Archive for June, 2012

The Tale of the Pink Ladies

June 26, 2012

I’ll get back to the battle for Middle Earth shortly, but this “moment in sports” is just too good not to share.

Love the goof-ball team pic. The Mets fan in me must remind you that the “A” is for Arlington, not Atlanta

It was Gus’s first summer baseball tournament this past weekend, and after the highs (2-2 with a home run!) and lows (some tears shed from a rough pitching outing) of the Arlington Thunder’s first game, we zipped out with his pal Jack for a quick bite before game two.

One burger later, we found ourselves with a little extra time on our hands (they don’t call it fast food for nothing).  As we wended our way out of the parking lot, just past the pediatric dentist which either had a volcano or the world’s worst abscessed tooth on its roof, was the familiar red bull’s-eye of Tar-zhay.

“Ooh, please can we go?  PLEASE!?!” the boys erupted in unison.  “Why in the world would you want to go there?” I asked, mentally ticking off the bathroom cleaner, kitty litter, and fresh underwear on my shopping list.  “For the toys,” they said, completely incredulous.

And so we headed in, their bodies pulled directly into the vortex of playthings on the far side of the great maze of consumerism.  After the requisite boy teasing (“Oh, you want this Hello Kitty purse!”  “Well, you want this Teletubbies play set!”) Jack settled into the Nerf weaponry section, deciding whether the projectiles looked more realistic in a solid palate or in camouflage, while Gus was staring-down the super-hero figures (Never, EVER, call them dolls…Seriously.).

For while Lord of the Rings is still his major fiction passion, I finally broke down a week ago and allowed him to start watching Batman Begins, the first of the Christopher Nolan trilogy.  For while The Dark Knight, and from what I am seeing, The Dark Knight Rises are extremely dark, very adult tales, I felt that the first film was, while certainly not cartoonish, is a story an 11-year-old could handle.

Indeed I felt the realism of the film might actually be useful in offsetting the fun, but desensitizing levels of violence in other Super Hero films he had been watching lately, most notably the new Marvel movies like The Avengers, Thor, and Captain America.  Indeed, I found that, at least for Gus, giving him more context actually helped him put the violence in better perspective than the “harmless” violence in the more comic book-style movies, just as Lord of the Rings helped him with processing what happened to his cousin on 9/11.

Bane’s looking a little stiff

Needless to say, Batman Begins is now his favorite of all the Super Hero films, and he looked lustfully at the five-figure Batman/Catwoman/Bane figure set selling for a robust $22.99.  He had a gift card sitting at home from his birthday party, and when I told him I would spot him the money and just take his gift card when we got home, the box left the shelf at the speed of avarice.

After a big win in the second game, we trekked our way back home and celebrated together with a Chinese dinner.  Of course, our table at Asian Kitchen became a battleground as Gus and Jack created their own Dark Knight Rises plot, which consisted mostly of guttural noises as the five figures beat the unholy hell out of each other.

Our table was actually in a fairly high-traffic area, as it nestled next to a large tank which housed two gorgeous serpentine white fish.  Children and adults like would stop by to look at the undulations of these lovely creatures.  The boys would take the occasional peep up to answer a question or take a bite of food, then it was back to Gotham with a vengeance.

That is, until they came.

I must admit to having a Sandy t-shirt in elementary school, though I liked Frenchy, too.

Four platinum pigtails attached to two beautiful young ladies bobbed their way toward the tank—toward us.  Dressed in matching magenta summer jumpers, the Pink Ladies’ approach immediately triggered my son’s girl-dar.  “Quick, hide the toys!” Gus commanded, as Jack had his back to the approaching storm.  “Huh?  Why?” Jack retorted.  Gus’s huge blue eyes widened in an urgency that bordered panic.  He nodded his head toward the Pink Ladies as subtly as possible for an 11-year-old boy, which of course looked more like a muscle spasm.  Jack swiveled his head, and I could swear it just kept turning, Exorcist-style, back into place.  And, in a flash, all evidence of Bane, Catwoman, and Batman were gone.  Just two boys sitting politely with their hands resting under the table.  Nothing to see here.  Move along.  Move along.

“Uh, pretty cool fish, huh?” Gus blurted as the Pink Ladies stood mesmerized by the spectacle.  “Yeah, they’re beautiful,” said the taller one, a small smile creeping on her face as she glanced down at the table.  The boys looked at each other, their arms moving toward the center of the table as if seized by a magnet.

About ten seconds later, the Pink Ladies made their way back to their table.  And about ten seconds after that, Bane and Batman battled once again.  And if ever there was a clearer battle between the boys they are and the men they are becoming, I have not seen it.

Me, I’m rooting for both sides to win.

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Backyard Birthdays for Tweens, Episode II: Know Thine Enemy

June 18, 2012

So as I mentioned back in part one of the epic journey toward my soon-to-be 11-year-old’s Lord of the Rings party, I had an idea in my head on how to make this post-modern fantasy pay off.  My only concern was that I needed to find willing victims for my particular brand of insanity.

But, Mr. Carr, I’m your BIGGEST fan!

You might remember that for Gus’s 10th birthday party, the noir adventure of the Decade Thief, the kids were guessing from about half-way through that it was Ms. Nathanson who dunnit.  I had actually predicted that might be the case, and had asked the elementary school music teacher and rock star in residence Mr. Carr if he’d be willing to take 10 minutes to come over and hide in an unlit shed holding a birthday cake with a mask on.  His declining of my invitation was polite, professional, and smacked of his very justified fear that I wanted to lock him in our basement and force him to teach Gus piano… forever.

But while I now see how absolutely odd my request might have seemed, I still loved the idea of having the children’s local celebrities—their teachers, coaches, and parents—make a surprise appearance to really throw the kids for a loop.

And so I set up the invitation noting that the Great Eye of Blood had corrupted the adult world, and only the children had remained innocent enough to battle its evil.  And what greater “Eye-rony” would there be than the Evil Eye using the people these children loved and respected more than anything in the world as the instruments of their destruction?

And so, learning my lesson in both the alarmingly high level of my own idiosyncrasy, and the need to cast a wide net in order to catch enough grown-ups willing to pick back up their childish things, I sent out the following email to the parents of all kids invited to the party, as well as a number of their teachers and coaches:

Subject: A slightly odd (but fun!) invitation

Hello everyone, Scott (Gus’s Dad) here.  Let me come right to the point.  I need your help the evening of Saturday ,June 16, and I’m willing to make it worth your while. 

As you likely know, Gus’s birthday comes right at the end of the school year.  As I thought of what to do for this year’s requested theme, Lord of the Rings, an idea came up that I think would be really special for the kids, and fun for us grownups, too.

What’s a castle without a slide?

I’ve set up the plot noting that grown ups have fallen under the spell of the Evil Eye (see my invite attached).  Given how much kids love to take on the grownups, I’d say that your unexpected presence will be far more fun than even the foulest of creatures of their imagination could create.
After you’re done being defeated by the forces of good, we’ll send the kids inside for cake and a LOTR film fest, and I’ll bring out some of my own “Witches’ Brew” and some food for you to help celebrate a job horribly done, and to wish farewell to the golden age of Elementary School for these kids, as they’ll probably be “too cool” for this kind of stuff once they’re hardened middle schoolers.

So, if you’re still reading this, here is what I’m thinking:

  • Kids start the party around 4.  I will lead them through an adventure until about 6.  
  • Kids have dinner to rest up for battle at 6.  Grown ups come at that time to “get into character.”
  • Between 6:30 and 7, the Evil Eye will announce its horrible presence.  The forces of good will be ushered out to the back yard for the final battle.
  • This will NOT be a crazed melee.  We will be playing this more like a strategy game where attacks will be in turns.
  • I have not worked out all the combat details yet, but, yes, there is a chance you could get a little wet or dirty.  All weapons will be soft so injury to anything but pride will be highly unlikely.
  • We’ll send the kids in around 8 and bring the grownup stuff out.
  • Yes, significant others are welcome to come even if they are not willing to participate in the Evil Eye’s efforts to throw the world into eternal darkness.
  • Ask around–I make VERY good cocktails.

So, there you go.  In order to get things together, I’ll need to know by June 9 if you might be able to make it.  No problem if you can’t or just are not interested.  I know it’s a bit of an odd request, but those who know me understand that odd is pretty much standard issue.

Thanks all,

Scott (aka the Evil Eye of Blood)

I call Ash!

So, what do you think.  Would you have said yes?  Or would you have said, “You’re nuts.”  Perhaps both?  Well, I was thrilled that I could coax over a dozen grownups, inclusive of THREE elementary school rock stars to join my Army of Darkness.  So who looks crazy now, eh?  Okay, it’s still me, but at least I’m not alone!

Next, I will conclude this trilogy (can’t do a LOTR party justice without a trilogy!) and tell you how the battle for Modern Middle Earth “played” out.

Do You Believe in Miracles?

June 14, 2012

You’ve got to be kidding me, God.

That’s what I was thinking as Gus stood at the plate.  He had been mired in a slump ever since coming back from breaking his finger, and now he stood there—my son— down one with two outs and no one on representing the final out of our season.

Gus made a play at the plate and asked his Mom if he looked like Josh Gibson. Love a 10-year old who knows his history.

But even more than that, he represented the final out of our era.  I had been coaching Gus and many of the players on this Grays team (named after the Negro League Homestead Grays, who used old Griffith Stadium in DC as a second home) since Kindergarten.  With Gus about to graduate 5th grade and enter the brave new world of Middle School, next year they would graduate to the upper level of the league, one where kids are drafted rather than kept together.

Given I had such a connection with these kids, and reached the level of my own incompetence in coaching, I knew this year would be my last with them.  As I looked at these young men with their peach-fuzz facial hair, deepening voices, and constellations of blemishes cracking open that Pandora’s box of manhood, I remembered the children they once were.  Chasing them with the “tickle monster” an orange hand puppet that filled them with joyful terror as I trailed them around the bases making nummy noises.  Playing the  “Hit the Coach!” game where they all pelted me with tennis balls at the same time.  Teaching these little boys lessons in teamwork, cooperation, and focus all wrapped up in the joy of playing what to my mind is the greatest game ever invented.

These boys were now young men, and the baseball we were playing now was more mature as well.  We got off to a very slow start, as just about every team except ours had at least two hard-throwing pitchers.  The first half of the season was filled with strikeouts, frustration, and more than a few games lost by mercy rule.  But I saw this “crisis” as an opportunity to teach another wonderful lesson that baseball offers.

After a particularly bad loss to the powerhouse Dodgers, I stood at the plate the next day at practice, a group of sullen pre-teens looking at me dejectedly.  I told them that I saw our problem, and our solution did not lay in swinging harder or faster, but in swinging slower and more softly.  I had their attention, confused and disbelieving that it was.  “Coach,” I said to Coach Craig, standing on the pitcher’s rubber, “throw the ball in here as hard as you can.”

Textbook form

He let it fly, but rather than taking a hard cut, I just took a soft, slow, controlled swing, and the ball jumped off my bat. Hardly moving, the ball flew all over the infield, and even a couple making into the outfield.  “Holy crap!” Kiarash yelled, stunned at what he was seeing.  “Okay Coach,” I chirped, “really let it go.”  He threw even harder, and I turned and bunted.  High, low, inside, outside, he simply couldn’t get one by me.

I turned to the boys, their attention now completely wrapped.  “Gents, I have taken a look at our scoresheets, and in our league, if you put the ball in play, you get on base 75% of the time.  We are now done with swinging for the fences.  If we are going to be successful—this is the way we need to play.  Anyone interested?”

They ran to get their helmets on.

And so for the rest of the season, we worked on our “Bunt, Slap, Swing” drill and, suddenly, we were a team with a new identity.  We beat the Red Sox, a team who mercy ruled us just three weeks before.  We beat the A’s by six runs and it wasn’t even that close.  And we beat the Cardinals by mercy rule.  When other teams came in before games, I’d hear their players say “Oh, we need to be careful, this is the team that bunts all the time.”

And yet, here we were in the first round of the playoffs, having used all our tricks to score six runs against the Yankees.  But they had seven, and Gus now had a 2-2 count. One strike left in Grays history.  And it was my earnest, emotional, and passionate son who would now carry the stigma of ending not only a season, but an entire chapter in our lives.

I know it’s not THESE Yankees, but whenever we play a team with that name, this is all I can think of.

The Yankee pitcher came set, and launched a nasty fastball right on the inside corner.  Gus was late, but just timely enough to get a piece of it.  Foul ball.  What little was left of my voice was bellowing from the 3rd base coach’s box.  Lord only knows what trite statements I was bellowing out.

Another ball heaved toward the plate, this one just low—Gus had managed to fill the count.  But the next pitch was another bullet, this one over the outside corner.  But Gus wasn’t going to go quietly, he reached and slapped, with perhaps a centimeter of the bat grazing the very bottom of the ball.  The faint plink of aluminum on leather indicated that it was still 3-2.  I wanted to claw the flesh from my bones.  I wanted to beg that pitcher to just slow it down a bit—give the kid a chance, for chrissake!

I held my breath as he let the bullet fly toward home…

I’m an agnostic, so I don’t know if there is a God, or baseball gods, or Zeus has decided that he’s a baseball fan.  But I thanked all of them and more when Gus trotted down to first base on a walk.  He stole second, came to third on a wild pitch, and on a slow roller to third which was fielded cleanly, the first baseman just missed holding onto the throw, and Gus scored the tying run sending us to what ultimately was an 8-7, extra-inning victory.

While I felt badly for the Yankees and we coaches made sure the boys settled down quickly to shake hands, I couldn’t help but think that, no matter how far we went in the playoffs, these kids had now created a memory that they will take with them wherever they go, and a life lesson that with determination, thinking “outside the box” and making the most out of what you have, even those small-ball Grays could find big-time success.

Maybe that’s not a miracle after all.  Maybe it’s something even better.

Letter to My Kids: Play it Forward

June 12, 2012

Just a quick note to everyone that my guest column over at the wonderful blog Letters to My Kids is up and running today.  I’m following on the heels of a couple of other wonderful Dads, so while you can find my specific column here.  I’d suggest you actually check it out from the home page, scroll and enjoy.  While you’re reading, I’ll be out shopping for a third eye for my Evil Eye of Blood costume.  More on that soon.

A Sound of Thunder Falls Silent: Ray Bradbury, 91

June 6, 2012

I was sitting in 7th grade English class, battling with all my will not to become Mr. Brady’s latest victim.  The heater blaring in any season, and the air kissed by the rich earthy scent of pipe smoke, sitting in his class felt like you were being licked by an evening campfire.  But if the siren song of slumber were to take you, your wake up call would invariably be a shot to the head from a book, shoe, or whatever Mr. Brady could get his hands on the moment he discovered you napping.

As the sandman beckoned, I vaguely heard Mr. Brady saying something about evocative language, using words that actually sounded.  He mumbled out some crazy term–onomatopoeia–and started slowly saying words like “crunch” and “slurp” as example.

Then he said that there was one man who used onomatopoeia better than anyone he’d ever known: Ray Bradbury.

A bell rang in the back of my head.  I was already more than a bit of a science fiction fan, but mostly of the TV/Movie variety.  I liked to read, but was not voracious about it, preferring to think of myself more as a “visual person” (a smart guy’s term for a boob tube addict).  But my Dad had been going to science fiction conventions since they first started in the 1950s, and the vague recollection of this name along side those like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov brought me out of my heat-induced catatonia.

Mr. Brady raised a copy of R is for Rocket from his desk, and promptly hurled it right at Scott Temple’s head.  Our English teacher was not a gifted athlete, but he was an ace pitcher with a book in his hand and filled with righteous indignation.  It was strike one to Temple’s temple, and my chubby namesake screeched to a start.  As always, Mr. Brady tugged at his sky-blue cardigan that had bunched up his throwing arm, sauntered casually over to where his instrument of retaliation lay, picked it up, and returned to his accustomed spot in the front of the room.

He then took a long, satisfying drag from his Holmes-like pipe and leafed open the book.  He pushed his reading glasses slightly down his nose and began to read:

A Sound of Thunder, by Ray Bradbury

The next 20 minutes changed my life.

This short story, the one that coined the phrase “The Butterfly Effect” combined time travel, dinosaurs, and the infinite complexities of the universe into one small, gripping tale.  Oh, yes, and it has plenty of onomatopoeia, too.  It was also the first example I can remember of reading (or hearing) the use of dramatic irony in a story.  Mr. Brady and Ray Bradbury opened the world of words to me that day, and I cannot thank either of them enough.

Of course, Bradbury’s works are not limited to short tales, and his brilliant use of allegory in Fahrenheit 451 is example of what science fiction can be when it is at its very best—a window onto the troubles, tragedies, triumphs, and potential in our own world.  And whether it was the truly fantastic tales of The Martian Chronicles, or truly personal accounts of love, loss, and redemption like Something Wicked This Way Comes, Bradbury showed me—and the entire world—how the limitless power of the human imagination can speak so truly to our own realities.

Thank you Ray Bradbury.  Your sound of thunder will ring in my ears, my mind, and my soul until I join you for whatever comes next.

The (Slightly Self-Serving) Recommendation: Letters to My Kids

June 1, 2012

Blogger Bob Brody (how’s that for hitting alliteration early in the post) writes the fantastic Letters to My Kids, a lovely concept allowing him to paint a legacy in words to his children.  He is a very engaging writer and I believe is giving a gift both to his little ones, and all those who frequent his work.

Occasionally Bob cedes the chair to guest bloggers, and in a Father’s Day series starting this upcoming Monday, he is allowing a number of other Dads to put their feelings into words. My friend Patty Chang Anker, who writes the wonderful blog Facing Forty Upside Down, put me in touch with Bob.  And I’m honored to say that he included me as one of his guests.

So come for the guest bloggers, but certainly stay for the heartfelt tales of Michael and Caroline’s Dad.