Wednesday, August 7, 2002

Stinging Graig Nettles

Two months go by, twenty-five years go by. I neglected to mention a mishap Nathan had the second day we were here, the day the movers arrived. It was my turn to keep track of the boy and we were exploring the end of the lawn, the beginning of the woods, when he took a misstep and fell face first into what looked like harmless soft soil. He started crying, I laughed a bit and picked him up. The crying turned into more than you’d expect from a simple fall, and Soo came over to see what was wrong. By which time white welts had appeared on Nate’s face and neck. They continued to grow (along with our anxiety), and Soo ran inside to call the only person we knew on the island, our realtor. Before she could finish saying, “Nathan fell in the woods and…” Jackie said “Stinging Nettle.”
We went back to check out the scene of the crime and sure enough there was a sprig of something that fit Jackie’s description that could have brushed Nathan’s face as he fell. The good news is that the swelling goes down and the itching stops after a few hours, the bad news is that as we started looking around the woods we saw the stuff everywhere. I had flashbacks of all the times I picked up poison oak growing up and roaming through the hills around our house in southern California. Nathan will (unless we fail to get jobs and must move again) be coming home time and again sporting white, itchy splotches from his exploits in the woods. At least this stuff goes away relatively quickly, a bad bout of poison oak could last weeks. I believe that is Dante’s eighth circle of hell: October 1977 in LA, covered in red scabby corpuscles watching the Dodgers lose to the New York Yankees in the World Series as Graig Nettles steals hit after hit with otherworldly glove work. It happens over and over again, which, in fact, it did, the very next year.
So, one day last week when Nate was napping I went out to do battle with the Nettles. It had grown considerably, taller and wider, creeping relentless. There’s nothing to stop the growth up here, not even a napalm strike. Rain and sun, rain and rain and sun, and rain, we all know I’m no botanist (don’t even play one on TV), but the pattern seems to be very conducive to plant growth. Armed with the clippers, gloved, shod, and every square inch of skin protected, I went to battle. Mindless, violent work is fertile ground for the imagination to sow its seeds and before 15 minutes had passed I’m lopping the head off Craig Nettles over and over again. Was it 25 years ago? Should a grown man care about a game with such unforgiving, unforgetting passion? I’ve often thought my devotion to the Dodgers was exaggerated due to the fact I was named Billy, it was abhorrent to me that I had the same first name as Billy Martin. Kind of like an immigrant to America who is exceedingly patriotic lest anyone doubt their loyalties.
I can still conjure up Billy Martin’s weasely face if I wish to torment myself. (Twisted self-loathing?) I can remember it all like it was yesterday, the way the camera zoomed in to the top of Graig Nettle’s cleats where he had painted E5 on his toes as a constant reminder of his potential failure, the shots that Garvey and Cey and Lopes (well mostly Garvey and Cey) sent screaming down the third base line only to have them snagged miraculously by a diving, sprawling Graig Nettles, and then the bastard popping up and throwing beebees to Chris Chambliss as Cey’s little penguin legs pumped futilely, a split second too late, and Garvey’s Popeye arms flailed in exasperation witnessing another casual out signal from the first base umpire. Dashed childhood hopes, dashed adult hopes.
Has it been 25 years, has it been two months? Still no job. What is it that people always say, “Do what you love and the money will follow”? What if you love sitting on the couch drinking beer and watching TV, is what I always ask. “No one, on their death bed, ever said ‘I wished I had worked more,’” is another good one. I guess nobody records the last words of that guy freezing to death on the street. I’ve got no cause for such melodrama, though. As my sister once told me (and which I promptly wrote down and placed in my wallet), “You have no right to be miserable.” And I don’t. I’m the luckiest guy in the world, that’s what makes feeling like crap so much worse. In the words of Elvis Costello, “For all of the courage we never had, I’m just about glad, just about glad, just about glad…”
That doesn’t mean in our private moments of gardening fury we can’t wreak vengeance on the dasher of childhood dreams, because it is just the dreams, it’s not the hopes, the hopes must always remain. It is so much more gratifying to physically expel the (faux) demons, than to assuage them with sweet aphorisms. And it is infinitely more culturally acceptable to redirect anger towards our paid, televised game-playing gladiators than to scream at the petty bosses that represent our tarnished and vanishing dreams. But at the end of the day, words like “dreams” and “hopes” are just pretty words, and what we should really be thinking about is protecting the ones we love, and if that is done by sucking up our pride and doing what it takes to make a living then so be it. All this is just the sort of rubbish that pops into one’s head when out in the yard attacking vegetation disguised as an old baseball player (or is it an old manager), yet as Mr. Costello says “nonsense prevails, modesty fails, grace and virtue turn into stupidity, While the calendar fades almost all barricades to a pale compromise, And our leaders have feasts on the backsides of beasts, they still think they’re the gods of antiquity, If something you missed didn’t even exist it was just an ideal…Is that such a surprise?” No, it’s just useless beauty. What shall we do? What shall we do, with all this useless beauty.

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