. Some of those in education have voiced doubts about the book’s relevance in 21st-century America. Some of my students dub Holden Caulfield a “whiner” who can’t stop complaining about everything he sees. Some find it ironic that Holden calls so many people a “phony” when he himself is lying, drinking underage and smoking. They see no reason for a kid to give up on his grades and flunk out of four schools.

I listen, and hear my students’ reactions to this 16-year-old boy who sees so much to frown about in his world. Some may find fault with Holden’s words and actions, but when I ask them if there are things that they find annoying or phony in the world, my students flood the classroom with answers. All manner of human behavior is brought up, as they complain about the actions and words of friends, teachers, celebrities, coaches and family members. I ask them to write about these observations, and they do that, too.

By the time my students meet Holden’s 10-year-old sister, Phoebe, and see the ways in which she’s able to help save her brother from giving up on this world, they’re hooked. They understand by now that Holden never hated the world – he simply couldn’t understand how it could be so full of negativity. He didn’t see why children have to grow up into adults who make such poor decisions and endure such difficult experiences. He didn’t see why we have to give up our innocence in this life. “Certain things they should stay the way they are,” he muses. “You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”

It is Phoebe who helps Holden see that he’s got to find a way through this. The 10-year-old sister challenges her 16-year-old brother to focus on the positive in spite of the many negative things that are, and always will be, around him. Phoebe’s mantra, if she had voiced one, would be similar to that found in the holiday cards sent by a dear friend of ours named Kathy. Our friend’s message is simple: “Heavy on the joy.” It sounds so easy to do, but as we all know it can be hard to keep our minds on the things that bring us love and joy – especially when we see and feel the things that invoke anger, fear, grief or depression.

My wife and I don’t have a 10-year-old Phoebe at home right now. No, our 10-year-old has a lot more Holden in her at this time. As our Katie grows into a girl who can see with eyes wide open, she notices things that make her nervous. This world ain’t easy, and Katie can tell. Her 7-year-old sister still sees it all as one cool dance party, but Katie’s days of unbroken bliss are gone. She sees the phonies and the fearful things, and she isn’t at all sure what to do about it, except worry. I tell her that she’s inherited this all from me, as my own mother had dubbed me “Warren the Worrier” by the time I was 10. I tell her that I had to figure out a way to think about the beauties more often than the phonies, and that I found, as a writer, ways to explore some of the things that concerned me about the world. I tell her that she can do the same.

Katie listens intently, and she takes it all in. She reads, and writes, and goes for walks. All activities that Holden enjoyed, too. Since she could talk, she’s also asked me to tell her stories before bedtime. So tonight, for the first time, I told her a little about Holden. Some of it went over her head, which is fine. I really just wanted her to think about the part at the end, when Holden watches Phoebe on the Central Park Carousel. As Phoebe sits on her horse, smiling and reaching for the gold ring, Holden sits on a bench out in the rain and just starts crying. For once, these are not tears of pain, but tears of joy. Heavy on the joy. The kid sees a moment of pure beauty, and he realizes that moments like this do win out in the end. That life is very much worth living. That even the people who annoy you often end up being OK when it’s all said and done. That the innocence may fade, but the goodness can last.

Katie listened to the end of my story, then faded off to sleep while I sang “Rainbow Connection” to her and her sister. Someday we’ll find it / the rainbow connection / the Holdens, the Katies and me.

I’m finished with Catcher for this school year. But I’m never really finished with Catcher. None of us are. We take it on every day; Katie’s just starting early. The phonies are everywhere; but the carousels are, too. It just takes a little more work for some of us to see them. And man, when we do, it really does make us so damn happy. Damn near bawling.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Turning Tom Seaver

It was full-blown baseball nerdiness, but we enjoyed it anyway. It was the kind of thing you’d never figure out unless you lived in our world. And we only did it whenever one of us had a birthday.

My brother Eric, my friend Ron and I had a mutual passion for baseball that far exceeded anything our mid-1980s world had to offer. So we expanded that world on our own. We went to stores and had our T-shirts silkscreened with Yankee uniform numbers and names long before sporting goods stores started selling those shirts. We joined fantasy baseball leagues long before those statistics could be compiled by web sites. We played Wiffle Ball for hours with make-believe lineups made from major-league teams.

And then there was this birthday thing. Instead of saying “Happy 17th, Warren,” my brother and friend would say to me, “Hey, you’re Mickey Rivers this year.” Instead of being 23, I was “Don Mattingly.” And instead of wishing one of them a happy 31st, I’d tell them they’d reached “Dave Winfield.” I guess when you’ve got so many uniform numbers floating around amid your baseball memories, you’d might as well find a use for them. So, during each birthday, we’d connect our years-old to the numbers worn by those pinstriped heroes we used to cheer for every summer night.

And during those years when there were no great Yankee uniform numbers attached to our new age, it was even more fun to try and remember lesser-known players who’d worn those digits. “You’re Bob Shirley,” one of us would say when we’d reached age 29, harkening back to the left-handed reliever of the mid-1980s. Or “Happy birthday, Kevin Maas” when we turned 24, referring to the slugging first baseman who started off his Yankee career like a superstar, then quickly became a much more pedestrian hitter.

I am pretty sure that the woman who would eventually marry me heard some of these conversations, and yet she chose to remain with me. You’d have to ask her why. I guess the important thing to tell you is that as I stand two days shy of 41 years of age, I do not partake in this nonsense anymore. I don’t sit around and think about the ballplayers who have worn the number my aging body will be donning throughout the year. That’s really kids’ stuff, to be honest.

Tom Seaver. Eddie Mathews. Sterling Hitchcock.

OK, so maybe I do think about it a little bit. Just for a minute. Then I move on to other, more mature stuff. Like writing a blog about baseball and life.

Number 41 is not a big Yankee number. There have been somewhat effective pitchers with the number, such as Hitchcock and some guys from my childhood, like Joe Cowley and Shane Rawley. But it’s not a number you’ll see on a pinstriped uniform for sale at Modell’s. Over in Queens, however, Number 41 means an awful lot. Even more than it does in Atlanta, where Eddie Mathews’ number 41 is retired. Mathews was a great player, but he played nearly all of his career in Milwaukee, before the Braves moved south. For the Mets, however, Number 41 represents the only player in team history ever to have his number retired.

They called him “Tom Terrific,” and Tom Seaver lived up to every bit of that nickname. In a 20-year career, Seaver won more than 300 games and became one of the best pitchers of his era. He spent 11 of those years with the Mets, and most New York fans will tell you that the Mets should never have let him go. As a Yankee fan, I always followed Seaver from a distance, except when he showed up as a Yankees broadcaster after his retirement. But when I’d go out on the field to pitch, I’d always hear coaches comparing my delivery to that of Seaver. I had the full windup, the “drop and drive” delivery that saw my right knee scraping the ground and my right foot pushing off the rubber, followed by the overhand delivery with the good follow-through. Just like Seaver.

Of course, that delivery was the only similarity you could find between my pitching style and that of Tom Seaver. Once the ball left my hands, you might compare me to, say, Charlie Brown. But for an average pitcher, I was apparently pretty to watch. A vague reminder of a classic.

So that brings us to age 41 – a little more vintage than I envisioned myself being back in my pitching days. But here I am, Tom Seaver in age. I’m not dropping and driving anymore. Just workin’ for a livin’, raising a couple of kids, and still in love with the cute redhead I met back when I was still pitching and making those corny birthday jokes.

It’s not the kind of thing they retire uniforms for, I guess. But I’ll take it. And as for the growing older bit, why worry? There’s lots to look forward to. After all, I’m only one year away from Mariano Rivera. Three away from Reggie Jackson. And five away from Andy Pettitte.

Plenty of numbers to throw around for a good long while. Baseball nerds unite. And blow out your candles.