As the sun set he remembered, to give himself more confidence, the time in the tavern at Casablanca when he had played the hand game with the great negro from Cienfuegos who was the strongest man on the docks. They had gone one day and one night with their elbows on a chalk line on the table and their forearms straight up and their hands gripped tight. Each one was trying to force the other's hand down onto the table. There was much betting and people went in and out of the room under the kerosene lights and he had looked at the arm and hand of the negro and at the negro's face. They changed the referees every four hours after the first eight so that the referees could sleep. Blood came out from under the fingernails of both his and the negro's hands and they looked each other in the eye and at their hands and forearms and the bettors went in and out of the room and sat on high chairs against the wall and watched. The walls were painted bright blue and were of wood and the lamps threw their shadows against them. The negro's shadow was huge and it moved on the wall as the breeze moved the lamps.
The odds would change back and forth all night and they fed the negro rum and lighted cigarettes for him. Then the negro, after the rum, would try for a tremendous effort and once he had the old man, who was not an old man then but was Santiago El Campeon, nearly three inches off balance. But the old man had raised his hand up to dead even again. He was sure then that he had the negro, who was a fine man and a great athlete, beaten. And at daylight when the bettors were asking that it be called a draw and the referee was shaking his head, he had unleashed his effort and forced the hand of the negro down and down until it rested on the wood. The match had started on a Sunday morning and ended on a Monday morning. Many of the bettors had asked for a draw because they had to go to work on the docks loading sacks of sugar or at the Havana Coal Company. Otherwise everyone would have wanted it to go to a finish. But he had finished it anyway and before anyone had to go to work.
For a long time after that everyone had called him The Champion and there had been a return match in the spring. But not much money was bet and he had won it quite easily since he had broken the confidence of the negro from Cienfuegos in the first match. After that he had a few matches and then no more. He decided that he could beat anyone if he wanted to badly enough and he decided that it was bad for his right hand for fishing. He had tried a few practice matches with his left hand. But his left hand had always been a traitor and would not do what he called on it to do and he did not trust it.
It's really not healthy to dwell on past glory days. It makes you nostalgic for a time when you threw the winning touchdown or won the eight-grade spelling bee or published a poem in The New Yorker. (Okay, if I published a poem in The New Yorker, I'd have that puppy framed and wear it on a chain around my neck. If a person showed me a picture of their grandchild, I'd show them my New Yorker poem, which would probably be a little embarrassing after 20 or so years, I suppose.)
I know people who live in the past. To a certain extent, I'm guilty of it, myself. When I'm meeting a person in a professional setting, I may give a list of my accomplishments, including the fact that I served two terms as Upper Peninsula Poet Laureate. I don't think I rest on my laurels at all, however. I always try to push myself to be better. Try harder.
This approach to life has allowed me to do amazing things. Earn advanced degrees in creative writing. Teach for 30 years. Attend a poetry workshop led by Sharon Olds. Star in musicals. Direct musicals. Publish a book of poems. Be chosen as Poet Laureate of the Upper Peninsula twice. Bring two beautiful children into the world. Love my wife deeply for 30 years. Host poetry readings by two U. S. Poets Laureate--Natasha Trethewey and Joy Harjo.
I have been able to do these things by looking forward, not backward. By forcing myself to attempt things that scared the hell out of me. Glory days are wonderful. They remind you of really good times in your life. Golden times when life was all birthday parties and Christmas presents.
Here is what I believe: there's always room in your life for more glory days. I still have big dreams for myself. Trips I want to take (England, Italy). Things I want to accomplish (publish another book of poems, win the Nobel Prize in Literature). People I want to meet (Barack Obama, Stephen King).
Dreams are just glory days in waiting. Next week, the Swedish Academy announces this year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In seven days' time, someone will be living in their glory days. And for a little while, I will be a part of that person's glory days, living them vicariously.
Saint Marty's blessing for today: new poems written in a writing workshop tonight.
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