The Underwear Itch

He is known as "Fear the Beard", this man with the piercing eyes and brillo black hair surrounding his face. If you are a baseball fan, as I am, you recognize him as Brian Wilson, the formidable pitcher who brilliantly closes out many a game for the San Francisco Giants. His fierce intensity and passionate dedication to excellence recently caused him to trash a water cooler when his performance didn't meet his own strict standards. Opponents have come to dread his appearance on the mound, knowing that he looms large over the closing moments of a tense game.

This same Brian Wilson recently handed out free baseball mitts along with words of hope to some thousand youngsters who belong to the Junior Giants program, a free community outreach effort for kids in neglected neighborhoods. The kids also got free tickets to the game that night. Now I am not totally uninitiated. I understand the PR value of such noblesse to the reputation of the Giants. But I am also a bit choked up when I think of what it can mean to those children who get to spend a few moments with a genuine hero.

We don't have many real heroes today, and it's not only kids that need them. When I watch the cavortings of our politicians I wish we had a congressional hero as well. It's not the pants down promiscuity that concerns me: money, power and testosterone have been known to coexist for centuries. The underwear itch is neither national nor exclusive to these shores. It's just that we seem to get more apoplectic about it than other societies, or at least we pretend to. That's our own private Idaho: uphold the moral flag while we screw our neighbor's spouse. Leona Helmsley would probably say "ethics are for the little people".

But aren't we all little people, just a bit, just occasionally? Don't we wish, once in a while, that some good old-fashioned kindness or respect would come sauntering around the corner? I recently watched the pilot for a new TV series called "Suits", those money-grubbing back-stabbing blood-thirsty legal sharks that we train in our prestigious law schools to win at any cost and succeed no matter how. I thought the program was written by someone who knows Silicon Valley well, someone who lives in the fast lanes of Palo Alto and similar communities where aggression and merciless ambition are baked into the morning pastries. I recently spent some post-surgical time living with two suits who were proud of their ruthlessness, gloating in their ability to crush opponents. The problem, as I saw it, was that the fries got mixed in with the oatmeal, the predators became unable to distinguish between true foes and friends. Once the juices of infinite ambition are loosed it becomes difficult to turn them off. Family differences become just another battle field for competitive success. Crush -one -crush -all rules the roost.

I left that environment feeling bruised, understanding how the metaphor of winning had so consumed our lives that some of us fail to set a place for kindness and respect at the family table. I once shuddered at a high school football game when a parent yelled "Kill! Kill!" at his hapless kid on the field. Now I know what it feels like to be the object of such intense ambition: I left the host house rather than watch the drama of winning at any cost play out.

But then a physical therapist handed me my own private baseball glove. She took away my cane and told me to walk without it. She gave me the gift of hope, when a distinguished surgeon had said I would probably never walk again. I'm not young, like Buster Posey, so I had this mental image of being a quasi-cripple for whatever is left of my life. She crushed that image with one swift gesture, and I now walk down the hallway of my life without a stick to lean on. I understand what it means to be a kid without hope, and why we all need a Brian Wilson to touch our lives occasionally. It's not the jock itch that can crush us. Rather it's the lack of hope, that missing bit of human kindness that all of us search for but don't often find.

If you meet a Brian Wilson today, I hope you remember what a friend told me recently: pass it on. Pause on the highway of endless ambition, and just pass it on.

c. Corinne Whitaker 2011

Note: Here's a delicious quote from the inimitable Wilson: "I'd like to be a crossword clue one day", he said. "I want to be in the New York Times' Sunday edition. Right now the clue 'Giants Great' is always Mel Ott. I want my clue to be down, not across. The down ones are usually harder. And when I'm the clue I'll fill it in - just that one - and frame it. How sweet would that be?" (Quote from the New York Times of October 27, 2010 in an article titled "Behind the Beard Is a Quirky Closer Who Keeps Things Interesting".) Wilson also raised eyebrows with this tux/body suit at a recent ESPY awards ceremony.