From MFA to LLC

I sat in the conference room, sweating with my white shirt collar too tight around my neck, the wool suit too warm, my palms leaving fogged traces of my fingers on the black surface of the table. The door opened and I took a deep breath, and the boss walked in—the person who held the title to which I would report, if hired—and without thought I stood, shook her hand, smiled, introduced myself, it’s a pleasure to meet you, and then sat down to discuss whatever pitch she might throw at me.

I was a minor league batter shaking in the box up against a big league pitcher winding up on the mound, a pitcher who can scream a fastball across the black. But she tossed the junk pitches at first, those standard interview questions you always prepare for. Most common: What’s your weakness? Answer: When I get overwhelmed, sometimes I don’t know when to ask for help. But she threw heat, too. Challenged my lack of a background, of a proven record at a desk job for at least a year. She said, well, you haven’t even had a job, right?

I had to explain that teaching three classes on top of going to grad school on top of trying to write the best poems I could was more than a full time job. It took more than forty hours a week. Try sixty, eighty, my entire waking life. It took the discipline to sit there, butt in chair, and get the job done every night—grading papers, drafting lesson plans, doing required reading, required writing, and writing for pleasure, just writing constantly—and I told her I could pump out content fast, words that gleam when arranged the right way, which is complete hubris as a personal statement but I figured, why not go for it?

A home run swing is hubris. And sometimes it connects. And after I said it, I leaned in, adjusted my tie, put my hands on the table and interlocked my fingers, my silver rings and blue-faced watch glinting in the fluorescent light.

I said, I want this job. And I didn’t look away.

***

Waiting tables wasn’t cutting it. We were heading into the slow summer, the season where you’d get cut more often than you work, and when you do work, it’s dead quiet and the only people eating sixty dollar steaks and expensive fried food were hotel people, or those who wanted to impress. The income was inconsistent—a thousand dollar week once a month, or three hundred one week, seventy-five another—and to put together rent and bills every month was a tragic cycle on repeat. Adjunct teaching work wasn’t only sparse, if available, but paid less than serving and required far more hours. Besides, I had a music studio in my office, and I got to write as much as I wanted during the day. In some ways, I had it made, and in others, I was barely scraping by, scratching together the money to live by taking orders and insults every other night.

One night, up late, after a few drinks, I took a look at my resume, my CV, my publication list, my website, my manuscript. I wondered why this didn’t amount to more—and I knew why, because I left grad school uncertain of my future and came home blunted by broken love—but I knew that more awaited me. The next morning, from the comfort of pajamas and the couch, I looked up copywriting jobs. After a bachelor’s in English and a master’s in creative writing, with internships in business proposals and publishing, I knew I had the goods to be a professional writer in any company.

I didn’t necessarily want to enter business, or advertising, or marketing per se, but there’s a big difference between putting on a server’s uniform at night and dressing nicely at dawn for the day. There’s a sense of gratitude in waking early every morning, even if to commute for an hour to and from the job. And there’s dignity in being respected by your coworkers and your clients, using your best skill to make your living. So I applied, and applied, and applied. I did ten in a shot. Then ten more the next day. And on some websites, they’d even tell you how many people applied for the job. One hundred, two hundred, three. I might not stand a chance. There could be a thousand like me. But I also realized I might even be a hot commodity—a writer who can really write, who taught the craft, who publishes, who knows that that the written word and the relationships, the metaphors, the meaning that builds from it is priceless and timeless no matter how it is used.

I wanted to go to work, not carrying a tray, but a notebook and a laptop. I wanted to have a business card. I wanted to have people who read my writing daily and criticized it, showed me how to be better. Because even if I wasn’t teaching poetry and fiction, which I love dearly, I would use my craft. But I didn’t realize how it would better me and force me to address inconsistencies and errors in my written language on a day-to-day basis. I didn’t realize how it would be regimented and intense while also being fluid and dynamic.

During my internships, I learned that there’s an art to the business proposal. It’s not a sales pitch, nor is it a list of services provided, nor is it a narrative of the company’s history. It’s all of those, threaded together by storytelling prose and the small sprinkling of the stuff of literary legends that carries an audience to the point of conviction. And when they reach that point—when a proposal wins—then you’ve forged a relationship and won your audience. And you’ve won the contract.

And, even as a writer, isn’t that the point of making a living?

***

When I leaned in, she didn’t look away, either. She smiled, stood, shook my hand again, thanked me for my time, and told me that the next step would be an interview with the partners. And they challenged me just as hard. One told me that my communications might affect the company in a negative way if I failed at my job. One asked why I didn’t send thank you emails to those who interviewed me. And the same criticism from the first interview—the lack of a “real job”—peeked through the tone of each question, each response, rebuttal, counterpoint.

After I said that I wanted the job, I remembered that this was my first interview, my first at-bat. It was the first time I got interviewed more than once for the same job, taking a full count and then some. And after fouling off questions I could make contact with, I swung hard with a deep home run cut that flashed through the strike zone and connected with the hottest fastball anyone ever threw at me. 

Pitch: What makes you the best candidate? 

Swing: I know how to write.

I swung with hubris, with swagger, with the goods that I knew I had to offer. And with the bat’s crack, I became a professional writer. I found a way to use my trade in a way that satisfies me deeply.

And why is it so satisfying? Well, I got a lucky pitch, as most home run hitters do. My company does good work. We work to help people by making one of the most dangerous places in our country—the highway—safer for everyone. Yes, there’s a bottom line, there’s a budget, revenue, deliverables, efficiencies and processes, but there’s also a sense of purpose in that I can help people with my writing. And a sense of gratitude that my boss, and her bosses, read what I had to say about myself, for myself, and about and for those who I admire and love—the personal poems and academic essays and political articles that made up my writing portfolio that I slipped across the table to my interviewers—and took it seriously enough to bring me into a small, dynamic group of hardworking, gracious, sharp, smart, and empathetic people.

And now I’m in the company, literally speaking, of such fine people, with a steady paycheck, and I get to write for them every day. What more could I ask for?

Playing Catch at Night, Learning How to Throw

There’s a satisfaction to playing catch. The steady rhythm of it, the slow windup and release, the sound of a glove snapping shut. The feel of the red laces on your fingers as you grip the ball, the sun setting, the can of beer getting warm as it sits in the grass, waiting for you to return.

The silence. Then the occasional banter, suggestions for improvement–how to throw faster, farther, more accurate. The wild throws and the jog to recover, and the great moment when you zing a fastball for a strike, or flick your wrist the right way and hang a curve.

Throughout the summer, my brother Jason and I played catch on the little league diamond in our neighborhood. The field was fenced in and locked, but we jumped the fence nearly every day. The cops saw us a couple times. They didn’t care. All they saw was a couple of thirty-somethings throwing a ball, poorly, wildly. They’d watch me shag pop flies that my brother would fungo at me from home plate. I’d stand in centerfield, on my toes, ready for the piercing clang of the aluminum bat—then I’d track the arc, sprinting, almost there, almost—and leap to catch it on the run.

The moment where I thought to myself, wow, that might’ve got applause in an actual game, with a team, and spectators. I’d smile, then throw the ball back in and wait quietly for the next hit.

I work a job where I spend at least 2 hours, every day, commuting to and from. Some days, I don’t get home until 7. When it was summer, that was fine. We’d have an hour to throw the ball, work up a good sweat, and then drink some beers. But soon summer slipped away into fall, and the sun would drift beyond the horizon before I’d get home.

Gone were the days of catch and fungo, we thought.

But then I bought a bright light-up ball—a dog toy, technically—about the size and weight of a baseball, made of hard translucent rubber. We couldn’t bat with it, unless we wanted to spill the light-up guts of it all over the diamond, but last night we decided to play catch at night while the Nationals and Dodgers duked it out in D.C. under bright stadium lights.

We were lost in the dark of the little league field. But the LED ball leaves a trail of light as it flies through the air. You can see it perfectly as it changes from blue to green to red. You can throw it hard, fast, just like a baseball. But what you can’t see is your target. All I’d see is the faint outline of a green t-shirt standing in the outfield. I’d set, windup, and throw—and the ball would bounce twenty feet short of Jason. He’d scramble to scoop it up, then fire it back, and it would sail ten feet over my head and bounce off the fence.

This happened with nearly every throw. So, I decided, the hell with it. I’m just gonna hurl this thing as hard as I can in his direction, and make him run for it.

For the first time in my life, out there in the darkness fringed with orange streetlight, I pushed off my back foot and spun my torso, the kinetic energy rising from the ground on up through muscle groups so my arm would whip around fast.

The ball flew far beyond my brother and landed near the fence, rolling bright through the dewy grass.

During the summer, I’d often ice my elbow after playing catch because I was muscling the ball too hard with my arm. The pain would linger for a day or two. But last night, I learned how to do something that all ballplayers have to learn, how to transfer energy from your feet through your body to your fingertips to whip the ball forward. I kept going, adjusting for distance, and the throws flew straighter, less arc, more speed. I could feel my muscles from toes to core to shoulder heating up, loosening, catching up with my already-warm arm.

That first true throw of my life streaked like a falling star.

I never figured out how to do that when I was a kid. But, age 30, I finally learned the trick. Practice, patience, kinetic energy, precision, focus, and having a good time playing catch at night, running around in the dark like fools with your older brother.

When we got back to my apartment, that warm beer never tasted so good. No ice needed.

A Vast Open Field

Most sports are variations on the same basic premise: there’s your territory and the other guy’s territory. The field, court, rink, is split in half. Your job is to get the ball or puck past the other guy—into his territory—and score. Your job is also to defend your own turf and make sure he doesn’t score on you. That’s football, soccer, rugby, basketball, tennis, volleyball, hockey, field hockey, lacrosse, and most other team sports. And while these each have their merits and can be electrifying to watch at their peak performance, they tend to bore—me, at least—because you know the team’s objective is. You know their chances, and you know what might or might not happen. Statistically, these sports are easier to predict than my favorite sport, baseball.

In a recent documentary entitled Fastball, the sport’s premise is described as there being really only two players on the field that matter, and that it comes down to a primal battle between “a man with a rock, and a man with a stick.” Pitcher and batter. Ball and bat. Though the field ballet of the game plays out in defensive grace, even miracles, the real electricity, the juice of the game, is in the battle between pitcher and batter.

There’s no other sport where two people are, literally speaking, doing things that are not only physically improbable and painfully difficult to execute—throwing a hundred-mile-per-hour fastball and trying to hit it—but are damn near impossible. Every moment between pitcher and batter is peak performance. The eye can only track that bullet fastball up to a certain speed, and that eye has to be trained, let alone transfer information into the grace and power that comes from a proper swing. And the arm can whip from the body, starting from the foot on the pitcher’s rubber, transferring through legs and core and back and shoulder into the arm and through the lashes of wrist and hand and fingers to throw at a speed so blinding fast that a batter can’t even see it until thwack!  into the dusty catcher’s mitt.

Along with the science and physics and sheer bodily power of the sport, there are books, poems, essays, and news articles about baseball being a religion, a path to God, because of its improbability and its mythical legend, its tendency to inspire intense faith in its fans. The sport has been played for nearly 200 years. It was first played, in an organized fashion, on the Elysian Fields in New Jersey. There are museums and research institutions dedicated to studying the history and evolution of the game and its players. There are statisticians combing through arcane data about individual players that most everyday baseball fans don’t understand. It is considered the American pastime, a patriotic sport, where the anthem becomes more than nationalistic pride, but a celebration of song—as does the seventh inning stretch. I once saw a professional choir sing the anthem and heard a famous violinist play it. There is joy and love of music in that moment of pause before the shout of “Play ball!”

And there are those fans, those believers, who gather in the stadiums and ballparks that peak like cathedrals across the country to cheer on their favorite team because they were born there, or moved there, or became a fan through a friend, or grew up playing the game. Or, like me, had a father so devoted to his Mets fandom that I couldn’t help but absorb it even more than the Catholicism that I learned and ultimately decided wasn’t for me.

I’ve cried and laughed and jumped for joy at Mets games. I’ve stood somber and cold in the stands during a loss, and chanted with fellow fans under bright lights when our team needed the support, the inspiration and belief of the masses, to push forth and win. I’ve booed and cheered and bought a jersey with my name on the back of it as if I could jump into the game myself if they needed a 33rd inning pinch hitter. I’ve taken score, noting each pitch, each play, to the point of precision where, during a playoff game, the stadium’s scoreboard was wrong and I was right. Fans around me asked, knowing I was scorekeeping, “Are there really two outs?” I said, “Nope, I’ve only got one.” Thirty seconds later, the scoreboard changed accordingly.

I never did any of that in a church. It just wasn’t as fun, and as I grew older, I realized that it simply didn’t mean as much to me. It didn’t carry as much wonder or awe or belief in the human spirit, in overcoming odds and adversity to win, and to gracefully accept loss and renew one’s spirit in time for the next season—much as we do as humans who live year by year, season by season, going through the slow marathon of everyday life–much as a baseball season with 162 or more games spanning 7 months is a slow marathon built on momentum and the courage and energy to break into the final hard sprint to win it all.

But baseball did carry that wonder and awe, and it still does for me. Unlike the other sports that follow that standard format of back-and-forth play to score a goal, baseball has a form unlike any other game. The field is vast and open, spreading out with no clear-cut boundaries other than foul line and fence—and you can even make a legal play out-of-bounds, over the foul line, leaping into the stands where fans will catch you. The diamond is set just so that the pitcher can throw at maximum velocity and power and control, and the base runners have 90 foot intervals—a perfect interval considering the speed at which most players throw and run and the time and distance they have to make a play—to advance and score a run across home plate. The ultimate score is a home run, a ball is hit so far that no player can catch it—and a fan can take it home, maybe even get it signed, and keep it as a souvenir to pass on to a son or daughter. And determining the potential and fate of a home run hit is the baseball park itself—how the stadium is built, the varying dimensions of the outfield, the change and speed of the wind and the height of the outfield fence.

Despite the math, the perilous odds, baseball offers moments for reflection on those perils, both for fans and players. There’s a rhythm to each pitch, and there’s often a hush that overcomes the crowd as the pitcher winds up, unless the fans are chanting and whistling for a strikeout. And there’s a reaction to each pitch, whether it be relief, celebration, joy, indifference, disappointment, anger, frustration, worry, denial (if the crowd disagrees with the umpire’s call), or even empathy (if a player gets hit), and all of those emotions are audible in the crowd’s tone, rhythm, voice. It’s not unlike a church, where parishioners and priests align in belief and speech and song. The Wave exists for a reason, as an undulating yet unified motion, a comical yet endless physical devotion.

And the players, like the fans, will jabber on to each other during those moments of respite in between plays. They’ll crack jokes, ask how the family is doing, share their agreement on a bad call, or even taunt and intimidate and pressure. Just watch a runner standing at first base with a former teammate. They’ll be talking plenty. And the players will convene on the pitcher’s mound to talk strategy, speaking with their mitts over their mouths to keep secret what they say. They even serve as their own cheerleaders, just like the fans, shouting from each dugout and rooting for their teammates in the same exciting belief that they can rally, they can win—the same thing the fans believe, despite their team’s odds and the grim statistics that prove that being a “great” hitter means getting a hit every three in ten at-bats, and being a “great” pitcher means barely escaping the danger of a power bat or the sly speed of a gritty base running strategy to allow the least runs possible.

Win or lose, it is about belief—a shared belief—in defiance of the odds, in awe of the performance, in celebration of the shared faith not that we will win, but that we can win despite intense, insurmountable challenges.

This past week, I watched a truly great baseball legend, David Ortiz, retire as a thirteen-year Red Sox veteran. The Sox lost, swept in the playoffs by the Indians, but they did so at home. Maybe they didn’t win, and maybe the season ended with the disappointment at abrupt loss, but David Ortiz, who spent thirteen years as a great Red Sox hitter and admirable philanthropist and charismatic leader for not just the team, but the city, was home for his farewell game. After the Indians celebrated on the field and went to their clubhouse for a champagne shower, Ortiz heeded the deafening call of 37,000 fans in Fenway Park to come out for one last goodbye.

He made his way to the pitcher’s mound while Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man played on the ballpark speakers, all brass and gongs and drum, the song of American triumph. He took off his cap, tears pooling in his eyes, and raised it to the crowd with his hand over his heart as he stood on the pitcher’s mound. He patted his chest and turned to take in the entire stadium, the tens of thousands there present, and the millions watching, and kissed them goodbye before disappearing back into the clubhouse and taking off his uniform to transform back into a common man, his legendary days gone, but forever inscribed into the memories of millions of baseball fans.

But in that moment, standing on the mound, saluting the crowd with his hat and his hand on his heart, he stood as a future bronze sculpture for legendary and mythic baseball. That moment culminated in his final point to the sky before donning his cap again. He walked slowly back to the dugout, wiping tears from his eyes because of the deep love his fans have for him.

This past year, ever since the Mets made an improbable run in the 2015 World Series and an even more improbable run with an injury-battered team of rookies for the 2016 Wild Card Game, I started being a fan of not just my team, but the game. I got to see the Mets beat the Dodgers in a decisive Game 3 victory in the divisional playoffs—with my dad, of course, both of us screaming and cheering like loons, filled with joy, along with 45,000 other fans. I got to watch my childhood favorite ballplayer get inducted into the Hall of Fame. I got the autographs of Mets World Champions from 1986, the year I was born. And I got to take in a Red Sox game at Fenway Park on the last day of September when David Ortiz hit his final career home run in the first of three farewell games.

When he smacked that homer past the right field fence, I’d never seen a crowd of people so happy, so inspired, delusional with joy, and yet so connected to those around them with whom they shared the experience—including Ortiz himself. They hugged, arm in arm, cheering, high fives, whistles and claps and the final cry of happiness when Ortiz cross the plate and pointed to the misty sky.

I wouldn’t call baseball an interest of mine. I’d call this a belief, a reawakening to a centuries-old sport that transcends human adversity against perilous odds, a sport that is fueled by faith in the impossible, and a sport that offers admiration in tough loss and glorification, even beatification in impossible, miraculous victory. Baseball has a sense of miracle when a low slider is pounded over the fence, or when a shortstop makes a diving catch-and-throw to first base, or when a centerfielder hurls a strike from the warning track to nail the runner out at home, or when a runner steals home and scores, sliding down into the dusty clay and brushing the plate with a bare hand to win a game.

It’s all bang-bang fast, and you have to pay attention closely to see the nuance, the dance. But in between those breathless plays, those precise pitches and cracking bats, you can lean back, breathe the warm summer air, sip a beer, put your arm around your son or daughter, and relish in a satisfying and emotional experience that no other sport gives those who love it.