The Hall of Fame Career that Might Have Been

When Wilbert Robinson catcher for the old Baltimore Orioles and later the Brooklyn Robins was asked in 1931 who were the five greatest players he ever saw, he listed former teammate “Wee” Willie Keeler, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner . . . and Charlie Ferguson. Even casual baseball fans have probably heard of the first four on Robinson’s list, but very few hardcore fans know of Charlie Ferguson, a right-hander whose life was cut short by typhoid fever.

Upon discovering that he had been born, and was buried in Charlottesville, I went on a pilgrimage, along with Jesse and Becky Dice to find his grave. The result was the 10th episode of Off the Beaten Basepaths. You’ll have to forgive the fact that I stumble a couple of times, but it was hot and Becky is pregnant and you don’t want to keep a pregnant director out in the sun for too long!

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Toilet Paper Problems

So, a group of friends and I were sitting around the table after dinner one night discussing toilet paper dispensers, because well, because those are the kind of people with whom I roll. . . . Pardon the pun.

Anyway, the strongly held and unanimous opinion was that those four-roll, lock-box dispensers are absolutely one of the most frustrating elements of modern society, for the simple reason that it is almost impossible to get at the toilet paper if the preceding person has not left a sheet to grab. You can’t get at the roll to spin it and you can’t see the roll to know where the edge is to try lifting it with a fingernail, not that you can stick your finger in there anyway. Such stalls should come equipped with a flashlight and a pair of needle-nose pliers because once you are on your hands and knees staring up into the dispenser you will discover that those are the tools you require.

My insightful and inventive friend, Katrina, has proposed a special toilet paper tool that would fit on your key chain. It would look like one of those tiny tape measures, but inside would be a spring-loaded grappling hook that upon pressing the button, would zip into the dark recesses of the dispenser and lodge itself in the roll.

Pending Katrina’s invention, what’s really needed is the kind of dispenser frequently used now for paper towels—the kind that possess a magic eye in front of which you wave your hand and then the machine whirs and spins and coughs out a towel. Sometimes, the magic eye actually eyes you up and down as it decides to drop a towel or not, and you end up doing a damp version of the hand jive in an attempt to appease this judgmental metal box. If you could just wave your hand and have the toilet paper drop down, life would be an easier proposition. Of course, the easily amused among us, sitting there with time on our hands, would entertain ourselves with such a dispenser and that could be problematic.

It might also be disconcerting to sit there eyeball to magic eyeball because you know, and I know that it would be thinking, “Look at this pathetic soul.” And we are pathetic, alternating between crying and cursing, devolving into a lower primate who is now attempting to master the use of tools by sticking the Honda fob into this stainless steel Fort Knox of a toilet paper dispenser. And God help you if you finally get a sheet to drop and in your excitement tear it off right at the edge again. Before you can grab onto that last wisp of white, it rolls ever so lazily back into the chasm from which it dropped, and now the entire process must be repeated.

Even worse is if you hear what sounds like four roulette wheels all spinning at once in the stall next to you, because, as it turns out, the janitor forgot to lock that dispenser and your neighbor is in there maniacally zipping rolls around and tearing off enough sheets to clean up after a horse, and a Clydesdale at that.

So, the point is this: Even Life’s most mundane tasks can be aggravating, but if you have good friends with which you can share the aggravation, then simple dinners can turn into wonderful moments of laughter and camaraderie. It’s either that or always carry a spare roll of toilet paper with you. That might be a better point.

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Victory in the “Boxing” Match

It was a long and arduous fight, lasting many rounds, but today, I am proud to declare victory over the many boxes that we moved to our new home in Virginia. Here’s the final score:

248 cardboard boxes of all shapes, and small to barely-liftable in size–empty

6 tubs–empty

6 milk crates–empty

We moved in on May 20th and I unpacked the last one on August 31st. It would have been sooner, but I found the last one hiding in a corner–underneath more boxes that we are keeping for Sarah. We had some wonderful help and a great deal of support in this endeavor from Marie bringing donuts the day of the move to Alice and Bruce keeping food in their freezer to Leslie who helped me (well, I helped him) take a load of over 100 broken-down boxes to the dump, to the gang who helped unpack the first Sunday we were here, as well as others who helped out in those first couple of weeks.

There are still seven or so boxes in Martha’s closet which I’m not counting because they may be unpacked next week or next decade, and so they don’t really count. There are still some pictures to hang and we’re having a deck put on in October. Even as I write this, the electrician is here installing ceiling fans upstairs. It occurs to me, however, that a house is always a work in progress. After all, there is always something to fix, straighten, add, paint, dust, scrub, remove, or rearrange. A home, however, is a different matter. A home is complete, first, when you feel as though you belong in it, and second, when your friends feel free to stop in and use your bathroom and their way home and end up visiting for an hour or more.

I’m happy to say that our home is complete.

Before . . .



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You can’t beat cemeteries for a sense of stillness. Understand, I’m not talking about quietness, I’m talking about stillness.

We can look at dates on the tombstones and know what convulsions the world was putting itself through during the lifetimes of the folks buried there, but we also know what was happening in their personal lives. Not the details, maybe, but we know it was a mixture of joy, drama, trauma, tragedy, happiness, frustration, silliness–both the good kind and the bad kind–and just plain busyness, because that’s what comprises our lives.   No wonder we think of the dead as being “at rest” or “at peace.” They are no longer tossed about by Life’s constantly changing current. All types of people are there of course, from the person who worried about the next day’s stock market report to the person who worried about where his or her next meal was coming from. Now, of course, they worry about nothing. It’s not just their business that is concluded, but their busyness. They are still.

That is the greatest lesson that “those who have gone before” can teach us. Be still.

Be still while we are able to enjoy it, for the stillness of the cemetery does no good for either the stock broker or the pauper  buried there.

Perhaps my favorite cemetery is Riverview in Strasburg, Virginia. It sits on a hill and looks out toward Signal Knob, which itself is majestic, yet still. Massanutten Mountain runs south into the distance, the same as it has for 10,000 years. (Or 100,000 years? Makes no difference in human terms.) Isn’t it ironic that we talk about mountains “running” when they are so still? We can’t slow down to match the mountain, so we anthropomorphize and describe its length as “running” off in a particular direction. You know: the way we do.

Signal Knob from Riverview Cemetery in Strasburg, VA

Signal Knob from Riverview Cemetery in Strasburg, VA

I can never go to Riverview or any other cemetery without thinking of the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder. In fact, I am amazed how often I return to it twenty-some years after first teaching it. The majority of the third and final act takes place in a cemetery and the dead speak to us about living.

This is your homework, class. Go read Our Town, the Pulitzer Prize winning play of 1938. Yes, plays were meant to be seen, but this is the most readable of plays. And if you read it in high school, go read it again because most great literature is wasted on the young. Busyness is natural to them, but far too often the productive busyness of youth becomes the habitual busyness of middle age, and we forget what it’s like to be young and we fear what it is like to be old and we never live in the now. That’s the wisdom that Thornton Wilder hoped to give us.

Here’s the pdf version of Our Town. I know some of you will be crying at the end. I know one or two of you who will be crying at the beginning. Just read it.

And be still.

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Walkin’ After Midnight

This was the girl of his dreams.

Yes, Jason had just met her that night at the IHOP out by the highway, but her smile had encouraged him to flirt with her a bit. When she left the check, she had written across the back “Thanks, Sheri,” with a heart for a dot over the i. This was a sure sign that she liked him, and Jason remained seated long enough to ask for one more glass of water, and to inquire what time she got off work. Sheri told him midnight and he asked her if she would like to take a walk.

“Aww, that’s sweet, but I’ve been on my feet for eight hours.”

With a little persistence and the promise of a full moon, Jason won the day and here they were walking through the middle of the town in which they lived. He reached for her hand, but smiled and thought better of it. She laughed when he related a joke that he had seen in an old Andy Hardy movie:

“Polly Benedict says to Andy, ‘What’s cookin?’ and Andy says, ‘Chicken. Wanna neck?’”

They argued playfully about the merits of modern country music.

They exchanged views on Destiny and whether one could change it or if it even existed in the first place. 20160804_220859

“Destiny can be cruel,” said Jason, loud enough to rouse a mockingbird who joined the discussion until they were well beyond the tree where he had slumbered. Upon this interruption, Jason softened his voice.

The mockingbird notwithstanding, it was a very quiet night. Nothing much stayed open in town past midnight even on a Saturday night. A few patrons at Gus and Isham’s Tavern were lining up for last call, the laughter spilling out of the open doorway at the end of the block. Neon signs here and there flashed “Closed”; otherwise, all was still save for the footsteps.

Jason and Sheri turned the corner and strolled down the next block, a street lined with old trees and small homes. Jason realized that he was slowly leading them towards his house, and that could be problematic. In no way did he want to make her uncomfortable by being too forward. He didn’t want to scare her off, but he didn’t want to let her go either, and so they just kept walking, a bit more slowly now while Jason tried to figure out what he should do.

“Wonder where they’re going at this hour?” asked Jason as a couple in a black Corolla drove past. He often wondered about things like that. When he was out on one of his midnight walks and saw a light on in someone’s house he wondered why they were up. Insomnia? Sick child? Old movie on television from which they just couldn’t tear themselves away? He was delighted to find that Sheri wondered such things, too, and he marveled that he could feel so close to someone so quickly.

They talked about this and that until, finally, they reached the little walk that led up the steps to his front porch. Jason paused. The moonlight filtered through the leaves on the maple trees casting dancing little shadows on the walk as the breeze stirred them about.

Jason looked up at the moon as he fished his keys out of his pocket.

“Well,” he said. “I guess I’ll see you in my dreams.”

The leaves waved, but the moon responded not at all.

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Auto Correct Is Now Officially Insane

The auto-correct on my phone has officially gone insane. I tried to swipe in will as in “Will you be at Friday’s dance?” In fact I DID swipe in will, but my Samsung spit out, “Eukaryotic you be at Friday’s dance?”

I’m not kidding. I don’t even know enough to make up this word and I certainly didn’t know that it was a real word until I looked it up, (actually, Vonnie Jenkins looked it up) so you can be sure it is not an example concocted for this post. eukaryotic

I have many intelligent friends, and I bet 99% of them never heard that word, but there it is floating around in our phones as if we’re going to strike up an Instant Message conversation about organisms composed of one or more cells containing visibly evident nuclei and organelles. Furthermore, I now know that an organelle is not that thing that the organ grinder plays while the monkey dances, although it should be, so I’ve actually learned something.

I am curious, however, about the conversation at the Auto-Correct Factory that resulted in eukaryotic being included as a possible choice for will

“Hey, Bob, if you swipe your finger across w-i-l-l, what would be a good alternate, just in case the person didn’t mean will? Well? Still?

“What, are you crazy? If they don’t mean will they must mean eukaryotic.”

“You mean you karaoke?”

“Pffftt, nobody talks about singing in bars. It’s either will or a conversation about a eukaryote.”

“You’re the boss.”

Sometimes when I swipe in really I get freaky. Once, when I swiped really, I got traktor, which is not a word relating to organisms with one or more cells nor even a Russian version of tractor. In fact, if you look it up, IT’S NOT A WORD AT ALL!

Is the Suggestions Division at the Auto-Correct Factory where the malcontents work?

“Hey, what’s another word for really?”

“Just put down traktor and leave me alone. I’m watching porn on the company computer over here.”

I wrote about auto-correct idiocies back in November, but I swear the problem is getting worse. This morning—and again, I am NOT kidding—I swiped I’ll and the phone put down Oklahoma. My finger wasn’t even on the keyboard long enough to mean Idaho, much less Oklahoma, but at least Idaho begins with the same letter as I’ll.

The one that constantly annoys me is the phone substituting fit for for. I realize that i and o, as well as r and t are juxtaposed on the key board, but I’m guessing that the Auto-Correct Factory has no sense of common usage and, therefore, does not realize that in the average English conversation, we use for maybe 20-30 times MORE OFTEN then we use fit, and that even if you mean fit, it really ought to come up for just on general probabilities.

If any of you should ever hear that I have died of a stroke, you can be pretty sure that I went down clutching my phone which should have read, “Will you really do that for me?” but the screen will show, “Eukaryotic traktor that fit me?” At that point, I wouldn’t have wanted to live anyway. Just don’t bury me in Idaho or Oklahoma come back to haunt you.

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Off the Beaten Basepaths #9: The College World Series

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