TWO SCREENS, ONE NIGHT

José Fernandez and a non-political reminder to be human

“I’m thankful for the way this election season brings out the best in everybody,” said a friend.

Sarcastically. Of course.

In the past few months, everybody seems to be especially on edge, especially fearful of an uncertain future, and especially ready to lash out and argue with anyone who disagrees with their perspectives.

Of course a lot of this seems to revolve around the pending election, but if it wasn’t that controversy it would be another. The past two, maybe three years, seem to be filled with one hot story seeming to divide everybody into one of two sides.

I hate to be the type drawn in to sensationalism, but it seems to have worked its way into culture to the point where you really can’t escape it. Every day there’s something new and shocking that a candidate has said, and yet none of it seems surprising.

None of this is especially new. People have been making jokes about how terrible politics are for hundreds of years, if not longer. You can go back and find that adage about not talking about politics and religion at the dinner table in more and more archaic language– two domains of discourse shalt thou render absent from our gathering, that of governance and that of doctrine.  You’ll find brazenly offensive articles about how John Quincy Adams shouldn’t be president due to his illegitimate black children. It’s all the same. This stuff has always been unsavory.

And so I’ve been trying to resist the shock, even though the world around me is pretty good at making this political plot line seem as dramatic as possible. One candidate seems to be faring dismally, only to make a surging comeback. There’s a scandal plaguing the other one and some new information that just might destroy the campaign. The headlines are pretty much junk food- industrially manufactured and addicting.

There is one thing that does manage to legitimately surprise and sadden me. It’s when I’ve seen the ugly sides of people I’ve gotten to know personally.

It’s what happens when I see an older gentleman I once knew as a kind, grandpa-like figure that volunteered much of his time at local schools start posting undeniably racist things.

It’s what happens when I see two old college friends who I knew as warm and funny people completely tear each other apart online because of some article one of them shared.

It’s what happens when I realize that there are a certain portion of my friends who would have opposed the legality of my marriage if they were born thirty years earlier and six hundred miles to the east. I think that the same people who refuse to acknowledge a disparity in the way black people are treated in society today would have also seen an interracial marriage as “unnatural,” if they were born in a setting where that was a common thought.

That part of the chaos is harder to navigate. I want to believe the best in people. Sometimes they don’t make that easy.

When it comes to social media, some people automatically unfollow people who support an opposing candidate or who hold offensive beliefs.  I don’t think that approach is for me. I like being friends with a broad spectrum of people, even ones I disagree with. Plus, I don’t think I do myself a favor by building a cocoon of like-minded people.

But I have started unfollowing people. No matter someone’s political beliefs, I will unfollow somebody whose posts are over 90% political. There is so much more to a person than party affiliation, and that what I’d like to see.

Still, as the election gets closer, there’s still enough political discourse among the people I haven’t unfollowed to create a news feed frenzy.

Scroll, scroll, scroll. Scandal. Scroll, scroll, scroll. Immigration and Muslims and Refugees. Scroll, scroll, scroll. Running mates, debates, swing states. Scroll, scroll, scroll. Police shot an unarmed black man. School shooter kills 20. Photo of a girl from Syria.

•••

I woke up on a Sunday morning and checked the time on my phone. 6:00 AM.

Just below the time and date, I had a notification from BleacherReport, my app of choice for keeping up with sports.

MLB– Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez, 24, found dead in wreckage of a boating accident.

I paused for a minute. I’ve been a huge baseball fan for my entire life and so the headline did not compute.

Jose Fernandez was one of the best young pitchers in baseball, only three years removed from winning Rookie of the Year. I’m a Phillies fan, and although the past few seasons have gone terribly, there has been talk that the team would try and go and trade for some high-profile players. Fernandez was one name that kept coming up, but his name always came up in trade rumors. He had a powerful arm, a smooth delivery, and masterful command of a baseball. He made striking guys out look easy, and he always looked like he was having fun while doing it. Most baseball insiders said that he was also just starting to gain mental maturity that would probably take his natural talent into the next level.

It was a shock to learn that such a talented, enthusiastic, burgeoning life could end so quickly and suddenly.

I read the details of the accident. Apparently he and two friends were fishing in choppy ocean waters off the Miami coast on a Saturday night. The waves were rough and the boat was thrown thirty feet in the air and on impact, all three men were killed.

A few more articles began to surface, more focused on Fernandez’ life than his death. They described his boylike vibrancy, his lively personality, and his journey to the United States as a refugee. As a teenager, he was jailed twice for trying to escape Cuba by raft. His third attempt was successful, and on that journey, he saved his own mom who fell overboard. The articles got sadder. His girlfriend was a few months pregnant.

This year had already seen plenty of celebrity deaths. Gene Wilder passed just the week before. We lost Prince and Bowie and Alan Rickman. Not many of these tragedies really register with me. They’re sad, as a loss of human life, but as people I don’t really know, not many of them truly sink in.

Having played baseball for most of my life, Fernandez’ death was a little different. Baseball diamonds were always a temple of sorts, where time stood still and life poured out of every split-second in between swings and pitches. It was sad seeing the memoriam posts for him listing his lifespan as 1992-2016 and realizing I was a few years his senior. And yet, in such a short lifetime, he did so many of the things I hope to do in my own– find something I do well, have a blast while doing it, and bring joy to other people.

•••

•••

The first presidential debate was set for Monday night. It was going head-to-head with Monday Night Football and was expected to be the most watched event by a landslide.

I didn’t watch for a few reasons.

One, I had something else to watch and my options for Live TV are limited since I don’t have cable. I figured it would be pretty easy to find a replay, anyways.

Two, I was getting mentally tired of the election news stories and sensationalism. I didn’t expect anything to come out of the debate that would’ve changed my mind and I would eventually prove myself correct.

Three, without getting too much into it, debates aren’t really the best way to gague how a person would perform in a political role. I prefer policy papers and voting records. Most debate questions are answered with rally-the-crowd phrases and non-answers.

And four, I don’t really think much comes out of a debate. Sure, newspapers and anchors find great headlines for the next day, but I have yet to hear of a friend whose opinion was flipped after watching a debate. Mostly everyone leaves thinking that their candidate won the debate.

Perhaps that’s the redeeming quality of a debate– everyone feels like a winner.

At the end of the day, though, nobody’s opinion really seems to change.

That’s the real big kicker.

For a culture that prides itself on efficiency, we sure are spending a whole lot of money and emotional energy only to make people cling more fervently to what they’ve already convinced themselves is true.

It’s a lot of arguing. A lot of anger. A lot of rehearsed arguments. Not much listening.

Once upon a time I was all about engaging with politics and being well informed. I still am, actually. I agree with all the people who will quickly point out that the freedom to vote and hold a political opinion is something a lot of people in other countries have. I agree with my Argentine teacher who emphasized that as an American, my vote impacts not just my country but the entire world. I agree with all those who recognize that people died for that freedom.

But they died for other freedoms too. The freedom to live life and be human and Love and worship and be with people.

I plan to vote for a candidate in a few weeks. I’ll vote for some other things to. It’ll be one decision I make out of billions throughout the course of a year– I don’t know how you can even begin to count the decisions I’ll make over the course of a lifetime.

While not all decisions are weighted equally, I don’t think my vote will be the most important decision I make all year. That week, even.

My choices on how to spend my time, what to do to help the people around me who need it, how to live a good life- those are much more consequential decisions.

Heck, even my political votes at a local level are approximately 2,066 times more consequential. (I roughly did the math.)

Be an informed voter. But realize that other, bigger, decisions in your life also need you and your energy and enthusiasm and time.

We’re at a point where most people I know don’t suffer for a lack of information. People are very well informed. They have access to all the information one could possibly need to make a decent vote.

What we are lacking, is wisdom.

There are a few other things that have been in short supply this year, too.

•••

GORDON.jpg

•••

The Marlins-Mets game was set for Monday night. Normally I would have zero interest in seeing these two teams play a game that would have virtually no playoff implications. But it would be the Marlins’ first game since Jose Fernandez’ death. The game on Sunday, when everybody learned about the tragedy, was cancelled. I wanted to watch the game the following day.

There was a beautiful pre-game ceremony. A moment of silence. All the players in black jerseys displaying Fernandez’ name and number. Unity. Somberness. After the national anthem, all the players gathered around the pitching mound and rubbed some of the dirt on their pants- one of Jose’s quirks that they now mimicked in tribute. Giancarlo Stanton led a prayer and a pep talk.

When the Marlins came to bat, Dee Gordon led off. I was always an undersized ballplayer, and so I’ve had an affinity to smaller baseball players who make the most with what they have. Dee Gordon is that type of player.

What he did in that at bat has now been written about extensively and is the stuff of legend.

The lefty hit from the right side of the plate, and mimicked Fernandez’ batting stance. He let Bartolo Colon’s pitch go by. He switched sides for the next pitch. Then on the third one, he swung, hit the ball, and it lifted.

No way. I thought. If he hit a home run in that moment, in the first at-bat since Fernandez’ death, it would be too perfect. Like, if that happened in a movie, the movie would be dismissed for being too cliché.

Real life, though, is a little different.

The ball flew over the fence without a doubt. Gordon rounded the bases and burst into tears. I watched from my living room. It was chilling. Magical. Awe-inspiring. This guy hadn’t hit a homer all season long.

“I told the boys that if y’all don’t believe in God, you better start,” said Gordon in a post game interview. “I ain’t never hit a ball that far, even in BP.”

The team embraced and let out a whole flood of emotions. In that game, one that I only watched in the wake of tragedy, I saw so many of the best elements of being a human being.

Doing what you love, finding a way to do it professionally. Working hard. Having fun. Most of all, doing it with other people. Most of the players had gone through the Minor Leagues together. The Marlins were a young team, most of them younger than me. There was a certain brotherhood among the team that I recognized from locker rooms and dugouts I had graduated from.

Watching that made me realize that being fragile is part of being human. It was a reminder that no matter how healthy, rich, or talented, I may be, the next day is never guaranteed. At any given moment, my life might be asked of me, and I’ll want to go knowing that I did things joyfully, that I brought others joy, and that I got to live life surrounded by people I cared about.

This game made me want to be human again.

The debate aired at the same time, attracting far more viewers. I didn’t feel like I missed anything. I would later catch up and learn that I really didn’t. If anything, I felt a little bit like the people who missed seeing this game missed out. Two events competed for the same screen on the same night. One of them showed something that made most people angry, smug, or dogmatic. The other one showed something that had to be seen to be believed, that was awe-inspiring, and that made me want to be a better friend.

Here’s a thought– there’s a design element to the human brain that embraces black-and-white binaries, us-versus-them approaches, and competition. Competition is how humans were built to survive, but it has its limits. At a certain point, survival and life become better served through cooperation. We have both capabilities within us.

Sports is a fantastic domain for competition. You are literally wearing different uniforms. The aggression can propel you to play harder and give it your all.

Public service (ahem, politics) should be a great domain for cooperation. People working together for the sake of public well-being.

That Monday night, I saw an unhealthy amount of aggression and black-and-white thinking come from the land of politics. In his pregame speech, Giancarlo Stanton told his teammates to look out for each other. If somebody isn’t doing well, pick him up. I saw the sports world give me fraternity, friendship, and cooperation.

When November comes, please vote.

Go vote, but also, be human.

Watch a stupid show with somebody you Love and laugh about something the screenwriters didn’t intend to be funny. Go get slices of pizza from every pizza shop in town that claims to be the best and decide for yourself. Take a mode of transportation you’ve never taken before, even if it’s a skateboard or a Barbie Jeep. Take some markers and draw all over something in your house that you don’t mind turning into a canvas. Call somebody you haven’t spoken to since 2012. Go pull a prank on someone that would make your middle-school self proud. Find someone who’s having a bad day and make them chilli. Take an old machine that has given you trouble and invite friends to attack it with a golf club like in Office Space. Buy somebody a cup of coffee. Find out they aren’t a coffee drinker and laugh awkwardly about it. Give it to somebody else but don’t tell him he wasn’t your first option.

Inform your vote with numbers. Look up position statements, budget proposals, voting records, and all that.

Also inform your vote with the way your lover’s breath rises and falls, the fears and concerns of a friend who grew up poorer than you, the way your nephew loves learning about math in school, the dreams a foster kid in your neighborhood has of one day playing ball, and the migration patterns of the albatross.

Understand the implication your decisions will have on these things. Your decisions include your vote, but also, how you spend your time today. Who you decide to call today.

We’ll have a new leader next year.

You’ll still have a friend in me.

Philippe Lazaro2016