Should you ever find yourself the victim of other people’s bitterness, smallness, or insecurities,
remember it could be worse …
You could be them.
This quote is making the rounds on Facebook. Coincidentally, a chapter of my current read, The Brothers K, elucidated the same point.
Though I thought myself a baseball non-enthusiast, author David James Duncan has made me care about what matters to the Chance family—that makes baseball paramount. Papa Chance once played professionally. To the lustful coaches at the Chance kids’ high school, his four sons are viewed as a steady supply of potential star players for their teams.
Oldest brother Everett has already graduated. “He made up in desire what he lacked in ability,” is the best the coaches can say about Everett —they’ve already forgotten his name and call him Herbert. Currently excelling at the varsity level are the next two Chances, Pete and Irwin (Winnie).
I am smitten with the wise words of the youngest of the Chance boys, the bespectacled Kade:
To reach the crappy little ballfield where we JV B-teamers went about the blooper-riddled chaos which we, with the crazed optimism of young Zen students, also called “practice,” you had first to traverse the football field and the quarter-mile cinder oval where the track team worked out, then skirt the varsity baseball team’s posh diamond. So every day, if I dawdled along slowly enough, I got to sneak a look both at Irwin—the new Washington State prep record-holder in the javelin—and at Peter—the two-time All-State center fielder—before slinking off to my Sorry-State career as a B-grade first baseman.
Like all earthly pleasures, though, dawdling had its price: those wide-open, grassy expanses were, for me at least, a psychological minefield. The “mines” were a number of adult American males, all of whom happily barked in reply to the name “Coach.” The “explosions” were caused by the coaches’ unending readiness to ignore the “Comparisons Are Odious” adage. It was my being one of the family Chance brothers that brought on the comparisons. And it was my athletic abilities that made them odious.
That I wasn’t ashamed of my baseball prowesslessness is, I think, eloquent testimony to the noble character of my family. I was close to spastic on a ballfield, and they all knew it, but with Papa’s eternal minor-leaguing setting the cautionary example, my family had become as athletically tolerant as Babcock (the dogmatic pastor of their mother’s church) was intolerant.
“Who’s that sorry little tortoise?” the varsity track coach, Bobby Edson, bawled into the face of the JV A-team baseball coach on April 20, 1966—a date I remember perfectly because (1) it was Hitler’s birthday and (2) it was the day I hung up my mitt, cap and cleats forever. Bobby Edson, like most coaches, was a kind of mystic: he believed the cosmos was endowed with an ineffable muffling system that rendered all the racist, sexist, tasteless, and denigrating remarks made by coaches inaudible to the students about whom they bellowed them.
“”That there, believe it or not,” bawled the JV skipper (another muffler mystic), “is the youngest Chance brother.”
“Naw!” Edson blored. “I mean that fat kid, with the goggles. The one gapin’ at my Winnie tossin’ his javelin out there.”
“Yup. That’s Toe’s youngest. Katie, they call ‘im. Appropriate too, I hear.”
“Think he might firm up any?” Edson wondered. “Wasn’t Winnie kind of a chunk at that age?”
I felt their eyes on my back now, probing my bike tires, X-raying my infrastructure, analyzing my aura for signs of “Late Bloomer” potential. “Nope,” the JV CAT-scanner finally sighed. “Winnie’s a rock. Always has been. Damn nice kid’s the rap on Katie there. But no speed, no suds, no arm, no nuthin’.”
……. The three coaches called Kade over and tossed around blithering insults, not-so-subtle sexual innuendos, and general idiocy. Kade stood under the banal barrage of degradation, bound to politeness and submission to authority figures, and tried to hide the slow incineration of his face.
And now the best part, the thing I want to share today: Kade’s moment of awakening, an enlightenment possible for us, too ……
Then a wonderful thing happened: for maybe five full seconds the coaches went dead, and the day grew not perfect, nor still, but still enough to hear perfectly the singing of a thousand red-winged blackbirds in the swamp beyond our diamonds—a choir, tremendous, convening there daily, their ecstasy reduced to white noise by our first catch or throw—till this moment: the coaches’ decommissioning: a word … and their song came raining out of the cottonwoods, innocent, joyous, pouring over anyone willing to listen. The rush of understanding was too quick and condensed and physical to call a “thought”: I simply knew, via song, sunlight, redwings and cottonwoods, that there was a world I was born to live in, that the men I was standing beside lived in another, and that as long as I remembered this their words would never hurt me again. I knew—the redwings were all telling me—that there was ancient ground here, and ancient songs, and that if I laid my mitt, cleats, and uniform aside I could stand on that ground, and maybe learn to sing on it too . . .
I felt free to like all three of these men now, because I’d realized I didn’t have to become them. I was standing right next to a world in which Everett was Herbert, blacks were Jabooms, Pete and Irwin were heroes, and I was a no speed, no suds, no arm nuthin’. But I was not standing in it. Some simple shift inside me had turned their words into the harmless white noise, and the blackbirds’ singing into the heart of my day.
Ospreys eat fish. Deer eat foliage. Switch their diets and they’ll die.
I gave my first unguardedly friendly nod ever to each coach, told them I had to go, walked back to the locker room, took off my baseball uniform, put on my street clothes, and set out unencumbered into the singing, the cottonwoods, the entire spring day.
(Excerpts from The Brothers K, by David James Duncan)