Discovering Your Inner Zambrano

by ceeangi

When I started this website, I wasn’t sure that anyone would read it. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted anyone to read it, but the first post went up. I assumed it would be largely ignored, but Craig Calcaterra retweeted it, long before we were friends, which resulted in a respectable number of hits for my first day. It was an ice-water bath awakening that meant no longer would my long-form writing hide in secret, but forever rest in the annals of the Internet for strangers and close friends that I’ve always tried to keep just outside of the feelings zone to read (and judge).

When I closed my laptop that first day, I didn’t set any goals. I did, however, set one rule: Be honest.

I don’t have a propensity for dishonesty, but I do omit tough truths to make things more palatable, not just in writing, but also in everyday interactions. It’s easier to tell a friend that dress doesn’t make her ass look huge and it’s the same principle that’s caused me to sign dozens of petitions to save the whales, feed the homeless, and buy library books for underprivileged children. Couching everything, pleasant or unpleasant, with enough positivity that it becomes too saccharine-sweet to deny, is an effective feeling saver. But in writing, here especially, I promised myself I wouldn’t tip-toe around topics, that I’d never gloss over my emotions, and that telling the entire story, no matter how naked it leaves me to the reader, had value. Now, that doesn’t mean sharing everything—I’ve never wanted this site to turn into a public journal of petulant missives, but I’ve also wanted to avoid the converse: Putting on airs of perfection and togetherness for the sake of producing content.

****

For three weeks now, I’ve been thinking about a game from May 2009. The Chicago Cubs were playing the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field and I wasn’t at the game, but I was watching on television. That season I watched nearly every Chicago day game—Cubs or White Sox, it didn’t matter—from the desk in my home-office. I had a horrible angle on the television and far too many phone calls to pay close attention, but I could see the reflection of the game, its inverted image appearing in the glass on a framed Paul Westerberg poster in the living room, keeping tabs with just enough interest to know when someone got a high-leverage strikeout, hit a home run, or sang Take Me Out To The Ballgame off-key*.

*This was every Cubs day game.

Carlos Zambrano was on the mound and I was on the phone with the client I hated to call. Their business was based in Indiana and in stroke of brilliant Hoosier homage, their hold music was “Pink Houses” by John Mellencamp, a never-ending loop of empty promises of tiny salmon dwellings for you and for me. Nyjer Morgan, then a Pirate, was on third base and right-handed Big Z threw a wild pitch in the dirt. Geovany Soto got in front of the ball, but his attempt to block it deflected it off to his left, darting away from him like a rocket. Zambrano rushed home to apply the tag. I’m not sure if Morgan was safe, but home plate umpire Mark Carlson seemed to think he was.

****

If I’d written this yesterday, it would have been like watching Pulp Fiction on cable. The associates of Marsellus Wallace, Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vegas, would show up in their pressed black suits and skinny ties. Jules Winfield would still say that hamburgers were the corner stone of any nutritious breakfast, but instead of calling Brett a motherfucker, he’d call him little sucker. Also, the entire scene of Vincent and Jules walking from the elevator talking about foot massages and Mia Wallace snorting cocaine while listening to “Son of a Preacher Man” would have been missing, too, and the entire thing would have been cheapened.

Nothing in my life, or anyone else’s for that manner, has been perfect, but I was probably more sheltered from harsh realities than most. We never had a six-car garage, a Maserati, or a yacht, but we did have a country club membership, Disney vacations, and my mother had enough twenties in her wallet that if I stole one to buy albums at the Record Exchange after school she wouldn’t noticed. I traded a banal suburban existence for four-years of odd-jobs and education near the Ohio River, where instead of mooching financially and emotionally off of my parents as most college students did, I latched onto a man eighteen years my senior for support. There was fulfillment in the insulation, a protective bubble where nothing bad ever happened because money, antidepressants, and vacations from problems could solve everything, for me, but not for him.

He had an anger issue, something I never understood. I’d seen people get angry—I once witnessed an intense emotional meltdown over a missing hairbrush—but I never related with the desire to punch walls, shout profanities, and I’d never, not even for one moment, felt so out of control emotionally that I felt I could hit someone, or something.

****

Zambrano got in the umpire’s face, his histrionics igniting the crowd. For a renowned hothead like Zambrano, it was commonplace for him to feel so vehemently about a call that people were no longer surprised, but still delighted, by his behavior. Even today if you Google him, one of the top search results is “The Top Five Meltdowns of Carlos Zambrano.”

There’s no off-switch to an upset Zambrano and even before a rapidly aging Lou Pinella could waddle from the dugout to home plate, Carlos had already been ejected. Just like the wild pitch, brushing against the umpire wasn’t intentional—it was incidental contact in a passionate disagreement, but the rules dictate a suspension and Zambrano knew it from the moment his hands grazed the pecs of the man in charge.

Seeing the melee reflected off of Paul Westerberg’s crotch from my Aeron chair, I rushed into the living room just in time to see Zambrano launch the game ball deep into the outfield. I’ve always assigned a deep meaning to that gesture, some sort of reverse protest that mimicked that of bleachers dwellers throwing home run balls back onto the field—but after he threw his glove at the dugout, I figured he was probably just angry.

****

I took my mother to Denver recently to meet with a team of doctors who are regarded as the best in the world for her ailment. It’s something I’ve alluded to in passing many times now, as it’s something that’s been consuming my time, my thoughts, and energy for years. She’s never been well, but she’s also never been this ill before—it’s uncharted territory for kids who shouldn’t be forced to confront the morality of their idols, for a woman who is really still within the age-range of people allowed to have a mid-life crisis, and for the doctors that can’t figure out what’s wrong from her.

Seeing her wheel a suit-case sized oxygen concentrator with her at all times, and the fear and frustration on her face while we shuffled from CT scans to breathing tests to doctor’s offices looking for answers, was enough for me to expect a death sentence. Fortunately that moment never came, but the ambiguity of what the right treatment plan for such a rare-disease is weighing heavily on everyone.

As I drove our rented compact back to the Denver airport, I watched the Rocky Mountains disappear in the rear-view mirror, the peaks tucked in the fog. We found Delta special services, a counter specializing in checking pets, helping military-personnel, and summoning wheelchairs for those who can’t stride freeing through a crowded concourse and were told to wait in the seats by the door that were currently occupied, one by a large shipping crate containing a full-grown German Shepard, the other by its owner.

A small man the size of a peanut with the face of Mr. Miyagi greeted us with broken English, missing teeth, and a chip on his rounded, aging shoulders and he refused to budge until my mother fastened her seatbelt, which was his cue to push the wheelchair through the terminal as though his hair was on fire. When we reached the security line, he went ahead, motioning for me to join him, and tucked me into a busy line, cutting dozens of passengers. I stood awkwardly between two businessmen, hoping there wouldn’t be an incident.

I unzipped my boots, snatched three plastic bins, and started unpacking the contents of four bags—two of mine, and two for my mother. The man behind me started huffing even though the line was stalled as they scanned the space-age breathing apparatus keeping my mother’s lungs oxygenated, and I worked faster than Mark Buehrle to ready myself. Two iPads, two iPhones, two Macbooks, and a random battery from one of the many medical devices my mother almost all in their totes, before I’m rudely interrupted.

“Get back in line, what are you doing up here?” the shorter of the two businessmen yelled at me, as he tried to hover over me authoritatively, though I was a head taller than him.

“They said I could come up here, chill out.” I hate that I used the phrase chill out, too.

“That’s not how it works! Get in the back of the line!” Napoleon demanded, as he shoved the TSA-provided bins along the rollers, pinching my fingers between them, as he maliciously applied pressure.

Out of sight from my mother, who had already been granted a pass to the gate-side of the security detail, tears welled in my eyes as I yelled, “HOW ABOUT YOU TRY TRAVELING WITH YOUR DISABLED MOTHER AND THEN YOU CAN TALK TO ME ABOUT HOW TRAVELING WORKS.”

Were it not for my fear of body-cavity searches, I probably would have kept going.

****

The coaches got Zambrano back into the dugout without further incident, but even at the bottom of the steps, he wasn’t depleted of rage. He grabbed a bat from the rack and proceeded to take out his frustrations on an innocent Gatorade machine. He knocked the top off, shards of plastic flying around the dugout, as he hit it once, twice, and then a third time. He started down the tunnel to the locker room, but he thought better, returning to give his sports-drink victim one final throttle.

Zambrano was suspended for six games and fined $3,000 for the incident.

****

For weeks, there have been pockets of tension resting where my temples used to be. The veins in my forehead bulge while in traffic and in board meetings; I even clench my teeth when playing fetch with Lola, my frustrations vetted on a plush ball that has stubby ears, bulbous eyes, and a curly tail like a monkey. My life isn’t terrible, in fact in many ways it’s much better than it was a year ago, but the umbrella of worries for my family, career, and the deeply rooted fears of ruining relationships and ending up alone affect my daily interactions have made everyday tasks like commuting 70 miles without swearing and honking like an asshole, and making dinner much more difficult. It’s temporary, I’m not an angry person, but it’s a compounding effect of worrying, longing, and overachieving.

Tonight I put two raw chicken breasts on a plastic cutting board, which based on its design and complexity I believe came from a late night infomercial. The recipe required that I pound the breasts for even and expedient cooking, so I wrapped them each in parchment paper, while I searched for the meat tenderizer. I found three can openers, but no mallet in the top drawer. I found various basting brushes, hand towels, and breath mints in the second drawer, but nothing heavy, nothing bang-able. Slamming the drawers now, another side effect of anger and something I’ve never done before, I stomped to the pantry looking for something, anything, to bludgeon the chicken corpses. Armed with a can of stewed tomatoes, I returned to the counter.

I pounded lightly, evenly. Julia Child would have been satisfied, but my lungs knew what was coming before my brain did; I took a deep breath and kept going. Banging out frustration. Beating out tension. Now in a rhythm, I was on a mission to annihilate the chicken, the dented-can tearing the breasts into scraps. Yelling, stomping, a full-body trouncing and whipping on the poultry that would have knocked down a full-grown man, let alone a defenseless quarter-pound of meat.

Tears streamed down my chin and onto the parchment while I relentlessly ruined the only thing I defrosted.  The can broke open and the jagged metal sliced my knuckle and I couldn’t tell what was blood and what was the spaghetti-sauce starter. I grabbed a roll of paper towels, put my back against the cabinet, and let my slippered feet slowly slide out from underneath me, as I ended up on the floor, my head buried deep in my own arms for support and comforting.

Anger isn’t unwelcome; it’s just often misunderstood and unmanageable. It took ruining dinner and a box of Kleenex to be honest, but at least it’s no longer quiet.