Saturday, May 31, 2014

On Brothers and Baseball

We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing. -- George Bernard Shaw
Before baseball returned to Washington, DC, back when I lived there in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, I ventured an hour north to Baltimore two or three times a year to watch the Orioles play. The beautiful retro park at Camden Yards by the B&O Warehouse did not open until the start of the 1992 season, so most of the games I saw were played at the old, run-down Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street in Baltimore’s Venable Park. The Orioles were a consistently good team in those days, a well-managed organization with a strong history and tradition of contending. They became my favorite American League team as I followed their progress in the daily paper and listened to Jon Miller call the play-by-play on my portable transistor radio.

Thirty years later, I cannot tell you whether the Orioles won or lost the games I attended, who hit home runs or made memorable plays. Instead, what I most remember about those games, and what I most enjoyed about them, was seeing Cal Ripken play alongside his younger brother, Billy. For six consecutive seasons, I watched with a touch of envy as the Ripken brothers stood a few feet apart near the second base bag and fielded ground balls casually tossed from the first basemen between innings, or chatted with each other during pitching changes as the relief pitcher warmed up. I remember thinking how fortunate they were to be playing a game they loved and had played together as children. When most men had long since abandoned their dreams, here they were as brothers, playing alongside each other in a major league park, turning double plays for the same team, and sharing the experience of a lifetime together. It is the stuff of which dreams are made.

*    *    *    *
I was eight years old when I fell in love with baseball. Although I cannot remember how or when it happened, I am certain that my brother had something to do with it. Steve was 3 ½ years older than me, which back then separated the cool and hip from the mundane, the pros from the amateurs.  He was already a veteran little leaguer at that point, and way ahead of me in skill and strength. I had only recently begun the journey through organized baseball, surviving junior little league as a seven year old, when I rarely made contact with a pitched ball and had still to overcome the fear of getting clunked. Bad hops on the inevitably choppy fields on which we played were a particular sticking point, and I had not yet solved the problem of a pop-up combined with a high sky and glaring sun.

When a year later I learned to overcome my fears and discovered I could catch and throw and hit a baseball, something magical and poetic took place. The game’s beautiful symmetry swept into my soul and I suddenly played with joy, reckless abandon and a modicum of skill. I was forever hooked. For the next ten years, I dreamed of someday playing professional baseball. It was a dream shared by millions of young boys before and since, and hardly renders me unique in the annals of American life, but it was a real and genuine dream nonetheless.

And it was, while we were young, a dream I shared with my brother.  By the time I reached the third grade, Steve let me play in pickup games with the older kids in the neighborhood, and I soon learned I could play ball right along with them. Playing with Steve and his friends made me a better player. I became quicker, more agile, and smarter than when I played with boys my own age.

For the next several years, until Steve left for college, we practiced together, hit ground balls to each other in our backyard, and fly balls at my grandfather’s horse farm in Ohio. We threw batting practice to each other with a duffle bag full of old, scratched up baseballs at Mercer County Park or whatever local field was available. We played baseball in its many varieties – sock ball, whiffle ball, hard ball, always with standard wooden bats, and with whatever adjustments were needed to the size and shape of the field, the distance of the fence, the foul lines or the base paths; anything to keep things interesting and challenging.

It wasn’t always about baseball for Steve and me, but it was almost always about some sort of play, some physical activity that involved the sun and grass and fresh air. We played golf and hit buckets of balls at the driving range; played touch football with a motley assortment of kids on our block; taunted each other during one-on-one basketball games; and created Olympic-style obstacle courses, using a stop watch to time each other as we sprinted and jumped our way across some make-believe finish line.

In those early years, when we were young and naïve, we both believed we would one day play for a major league team. We were realistic, of course, for we recognized we would have to prove our worth in the low minors and work our way up. Heck, even Frank Robinson had played two seasons for the Columbia Reds in the South Atlantic League before winning MVP awards five seasons apart in the American and National Leagues.

Steve and I competed against each other at home and in our neighborhood games, knowing that as we pushed each other, we became better, faster, and stronger. But when the competition originated from other sources, when it intensified and surrounded us, it helped to know I had a brother quietly cheering me on, willing me to succeed, and offering advice.

Steve and I overlapped in high school only one year, when he was a senior and I was a freshman. We never played for the same team, never played in the same league, for he was always a level or two ahead of me. But when possible, we watched each other play. We shared notes on our respective coaches, what they were like as leaders and as men, who were the good players and the good guys, and who were the assholes; and what we needed to do to improve and advance.

Steve was a catcher and a pitcher in those days, and he was good at both positions. He was huskier and stronger than me, but slightly less agile and athletic. I advanced faster and farther than he did in high school sports, but it was only because he made me a better player. In hindsight, I am sure that we could have been even better athletes, and developed more as ballplayers, had we the specialized guidance and training the young kids receive today. But I do not regret that we failed to achieve our dreams of major league glory. What I miss is the sense of camaraderie and the shared moments that unite two people with similar dreams; that special bond only brothers share as they journey through the years of adolescence, young adulthood, and life.

“Brothers don't necessarily have to say anything to each other,” said Leonardo Dicaprio, “they can sit in a room and be together and just be completely comfortable with each other.” Steve and I were always most comfortable when we were doing something together – playing sports, driving to Veterans Stadium to watch the Phillies on a warm summer evening, throwing a Frisbee. Sitting around and philosophizing about life, or debating the latest economic theory or theological dispensation was never his thing. And that was always fine with me.

Time and distance have taken their toll. As we grew older and the years passed, life took us in different directions; we live 2,300 miles apart now and are unable to “play” much anymore. But on those rare occasions we get together and have a chance to hit a golf ball, play catch, or throw a football, our youthful memories return and time is rendered obsolete.

Several years ago, a friend of mine gave me a framed photograph of Dizzy and Paul Dean of the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals. I immediately liked the photo, not because it was of a successful pitching duo for a world championship Cardinals team, but simply because it captures the essence of brothers who share the bond of baseball. Dizzy was the better player, and they only played together for a couple of years, but when I look at the picture, I imagine, if only for a moment, what it might have been like had Steve and I had the good fortune to play ball together professionally; to discuss our craft as teammates and brothers, tell stories and share advice concealed from the rest of the world.

“Life is a long lesson in humility,” wrote Scottish author James M. Berrie. This is surely true of baseball. It takes hold of your imagination as a young man and refuses to let go as the years progress. Baseball will always be special, for it is a simple game that is so difficult to play well. It humbles you and teaches you to accept that failure is as much a part of life as success. It is why it helps to have a brother, someone you can trust to get you through the rough times and to genuinely applaud the good times. 

I will always be drawn to the game, to the smell of leather and dirt and grass, the feel of the seams on my fingers, the sound of the ball hitting the sweet spot of my glove. I admire the players of today who make such a difficult game look so easy. But I reserve my envy for the rare occasion when I see a pair of brothers playing for the same team. How lucky they are, I think to myself; and how I would have loved to have done that with my brother Steve.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Lyndon Johnson and the American Promise

I do not want to be the president who built empires, or sought grandeur, or extended dominion. I want to be the president who educated young children to the wonders of their world . . . who helped to feed the hungry . . . who helped the poor to find their own way . . . who protected the right of every citizen to vote.—Lyndon Baines Johnson
I was four years old when Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States. He was never supposed to be President. A tall, lanky, crude Texan with a dirt-poor rural pedigree, his thick Southern drawl won few converts from the coterie of Harvard intellectuals that surrounded JFK. Johnson lacked Kennedy’s grace and charm, youth and good looks, glamour and class. But he was a masterful politician and a far more effective President, at least before the shadows of Vietnam cast a dark cloud over his legacy.

I have thought much about Johnson ever since Andrea and I saw All the Way starring Bryan Cranston as LBJ on Broadway earlier this month. It was a brilliant play, masterfully performed by a talented and engaging cast that captured the complexity and nuance of Johnson’s accidental presidency during the year in which he successfully achieved the historic passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

It is hard to imagine fifty years later just how momentous and divisive was this law, which outlawed discrimination in hotels, restaurants, theaters, and other public accommodations that engaged in interstate commerce; authorized the Justice Department to file legal actions in federal court to enforce the desegregation of public schools; prohibited state and municipal governments from denying access to public facilities on account of someone’s race; and prohibited discrimination in employment on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. The law helped us to become a more racially just and equal country. Because of the Civil Rights Act, “colored” and “white only” restrooms and water fountains became ancient relics of a racist past; segregated public parks and lunch counters a distant memory. The foundations of Southern apartheid, of segregation and Jim Crow, a shameful legacy of bigotry and prejudice, were abolished with one stroke of a pen.

Johnson pressed and promised, manipulated and threatened, flattered and cajoled his way through the multi-dimensional morass of politics in the House and Senate. With the substantial and irreplaceable help of then-Senator Hubert Humphrey, the most principled and passionate supporter of civil rights in the Senate, Johnson succeeded in overcoming the staunch and venomous opposition of Southern Democrats and in garnering enough liberal and moderate support among Democrats and Republicans to defeat the inevitable attempt by the Southern segregationists to filibuster the law.

Richard Russell and other southern politicians who opposed the Act were outraged. They called it an extreme and unconstitutional usurpation of federal power, a violation of the Southern way of life. As depicted in All the Way, Johnson knew intimately, and all too well, what motivated his fellow Southerners. Despite having acquiesced and treaded cautiously on civil rights when he was in the Senate, the Presidency freed him to exercise his conscience and use the immense power of his office for good. When an aide advised against risking political capital on the civil rights bill so soon after being sworn into office, Johnson responded, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” As he pressed forward, Johnson demonstrated unwavering commitment, courage and perseverance unmatched in the recent history of presidential administrations.

And yet, Johnson was a complicated and not always likable man. Full of petty jealousies, he despised Robert Kennedy and treated his loyal foot soldier Humphrey with contempt. Funny and gregarious one minute, charming and gracious another, he could quickly turn sour and crude, mean and vengeful. But he did not waver from his goals once he set sights on them. Anything or anyone that stood in the way of achieving the bill he wanted and promised – a bill with teeth that has withstood the test of time – would be trampled and buried by Johnson’s relentless pursuit of racial justice. All the Way shows Johnson and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in a way that would have been difficult to re-create in another forum. Watching the portrayal of Johnson in action, I can understand why, despite his personal flaws, those who worked closely with him were convinced that he was totally and genuinely committed to changing the nation for the better.

The civil rights community was initially, and understandably, skeptical of Johnson. After all, he had not been much of a friend as Senate Majority Leader, diluting the 1957 Civil Rights Act to the point it was a virtually worthless bill (the only way to have achieved passage in his mind), and paying civil rights little more than lip service prior to his ascent to the White House. But Johnson’s Texas roots gave him plenty of raw experience with prejudice and discrimination in ways that Kennedy’s privileged existence had not. By the time Johnson became Vice President, he recognized civil rights as the defining issue of our time.

Of course, the real movement for the civil rights revolution was initiated outside of Washington – in bus boycotts and freedom rides; in confrontations with southern governors on university steps; in the violent assaults, police dogs and fire hoses let loose on nonviolent protestors; in the murders of civil rights workers and the bombings of black churches. But Johnson boldly risked his entire presidency on the cause of civil rights and acted with an urgency and purpose rarely seen in American political life. “We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights,” he said to a joint session of Congress on November 28, 1963, just five days after Kennedy’s assassination. “We have talked for 100 years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it in the books of law.”

Johnson made it his personal crusade to secure the signatures of a majority of House members on a discharge petition, a rarely invoked procedure that released the bill from the House Rules Committee, where it had stalled under the vice grip of its segregationist chairman, Howard Smith of Virginia. He deployed Humphrey to win over Senate Republican Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who was the key to delivering the 23 Republican votes needed to overcome the Southern filibuster in the Senate. “You’ve got to spend time with Dirksen,” Johnson pleaded to Humphrey. “You drink with Dirksen! You talk with Dirksen! You listen to Dirksen!” Behind-the-scenes, Johnson used pork barrel dispensations to secure the support of whichever senators he needed. But he did not compromise on the bill itself.

Despite constant tension with King and Abernathy, SNCC and SCLC, and the uprising of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party during the 1964 Democratic Convention, Johnson proved his commitment through perseverance and determination. Eventually, King and the civil rights leadership, and even the Kennedy men, acknowledged as much. “[N]o president, before or since” noted Richard Goodwin in Remembering America (Harper & Row, 1988), “acted more firmly or with greater commitment to the cause of black equality than Lyndon Johnson.”

But Johnson’s ambitions did not end with the most sweeping civil rights law in history. Voting rights was the next big obstacle to fulfilling the American promise. The “right to choose your own leaders,” the president said, “is the most basic right of democracy,” a right then denied to millions of citizens simply because of the color of their skin. “Their cause must be our cause too,” Johnson proclaimed. “It is not just Negroes, but it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.  And we shall overcome.”

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated literacy tests and other provisions that discriminated against racial minorities and instituted strong enforcement measures and extensive federal oversight. It dramatically reshaped the national political landscape. By 1966, over a half million black voters were added to the rolls. For the first time in history, blacks voted in large numbers in southern primaries and elections. By 1980, ten million blacks were registered to vote and nearly 5,000 African Americans held elected office. It is not a stretch to state that the past half-century of American progress on race is almost unimaginable without the 1964 and 1965 laws.

Lincoln asserted that the object of government was “to elevate the condition of men – to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” Johnson believed that all citizens should have a chance to share in American abundance, from the elderly and sick to the poorest among us. On May 22, 1964, Johnson stood before the graduating class of the University of Michigan and set forth his vision of a Great Society, “a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind and enlarge his talent . . . where the city of man serves not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community . . . where men are more concerned with the quality of their goals than the quantity of their goods.” “Your generation,” he told the students, has the chance “to help build a society where the demands of morality, and the needs of the spirit can be realized in the life of the nation.”

Johnson’s legislative accomplishments in the first two years of his presidency alone changed the fabric of American society more than any president since Franklin Roosevelt. Medicare and Medicaid, federal aid to education, college work study programs, highway beautification, environmental advances, the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, Head Start, community health centers, legal services for the poor, fair housing legislation, food stamps, special education for children with disabilities, federally-funded medical research, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting are just some of his lasting achievements. They attest “to the possibility of devising a practical, tangible response to the most intractable difficulties of our society,” wrote Goodwin, when “the turbulent energies of a whole nation, seemed bursting with possibilities – conquer poverty, walk on the moon, build a Great Society.”

But the same towering ambitions that led Johnson to change the course of American history on matters of race and economic justice, also caused him to steer the ship of state into unforgiving rocks. It is the agony of Vietnam, a war that divided the nation and resulted in the deaths of nearly 60,000 Americans, for which Johnson is ultimately branded. Had he exercised the same strength of character and foresight to the moral quicksand of Southeast Asia as he did in civil rights, he would have been among the greatest presidents of the 20th century. It is both the triumph and tragedy of Lyndon Johnson that makes him to this day one of the most fascinating, complex, contradictory, and larger-than-life figures of American history.

In the end, Johnson felt betrayed and abandoned by the very people he most tried to help. In the last years of his presidency, America’s cities were filled with unrest as blacks rioted in the streets, King and the liberal preachers opposed him on Vietnam, and key members of his own party abandoned him and questioned his leadership. It was a nation divided – all of his efforts, his determination, and his dreams were shattered by a divisive war and movements he could not fully understand or relate to. “What was broken was Johnson himself,” writes Goodwin, “and along with him, the Great Society, the progress of a nation, the faith of a people, not only in their leadership, but in the nobility of their destiny to lead a troubled world out of the wilderness of war and the miseries of almost universal poverty.”

I continue to believe that Lyndon Johnson could have been one of the greatest presidents of modern times. He charted the course for a better America and helped us come close to achieving the American promise – that all men (and women) are created equal. But because his legacy is forever tainted by the tribulations of Vietnam, his promise remains unfinished.

William Butler Yeats wrote, “Joy is of the will which labours, which overcomes obstacles, which knows triumph.” The American story is still being written. Although it pains me to think of what might have been, it gives me hope to think of what might still be. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Journey Continues

The only journey is the one within. – Rainer Maria Rilke

Last week I drove to American University to help my youngest daughter, Hannah, pack up for the summer. A day earlier, she had finished her final exams and handed in her last paper. Her sophomore year over, she is light years ahead of where I was 35 years ago when, in the spring of 1979, I stood on the rolling green campus of Wittenberg University and breathed my last scent of southern Ohio air before boarding a plane home for a summer job in Worcester, Massachusetts. My college years only halfway completed, it seemed then that life could not advance quickly enough.

College had introduced me to a world of books and ideas and opened my mind to options and possibilities not before contemplated. I was ambitious, driven, and self-centered. I gave little thought to how life would change as I grew older or that I might someday become a father. I needed urgently to make up for the lost years of my adolescence, when less serious pursuits captured the whole of my imagination. And yet, I was lost and directionless, unsure of where I was heading or how I would get there.

With time and age comes perspective, an ability to reflect on the varied dimensions of one’s past without regret and better understand and appreciate the present. “The beautiful journey of today can only begin when we learn to let go of yesterday,” wrote Steve Maraboli. Where the journey leads is not readily foreseen. Within ten years of that spring day in 1979, I would graduate from college and obtain a law degree, pass the Bar exam, and eventually become a big-city prosecutor. But it was only when I became a father that I developed perspective.

Jenny came into this world smaller than a loaf of bread one cool and clear September morning in 1990. Hannah was added to the mix three years and four months later. No longer was my life only about me. Ambition and dreams took a backseat to the privilege and burdens of fatherhood. “With children the clock is reset,” wrote Jhumpa Lahiri in The Lowlands. “We forget what came before.” Children make us wiser.

“Much of life, fatherhood included,” writes Ben Fountain, “is the story of knowledge acquired too late: if only I’d known then what I know now, how much smarter, abler, stronger, I would have been.” Nothing really prepares you to be a parent. There is no playbook, no pre-routed map or book to guide us each step of the way. Instead, what we really do is figure it all out as we go and realize this is precisely what our children are doing too.

My brief prelude to Washington allowed me to spend a rare evening with Hannah and Jen together. Only two years before, I watched with pride as Jen waltzed to the stage of American’s Bender Arena in her blue graduation gown to receive her degree and put the finishing touches on her college education. She has confidently and swiftly embraced the larger world, sharing an apartment in Adams Morgan and pursuing a career in graphic design for the federal government. It seems like only yesterday when Jen and Hannah educated me on the symbolism and significance of the latest segment of Harry Potter as we drove eleven hours to visit their grandparents in North Carolina; or when they insisted on the musical selections as I taxied them to travel soccer tournaments and riding lessons. At dinner the other night, while listening to Jen talk of life and work, I realized she is a long way from the little girl I taught to ride a bicycle and hit a softball. A financially independent, career-minded young woman, she needs me less these days. As a father, I know this is a good thing, but it brings a touch of sadness just the same.

On the drive home, it warmed my heart to hear Hannah light up when discussing her courses, books, and favorite professors as she begins to figure out what direction her future path might take. Like her sister, she is a kind, compassionate, and progressive-minded human being. But whereas Jen is more accepting of the world’s flaws, Hannah is intent on changing the world and fighting the battles. She has become deeply engaged in the politics of Middle East peace and taken a leadership role in her college chapter of J Street U, which promotes a two-state solution and seeks an Israel that reflects its original Zionist ideals and democratic values. A Jewish Studies major and German minor, she understands the complexity of and need for German reconciliation with its tragic history. She dreams of someday becoming a Rabbi and is undeterred by the theological and political divisions within Judaism.

If only the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations could see the light in Hannah’s eyes when she speaks of these things, they may have been less apt to reject J Street’s application for membership. It was the wrong message to send to thousands of young American Jews who have found a cause and a means to stay connected to Israel and Jewish life. Some of the opposition to J Street from older, more conservative Jewish institutions and Orthodox groups is fierce, and I worry as a father as to how Hannah will handle what can at times be a nasty and personalized debate. My cautionary, risk-averse instincts step forward; but then I listen to Hannah defend what she believes is right and just and I soon comprehend that she, too, has become her own person.  

Perhaps the best thing we can do for our children is to allow them to experience life on their own terms, to climb the rope in gym class, take risks, ride the subway, and let them believe in themselves. I am most proud of my daughters’ sense of self, for they seem genuinely comfortable in their own skin and rarely strive to be someone they are not. As Emerson taught, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” It is a lesson I have failed often.

I worry at times that my daughters will someday confront obstacles to their dreams and that their ideals will be compromised; or worse, they will become jaded like the rest of us. “We must be willing to let go of the life we planned,” wrote philosopher Joseph Campbell, “so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” It is a sentiment easier said than accepted, requiring us to live in the moment and not be swept into a current of unrealistic ideals and unachievable dreams.

And yet, our dreams are what motivate us, what compel us to stay engaged and excited about life. Dreams of a better world are often dismissed as naïve and unrealistic. I worry about the loss of American idealism, without which we are hopelessly destined for mediocrity and imperfection. I hope that my children never lose sight of their dreams, their sense of justice and of right and wrong. Although we live in a cynical world that tries constantly to beat us down, it is a beautiful world and a beautiful life nonetheless.

Time passes more swiftly now. The search for the Promised Land is often a mirage. But when we appreciate the abundance of our riches, in love and affection, passion and understanding; when we maintain a desire to improve ourselves and the world around us; and when we take seriously our dreams and ideals without losing perspective and empathy for those whose dreams have been derailed and deferred, only then do we realize that life can be a wonderful journey indeed. “We may run, walk, stumble, drive, or fly,” writes Gloria Gaither, “but let us never lose sight of the reason for the journey, or miss a chance to see a rainbow on the way.”