281.0: Be careful.
43,000 people risked it all to be at The Ballpark tonight, and only one of me sat on a full train with static screeching in my ears. In 2010, when the team was in this same position, I wouldn’t have expected this night: not merely that the Giants would again be contenders, but that I would be here on this train. I wouldn’t have imagined that I had spent the night finishing up a shift for my bookstore job, would have never foreseen that the version of myself during the 2012 playoffs wouldn’t be anywhere near a television much less at The Ballpark, both of which were the case in 2010, but instead was at work, listening to the game over a satellite radio feed amped up in volume throughout the whole store. At work, they know me as Joe. It’s an abbreviation for Joseph — common fact, all right. But: who the hell is he? Who am I?
The source of the memories and experiences that constitute the person typing this letter tonight was born in the Philippines. His mother gave birth to him in the afternoon at the hospital of what was then a United States naval base — I emerged in this world a patriot of two nations. In keeping with Catholic tradition, I would be christened with two names — like John Paul, for example, or Mark Anthony; for me, I would be Joseph Rommel.
Please, Linc: before you even go there, don’t ask me to explain why the name of a Nazi general is such a common name in the Philippines. I’m sure that a Google search can solve the mystery but I have not bothered to investigate, perhaps for fear that I would get too close, not necessarily to the answer to that particular question, but to personal truths about myself. I know that’s an absurd and arrogant fear, but there you have it. Sometimes I wonder if the reason why I haven’t been back to the Philippines is for some notion of disappointment that I can’t quite articulate yet is nevertheless lingering, lying in wait.
Two years later, you were born, presumably in Washington state. (This is what Wikipedia says.) By that time, Pop was already stationed in Alaska. We went from a United States naval base in the tropics to a United States naval base on the frigid windswept rock called Adak Island — I loved it, Linc. I loved the sheer and cutthroat wilderness. We had all the comforts of home in the duplex where we lived, and the base was modern, complete with its own McDonald’s. But on his days off, Pop liked to go driving around the island. Funny thing: back in those days, he was stubbornly attached to his car of youth. The sporty red Renault that was iconic of Pop’s days as a bachelor was now a family car, and I would ride in it with the thrill a child has for everything in the world, as well as the pride of a son for his father. Pop took me to the rockiest inclines he could find so that we could overlook huge swaths of the island, which are deserted, rocky stretches where birds pause to congregate and take a shit, and the grey sky and faded greenery are at once desolate and rich. Sometimes we’d go to the beach, an Adak beach sharing the same context as its San Francisco counterpart: cold and moody, but evocative of timelessness just the same. Other times, Pop would simply park on the hillside of an airstrip. I was not as moved by watching the planes land. Sure, they were exciting to watch, as they would be for any kid. But unlike the shitting birds, the planes were mechanical and artificial. They lacked majesty.
In those days, the notion of identity was much easier to grasp; of course, this conclusion is a cheat. Everything is easier in childhood. But I also assign credit to Alaska itself: in wilderness as in youth, there is no need to know thy self, not really. Your identity is connected to the expectations of the earth, your mood governed by the weather. The years brought us away from Alaska and to more “civilized” society. We reached mainland. Pop and Ma got a house in the ‘burbs. They were a young couple starting out in life. Once they bought our first house, they wanted to decorate it. Make it pretty. At the end of the work week, they had get-togethers; uncles and aunties came over to unwind.
“Mag inuman tayo,” Pop said, Tagalog for “let’s have a drink,” merry words that I have not heard him speak in so long that the passage of time seems less like a lifetime and more like a generation.
They were seduced by the promises of creature comforts and middle class trappings. Stability. The American dream. Things that cost steeply. I have fond memories of Ma shopping for furniture at Montgomery Ward. I was happiest roaming through the aisles of that department store while Ma browsed and Pop wondered how much he was going to have to spend for his wife’s whims — although I wonder if secretly he liked the idea that it was up to Ma to make their life organized and pretty so long as his end of the bargain was solely to make the money. It must have seemed like it was all coming together. But in time, aunties and uncles stopped coming over. There were more arguments. My childhood turned into adolescence and I accumulated my own expectations as Pop and Ma witnessed the vagaries of life eat away at theirs.
I wasn’t known around the house as this guy named “Joe.” The only time I was ever “Joseph” was when Pop and Ma met with my teachers, and even in my youngest years of awareness, the way they said my given name sounded stilted not merely because of their accents but also for the impersonality of it. Joseph?
I existed in parallel lives: one at home and another in the rest of the world, the latter of which was never again as fascinating as living in Alaska. At home, I was “Rommel.” To this day, only Pop and Ma call me by that name, as well as cousins; and, of course, Mary. But I have not ever granted permission for anyone else to do the same. I would have to think a while about whether I’d let my husband do it.
The “Rommel” side of my life is easy, Linc. Today I live with memories of him, memories that ground me upon this unstable present and a maddeningly unknowable future: first there was Alaska and the innocence of childhood; then there was adolescence and the promise of being a good student and by turn the revelation and the salvation for hardworking parents who had come all this way to start a new life, only to be tempered by certain realities. For reality is not a monolithic plane, Linc, at least not to me: had I been launched upon the same course as Pop and Ma, at this age I would be shopping with my own kid at Target, the Montgomery Ward of today, although I have grown so cynical that I doubt if the “Rommel” of my childhood would have anything in common with today’s coddled kids.
Instead, at this age I am questioning who “Joe” is. On the train ride home from work tonight, I pressed my hands against my headset so fiercely as to nearly jam it into my ears. I waved my lucky radio around, pointing the antenna in whatever direction the KNBR signal was clearest, mostly toward the window but also sometimes not. Marco Scutaro was at bat and he popped one foul when suddenly the reception blared in my ears as static. The train was in a tunnel made long only because how so goddamned slowly it was traveling. (Stupid MUNI!) When I finally had reception again, Buster Posey would be the last batter up. The crowd roared “MVP, MVP!” All our hopes were on him. What pressure!
When the game ended, I quietly removed my headset and took a breath. Maybe some others on that crowded train had noticed me sitting by the window, listening intently and my face lighting up with expectation as much as it dropped with the reality of defeat. I handled the loss calmly and modestly, as if it were just another night on the train, but my heart jackhammered. Even though you guys lost tonight, the exhilaration was undeniable — until it was deniable.
As the train continued along its course toward the stop that was mine, I wondered why in the world I was so worked up over this ballgame. Why had I sat there with that headset jammed against my ears as I waved that radio around like a wand? What magic would there have been from a miraculous win? For the first time since I became a baseball fan, I was stricken by the pointlessness of this fandom, although I didn’t admit that to myself, Linc, not in that moment. What I was thinking then was that I could live without it; that, at any time, I could just stop listening to the games and stuff all of my Giants flair into the closet. I could walk around living life in my pre-baseball state; but I would lose a critical component of “Joe,” and I can’t bear to have him become more of a mystery than he already is. “Rommel” is a memory and “Joe” is a mystery.
These short years I’ve been privileged to live as a baseball fan had granted me a reprieve that has now begun to run out. It’s my fault for putting so much stock into it. I have a bad habit of setting great expectations; perhaps I can claim that as an inheritance from Pop and Ma. Baseball still means a lot to me, Linc, and for a while it stopped me from feeling so adrift. The truth is that there are no longer any lifeboats around and I’m swimming against the tide — which is unfortunate, because speaking outside of metaphor, I swim very badly. I have friends and family, I even have my church, but it’s not enough. What in the world will ever be enough to make me feel whole?
Scientology has been popping up a lot lately. When I first read about it, I was in high school rebelliously searching for a belief system that I had not inherited. The search was both metaphorical and literal: there was no Google back then, but I utilized the search engine of the day to look it up on the young web. What I read back then was the same as the claims that circulate today: that Scientologists have been known to ruin your life if you try to run away or don’t conform; that Scientology thinks gays are deviants and have to be “handled”; that Scientology costs a lot of money for a religion. Or cult. Or whatever it is.
That’s the thing, Linc: what, exactly, is Scientology? In recent years it has become faddish to rail against Christianity. The late Christopher Hitchens made it his bread and butter. For all the batshit craziness I’ve read about Scientology, there is just as much, if not more, batshit craziness with Christianity — yet the former is a nascent religion, subject to abject suspicion, while the latter is built upon ancient infrastructure ravaged at its core by centuries of debate and debacle. I won’t be going back to my pre-baseball life, Linc; that’s just ridiculous. Once a Giant, always a Giant. Right? But my life is now post-vision: neither “Rommel” nor “Joe,” but someone in perpetual and relentless search. Or wanting to be found.
So, I’ve signed up for a Scientology class. The strange coincidence is that my first day of that class is on the first day of a class that I’m taking at my church about what it means to be a Christian. Once again, I am the subject of two worlds, two realms of great expectations, two parents. I dunno, Linc. Maybe Scientology’s main problem is that it takes itself way too damned seriously. Besides Tom Cruise jumping on a couch, I have never seen a Scientologist laugh at a joke — or maybe I have and I simply didn’t know they were a Scientologist. Maybe L. Ron Hubbard met a demise that was untimely because he never got around to realizing that sometimes you just gotta chill. You know what’s funnier? I don’t even know what the “L” means. (I know that I can look it up on Wikipedia.)
What I do know is that I’ve studied up on everything terrible about Scientology and now I’m venturing into it to witness things with my own eyes. Don’t worry, Linc. I’ll be careful. In fact, if it does not seem like I’m hastening to say so, I would say that, well, I’m excited. The excitement is different from the kind I had when Pop took me into the Alaskan wilderness. Rather than being moved to awe by the sight of nature, this time I don’t know what, exactly, I’m seeing. There is not one ounce of familiarity or connection. I only have the light of my torch to guide me. I’ll just have to handle whatever leaps into the glow of the flame.