Recently, someone asked me for my favorite childhood memory and the first one that came to me was this: I am an eight-year-old boy sitting alone on the metal milk box on the front steps of my family’s house in Connecticut as a summer thunderstorm is about to roll in. The air is electric. It’s late in the afternoon and I have four brand new packets of baseball cards in my hands, the cards and the wax paper packets still exuding the sweet aroma of thin, rock-hard slabs of chewing gum.
I was asked for a second childhood memory and immediately offered this: It is a summer afternoon, the sky cerulean, and I am sitting alone at a card table in the finished, wood-paneled basement of that house, playing dice baseball. I am using long yellow legal pads as scorecards and slightly smaller, white pads to calculate the batting and earned run averages of the New York Mets in my fictional league. I am probably nine.
After this conversation, I shared these recollections with my daughter, and she seemed to grow a little worried that I had a melancholy, friendless childhood. I reassured her that I had friends and most of the time I was pretty happy. I said that perhaps the moral here was that I was self-sufficient and I really liked baseball. Or, perhaps, that I loved the summer.
We are not so far into the baseball season that watching the Mets has become a mere exercise in masochism: There is still delusion masquerading as optimism. These days, gardening has replaced dice baseball and bicycling has replaced baseball cards, but I am still content when I’m alone – which might explain how I wound up a novelist rather than a journalist. Sometimes, I think one of the principal differences between journalists and novelists is that journalists crave company more. They are, pure and simple, more social.
But at mid-life I have also noticed this: I seem to be more social now than I was growing up. Part of this is because I have been in the same place for a quarter-century, while my family moved around a fair amount when I was a child. Exhibit A? At one point, I went to four different schools in four consecutive years. All told, in that period I went to five schools in six.
Nevertheless, a part of this might be a dawning awareness at mid-life of just how finite our time is in this world – and how ephemeral we really are. “Time passed, almost imperceptibly. First we were so young and then we were so busy and then one day we awoke to discover that we were an age we once thought of as old,” writes Anna Quindlen in her insightful new memoir, “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake.” And while that realization turns a number of us into ornery cranks who grumble as we confront the indignities, infirmities, and stupidities that seem to accompany middle (and old) age, it just may turn an equal number of us into unexpected extroverts. Certainly I have a lot of curmudgeon in me: Trust me, I can roll my eyes with disgust as well as any teenager a third my age. (And I do. Often.)
But I’ve also found that I have the potential in me to be one of those four old guys at the diner who pontificate over eggs and coffee for hours. I’m not bragging, but I seem to have way more friends now than I have ever had as a boy – and that’s not because I have suddenly found charm at mid-life. It’s because I find myself actually making an effort.
The moral here? The sun is going to set. While you still have a little time, get in the sandbox, find some friends, and play nice.
Also, one more bit of unsolicited advice: Keep your baseball cards.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on June 24. Chris’s new novel, “The Sandcastle Girls,” arrives on July 17.)