So something momentous happened recently: The Houston Astros won the World Series. Yeah, you might have heard about it. It was, after all, a record-setting series filled with tremendous moments: The most home runs in a Series; Carlos Correa proposing after the Astros won; George Springer with the most home runs during a Series, Yasiel Puig winning Most Terrifying Set of Crazy Eyes in a World Series Game; Yuli Gurriel coming damn close to having the entirety of MLB fans calling Houston Astros fans racists; and many, many others. There have been a lot of pieces written about this, so I am very much just adding my voice into a ton of articles written by people who are more stat-heavy, bigger baseball fans, and all that, but what the hell. I’m in Singapore and it’s too humid outside for me, so why not hole up in my hotel room with a cup of green tea and get some writing in?
Now, the Astros winning is a big deal for me for a lot of reasons. One of the most personal, though, is that for a while, like every teenager and young adult, I had a lot of difficulty trying to figure out how to exactly be myself around my dad. Don’t get me wrong, I had it a lot easier than a good proportion of kids my age: We got along well, we were on the same end (mostly) of the political spectrum, and we had the same sense of humor. There were still a lot of things that kept us, I think, from understanding each other. That was about the time I started really thinking about the fact that I was an atheist, and that was about the time that he started ramping up his involvement in the Jewish community. That was about the time that I developed a lot of political views that meant that there were some severe differences between us when it came down to work culture and labor treatment in the U.S., and how to solve those problems. That was about the time when I was really trying to figure out a way to avoid getting a gnarly job I knew I would dislike, and that was about the time that he (rightly) tried to impress upon me that I really needed to get a goddamn job to fill out my resume.
Throughout the semi-rough patches we had, though, we knew that we could successfully avoid difficult conversations by talking about how much the Astros sucked. See, this was about the time right after the White Sox swept the Astros in the 2005 World Series. This was about the time that Drayton McLane decided the best option for the Astros would be to fire Phil Garner and start the team into a ten-year(ish) tailspin. Right about the time is when “Lastros” became the joke of the National League (rightfully so, because we were garbage). Going along with that, though, came a certain freedom with acknowledging that the team was awful. When you have nothing really going on, it’s easier to acknowledge that sometimes, life just sucks, or your job just sucks, or, hell, flights between Portland and Tokyo just suck. The freedom is the freedom to acknowledge mediocrity. It’s not a willingness to embrace it, because if you’re worth your individuality or your sense of being a human being, then you’ll do your best to pull yourself out of a bad situation, but it’s a willingness to know that if you keep down that road and look at it with a bleak, unforgiving attitude, you’re just making it harder to pull yourself out of it.
The term that’s most applicable to it, I think, is gallows humor. There’s a joke that goes that a union man was tried and sentenced to death for his part in a riot. He goes up to the gallows, accepts his fate, and the hangman steps up to him and says, “Gee, I hate to be the guy to do this, but at least you’re being hanged by a card-carrying union member.” In the heart of it all, I don’t think that if you can pull up the nerve to laugh in the face of utter bleakness, then there’s not much hope, or reason to keep trying.
All that says a couple of things about my family: One, we make very ill-advised jokes that really confuse people and; two, we are, all things considered, a pretty lucky group who can think of joking about baseball teams as gallows humor.
Still, for my Dad and I, talking about how much the Astros sucked, but how we were still fans, was a bonding thing. They would reach ever-new lows, replace all of the regular faces with complete unknowns, and no matter what else was going on in our lives – whether it was job changes, uncertainty after college, uncertainty after grad school, or living with family members because of low salaries – there were the Astros to sigh about and go, “Well, maybe one day they won’t suck.”
Then, in 2014, after the absolute nadir of nadirs, Sports Illustrated ran the cover story of “Your 2017 World Champions” with a picture of George Springer. We talked on the phone about it, he and his wife sent me a copy, and then time passed. In 2015, it looked like SI was off by a couple of years, but the Royals just wouldn’t give up and the Astros bullpen was worse than it is today.
In 2017, things were going well for me – I finally got a job that wasn’t psychologically crushing me (it was overworking me to the point of my blood pressure skyrocketing for overwork as well as a lot of reasons, but that’s besides the point), I was travelling again, I finally made a return trip to the UK, and I could actually save a bit here and there. For my dad, though, things weren’t going well: The job changes continued, culminating in a layoff. Then, almost immediately after he got his new job, Harvey hit. We spoke before the hurricane, and we joked about it like we’d joked about previous hurricanes. “We’ll text you if we die,” he said. During the storm, the flood waters from a nearby bayou seeped into his house and, effectively, they lost everything. They were rescued by a neighbor with a kayak, and none of the animals were harmed, but everything was gone.
We talked afterwards and he was trying to put on a brave face, stiff upper lip, all of that, but I could tell that it got to him. For the first time in my life, he sounded tired. I mean that in the sense that he was existentially tired. Previously, when jobs ended or car wrecks happened or friends died, he would be, at the very least, thankful for what he had. I guess now, though, with everything hitting in the same year, it got to him. There’s nothing like hearing your parents sound tired. You might think of them as humans, come to the understanding that, like everyone, they will, one day, not be there, and you may intellectually accept it and start to prepare yourself for it, but it’s different experiencing it.
With my mom, it’s been a challenge, because MS is a constant grind and even though she is an eternal optimist, you begin to understand what, exactly fatigue is. Fatigue is not something you feel after a long day at work, or after going for a run, it’s the deep, from-the-core feeling that if you don’t stop right now and take a deep breath, you may not make it. Any time anyone experiences it, it’s a terrible thing.
With my dad, though, it wasn’t a gradual getting-used-to sort of thing, but a sudden realization on my part that, no, my parents are no longer in their 40s. They are, in fact, aging as people do. My mom’s battle is MS; my dad’s battle is that it’s getting harder to find a job that’s a long-term prospect in the steel industry. This is a major issue for him, because, as long as I can remember, he has been nearly-completely dedicated to his work, no matter the levels of toxicity in the office. Despite not being a WASP, or from old money, or a member of a country club, my dad, at some point, worked into his fiber (at least from my perspective growing up) the ideals of the Protestant work ethic: That you grind it out and eventually, good things will come.
However, that’s not the case now. I don’t think ever has been. I’m fairly positive that the work ethic above is a mantra the American working- and middle-class has told itself in order to get up in the morning, to get through the tough days when factories close and salaries remain stagnant, and work hours raise while benefits crumble. You couple that with a trauma like losing your house and having to move into a small apartment while you figure out what to do with your wrecked shell of a home on the other side of town, it only makes sense that fatigue is going to hit.
All of that to say that the night that the Astros won the World Series, it was my dad who initiated the call to my brother and me, while I was at a bar with other screaming Astros fans. It was my dad who was the one who was literally in tears. My brother and I were almost there, with my brother repeating over and over that he felt like he was about to throw up, but he was the one who really felt it. And, two hours later, he’s the one who called me up after the game and said, “I have had a truly shitty day, and I cannot tell you how much I needed this.”
Look, I know that other people had it much worse in Harvey. He knows that. However, when you’re facing an insurance statement that brings your possessions down to the level of line items, or when you’re on the phone with your father who is in that situation and you have no idea how to help, all of that intellectual understanding drops away. All you’re faced with is what’s right in front of you.
As humans, we latch onto things as symbols. This is what’s enabled us to build communities, talk with other communities, and develop systems of understanding like religions and philosophy. For people with ties to Houston, the Astros in the World Series became a symbol of rebuilding after Harvey. It became a narrative of a city saying “We can come out of this stronger than we were before” to itself and others. And, though the Dodgers put up a really good fight, I cannot tell you what a difference hearing “The Astros are, for the first time, the World Champions” makes from the potential alternative of “The Astros lost the World Series in Game 7 after a neck-and-neck battle against the Dodgers.” What I can show you is this picture that, I think, sums up that feeling:
I’m not saying that the Dodgers deserved to lose because Houston was hit by a hurricane. (After all, it seems like L.A. has been on fire since, like, May.) What I am saying is that it’s impossible to describe the feeling of relief that comes from hearing your dad in tears after a sports team we have no tangible connection to made good on their fans’ support and hopes.