ESSAY: Four Dollar Baseball

(Broadcast on “Lake Effect,” WUWM FM NPR affiliate – June 2012)

When I first arrived in the Milwaukee area in the late summer of 2003, the Brewers were in the cellar and it was going to be a few seasons before they clawed their way back out.

I was raised in upstate New York, and lived for many years in and near Boston. Nonetheless, until I moved to this area, I didn’t follow baseball; aside from a stint in Little League, it had just never truly made it onto my radar and stayed there.

I grew up in Albany, New York and loved football. Albany is Giants country, and I was an avid Giants fan during Fran Tarkentan’s tenure. Oddly, through some arcane fluke I can no longer explain, I was also a Packers fan and followed them closely during the Lombardi dynasty and the years of the power sweep.

Then when my wife and I moved to Wauwatosa, and I discovered that, according to MapQuest, we’d bought a house precisely 2.97 miles from Miller Park, I decided it was time to become a baseball fan. When in Rome. . .

The first Brewers game I ever attended was on a Tuesday night in September of ‘03. I was standing in line at Miller Park waiting to buy a ticket about a half hour before first pitch. As noted, the Brewers weren’t lighting up the scoreboard at this juncture, so the line was short. I heard a voice ask if I needed a ticket for the game. I turned and saw an elderly man looking at me. He was tall, a little stooped and wore a three-piece white suit. His hair was just a shade lighter than the suit. I told him I was waiting to buy a ticket and he said, “Here. Take this. Enjoy the game,” and handed me a ticket for that evening’s match-up against the Pirates.

When I turned from examining the ticket to thank him, he was gone. Poof. Vanished. He had disappeared like a wisp of fog. I didn’t know who he was, and I still don’t. I have no idea. He could have been my Guardian Angel, the Angel of Death, the Archangel or the Wizard of Oz. I don’t know, but he gave me a ticket to my first Brewers game and promptly disappeared.

I realized in that moment what fans and scholars of the game have known for decades: that at its heart, there is something deeply mystical and numinous about baseball, and if you are worthy, now and again its secrets may be revealed, and its blessings bestowed upon you.

Now we are devoted Brewers fans, and regularly bike to games, a quick 20 minute pedal that saves us the ever-rising parking fee.

Most of my family still lives in and around Albany. For them, going to see the Yankees or a Red Sox game at Fenway bears all the challenges of a large-scale amphibious assault complete with transportation problems, logistical snafus, extended supply lines and a vast outlay of treasure. A family of four traveling from Albany to take in a Yankees game can spend hundreds of dollars for tickets, gas, tolls, parking and food. You could just as easily take the family to the Bahamas for a week and throw in a side cruise out of Nassau. Then there’s the traffic, the crowds and the long drive back home.

On a recent Sunday, with the Brewers on the road, I stopped by Miller Park to get a ticket for an afternoon game coming up in the middle of the week. I commonly will only attend one or two such games each season, and it requires an extraordinary manipulation of my schedule to manage the specific luxury of noon baseball on a Wednesday.

When I attend games on my own, I don’t care where I sit so long as there isn’t a foul pole between my eyes. So, I asked the agent for the cheapest thing they had, which turned out to be an eight dollar ticket in Bernie’s Bleachers. She explained that the game fell during the early season “Spring Madness” promotion in which any ticket priced $38 or less was offered at a 50% discount. Thus, she would charge me four dollars for my ticket.

Since I planned to bike and pack my own peanuts, crackerjacks and a brat, I wouldn’t need to buy food, and would effectively see the game for four dollars. I wouldn’t care if I ever came back.

I was going to see a Major League Baseball game for four dollars. You can’t do anything for four dollars. Nothing costs four dollars anymore except, apparently, a seat in Bernie’s Bleachers at a Brewers game during a promotion.

I related this story in an e-mail to a college friend who still lives in the San Francisco Bay area where we went to school together. He and his wife annually hold season tickets to the Giants and rarely miss a home game. He e-mailed back stating, not entirely sardonically, “People have shed blood and lain down their lives to keep this country safe for four dollar baseball.” And then he added, “Almost brings a tear to your eye.”

To which I can only reply: Amen, brother.

Essay: The View from My Office

At first, there’s apparently not much to see out of the window of my home office where I do most of my writing. The window looks across at the house next to us on the other side of a narrow yard, maybe about 20 feet or so across.

My window lines up directly with a window on the side of the other house, which appears to be the same size as the one I look though. I take this as a signature resonance of the builder who constructed both houses sometime in the early 1930s. Looking out the window in the daytime you can’t see anything through the neighbor’s window, but only a reflection, back to me, of my own house. My writing desk is to the far right of my window, in the corner, so looking left from it is truly the only option if I want to look at anything outside at all.

Visible, too, is a section of our neighbor’s roof, the sharp angle of which suggests at once a plunging mountain slope—especially when weighted with powdery winter snow—and the austere angularity of a cityscape that dwells in my imagination, if nowhere else.

Just past the roof I get a glimpse of a splendid and venerable sugar maple towering over our street. When I was a boy my father, who studied dendrology in college in preparation for a career in the lumber industry, taught me the Latin names for common trees of the American Northeast. The sugar maple is acer sacarum, and that term readily comes to mind when I see the tree. Every year, it turns a brilliant yellow during the early weeks of November. At this time, it perfectly matches the color of our bedroom walls. On a bright day, you can read in the bedroom by the luminous yellow light radiating from the leaves of that tree.

No matter what the season, the tree reminds me that we live on a lovely, quiet street where sugar maples line both sides, almost meshing over the street and forming a canopy of fat green, palm-shaped maple leaves, making of our block a small, revenant sanctuary of timeless quiet.

There isn’t much of the world to be seen from my office window, but more an internal world of memory and imagination, which is ideal for a writer.

BOOK REVIEW: The Worrier by Nancy Takacs

(Published in 15 Bytes – January 2015)

If for a moment you imagine language as a length of rope, a poem forms when you start tying knots in the rope and pulling them tight, snugging them and squeezing all the air out. The poet may then submit to the reader that his imagination run over the knots like fingers over a set of prayer beads. I don’t know if Nancy Takacs knows this, but she knows this. And her new volume of poetry, The Worrier, is an astonishing collection studded with miraculous knots of imagery and revelation as startling and delicate as bird tracks in the snow.

Each poem in the book is titled “The Worrier,” with a subtitle appended that carefully focuses it. The poems are arranged in a question/answer pattern in which an unidentified speaker questions the poet who responds in her own voice:

The Worrier - scars

What is that scar on your thumb?

It’s a gray desert road, with small tracks.

How is it wandering?

It goes far into a valley with pink mountains.

Who lives there?

The snake who is always eros.
The lizard who flexes
in my shadow.

We are likely to imagine at first glance that the title refers to worry in the quotidian sense: anxiety, perseverance over looming problems or pending catastrophe. On one level, the structure of the book replicates worry itself; the repeated title is a loop the mind follows as it worries, flowing from internal to personal, to external, global and existential. But we quickly understand that a subtler reading is demanded.

The poet has invited us to observe as she parses the many questions posed here, combing through them in order to unravel—to try or worry out of them—a central comprehension: What is it that makes—and keeps—us alive? According to one reading of the poems in The Worrier, one answer is resilience in the face of human mystery, from which emerges an unending challenge to what we take as truth.

And Takacs is in unrelenting pursuit of the answers—reworking, re-asking, reconsidering and demanding the reader’s unyielding attention. She’s asking each of us to join her in pulling apart our collective mortal experience, strand by strand, in order to understand what is at its heart.

And the indomitable voice we follow throughout these poems resonates with a visionary, hypnotic and absorbing force, as in

The Worrier - skin:

What lives on the skin?

A mirror and a cloud of tumbleweed.

Why a mirror?

It’s the way he can touch me.

And in a later stanza:

Where does the skin end?

In a brazen

Here is a central device of the poems in The Worrier: a dramatic shift in scale. The finite boundaries of the skin yielding to the imponderable breadth of a star cluster deep in the galaxy. And when we arrive, what is there? More questions, to be sure, but always an array of arresting responses.

Here, too, is an imperishable voice, running like a harmonic thread through the incantatory landscape of these poems. Takacs successfully labors to get at our urgent, implacable impulse to dig beneath the surface – any surface that might conceal an answer that will assuage our wonder.

In The Worrier – old woman, we witness the parallel of an aging woman and an elm, a majestic but dying species. The poem urges the reader to think about love as something fierce and mad but healing:

She was crazy. She
would circle the block
while I was playing with friends
or riding my bike.

What did she do?

She turned and turned to look at me.

Why did she do this?

She loved me.

This is ritual dialogue that transcends skin, bone and brain, leaving the reader with a query of his own. From where do the questions emerge? Are these questions she is asking herself, or is a numinous, secondary voice probing her understanding, involving us in her explorations of a universal self? The answers challenge the questions, and the reader is urged to decide just how welcome these demanding and unforgiving voices truly are

Takacs has a deeply feminine and generative voice—forceful and clear, registering internal and minute detail and connecting herself and her readers with the natural world against which we examine ourselves.

Although the volume and its individual poems are all titled, “The Worrier,” they reveal, in fact, a deeply affirming voice. Takacs is recording the impermanence of a life that is, nonetheless, one dimension of an inexorable, restorative cycle, grounded in our communal struggle with haunting, existential loss.

Though the questions tear continually at our human longing for recognition, Takacs – as well as her poems – has a spine, and she stands fast in the face of our collective global terror. Such is the case in The Worrier – volunteer, where her responses are distinguished by an unwavering declarative:

What will you do?

I won’t turn away
from the dead whose
arms lie above their heads
as if still in sleep.

I won’t turn away
from the living,
their bodies maimed,
the skin shining
over hollow places.

Again, the questions are relentless, but the poet isn’t interested in relenting, and nothing is going to shove her off the mark until this business is settled.

In The Worrier, Takacs uses color in near volumes to evoke layer upon layer of cognitive artifact. For her, colors are indispensible totems of comprehension, and in nearly every poem the vocabulary evokes them in startling visual events as in The Worrier – sculptor:

Cinnamon clay,
Western light suggesting
Violet-green under an eye,
Rose in a dimple,
Indigo behind an ear

Black or turquoise, purple or red, emerald, rose, mango, cerulean, ivory, madder and cobalt green. Takacs’s palate is thick with breathtaking, shimmering hues offered as a way to number and illuminate the many surfaces of the sensory experience by which we continue to shape our identity.

Takacs tells us that color is form, and form is cognition. Here’s the poet in The Worrier – watercolors:

What will you use for the fenceline?

I’ll paint the gate Mars Violet. 

I’ll paint the gate open.

So now we see, as well, that colors open doors. For Takacs, as well as for all of us, she would suggest, perception is power.

Among the poet’s dizzying vocabulary are multiple references to gemstones evoking the immense, inexorable force of gravity on minerals that turns them into gems. There’s a persistent sense of the ancient heart of the earth, of geological and psychic bedrock. There are references to silver, copper, iron, gold: metals forged, like human endeavor, through the immense weight of time and submitted to flame, crafting something obdurate, imperative:

The Worrier - husband

What was his father like? 
He was quiet, 
cut fire opals 
in his lapidary. 

He set a moonstone 
for his wife. 

I saw the copper 
cuffs he wove 
for his children.

All of Takacs’s evocation of stone, gems, minerals, fossils remind us that consciousness—both human and non-human—is an antediluvian dynamic impossible to vanquish. It is inside everything we do, utter and imagine, and it determines who we are. Here’s Takacs in The Worrier – failure:

Where did it begin?
Millions of years ago.
The pastel sweep of earth,
an anticline
that used to be a sea.

The poem continues:

Where are you?

A thousand feet up
on a ledge
without a guardrail.

Near caldera explosions,
domes capping sediment,
lavender figures,
a veil of stones.

In the sea’s
bathtub rings where
I can still feel the ripples.

Where does failure come from?

Trilobites, corals,
dinosaur footprints,
ice-aged mammoths.

Even failure – tragic, implacable, torturous – nonetheless is a power to be welcomed as an ultimately nurturing and determinative force. This is a chief declaration in The Worrier: failure is just another dimension of making.

Time and the universe will finally hack us down and unmake everything we’ve done and known, but it changes nothing; the human imperative—faulty, strident, impatient, bewildered—is of the earth, and the earth, as seen so often in these poems, can be nonetheless immeasurably generous and enduring.

Takacs’s language is elegiac but affirming:

The Worrier - freesia

To be curious, 
silent. I want to open. 
I want to be red 
but hidden.

In The Worrier, Nancy Takacs has said everything that needs saying about the body’s infinite relationship to its owner, and our inseparable communion with the natural world that contains, embraces and labors, ultimately, to undo it. This is the essential mortal battle, the worrying of the human corpus into its multiple strands of meaning.

Takacs has given us a guide to our place in a deeply luminous world, and its implications for infinite relationship and comprehension.

Finally, the reader is left to wonder: who, exactly, is asking the questions? Answer: we are. Through the poems in this remarkable collection, Nancy Takacs has given us all a voice.