Reading A Wonderful Waste of Time

I started reading son Terry’s book, A Wonderful Waste of Time, right when it came out—of course. But that was in the midst of the chaos—all the disruptions of the pandemic, teaching, union busting, and the general apocalypse of modern life. Once I ascertained, a hundred pages in, that the book was indeed a treasure to be savored, I set it aside to be lingered over—well, dare I say?-—when I had time to waste. And, as SXU duties subsided this year in June, that time was here.

What I like about Terry’s book—in particular, reading it now—is that I feel I am re-entering the world after a weird 15-month interlude. The pandemic brought a sense of doom, and nothing can be the same after our collective descent into the fugue state that has been quarantine. At this time, despite the very real devastation and suffering experienced by some, many of us have emerged unscathed or even improved. It’s confusing. Yet somehow Terry’s recollections of the summer of 2017 resonate–oddly—with both pre- and post-pandemic psychology, all of it overcast somehow with the cloud that was the pandemic itself. The mix in this book—Terry’s wistfulness, his realness, sweetness, misanthropy, simple appreciation, hope, and wry resignation—all of it seems such a good fit for my summer mind this particular summer. I’m doing my reading super slowly, a chapter a day, trying as best I can to synch up the dates of this summer with those of 2017, the year chronicled in the book.

My momentary (but recurrent) takeaway is that there’s a hopelessness to everything about the Frontier League. And yet today I heard Terry describe himself (in the book) as a “Frontier League junkie.” That’s an unusual expression for a stolid fellow like Terry, and in the book, he has put a spotlight on the highs and lows (and even-keels?) of his addiction, not necessarily to say or do or request anything urgent. The Frontier League is what it is. But in the process of being that, we’re learning about this cranky broadcaster, as he gently and rigorously thinks through everything, openly sharing his quirks and not-so-quirkish dispositions and routines: his love of walks (in town, not in games, heaven forfend!), his love of work—of escape from work, of talking shop with colleagues, and—always—of giving and receiving what is expected, whether it is in the making of an accurate, informative call for an anxious fan or in providing lunch and a clean work space for a visiting team’s broadcaster.

One reads, and asks “Why? Why is this story being told?” Answer: It’s a wonderful waste of time. Kinda like this span of 80-90 years some of us are blessed to have. And in this sense, I put Terry’s book in the category of Ken Burns’s remarkable reflection on life shared with Terry Gross at the end of the interview on his Vietnam documentary (coincidentally recorded in the late summer of 2017 (September 27), right about the time that Terry is chronicling). If war is “human nature on steroids,” Frontier League baseball is the “ambivalence of summer on steroids.” In passing the time with us, Terry takes us into the side-roads of his mind, league history, local color, personal stories and rituals, a tragedy here and there, kindness, reflections on motivation, and, in one memorable passage, an image of Gary Cooper/Lou Gehrig at the carnival on a game day(!). It’s wonderfully connected, the hopes, disappointments, and enduring possibilities of all these professionals traveling by bus through the night, across the Midwest. You can take almost any passage to get the feel, and so, here I share a characteristic moment snatched from today’s reading in Chapter 15:

We finish in the early evening and I’m left with a night to myself in Florence [Kentucky]. I decide to expand my horizons and really explore the area by foot in a way that I haven’t before. Florence is famous for its mall, immortalized by a water tower that is visible from the highway that proclaims “Florence Y’all.” The legend goes that the tower originally said “Florence Mall” back in the 70s, but because the mall hadn’t opened yet, they weren’t allowed to advertise for a not-yet-existent business. Rather than paint over it, they changed “Mall” to “Y’all” with the intention of changing it back when the mall opened. The redesigned tower, though, proved so popular that the sign has remained as repainted all these years later. 

Today, I make my first ever trip to this mall that is so famous it needed a misprinted water tower advertisement. I feel like working in the Frontier League has allowed me to witness first-hand the collapse of American malls. Often, local malls are the only place to hang out near the hotel, perfect for getaway days. They also provide the richest array of restaurants. I’ve become a regular mall walker, getting my exercise in by going from one end to the other with all of the octogenarians. When I first started in this league, the local malls were still bustling, full of strong businesses and hearty customers. Now, it seems as though half the storefronts are empty and the mall walkers are sparse. One of them approaches me today and frantically demands, “Do you know what the Enola Gay is?” “Sure,” I tell her, and she sighs contentedly, thanks me and walks away. What a strange encounter. I didn’t even prove to her that I knew the Enola Gay was the ship that sunk the Titanic.

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