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1.02.2004

Yogi Koan

The following is a reprint of my editor's note in today's SF Station Literary Arts newsletter. (I am the site's editor; the weekly newsletter goes out via e-mail to subscribers.)

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On a chilly night just before the new year, I met an old family friend named Ray for a drink. Ray, who lives with his wife Marie in Redway, a few hours north along highway 101, is really a friend of my parents. When I was a kid we'd pack up the van and visit them in their homemade house in the Humboldt woods near the Lost Coast. I haven't seen much of Ray in my so-called adult life, but no matter: we've always connected despite our age difference, over comic books, baseball, and as I got older, nature and writing. Ray's a writer, too -- the real deal, with many books under his belt and true convictions and a generous spirit. He's what I want to be when I grow up.

We ordered our drinks and caught up on life, but the overarching news was the death of his son. Nicholas died in August, 26 years old, just growing into his skin after years of restlessness. A car crash one night, and Nick was gone. He was a country-boy mirror of my own younger brother: same age and restlessness, same rough-and-tumble good looks, same sensitive soul. One life gone, another moves on into our shared, blessed fear and uncertainty. One year gone, more years to come. But how many, we never know.

Ray and I sat at a cheap wooden table as the Pogues came and went on the jukebox. My hands warmed my whisky glass; I sipped from it slowly. Ray smiled and said, "You'll appreciate this question: What's your favorite Yogi Berra saying?"

There are many favorites, but one popped into my head immediately. Getting dressed after a game, Yankee pitcher Whitey Ford turned to Yogi and asked, "Hey Yog, what time is it?"

Yogi answered, "What, you mean now?"

Ray laughed and countered with this one: "Good pitching beats good hitting, and vice versa." He'd been thinking about that a lot since Nick's death. His other son, Neil, is about to become a father. With one life gone and another to come, Ray had transformed Yogi's koan into his own version: "Life trumps death, and vice versa."

It was almost time to go, and Ray handed me a card with Nick's picture. On the back was a passage from Nick's journal that he wrote just before his death. Ray and Marie found it as they pored over his personal effects, trying to sort a life from a death and vice versa. I've excerpted the passage below. I can't imagine a better question to ask ourselves as we move into the new year.

(from Nick's journal: "I must insist on giving as much love as I can to those around me for the rest of my life -- to whomever deserves it, and that is everyone because there is no separation between humans. And when I die do I take the love with me or does the love return to the world where it is needed most?")

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