Monday, August 20, 2007

Diamond Gift

It was a spur-of-the-moment jaunt. A whim. An impulse. Katherine and I were visiting our friend Lee Lee in Atlanta one hot summer weekend and, with nothing in particular to do, the three of us decided that a Braves game might be fun. I had never been to a Braves game and, though my awakening to the truth of baseball as metaphor for practically the entire human experience was yet to come, I was eager to get to Fulton County Stadium and immerse myself in the iconic sights and sounds and smells.

I was particularly excited at the prospect, faint though it was, of catching a foul ball. Except for the fact that I do, sadly enough, throw like a girl, I’ve always been a pretty good ballplayer and back then Katherine and I were rabidly competitive members of the rec department church league, thus I was completely prepared for the possibility of catching that ball by the presence of my glove in the trunk of my car.

After purchasing tickets from a scalper, – an act the criminal nature of which I was completely oblivious at the time –, we made our way to seats along the leftfield line, just a few rows behind and past the opposing team dugout. The Braves were playing the Phillies that night; about mid-way through the game future Hall-of-Famer Mike Schmidt hit a homerun over the left centerfield wall making it clear that the Braves didn’t really stand a chance of winning. At that point I stopped paying close attention to the action on the field.

And so I was to take the first step toward that aforementioned awakening: As the three of us chatted, occasionally glancing toward the diamond, someone (Brave or Phillie I can’t remember) hit a ball that flew into the heavy Georgia sky in a high arc away from the players and toward the section in which we were sitting, toward the seat in that section in which I was sitting.

My glove was under my seat. There was no time to pull it out and stuff my hand into its soft leather. There was time only to register the speed and force of the ball and recognize the fact that if I attempted to catch it bare-handed I would most likely end up at the Grady Hospital Emergency Room getting a finger splinted.

So it bounced on the hard concrete and ricocheted into the hands of the man behind us.

Katherine has never let me forget it.

I thought the lesson was that being prepared isn’t always enough, that being prepared has to be accompanied by being alert if one is to catch life’s unexpected foul balls, receive life’s unexpected gifts.

A few weeks ago, my friend Loretta invited me to a Braves game. Someone had shared with her a couple of seats directly behind the Braves’ dugout and, generous and understanding soul that she is, she wanted me to have the whole VIP experience, including in-seat service by the concession staff.

It was a beautiful night. The Braves were playing good baseball. Turner Field was green and luminous. The stands were full. Could it get any better?

Tim Hudson was pitching that night. He took the mound in the first inning and gave up a hit to the first Colorado Rockies batter. The second batter flew out. The third batter hit a squibbler to the shortstop Escobar who deftly tossed it to the second baseman Johnson who rifled it across the red clay to the newly-acquired first baseman Teixeira. Double-play.

The crowd rose to its feet and cheered as the team ran to the dug-out. And, suddenly, there it was – the double-play ball – rolling gently across the roof of the dug-out toward me. Smooth white leather, tight red stitches, black Major League Baseball emblem. I felt my eyes open wide, heard the gasp that came from my mouth and reached out to cup it in my hands.

I hadn’t even tried.

It was probably 25 years between those two games. Sometimes it takes that long to learn something important. Sometimes it takes that long to know how to appreciate unexpected gifts.

Copyright 2007

Monday, August 06, 2007

Botany and Contract Grading

This spring, in a fit of the spontaneity to which I always aspire, but rarely attain, I bought two big pots of Gerbera daisies for the front porch at Sandhill. For as many years as I can remember, it has been geraniums that stood sentinel on either side of the front steps, sunset coral or patriotic red, but in the five seconds or so that it took to walk from the parking lot and through the cyclone-fenced garden center at Lowe’s, the daisies caught my eye and kept it.

They are bright magenta, the color of a lightning flash over the ocean, the color of cooked rhubarb or just-cut pomegranate. The flower heads balance themselves on the tops of long straight stems and the petals reach out and down in gentle curves that makes them look as though they are arching their backs as they stretch into the sunlight. The leaves are broad and thick and the color of pine needles in deep summer and their edges are ruffled like the hem of a chiffon cocktail dress. They are showy without being ostentatious, more flirts than trollops.

Just the other morning I walked out on the porch to check the pulse of yet another hot and humid south Georgia day and noticed that one of the pots had five blooms. The other had none. I poked around in the barren pot and noticed a couple of short stems with closed buds beneath the dark green leaves, but it was clear that it would be days before they grew into the sunlight. On the other side of the steps, the sorority of five bounced and swayed in time to the breezy music of the wind chimes, oblivious to the deficiencies of their neighbor.

When we were in law school, my friend Linda often bemoaned our lack of a social life. She had been an Alpha Gamma Delta at Mercer, a member of a tight pack of cute and funny and popular girls whose weekends were always full. On one particularly dull night, Linda looked at me and said, "You know, Kathy A. Bradley, I think that maybe a person is assigned just a certain number of dates in her life and I used up all mine in college."

Considering my own less-than-sparkling social calendar during that four-year period, I replied, "Well, if that’s true I guess I have a lot to look forward to."

Without a second’s hesitation Linda looked at me sympathetically and said, "Oh, no. You don’t understand. Not everybody gets the same number."

Ah, yes, that old "life isn’t fair" thing.

I thought about that as I looked at my daisies. Same species, same front porch. Same sunshine, same water. One fertile and engaging. One just ... well ... sort of plain. The luck of the draw. The roll of the dice.

My last year of college (during which my friend Linda was across town using up her date allotment) I took a course in which the professor utilized contract grading. On the first day of class he gave us, along with the syllabus, a list of what it would take to earn an A, a B, a C. There would be no curves, no ranking. If every person in the class met the contract requirements for an A, then every person would get an A. If no one did, then no one got an A. What a great idea! Certain. Absolute. Foolproof.

How many of us, in the midst of great upheaval of one sort or another, have craved exactly that? A contract, a list of requirements that can be checked off when complete, a promise that if we do all the right things we’ll get what we want. A guarantee that life will be fair.

And, yet, even as the craving gnaws away at our equilibrium, in the midst of the anger and tears, we must acknowledge that that kind of fairness would rob life of its beauty and its tenderness. Knowing what will capture my heart tomorrow would surely prevent me from giving it today.

I water the daisies in the evenings, after the heat of the day has waned and the stillness of dusk has settled on Sandhill. I fill up the watering can and watch as the water splashes into the flower pots, half a can in each one. And this time I can’t help noticing that a couple of the flowers in the blessed pot are beginning to droop. The petals are turning a burnished red color and the stems are beginning to bend into a dowager’s hump.

In the other pot, the short stems are taller and the buds are plumper. Their day is coming.

And knowing that makes me smile.

Copyright 2007