Thursday, January 24, 2013

Baseball Bloodlines: The Laugh I’ll Never Forget

Onias "Pit" Martin
A name and a telephone number flashed on my parent’s television. 

The Yankees game had just ended. My father was dozing in his chair across the room. He partially opened his eyes as the phone rang. 

When my mother picked up the upstairs phone, the name disappeared from beneath a glowering Michael Kay. “Your Uncle Pit likes to rub it in when the Red Sox win,” my father tells me sleepily. “It’s like clockwork.”

It actually didn’t matter if the Red Sox or Yankees won. He called my mother to talk about the game either way. She understood his love of the game and he knew she’d appreciate the knowledge that he was still there, still among the living.

It was a ritual that endured through summers filled with weddings, funerals, family reunions, good and bad teams from Boston and New York, whoopie pies, and fiddleheads. There may have been no pennant race this year between the two old rivals—no urgent need to hold your breath with every pitch—but like seasons past, there was always the phone call between Onias “Pit” Martin and my mother. 

Spring training starts in 19 days. My Uncle Pit died Aug. 27, 2012

Tante Lucille and Uncle Pit
“Come in, come in,” Uncle Pit exclaims cheerfully. 

His hand reaches out and pulls me into the small kitchen. He’s already grinning and laughing and I haven’t said anything yet. 

My Tante Lucille takes my coat and I sit down in the living room. They both settle into their rocking chairs (if you’re French and don’t have a rocking chair, there is clearly something wrong with you. And it’s always better if it’s on the front porch). Behind his glasses, his eyes are alive with curiosity and amazement. He wants to hear all the excitement going on in my life in New York City. 

Every so often, he asks something quietly in French to Tante Lucille or my mother. He’d hear the answer and return his full attention back to what I was saying. The smile never leaves his face. He laughs his friendly, booming laugh at all of my jokes, even if they weren’t funny.

I wasn’t scared of Uncle Pit’s laugh like I was of a few of my mother’s brothers’ as a little kid. Uncle Clifford and Uncle Jimmy had these booming voices and gregarious laughs that filled up your whole head. Uncle Pit’s laugh was softer, and his voice put you at ease as soon as he started speaking to you. He had kind-hearted written all over his face, so he couldn’t help but be anything but. I did always think he was tough because he lost parts of three fingers on his left hand in an accident, but he smiled too much to be considered any kind of threat. 

I turn down Tante Lucille’s first 50 offers of a Diet Pepsi, but finally cave on the 51st. It gives me time to tell more stories. And gives both of them more time to tell me I should come visit more. When we finally get up to leave, he grabs my hand, pumps it enthusiastically in appreciation and love. 

“Come again soon,” he says again from the doorway as Tante Lucille walks us to the car. They both wave until our car is out of sight, knowing the ritual will happen again, but not as often as either party might like. 

Uncle Pit was born Aug. 4, 1935 in St. Agatha, Maine. He enjoyed fishing, gardening, and the outdoors. 

Uncle Pit's smile only got better with age.
We are smiling awkwardly at each other. 

I have come to visit again, but this time, he’s in rough shape. The decision to go to the emergency room or not is being made for him. He’s run up against three stubborn French women with his best interests at heart, and he knows it. He doesn’t go down without a fight, and held out hope he could stay home and laugh at all my stories. 

My mother takes his feelings into consideration when she lays out all his options, even though he really only has one. She holds his hand as he runs through them all through his head. He finally makes the right one, and nods. 

In impatient silence, he waits for the ambulance ride he’s about to take. He never loses the sparkle in his eyes or the smirk off his face. I know because we don’t lose eye contact until the EMTs show up. 

Uncle Pit was an avid Red Sox fan. 

Uncle Pit and Tante Lucille
I know spring will bring fresh sunlight to counter the seeming endlessness of our winter grief.

The light that now appears outside our windows isn’t that of further loss or sorrow. It’s…baseball.

We get to wipe away our past despair and indulge in the simple routine of pitchers long tossing in the outfield and fielders scooping up groundballs hit off fungo bats in the infield. 

New traditions fuse with the old, even though some familiar faces are no longer with us. Perhaps it will be my name showing up on my mother’s television screen late at night after the completion of a Yankees–Red Sox game. We may be rooting for the same side, but something tells me that we won’t be as tough on the Red Sox as we used to be.

All I know is that when the first inning of that first matchup starts, I’ll miss my Uncle Pit more than I already do. He’s gets as much credit for my makeup as a man as any of the Blanchette men. He was a Frenchman through and through. 

He’d want me to keep smiling and laughing. I will because I know he hasn't stopped.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

10 Books I’m Reading or Wish I Were Reading During Winter 2013

Courtesy of Skokie Public Library
I have an affliction concerning the written word. 

I can no longer read just one book, magazine, or blog at a time. When I was younger, I would bring an extra book along in the car, but that was only in case I finished the book I was actually reading. Today, I not only have a Kindle crammed with all sorts of literature and non-fiction, I also carry with me an analog paperback or hardcover book with a bookmark stuck in the middle of it. If someone were to ask me what I was reading on the subway, I’d take up most of his or her commute running down the list. 

This is only partially because of a reduced and divided attention span. I really just want to gain knowledge of everything. I have some pretty well-read and nerdy friends that force me to stay current on topics that happened a hundred or more years ago. Plus, sometimes you need a break from what you’re reading. Sometimes the mood doesn’t call for a dense history tome, but instead an action-packed crime thriller. What’s stopping me from doing that? Nothing and nobody. The other book isn’t going anywhere, I can return to it as soon as my wandering wordsmith soul lustily desires it again. 

Winter feels like it was invented for serious, dense reading. Heavy and complex themes inhabit the 10 titles that I’m reading or wish I were reading during the first cold months of 2013, and they are best read with dark liquor and a deep brooding. Enjoy. As always, feel free to comment with recommendations of your own, or find me on Twitter @danielfford.

Reconstruction by Eric Foner

I’ve been reading this book on and off since 2009. It actually feels more like I’ve been reading it since Reconstruction. The debate on slavery and states’ rights that tore apart America and led to four years of a bloody Civil War is important in understanding the racial struggles in the United States today (yes, they still do exist). However, that era might pale in importance to the utter failure endured in legislative, executive, and judicial theory and reality during the years of Reconstruction. Overwhelmed, drunk Presidents running corrupt administrations, a radical Congress, black Congressmen and Senators, Jim Crow laws, carpetbaggers and scalawags, and sharecroppers essentially slaves in every way except in name, should make for compelling reading. I just can’t seem to bring myself to slog through this book. And it’s awfully well written by a historian who had fresh and inspired thesis. I’m including this book on my list to shame me into finishing it. 

Favorite line: It actually comes from my friend Scott since I can’t remember anything from the 100 some odd pages I’ve read so far. “Why is that I can’t get into Reconstruction? It’s like ‘and the sharecroppers…zzzzzzzzzzzz.’”

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

This novel was on every 2012 top 10 list known to man and with good reason. It is a pleasure to read. It’s filled with warm, honest phrases, complex and broken characters, a smattering of whimsy and romance, and a fun plot structure that implores you to damn your productivity the next day and read into the far reaches of the night. 

Favorite line: Life, he thought, is a blatant act of imagination.

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan

Grim. Haunting narrative about the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. You feel yourself inhaling the dust from the black “dusters” that tortured those farmers in the American High Plains who stayed and fought drought, famine, the market, government, and a land that violently turned against them. It certainly can be seen as a cautionary tale for this generation dealing with climate change, as well as a testament that humanity can indeed hardship and suffering while still remaining hopeful. But still, this is grim stuff. Naturally, I can’t put it down.

Favorite lines: The first two paragraphs of the introduction are maybe the best writing I’ve ever read. I read it aloud to my girlfriend after I had read it silently, and my goose bumps intensified. That’s good writing. Damn.

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

Great winter popcorn read. You fly through it like you would a popular mystery novel, but it has enough wit, charm, and gravitas to leave you thinking long after you’ve finished it (which I actually did in this case). The author paints a realistic picture of how the world might react when faced with an apocalyptic event and how people might choose to live out the time they have left. I identified with Detective Henry Palace because he chooses to do his job to the bitter end. You can’t ask someone for more than that. 

Favorite lines: “Hey, it’s never too late.” “Well,” the guard says, and adjusts his cap. “It is, though.”

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

Did my brother Tom and I sprint from a bar on one of the hottest days of the summer of 2012 to catch the last tour of Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace in New York City? Was I so inspired that I started reading this biography while shoving every other book aside? Did I finish it a couple month’s later because I wanted to savor every detail of the colorful early life of one of the most entertaining Americans who ever lived? Yes to all.

Favorite line: Bully!

Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell

In my opinion, there’s no gift better than a book from another writer. The editor-in-chief of the magazine I work for gave me this book as a Christmas present and I’ve been enamored with it ever since. I had not heard of Joseph Mitchell before, and am now ashamed I didn’t stumble upon him once while getting my journalism degree. At least I can appreciate his work now and always. 

Favorite lines: I’m not that far into this book at present, but I can tell you every sentence is a masterpiece. Including this one: Bill was big and thick-shouldered, but he did not look strong; he had a shambling walk and a haggard face and always appeared to be convalescing from something.

The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer

I had a wonderfully eccentric journalism professor who recommended this book along with The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Blindness. It took me awhile to pick this one up, but I can tell you it has been well worth it. There’s a 200-page build up to when shit gets crazy, but it feels like it was 12. If you’re not gripping the pages of this book, or the sides of your reading device, tightly as you plow through this narrative genius, there is something wrong with you. My professor died in 2011, which leaves me without the banter that would have ensued after I finished reading this novel. I’ll toast him with Wild Turkey when I finally put the book down. 

Favorite line: I’ll let you know upon completion. I looked back and ended up reading a whole chapter again. That’s not productive.

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

This is on the wish list. This was a drunken Kindle purchase. The fact that the story is set in the 1870s, involves buffalo, a bromance that might include cannibalism, and the “myth of modern America,” speaks volumes about my high level of nerd even when I’m intoxicated. Needless to say, I can’t wait to read this book. 

Favorite line: Haven’t peaked at the book yet, but I’m assuming my favorite line will end up being something like: “Let’s eat Henry, he’s a douche.”

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

I am captivated by Diaz’s seamless fusion of English and Spanish. This novel is wildly entertaining and I’d be totally sucked into it if I weren’t reading 20 other things at once. Confession: I didn’t read his last book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I will make up for it as soon right after this one. Or maybe before.  

Favorite lines: Nilda was my brother’s girlfriend. This is how all these stories begin. 
Honorable mention: 
Also check out: