Coffee, Baseball, and Fear of Flying

Two double espressos on top of sleep deprivation have lodged my mind in a sweet spot where what I generally consider reality is heightened and blurred and unusually imbued with meaning. At this moment it seems to me the fog outside the grimy bus windows is the result of an atmosphere saturated with metaphor instead of water vapor and my veins thrum with hope and purpose instead of caffeine.

This is what life would feel like if the scientific fact that I was made of recycled stardust felt as important and true as a perfectly thrown twelve-to-six curveball slicing through the October night air and buckling an all-star slugger’s knees, ending the inning and leaving the bases loaded. 

I’ve never been able to hit a curveball, and I’ve never found the made-of-stardust factoid inspiring. Everything on this planet is made of recycled star parts — including the repurposed school bus I’m sitting on this morning, waiting for the plane that will take me away from the muddy gravel and dingy buildings of the oilfield where I’ve been working for the last two weeks — which means that I’m made of the same stuff as gravel and gum wrappers. 

I hope you don’t think I’m a downer for saying that. 

If you ask me, a bigger downer is the scientific argument that the break of a curveball isn’t real. The lab-coat-and-pocket-protector set claims the perceived (their word, not mine) break is the result of a trick the human brain plays on itself. The path of the ball curves the whole time, they say, but the brain processes what it is seeing differently at different points in the ball’s flight from the pitcher’s mound to home plate. What accounts for the break batters think they see is the brain switching from the object-far-away process to the object-close-in process.

I seriously doubt any of the physicists who pooh-pooh curveballs ever stood in the batter’s box or squatted behind home plate. I never caught Barry Zito, who threw one of the best curveballs in the game back when I was a baseball fan, but when I was in high school I caught a kid named Rex LaGuardia, and he threw a helluva hook. If that thing didn’t break as it traveled the sixty feet, six inches from the pitcher’s mound to home plate, then it might have folded the very fabric of space-time, making it theoretically possible for me to travel a tesseract from this gravel pad built on the Arctic tundra to the Northern California high-school baseball diamond where I slept on the roof of the dugout, in a sleeping bag and under the stars, the night before the first day of baseball practice my junior year and tell my younger self what lay ahead in the real world.

If that was true, it would have the desirable side effect of allowing me to skip the upcoming plane flight.

When I was young, I wasn’t afraid of flying, but nowadays I can’t avoid thinking about crashing every time a plane I’m on takes off. And that moment is coming soon.

The small prop plane that will ferry me from one oilfield runway to the next has just landed. The oncoming crew blinks their eyes and rubs their faces as they find their way to the raggedy old school bus that is twin to the one I’m on, the door closes behind them, and then we roll over to the plane, grab our bags, and shuffle toward another set of seats.

Both nurture and nature argue that I should be a lot more mellow about flying. I fly all the time for work. Every two weeks if not more often. Props, jets, helicopters. 

My dad flew planes for the Navy, and his summary of flight school goes more or less like this: They sit you down in a classroom and tell you how it works —  Bernoulli, pressure differentials, lift — and you go, okay, sure, but you don’t really believe it, and then you go outside and hop in the cockpit with your instructor and fire up the engine, and somehow it works and after that, you don’t think about it.

Dad didn’t fly much after he got out of the Navy because of an eye injury he sustained while working as a carpenter, but whenever we flew together on commercial flights and we’d hit a patch of turbulence, I’d watch him. One afternoon, on a flight to Durango, Colorado, the afternoon thermals rising off the Sangre de Cristo mountains were bouncing the little nineteen-seater we were on all over the sky. I squirmed in my seat, tightened my seatbelt, and looked at Dad. He was asleep. 

I told myself I’d start to worry if he woke up.

Dad’s not on this flight, though, and unless I actively think about something else, my mind will torment itself with visions of my body plummeting thousands of feet before being torn to pieces by flying metal and burned beyond recognition. I’m grateful that today I’ve hit upon a wonderful question for daydreaming: What would I say to my younger self if I could travel back across three decades for a quick chat?

What would I whisper of what lay ahead? Would I provide specific details or general guidelines? Focus on strategy or tactics?

Or would I think it better to hover silently, the better to watch the younger me sleeping peacefully and try to soak up some youthful joy and innocence before I was whisked back to my real life because I knew the world wasn’t done with me yet?

I’m not sure what I would say. I’ve already thought about it some this morning, sitting on the bus long enough that the caffeine buzz wore off and I’d once again become convinced that fog is made of water and not metaphor. 

I’ve pondered long enough that the diuretic effect of coffee had made itself known, and the pressure in my bladder was proving that water always finds its level, which, incidentally, is the sort of rubber-meets-the-road physics I can handle, as opposed to the type of physics in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (a book I gave up reading years ago), the type that glories in complicated theoretical questions about space-time, such as: If my friend Devon leaves Zurich at 6 PM on a train traveling at the speed of light while a three-dimensional ant walks the surface of a two-dimensional ice cream cone carried by a waiter in a different train leaving Zurich at the same time and same speed but heading in the opposite direction, will the clock of an observer standing on the moon keep the same time as the watch on Devon’s wrist?

That type of stuff never made any sense to me. My answer was always, Who cares, even if I’m made of stardust I’m not on a spaceship or a magic train.

(Speaking of time,I find it much more relevant that before time zones were developed — due to the need to standardize train schedules — people set their clocks at noon whenever the sun reached its zenith in their personal sky, and I guess I’m a romantic because I find the idea of people determining noon based on their local sky seems a good metaphor for how to live your life, similar to be the hero of your own story or always paddle your own canoe.)

While I was going on about trains, ants, ice cream, and canoes, my group of passengers was briefed. The plane had taxied and received clearance. Now the engines are roaring, the props are screaming, and we’re lurching upward into the fog.

I grab my mental wheel turn my mind back to wondering what I would say to a younger me sleeping on the roof of the dugout, and suddenly I’ve got it. I know what I would say.

I’d say: Don’t think about the places you want to go. Figure out what you want to be when you get there.

I’d say: Emotional intelligence and street smarts beat book smarts all day long.

Younger Me would look at me funny. 

I’d say, There are no right answers to the wrong questions.

Younger Me wouldn’t know what to say to that —like me, he is good at math and bad at relationships and lateral thinking — and I’d say, Trust me, Kid, I know. Forget about calculus and get to know yourself instead.

By that time it’d be obvious I wasn’t getting through to him. Since he was sleeping on top of the dugout the night before baseball practice started, I’d switch to using baseball metaphors.

I’d tell him that in life it is always the bottom of the ninth, the count is always full, and if you are going to get beat, get beat on your best pitch.

Then, somehow, I’d know it was time for me to go. The portal or whatever it was would be closing. 

With one foot back in the future, I’d turn around and say, One last, thing, Kid, just so you know. For some reason, we’re always gonna be the visiting team.

And he’d say to me, Yeah. I already figured that part out.

©Copyright 2021 by Jim Latham
Photo by Jack Millard on Unsplash