My grandma Ethel begins baking weeks before Christmas, her work takes time. Yuletide cherry gem cookies, like sweet scarlet rubies nestled in soft floury sugar. Tan cookies with careful fork-pressed hash marks; trademark peanut butter from an old Schenectady, New York recipe. Chunks of chocolate chips, swirled in batches of dark and light brown, undulating contours, each slightly different from the next. Christmas trees with shiny green sprinkles and Red Hot candy decorations, hand cut with a metal mold. Layer upon layer, they are placed on wax paper in circular tin containers from the 1940’s when she became a mother. A couple tins are kept out, many our slid into the outdoor freezer, an unknown quantity of love and Christmas spirit frozen in waiting. We arrive to ham and turkey, cooked that day, but the cookies linger in memory year after year. That evening Rochester snow falls outside, white flakes looking in. I sit on my grandpa’s lap, his fingers press organ keys, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer bellows from our lungs between cookie bites. At night I slumber in my father’s old bed, the one with carved wooden posts, hear Santa’s sleigh in my dreams, awake for presents, count the hours until the tins and milk come out again.
So let me start by saying there was no tongue involved, but there was sweat, anticipation, nerves, so it counts. Camp Friendship in Palmyra, Virginia, end of session dance on the outdoor basketball court, where every counselor and kid goes crazy. I am eleven. My cabin’s counselor Matt has his face painted half black, half white, wearing a button down shirt like some 80’s version of Kiss. We (all the boys) slick our hair back with water and borrow drops of Brut from Daron who already has stray whiskers and has been preparing for this evening for weeks. The first songs are heavy with Billy Idol, in the midnight hour she cried, more, more, more, nothing age appropriate, not that any of us are listening to the words. We are too busy following Matt, jumping up and down skipping like ska dancers. The girls sport side ponytails, wearing colorful gimp necklaces and short jean cut-offs. We all commingle on the ground as the B-52’s blast Rock Lobster, down, down, form breakdance circles, spaz out to “Come On Eileen,” then slow it down for the Bee Gees, “How Deep Is Your Love.” I’m standing next to my best friend Sean, when Carla and Erica make eye contact with us. Do you guys want to dance? I ask. It is a fingers to shoulders slow motion waltz, with all the couples doing their best to look at anyone other than their dance partner. I’m swaying with Erica, she has short hair like Pat Benatar, her pink polo shirt collar popped. I can smell the watermelon Bubblicious that she casually swishes in her mouth. Sean gives me a huge grin like he’s a toddler with his very first scoop of ice cream. The next song is by The Cars as we awkwardly detach ourselves from the girls. There is the lingering feeling of Erica’s hands. Around 9:30pm the prepubescent party starts to wind down like the sweaty end of a sugar rush, Luna moths and mosquitoes flutter and nip getting ready to take over the night. As I head back to the cabin with Sean, Carla calls out, You guys wanna come to our cabin? We have Oreos. Going to girls village after dark is against the rules, but we don’t hesitate to follow Carla. After devouring a couple cookies and handfuls of care package M&M’s, Sean and I prepare to leave. As we begin to walk away I hear Angie’s voice. Aren’t you two going to kiss these girls goodnight? We turn around to see Angie’s large boobs in a tight white t-shirt; she’s their 15-year old CIT (counselor in training). She reminds me of Rizzo from Grease. Erica is standing only a few feet away, it is like I’m on the high dive and she is the water. I’m nervous, but the pressure is on, I have an audience. For a second the crickets stop chirping, the stars stop twinkling, I stride back to Erica almost lunging. I manage to cradle both her cheeks with my hands like I’d seen in movies, then plant a kiss directly on her soft lips, and say good night. Sean is able to do the same with Carla and we immediately take off running like two cowboys into the wilderness, our eleven-year old adrenaline pumping faster than our legs will go. We move across the dark grassy field like boys escaping the future, like miniature men.
I used to be a baseball savant. My son loves his Blaze and the Monster Machine toys, and my daughter loves (loved?) her American Girl dolls. Me? I had The Baseball Encyclopedia and shoeboxes full of baseball cards. I can still sometimes scare people. Like recently when I told my mother-in-law Ty Cobb’s birthday (December 18th 1886) and his death year (1961), while we were doing dishes after dinner. My first team was the Yankees; I think I liked them because of Bucky Dent, his name sounded like Buck Rogers or Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica. Similar to how my kids now narrate play, I made up songs about big leaguers Dave Concepcion and Steve “Groovy” Garvey. Whole afternoons were dedicated to memorizing statistics. George Foster, 52 home runs in 1977, Steve Carlton, 310 strikeouts in 1972. No fact was too mundane. Ken Singleton is allergic to wool, Luis Tiant likes to smoke cigars, Reggie Jackson has personal issues with Billy Martin, Warren Spahn pitched until 44. The list was endless. First thing in the morning I grabbed the Washington Post sports section to look at batting averages, analyze ERA’s. When I wasn’t with my cards and baseball books, I played, 1st base, okay hitter, usually batted 6th. Saturdays after my game I’d watch whatever teams were on TV, mesmerized by Rod Carew’s open batting stance, Pete Rose’s efficient hitting and hustle, Gaylord Perry’s vaselined hair for spitballs, Nolan Ryan’s pitching, faster than a hot Texas wind. As I got older I craved the stories. Tales of Rogers Hornsby staring at the snow, longing for it to melt so he could play ball again, Roberto Clemente’s humanitarian work in Latin America, Babe Ruth’s boxing at St. Mary’s in Baltimore. Baseball was a complete education: history, boredom on the bench, rivalries, math, race relations, superstition, teamwork, geography, psychology, ritual, Big League Chew. I made a county all-star team when I was 12, but quit the game for tennis the next year. The summer of 1991 I let the magic go, sold all my good cards, made almost $2500, said goodbye to baseball, got ready for college. Today I’m focused other things, like my family, ending homelessness in San Francisco, sometimes this writing stuff. But I can still watch a game, look at the count, whisper to myself, he’s gonna to throw a changeup.