An excerpt from Fear & Hope: (See video of this reading on video tab.)
Stan Bennet lowered his book and regarded his son. “Philip, there will be a time when you’ll be doing something more important than dancing with your cheerleader.”
“Cheerleader? You mean Gail? I didn’t go with her. I went with a different girl: Ruth O’Brien.”
“Hmm, a different girl, huh?”
Philip shook his head. “This one is different.” He smiled. “Very different.” He glanced at the thick book. “You were waiting for me?”
“No, I just finished talking on the phone to Neil’s dad, Uncle Robbie, after his shift.”
“He got a janitorial job cleaning Pittsburgh office buildings.” Stan shook his head. “It’s sad. He always used to laugh at me for working in a lumber mill while he worked in a steel mill. But there is some good news of sorts.”
“He just got approved for an apartment at the new government housing they’re building on the old steel mill grounds: Monongahela Heights.”
“Uncle Robbie and Neil are moving in to government housing?”
“Sure, but they’re brand-new buildings, so the neighborhood won’t be so bad.”
“That’s got to be tough on Neil.”
“It’s tough on them both.” He looked at his large high school son. “Philip, don’t settle. Don’t be one of those whom things happen to. Be one of those who make things happen.”
“I am, Dad . . . er, I’m trying. What do you mean?”
“Get in the arena.”
“I get onto the football arena every week.”
“That’s a good start. As you get older, pick the endeavors that make the biggest difference, and get into that arena.” He opened the book to a marked page and extended it to his son. “Teddy Roosevelt.”
Philip took the book and read aloud, “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” He looked up at his father.
“Read the next one.”
Philip scanned down the page. “Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure . . . than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
“That’s what I’m afraid my brother, your Uncle Robbie, is doing.”
“Living in the gray twilight . . . He’s going to live in Monongahela Heights government housing.” He looked at his son. “Uncle Robbie and Neil are visiting next week for Thanksgiving. Your mom is going to put on a grand feast.” He stared at Philip. “Be respectful when they’re here, but I want you to avoid it.”
“Avoid the gray twilight, son. Get in the arena.”
Philip went upstairs, the tumblers of his psyche still spinning. He turned the light on in his room and stared at the six-point rack mounted on a lacquered wooden plaque set above his bed, antlers draped with ties. He looked at his bedroom gun rack, which contained his hunting rifle: the Winchester .30-30 model 94 Gun That Won the West. I should tell the guys something I discovered at lunchtime on Friday. Matt didn’t get his ten-point with an open-sighted rifle. He used a scope. That’s far less sportsmanship. I need to tell Ruth that. He frowned. But she didn’t even know I hunted. She wouldn’t care at all.
He glanced at the rack below his rifle and regarded his fishing poles: his spinning rod and his fly rod. Being the great outdoorsman means nothing to Ruth. How can that be? He thought of his cousin. It’s been too long since Neil and I went fishing. Maybe we can go out this spring. I’ll invite him when he’s here for Thanksgiving. He nodded. Neil will need cheering up. He realized Ruth would consider the act of cheering Neil up far more important than the fish they would catch.
He took off his shirt, hung it in his closet, and noticed his large 74-numbered football jersey. Football was everything to me, and Ruth didn’t even know I was on the team. He emptied the contents of his pockets on his bureau and stared at himself in the mirror. The essence of me is not the outdoorsman. It’s not the football player. The dreamlike date with Ruth knocked his view off-kilter. She thinks I’m super because I stopped a fight. Philip thought of the Roosevelt quote. Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure . . . than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.
Philip sat on the edge of his bed, and his thoughts wandered. We’re seeing Uncle Robbie and Neil next week for Thanksgiving. Dad doesn’t want me to live in the gray twilight like them. He stared at the wall, and a smile creased his face. Ruth doesn’t think I’m in the gray twilight. Ruth thinks I’m super because she saw me in the right arena! The tumblers of the seventeen-year-old’s psyche were settling in a new place. He realized the realm of jockeying and competing for status with his high school peers was the wrong game—the wrong arena.
Uncle Robbie and Neil don’t know because they’re pounded down, are in the gray twilight. Even Dad doesn’t know. He shook his head in wonder. It’s Ruth. She sees me as I could be. She sees me as I ought to be. He lay back in bed and stared at the ceiling. I need to see a lot more of her.