I had a birthday a few weeks ago. Birthdays are not a cause for celebration for me and this one was no exception, but in the midst of my typical crankiness I did manage to stumble onto a pop culture artifact that brought to mind why it’s worth it to keep trying in this life, even when it seems like giving up is the only reasonable choice to make.
I was grilling dinner, and entertaining myself with the YouTube app on my phone. Possessing the tech expertise of a pygmy at a shuttle launch, I don’t really understand how or why I find a few new offerings on the device on a regular basis, but as Paul Simon once wrote, “who am I to blow against the wind”. While transferring a small army of chicken legs to the upper rack I listened to the Warren Zevon song, “Keep Me in Your Heart“. If you’re unfamiliar with the piece, it was the final song on Zevon’s last album, released August 26th, 2003, just two weeks before his death from pleural mesothelioma on September 7th. Zevon, wanting to make the most of whatever time was left to him, had started recording soon after receiving his terminal diagnosis. While speaking about his illness during a touching appearance with David Letterman, he highlighted his increased appreciation for small things by talking about enjoying “every sandwich”. He said it rather casually, but it has entered the lexicon and remains with us to this day as a reminder of how even the seemingly banal elements of our lives can be worth treasuring. A healthier individual would have been referencing that very adage in the first paragraph. If this isn’t the first time you’re reading my work you probably realize that a positive perspective like that isn’t really in my repertoire. Fortunately, the lyrics of the song offer a wisdom of their own regarding the ephemeral nature of even the roughest parts of life.
The song opens with a brief allusion to his illness and a reiteration of his love for his family. The second verse begins with a hope that he’ll be remembered in each days’ sunrise. It is the next line that lands so heavily for me. Zevon writes: “there’s a train leaving nightly called when all is said and done”. I have to say that would have been a spotlight moment for anyone, no less some poor bastard who’d spent most his life singing and could no longer adequately fill his lungs with breath. I’d heard the song numerous times before but had never really given that sentiment the weight it deserved. I replayed the song several times, because if you have my background and outlook, nothing says “happy birthday” quite like weeping convulsively as you try and straighten out the sear marks on a flank steak. I finished cooking and wondered to myself whether I’d ever heard a better expression of the idea that even pain is subject to the transience of life. Such a wonderfully concise way to acknowledge the reconciliation of the contradictory notions that our problems feel insurmountable but tomorrow is, in fact, another day. I found the answer, as is so often the case, in the bible.
Of course, when I make a reference to religion I’m really talking about baseball. And when I think of baseball and sage advice at the same time the holy man I’m probably going to quote is Casey Stengel. If you’re unfamiliar with him it would take I-don’t-know how many thousands of words to do him justice. He’d had a solid career as a player and then having survived a few false starts as field general for some pretty bad teams in Brooklyn and Boston he eventually landed the manager’s job with the Yankees and the rest is history. Hired for the 1949 season he led the team to seven world championships in twelve years. A pioneer in the concept of early training camp for younger players, he championed the platoon system so as to get the most out of his roster and refused to cater to the egos of his older stars in decline. His strategic and tactical advances made him a Hall of Fame leader but it was his ability to fracture the English language while delivering pearls of undeniable yet not obvious wisdom that made him known to a greater audience. If you find yourself with a little time on your hands and want to laugh heartily and then smile in delayed understanding, there are dozens of sites to visit that list his most quotable utterances. It would be hard for me to draw up a comprehensive top ten list, but as I’ve gotten older the number one spot has solidified. In the August 23rd issue of Parade magazine, Stengel is quoted as saying “… there comes a time at least once in every man’s life and I’ve had plenty of them.” Of all the truly brilliant things I’ve never said, that might be the one I’d most like to be able to take credit for. Superficially goofy, Solomonesque in it’s deeper genius it’s the apotheosis of his DNA level proclivity to see the human comedy and take it as it came. Which, if I could only learn to recall it a bit more often, is a lesson that would serve me well.