Thursday, December 6, 2012

Sunday, Lovely Sunday (excerpt from A REAL LIFE)

Sunday, Lovely Sunday

Just how much we have mutated in a mere generation is perhaps best exemplified by what has happened to our Sundays.
Not so long ago, our Sundays were devoted to flesh and blood people; the Sunday family drive, family picnic or dinner, and the Sunday visit with neighbors and friends were as American as apple pie. But that all changed. We have replaced people with material goods to such an extent, that the former US President no longer referred to his compatriots as “friends,” or “fellow Americans,” “Romans,” or “even “countrymen,” but simply, and unapologetically as “consumers.” And consumers we have become; 24/7.
Whereas Sunday was once for restocking our minds with fresh thoughts, insights and good conversations, for restocking our spirit and our imagination, it has lately become a day for restocking our closets. We once took nature walks in the revitalizing beauty of the sunbathed countryside, but we now walk mostly through the fluorescent light of the Mall. Or worse, we let our fingers do the walking on our keyboards to virtual stores where there is no day or night, and certainly no Sunday. 
Most cultures acknowledge the need for a Sunday. Whether it’s called Sabbath or Domenica, or as Emperor Constantine declared it in 321 AD, Dies Solis, the Day of the Sun, it had been a day when “the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and all workshops remain closed.” And it was viewed “not just a holy day of rest…but a Utopian idea about a less pressured, more sociable, purer world.”
For the religious the explanation was, “We rest because God rested on the seventh day… We rest in order to honor the Divine in us, to remind ourselves that there is more to us than just what we do during the week.”
The secular believed: “The Sabbath is to the week what the line break is to poetic language. It is the silence that forces you to return to what came before and find its meaning.”
I’m not advocating the declaration of recluse Sundays or—heaven forbid—a return to the Connecticut Blue Laws of the eighteenth century which, besides forbidding everything, prohibited kissing your baby, playing an instrument or telling a joke. But after a week of hectic yet mostly passive work, which for the bulk of us involves sitting at a computer, can we not feel our body and soul crying out for something completely different?
We used to leave the house and get physical on Sundays: hike, walk, bike, or play scrub baseball or touch football at the park, but now we spend inert internet hours adrift in a virtual world, or veg’ing out in front of the tube—the average adult for four hours, even on Sunday. By passing up physical exertion, not only do we rob ourselves of healthy exercise but also miss refreshing our brain with endorphins, “happy hormones,” which yield a feeling of well-being and even euphoria.
When we do move, it’s with the militant logistics of our workweek, hence, just as stressful; whether it’s Soccer Sunday or Little League Sunday, there is much planning and long hours of commute. And the sports our children play are no longer centered on socializing, sportsmanship, friendship or pure enjoyment, but, rather, one obsession: winning.
The Shopping Sunday is no better. While it might require a bit of movement, the stress of shopping is much like the stress of work, often worse—at work we can calm ourselves with the thought of making money, but shopping just casts us deeper into the anxiety of debt.
So the Sunday break is no break at all. Instead of being, for at least one day, not the consumer we have been trained to be but the person we really want to be; instead of separating ourselves from the demands of daily life; we simply dance the same old dance, sing another tired verse of the same old song.
It might behoove us to reflect on a eighteenth century quote from Elijah of Vilna. “What we create becomes meaningful to us only once we stop creating it and start to think about why we did so. The implication is clear. We could let the world wind us up and set us marching, like mechanical dolls that go and go until they fall over, because they don’t have a mechanism that allows them to pause. But that would make us less human. We have to remember to stop, because we have to stop to remember.”

Lazin’ on a Sunday Afternoon

As a kid, I used to wake up Sunday mornings when Tommy Flint next door yelled at the short fat dog he was trying to turn into a valiant Lassie. When Tommy leapt over the fence and ordered him to follow, Fat Dog just shook his head, ambled to a post, sniffed, and then had himself a little pee. That's when Tommy went ballistic and shook me from my dreams. Later his dad Ernie would shuffle over in his worn-out slippers, bum a cigarette from my mom, set himself down at the kitchen table, and nibble what was left of breakfast. While he discussed with my dad his garden or his Buick, my mom began cooking one of her epic Sunday meals.
Ours was a modest, working class Vancouver neighborhood with narrow lots, small gardens, two-bedroom houses, and trees to shade the sidewalks. On Sunday mornings the streets were peaceful and empty. Only chubby Eddy Emanoff would creak by on his old bike and, like some bemused Paul Revere, try to rouse the neighborhood to a ballgame at the schoolyard. Not a soul ever showed up before lunch. Eddy knew that, but he liked to creak about on that bike anyway, up the street and down the back lane, only to end up lying on our lawn trying to talk me into trading my Mickey Mantle card for some weird guy named Turk Lown.
After a Hungarian lunch of slow-simmered chicken soup, roast meats with paprika and sour cream sauce, a cucumber salad, and enough buttery, flakey, fresh-baked pastry to feed an army, I was out the door, my baseball glove in hand, running for the field with my mother shouting, “Be careful yourself! What happen if you die?”
Then we played ball. We had no teams, coaches, uniforms, or bases, only an old chipped bat and a few gloves that we shared, and the school yard was no well-manicured diamond but an old soccer field of gravel and dusty weeds. The gravel caused unexpected bounces in the gut and privates but you got used to that—what irked you was the short, right-field fence less than two hundred feet away. And Al Crowder. The bastard hit left-handed. Squinty little eyes, cigarette dangling from his mouth, and bang—a home run. John Hardy would climb the fence when Crowder came to bat, but bloody Crowder never hit right to him, so Hardy would end up talking to Mrs. Thompson working her vegetable garden in her floppy hat.
We picked teams by sticking our feet in a circle and someone reeling off “Engine, engine number nine going down Chicago line,” after which we'd yell and fight over who got to play where. Then we'd settle down and play serious ball, quiet and concentrated, until Eddy Emanoff hit one of his hard grounders to the fence and rounded first base chuckling and puffing, but second base was a bit uphill and Eddy never made it because Jerry Allye would jump him, drag him down, and beat him with his glove while Eddy died laughing. Some of us would wander off during the game and others wander in; sometimes parents stopped by to watch and some even stayed to play, Ernie Flint running the bases in his worn-out slippers.
When the sun got so low it shone in our eyes, we went home. One day the fog rolled in and we snuck off and left Hardy sitting on the fence.
On hot summer Sundays our family went fishing. We would get in our old twenty-horsepower Austin built like a tank and also crawled like one—and we’d putt-putt out to a creek a half-hour from the house, grownups with kids, grownups without kids, kids without grownups, nobody really cared. It was a lousy place to fish. You might hook a few catfish or a carp, but the hayfields were a nice place to lie, or you could kick a ball around down on the bank. The willows gave you shade, and, in a bend, where the water was shallow, the mud on the bottom squished between your toes. Later, we’d build a fire and make a stew from everybody's fish in a big pot and drink lots of homemade wine and just lie around and talk. We seemed to talk a lot on all those Sundays.
But that was years ago.

The Mechanized Sunday

I visited friends in Florida last spring. Paradise. Palm trees, canals, bougainvilleas, gardenias, majestic white egrets standing in the shoals. I looked forward to sleeping in on Sunday morning but jumped awake to a sound like an F15 landing on the roof. It was a leaf blower. On the canal, jet skis screamed and cigarette boats roared. On the street, kids on motorbikes without mufflers leapt over curved ramps, and on the perfect lawns, mowers the size of our Austin, bore large, grumpy men crouched like warriors riding tanks to war. By ten, it was rush hour. Campers and SUVs stacked to the roof with gear driving to the beach, a ten-minute walk away. There was a bottleneck at the entrance to the mall. It hadn't yet opened but the parking lot was jammed. On Sunday, our day of rest.
I headed down to the beach on foot—not easy without sidewalks—using the road or people’s front lawns, dodging cars and the menacing mowers. At the mall, I asked a man in the waiting crowd if there was a special sale. Nope, this was just an ordinary Sunday.
That afternoon I stopped to watch a kids’ ballgame. My God, what a ballpark! A real diamond: a pitcher's mound, AstroTurf infield, raked sand between bases, real bases, dugouts, benches, uniforms, spikes, kids with their own gloves and kid-gloves for batting, and bats. Man, did they have bats, racks of aluminum bats. Enough to melt down and build yourself a 747.
And yet, awash in all that material splendor, everyone was as somber as soldiers going off to war. Anxious parents loudly urged victory, coaches kicked dirt, agitated kids yelled tired slogans, and, growing frustrated, threw their gloves in anger. The worst was when kids in the field came to bat. The coach hectored them to “stay aggressive, give 'em hell, get the hate up, go in for the kill!” because they had those guys “scared now,” they had them “on the run.”
What was this? War? Or just kids playing ball? Couldn't they wait until they grew up to have a bad time? Where was chubby Eddy? Or Ernie Flint in his worn-out slippers?
Maybe I'm raving; maybe the years are coloring my youth. But I don't think so. I remember a lot of bad, but not on Sundays.
You may rightly ask what on earth has a ballgame got to do with our besieged environment or endangered society. Well, it seems to me, everything. Not only was the ball game an environmental disaster, with the enormous quantity of energy consumed and pollution emitted to fabricate all those bats, uniforms, bleachers, and all, but what broke my heart, was that despite the gear, the material goods, there wasn't a kid out there having any fun. Sure they played well, snapped a throw, showed hustle, but where was the joy? The freedom? The laughter? Where was that burst of irrepressible urge that made Dave Dowset chase a fly ball deep and, after making the catch, keep running through the gate and vanish around a corner, leaving us all standing there without a ball, only to return from the fruit stand with a bag of cherries?
We shared those cherries just as we shared the gloves. That's why we came. Not just to hit home runs or beat the other guy—we played as hard as we could, we really tried—but there was more. We came to be together. To be friends.
It didn't matter whose team you played on, or who hit best or who caught best; it didn't matter how old you were, or if you were—God forbid—a girl, and it didn't even matter if you were fat and slow. It would have been unthinkable to play a game without Eddy; the day would have been sad without his laughter.
So we played together, and sat around together, and learned to get along without parents, without coaches, on our own. We learned how to make each other laugh, and what would make us cry, and learned that if something hurt one of us it would somehow hurt us all. And I learned that you can use the same scruffy ball and chipped bat for years and still be happy, that you can have as much fun in old sneakers as in spikes, and that all the new gear my mother would struggle to buy me could never be worth one of her Sunday meals.

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A REAL LIFE: Rediscovering the Roots of Our Happiness is available through W. W. Norton and or wherever books and ebooks are sold. For more about the author, please visit

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