By PETER KNOBLER.
I was the last man chosen. It hasn’t always been that way.
I have been playing softball since I aged out of Little League. I used to be a leadoff-hitting shortstop with quick legs, great range and a gun for an arm. At age 76, I recall that guy like I’m looking at a grandchild. And yet I play, happy to give away 25, 35, 50 years to teammates and opponents in the “Over-40” league—if it’s over 40 degrees, we’re playing ball—to which I commute from New York City to East Hills, Long Island, on Sunday mornings from March through January. My replacement knees are Titanium; I don’t so much run between bases as cruise like a hovercraft. I am old-school: I know hitters’ tendencies without having to read a printout. I am fundamentally sound. And I win the expectation game every time I jog onto the field because I can still play and so little is expected of me.
The annual East Hills Mayor’s Trophy Tournament is held two weekends after Labor Day. Players ante up their thirty-dollar entrance fee a few weeks prior, specify the positions at which they shine, and grade themselves numerically according to ability, one being the lowest, five the top. I used to be a five, I am now a three and sliding. Team captains draft from the pool of our regulars as well as guys (we would welcome female players, but none have ever showed up) from nearby towns, all of which have their own weekend games. On a normal Sunday, none of us comes out for a lovely day of exercise; the point is to play well, yak some with the fellas, and win. Year after year the tournament has plenty of yakking, but with the uniformed umpires, fresh chalk lines and 12-month bragging rights, the games are even more victory-focused.
When our roster arrived I could see we had a very good team, real ballplayers at every position. We had a nice combination of defense and offense, power and speed, youth and wisdom. I had signed up for first base, second base, or catcher; playing shortstop was out of the question and I could no longer defend myself at third base or make the throw. I am still a plus first baseman, but our roster included several younger, better players whom I could not move off that position. Clearly, if I were going to get on the field and be an asset to the team, I’d have to catch.
In our games, catcher is where you stash your worst; it is the position where a lesser ballplayer can generally do the least harm. However, the ball will find bad players, and many games are decided by throws that carom around the backstop while runners scamper home. If a team has an actual athlete back there, able to field throws from the outfield and tag guys out at the plate, it has a major advantage. Still, because of all the squatting and bending, few men want to catch. I needed to be on the field, and I wanted to win, so I volunteered for the post.
This was pre-Covid, pre-plague. By 9:00 a.m. game-time the temperature was 82 degrees. I had eaten my ritual pre-game Power Bar and brought a bottle of water and some fruit, but mostly I was fueled by the ample coffee and donuts provided free by the township. Propped on one knee, I called a decent game and hydrated every inning. We won the opener 8-2.
I ate the two apples and the pear I had brought for a between-games pick-me-up, and headed back out. I’m not sure why, but several of my teammates asked if I was all right, maybe wanted to take an inning off. I shooed them away. There are a limited number of innings I have left, and even though I was dragging, the last thing I was going to do that day was sit. I did find myself grunting more than usual when a pitch got by me, and not so much jogging off the field as trudging. I wanted to finish strong, but mostly I wanted to finish.
We won game two and made it to the finals, scheduled for the following Sunday. I got a lift home and was quiet on the car ride. Sitting in the air conditioning, I could feel the energy seeping out through my heels.
Inside my apartment, I dropped my gym bag by the door instead of placing it in the closet as was my routine, and shuffled into the bedroom. I lowered myself into my comfy chair, a hand on each armrest, and tuned the television to an early-season football game. My ninth-floor windows face south, and the panoramic view of the Greenwich Village sky always warms me. The sun over my shoulder was creating a glare on the screen, but when I tried to fix it I found I could not stand back up to pull down the shades. I figured since the sun would cross the sky, the problem would solve itself.
Then I started making noises. On the exhale. Not because I wanted to. For ten minutes, I heard the rumble in my chest and throat as though listening to a man sitting to my left—bass notes coming out of me as if I were portaging a pack that was only slightly outside my ability to handle it.
This was new.
I lost the ability to sit up straight. As my shoulders lowered and head slowly bowed, I became my own private sepulcher. I could not move, my eyes darting as I examined the perimeter of my decreasing possibilities. I needed water; I couldn’t get water. I needed to shower; I couldn’t lift myself out of the chair. I needed to change the channel; the remote was entirely too remote. I remained frozen, the salt of my game sweat prickling the back of my neck like fire ants. I didn’t have the physical, emotional or spiritual strength to stand up for myself. I stayed in that position for two hours.
I became aware of the presence of death. The Presence of Death. It sat small between my right hip and the armrest, neither sinkhole nor savior, a whirlwind without movement, vibrating as if sending out signals. My breath was even, my arms fallen straight at my side. I could do nothing to avoid it; I was there for the taking.
I had been sitting at my father’s bedside several days before he died when he had opened his eyes and said, “I can feel it coming.” I’d said nothing. I did not want to scare him, to force my father to stare Death in the face, to send him into the afterlife—if there is an afterlife—in a state of panic, so I did not ask what I wanted to know.
I think of this now as a major life error. How often will I have the opportunity, before I face my own roster change, to receive a report from that front line? Perhaps my father had wanted to reveal his vision, to make one last street-corner oration.
But he was a general, not a scout. What could he have told me? That God was still not in sight? My father was a negotiator, was Death the brick wall he had always imagined himself to be or the facilitator that put a lie to the fundamental principle of his life—that if you didn’t move, you couldn’t lose? Was he waiting for me to ask for his expertise or was he hoarding and withholding it for all time? Did he want to talk? I will never know. Within a week, he was gone. Now Death would do with me what it would, I could not rouse myself to escape it.
The sun went down over my shoulder, its light finally blocked by buildings along the Hudson River. I hadn’t moved, but the second game of the NFL doubleheader headed for resolution. I could feel Death’s pulse but I resisted looking at its source, shifting my weight only when necessary, careful not to let my thigh hang over the abyss. I did not place my hand into the fourth dimension. I sat in that chair for six hours.
Finally, and for no reason I could discern, my afternoon Thanatos companion withdrew, leaving no visible debris, nothing you might find in the movies: no scattered Sunday Times, no scent of sulfur, no swirling vortex carved into the black leather. My exhaustion had been exhausted. Apparently, I was in overtime—one hopes not Sudden Death. I gathered myself and walked slowly into my kitchen, drank a large glass of water, and then called my good friend Stacey to tell her my story while it was fresh in the mind.
“You need to see Master Ru,” she told me. Stacey is an osteopath and a seeker. She knows things I don’t. “He’s an energy master. He does great things. I’ll try to get you in.”
I’m not a believer in eastern religion. I’m not a believer in any religion. I had no idea what an “energy master” was, but Stacey got me an hour with him the next morning.
Monday was one of those summer days when the sky is Mets blue and the sun Pirates yellow. Clear beyond clear, all the lines down the avenues looked drawn with a ruler. The sound in the street had a little extra treble to it. Trudging toward my appointment, parsing my breath, I put one foot in front of the other, trying not so much to make good time as simply to achieve the triumph of arrival. I felt that if I stopped in the street I might not be able to push forward again, so I pressed on as if climbing lighthouse stairs. I was moving in quarter-time and it seemed everyone was passing me at a trot.
Master Ru worked out of a post-war apartment building that looked entirely devoid of soul. I knocked on his hollow door and was met by a short Chinese man in blue scrubs who appeared to be in his forties but might have been older. He smiled like he meant it, encouraged me to enter, and asked that I remove my shoes. Master Ru spoke English with a heavy accent I had a hard time understanding. “Stacey tells me…” I began. “Yes,” he said, “Stacey.”
On the blonde parquet floor lay a yoga mat to which he motioned me. “On stomach.” I turned off my phone, took my keys out of my pocket so I would not lie on them, and lowered myself to the ground. It felt good to lie down. A kerchief indicated the ideal placement of my head. I could lie there all day. The energy master knelt beside me.
Master Ru dug an elbow into my shoulder and a guttural sound erupted from my entire being. I was facing the floor, I could not see what he was doing. I closed my eyes but see or no see, I could not avoid the pain. I bucked but could not throw him. I had experienced deep-tissue massage in the past; now I wanted to jump ahead in time, to have done the work and reaped the benefits. I really did not want to live in this moment, and this moment continued.
Master Ru moved with conviction more deeply into my shoulder, around my scapula, and then working slowly, with practiced certainty, dug small circles with his thumbs at six points down each side of my spine. I jumped and grunted with each touch and he seemed neither unsympathetic nor particularly attentive to my discomfort. He never wavered. Master Ru plumbed my hamstrings and calf muscles—“Very tight”—and then told me to turn over.
When he took hold of the skin at my right underarm, stretched my arm and suddenly pulled hard on my wrist, I went electric. There was no escape. He strummed the funny bone nerve in my elbow. Not funny. I exploded all over again when he performed the same on my left side.
I’m not a guy who has had to deal with a lot of physical pain; I was just trying to live through this. When he put his thumbs into my sternum, I broke out the Lamaze breathing I had learned in sympathy with my wife before the birth of our son. My hands twitched surrender as he drove first into my chest, then my stomach, then my navel. I was groaning loudly but I didn’t want to be the wimp who told Master Ru to stop. I could control none of my responses, and I searched in earnest for a route to comfort, but I refused to be that guy.
When he finally finished, my insides were thrumming. My eyes blinked open but Master Ru covered them with a small cloth to ensure my solitude. I accepted. As I lay on my back, panting, I could feel him squatting to my right, his hands moving in cycles above the length of my body without touching me, creating an energetic Spuyten Duyvil. I breathed relief that the trial had concluded, and then something inside —rolling waves of blood and breath and muscle — coursed from my ears to my feet and back again. And again. And again. I was a water bed, a human tide, as the swells took me. I held my palms flat on the ground so as not to fall off the floor.
If Master Ru worked on me for ten minutes, that was a lot. I lay on the mat, and as I ceased vibrating and the current subsided, I gave over — soothed, then energized, then troubled, then soothed again by a series of emotions and reflections that did not so much inhabit my heart as surround it like a mist. Fear, futility, optimism, confusion, affection. I could feel each of them approach, familiar but as yet not fully explored, one pushing out the next like the sun burning off a cloud, which was itself then covered for a time before breaking back through.
In the middle of my reverie I heard someone enter the room, introduce herself, and lie on a mat near me, prepared for him. I paid little attention, rapt as I was in my own emotional meteorology. I heard Master Ru begin on this new visitor as he had on me, and I felt a little less wimpescent when her guttural noises began.
I had returned to my own attentions and perhaps lost track of time when I felt bare footsteps near my shoulder. They could only be Master Ru’s as he moved by me. I did not know where he was headed, only that he was passing and I was not his destination. I immediately felt warmth flood my body, and I flushed as if a hearth had appeared beside me.
I began to beam.
A large smile expanded across my face. I could feel my chin rise slowly to the warmth. Both sides of my mouth curled upward into something beatific. It felt glorious, as though all the love within me was being brought to my surface. (I know this sounds goofy; I am normally the one who tells the newly initiated that they’re sounding goofy. Which made this all the more affecting. Crack a cynic and you get a zealot.) My head moved ever so slightly from side to side, as when I am transported by John Coltrane or hear my gifted son play guitar. It felt as close as I’ve gotten to heaven. I had not expected this crescendo, and I did not know whether I could survive at this level of bliss. How to maintain equilibrium in the presence of overwhelming love? (Who ever thought I would be faced with that problem!) And then Master Ru stepped away and the heat faded like a song winding down, the smile lingering but dissipating the further he moved from me.
I was examining the experience when Master Ru walked by again. The heat returned. And the smile. And the love. He was not turning his attention toward me, he was simply moving from one place to another and I happened to be in his path. I had no explanation, only the knowledge that it had occurred. Every time he neared me, I beamed.
After an hour, a chime rang and Master Ru cradled my head as I rose. He gave me a glass of water and a short set of exercises to return me to the day. He then handed me a blank sheet of unlined paper and a pen, and said, “Write what you feel when come. Then now.” I gushed out a paragraph and thanked him profusely. I remember walking home, head high through the simmering hostility of street-level New York, minus the need to conquer. The peace held.
I returned to Master Ru for a session four days later and had a similar experience. Same heat, same smile. Then I stayed away for a year. I don’t know why. Perhaps I didn’t want to stare into the face of love, though that sounds like a miserable decision. Maybe I was afraid to push my luck; perhaps I would fail to feel inspiration and find instead only disappointment. Did I have the strength to bear up under that loss? I had no answer. I do know that, when I told them about Master Ru, the guys I play ball with did not laugh at me.
I waited a year and returned after last season’s Mayor’s Trophy tournament. I have visited Master Ru several times since. The intensity varies from session to session—and in weaker moments I find myself chasing that first blush of inspiration, that transcendent love—but the heat indeed returns, and as I lie on the floor in my rejuvenation, when Master Ru walks within several feet of me, I again beam.
I don’t catch anymore, I play first base. (Willie Mays was the best ballplayer of my lifetime and that’s where he ended up.) My game has been resuscitated, my hitting stroke is back. And Death, apparently, has stepped away for a while.
PETER KNOBLER has co-written the memoirs of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Carville and Mary Matalin, Ann Richards, Sumner Redstone, Mayor David Dinkins, Donny Deutsch, and Tommy Hilfiger. His book with former NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton, The Profession: A Memoir of Community, Race, and the Arc of Policing in America, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. His Fortnightly archive is here.