Whatever it was I used to think or obsess about—each morning, each evening among the scattered stars—my speculation on the wonder of the world as I faced the IBM typer or my first small box Apple computer, has flown out the window. First day of summer and I’m ground down, gut-punched by another year of colleagues’ egos, administrative agendas, and a sea-weight of compositions—working in the mud pits, the memo from Pharaoh saying to increase production, make more bricks without straw.
Collapsed on the sofa, it takes all the energy I have to switch between baseball and golf on TV . . . the unguent expanses of green fairways only partially soothing my pan-fried grey cells and Protestant work ethic. Soon, I’m nodding out in the breeze from a new rotating Wal * Mart box fan; like half of everything anymore, it’s made by kids in China working 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week for 20¢ a day. By comparison, I have nothing to complain about as I look across the room to the dust sifting out the window screens.
For intermittent exercise, I push up off the couch and walk to the kitchen for a non-alcoholic beer during commercials, then it’s out to the front of the house to check on my great grey cat, Cecil B. The June marine layer—equally great and grey—is lifting, the sun’s beginning to rummage around the jade plant and aloe vera by the garage, in the orange and magnolia leaves. Cecil’s inspecting his bushes and weeds, marking the Mexican sage and bright yellow broom, patrolling the invisible edges of his territory, ready for a good punch-up with interlopers before the serious business of settling down in the shade of the Madiera to think his afternoon’s long thoughts. . . . I could learn a little from his example. Cecil would not last a minute in a committee meeting, one of many qualities I admire about him.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I should be attending to one task or another, should be pruning the olive tree, the ceanothus bushes, trimming limbs of the ornamental plum away from the phone lines—but with any luck no one’s going to call. I do have to be careful—skin cancer, sunstroke, dehydration—so I don my five-dollar straw hat, designed in Australia but pumped out again in China by twelve-year-olds—and do a few minutes of watering, moving some dust on the patio from here to there. I go back in and drink another O’Doul’s. I change the water in the cats’ bowl, sweep the kitchen floor, but there is so much rust—hamstrings, lower back . . . and all the synapses creaking.
Or equally, I should be at my desk, working on notes and re-writes, but it’s two rooms away, all the way down the hall. Who am I fooling? I need the true psychic lubrication of a Corona or Dos Equis, some weeks on one of those beatific beaches in their TV ads, some flat-out rest and relaxation like Cecil gets on his back in the shade, all four legs reaching unconsciously for the sky. He’s not thinking about promotion, career advancement, a half dozen editors who have not responded for months, problems in the middle east, additives to our food.
Back on the couch, and the Dodgers keep fouling them off. I have no idea of the count, the score, the standings; I don’t really care. I start instead to think of Vin Scully and the free and available jackpot of lingo right in front of me . . . I grab a pen and yellow pad and begin taking notes: line drive in the gap, nubber up along the line, frozen rope, a can of corn, pop up in an elevator shaft; he’s on his horse, makes a basket catch, turns the twin killing, steps in the bucket, gets a piece of it to stay alive; boy can he bring it, pick it, dig it out, locate the split finger, the slider, the knuckle-curve; he paints the corners, goes up the ladder; someone goes yard, hits a grand salami, gets a bleeder to right; there are runners at the corners, he’s stealing signs, he brushes him off, is run down in a pickle, hits a one-hopper back to the box, goes after the high cheese, gets caught looking; there’s the squeeze play, the hit and run, a little chin music, and the jelly leg. Decades of jargon that should add up, that I should be able to do something with? I have no idea, no plan, but keep going just in case something might later turn up. Bad genes? Something in the blood? One thing likely as the next.
I switch focus, and a title for a research topic, a grant proposal is beginning to bubble its way up from the synaptic mud flats—I can’t save myself from the ingrained reaction; productivity keeps weighing on my shoulders. I vaguely remember an essay promised to a journal hardly anyone’s heard of—something about the marginalization of castle guards in Shakespeare’s plays and the union bashing by far-right politicians . . . a nagging voice for which I cannot find a mute button on the remote.
What I really should be doing is rounding up all the fragments and unstrung phrases I’ve been saving for months on napkins, receipts, lunch bags, and—if I’m going to get ahead—assessing the popular possibilities for the villanelle, another novella in verse?
In deference to the nervous system, I’ve been drinking decaf for years, but today could really use a jolt from a chemically inspirational cup. I’m thinking it would take a yerba mate with four cubes of cane sugar to really get me off the couch and beyond the dog-legs, duck-hooks, double breaks, hog’s backs, bad lies, chili-dips, slices, shanks, blades, sand-saves, yanks, and high fades on the Golf Channel.
Mohandas Gandhi said that the little thing you do will not be important but it is very important that you do it. I guess he was including me in that. I’m guessing he knew something about what was important. He had a wealth of good things to say—made a nation, got everyone to spin their own cloth, collect their own salt from the sea shore, take their turns raking the latrines—he wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in an English department.
My grandfather in the ‘40s, in Kentucky of all places, was a big fan of Gandhi; he was far ahead of his time and place, especially for a farmer and county judge. And he loved baseball as well—my grandfather, not Gandhi. By the time I came along, he was retired under the shade trees, admiring the breeze moving randomly through the fields of timothy. He’d hire help for the harvest so he had time to give advice to the men who drove up the long gravel drive and parked by the side of the barn and disused cattle pen, who chewed and spit and discussed local law, the loop hole politics of a small river town he’d run for years.
But now that I think of him, what I mainly recall learning at about age 9 or 10 is how to take a pocket knife and whittle a stick down to nothing, casually, steadily, over an hour or so, how that could calm you, give you a modest sense of purpose in the world, cure you of an addiction to enterprise and ambition until it was time to attend to the main business of a summer afternoon: turning the portable radio on, leaning back in the old wooden lawn chairs, and listening to the Cincinnati Reds—relaxing peacefully through the hot rough days with frozen cubes of Kool Aid in a cup or sugary iced tea as Frank Robinson hit ‘em out and Vada Pinson ran down the first base line, like nobody’s business.
Christopher Buckley is the author of three books of nonfiction; recent essays in PLUME, Catamaran, I-70 Review, Ravens Perch, Talking River Review, & Sangam Literary Magazine, Iconoclast, and Redactions. His most recent book of poetry is The Consolations of Science & Philosophy, Lynx House Press, 2022.