That’s Baseball

That’s Baseball

Poets celebrate baseball’s clean geometry, the sharp contrast of lush green outfield and dusty red base paths.  They may have missed the transition from the languid serenity of games past to open warfare as new rivalries empty bench after bench.  Tigers now loathe the Twins, Jay hate the Braves.  Red Sox vs Yankees?  Hardly a blip on the screen.

Lets take Oriole’s Manny Machado sliding into second spikes high, carving beloved Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia’s leg into Salisbury steak.  It happens; that’s baseball.  Then, two days later, the Sox’ pitcher, Matt Barnes either lost control of a fastball high and inside, or threw at Machado’s head.  Again, it happens.  Again, that’s baseball.

That last paragraph is mildly factual and intentionally provocative because the situation between Pedroia, Machado, and Barnes, the Orioles and the Red Sox represents the curious and oddly anachronistic nature of the game while also revealing quite a lot about its contemporary nuances.  It’s tempting to idealize baseball, quoting George Will, “Baseball is Heaven’s gift to mortals”, or, letting oneself become completely rhapsodic, quoting James Earl Jones’ great speech in Field of Dreams:

The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Oh…people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”


He was not wrong, but baseball is also red in tooth and claw, more than a game to the men who take it up as a profession.  There is much on the line every time a player takes the field; every play is attached to the statistics that measure his value, every play could end his career.  Two teams face each other with the legacy of hard feelings barely contained in their last meeting.  These two teams are the Red Sox or the Orioles, but they are also made up of men who have worked for years to develop skills that set them apart from other men, skills that include all the elements the fan sees from the stands and some that only players see.  The smallest fissure, the slightest crack allows one player an edge over another; weakness or cowardice is immediately sensed and parlayed into advantage.  One game is played out inning-by-inning and recorded on the scoreboard; the other, a complicated and shifting balance of power goes largely undocumented.

Beanballs, brushbacks, hard tagging, taunting, posing, running up a score, coming into a base with spokes flashing are all part of the dubious cotillion players call respect.  Enter Machado and Pedroia.

Let’s begin with Pedroia.  He is more than an excellent ballplayer, although he is that in spades.  Pedroia was Rookie of the Year in 2007, American League MVP in 2008, only the third player in history to win those honors back-to-back.  An All Star, Golden Glove, Silver Bat, Defensive Player of the Year, and perennial nominee for the Heart and Hustle Award, Pedroia is also the last active member of the Red Sox team that broke the “Curse of the Bambino”, the Red Sox team that won the World Series in 2004 and again in 2007, his rookie year.  For all of that, Dustin Pedroia, capable, steady, and consistent was the nice kid among a phalanx of very large personalities who were pleased to refer to themselves as a band of idiots.  That charmed team was loose and confident, eminently skilled but gifted with a goofy resilience that allowed them to come back from a three game deficit in the ALCS in 2004, finally pushing the New York Yankees from their pedestal.  With the exception of a single year plagued by injury, Pedroia has been a star; in the past four years, he has become the clubhouse leader and the face of the Red Sox.  At this point in his career, the closest comparison to Pedroia in terms of the respect with which he is held would be would be the Yankee’s “Captain”, Derek Jeter.

And Machado?  In the first place, he’s really good, an All-Star third baseman and shortstop, the best fielding third baseman for the Orioles since Brooks Robinson, which is to say the best since divinity touched earth and played the hot corner.  The guy can hit too; in his second year in the majors, Machado tied Ty Cobb’s record, having racked up 40 multi-hit games before the age of 21 and is always capable of boosting a ball four hundred and fifty feet to the upper decks above center field.  Phenomenal fielder and way above average hitter, Machado should be a lock for a Hall of Fame career … if he can avoid a third surgery on his knees.  He went under the knife after dislocating his left knee in 2013 and his right knee in 2014.

And, he may have a problem with anger management.

Returning to the Orioles in 2014 after that first surgery,  Machado had two terrible, very bad days in games against the Oakland A’s.  Attempting to reach third base, Machado was tagged with some vigor by third baseman, Josh Donaldson, and responded verbally with some lack of discretion.  Already miffed (not a baseball term), Machado took exception to Donaldson’s tag with such animation that the benches cleared and uncomplimentary exchanges between the teams ensued.  Then, when Machado came up in the eighth inning, pitcher Wi-Yin Chen blew him back from the plate with a pitch that would have caught him in the chest.

The next day, in the spirit of temperance, Machado hit the A’s catcher, Derek Norris, in the head with his backswing.  Baseball being baseball, pitcher Fernando Abad threw twice at Machado’s recently repaired knee; Machado’s response was to throw his bat at Donaldson, and the benches met again.

So, he may be a hot head.  But … I’m not sure he’s a jerk.  The slide into Pedroia looks bad, to be sure, but it doesn’t look intentional.  Machado’s behavior as he connected with Pedroia, quickly trying to hold him up, doesn’t look mean-spirited, and a review of the action indicates that Machado began the slide late, awkwardly, and always aware of the damage that could be done to his knees, may have been trying to avoid jamming his leg into the bag.

It’s possible.

Most of the furor about the incident has followed Barnes’ almost lobotomizing Machado in retaliation for the injury done to Pedroia and Pedroia’s unusual charity toward Machado.  Managers, players, and sports hosts have almost uniformly defended Barnes’ action as part of the unwritten code of baseball.  In its most polished form, the sentiment argues that teammates stand up for each other.  In practice, it generally means that pitchers throw at batters in response to any number of perceived provocations.

“You hit our guy; we hit your guy” is at least rough justice.  Primitive but understandable.  “You pose after hitting a home run; our guy throws at your head”?  Not so noble.  “You flip your bat?  Time to straighten you out.”  “You’re a promising rookie.  Time to bring you down to earth – literally”.  Equally regrettable.

Any other unwritten rules that can earn you a Spaulding in the ear?  Well, don’t step on the pitcher’s mound; that’s likely to rile a pitcher who considers it his turf.  By the same token, don’t show disrespect for the pitcher by stepping into the batter’s box while the pitcher is warming up.  Almost any behavior that casts aspersion on the pitcher, the pitcher’s character, the pitcher’s ability, the pitcher’s moustache is likely to result in a retributive delivery from the aggrieved hurler.

And, lest it go unmentioned, that ball is travelling at more than ninety miles an hour.

My son and I visited the Louisville Slugger museum and factory, walking past the hundred and twenty-foot replica of Babe Ruth’s bat in order to see how bats are made and to gawk at the bats hefted by our idols.  The trip would have been more than worthwhile had it only included a long look at the bat used by Joe DiMaggio in his 56 game hit streak, but it also offered the opportunity to stand in a simulated batter’s box so as to see what a hundred mile an hour pitch would look like coming at us.  A replica of Randy Johnson, six feet and ten inches of pitching fury, launched the pitch as we stood in.

There’s not much to say after an experience such as that; I don’t know how to put whimpering, slack-jawed terror into words.  The possibility of being hit, and perhaps hit again is one of the many factors that have prevented me from acting on my boyhood dream of playing in the Big Leagues.  In his excellent account of the story behind baseball stories, I’m Fascinated by Sacrifice Flies: Inside the Game We All Love, Tim Kurkjian recalls interviews with players who have been “beaned”; they are terrified and traumatized, but some return and step in anyway.  Unbelievable.

As far as I can tell, Craig Biggio holds the unwanted record of most frequently hit in the course of a season, having been dinged thirty-four times in 1977.  Over the course of his career, Biggio was hit by a pitched ball two hundred and eighty-five times which may have something to do with the way his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame describes him  Characterized as a “gritty spark plug who ignited the Astros offense for twenty seasons,” Biggio crowded the plate, daring pitchers to try to brush him back, which they obviously did several hundred times.  He never picked a fight or charged the mound, leaving it to his own pitchers to even the score when it was clear that turnabout was needed.

That’s what some players and fans consider an essential part of baseball, grit and retaliation.  Get hit with a pitch?  Don’t rub it. Wait for your pitcher to hit one of theirs.

I think the stakes are too high and an adjustment has to be made before someone gets killed.  Bench clearing brawls, hurrah.  The more the merrier. Assault with deadly weapons?  Can we talk?

Maybe in a time in which a high school sophomore throws at 93 miles per hour, the time has come to remember Ray Chapman, beaned by Carl Mays in 1920, dead the day after he was struck.  Or Dickie Thorn, struck in the face in 1984, orbital bone shattered, partially blinded.  Or rising Red Sox star Tony Conigliaro, slammed in the face, fracturing his cheekbone and causing his vision to so deteriorate that he was done at the age of 26.  Or Mike Jorgensen, whose seizures after being hit in the face almost killed him.  Or Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane, after whom Mickey Mantle was named, skull shattered, knocked unconscious, essentially in a coma for ten days.  Or Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett, virtually blinded when struck by a fastball to the face.

Barnes’ bean ball missed Machado’s head by millimeters, hitting his bat behind his head. Let’s just consider ourselves lucky and hope players and managers can move beyond retaliatory combat.


The Cleveland Browns Are On The Clock

The Cleveland Browns Are On The Clock

It’s almost over, and I think I’ll make it out of NFL Draft Week alive.

Seventy-five THOUSAND football fans stood outdoors in Philadelphia last night to witness the selection of the most highly regarded college football players by NFL teams eager to concuss them.  Worst teams pick first, which sounds absolutely fair until we notice that the same worst teams seem to get the same slots in the lottery.  Well, it’s actually the same team, the Cleveland Browns, feeding off the bottom year in and year out.  Browns fans, and they do exist, were on pins and needles until the first selection was announced as the front office has picked non-functioning quarterbacks with stunning regularity.

Why do I hover over the Brown’s pick?

A.  Because it doesn’t matter – the Browns will be awful.

B.  Because there were no other real issues.

C.  Because in delivering the announcement of the selection, universally despised Commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell, faced the full-throated disapprobation of seventy-five thousand haters.  Full-throated hating is what Philadelphia does best, and viewers were not disappointed.  Goodell appeared unimpressed with their efforts, however, perhaps because he pulls down thirty-four MILLION dollars a year.

The draft provided no drama or gripping tension, and yet, we have had three weeks of non-stop prognostication from “experts” who have analyzed every vertical leap, every second shaved in the forty yard dash, every misdemeanor and felony.  The human bobble-head, NFL Draft Guru, ESPN’s Mel Kiper, had grappled with every possible contingency, assuring everyone within the sound of his voice that he absolutely with complete certainty and aggressive assurance knew precisely which players would be chosen by which teams and in which order.

I may be flying in the face of long-held convictions, but my experience has been that weather forecasts, economic forecasts, palm readings, burnt entrails, and recent Presidential polls have all performed with about the same level of success.

So, last year Kiper landed about twenty-two percent of his predictions.  How did Nostradraftsmus do this year?  Let’s just take the first ten to keep computation simple.

Team                         Kiper                                                      Actual

Browns                     Mitch Trubisky QB                               Myles Garrett DE

Bears                         Solomon Thomas  DE                          Mitch Trubisky  QB – moved up

49ers                          Myles Garrett DE                                 Solomon Thomas DE

Jaguars                       Leonard Fournette RB                       Leonard Fournette  RB

Titans                         Jamal Adams S                                     Corey Davis  WR

Jets                              O.J. Howard  TE                                    Jamal Adams S

Chargers                    Deshaun Watson  QB                           Mike Williams  WR

Panthers                    Christian McCaffrey  RB                      Christian McCaffrey  RB

Bengals                       Jonathan Allen DL                                 John Ross WR

Chiefs                          Evan Engram  TE                                   Patrick Mahomes QB – traded

So, twenty percent, which is to say, he correctly guessed that the two running backs would go to the teams needing running backs in the order in which running backs were evaluated.  What he, and the entire gaggle of pundits, forgot is the NFL’s fondness for offense and the passing game in particular.  Lots of talk this year about a weak quarterback class, an insanely strong group of defensive players, and the idiocy of drafting running backs in the first round.  Less talk about the first ten turning out to include two quarterbacks, three wide receivers, and two running backs.

Are there moments of grace beyond the greeting given Commissioner Goodell on EVERY announcement?  Well, despite anchor Trey Wingo’s unfortunate confusion of Sasquatch with Chewbacca, we were spared the nasal wit of long-time host, Chris Berman, whose fondness for punning nicknames was legendary.  He, after all,  came up with Sammy “Say It Ain’t” Sosa, Mike “Pepperoni” Piazza, Miguel “Tejada They Come, Tejada They Fall” and his finest (?), Chuck “New Kids on the” Knoblauch.  There is no doubt we would have been treated to his wry dubbing of the Houston Texan’s pick at quarterback, Deshaun “Elementary My Dear” Watson.

Enough for now.   The Lions are on the clock.




Good Intentions …

Good Intentions …

“The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

I’d like to say that this old saw is unfamiliar to me, but I’ve heard it many, many times and usually when the defense of my inaction has fallen short again.  It’s an old phrase, occasionally attributed to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, first appearing as  “L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou désirs” – which translates as, “Hell is full of good wishes or desires.”  Pretty much the same idea, and I’ll give a tip of the cowl to Saint Bernard, although he lived, worked, and spoke in the 12th Century, at which point I’m guessing his French didn’t look much like the sleek sentence above and his recorded utterances were much more likely to be delivered in Latin.

C’est comme ca que ca va- “That’s the way it goes.”

I think we have to admit that the idea has been with us ever since the first human meant to do something, forgot or weasled out, and then tried to explain away an unfortunate outcome by arguing that his intentions were solid gold.  Folk wisdom reminds us that, roads go unpaved, gardens go untended, friendships fall away, apologies are never delivered, but rarely points out the harm done to the self in failing to follow through on the actions we intend to carry out.  Not only do we travel rough roads, miss out on mid-summer tomatoes, lose friendships that might have sustained us, we chip away at our integrity just a bit with each intention left undone.

By integrity I mean the congruence of who we are and what we do.  That turns out to be more important than we might think because, in the end or along the way, we are what we do.  Our character is defined by our actions.

I may not be alone in wishing that I might be judged by my intentions but judge those around me by their actions.  Apparently it doesn’t work that way.  One size fits all.

All of that said, things don’t always work out, no matter how genuinely our intentions and actions are expressed.  Christmas gifts don’t fit, we’re jostled and spill a drink on the bride while making a toast, the weather turns cataclysmic, the hotel loses a reservation.  Stuff happens.  I guess I’m coming to the conclusion that character is about intention in action but not necessarily about outcome.  Apologies may not be accepted.  A phone call to an old friend may not lead to reunion.  The blinking tomatoes may explode on the vine again this year.

Robert Southey, 19th Century Poet Laureate wrote an exceedingly odd essay presenting exchanges between himself and the ghost of Sir Thomas More, Colloquies on Society, in which he observed, ” It has been more wittily than charitably said that hell is paved with good intentions; they have their place in heaven also.”

I like to believe that some intentions have a long shelf life, and, treating myself with some charity, I can still pull them out and follow through.  So, please excuse me.  I have some phone calls to make.




Behind The Scenes …

Lots of chores this weekend.  Nothing unusual about that; meadows always need mowing, blackberry tendrils always need pulling.  I don’t mind donning my protective ear gear, very snappy red and orange sound muffs, my sporty straw hat, and shoes that should no longer appear in the light of day.  I don’t mind wiping down the riding mower, making sure no matted clumps of cut grass have caught in the blades.  Gassed up and with oil freshly changed, its engine roaring with satisfactory growl, the machine begins its work.  With each sweep from one end of the meadow to the other, I leave a trail of closely mowed clover, an evolving zen garden inviting meditative contemplation of deep thoughts.

Very satisfactory, but just the start of the real job at hand.

My wife trains and photographs dogs.  She trains dogs of all sizes and temperaments to any number of purposes, from the first simple elements of obedience to the specialized skill set necessary to success in agility competition.  Her clients include large dogs that lump through their exercises, small dogs in perpetual motion, and sundry irregularly sized and shaped dogs including my favorite, Princess Mango, a pit mix that loves her work in  agility so much that she howls when it’s time to pack up and head home.  We’ve transformed an orchard into our year-round all-purpose training facility and a small meadow into a grass agility field, and both are included in the weekly sprucing up.

And … then we move along to the photographic side of the enterprise.  You have probably seen my wife’s work as her photographs appear in dog calendars trotted out in November as the holidays and a new year approach. Grandma loves her Shih Tsu?  You’ll have to choose between the Shih Tsu calendar and the Shih Tsu Puppy calendar.  Shiba Inus?  Bernese Mountain Dogs?  Portuguese Water Dogs?  My wife has posed and prodded virtually every breed into drool-free calendar portraits.  Newfoundlands and Dogs de Bordeaux?  OK, maybe a little drool.

Here’s the thing about calendars:  They are generally associated with, you know, months.  In order to have a reasonable array of options for the publishers, my wife has to engineer settings and backdrops that reflect the seasons, which means that we often have to reconfigure some portion of our property so as to suggest autumn or spring, Christmas or the 4th of July.  It takes a pro to set things up so that a relatively unimpressive corner of the yard takes on the aspect of a manorial estate, as she hopes will be suggested in the portrait at the top of this article.  Just to be clear, we do not live on a manorial estate.  We have a few acres of rough meadow grass and a lawn that is occasionally uniform in color but more frequently a patchwork of dark green, pea green, and puzzling splashes of yellow.  So, my wife has to do some inventive repurposing of our property in order to provide a background appropriate to the sorts of photos she needs, which means that as leaves fall or shrubs and gardens blossom, my wife looks at the area with a photographer’s eye, gauging the possibility of both vertical and horizontal shots.  In both cases, any distracting or unfortunate element in that composition has to be shaped or eliminated, which is why we spent Sunday afternoon transforming a dandelion patch into green carpet so that Cavalier King Charles Spaniels could pose in regal serenity in front of the Japanese Maple.

The setting now pristine, she now faces the greater challenge of convincing dogs to sit reasonably still and refrain from actions that are perfectly natural but unseemly in portraiture so as to generally comport themselves as exceptional examples of their breed.  Some dogs were born to pose; some dogs lick themselves robustly just as the shutter clicks.  Francis, a dachshund whose posture was unfailingly aristocratic, struck his pose with no coaxing; he loved the camera and the camera loved him.  On the other end of the spectrum, Daisy Mae, a rescued pit bull once used as bait in a dog fighting ring, was spectacularly relaxed, perfectly happy to be held upside down, willing to be dressed in costumes, delighted to be asked to pose again and again.

I’m awfully proud of the work my wife does, and I’m not alone in thinking she is one of the best photographers in her field as well as an exceptional trainer and teacher.  I love the calendars, of course, but those who know my wife will find it no surprise to learn that she absolutely understands the special place that dogs can hold in their owners’ hearts, often sensing that as a dog ages and starts to fail, a last portrait of the dog with its owner may be an important way of honoring the love a dog has given over the years.

About a week ago she took a photo of our eldest dog, Jinx, the border collie that we thought we had lost last winter, a dog who after having been trapped in icy water for hours on the coldest night in December, moves stiffly and uncertainly.  She has lost her hearing almost entirely and is easily startled as her vision has failed as well.  She is happiest sleeping on a rug near us and will follow us until we settle then drops at our side. There was no sculpting of backdrop for this picture; my wife saw Jinx at my feet and snapped off a shot before I noticed and looked up.

I don’t always see the gifts given me, and I can lose sight of what remains important, but I won’t forget what that picture represents.





















Pear Blossom Time in Oregon

Pear Blossom Time in Oregon

Washington, D.C. has its cherry blossom festival; Portland and Texas do roses.  There’s a Hempfest in Seattle, and I’m always stunned by the profusion of color at the Tulip Festival in Holland, Michigan.  I’ve been to the Pumpkin Festival in Circleville, Ohio and the Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California.  Gourmands are sure to find the Banana Split Festival in Wilmington, Ohio and the Buffalo Wing Festival in … yeah, Buffalo.  For almost twenty years, our family marked the arrival of autumn (such as it was) in Carpinteria, California with the annual Avocado Festival, offering fun, frolic, and the world’s largest guacamole pit.

My corner of the world these days, Oregon’s Rogue Valley, is known for pears.  The most celebrated source of mail ordered holiday gift pears is Harry and David Holdings, Inc. whose corporate offices remain in Medford, Oregon although its parent organization, 1-800 exists somewhere in the digi-verse with offices in Carle Place, New York.  Harry and David may be the best known, perhaps only known, pear outfit, but this valley is chock-a-block with pear people and pear orchards, many of which bring pears to table through a variety of outlets.  More than 7000 tons a year are picked by suppliers to Harry and David.

I am probably biased in my appreciation of the pear, surrounded as we are by orchards watered by Bear Creek, but pears are constantly in the news.  Stop by Men’s Fitness, for example, to read The New Super Fruit”, a rhapsodic paean to pears as snack and workout recovery food.  Cooking Light touts pears slathered with almond butter as the snack of the future.  Nutritionists, bodybuilders, doctors, chefs – all jump on the pear wagon as a grateful nation learns there’s something better than an apple a day.  Pears are among the fruits highest in fiber, contain folate and boron, calcium, manganese, potassium, and copper, as well as Vitamins C, K, B2, and B3.

All of which amplifies the primacy of pears in southern Oregon and the significance of the Pear Blossom Festival held in Medford in early in April.  The Festival has grown in recent years to include a parade attracting almost 30,000 visitors and more than 150 entries, the Pear a Fare, the Smudge Pot Tour, a celebration of artisan food and wine in a valley boasting a number of highly regarded vineyards, the Pedals and Pears bicycle race, and the Pear Blossom Golf Tournament.

The festival’s most storied event, however, is the Pear Blossom Run, first organized in 1977, won that year by Frank Shorter, Olympic Gold Medalist.  The Pear Blossom Run was the first race in Oregon to have a limited field, attracting 750 runners in 1978 and quickly became one of the most successful races in the Northwest.  Today’s festival offers a highly competitive ten-mile race, a 5K race benefiting the Rogue Valley Medical Center, a wheelchair division, and 1 and 2  mile fun runs.  More than 5000 runners in all take to the roads including premiere runners from across the nation.

The difference between this festival and some of the others is that while garlic is pretty much always a part of the Gilroy experience, essentially an inescapable part of landing anywhere within twenty miles of Gilroy, and while Carpinteria is pretty much decked with avocados throughout the year, there haven’t been many blossoms in the Rogue Valley since the end of October.  Yes, we have evergreen forests of conspicuous beauty and solemnity, and yes, we have mountain peaks glistening with fresh snowfall even into April, but the daily experience of driving to and from any point on the valley floor has presented great tracts of agricultural land swathed in gray and brown.

Pear blossoms are more subtle than the rampant reds, pinks, and purples popping at roughly the same time from assorted fruit trees and bushes.  They might be lost in the general frenzy of April bloom were it not for their number and concentration.  A good-sized orchard presents row after row of pear trees, disappearing into the horizon.  As we have many good sized orchards and a few gargantuan orchards, the cumulative effect of moving past rank after rank of pear trees in blossom is the impression of being swaddled in an enormous, puffy blanket of variegated white and green.

Then, there are the pears to come.  Not for a few months, of course, but the promise of pears is enough for now.  Pears are generous fruits; they ripen off the tree and stand up exceedingly well to refrigeration.  Unlike their cousins, the apples, the relative sweetness of an individual pear is markedly different when eaten at various stages of ripeness.  The most obvious example is the Comice pear, sweet and crisp when first ripe and sloppily juicy and, to my taste, unseemingly sweet when allowed to ripen fully.  Harry and David call this pear The Royal Riviera, and it is the jewel in the pear giant’s diadem.  Most gift boxes present a Comice crisp and ready to eat at Thanksgiving, sweet, quite a bit juicier at Christmas, and still ripe but ready to liquefy by the middle of January, unless the recipient gives the pear some time-out in the fridge.

Although we see only a few varieties here in the Rogue Valley, there are more than 3000 grown around the world, some of which came with the Pilgrims to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and were planted by 1620.

Your grocery store is most likely to offer Bartlett pears, which is a piece of good luck as most varieties do not change color as they ripen whereas the Bartlett is green when newly picked and increasingly yellow as it ripens.  Those who like a crisp pear that is not over-sweet pick the green Bartlett.  Fanciers of a faceful of sweet juice wait until the Bartlett has yellowed.  Another relatively commonly available pear, the Anjou, green or red, keeps its hue throughout its lifespan, remaining fairly crisp and only moderately more sweet as it ages.

Pear blossoms don’t last long; lovely and ephemeral, they are gone by the end of the second week of April.  As we drive the back roads, vineyards are still strung with ropy brown cords, but pear orchards are greening and starting the work of growing fruit to be picked by the middle of a hot Oregon summer.  The Pear Blossom Festival is a celebration of beauty marking the eager anticipation of another bountiful season of pears.

Promise made.  Promise kept.





In Other Words…

In Other Words…

I have a friend with one eye; he wears a plaid eyepatch, not at all piratical.  He has grown weary of the question: “How did you lose your eye?”   He responds, “I didn’t lose it; I know exactly where it is.”  So, unable to wear an artificial eye fashioned for him by a well-meaning doctor, he had the fake one mounted on a chain around his neck and simply points at it when aggrieved.

In this case, “lose your eye” is a euphemism for “what happened to your face”; a somewhat more direct question. “When did your eye pop out?”is palpably blunt.  So is the more technical, “I see you have been through a process of enucleation.”  Once you enter into a conversation about missing eyes with a person missing one or more eyes, it really doesn’t much matter how you phrase things; no amount of gentle language redirects attention from the missing orb(s).

If you want or need to know, you might as well just ask what happened to his eye.

Euphemisms do serve a purpose in ordinary discourse.  There is some delicacy, in the use of  “currently between jobs” and “letting someone go” instead of “unemployed” and “fired”.  The meaning is still clear, but softened by the speaker’s hope that the conversation might go somewhere other than joblessness.

Today’s exercise is all about saying what we mean without entirely saying what we mean, in other words, with euphemism.  Exactly.  In other words.

My friend’s glass eye aside, I have nothing against euphemisms; they can be quite handy.  In fact, at their best,  euphemisms demonstrate sensitivity to language and audience; we use euphemism when we guess that a more raw, undecorated expression might give offense.  It is important to remember, however, that euphemisms come into play in situations in which WE might be embarrassed; nobody is going to be injured if we ask the way to the bathroom (already slightly euphemistic in that we’re probably not looking to take a bath), but we ask the way to the rest-room, one more euphemistic degree removed from the toilet.  We avoid the direct, blunt, purely factual in order to put a slightly prettier spin on the situation.

It’s not surprising that death and bodily functions are the subjects that have racked up the most euphemistic invention; any one of these can be wince-worthy if addressed indelicately. Look, both are eminently natural and virtually inevitable, so what’s our problem?  I suspect we have different sorts of problems with each; our culture encourages some hefty magical thinking across the board, however, essentially hoping that things unsaid are unobserved, or, in the case of death, avoided.

Yup, against my wishes it appears that I’m almost certain to die (almost?  hedging, hedging…).  Is the prospect more easily accepted if I think I’m going to pass away?  Uh, no thanks.  Shuffle off this  mortal coil, push up daisies, head to the last round-up, take a dirt nap?  Still not giggling.  I’m certainly not looking forward to biting the big one, kicking the bucket, counting worms, cashing in my chips, or croaking.

At least croaking has some basis in physiology.  Sleeping with the fishes?  Not unless I cross a mob boss, in which case, I might with equal probability wear a cement bathing suit and would not simply check out (supermarket finale?), I would be rubbed out, erased, clipped, iced, whacked. or snuffed.

So, let’s assume I am whacked or clipped or snubbed or rubbed out. At that point I would become a stiff, the remains, the dearly departed, the corpus delicti, or cold meat.

When it comes to bodily functions, we appear to be euphemistically challenged.

The weight of cultural approbation of urination, a reasonably necessary practice for almost all of us, is revealed in euphemistic arrested development.  Straight from the nursery we get having to go potty,  winky tink, visit the little girls’ room, tinkle, wee wee, piddle.  The less juvenile phrases seem curiously elaborate: take a leak, drain the dragon,  see a man about a horse (or dog).  Briticisms, however, seem to lend authority to every necessity, allowing us happily to visit the loo while the adventurer can pop off for a quick slash.

Perhaps the richest trove of terrifying euphemisms is to be found in examining affairs of state.  No need to recommend torture, simply ask for enhanced interrogation methods. It’s tough to make a statement in the wider world without incurring collateral damage, by which we mean death or dismemberment.  That may be a bit harsh; perhaps it would be more correct to say when threatened, we need to neutralize opponents, to disappear them.  Explanations abound although some may fall into the category of alternative facts.

Each of us carries a supply of euphemisms for all occasions, and I remain grateful for those that have served me well over many years of evasion and dissembling.  How else might I have suggested a colleague’s intellectual limitations without reminding friends that he was one sandwich short of a picnic?  How could I explain my employment situation without suggesting that I was between jobs after having been dehired or let go? I’d be at a loss if I had to explain the great deal on a television set without explaining that it fell off the back of a truck.  As one forced to diet from time to time, I have been on occasion generously proportioned, husky, no slenderella, a natural body type, robust, portly, a man of substance, hefty, and big-boned.  I may even have sported a set of love handles.

We speak more plainly, I think, than we did a generation or two ago.  At the very least, we can use the word pregnant without embarrassment, no need to talk about a bun in the oven.  Then, when a child is born, we need not describe the event as a visit from the stork.  Glad we got over being uncomfortable talking about the birds and the bees!








Changing the Story

Changing the Story

It all comes down to this:  There are a lot of stories to choose from, and many of them make the world a smaller and darker place.  I can live in a story told by others about me, the story of someone who has no right to demand or intrude.  I can live the only child story, the eldest child, the middle child, the youngest child story.  I can take on the I’m always right story or the I can’t be wrong story.  I can define myself in the story of the put-upon, overlooked, neglected victim left to press his nose against the window of the restaurant of life while those inside dine to their heart’s content, ordering what they will from a menu devised for them by a universe that plays favorites.  I can hide in the story of designated scapegoat, the malignant black sheep, expected to run riot and bring collateral damage to all around me.  I can fine-tune the entitlement story, the martyr story, the underappreciated saintly spiritual giant story, the wounded bird story, the distant intellectual story, the stoic story, the emotional disaster story, the care too much story, the I-don’t-give-a-rip story, and so on.

I am the story I tell myself.  Of course I’m also my history, the sum total of the decisions, circumstances, and accidents that lump up all together to make up what I laughingly call my past.  I can’t change my history; les jeux sont fait and all that, but I’m increasingly aware that I can change my story.

The facts of the story are bound to remain the same; I still begin in the same place and end up here, writing on an April morning in Oregon after stops of various lengths in Connecticut, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Massachusetts, Switzerland, Alabama, and California.  I’m still married to the same wonderful person and still a doting parent to three wonderful (now adult) children.

But, you know, facts are just facts.  The story I tell myself is all about the lens through which I consider these allegedly inviolable facts.  It may be helpful at this point to announce that I’m not about to descend into a “Power of Positive Thinking” lecture, not that I have an issue with positive thinking, but rather that this exercise has to do with ways of being, not stratagems or advantaged outcomes.  I’m also not proposing puppies and kittens, wide-eyed, gosh and golly, everything is just peachy and exactly the way it is supposed to be, unexamined, flatline, brain numbing self-satisfaction.

Some of my story I will tell to others; some of it will remain unspoken.  Unedited, it is the program that runs constantly in the background, reminding me of what and who I think I am.  As Descartes ought to have said:  “I think, therefore I am… I think”, and I hardly know what to think.  I think I’ve been exceedingly fortunate, occasionally graceful, frequently thoughtless, and often petulant.  The story I tell myself today is about latching on to the intimations of what a fairly limited human such as I can do to treat the universe with care, hoping to act in ways that do no harm, and taking responsibility for my choices and my emotions.

That’s not the most gripping yarn, but that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it … until it’s time to change.