Yesterday was the forty-ninth birthday of actor Paul Giamatti, someone whose work I’ve admired ever since his Presidential turn in HBO’s John Adams. What I’ve never known until now, however, is that Giamatti is the son of A. Bartlett Giamatti, the late President of Yale University, English Renaissance scholar, Commissioner of Major League Baseball, and the author of the single best thing anybody’s ever said about that wonderful sport:
“It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops. Today, October 2, a Sunday of rain and broken branches and leaf-clogged drains and slick streets, it stopped and summer was gone.”
What Giamatti hints at in this passage, and what the game itself hints at when we begin to take its measure on those brisk, swiftly-darkening nights in October, is human mortality itself. Every fan feels it, almost every season, but the ache intensifies to an exquisite degree when one’s team, after a long, intense summer, shows itself good enough and lucky enough to reach the playoffs. Should one’s team lose in the playoffs, as my team, the Houston Astros, did on October 15, 1986 in sixteen innings of Game Six of the NLCS, the end of one of the most memorable National League Championship Series ever played, then one can only feel inside an extraordinary emptiness, as if all the brightness and promise of life were suddenly snatched away by a thief, never to be returned. I took a long walk that evening in the early twilight, feeling as lonely and bereft of happiness as I’ve ever felt, with not a soul anywhere on the streets who would share my sorrow. I gave everything I had to that season, but I discovered on that walk that what I had given most to it was time, time I’d never get back, time I could never use for anything else, time whose expenditure left me utterly empty and whose taste was bittersweet.
Yet I’d give it all again tomorrow, if I could.
Giamatti’s words ring true for many of us because, in their lovely, prosaic way, they remind us of what Shakespeare said about the coming end of our days in that extraordinarily-compact Sonnet # 73, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold.” There, too, we have images of nature’s expiring cycles connected to human life itself, as the poem’s voice imagines his body lying in death on the ashes of his youth, “Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.” Yes, that’s it, exactly. That is how the life of a baseball fan feels after such experiences: consumed with that which it was nourished by. But that it also how people feel after any great experience, or even how they feel in the midst of a great experience, such as a love affair. It is the way of life, and we would wish it to be no other way.
The younger Giamatti might find his father’s thoughts and mine a bit pretentious, perhaps. He’s a practical actor, willing to take on any role he’s offered, as long as it’s decent work. Like many of his peers, he casts a critical eye upon the work that he does, not valuing it quite as much as we who get to observe it on the movie screen or on television. Some parts, he says, he might never get right; others, like his character in Sideways, the drama about wine aficionados in California, are not too bad. That’s the attitude many writers take toward their daily task: we write something one day; the next, it’s on to the next thing. What we’ve written doesn’t always please us, although, shock of shocks, it may please our audience a great deal.
Yet, for all of his self-deprecation, Paul Giamatti is his father’s son. Anyone who has seen him in Barney’s Version, or as the fiery John Adams, has seen him embody the very things his father was writing about: the passion and energy of youth and maturity expending itself upon matters of the greatest import; the ache of lost companionship and purpose; yet the undimmed enthusiasm for living, and the belief that we’ve done something worthwhile. Paul Giamatti may think he’s buried that notion of doing something worthwhile within the make-believe garments of a fictional character, but the wise know better, just as we know what his father was driving at. Each, in his own way, has done that rare and wonderful thing we all hope to do: good work, and they have pointed out that even the things we do for fun, like acting or going to a ballgame, strike deeper resonances in our lives than we ever imagined.
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