Dream Job

I could have been a professional football player. I am not saying I ever ran as fast as the average NFL wide receiver; or even a below average wide receiver. I also never played college football, so professional scouts were never given the opportunity to scout me. Despite this, the single biggest obstacle to me joining the NFL was not my size or my speed or my lack of college-level experience, but the unalterable fact that I did not want to be a professional football player.

Mind you, as a boy I watched football with my father and brother and sister every Sunday from September to January. The four of us formed Kenower Power, our family touch football team, which managed to go undefeated for one glorious fall. I even became the starting wide receiver for my high school’s team. Often, when my father was tossing me fly patterns at the park, I would imagine myself playing for the New England Patriots or the Oakland Raiders, sprinting down the sidelines beneath the stadium’s bright lights, the cheering, the color man’s adulation, more cheering. From a certain distance, it seemed like a good job.

Yet to be a professional football player, I must be willing to spend most of my time playing, practicing, or studying football. I would also be required to spend most of my time with other football players. This is the life of a professional football player. As any writer knows, the public only gets to see the very tip of anyone’s career iceberg. The rest remains submerged beneath the waters of un-glorious work.

I once heard Tom Brady, the current quarterback for the New England Patriots, discuss his love of football. “I love it all,” he said. “I love playing it. I love watching film. I love training camp. I even love wind sprints. Can you believe that? It’s true, though. I love it all.”

Which is why Tom Brady is an NFL quarterback.  Any work you love is glorious to you. In fact, work you love is not really work; at least not in the traditional, pragmatic, roof-over-your-head sense. Work you love is life’s gift to you. So I could have been a football player if only I had loved it. I loved writing more. No matter. Love always seeks its fullest expression, a fullness known never in form but in feeling.

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The Unknown Weakling

As I read about Osama Bin Laden’s violent end, I found myself thinking about all the revenge stories I’ve read and watched in my life. In forty-six years I have never once experienced the relief and satisfaction these stories would have me believe revenge is supposed to provide, though I supposed I did come close once.

It was high school. My friends and I sat at one lunch table, and a group of boys from Federal Hill sat at a table behind us. Federal Hill was the home of the New England Mafia, and these boys were all working class Italians who, in the early 1980’s, suspected that anyone wearing an earring was “a fag.” I didn’t wear an earring, but some of my friends, who were all actors and writers and musicians, did.

There were taunts and a few empty milk cartons thrown our way and once a group of the Federal Hill boys pushed my friend Adam up against a locker and threatened him – but that was it. Still, there was a sense among my friends and I that we had lost. If we had been tougher, if we had been manlier, we would have stood up to them, would have put an end to the taunting by force or sheer will; instead it petered out, and left behind a feeling that the boys had been right all along, for who else but a weakling would have quietly accepted this kind of abuse?

The boys’ leader was Pope. Pope was one of the few boys in my high school that clearly worked out. He always wore tight shirts that showed off his pectorals and biceps. The taunting happened at the end of my junior year, but at the beginning of my senior year I joined the football team – as did Pope. In fact, my first day at practice he chose the locker beside me and fixed me with a look that seemed to say, “This isn’t over.”

I should say that I was generally left alone by these boys because I was an athlete. I was skinny, but I was tall and I was fast. Yet there I was at the table with these actors wearing earrings. I remained under suspicion, and not long after that encounter in the locker room, Pope had a chance to test his suspicions.

It was the tackling drill. We formed two lines facing one another five yards apart. In one line were the runners; in the other line the tacklers. A whistle would blow and the boy at the front of the runners’ line would launch himself at the boy at the front of the tacklers’ line. The goal of the drill was to help the boys get used to hitting and being hit. It was the most violence usually allowed during practice.

Because we did this one at-a-time you could know whom you were going to face by counting where you stood in line. This is just what Pope did. I saw him counting heads in the runner’s line, and then positioning himself in the tackler’s line, ducking out now and again to be sure I didn’t change position. I did not change position. It was going to happen eventually, it might as well happen now.

Our turn came. He actually began to make sounds like a bull preparing to charge. It was frightening in one way, but at the same time he reminded me of someone girding himself to face some long held fear. I reminded myself that my legs were strong and that this was the football field and not the lunchroom.  When the coach blew the whistle, I lowered my head and ran straight for Pope. I closed my eyes and our pads and helmets made a great cracking sound, but I kept my legs moving and driving forward. When I opened my eyes again I was still standing and Pope was dragging along behind me clutching my ankle. The coach blew the whistle and it was over.

In a movie, this might be where the villain ups the ante. “You beat me this time, Kenower, but next time you won’t be so lucky.” In a movie, he might be waiting in a parking lot for me, without whistles or helmets or coaches.

But this is not what happened. Pope never gave me so much as another glare. In fact, a few days later I was allowed, along with a few other boys, to listen to a tale of his recent romantic conquest. I was in the club. I could see he was glad, relieved even to have me in this club. The club must have been formed somewhere on Federal Hill, where boys were taught what manhood was and what it absolutely was not. My only crime, it turns out, had been being unknown, a crime I had apparently cleared myself of by running him over. It’s probably luckier for Pope that he didn’t tackle me that day. That was one less weakling in the world the poor guy had to worry about.

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A Losing Formula

In the late 70’s, my father brought home a strategy football game. The game was quite simple. Whoever was on defense had a deck of cards, each with a different defensive alignment. The game’s board was a grid, along the top of which were 20 or so different offensive plays, from Dive to Razzle Dazzle (my brother’s favorite).  The defenses ran along the side. The player on offense would announce which play he was running, and the player on defense would reveal which alignment he had selected, the two choices would be cross-referenced like finding coordinates on an X-Y plane, and you would learn the result of that play.

In this way, it was really a guessing game, not a strategy game. It became an intuitive, psychological struggle to read the other player’s mind and proclivities. There was a lot of, “He thinks I’ll throw a bomb, but I’ll actually run a dive – unless he thinks I think he thinks I’ll run a dive in which case I’ll throw the bomb.” You were always better off going with your first instinct.

At this time, my father had begun to learn how to program computers. He looked at this game and began to hatch a scheme. He believed he could come up with a program that would tell which play or defense would have the highest rate of success given the down, distance, and so on. He dreamt of having his children go to a big gaming tournament armed with a stack of computer printouts and whipping all the adult competitors.

Fortunately, the permutations proved too expansive for either my father’s know-how or actual interest in the project. I believe it was probably the latter. It seemed emblematic of his struggle at that time: a doomed search for a means by which the straight line of intellect could triumph over the reasonless nudge of intuition.

I was glad to see this plan die. My heart always sank when he painted the image of our theoretical triumph. On the one hand he was my father, and he had so many dreams; it would have been nice to have just one not come up well short of where he imagined it might take him. On the other hand, intuition seemed like the great equalizer in human endeavor, available to all regardless of age or income. Why look to triumph over it?

I cannot blame him for wanting a world that could be won with computer programs. Like all fathers, he wanted his children to be safe, and I do not believe he understood where safety could be found outside the clear perimeters of logic. But where is the safety in a life stripped of choice? That safety is a seed still buried, hiding beneath a world where anything is possible.

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For years I noticed a certain pattern in myself. Something would happen that would disappoint me—an agent or a publisher would pass on my work, say—and I would feel the slump of despair. I would wonder what is wrong with me, wonder if things would ever turn around. For a day or two I would carry a duffle bag full of doubt and hopelessness with me wherever I went. This bag was so heavy it made everything I did difficult, and often the best solution was to do nothing at all, for what was the point?

Eventually I would wake up and forget to take the bag with me when I left the house. There was always a moment, as I put on my shoes or reached for the car door, that I would realize I had forgotten the bag. Yet instead of feeling relief, I would reach for the bag again, because it was always close at hand. I reached for the bag not out of habit, however, but out of loyalty.

To give up on the despair, it seemed to me, was to also to give up on something holy bound inexorably to it. The despair walked hand-in-hand with what I wanted, and if I said good-bye to the despair, I would have to say good-bye to his beloved twin as well. That was the arrangement; that was my duty. You must be unhappy if you are deprived of what you want, or else you must surely not have wanted that thing in the first place. And if I didn’t want an agent, if I didn’t want to be published, then why exactly was I writing at all?

Then one day I remembered when I was eleven and my New England Patriots had just been trounced in their first playoff game. I remember sitting on the couch afterwards and actually thinking, “Well, I guess I should be sad now.” Because I wasn’t. I had been a loyal fan, I had followed every game, but the fact that the Patriots’ season was over didn’t actually mean anything to me.

The Patriots would play the next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. And I would continue writing after every rejection. To view despair as an act of loyalty is like viewing suicide as an act of life. Despair is in fact disloyal, it is the betrayal of the mind, the soldier leaving the field at the first sign of conflict. Loyalty to something is expressed only in continuance, in showing up for the game—everything else is an empty prelude to admitting that life can do nothing but carry on.

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