Millyard Poetry Box

My neighborhood lies at the heart of Northampton, a small city in western Massachusetts. 

At the same time that it’s geographically centered, this neighborhood is also isolated and a little wild. The Millyard, that’s the name of this place that few know and fewer use, is an odd assembly of  old homes that used to house railroad workers. We live, by definition, on the other side of the tracks. And we like it that way — at least I do.

A few of us — my wife plus Figge and Melodie, the neighbors who abut our backyard — scheme over evening beers about bringing the community together. I decided to forge ahead by building then erecting The Millyard Poetry Box.

IMG_0236

I built and put up the Millyard Poetry Box to encourage neighborhood poets and readers to share what they love about the written word. 

The idea came from that hot house of all things cool — Portland, OR. My brother’s family lives in the Hollywood District of that most white and most millennial of cities, where people hold nude biking parades and drink the best beer in the land. Of course, next door to my brother’s house stands a poetry box.

I took pictures of the Portland poetry box and built my own, then painted signs, inviting others to contribute.

My hope is that neighbors, even those who live in the wider area, will print poems they love or write the poems they wish they could read and drop them off at the box. I’ll then display a new poem every week or so. 

I don’t imagine that keeping up with the flow of poems will be difficult work, rather like mowing the lawn in the Sahara Desert. 

I, though, have a surfeit of poems, both written by me and those I’ve collected from other poets. My shack walls are postered with poems by Wendall Berry, Wislawa Szymborska, Jack Kerouac, and Mary Oliver. My buddy Sam Taylor, the renowned potter, writes me poems that I tack up on my wall. They are all candidates for the Millyard Poetry Box. 

New England Palm Sunday Prayer is the first poem I hung in the box. It’s a poem I wrote a few years ago, and has been rejected by any number of publications. It’s found its place, the poetry box next to the railroad tracks. Walgreen’s Drugstore sits in the background across the tracks. This is self-publishing at its most primitive, and an improvement to the neighborhood.

I wanted to hang my poem Letter to the Neighbor who Calls the Fire Department When I Burn Illegally first, but my wife, Janet, warned me that a snarky first poem might set the wrong tone. She is right, which seems to be happening more and more the older I get. The poem is an invitation to my neighbor, whoever it is, to come talk to me before calling the authorities when burn brush. I set down four principles of our neighborhood, The Millyard:

  • Pull your shades during intimacy
  • Shovel your snow, help your neighbors shovel theirs
  • Mind the kids, even if they’re not yours
  • Spend a few moments chatting with neighbors, it thickens our bonds

Nobody asked me to set down what we believe here in The Millyard. It’s the opportunity I seized since I built The Poetry Box. If others would like to amend our principles, the Millyard Poetry Box is always open. 

Below is the first poem hung at the Millyard Poetry Box.

New England Palm Sunday Prayer

During an early spring warming

we reveal ourselves in the north,

we’re in shorts 

before the trees spread, 

before leaves hide us

from ourselves.

This Sunday before Easter,

the restless ride bikes and scooters

on the nearby bike path.

Some passersby watch me saw boards.

I, in turn, spy

one man try inflating a flat.

Pope Francis, a member of my Taoist, Episcopal, Stoic sect,

intones help is always right.

Straight as mercy can make me,

I arrive.

The local student says he’s at a loss.

I promise I’ll return

with air pump, tire irons and a new tube. 

You couldn’t have broken down in a better place, I say.

We shake: His brown eyes sincere, 

his hand splotched black from tire grime

still soft.

When I reappear,

he’s gone 

— the pump and irons as well.

I pray for my tools to get stuck in his spokes

sending him sprawling.

Bloody, I hope.

I put away my saw, hammer and level,

notice a lawn chair

— on it I find my returned irons and pump.

Tomorrow’s forecast is for cold rain.

I rejoice.

 

Advertisements

Old Invention, New Insight

My Smith-Corona taught me how to write.

The manual typewriter reminds me every time I use it that I have to be careful about my relationship with freedom. It’s a drug that feels good going down, but too much of it disrupts my work flow. My slick laptop manipulates text so easily that if I don’t pay attention, I don’t write anything new for hours.

It’s not that I get distracted by social media or jumping down an internet rabbit hole. I turn off my wi-fi when writing. The hard truth is that rewriting a sentence is easier than writing a new one.

My Smith-Corona won’t let me rewrite or revise — it forces me to create. 

img_0207.jpg
A poem full of the mistakes and xxxs that happen when I write on my Smith-Corona. Tracey Martin painted the watercolor on the left. I wrote the poem for Sam Taylor, after watching him struggle with leaving Martha’s Vineyard.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my problem was one that the psychologist and author, Barry Schwartz, has been investigating for years. Schwartz, who wrote the book The Paradox of Choice, says that choice and freedom are accepted as the ultimate benefit by western society, when, in fact, too much of both leaves us unhappy, maybe even depressed. In my case, too much choice leaves me unproductive.

I might never have seen the issue, if I had not started writing poems on my Smith-Corona typewriter at the Martha’s Vineyard Art Market, where I charged customers for each poem I wrote in twenty minutes. I call it writing Poems On-Demand. 

Now, I’m figuring out how to incorporate the lessons learned writing typewriter poems into my regular writing routine as I work to finish a middle-grade novel. The typewriter, a machine invented in the 19th century, I realize, has something to say to 21st century writers.

I’ve written poems at the Martha’s Vineyard Art Market two years running. Last year, I got a feel for my Smith-Corona. This year, writing hard from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. one September Sunday, I noticed a fearlessness developing in my relationship to my work. The Smith-Corona had everything to do with that.

A typewriter, more a small printing press than a word processor, does not allow second chances, no do-overs, few changes. Like a boatman who could not alter his sail, I had to put myself on a tack and keep the line until I finished the poem. My manual typewriter has no corrective tape, and the only way to eliminate an error is to type xxx through unwanted letters.

I added a time limit to my new no-revising restriction. I told people that I’d have their poem ready for them after they were done browsing the paintings, pottery, and woodworking available at the Art Market. I had to meet deadline.

After working this way, forging ahead without stopping and doing it quickly, I found I was writing differently. I was playing, writing with abandon, not caring so much about the product. 

I wanted people to be happy with their poems, sure, but I could not change anything once the text rolled off my Smith-Corona. This was 19th century technology. They had to accept it, and so did I.

When I work normally, I often get lost in choice, hopping from one mode of writing to another. Writers can create. They can edit. They can proofread. They can revise. They can procrastinate. In one hour, I can do them all and often have. That’s a problem, since what writers need to do first is write — not revise and redo.

Smith-Corona limits my choices. I can only create. The typewriter demands that I remain a creator, a maker, a poet who never turns to editing before the work of dreaming up the text is complete. When I make a mistake, I work around it, and so instead of dismissing what I bungled, I make an opportunity of it.

That’s a different way of thinking. That’s the mindset that so many writers of how-to writing manuals advise that beginning writers adopt. When Anne Lamott or Elizabeth Gilbert or Ted Kooser implore writers to practice one part of writing at a time, they must do so with a wide, wry smile. They know the difficulty of sticking with the creating. 

The rest of us — by that I mean me — switch out of the creating lane easily when we lose the momentum of inspiration. My word processing application allows me access to any part of my novel within seconds. I may be working on page 56, but I can return to page 3 within seconds, changing the dialogue there to be consistent with what I just wrote. The speed with which I’m able to zoom around the text makes me feel like a superhero. Trouble is I don’t need to be a superhero; I need to write original copy.

But, oops that word is spelled wrong. So, I change it. That sentence is put together in a clunky way. I revise it. I switch easily from visioning to revisioning, because that’s easier for me. Fixing what’s there, fiddling with the less than perfect isn’t as scary as bringing something new to life out of nothing.

All that choice is stifling. It turns out psychologists have been studying this for the last fifteen years. They know what Smith-Corona had to teach me:  Too much freedom is a pain. 

Schwartz, a professor at Swarthmore College who studies choice and freedom, wrote in the Harvard Business Review back in 2008, that “Choice is good for us, but its relationship to satisfaction appears to be more complicated than we had assumed… What’s more, psychologists and business academics alike have largely ignored another outcome of choice: More of it requires increased time and effort and can lead to anxiety, regret, excessively high expectations, and self-blame if the choices don’t work out.”

That is exactly how I feel after a few hours of writing, yet not producing anything new. It’s the opposite of the joy I felt clacking my way through 20-minute poems on my Smith-Corona. 

The typewriter, that old-time machine that limits my choice, improves my well-being — and my writing. Many of us jettisoned our typewriters thirty years ago. Some people kept theirs, like the angel in Hadley, MA. who read my plea for a typewriter and gave me hers. I was ready to pay her $50. She gave it to me, instead.

I cannot, though, use a typewriter for my 30,000 word children’s novel. Using the Smith-Corona, and keeping track of more than 100 separate pages of text, would be missing the point. I can learn from the Smith-Corona experience without tossing my laptop.

So, here are my Smith-Corona writing lessons:

  1. Write in time chunks. For a poem, that might mean working for twenty to thirty minutes uninterrupted. Finish the unedited, unrevised, unproofread poem and rest. Then repeat. For my novel, I am trying to write one hour at a time. Then  rest or stretch or putter in the garden. The difficulty is returning to the writing, not getting distracted by my quick rest. Solving that issue is a post for another day.
  2. Set my expectations clearly. If I am creating, then I need to enter my Smith-Corona mode, moving forward and not getting distracted by the quality of the product. This is the time for play, for fun. It’s also risky and why I often revert to revising.

Schwartz talks about too much choice leaving some people blaming themselves for being unhappy when decisions don’t work out the way they expected. We’ve all had days filled with blame when our writing failed.

My days with the Smith-Corona, though, were blame free. The environment was low stakes, I know. None of those poems will ever be published, nor should they. But I can’t help but feel that my satisfaction increased while my expectations were tampered, because I was working on a machine that allowed me one choice: to write.

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com

Typewriter Poems

In the spirit of school starting again, and personal reinvention, I started typing poems on my Smith-Corona typewriter. My goal is to finish a poem within twenty minutes, using some words that I provide myself. It’s a practice for this weekend’s visit to Martha’s Vineyard, where I’ll join Paul Farrington, Tracey Martin Logan and Sam Taylor. Those three are selling their art at a pop-up art market; I’ll be writing poems on demand for people who want them.

This practice, writing without editing, allowing the provided words to drive the poem has led to an interesting formula. I type (forbidding any editing,) then I write the poem longhand in a notebook, (changing a few words,) and then enter it into my computer. 

The results are poems that aren’t as coherent as I’d like, start to finish, but contain gems of silliness and folly plus images that I believe I would not have accessed if not for this new process. 

Below are the first three poems of the week, starting from the most recent. Do me a favor, if you have the time and inclination: Tell me what you like about one of these poems in the comment section.

They’re fresh, more raw than I otherwise would allow. Thanks for reading.

Spending Spree

She touched like she shopped,

prudent, frugal, as if

there’d never be enough,

believed each contact

should take on meaning,

a living exemplar

of two together.

To reinvent her way, 

carve a new path among 

sidewalk strangers, lovers 

met at the end of the night

at the end of the bar

at the end of the week,

she considered that her self,

the part beyond and below

her skin, more than what she saw

and smelled, could not continue

as Jewel Weed, the exploding 

Touch-Me-Not flower.

She wondered what the city

tasted like when hugging:

a spending spree of touch.

Tried it, allowing purple

to pour over her, 

like standing under blueberry

falls. There, she tasted colors mixing, 

purple in all who she met, 

enough, to share at the end.

Written Wednesday at 9 a.m. using the words frugal, reinvent, touch-me-not, purple, and sample. I changed sample to exemplar when I wrote it out longhand.

 

The Color of Rain

Fuchsia is the color of rain.

Zinnia tastes of your compost:

cucumber skins, coffee grounds and egg shells.

Lupine smells of mountain air,

nose tingling first.

The garden you cultivate attracts

friends, some of whom you’ll never meet.

How’s that possible?

Let’s ruminate about sweat bees, moths,

silver-spotted skippers, goldfinches,

and little girls who knock on your door

to tell you they love you.

They have many names:

Sue, Randy, Carolina, Ringneck, and Hester.

They flock to the space you tend.

Written Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. for Janet Gary, who teaches me about gardening, living, and loving. She gave me the words fuchsia, ruminate, and Randy.

 

Beginning

Good to begin with cats

as companions. They purr,

don’t smell — much.

House cats fit in the vessel of choice

for gliding from here to somewhere else.

Cats in canoes, red ones sliding 

without whirring, that’s one way to begin.

The point right?

Be sure to load the canoe

with jalapeños, tomatoes, and cilantro, 

the holy trinity of salsa,

a jar of it, garden-grown, will serve

as a gift you might use

to avoid the brawl travelers in crimson canoes

inevitably start. Beginning means

tolerating the unprepared.

Boy Scouts be damned. They write apt mottos

don’t travel well with wet cats.

Your paddle drips when lifting it

from the lake — don’t let that mess

stop you or you’ll never

begin.

Written Monday at 8 a.m. using the words red, canoe, brawl.

Reinventing On Demand

Summer’s end hit me when I came home from camping with my family over Labor Day weekend. I had been ignoring the shortening days, the cooler mornings, my garden’s shriveling plants.

We hear a prevailing message about summer passing: The end is near. The fun is over. For a week, I struggled to find a new way to think about fall. 

IMG_0175
My pal, the Smith-Corona typewriter, hanging out with an eggplant one late summer morning.

The answer I found is as easy as going back to school. Mary Laura Philpotte wrote a piece in the New York Times about the idea that returning to school allows students to reinvent themselves once a year. Why shouldn’t adults avail themselves of the opportunity as well? Philpotte wrote that she was going back to 40th grade.

The essay reminded me of how for the last 20 years, first as a student in a master’s degree program then as an elementary school teacher, I worked to create community out of the possibility of classmates and students I had never met. I helped cook a new September stew every year.

One year, I decided that in my class we’d all be knights of our own roundtable, embodying classic virtues, like courage and perseverance and humility. Other years, I had students bring in artifacts of their lives as a way to share who they were with us. During the first month of school, I asked the students in as many ways as I could think of “who do we as a community want to be?” We made classroom rules together. We wrote about our Hopes and Dreams. 

Once we figured out who we were as a group, how we wanted to act toward each other, then we could start on our adventure of learning, making of new friends, and trying activities we had avoided before. 

What I realize now is that embedded in the question of “who we want to be?” are the bedrock questions of “Who do I want to be? and What can I change to get there?” We were growing ourselves into the community we wanted to be by considering what we aspired to as individuals. 

Creating community, inventing a way we want to be together, works best if students can see the teacher taking part in the process. So, yes, I wrote goals for myself. I shared with students about my dreams as a teacher.

I miss all of that work, reinventing myself each September.

Now that I’m writing alone in my shack, listening to the last chirps of crickets, I see that for twenty years I was turning a season of loss, browning leaves and shrinking into one of growth. I didn’t see the big picture of reinvention when I was running a classroom, and when I stopped teaching more than a year ago, I had no way of anticipating that I’d miss the structure of reinvention a new school year allows.

When I left teaching, I imagined I would feel relieved in September. “Ha, you poor saps have to go back to school. I get to remain free.” Little did I know.

I envy the September reinvention work the students and teachers are doing. So, I’m joining them, because I want to explore what’s possible, shout into the darkness that, yes, I have hope.

IMG_0169
Smith-Corona getting ready for the Art Market on Martha’s Vineyard by enjoying time with echinacea.

This weekend, I’m returning to Martha’s Vineyard to participate in an Art Market, where a Tracey Martin Logan, a painter; Sam Taylor, a potter; and Paul Farrington, a woodworker, will sell their stunning work. Visit them on Instagram to see their work @traceymartinlogan and @dogbarpottery and @paulfarrington. I’m there to write poems for people. I call it Poetry On Demand, where I write poems for individuals on my Smith-Corona typewriter. Give me a color, a pet’s name, and a verb and I’ll write you a poem.

Writing a poem for someone in fifteen minutes is an act of hope, a radical belief in what’s possible. I don’t edit. I don’t rewrite. I compose and hope that the poem I construct is worth something.

I’m going to use this week and the coming weekend as my way of reframing fall. I don’t want to meditate on loss and leaving. Each day this week, as I practice for this weekend, I’ll start the day with a new poem, written on my Smith-Corona — no rewriting, no editing, only creating. They will be “shitty first drafts” as Anne Lamott calls them. But I’ll write them before doing anything else.

IMG_0181
Here’s the first poem of the week written on Smith-Corona. “Beginning” is the beginning.

 

It’ll be my way of screaming at the shriveling and browning leaves of the horse chestnut tree in my front yard — “You’ll be back next year and I’ll be different then.”

 

A Rare Friend

A friend of mine died, which is not in itself unique, since the longer I live the more often I have occasion to write those words.

Bob Kanig represented something different for me. His friendship was one of the those — not just drinking buddies or Friday night pizza pals or friendly work associates — that I made as I closed toward 50 years old. For most of us, making those deep connections with others as we age takes supreme effort, and still, we’re not always successful. With Bob, I was. 

So that’s different. Bob is the first of my deep friends to die. Call me lucky to be 57 and have Bob be the first.

Consider me more fortunate that we met. He was not the funniest man in the room, he was the one who made me feel as if I was. He was the one who gave me his full attention; he gave me, and most everyone in whom he was interested, a space to be smarter and funnier than we thought possible. He fertilized the area between him and others with the idea that he wanted more from you than you normally gave. And then, because he expected it, I gave it to him. He wanted people around him to be at their best, tell the funniest jokes, the most meaningful stories, because it was best for us all.

The Austrian philosopher and writer Martin Buber wrote that “All real living is meeting.” Bob may or may not have read Buber; he lived Buber’s idea, though. I never talked with Bob about this, but it seems to me that he valued family, team, friends, and dialogue as a means to ascend, as if we live enhanced lives in the space with others.

While Bob had a simple, yet rare, ability to make others feel more interesting, smarter, funnier than they normally felt, he didn’t do it at the expense of him. He was no wallflower. He fully participated.

I met Bob on the softball diamond. He loved baseball, and like many of us who get past 40 years old, softball — slower and played with a bigger ball — seemed like a better idea. I called him “Captain.” He organized the team, collected our money, provided us with T-shirts. We were The Nuts, since Diamond Nuts sponsored us.

We were mediocre. Year after year, we missed cut-off throws, allowed grounders under our gloves, made outs with harmless fly balls to the warning track. Bob, though, loved it all, and brought us together each spring to be mediocre again.

In 2008, we were good enough to win a few games, bad enough to lose more. In our league, though, we made the playoffs. That late July, The Nuts caught some magic. Our pitcher, Lee Robinson, was going through a family tragedy, and we rallied around him and Captain Bob. 

We ran through the playoffs, winning games by catching grounders we normally didn’t and getting base hits when we usually made outs. We ended up in the championship game against the perennial champion, Joe’s Pizza. And we lost.

I found an old photograph of that team, posing on the diamond at Maine’s Field in Florence. Judging by our looks, the loss didn’t matter to us. Bob’s smile radiates as he holds a second-place trophy. He knew we had done what teams all hope they can do: Unite in a way as to be better than they otherwise would. The Nuts played that July like Bob lived. We were better because we had each other.

fullsizeoutput_3b3
Bob Kanig holds the trophy that The Nuts earned during a surprising playoff run in 2008.

I left the team a couple of years after that playoff run, though I made sure to stay connected to Bob. I didn’t do it, because he had something to teach me. I did it, because we were friends.

It’s only in his death that I understand how he lived as a model. He lived openly, presenting a porous existence of conviviality. By that I mean, he allowed others in to his world warmly, so that he could see through their eyes, learn what others knew. It must have enriched his life immensely, living so empathically, seeing from another vista. I know he made my life better by just sharing a hike or a beer. It was as if he had the ability to wipe clean the glass of my inner eye so that I could see sights that were clouded to me before.

Bob Kanig, a rare friend, died Aug. 5, 2019. A blood cancer destroyed his immune system. He passed away because of an infection. 

The last time I saw Bob in late May, he and I laughed for more than an hour on our commute back from a medical appointment in Boston. He wore a mask to prevent bacterial or viral infection. He was tired, yet still vital and full of grace, which reminded me of one of the Buddhist writer Sylvia Boorstein’s lines, “Managing gracefully is not second rate.”

Nor was Bob Kanig.

Good Talk, a Memoir with a Hammer

IMG_0083
I don’t usually read memoir or stories told with pictures. This is both and it shattered what I thought about race.

I left teaching elementary school to write stories for children. What I didn’t realize until this past weekend is that I’ve been acting out my own fiction around race and my whiteness.

I lived a daily fiction for decades, and like all good make-believe, I existed within the marvelous glass house until something shattered it. Mira Jacob, the author of Good Talk, brought the hammer down, breaking glass all around me this past weekend.

Before I go further, here’s my proviso: I’m not woke; I’m not saved; I’m not out to change anyone’s mind, in fact, I have a hard enough time changing my own. I saw something differently after finishing Good Talk, and I wanted to share it. That’s all.

Through her drawings — Good Talk is a graphic memoir — plus the remembering and rendering of many powerful conversations in her life, Mira Jacob made me see that the idea of erasing the importance of race can only be a goal of someone who has lived his life without having to consider race. My being white allows me to dream of a world where no one cares about race, but Jacob shows time and again how shortsighted that goal is for someone of color.

Jacob starts the book by recreating a conversation she had with her young son, Z, who is half Indian and half Jewish, about Michael Jackson’s skin.

Z: Was Michael Jackson brown or was he white?

Jacob: Well, he was black, but his skin was brown and then it … turned white.

Z: He turned white?

Jacob: Yes.

Z: Are you going to turn white?

Jacob: No.

Z: Am I?

Jacob: No.

Z: Daddy?

Jacob: Daddy is already white.

Z: But was he always?

That’s the sort of outlandish, perceptive conversation you can only have with a child between the ages of four and seven years old; I miss having those kinds of talks with children. One thing, though, I never had a conversation that meaningful about skin color with a child. It would not have felt comfortable.

Jacob, her son, Z, and her husband, Jed, are most comfortable broaching the topic of race, though throughout the memoir they are made to feel uncomfortable, as well as, confused, angry, disappointed, and full of mistrust.

I started to understand how insular my thinking about race is when I read the this next quick exchange between Jacob and a white guy in college with whom she had a relationship.

White Guy: I don’t know why it’s such a big deal for some people. What color someone is makes no difference to me.

Mira: Well, yeah, but you’re white.

Jacob does not let the guy feel good about himself for sleeping with a woman of color. She does not allow him, or me as a reader, to fall into the fiction that race does not matter. It matters if you’re a person of color, Jacob says over and over.

When she was five years old, Jacob and her family visited family in India. Her relatives were aghast that Jacob’s skin was darker than the rest of her family’s. They said it doomed her.

Jacob: That was how I learned dark meant ugly.

Later in the memoir, Jacob and her husband, Jed, talk about skin color and marriage.

Jed: I never thought you were too dark to marry.

Jacob: You’re not doing that White Guy thing where you pretend that this is about you being enlightened, instead of you just never considering that people of color can see color, too, right?

Ouch. Jacob smashed my fiction there.

Jacob moves through her life from a child in New Mexico to marrying Jed, and raising Z in Brooklyn. The story ends with the November 2016 presidential election.

Jacob recounted a conversation between her and two other writers, who are women of color. One said this about the rising racial tension during the campaign and the idea of a candidate being so overt about using race as a campaign strategy: Seriously, half our white friends act like this is some television show they’re going to turn off in November. But us? We’re going to be seeing this for the rest of our lives.

Jacob wrote that two years ago, and two weeks ago Trump used race as a cudgel of power to bludgeon four women of color who in 2018 won seats in the U.S. Congress, and who have been critical of his policies, then this week he went after long-time Congressman Elijah Cummings, who is black, for being from Baltimore, a “rat and rodent infested mess.” 

I get to close my laptop when news like that angers me. The point of Good Talk is that Jacob, and other people of color, are not allowed that luxury. Even tossing their laptops out the window will not change their color.

The power of Good Talk is how personal Jacob’s conversations make the fact of her skin color. She invites us into some of her most painful moments. That they are real, that the story is a memoir of one true life, make the conversations more poignant. I felt like I was invisible sitting on Jacob’s shoulder, listening to her thoughts and talks. Few stories, even superb fiction, do that.

Because Mira Jacob is a storyteller, not an activist, I don’t think she wrote and drew this book to change the world. That still happened in one instance. Jacob’s story wrecked mine. I saw for one weekend that the only people who can pretend not to see color are the people without any.

Now, I’m busy sweeping away the glass of my old fiction. 

Understanding Baseball Passion

IMG_0071
A few thousand of the more than 55,000 people who traveled to Cooperstown, NY this past weekend to see their heroes inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Crazy, no?

More than 55,000 people showed up Sunday on a lawn that seemed to stretch back across time to listen to six bad speeches.

Nobody says it, but the players who were admitted into baseball’s Hall of Fame gave forgettable, dull, boring speeches. They would have been better served standing, receiving an enthusiastic ovation, then saying, “Thank you,” and sitting down. The speeches, though, didn’t matter. Ecstatic people cheered everywhere I looked.

Untamable passion spread over the mowed lawn in Cooperstown, NY patterned in New York Yankee pinstripes and colored in Seattle Mariner teal because of the Yankee, Mariano Rivera, and the Mariner, Edgar Martinez. Those were two of the six players inducted into the Hall of Fame.

I’m left with a black hole of a question vacuuming all explanations in its way: Why are all these people from the Pacific Northwest here? Why did they all drop thousands of dollars to get a glimpse of Edgar Martinez, a designated hitter, who needed 10 chances to get into the Hall of Fame. 

Yankee fan attendance can be explained by proximity. Fans in New Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island drove four hours or less to get to Cooperstown.

The entire weekend — Friday through Monday — was an exhibit in people displaying their irrational enthusiasm. All I wanted to do was understand why. I could never get one explanation that made sense of it all, no Einstein theory of relativity tying together quantum with Newtonian physics.

The Baseball Hall of Fame organizes a Saturday parade, where every living player ever inducted can ride in the back of a pick-up truck and wave at fans. No floats. No fireworks. Just pick-up trucks and players. 

Fans, though, go to extremes to see it. One woman with whom I spoke explained the routine she and her friends go through year after year to get front-row seats.

It starts on early Friday morning, when people zip tie their folding lawn chairs to poles and trees on Cooperstown’s Main Street sidewalk. That assures people of a place to bed down, because on Friday night, people take turns sleeping in their folding chairs so they can wake up on Main Street when metal barricades are set up before dawn Saturday. The people present are allowed to set up their chairs in the front row. 

I understand how the procedure works. I’m working on understanding why they care so much. Is it the pull of baseball? Is it the cult of Hall of Fame personality?

People like Bob Costas, the television personality who’s made a good living announcing sporting events, including baseball, try to explain the draw that baseball has over people. He talks about the humanity of the game, whatever that means. He might mean that baseball players can seem like the rest of us, not overly large or tall. He might mean that baseball players fail often, because hitting a baseball is so difficult, and they make out seventy percent of the time. He might mean that stories inhabit baseball, because the innings have pauses filled with anecdotes and the game has a long history marked by myth. 

All that is plausible, but taken together it does not explain why so many people with zip ties and baseballs to be autographed show up in Cooperstown for a weekend in July.

Understanding fans from the Northwest is even more difficult. The Sunday crowd for the Hall of Fame ceremony was estimated to be more than 55,000. I estimate — my guess is replicated no where else — that 10,000 to 15,000 of those fans were from Washington or a nearby state. 

I hosted a bus load of 47 people, 18 of whom were from Washington. That’s 38 percent. If I use that percentage for the entire crowd, I know that’s statistically not valid, I get an estimate of 22,000 Mariner fans. So I halved that. I think I am close when I say that more than 10,000 Mariner fans were there, maybe as many as 15,000.

Why?

I’m still left with that question. Maybe the only thing to do in the face of the unexplainable is to marvel at it and admire the passion that drove so many to travel so far to hear such bad speeches.