Virginia Woolf’s UC San Diego Graduation Speech

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And so here, at the end, at graduation, at the time when my education comes to a screeching halt in its tracks, I suppose its only fitting that I start with the beginning. This is to be a speech about education, so the program says, specifically about my own. Speak to the audience, my advisor said, after much beseechment on my part; speak to the audience and tell them the truth of it; impart wisdom to the young college hopefuls out there in the audience, and stir up old memories for the mothers and fathers of the young college hopefuls out there. Ah, I said, no problem, and it wasn’t until I was already out the door when I finally thought about it, and by then it was too late for my advisor had retired for the day. But since it was only early afternoon, so I decided to stroll around the campus I’ve been tied to for the last five years and let my mind turn over the task in front of me, examine it from all sides, like a child turns over a rock in order to see what creatures he can find underneath. Or perhaps, I thought idly, oddly, languidly, perhaps I ought to let the task in front of me turn over my mind and see what happened.

For starters, I must apologize because you see I never really learned how to talk. For when I arrived at college I quickly learned that education isn’t about talking, although most every professor assured the hushed multitudes of wide-eyed freshmen that offices are great places for talking, all one had to do was show up at room 1671 on the fourth floor of Engineering complex I (not II!) between the hours of eight and nine on Friday mornings. I marveled at the ease in which I could have a conversation with a real, educated, college professor; why it seemed so simple. However in the midst of pondering how much Mr. Engineering must have donated in order to have not one, but two complexes named after him, I had missed the part where the professor had said to make sure and ask questions to the teaching assistant first and then bother him if it still weren’t clear. And so it went, and while other classes did indeed encourage speaking – in fact some mandated it in which points were proffered for pearls of wisdom such as restatements of last week’s lectures, or thoughts clever enough to be so broad and sweeping such that they could not possibly be wrong for they didn’t really say anything in the first place. At first I must confess I was very intimidated by all the smart people around me; I mean these people talked so much and it was quickly obvious that the more one talked, the more intelligence one had; and all I had were dull and tangent thoughts that did not restate, that did not simplify, that did not make the professor sigh with relief when a hand was finally raised to puncture the silence of the desperately broad question asked a good dozen seconds ago. But the talking was the important part, and so it was necessary each class period to come up with something to say; anything, and like wise politicians we went around the room and offered our hoarded responses, each person contributing a brick that together made a fine floor. I think the class was Creative Writing, and of course structured so to maximize the creativity and to maximize the writing.

But all that is really here nor there, and so I tried to pull my errant musings back to the topic of education. If I should sit and think of all my classes and what I had learned, and what I had been tested on, and what had changed my life, and what hadn’t, why it should take volumes upon volumes; although oddly enough I couldn’t really think of anything right now. One could really ponder all day, sitting in ponderous, resplendent repose like Rodan’s statue, thinking of great big issues well suited for that famous thinking pose, issues such as the nature of truth and beauty, justice and peace; philosophies of life could swirl in one’s head, the ills and wills of society, the trials and travails of historical peoples, poverty, all the flaws in the world today and how to fix them – one could really sit and ponder all day, but then one should not get one’s homework sets done and never learn how to recite in essay form chapters from great books, never learn how to repeat by rote memorization the study guide of the professor, never learn how to plug in different numbers into the same mathematical and physics models that approximate reality with such resolution and firmness one should think they were gods in their own right. And then one would have to drop out, and that would be disastrous for one’s education – imagine it; having no set structure, no boundaries with which to bump into in order to console oneself that there is a limit, that one won’t fall into the bottomless pit; it wouldn’t do at all really, having the time free to pursue knowledge as it comes, to be able to investigate every thought that pops into one’s head, such as why soda is cheaper than water, why gasoline in America is half as expensive as it is in Britain, why institutions seem to stifle creativity and original thought instead of cultivating them. No, such expansive freedom wouldn’t do at all, one needs a safety rope to follow, as frayed and worn as it may be from the many who have climbed it before, at least it has been proven that it safely goes in a direction. No, no, give me the Bernoulli effect of fluid dynamics any day of the week, because that’s real, tangible, substantial. Why Bernoulli’s all around you, a professor loved to say, it’s in your shower, on your streets, in your oceans and lakes; and it was thanks to god this solid piece of physics was there because think about it, if those other issues mentioned above, say corporate liability and greed for instance, if those issues had the same kind of proximity to our lives than Bernoulli why, why its not even imaginable what should happen. No, no, no the more I think about it, the more I’m sure that that had to have been what Rodan’s statue was thinking – I’m almost positive it was Bernoulli.

But again my thoughts were off track, and I did my best to bend them towards more meaningful directions. I have learned all questions have answers, and all questions have quick answers, and all questions have quick, easily attainable answers that once found end the question; and so I focused my best effort towards the question in front of me, because it bothered me that it hadn’t ended yet, that it was sticking around; questions aren’t supposed to do that. Inspiration struck as I looked up and spotted the library, its unique form a comforting view in the midst of my scattered wonderings and wanderings. When I had first seen it, I had thought it appeared like a Rubix cube, standing on one corner; but that was when I was a stupid freshman. Now of course I can see that it has history, and indeed the man who paid a lot of money for it has his statue on the top of it. However it represented salvation for me, the lifesaver for those drowning at sea – for what better place to answer questions than at a library?

However it was not meant to be, for the day had extended almost into dusk now, and the library was closed early since it was a Saturday, and of course no one (especially students who really just need expensive textbooks for the pursuit of the knowledge most necessary for them) can study in a library past five o’clock on a Saturday. It was amusing, I thought, thinking of the time before I was in college and was simply one of the millions of uneducated clamoring to get in the hallowed halls of academia in order to learn, in order to learn and in order to use that learning for the benefit of society and human race – for isn’t that why everyone wanted a college education? And it was somewhere along the way that I was able to do it, to get past the hordes on the outside beating against the walls of academia, those that crashed against its gates like waves against the cliffs a few hundred yards away. During one of those high tides, I stepped over, stepped past, stepped on a few of the horde and on their backs lifted myself over the gates, I pushed off and made it onto the ark, where I imagined finding two of every type of intellectual, of finding white sails to billow out with the breeze of my studious exertion, of finding philosophical mysteries embedded in the very sap holding the planks of the institution together; however it was only to find a closed library at five o’clock on a Saturday, and a talking tree in a forest.

Fortunately though the food court was still open, and its cheerily lit signs, bright menus, spotless counters made the restaurants look as if they were the newest entities on campus, which they may very well could have been. As I ate I reassured myself that these thoughts, while not new to me, were only temporary, and should soon die out to the murky recesses of my mind. That worn and frayed rope always got me past these moments, and I concluded that in the end it simply meant that I had failed my education, and wasn’t fit for giving this speech.

Note – this was written in 2005, the year I graduated college from UC San Diego and is written in the literary style of author Virginia Woolf.

Amor Vincit Omnia

From Lvatlon, WikiMedia Commons

Her voice screeched like metal against my ears, and I twisted up the volume on the radio to drown her. Reno was a barren enough drive as it was, and Jilly’s voice wasn’t going to make the desert slide by any quicker.

I gulped a jolt of the Royal Salute, and the fire burned its way up from my stomach to my brain. I passed the bottle back and the amber liquid and amber city lights almost erased my hate as quickly as it came. I threw my head back into the sky and the radio sang about drugs, sex, and rock-and-roll. It’s not the amount of years in your life m’boy, I thought to Bush, but the amount of life in your years.

I must have said it out loud because Jilly, who had been quiet for awhile, sat up and screwed on the bottle cap.
“What?” she repeated, leaning close so I could taste her breath. “What’d you say, hubby?”

Surprisingly I felt no nausea, but at this point I didn’t really care anymore. I pulled her toward me, until a jarring honk quickly jolted us apart.

I have a story for driving through the open desert, and it goes like this:
Once there was a man driving through the open desert. He was unaware of birds that flew above and monitored his progress. He drove and drove, and the horizon never moved. Until one day he suddenly glared up and saw the birds, dark croaking buzzards, flocking above him, and seeing him seeing them they spirilled down, spinning around dizzy, until the whole world spun and no one knew who was the bird and who was the man.

I swerved over to the side of the road. Cars zipped by us, blowing huffs of wind against the Chevy. I gulped another long pull from the open bottle, and then I blinked and we were in Reno. I smacked Jilly a hard shot to the head that caused her to roll her head up.

“What are we doing here?” she said. “What happened?”
I snickered. I didn’t know if she remembered me; I didn’t care. “We’re finding the music.” I said.

All my life I’ve wanted to find the exact same situation as Luke Skywalker’s famous encounter with Darth Vader in Star Wars. This, I thought, was finally it. It was perfect. I swallowed another drink and the buildings whizzed by. She curled up in my lap and began to nod off again. I realized I didn’t want her to sleep, and smacked her again. The sharp pain of her teeth digging into my thigh made me snarl.

We pulled into a dingy one-story chapel lit with cheap neon lights. Blackish-white paint hung limply off the walls, and the whole image reeked of shoddy desperation. What a dump, I thought. She’ll have to pull out … there’s no way she could handle the reality of this forlorn shack.

Birds circled outside my vision as I parked and turned off the engine. I took another hearty gulp of the Salute, and she grabbed onto my hand … the queasiness returned in full vengeance. It seemed to blossom, spreading outward until it encircled my entire body. With effort I managed to fight it off and ignore it.

I have always admired Nevada. If Nevada were a dessert … well, it would definitely be an admirable one. There exists an alien feel to its blatant sins that improvises an atmosphere of uncertainty. If gambling and prostitution are so out in the open here, why they must be okay … but these thoughts flew away as she got out of the car and stood up.

Katherine Hepburn was put to shame by her slinking, swooshing saunter toward the chapel. She probably began when she was five years old and imitating Betty Boop. The bright lights of the chapel erased her into a black outline, a movie scene on a poster. Black Sabbath cut the air from the radio, and the spinning night suddenly slowed to a halt. All the dimensions halted briefly in their tracks, looked at each other for a second, and then agreed to continue on their merry way. I fought against the encroaching darkness by focusing on the shadow in front of me. That woman, I panted, for all her heavy posturing is walking into the chapel right now … no, she’s racing inside, a swirl of prostitute ads and empty cigarette boxes floating up in her wake. Marilyn Monroe left the same wake when she pranced along the Great Wall of China.

The chapel’s mouth gaped wider and wider, grinning a fascinating toothless smirk. Inside, Beelzebub beamed and indicated me to stand next to Jilly. I took the last swig of the Salute and handed the empty bottle to the frocked Beelzebub. The lights were blinding inside, and I just wanted to be outside and let the birds pick at my ruminating corpse.

Her open hand flashing across my line of sight made me blink, and then I was contemplating the arched, unpainted ceiling and enjoying the throb of her palm against my cheek. For the first time I thought, this marriage just might work.

On the ride home I sprawled in the backseat, and the pressure of the bottle around the finger next to my pinky left a white ring around it. I pulled my finger out and watched the birds hovering ominously above. But they didn’t dare touch a married man. Not tonight. I watched the sky, and the desert flew by, and sometimes the stars flew by and the desert remained in the same place. Past Orion a dog chased its tail, and then lay down to sleep.

Note: This was written in 2005, shortly after Hunter Thompson’s death.

Asura-sutra

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Thus I have heard: at one time the Lord was staying at Rajagrha, and the great wheel-turning righteous emperor of the law, Ilamkili, who had all thirty-two special marks of a Great Man and was a great Dharmic king wielding the seven treasures and whose greatness and gracious acts established the security of his realm and extended his kingdom to where the horizon met the land and caused the rain to fall for the prosperity of everyone, came to see the Blessed One with a troubled spirit.

The great wheel-turning righteous monarch, followed by his 1,000 sons and attendants, approached the Blessed One with an immense plate of food offerings; containing both hard and soft choices from the finest food he could find. After circling the Blessed One three times with his right side facing the Lord, the great wheel-turning righteous monarch sat down.

“Lord Buddha,” Ilamkili said, “I have a troubled spirit. I have studied your teachings, and the Dharma, and the four Aryan truths, and the law of Karma. I have studied them to try and attain enlightenment. I was born with the thirty-two special marks on my body, and I have known since I was released from the womb I would either become a fully enlightened Buddha or a great wheel-turning emperor. I now rule an empire that stretches to where the horizon meets the land, and my greatness and gracious acts cause the rain to fall for the prosperity of everyone. And now I wonder; and I ask you Blessed One, there are questions I have that I cannot answer, and I hope you can.”

The Blessed One, who had attained spiritual perfection, he who was mighty with the ten Powers of the Tathagata, the Well-Farer, he whose senses were turned inwards, the Knower of the Worlds, the Teacher of gods and humans, he who had achieved nirodha, who had learned the karmic nature of every single being from their past lives, sat and looked at the great wheel-turning emperor and said nothing.

“Very well,” said the great wheel-turning emperor, “then tell me this: I have learned the path to enlightenment is through the cessation of desire; however isn’t the act of cessation of desire to attain enlightenment a desirous act in itself?”

After no response the great wheel-turning emperor said, “Very well, then tell me this: I have studied the four Noble Truths and according to samudaya; desire, or the thirst for further existence, is the cause of suffering. If this is true why have not all the ascetics achieved enlightenment? They have conquered sensation and perception, and live without desire yet they have not attained Nirvana.”

After no response the great wheel-turning emperor said, “Very well, then tell me this: I have learned of anatman; how there is no self, simply the five skandhas that lead to desire and the illusion of atman. If there is no stable, permanent self what is it in people that desires enlightenment?”

After this question from Ilamkili the Lord shifted in his position, but gave no response. “Very well,” said the great wheel-turning emperor, “then tell me this: I have observed different sanghas and sects, and have learned that there are differences in each. For instance why do the Vajrayana say spiritual attainment can be gained in one lifetime? Or what about the Sanvastivadin, who say everything exists? Why do the Theravada have 311 rules for nuns while the Mahasanghika have over 500 rules for nuns? Why do these all walk different paths toward the cessation of suffering? Which is the correct one?”

After no response the great wheel-turning emperor said, “Very well, I will ask then: you who has attained spiritual perfection, who has ceased desire, who is the Teacher of gods and humans, who has learned the karmic nature of every single being including me, can you tell me how to resolve these questions that hinder me so that I can gain spiritual attainment? Shall I give up my entire kingdom and take up the begger’s bowl and monk’s robes? If so, which sect shall I follow to achieve enlightenment?”

At these words his thousand sons and many attendants let out piteous moans of anguish; for Ilamkili had calmed the chaos of heaven with his Dharmic rule and had expanded his kingdom and power with his many generous acts, and none of his attendants wanted to see him leave. However, the Blessed One gave the same response to this question as all the previous; he sat and looked at Ilamkili and said nothing

“Very well,” said the great wheel-turning emperor with great reluctance, for he did not want to leave his prosperous kingdom; nor his people who loved him, and who he loved in return. “I will ask a second time: you who has attained spiritual perfection, who has ceased desire, who has learned the karmic nature of every single being including me. Shall I give up my kingdom? Will that begin the path to true enlightenment?”

After no response the great wheel-turning emperor, with even greater reluctance than before, said “Very well. I will clearly ask: you who has attained spiritual perfection, who has ceased desire, who has learned the karmic nature of every single being including me. How can I achieve enlightenment? Tell me what I must do to attain Nirvana.”

At these words the Lord spoke, for Ilamkili had finally revealed to himself the truth of his desire. The Blessed One looked at the righteous wheel-turning monarch and at a glance saw all of the emperor’s past lives and deeds, and saw that the emperor had more lives ahead of him to atone for his past actions. “Great cakravartin, powerful wheel-turning emperor listen to me,” said the Buddha. “You have more to learn; you ask why ascetics have not attained Nirvana since they have conquered desire, and I tell you this: it is true, ascetics have conquered their desire in the physical world, however they have not walked the Middle Way, which is distant from their own extreme. They have not realized the four Noble Truths fully. They have not realized they suffer because they desire; which is due to ignorance.

“It is true; the want to cease desire is desirous itself. However you have more to learn; there are different levels of desire and the desire of cessation is the highest there is. It is the raft, it is the path to eliminating Grasping, the way to halt Becoming.

“It is true, there is no such thing as self; only sunyata, emptiness. However you have more to learn; it is the karmic law of the universe that pushes individuals towards enlightenment. You have not truly seen pratitya-samutpada, that nothing has essential being, everything is only in existance in relation to everything else. Everything is conditioned by previous lives; it is the necessity of atoning for one’s past actions and attaining balance that brings one up from hell to heaven, and the understanding of the nature of Karma and the four Noble Truths that push them outside of the wheel of life to Nirvana.

“It is true; there are many different sects with their own understanding of the path to cessation. However you have much to learn; for each walks their own path, and has their own road from their past lives to their future lives. No matter the number of rules for nuns, nor the time of spiritual attainment; no matter how one views the world there is birth, there is ageing, and there is dying. There is no way such that if you ask a monk how to live according to the Dharma and atone for past lives every single one will say ‘This is the one and only way’ – there is no universal practice. But no matter who you ask the four Noble Truths are the same; no matter how many rules govern a life there is suffering, and there is its cessation. No monk will tell you of one path all can travel, however any monk will tell you the four Noble Truths are the beacon lighting all paths, no matter how different the direction of the paths are.

“Great cakravartin, powerful wheel-turning emperor listen to me,” said the Buddha. “It is true, you have more to learn. Your power exceeds the earth, you can stop the sun and bring forth rain, however you cannot attain enlightenment in this life. Your great and noble deeds from this life and your previous ones have given you your immense powers; however before this life, before your previous life of a generous merchant, before your previous previous life as an ascetic, stretching back innumerable lifetimes ago, a misdeed haunts you. Far back, centuries ago, before your great city was even built as a servant you maliciously slaughtered your master and ran away. It is this deed as a slave so long ago that shackles you today, great emperor. Ilamkili, in this life you are like a unmattavidyadhara, a mad scientist, wanting to concoct a powerful potion but you want to skip the steps in between of mixing lesser elements to create the final product. You desire enlightenment and Nirvana, but you cling hard to the five skandhas and the idea of self. You block yourself from achieving Bodhi; your body is solid in this life from your belief in its permanence. You do not remember your previous lives but your merit, your punya, has made you very powerful. However it is not for the purpose of making you a Buddha, it is for the purpose of atoning for your previous life. You have seen the four Noble Truths, but have not developed them through practice nor fully realized them in a manner so that you cannot learn more about them. You have yet to escape bhavacakra, the wheel of life; your great cycle, your mahakalpa, is close but has not yet completed a full revolution. You, great wheel-turning righteous monarch, have turned the Wheel of Dharma once, but not thrice. It is not your time for cessation, to ascend to Nirupadisesa-Nirvana – you are needed to be a Dharmic king and calm chaos in the heavens and do good for your people.”

Thus spoke the Lord, and Ilamkili rejoiced, and returned to his kingdom where he performed many great deeds until the time of his death.

Note – this was written in 2004.

Baseball Illusions

By Schyler at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13465049

By Schyler at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13465049

I suppose you’ll be surprised at this, Father. Surprised in several ways, actually. I can picture you now, sitting at the table with your black coffee and your Red Sox game on the radio occupying its pedestal atop the shelf above the sink, so you can hear the game when you work in the yard. In front of you lies the sports section, while the rest of the paper remains neatly folded up, the rubber band rewrapped around it. Or the latest Baseball Digest. Or the latest Sports Illustrated, opened to the Major League Baseball section.

Well this story is about baseball too, Father, so I’m sure you’ll have no trouble reading it. But this story is also about you, Father, and me – you, me, and baseball.
My memories read like a list on ESPN’s late late late-night programs, the ones that only insomniacs and baseball nuts like me watch at 4 a.m.; Lou’s Five Greatest Societal Events since 1982 (the year I was born) features Nolan Ryan’s incredible 7th no-hitter in 1991, starring Nolan Ryan and a bunch of hapless Toronto Blue Jay hitters. Ryan walked two hitters and struck out sixteen. The rest are, in order:
2. The Giants’ 1989 pennant race
3. The baseball strike of 1994
4. Cal Ripken breaking Lou Gehrig’s streak of playing in 2,130 straight games
5. Mark McGuire not only breaking Gehrig’s home run record, but shattering it with 70 homers.

Here’s another list you’ll like – Lou’s Top Five Greatest Achievements:
1. Getting a baseball scholarship to University of Southern California, one of college baseball’s meccas.
2. Getting selected First Team all-league for four straight years in high school.
3. Making the varsity team as a freshman
4. Striking out 18 batters in one game
5. Hitting over .400 my senior year

These lists are all embedded in my head like separate still-frame pictures, unlike the connected memory most have. It’s as if they were taken by a flash-timed camera – only there are years in between these photos instead of milliseconds. That has been my life up to this point: a handful of baseball photos looking more like they belong in Sports Illustrated rather than in someone’s head.

Here’s another list, Father, one whose elements are familiar but the category might surprise you. Here’s Lou’s Top Five Biggest Mistakes, arranged chronologically, not by damage it has had on my life:
1. Playing catch with you in the backyard as a kid
2. My first baseball game
3. February 24, 1994
4. The first game of my 1999 baseball season
5. Hitting at the batting cage with you

Maybe the title isn’t that surprising to you. I bet you remember every one of these memories; and I bet you remember them as mistakes. I bet you remember exactly how I first threw the ball wrong, before you instructed me on the proper four-seam grip, the proper arm angle, the proper drive with your lower body, making sure you bend your back in the follow-through.

I know you remember my first baseball game. Walking however many I did before the coach took me out, the tears of disappointment and failure. And February 24th you have to remember. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of you in your business suit, whacking groundball after goundball for me to slog after. The last two years of my high school baseball career I bet you remember well, the list of errors – both mental and physical – that you would post in the dining room so I could stare at it every meal and not forget.
Oh yes, you remember all of these memories. However there’s a slight discrepency between our memories, a solitary piece missing from the puzzle: I don’t remember these as my mistakes. I remember them as yours.

1. Playing catch with you in the backyard as a kid
I don’t remember exactly the first time it happened, I was young – so young – but at first it was a voluntary thing. Although was it really though? I wonder. It was the first time you ever offered to do something, anything, with me, so I couldn’t even consider saying no. It’s as if I were some sort of forgotten fruit that you had just noticed had turned ripe – suddenly it was every day, the same ritual: you would come home from work around three, and the slam of the door would cause me to sit up straight in anticipation in front of the television, where I would plop myself every afternoon around 2:45.

It’s as if that door slam, every day, would instantly hone my senses razor-sharp; I could hear your boots echo off the linoleum of our kitchen floor, and you would throw the mail on the table, sometimes pausing if you received anything interesting – the new issue of Beckett or Baseball Weekly for example. Then the boots would continue their journey, over to the refrigerator, where you would grab your long neck Budweiser. Then through the living room, past me without a word, while I played my part in the game and pretended to be absorbed by the television. Up the stairs tramped the boots, then after awhile you would bound down the stairs, your glove and my glove in hand. “Hey sport, how ’bout a little catch?” It’s funny how innocuously the question was phrased – it wasn’t until months later that I noticed every time you asked you were already dressed in your practice clothes, with your cleats already on and a couple of baseballs always in hand.

Unlike every other father/son game of catch, ours began with 15 minutes of stretching, followed by tedious throwing drills. I actually wasn’t even allowed to throw the ball the first few sessions – they were spent watching you with eyes as large as baseballs as you expounded on the pros and cons of the two-seam grip versus the four-seam grip, the kinematics of a pitcher’s body necessary to get all his weight behind each pitch, and the basic concepts behind gravity, momentum, and angular and rotational velocity, all the while my mind stumbling just trying to grasp the names of these otherworldly concepts.

Then I finally was allowed to throw the ball. However it was not a significant relief for me, since before every throw I’d have to focus on:

  • Pointing the shoulder to the target (C’mon Lou, it’s the most basic thing to throwing)
  • Picking up my left knee smoothly and parallel to my right leg (Stay balanced! How you gonna pitch falling over like that?)
  • Pushing off hard with my right foot (Don’t just step forward! Drive with your leg like you mean it!)
  • Dropping down my right arm (Lou, you throw like a damn girl. Drop down your arm to gain more arm action and speed on your throw)
  • Placing my foot properly (Whaddya doing!? Trying to hit our house? For chrissakes, point your foot toward me when you land)
  • Pivoting my hips and whipping my arm around to throw the ball (Jesus, Lou! C’mon sport, snap your wrist instead of stiff-arming it like that)
  • Bending my back and swinging my leg around during my follow-through (Whaddya, think you’re a model or something, posing like that? Bend your damn back!

And if somehow I managed to do all these correctly (it wasn’t often at first),
along with the ball I’d receive a grudging compliment thrown back to me. I don’t think there ever was a game of catch in the history of baseball more analyzed than ours. In retrospect, it seemed like some sort of weird permutation of Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiment; only for his dogs it was ring the bell ding!, salivate, get food – for me it was catch the ball ding!, throw the ball back correctly, get my father’s affection.

2. My first baseball game
Finally. The culmination of all those hours of work in the backyard until my arm was so tired I could barely lift it. I didn’t sleep for a week before the game, not in nervous anticipation, but in nervous fear of forgetting to bend my back. Or snap my wrist. Or use the proper grip. Or place my foot properly. Or pivot my hips.

Gameday, and my heart is hammering in my chest so loudly I can feel every heartbeat. My hands are sweaty and I gulp nervously – yet I stand up straight, as tall as I can on the mound, and armed with the confidence gained from countless hours of practice, visions of the baseball gods dance in my head – then meld seamlessly into my arm. Nolan Ryan’s knee-buckling curve, Roger Clemen’s blazing fastball, Orel Hershiser’s pinpoint control – I possessed control of all of them, along with a rudimentary knowledge of the finer aspects of the mental part of pitching, garnered from soaking up every word from the broadcasters in every televised baseball game I could possibly watch. Sages such as Harry Caray and Ted Robinson imparted to my eager young mind the countless strategies of how to psychologically dominate your opponents.

The first batter stepped in the batter’s box. Suddenly everything seemed to come into focus, and my mind checked off the long list of mechanics and mental tactics necessary to think of before every pitch. There was probably no other seven-year-old on earth more prepared than I was.

I immediately gave the batter my game-face stare, which I had been practicing in the mirror for weeks. I set my mouth in a permanent sneer, a lá Hershiser’s intense stare, then bugged my eyes like Eckersley. I could see the look of confusion on the batter’s face, and misinterpreting that for the fear I was looking for, I quickly pitched the ball. However, as I was concentrating on maintaining my highly effective, intimidating game-face, my first pitch bounced 10 feet in front of home plate.

Hmm, I thought. Not exactly what you were shooting for, was it? But that’s okay, I consoled myself. Now he thinks you’re wild, that’s another psychological trick, he’ll be scared you’re going to hit him. Now’s the time to bust him inside, he’ll either be too surprised to swing or he’ll get jammed and hit a weak ground ball.

My move figured out, I wound up and rocketed an inside heater toward the plate – then watched as it sailed above the batter and catcher to the backstop. Okay, I thought. I don’t remember Roger Clemens’ fastball doing that.I then tried to nip the corner of the plate with my wicked cut fastball. Oops, just a little high. Then my tantalizing four-seamer. Shoot, got away from me. My devilish curve. Dang it. Nothing.

With my first four pitches nowhere near the plate, I figured the other hitters would be plenty intimidated now – having been presented with the deadly combination of my scowl and my wildness. However they seemed unable to realize they were supposed to be scared of me, and the next hitter coolly watched four more pitches sail past, nowhere near the strike zone. Not understanding where I went wrong, I tried readjusting my scowl, figuring that was the problem.

It soon became apparent that wasn’t the problem. I tried to work the corners like Hershiser. I tried blowing them away with my stuff like Ryan. I even walked off the mound and subtly worked some saliva on the ball to try the spitter, like Stan Coveleski did back in the early 1900s. Nothing. Finally coach yanked me, and as I walked off the mound toward the dugout, I looked at you in the stands and saw a pained and tearful expression on your face.I was more confused than sad, and as my bewildered blue eyes met your soulfully sorry brown ones, our apparent role reversals served only to confuse me even more.

3. February 24, 1996

What’s so special about February 24, 1996? It’s right in the middle of the doldrums of the baseball world – past the off-season when the dreams of the upcoming season are as thick as a Louisville Slugger, but far enough away from the start of the regular season where the players despair of ever making it out of spring training.

What was I thinking? I don’t know. I have several guesses, but I still remember the feeling I had at that time; a sort of surreal awareness, as if I were looking at myself from the stands, along with the indisputable knowledge that I wasn’t supposed to do anything.

My favorite theory is that it was my subconscious wanting me to fail, since before you had never allowed me to fail. How’s that for irony? All the work you put into making me a winner caused the desire, no the need, for me to lose.

The scene: a completely meaningless Little League scrimmage game  (yes, I can hear you saying, “No game is meaningless”), me on the mound with a 1-0 lead. Chris Toller came to bat and I hit him, because I didn’t like facing him and I was pretty sure I could get Jake Kline, who hit after Chris, to ground into a double play. (My use of psychological tactics had progressed as my arm developed enough to actually throw a fastball and off-speed pitches.)

However, Jake managed to draw a walk off me. I could practically feel you tense up in the stands, two rows up on the right side, where you always sat. How did you do it? I never understood, but it was as if we had some sort of connection, a bond in which I could feel your displeasure seep out of you and crawl against my skin. I began to get nervous.

Several wild pitches later, the bases were full and Steve Crest stood between me and the end of the game. After every pitch I threw a pleading glance your way, yet your countenance just grew darker and darker. After the first ball, you took several menacing steps toward the fence and I swear to god I thought you were going to run out onto the field after me. I even backed several steps off the mound.

I always wondered what was going through your head at that point. Was it 1: Rage, 2: Disbelief, or 3: Fear? At that point I was pretty sure it was option one, and to say the least it distracted me quite a bit. Steve Crest watched three more balls zip past him nowhere near the strike zone and Chris Toller trotted home to tie the score.

By then you were right up against the fence, clutching the chain links with white-knuckled fists. I knew I shouldn’t look at you, that you were just distracting me, but I couldn’t help it. The horrible pull in my neck, the itch in my brain to look was like the feeling you get driving by a car accident. You instructively slow down to see what happened, even though the smashed glass and dented, mangled car tells you that you’re pretty sure you don’t want to know.

Many major-league pitchers talk about tunnel vision – a visual technique they use to envision a tunnel leading to wherever they want to throw the ball. Some pitchers focus so hard they can see the actual details of the tunnel, whether it’s made of brick or not, that sort of thing. Well it felt as if YOU were using tunnel vision on me, focusing on my weaknesses and how to eradicate them before the next game.

Just one more out, my mind pleaded with my arm. Flinching under your penetrating gaze, I wound up and blindly threw the ball toward the plate, just wanting this game to be over, one way or another. The batter swung and dribbled a grounder right at me. Reflexively, I snapped it up then stood still. Time, myself, the world, the universe seemed to suddenly click into slow motion. I saw Jake heading for home plate, his arms and legs sluggishly churning. I saw the batter creep toward first base, his cleats kicking up clumps of dirt with every step. I saw all the parents in the stands, yelling at me, their faces contorted with emotion. I saw you, standing still at the fence, your brown eyes recording my every move. Then I looked back and saw the winning run score right in front of me.

What caused me to do this? It’s hard to explain, Father. When I picked up that ball I felt something holding me back, some sort of morbid curiosity. What would happen if I lost this game? I thought. How far will the depths of my father’s anger reach? There was some part of me, a spark buried under the cold, impassive layers of conditioning which screamed at me to throw the ball, some part which patiently explained to the rest of me that there was another option.

For the first time in my life I took that option, and I purposefully avoided your gaze as I walked off the field and then trudged to the locker room with the rest of the team. I was about halfway toward the comforting safety of the changing room when I felt your heavy hand with its iron grip fall on my shoulder, and you spun me around to face your infuriated eyes.“You don’t change yet,” you hissed through clenched teeth. I could see the vein popping out of the side of your neck. “We have some drills to do.”

Back to the field we went, and you hit me ground ball after ground ball after ground ball. After the first hour it began to rain; large, cold, wet drops that chilled to the bone. You simply rolled up the pantlegs on your suit and kept whacking away. I slogged my way through the soupy field, often getting mud in my mouth after diving for particularly difficult ground balls; after two hours the ground balls and the rain showed no signs of abating — both kept coming at me in torrents. At some point past three hours I finally became the machine you wanted me to be — I stumbled lifelessly through the routine: run to the ball, grab it, heave it towards the net set up at first base. The only evidence of life was my tears, which mixed with the rain running down my face and fell unnoticed to the absorbing ground.

4. The first game of my 1999 baseball season

My 1999 baseball season began exactly like the previous years: New Year’s day, in the week between the end of winter league and the beginning of conditioning for my school team, you gave me the same annual “Go get ’em” speech you give every year, the only difference being the year (This is 1999, Lou), my age (You’re 17 years old now), and what I need to work on (You need to have a breakout year Lou, this is the year you need to make scouts notice you). This year was different in another way though, a way that you never knew. This was the year I almost quit baseball.

It wasn’t the grueling two-a-days during conditioning, in which the team met at six in the morning in the gym for calisthenics and to run suicides, then went to class and met again at the track after school for endurance training before weight lifting. It wasn’t the hours of video analysis with you in the darkened living room as you broke down, step by step, my batting and pitching mechanics. It wasn’t the verbal lashing you gave me after discovering I had tried out for the school band.

It all began during the first game of the season. Or actually, after the first game of the season. I had just struck out 12 hitters, gone three-for-four, and scored all of my teams’ runs. The season was brand new and had limitless possibilities, and after accepting the handshakes, high fives, and praise from my teammates and coach, all I received from you was a gruff “Your changeup needs a little work”. That’s it. Three months of conditioning, weight lifting and practice, and those were the six words I received from the person who it was all for.

That night, after a silent car ride home, you introduced the list. THE list. The list. The square piece of butcher paper that I grew to despise over the next two years. That night it greeted me as I sat down in my usual spot to eat dinner. “What the hell is that?” I asked.

“That,” you said, with a long drawn-out pause that I could tell you enjoyed, “is so you don’t forget.”  On the paper, in big red letters, was “IMPROVE CHANGEUP”.

I hated that list. I used to block it out with a wall of rage, as I sat there chewing my food right next to you. I would envision a swirling, angry red mist, mold it into a blood-red brick, and slowly build a wall until I couldn’t see the list anymore. That’s all I would do during dinner: sit there, chew my food, and build my wall. You sat two feet away from me yet I don’t remember us hardly ever exchanging words during dinner. You could have been building your own wall for all I knew. The list steadily grew longer as the season progressed – after every game there was at least one thing you added to the list. Often it was two or three things.

Once I questioned the list. It was after a particularly bad game (I only struck out 7 hitters) and you carefully wrote five things on the list, evenly spacing each one and making sure they were parallel to each other. “Dad why do you have to do that?” I asked. “I know I fucked up, I know where I went wrong. You don’t have to put it up there for the world to see.”

You glanced over at me. “Lou,” you said, with great deliberation and emphasis, and with that solitary word I instantly regretted asking and knew what was coming. “Lou,” you said again. “Look at yourself. You’re a two-time First Team selection. You led the league in ERA and strikeouts as a freshman. You have played on state championship Little League teams. You…”

“I know, dad” I said, cutting you off in mid-breath. “So doesn’t that mean you can give me a break on a couple of these?” You sucked in the rest of the breath I had cut off, and seemed to grow bigger as your chest expanded to accommodate the extra air in the lungs. “How the fuck do you think you got as far as you have!” You yelled, thrusting your head a few inches from mine. “Because of me! Because of the hard work I’ve put into you! You’d be nothing if it weren’t for me!”

I opened my mouth. I was ready to tell you, ready to tell you everything; that I hated baseball, that I was miserable, that I wanted nothing more than to get out of this stupid sport. But I couldn’t. I stood there with my mouth open and tried to imagine myself without baseball in my life. Baseball was a part of me, it defined me, as well as you, and our relationship with each other. If I lost baseball, I’d lose all three.

5. Hitting at the batting cage with you

Senior year was the year I began this letter to you. Senior year was when I opened my eyes, and looked past the façade you wrapped yourself around with. It was the first time I looked at you critically, instead of myself. New Year’s Day rolled around again, and for once I actually listened closely to your yearly speech: “This is the year 2000, Lou. It’s time to shape up and play up to your full potential.”

Shape up? My three all-league selections not good enough for you? What is my “full potential” according to you? Perfection?

“I’m tired of being disappointed by you. You’re 18 years old, you should be old enough to motivate yourself but I keep on having to do all the work for you.”

Well, dad, I’m so very, very tired of disappointing you. But what about all the times you’ve disappointed me? What about all the pain you’ve caused me? You’ve been doing all the work, huh? Is it you who spends seven hours a day on the field? Do you go through the rigorous conditioning – the weight lifting, the endless sprints until you puke, the calisthenics, the endurance training?

“I’m not going to let you fail. A great season this year can land you a full ride into college, maybe even a pro contract out of high school. Don’t screw things up okay?”

How can I fail or screw things up if ‘you’re the one doing all the work’? Wouldn’t that make YOU the failure?

You were true to your word, and you worked me twice as hard that year, as if trying to break me down as much as possible before I went away to college. One day, when coach gave the team the day off, you came home and found me asleep on the sofa. You prodded me awake, and before I had completely shaken the grogginess of sleep from my eyes, we were in the car, headed toward school.

After a two-mile run, we went to the batting cages and I hit. And hit. And hit. And hit. After awhile blisters started forming on my hands. Still, I kept hitting. Every hit sent little earthquakes of pain vibrating down the bat barrel into the angry red ball of pain my palms had become. Eventually the blisters broke and started bleeding, making it hard for me to hold the bat. Finally I couldn’t take the pain any more and I threw the bat down. I sucked on my stinging palms and eyed you between the bridge of my thumb and pointer finger.

You were breathing hard yourself, and your shoulder had to have hurt after throwing three hours of batting practice.
“Let’s go,” I said.
“No.”
“But dad, I can’t hit anymore, my palms…”
“Get back in the box.”
“Dad…”
“Get back in the box now.”

I took a deep breath. My instinct pulled me back towards the batter’s box while my brain worked overtime to prove to me I had the option to not do it. Why do you want me to continue when my hands are bleeding? I thought resentfully. What possible logic could explain your insistence to continue despite my obvious incapability? Why are you transferring your hatred onto me?

All these thoughts rampaged through my head. I was confused – was this some sort of test? All I wanted was for you to stop hating me, to be proud of me for just once. Just tell him off!! My mind screamed. Tell him you need to go home and get your hands bandaged, that you can’t hit anymore, that he’s an idiot who’s obviously wrong!!

I stood there motionless for a minute while those words reverberated in my head. Do you know how long a minute is when you’re not doing anything? It seems like forever, as the seconds tick away slowly in your head, only to disappear in the vast depths of your mind.

Finally, I broke. I walked back and picked up the bat with my stinging hands, mainly because I knew you thought I wouldn’t do it. I held the bat gingerly, rotating it so it didn’t chafe against the raw parts of my hands. I swung half-heartedly at the first few, trying to keep from wincing during contact, although small, involuntary whimpers would occasionally escape me.
“Stop swinging like a girl.”

I saw the swirling red mist take over my vision, and I growled away the painful price it cost to clench the bat and whacked away as hard as I could at the next three. You threw five more for good measure, then gave me the sign to pack it up. The car ride home was even more silent then our usual car rides, and I sat with my hands wrapped in a towel and stared out the window watching the streets whiz by. I wondered if you even knew that it was my birthday.
Well, there it is, Father. All laid out for you. Did you have any idea at all? Were you completely oblivious, or was there some inkling – a little nibble in the corner of your brain whispering maybe it wasn’t supposed to be like this. All I ever wanted to do was to make you happy, to earn the ultimate goal, worth more than any trophy or award: your respect. Your support. Your love. Hell, just one lousy compliment would’ve been nice.

But instead you used me. You rode my desire for your affection for 18 years, you conditioned me to throw, to catch; to obey like any master would teach his dog. Your efforts in making me a baseball star were self-centered. You weren’t involving yourself in my baseball career, you were trying to make up for your own lack of one.

I don’t really know why I’m telling you all this. You know what you’ve done. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you’re still oblivious, still lost in your own world in which you are sacrificing everything for your son. I would’ve liked to have lived in that world with you Father, but I was stuck in the real world, in which there exists more than just baseball.

But you see, in a way you did succeed. You spent my entire life trying to make baseball the most important thing in my life, and for 18 years it was. However, to be completely accurate, my life didn’t revolve around baseball, it revolved around you. I only played for you, Father, and without you baseball meant nothing to me, as I quickly learned in college. Yet it was also the catalyst for the discovery of myself.

I quit USC’s baseball team last week. You had your 18 years, Father. The rest are mine.