Root & Branch


An entry in my series of ethnographic memoirs discussing growing up in a Zen Buddhist family.

Mathew Somlai

            Before I tell this story, some historical background is necessary.  Every family has stories that they love telling.  Whenever we get together, we usually retell these stories as a dessert -- a piece of Mom's apple pie to share and savor.  In my own family, there are several stories that revolve around Jeno and me in youth sports.  Jeno was beautiful to watch.  He was, and is, graceful and strong. 

            There's the wrestling story.  Jeno was the best wrestler in the state in the first period.  In true Jeno form, he would go full out, leaving nothing on the mat.  The problem though was that there are three periods in a match.  When we lived in Powell, we were wrestling against Cody, our rivals.  Jeno was up 10 to 2 after the first period, and was exhausted.  The second period saw his competition tie the score 10 to 10.  Third period, 30 seconds left, and Jeno's losing 12 to 11.  He's swatting like a tranquilized bear.  He sees his opening, dives with all he has left after dieting for a week to get down to his weight, takes the other wrestler down, and wins.  The crowd erupts.

            Or there's the story of Jeno as quarterback.  He was great.  Winning the game.  And all of a sudden the coach decides to put his own son in -- a 5 foot 3 inch side arm thrower.  All the son had to do was kneel on the ball.  Instead, he throws it, hits his own lineman in the back of the head, and the other team comes down with the ball.  There's many more stories of Jeno's magnificent feet in soccer. 

            I was never jealous.  I mean, I always wanted to be like Jeno, to fly and soar and score.  But whenever I watched his beauty, I smiled and thought, "That's my brother."  I envied his abilities, but was never jealous.  I was, and remain, proud.

            The stories of my athletic attempts are a little more humorous.  These stories are always recounted with sweet smiles, as if to say, "But he tried so hard."  I once recommended that my soccer team, which Dad coached, be called the "White Clouds."  This should give you a sense of where my abilities were.  I'd be caught on the field throwing grass in the air, or moving a snail off the field, or making sure my socks were clean and even. 

            One soccer game, I somehow got into a break away.  The wing passed a beautiful lob to me and I leapt into the air to head the ball into the goal.  I hit the goal post with a thunderous "Dong!" and knocked myself out.  I woke to Dad standing over me, worrying and shaking his head at the same time, and then smiling and picking me up (the same face appears when he retells the story). 

            I broke my nose in wrestling and actually tried to call a timeout.  There are no timeouts in wrestling.  Mom, always the kisser away of booboos, sometimes surprised me with a sideline yell of "Bubba!  Pay attention!"  She too had that smiling, head shaking look, as if to say, "Oh, sweet boy." 

            However, my inabilities actually worked for me one time.  Jeno, Dad, and I always played football outside on Thanksgiving, Dad taking q.b. for both Jeno and me.  Dad and I came up with the "fake injury" play.  I ran out as Jeno defended me and then I purposefully tripped and fell.  Jeno, smiling and head shaking, came over and asked, "You ok Bubba?"  "No, get Dad."  Jeno ran back to Dad yelling that I had hurt myself, not seeing me get up and take off for the endzone.  Dad lofted the ball to me for the touchdown with Jeno staring and then yelling, "No fair, no fair!" 

            Of course, only 3 years ago, Jeno and I were playing catch.  Jeno's still got an awesome arm.  I broke my finger on one of his passes.  He didn't believe me till I showed him my finger bent at an odd angle.

            So fast forward to a couple of weeks ago.  I decided to start getting some exercise and signed up for a local softball team sponsored by the bar that Brie and I like to go to on Fridays.  The team's name is "The Stumbling Bums" and I actually looked like one of the fittest guys on the team, so I thought this would be a good idea.  Our first 2 games were rained out.  The day of our first real game I went out and bought a new glove and Brie bought me a baseball shirt.  As I was new, the coach put me in sub rotations for batting and had me fielding for the last 2 innings.  Brie came and watched, truthfully the most beautiful wife there.  I felt like a lot of my team members looked at me, and then Brie, and thought that either I had money or I was more athletic than I appeared. 

            Finally, bottom of the 3rd, I get up to bat.  Now, I know I'm a hitter and not a slugger.  I have a man on 2nd and one out, so I'm just looking to forward him and get on if I can.  I take a lighter bat and step up.  First pitch, I swing and hit.  It’s an ok hit between the short stop and second, but center was playing shorter and he'll easily throw me out.  My runner had a good lead, so I decided to run as fast as I can to make them have to throw me out, thereby advancing my runner.  I drop the bat and start running, and, I'm telling the truth, I actually look like the freaking Road Runner.  My feet are moving, but I'm not.  So I lean down a little to get traction.  I start to advance, but now I'm at a 45-degree angle to the ground and my feet continue to fly.  Time slows, and I realize I'm going down.  I think of putting my hand down, but I see me breaking my arm, so instead, no joke, I put both arms out in Superman pose.  I actually think for a second that, like Peter Pan, if I believe enough of course I'll fly right to 1st base. 

            I land on my stomach and skid for two feet, arms stretched out before me and my feet, because of momentum, bent up over my butt behind me.  They throw me out at 1st, as I'm only 3 feet past home plate.  The entire field is silent.  My runner doesn't see what happens and rounds 3rd for home.  1st base throws home, but the catcher is standing, awestruck and mouth wide open, staring at me.  The ball flies over her head and my runner scores.  There is not a single sound.

            I stand, brush myself off, look around defiantly smiling and pump my arm in mock victory.  Laughter like none I've heard before, including my own, erupts.  I stroll back to my team and see Brie shaking her head sweetly, tears of laughter rolling down her face.  She looks at me as if to say, "Oh, sweet husband."  I am 11 again laughing at myself.  My teammates are very kind, and tease me nicely and deservedly, saying I lived up to the team name. 

            8th inning and I'm in right field, of course.  No ball comes my way and I ask our coach if he saw the way I didn't fall down throughout the entire inning and he laughs.  Brie continues to laugh every time she looks at me. 

            Top of the 9th, and we're down by one.  I'm in right and watch two outs.  Their big hitter comes to plate.  This guy hit one that almost went over the opposing field's fence in the 1st inning.  I back up knowing that he could aim one at me if he wanted to.  He does.  Except, smartly, he hits a short blooper.  I run again.  I put out my glove, laughing at myself.  I feel it hit and think, "Crap, I friggin' dropped it."  My team explodes in cheers.  I look down, it’s in the mitt, and I walk off the field with the look of "Well of course I caught it."  Brie high five's me and says "Nice catch babe."  I confide that I thought I dropped it and she smiles and shakes her head sweetly.

            Bottom of the 9th, down one, and I'm 5th in batting order.  Yep, I thought the same thing.  Its gonna friggin come down to me, sweet boy.  1st batter pop flies out.  2nd batter gets on.  3rd batter hits a double.  Runners are now on 2nd and 3rd, with one out.  4th batter gets up, and I'm wondering what would happen if I just run to the car yelling, "Brie let's go!"  Then I think that I'd probably fall before I could get my keys out of my pocket.  So I stay on deck, swinging, quieting, thinking, "You have looked the stupidest and best that you could look today, there is nothing to be afraid of." 

            I am 7, diving for the ball.  I am 10 getting back up after pretending to fall thinking, "Just catch Dad's pass."  I am 14, my nose spurting blood thinking, "This is only pain.  Move on."  I am 29 taking an ice pack from my sweet niece, Orissa, for my aching finger that her Daddy just broke.  I am 32, arms scraped up, still high off of a good play, looking at my beautiful wife who looks at me with the same love I've seen in her eyes for the past 5 years.  Before I went to deck, she said, "I admire you baby.  You're willing to do this when you know you could look goofy.  You're willing to get back up when you do look goofy."  And I think, "Sweet Bubba, that is more than anyone could ask for," as I laugh and shake my head.

            I am not a born winner.  I am not a born loser.  I was raised to love the camaraderie, the shared moment, and I swing for the fences because there is no story otherwise.  It is not about breaking even.  It is about finding reprieve from winning and losing through the story.  Everyday I wake up and thank the universe for providing more than one man could ask.  Everyday I think of the stories that I will tell my family and loved ones so that I may repay in small part.  Everyday I look forward to this back and forth, this synchronizing of our days and lives and heart beats.  I look forward most especially to the sweet head shake laughter, like hearing the "Mmm" as someone bites into a piece of homemade apple pie.

            I never did get up to bat again.  My teammate hit a marvelous sacrifice fly that brought both runners in.  I dropped the bat and congratulated him and the two runners.  Brie and I drove home, and she laughed the whole way.  I laughed too, thinking of how to tell the story, to repay the universe for such gifts.

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