Phil Gulley: The Silver Lining

I always try to keep in mind that it’s me against the world—and the world will win.
If you’re heading into the holiday season with high hopes, I feel duty bound to point out that it won’t be nearly as nice as you imagine, and that lowering your expectations might be in order. You can trust me on this. I have 55 holiday seasons under my belt, and I know what I’m talking about. Holidays are like politicians—long on promises and short on satisfactions. Believe me when I tell you your life will be vastly improved if you wake up each morning assuming the worst will happen, so on the off chance it doesn’t, you’ll be pleased. Do you know those Hallmark commercials that show families laughing and enjoying one another’s company? That happens to no one I know, and the sooner you give up thinking it will happen to you, the better off you’ll be.

When I was 16, I went backpacking for four days with a group of friends in the Daniel Boone National Forest. I knew before we took the first step it would be a miserable experience, absent any comforts of home, and it turned out I was right. The night before our trip, I warned my friends it would be terrible, but they persisted in their optimism and ended up sorely disappointed. It felt so good to be right, I now consider that experience to be one of the finest of my childhood. I recall, with deep happiness, the bugs and blisters, the aching muscles and angry bowels. There are few better feelings than being right.

I never get my hopes up about the Colts for the same reason. In 2005, the Colts played the Steelers in the playoffs. With only 18 seconds remaining and the Colts behind three points, Mike Vanderjagt lined up to attempt a 46-yard field goal. I turned to my friend Brian Ritchie and said, “He’s going to blow it.” Brian, mad with confidence, said, “You’re nuts. He’s been making that kick all year.”

Vanderjagt missed, throwing Brian into a state of depression now in its 11th year and still going strong. And even though Brian kicked me out of his house and told me I could never watch the Colts with him again, it was a deeply satisfying evening. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: The pleasant aroma of foresight lingers long after the joy of victory is over.

I was driving past the Little League field in Danville the other day, and had the same memory I always have when I pass by that field. I was 10 years old, playing baseball for Baker and Son, who owned the funeral home in our town. We played about as well as you would imagine a team named for a funeral home might. I was in center field when Mitch Humphress hit a fly ball. The ball rose into the heavens then descended to strike me in the head. I hadn’t seen the ball, and in fact had such little interest in the game that I wasn’t even aware the ball had been hit when it knocked me to the ground. When I came to, the Baker and Son team was clustered around me and Mr. Leath, our coach, was shaking me, calling my name.

“Are you okay, Phil?” I heard him ask. “You gotta get up. You’re our best player. We can’t win without you.”

“He’s not our best player,” Kent Chalfant said. “Bill Kirtley is.”

In that crystalline moment, I realized Little League was not for me and decided to stay home on Friday nights to watch The Partridge Family and dream about marrying Laurie Partridge and having scores of children.

If Kent Chalfant had shared Coach Leath’s optimism, I might have stuck with Little League, been hit on the head God knows how many times, and eventually voted for Donald Trump. Instead, I became a realist, resolving never to forget it was me against the world and the world would win. Indeed, not only win, but annihilate every whisper of hope I dared to entertain. Desperate, I became a Christian, because I was told I could do all things through Jesus, who strengthened me. But someone forgot to tell Jesus, because that hasn’t gone my way, either.

We’re on the cusp of Thanksgiving, with daily reminders to count our blessings and be grateful and invite a Native American to dinner because they saved our lives when we were starving in Plymouth in 1621. Of course, we repaid their hospitality by giving them smallpox and stealing their land, which proves my point that no good deed goes unpunished.

My wife is one of those optimists, a regular Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, so blinded by hopefulness she can’t see the obvious: We’re doomed. She recycles, for God’s sake.

Back to Laurie Partridge, whom I asked in a letter to meet me on top of the grain elevator at the co-op on Lincoln Street, just like Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in An Affair to Remember. I waited and waited, but she never showed. Later, I discovered she had married someone else and had a daughter without telling me. While it’s true I was only 10 years old, I had feelings, too, not that she noticed or cared.

So you can see why I’m pessimistic, despite assurances from people around me that the sky’s the limit, people who apparently haven’t noticed we weren’t born with wings. These same people will show up at my house on Thanksgiving and go around the table asking us to name one thing we’re grateful for. I’ll have to make up something and act happy, even though the world as we know it is coming to an end, and someday the sun will sputter out like a snuffed candle, and we’ll all die cold, lonely, meaningless deaths. That’s if a meteorite doesn’t hit us first, which won’t be the first time that has happened. And let’s not forget climate change and the very real possibility we’ll face widespread droughts and famine in the near future.

My wife is one of those optimists, a regular Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, so blinded by hopefulness she can’t see the obvious: We’re doomed. She recycles, for God’s sake, actually believing her singular effort will usher in a better world. She saves tinfoil, string, and the rubber bands that come wrapped around our newspaper, which I read to her every morning, launching our day with natural catastrophes, murder, and general mayhem. She seizes on the slightest proof that things are not as bad as I imagine.

“More people are driving electric cars than ever before,” she happily observes.

“Powered by electricity generated by coal,” I point out.

I think I got this way playing Little League baseball for a funeral home, listening to Rawleigh Baker’s pep talk preceding each game.

“We’re all going to die,” the funeral director would tell us. “But probably not in the next two hours, so do your best.”

Then we would take the field, lambs marching to our inevitable slaughter.