F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning." I found this to be particularly true this past week. Insomnia, saddness, self-pity, all those unnatractive qualities that come seeping into one's being when he is most vulnerable--They all came for a visit; but unlike F. Scott Fitzgerald, I did not grab a bottle of gin and simple start sucking my way down to the bottom. Instead, I grabbed a book.
Reading horror novelist John Saul always transports me back to junior high in Minneapolis, and it was one of his books I grabbed off the shelf for some literary therapy.
And though the book was a welcome distraction and an enjoyable read, it wasn't responsible for repairing my soul. Instead, it was a simple memory blended with a realization, and a little help along the way from my dad.
My father has been coaching high school basketball for over 35 years. From rural schools to inner-city schools, boys and girls, state champions to grandiose losers, my father has always loved the sport no matter what the situation.
For me, though, one school in the northern suburbs of Minneapolis will forever be my favorite.
When my dad worked there, I was in 4th grade. From that perspective, high school kids were slightly younger and much cooler adults. My father had taught me how to run the video recorder, because I was cheap labor, and he would take me along to every away game. This meant I rode the big yellow bus with him and the team.
The cheerleaders sat at the front of the bus. For each game they made elaborate illustrations on 8.5 x 11 pieces of white paper in vibrant colored markers. The school mascot was a panther, and in each picture the panther would be destroying the "enemy" mascot: the cardinals, the bengals, the mustangs, the elks, and even the tornadoes. These signs were placed on the lockers of each player, and without fail they always made me one with the name "Skippy" on it--a nickname my father often used for me. My bedroom door at home was wallpapered in these hand-drawn posters.
I could probably write a book about the kids on this bus and how kind they were to me: Buffy, the girl with the strawberry blond bowl cut who would bring large books of word searches for us to work through on the longer bus rides; or Hawk, the huge football player who wore a white head-band like John McEnroe and carried a huge gray boom box constantly playing Chaka-Khan over and over--and despite his stature, he was always the one that would put his hand gently on my back and guide me through the crowds to make sure I didn't get lost along the way.
But, when it comes to John Saul, I must focus on only one of these bus riders: a basketball player named Cory. Cory was a younger, less emaciated clone of Michael Stipe (lead singer of the band R.E.M.). He sat by himself on the bus, his walkman playing what I found out was Echo and the Bunnymen, and he'd often wear black circular sun glasses like John Lennon. When the light allowed him to, he would be reading John Saul.
Sometimes I would sit next to him. He would have me listen to parts of his favorite songs, the spongy headphones resting snugly up against my ears. He'd ask me if I liked what I heard--no matter what, I always said I did. He'd tell me the plot lines of his books, which were filled with supernatural death and mystery, and look at me over the rim of his John Lennon glasses as he told me that he read this gruesome stuff during the school day without getting in trouble because teachers couldn't see in your head.
"It's better than T.V.," he told me.
He was not a star basketball player; in fact, he hardly played at all. When I brought him up while talking to my father last night on the phone, he instantly knew who I was talking about.
"Nice kid, always gave 100% though he had no talent." Spoken only in that way a gym teacher can deliver such a statement, my dad continued, "He came froma crappy family. All those kids seemed to come from bad families with alcoholics as parents, if they had parents at all. His dad threatened me after a game once, I remember, about Cory's lack of playing time. Afterward, in the locker room, that kid cried in my office as he apologized for his loser of a father. Nice kids, all of them, but I had to get outta that place. It was killing me to see that stuff every day."
I had no idea.
What I did know was, at 11 years old, I went out and spent every cent I received for birthdays and holdiays on those John Saul books because this lanky teenager told me that reading books was an ordained cool activity for high school guys.
Without even trying, he sold me on reading. I've been hooked ever since, and what he said then is just as true today: It is better than television.