Keeping Score

Keeping Score

by Kevin Brown

In my neighborhood, my friends played sports year-round: football in the fall; basketball in winter and spring; and baseball in the summer. Most of the time, I’d join them, and we tried almost any sport we saw. After seeing field hockey in the early days of ESPN, we used metal tent poles as sticks and played in the Kellys’ backyard with a tennis ball until someone swung too high and hit Pat Kelly in the cheek with the end of a tent pole, giving him a gash he would wear for weeks. I learned how to play tennis using badminton rackets and a nerf ball, our bikes serving as nets, turned sideways on our driveway or carport (when it rained).

What’s odd, though, about our fascination with sports is that almost none of us ended up playing sports on the varsity level, whether from lack of interest or ability. Russ, the only one who ended up playing football his last couple of years of high school, seemed to do it more because of his friends than because of an interest in the sport itself. It seemed a pastime, not a passion. The rest of us played on school teams in high school, a few in middle school, or on teams through the Boys’ Club, especially a baseball team that largely consisted of boys from our neighborhood almost everyone played on until we were eleven or twelve.

In fact, apart from one person—Cook, we called him, using his last name—the rest of us actually weren’t all that interested in sports. Maybe I was, as my father had played basketball and baseball in the college and army, respectively, and he encouraged my involvement. He spent many afternoons and evenings throwing with me, taking me to shoot basketball at the university where he worked, or watching whatever major sport was on at the time (he was partial to college basketball and professional football).

I should say that he never pressured me into sports, and it was only much later in life that I realized he didn’t have any expectations for me at all. I was a small child and am a small adult compared with my father; I’m 5’8”, and he was a bit over 6’4”. When he was teaching me about basketball, he taught me how to play like a big man, as everyone assured me that my growth spurt was coming. They kept telling me how my father didn’t grow until after his sophomore year of high school. Though I have long arms like he did, I’m still waiting for the rest of my growth to spurt.

He came to visit me when he was attending his fiftieth high school reunion (where his basketball team was honored), and we talked about my lack of athletic ability. He said, “Go back and look at the pictures and see how small you were. Even if you made great contact with the ball, you’d be lucky to hit it out of the infield.” When I was a child, I didn’t realize that was true, but, as an adult, I can easily admit he was right. I could have been better than I was if I would have worked harder, certainly, but I didn’t think I had the athletic build I needed to truly succeed, especially in high school.

Perhaps that’s why I sometimes avoided playing sports in the neighborhood, especially football. Sometimes, instead of playing, I would referee, as if a neighborhood game needed someone to actually enforce the rules. But that’s what I would do. I would take a handkerchief from my drawer, put rocks in the middle of it and then rubber band them in to make a weighted penalty flag. I would call off-sides on twelve-year-olds who were standing inches in front of the ball, making them replay downs, though I never made the difficult calls such as pass interference. Those calls relied on judgment, and I wasn’t willing to take the risk of angering anyone. I stuck to the facts, calls I could easily defend if I was challenged. And I pretended as if my participation in the game mattered, though no one else really seemed to. They tolerated my presence, but they weren’t happy. At times, they could pressure me into playing. Usually, I would drift home.

There were other ways I tried to participate in sports without actually doing so. I had a game that we neighborhood boys played fairly regularly. It was called All-Star Baseball, a game that involved discs and two players; each disc represented a real life baseball star. We inserted the disc into a plastic slot with a spinner on it. The points on the spinner were numbered, with each point corresponding to a play in baseball. The player would spin, then based on what number the spinner stopped at, their baseball star would be awarded a hit or be declared out. I can still remember that a 7 or 13 was a single, while a 1 (in the top middle of the disc) was a home run. There were rules for how many bases runners were allowed to advance based on the hit. The two players would hold a draft or randomly select their discs, then play a 9-inning game. A number of us enjoyed playing it together.

However, it wasn’t enough for me to simply play this baseball game with my neighborhood friends. I would also play when no one was around, playing both teams by myself. I would even develop leagues with four different teams, work out schedules for what passed for a season, and keep standings to see which team ultimately won the season title. Yes, I even had a World Series. It was in these solitary moments that I realized that it was the statistics, not the game itself, that engaged me. I kept detailed statistics, updating the leaders in hits, RBIs, ERA, even fielding percentage, after every few games. I went through reams of paper that I kept in the game at all times, even after the seasons were already past. I didn’t really care who won or how or why. It wasn’t the strategy of it all. I simply enjoyed the numbers.

The same thing was true when I watched baseball games. If I attended a minor league game (the city where I grew up still only has a single-A team), or, if it was one of the summers we drove a couple of hours to see the Atlanta Braves play, I would get a program and record the game’s statistics. Afterwards, I would spend more time calculating batting averages and any other statistic I could, sometimes spending more energy on that than on the game itself. I didn’t pay attention to how the players performed in and of themselves; I wasn’t there to learn how to improve my performance on the field. I was there to keep track of what happened.

Keeping statistics for sporting events satisfied the geeky part of me, while keeping me connected to the sports that were so important in my neighborhood. It gave me a way to pretend to be involved in sports without actually caring about the sports themselves. I somehow preferred the imaginary world of sports I created through a game to the reality of playing. I was like Tolkien fans who learn Elvish or write fan fiction of what happens to Frodo after the end of the trilogy. Worse, I was like a Tolkien fan who really didn’t like the books all that much while learning Elvish. I was like a kid who played basketball on the Nintendo, yet talked about how good he was at basketball, as if he couldn’t see the difference between the two worlds.

One summer, when I was at basketball camp, one of the coaches was talking to us as a group. He asked how many of us thought we would play professional basketball. Many of us raised our hands, as did I. I was the kid who wasn’t even playing on his school team, who spent more afternoons lying on the bedroom floor doing math problems for fun than working on drills to improve. I was the kid who couldn’t use the correct shooting form because I was so small, yet I believed I was going to play professional basketball.

It wasn’t until high school, when the real athletes and academicians truly began to emerge, that I realized I couldn’t keep up the charade. I could have played basketball my sophomore year (they didn’t cut anyone), but I quit before the season started when it was clear I wouldn’t see any real playing time. I wasn’t willing to work at practice to get better, and I was falling in with a different group of kids, ones who were more interested in school than they were in athletics. I didn’t find my way to literature and writing until college, solely because of one professor’s influence, but I was already on my way to becoming an academic. Perhaps that’s why the statistics and the theoretical interested me as much as the real.

Now that I’m older, I pursue individual sports (running, especially) rather than ones that require a team. The few years I worked at private high schools, before I made the move to university teaching, I helped coach a variety of teams, ranging from basketball to tennis to cross-country. Not only did my athletic background make me more employable, but it also helped me get to know students I would never know in any other way, and they got to see me as more than someone who reads and writes.

No matter where the pressure came from when I was in middle and high school, it shaped me (as pressure always does) into the person I am today. My childhood is like the argument I make about liberal arts when I teach core classes to undergraduates. I explain to my students who are taking a world literature survey or a composition course that we require such classes because we want them to see the world as wider than what their discipline might offer. Even if they’re going to run a business, work as a nurse, or spend their lives doing statistics, they can have other lenses through which to see the world, including literature and writing. Because of my childhood, I can see the world through the lens of athletics, connecting with relatives and students alike, helping me live in a wider world, as well. 

An Open Letter to Women Who Say Pride and Prejudice Is Their Favorite Book When They Have Almost Certainly Never Read It

Dear Women Who Say Pride and Prejudice Is Your Favorite Book When You Have Almost Certainly Never Read It,

I suppose when our conversation alights—precariously—on the topic of books and literature, and I benightedly ask you what your favorite novel is, you have to find something to plug up the gap. I am not unsympathetic. If someone were to ask me what my favorite hockey team was, I would probably just answer “Capitals” even though I have never even attempted to watch a hockey game in my life, televised or live, and I become irrationally irritated when Capitals fans crowd the Gallery Place Metro station on weekends. 

Even so, the better answer at that juncture would be, “I don’t actually watch hockey,” and then the hypothetical conversation might grind back to the weather for a while before I or the other party made another awkward stab at more meaningful connection. I would prefer, actually, this turn of events—that is, I would prefer it if you would just tell me you don’t really read novels instead of you telling me that Pride and Prejudice is your favorite novel and thereby instigating The Conversation.

What I mean by The Conversation is your futile, lighthearted, and curiously brazen attempt to convince me that you have read the works of Jane Austen when your exposure to her consists of, at most, the 2005 Joe Wright adaptation of your purported “favorite novel” and maybe half an episode of a British miniseries of Mansfield Park you caught one night while you were cooking dinner. It invariably begins with your gushing insistence that you Love Jane Austen™ and oh my goodness, where have all the Mr. Darcys gone?! If I’m in a particularly spiteful mood, I might aver that Mr. Darcy seemed like kind of an asshole and probably wasn’t that much fun to be around in the long run. Then I might let it drop that I preferred Mr. Bingley, goofy as he was, at which point escapes from your lips a high-pitched, “Mr. Who?”

“The one with the red hair,” I say, and the conversation is usually immediately recovered. “Ohhhh, yeah, that proposal was super touching,” and I want to say, “You mean the one that occurs offscreen in the book?” but I don’t because even I, curmudgeon that I am, am not that vindictive. Instead, I usually agree with a lifeless “yeah,” and The Conversation trundles on to the point where you state that Lizzy Bennet is “such a strong female character” and “so ahead of her time.” To which I might raise you that I liked Anne Elliot even better, and I might have asked you if you have read Persuasion had you not declared yourself to be such a diehard Austen fan, but no—I have to rescue you by politely commenting that Persuasion is sad but such a beautiful book. Your foundering mouth closes in relief. 

You change the subject to yoga, a subject with which I have only the barest of acquaintances, but it’s all right because you have some rather long-winded story to tell and a categorical recommendation about which studios I should frequent and which I should avoid, if I desire to take up yoga as a serious hobby, which I most definitely should. Our conversation, now returned to a more honest one-sidedness, bobbles along like the float on a fishing line. Ahhh.

My point is, Women Who Say Pride and Prejudice Is Your Favorite Book When You Have Almost Certainly Never Read It, I have an English degree from a well-respected university and you are never going to fool me. Yeah, I might be on my high horse, but I suppose what I really take offense to—the real reason why I am writing this letter—is that you don’t care whether or not you fool me (believe me, I can tell) as long as I don’t expose your artifice because, to you, reading the book and watching the movie are the same thing. You think it’s perfectly legitimate to say that you love Jane Austen’s work when all you’ve really done is appreciate an artsy film adaptation that, while good, is no substitute for the actual flesh and blood of the text. Jane Austen, to you, is a brand, a genre. And it’s all about wish-fulfillment rather than social intricacy, the costume budget rather than witty narration, or understated character development, or what Austen did to elevate romance into literature. 

Guilty as charged; I’m a snob.

But would a little honest appreciation be too much to ask? Or, better yet, you could just swallow your pride, tell me you don’t read novels, and we could get on to talking about yoga or the weather. After all, I started talking to you because I was dying to hear about the guy staring at your ass while you were doing your cat-cow poses. 

Honestly.

With exasperation,

Emily Holland

Emily Holland is a 2014 graduate of the University of Chicago and currently lives in Frederick, Maryland. She works there for the Frederick Arts Council and is most proud, recently, of her work on the Sky Stage project. Like every writer ever, she owns cats and is addicted to black coffee. She has been published once previously in Atticus Review.

The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review was founded in 2010 as an online and print literary and arts journal. We take our title from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and include the full archives of our predecessor Moon Milk Review. Our aesthetic is eclectic, literary mainstream to experimental. We appreciate fusion forms including magical realist, surrealist, meta- realist and realist works with an offbeat spin. We value character-focused storytelling and language and welcome both edge and mainstream with punch aesthetics. We like humor that explores the gritty realities of world and human experiences. Our issues include original content from both emerging and established writers, poets, artists and comedians such as authors, Rick Moody, Cris Mazza, Steve Almond, Stephen Dixon, poets, Moira Egan and David Wagoner and actor/comedian, Zach Galifianakis.

Currently, Eckleburg runs online, daily content of original fiction, poetry, nonfiction, translations, and more with featured artwork–visual and intermedia–from our Gallery. We run annual print issues, the Eckleburg Reading Series (DC, Baltimore and New York), as well as, the annual Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction, first prize $1000 and print publication, guest-judged by award-winning authors such as Rick Moody and Cris Mazza.

We have collaborated with a number of talented and high profile literary, art and intermedia organizations in DC, Baltimore and New York including The Poetry Society of New York, KGB Bar, Brazenhead Books, New World Writing(formerly Mississippi Review Online), The Hopkins Review, Boulevard, Gargoyle Magazine, Entasis Press, Barrelhouse, Hobart, 826DC, DC Lit and Iowa’s Mission Creek Festival at AWP 2013, Boston, for a night of raw comedic lit and music. We like to promote smaller indie presses, galleries, musicians and filmmakers alongside globally recognized organizations, as well as, our local, national and international contributors.

Rarely will readers/viewers find a themed issue at Eckleburg, but rather a mix of eclectic works. It is Eckleburg’s intention to represent writers, artists, musicians, and comedians as a contemporary and noninvasive collective, each work evidence of its own artistry, not as a reflection of an editor’s vision of what an issue “should” be. Outside of kismet and special issues, Eckleburg will read and accept unsolicited submissions based upon individual merit, not theme cohesiveness. It is our intention to create an experience in which readers and viewers can think artistically, intellectually, socially, and independently. We welcome brave, honest voices. To submit, please read our guidelines.

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p style=”text-align: left;” align=”center”>Over the ashheaps the giant eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg kept their vigil, but I perceived, after a moment, that other eyes were regarding us with peculiar intensity from less than twenty feet away. – The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Naturalist

The Naturalist

by Mary Fox           

            The live eel is just inches away from my face. I have to make a split-second decision whether or not to touch him, but as I have a live clam in hand, I skip my turn. Many of the others standing next to me do the same; we examine the eel through the clear plastic bag that stores him and pass him on. Max, a young college student, asks if he can take the eel out of the bag of water and hold him.

            “Sure,” says the Naturalist instructor. “If you can. He’s almost awake. They’re awfully slippery.”

            “Well,” he hesitates. “I don’t want to hurt him. I don’t want to be that guy.”

            Amy, a young single mom, smiles sweetly and says, “C’mon Max, go for it.”

            Max picks up the eel, and, as predicted, it pops awake and slides from his hands to the ground. He’s mortified; he flushes. Amy pats his shoulder, laughs, and says, “nice try.”

            Henry, an ex-marine sergeant standing next to me, says, “Hey, I guess you are that guy, huh Max?”

            Max takes the teasing well and besides, the instructor has scooped up the runaway with a net. Already, the eel has swum back downstream. This instructor is accustomed to the shenanigans of her volunteers; she can handle us as expertly as she does the rest of the wildlife in her stream.

            It’s week three of Maryland State Master Naturalist training, and I’m a student. I don’t remember what exactly made me want to take this class. Maybe I just saw the sign-up poster in the park and got curious. Maybe I was missing my days of growing up on a farm in Maryland where the woods, rivers, and wilds were minutes away. Or maybe I had seen one too many ‘earth-is-dying’ stories on National Geographic Channel and could no longer ignore the ache to do something good to the earth before I leave it.

            For whatever reason, I found myself, a recently retired grandmother, committing my Tuesdays and several more field trip days for three months and eighty-plus hours of volunteer service each year. I knew it had to be a good thing. What I didn’t know was that it would change the way I relate to my planet.

***

            Master Naturalist trainees carry enormous loose-leaf binders. The books come to us about three inches thick and then grow to four or even five inches. They get filled with hand-outs and brochures, of course, and then we add stuff to them: leaf cuts, feathers, little sticks, maybe an insect wing. Those bits that don’t get tucked into the binders end up clinging to us as we head home after the day’s work. Our cars are soon cluttered, too, with sticks, stones, and seed pods. Every day of training sends us on at least two journeys; the intellectual wash-down  of information from the guest instructors and the treks afterward in fields and streams to look at samples that will bring to life the mind’s new contents.

            I can never decide which of the journeys I love best. I’m a lifelong knowledge gatherer, eager for concepts, rubrics for classification, definitions of bugs and beasts. I adore the little chart that shows things like how eighty percent of my DNA is identical to that of most insects. About half of the class are perennial students like me. We miss that every-September cornucopia of courses and books; we never got enough of school and left it only because there was no pay coming in.

            The other half of the students seem to struggle through the didactic material. Their feet start to quiver and tap as lunch time gets close; they can’t wait to suit up and head for the woods. They are the ones always in front or trailing behind. They never travel with the pack; they are outliers looking for something they haven’t seen before, something not in the book, a question the trail guide can’t answer. First out and last in; these are the people from whom I learn the most. I don’t have a brain like theirs, even though I always thought of myself as wide open to experience. It never occurred to me, I admit, to taste a leaf or smell it to see if it was in the mint or poppy family.

            I envy that look they wear on their faces; these ‘natural’ naturalists with mud on their boots and eyes open wider than the rest of us. Their faces seem larger, their senses attuned to each channel on nature’s wide-screen show. ‘Natural’ naturalists see more flowers and birds and plant types; they see insects I barely notice; they hear bird calls that are just background noise to me. They might be holding a leaf that smells like mint, scratching it with a fingernail to sniff, but what they say comes from some other direction entirely: “that was a pileated woodpecker; he’s looking for a mate.” I look up quickly, hoping to spot it too, but all I see is a tiny flash of red and then nothing. I’m carrying the best binoculars money can buy, yet I’ve missed the bird, as well the scent of mint.

            In the outdoor expeditions, we all accumulate a mishmash of little pieces of the forest, along with a plethora of facts that I’ll forget in a week or hours, or sometimes even minutes. The leaves I can manage to hang onto, but all those exquisite details can’t find a rubric to tuck into when they hit my brain. They have to compete with all the other sights and sounds. They must jockey for a place in the classifications of flora and fauna, invasive versus endangered species, or whether they are pollinators. Despite what I forget, I have assimilated things like coevolution and pollination, habitats and watersheds, habitat loss and pollution. I’ve learned the most important lesson: how things connect.

***

            We all come to love the field trips. It was a gorgeous day when we went to the local stream to assess its health. We were there to count mayflies and eels. We quickly found mayflies and rejoiced; this find alone is enough to mark this as a healthy stream. We’ve learned which ones are the most fragile species, the ones easily killed by invaders and pollution.  That day, I wore high rubber boots because our instructor the Naturalist is going to shock the water with a power paddle, stunning everything within a six-feet radius. We stood next to her in our boots, holding nets and buckets. We swooped our nets through the water and dunked their contents into the buckets, then went ashore with our catch to count mayflies, weigh and measure eels, and see what else was in there, such as the tiny Asian clams that are just a quarter of an inch wide yet a serious threat to our freshwater streams. Some of us scooped out the buckets and bagged the critters, while others recorded the markers of stream health, and still others formed lines to return the wildlife to the stream. Like always, we had been careful to put things back when we left the park.

***

            In nearly every class, we all stew over problems with invasive species. One day, I bring in a lovely flower that has popped up all over my yard. I show it to Rebecca, the program director, who says, “I don’t know what it is; ask Ellen. And hey, if it’s a good propagator, bring me some seeds. I need something to fill in at the rain garden.”

            Ellen is the ‘flower woman.’ She scratches a leaf, sniffs it, and says, “I think it could be a mustard…no wait. The leaves are scalloped…” She pulls out her smart phone. “Here, let me post a picture in my Google group.”

            The lecture comes and goes; the instructor happens to be an edible plant expert. She looks at my mystery plant and says, “Looks like an asteraceae. Wait, it’s more like a ranunculus; if so, it’s non-native and very invasive.”

            She means buttercup, but I’ve learned enough today to rule that out; my plant is too tall.  

             Ellen heads over to me during the break.

            “Found it.” She pulls up a likeness of my plant on her smart phone.

            “That’s it,” I smile, delighted.

            Her face is even more triumphant than mine and then darkens. She says, “it’s greater celandine, AKA devil’s milk or wartwort. It’s difficult, make that impossible, to keep it from spreading like crazy. By the way; it came here from Europe. Sorry.”

            I recoil in mock horror at Ellen’s verdict: non-native, invasive. I’m only partly playacting; I now have to go home and yank out all those lovely flowers. I’ve learned, of course, not to call the unwanted plants by the name ‘weeds.’ There are only ‘plants that misbehave,’ whether they’re in planned gardens or untamed meadows. The greater celandine would push out all my Black-eyed Susans and milkweeds, so it has to go.

            We worship milkweeds here in this class. We propagate them from seeds in the fall and give the extra seedlings to our friends in spring. Many insect species depend on them as a primary food source. Most important to us are monarch butterflies, since both larvae and adults eat only milkweed.

            Not a weed at all, it’s a tall, stately flower with fruits shaped as green pods that fall off, turn brown, and burst open in the fall to let out great tufts of fluffy seeds. We try to grab them as they float off, and we sprinkle them in potting soil for over-wintering. You can’t propagate them as transplants since their roots are deep and interconnected, spreading themselves underground to form a thick colony that quickly crowds out any other plants.

            In other words, the milkweed is an invasive plant, but it’s the only food monarch butterflies eat. We love our monarch butterflies here in Maryland, and we’ll work hard to keep them. We are sincerely anguished to learn there’s been a ten-fold drop in the butterfly’s population over the last decade. Some scientists predict the monarch will go extinct within twenty years.

            But not if naturalists can help it.

            Change the earth back; wipe away the effects of human mismanagement.

            Like many of us in class, I find myself revisiting the way I eat, garden, buy things. I find that habits that have seemed innocent to me before, now seem selfish, as for example, growing great lawns of grass that strain the water table.

            I have taken on the torch of the newly converted volunteer naturalist, as have most of us in this class, and we are very tiresome to handle—opinionated, unpredictably creative, unruly. We are very different from each other—the housewife, the marine sergeant, that young mom, the college students, retirees, part-time professionals, and paid staff. No matter what our differences, we’ve come to share something profound and permanent. We all wear raincoats, carry binoculars, have magnifying glasses hanging out of our pockets, dress in beat-up hiking shoes and blue jeans, and carry backpacks. And each and every time, the power of our journey takes us individually and collectively to a place where we are becoming bigger and better than our real selves.

 

Mary H. Fox, PhD, is a psychologist who studied literature and poetry before matriculating to undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology. She was an associate professor of psychology at the University of Maryland and for 25 years had a psychology practice. She has published a textbook, many journal articles, and a few short stories. She is also becoming a Master Naturalist.