Archive for the ‘Parenting’ Category

Sharing Our Nightmares – A Dad’s Trip Back to Twin Peaks

May 23, 2017

Twin Peaks

As a Dad and avowed pop-culture nerd, one of the great joys in my life is getting to share my geek passions with my boys.  I still remember when my little blondie and his oversized noggin’ toddled into my study while I was riding the exercise bike and watching a VHS copy of Star Wars.  One look at the mean man in the black mask was all it took.

Just a few days ago, that same fella, now six feet tall and his head quite proportionate to his muscular frame, grunted his way to the breakfast table.  It just so happened that Phantom Menace, arguably the second worst in the Saga, happened to be streaming live at the moment.  As he dumped cereal into bowl, I cast the movie onto the big screen.  And, like a spell, the big-headed little boy reemerged.  “Hey, Phantom Menace!” he bellowed, and I spotted a unicorn: the smile of a teen on a weekday morning.

Mornings with my younger son are dominated by our shared passion for that great American sociological experiment: Survivor.  If there’s not a new episode on, we pop on a previous season and guess whether the player with apparent control is building the right “resume” or whether a premature blindside might spell her doom.  He is counting the days until he can send in his own video, proudly proclaiming that his negligible appetite will give him the leg up on the “Alpha Males” who can’t handle the lack of food.

But whether it is a Galaxy Far, Far Away, or a deserted island, or even a world of pure imagination, sharing those moments is like sharing a dream.  It floats happily on top of real life, bonding us together in a heady place of love and joy.

But there is another place.

Someplace dark and unsettling.

In that place—that land of nightmares—the sharing transports a relationship elsewhere.

And, it is happening again.

It is happening, again.

I remember coming home from college in 1990 and my mother in her latest attempt to have me meet a nice Jewish girl got me an invite to a friend’s daughter’s house.  She and a group of friends were obsessed with a brand-new show and were going to watch the premiere episode for the eleventeenth time.

I hardly remember the girl—I’m sure she was very nice and I very much hope she’s led a wonderful and happy life.  But my introduction to Donna, Shelly, Audrey, and a dead girl wrapped in plastic is something I will never forget.

Like so many others of the day, the small-town terror of Twin Peaks held me in its grasp.  And the fact that one of my three touchstone heroes (the other two being James T. Kirk and Willie Wonka—Wilder, not Depp) departed the pop-culture coil having been possessed by the evil he had chased since the pilot burnt a hole in my nerdy soul.

As many of my friends will tell you, the show has held a disturbingly large part of my imagination ever since.  Indeed, my Halloween 1999 costume of a psycho with long, gray hair, a jeans jacket, and white surgical gloves talking about catching folks with my “death bag” sure scared the hell out of the neighborhood trick-or-treaters, even though no one knew who the hell I was.

But I knew.

Before rumors of The Return began to circulate, I sat my bored teen in front of the TV and asked him to give a piece of vintage television a chance.  “This isn’t like The Chocolate War, is it Dad?” he groused, having found what I find to this day to be one of the most underrated teen dramas to be a dreary and dreadful bore.  I assured him it was like nothing he’d ever seen.  He was skeptical, but willing to give an episode a try.

“What the hell was that?”

His words as the (red) curtain closed on the pilot.

“So, did you like it?” I replied, unsure whether the little piece of my soul I shared found a place in his.

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Another?”

“Yes, please.”

And I dove once again over that dark and alluring waterfall into Twin Peaks, this time with my own boy along for the swim.  I listened to his theories.  We compared crushes.  We eye-rolled as Billy Zane tucked his sweater inside his pants and stole Audrey away from Coop.  But mostly, I got to experience the terror, wonder, and ultimate bewilderment as our hero ended his journey—apparently forever—staring at a bloody mirror with the face of evil starting back at him through a fresh set of eyes.

“How’s Annie?”

That line, and many others, have entered into our daily lexicon.  Because as much as the shared dream bonds, the shared nightmare binds.  For that darker place is more primal, more personal; a shared peek under the bed to find that, yes, there be monsters.

And now, by some Lynchian twist, the ending that has haunted me for a generation’s time has a new beginning.  And this journey with my son has a whole new feeling.  For our first trip to Twin Peaks was very much one of Father and Son.  I had the knowledge, and lived the new vicariously through my boy’s indoctrination.  But now, as an older Giant and older Cooper began this new chapter, we were on a level playing field.  The “Oh, F—k” that launched from his lips so many times with another twist of the proverbial (and occasionally literal) knife are now leaping from me as everything old becomes new.

And so as a parent—and a nerd—it is my nightmares that are truly a dream come true.

Home Run on the Edge of Forever

May 11, 2017

Displaying IMG_2532.JPG

He’s a strong kid, my big fella.  He was a contender for Varsity this year as a 10th Grader, but ended up on JV.  It was the classic dilemma for a baseball parent, not sure if being on the Big Club and mostly sitting would be better than being the Big Fish.

I’m voting for Big Fish as of now.

I sat in the stands a couple of nights back watching my boy’s team competing against a team they weren’t supposed to beat.  Indeed, this was a season they weren’t supposed to be competitive because they lost too much underclass talent to Varsity.  But Gus’s Generals came up with the W.

And Gus went deep.

My wife missed the point of contact, as her eyes were focused down on the mound of green billing papers she had brought to the field in her eternal battle to stay true to her profession and her passion.  But she didn’t need to see it, as it made that sound.  That clean, slightly high-pitched and distinctively loud PING! that means the ball has been struck just slightly better than perfect.

The home run itself is something quite unique.  The power and precision.  The ability to do something that is truly indefensible.  And to see the ball go over the wall at the High School level is something of a Unicorn.   Gus’s was just the 4th Home Run of the whole W-L season—JV and Varsity combined.  Gus was the one-and-only on his team.  Indeed it was the only one we saw from any team the entire season including from the Big, Bad, Madison team with its JV squad full of Juniors.

So as that drive rose, it took us all a little by shock.  Gus’s Mor-Mor was on hand and seemed entirely bewildered.  The confusion from everyone seated behind the plate was compounded because backstop obstructed the flight of the ball.

The left fielder slowed down, and turned to watch.

Did that really just happen?

It did.

Gravity ceased to have meaning on the field as my boy floated ‘round the bases.  He promptly crashed into a sea of navy and gray as his coach attempted to manage the balance between legitimate celebration and showing up the opposition.

In the stands, however, I can attest that gravitational laws were still in full effect, as I leaped and clamored thunderously on the bird-stained metal bleachers.  The joy of the moment was overwhelming, to be there to see my son do something he will always remember.  To think about all that went into that single swing.

The Chocolate Donutz-eating t-ball team;

The pudgy 2nd baseman with a decent bat taking the 3rd Grade house championship;

The B-Team catcher starting to find his form;

Dealing with A-Team rejection, concussion, and the monster of self-doubt;

The cup-of-coffee with the A-Team in the 12u wood bat tournament finally proving he could play with the best;

Moving to the big field and back to B-Team;

Working his keester off and moving up to A;

More rejection as an 8th Grader as he gets cut from JV;

More frustration in 9th as he struggles to catch up to High School pitching;

Determination to improve as he dives into training to become bigger, stronger, faster, and better;

Getting into a groove as a Sophomore, only to be sidelined by injury;

Feeling his way back after missing two weeks; and

BOOM

The bat sang, and a Dad swelled.  No, more just a Dad.  At that moment, I was every proud Dad.

Wait, no, that’s quite not it.

Oh.

Oh my lord.

I was my Dad.

Divorce and distance had kept him from seeing me play for the most part.  But one spring day he had made his way down from Queens to Atlanta, and sat beside my teenage sister as my Northside Youth Organization Phillies were taking on the A’s.  I had just explained to my teammate that my bat with the grip tape dangling loosely from the top of the handle, “really isn’t a home run bat.”

And then…PING!

That feeling of perfect nothingness when a ball connects just right.  And the ball sailed over the left-centerfield fence.

My memories are watching the ball leave, getting mobbed by my teammates, and the booming sound of a slightly-overweight, middle-aged guy leaping awkwardly on the aluminum bleachers.

And now that memory and this circle each other, making the past feel present, and knowing that this moment will live past me in the stories Gus will, if he is so lucky, tell to his children.  For in the words of the prophet Terrence Mann:

The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.

This field, this game, this moment(s) in time was good.

And I remember that it always will be.

Coaches Matter

January 9, 2017
DSC_9882

courtesy T.J. Arrowsmith

There were times last year as 4-year-olds battered me with pool noodles that I pulled a “Murtaugh.”  You might remember his as Danny Glover’s curmudgeonly cop in the Lethal Weapon movies of the 90’s.

His signature line?

I’m getting too old for this shit.

Particularly in my “solo” classes, where it was I alone acting as the ringmaster of the preschool circus, at class’ end, I would feel more than weathered, I’d feel withered.  Coaching for me has always had a tinge of fear.  I walk in with a game plan, but am always terribly afraid that it will be a disaster.  The kids will leave having learned nothing, and the nutty coach will have turned them off to baseball forever because it’s as stupid and boring as he is.

That fear has been compounded by a sense of the frivolity of my endeavor.  I put aside my writing to invest in being a coach.  Writing was why I left my very worthwhile job at the Union of Concerned Scientists—a job I believe I was good at, and helped to make a difference.  And now, I’m a 47-year-old man running around with an orange hand puppet and telling kids to run through the bag a first.

What the hell am I doing?

And so I decided this year to scale back.  I’d do some private coaching, but turn back to my writing, something that I believe can make an impact, and perhaps is a bit more age and career appropriate for a middle-aged, Middle East history major.  And I’d save a load of cash not re-upping my insurance, to boot.

And then over the weekend, I received this message:

Coach N,

I’ve emailed you a couple of times since our son took your class in 2013 or 2014, but I just wanted to thank you again and let you know what an impact your enrichment continues to have on him.  My husband and I were just talking about it today, how your class helped him learn how to throw and catch, and gave him the confidence to play with other kids that extended to general self esteem.  We have since discovered that he has some learning disabilities that make tasks that may be intuitive to others, very difficult for him. He needs to be instructed on things that come easily to most kids, and playing catch is one example.  You broke throwing and catching down into easy steps in a manner that he could understand.  I can’t tell you enough how much of a positive impact your enrichment had on him.  He now has no problem jumping in to any game of catch, whereas prior to your class a game of catch would typically result in tears and self-deprecating comments. 

In an area that has so many high-achieving kids and parents, it can be really discouraging for parents of a child with learning differences when it feels like everyone else’s kid is on travel everything.  Thank you so much for providing a fun, supportive, non-competitive opportunity for kids to learn how to be like other kids.  Your impact as a coach will stay with him and our family forever.

Maybe I am not solving global warming.  And my books haven’t hit the shelves just yet.  But this message reminded an old coach of young children just what a simple game of catch can mean to a kid, and to a family.  How while we rightly focus on the way we educate our kids in school, there is a real and enduring value in finding the right ways to teach our kids to play.

I just paid for my insurance today.  Come spring, a dozen preschoolers will be pelting me with their Super Hero throws.  I may indeed be too old for this shit, but I am a coach.

And coaches matter.

Wonder Woman vs. The Filter Bubble

December 26, 2016

Actors Gadot and Carter pose for photos during an event to name Wonder Woman UN Honorary Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women and Girls at the United Nations Headquarters in the Manhattan borough of New York,

Much to my boys’ consternation at times, I’m an “NPR in the car” parent.  If we’re going somewhere they need to get pumped-up for, say to a sporting event or a workout, I’ll let them pop it on music, but mostly they’re regaled to the lilting tones of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

On Sunday mornings, we toggle between acoustic sunrise (kids in a bad mood so I know they’ll complain) and the TED Radio Hour (got enough sleep and not thinking about Monday just yet).  Last week, TED won out, and I got a chance to listen to a great story on a 2011 talk by Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser.

His was a sobering talk about the advent of “Filter Bubbles,” our new algorithmic masters.  The talk is less than nine minutes and very much worth your time.  In short, he decried how the most ubiquitous ways we get our information, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Flipboard, are all “personalizing” what you see based on clickthroughs and user information.  This used to be only for ads, which I personally never saw as an issue, but now it filters everything from search results to friends’ posts.  The result is that the online “world” for us becomes a proverbial bedtime story; gently rocking us to sleep with warm, comforting words.  I believe that makes us as a people more self-righteous and thinner-skinned whatever your political slant.

Our outgoing President would seem to agree.  Again owing to my NPR-nerd side, Obama spoke in a fascinating, wide-ranging interview with Steve Inskeep, he had this to say about the advice he’s given to his daughters about political dialogue:

“… my advice to progressives like myself, and this is advice I give my own daughters who are about to head off to college, is don’t go around just looking for insults. You’re tough. If somebody says something you don’t agree with, just engage them on their ideas. But you don’t have to feel that somehow because you’re a black woman that you’re being assaulted. But speak up for yourself, and if you hear somebody saying something that’s insulting, feel free to say to that guy, “You know what? You’re rude” or “you’re ignorant” and take them on.

But the thing that I want to emphasize here though is, the irony in this debate is often-times you’ll hear somebody like a Rush Limbaugh, or other conservative commentators, or you know, radio shock jocks, or some conservative politicians, who are very quick to jump on any evidence of progressives being “politically correct,” but who are constantly aggrieved and hypersensitive about the things they care about, and are continually feeding this sense of victimization, and that they are being subject to reverse discrimination.”

I think Obama’s point is a valid one.  There’s a delicate, yet vital line between disagreement and insult, and I think we have, collectively, strayed too far as a society toward conflating the two.  But what I would add to the President’s insight on this is that while we shouldn’t be looking for insults, we should be actively looking for disagreement.  Testing (and sometimes disproving) our assumptions helps us to be better people, parents, and for me, a better coach.

So, to give myself a little pat-on-the-back, one thing I’ve been doing for a while to get out of my filter bubble is that I’ve chosen “Conservative News” as one of my interest areas on Flipboard.  I noticed over time that because I was choosing to read more progressive than conservative stories, the Flipboard algorithm was bubbling away and that the conservative stories in my main feed were dwindling down to nothing.

So rather than go to the main feed, I always spend at least a few minutes going directly to the conservative news section.  Now, I’ll fully admit, most of what I see I have a hard time getting past the headlines on.  Here are a couple of examples of stories I really had to force myself through:

  • Islamist Terrorists Continually Slaughter Christians’: Trump Says What Obama Refused to Say: The whole “Call it Islamic Terror” thing has been a terrible dog whistle, and this article has nothing new to say on the matter. There a reason why ISIS is delighted Trump won the election, as they yearn to be taken as the No. 1 threat to Western civilization.  So good on ya for playing right into that propaganda.
  • Freakout on the Left: I can’t even begin to tell you how much I detest the deflection on the fact that Russia actively hacked into our election process. This kind of editorial backslapping is so filled with misstatements I can’t even begin to go through them all.  The larger point I feel being missed by most isn’t the fact that Russia hacked for Trump, but that it hacked at all, and succeeded.  That’s not just a past threat, but a pernicious future one that is tremendously worrisome.  Articles like this make it that much more difficult to find common ground on what should be universally accepted: it is not good to have foreign powers use covert means to destabilize our democratic process.

But while the lake runs deep with articles like these that make my blood boil, there are ones that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen that stretch the gray matter a bit more.

An article from The College Fix (“Original.  Student Reported.  Your Daily Dose of “Right Minded” News and Commentary from Across the Nation”) posted a challenging article on a black teaching in Milwaukee who was suspended from his job for giving his 7th Grade students a persuasive writing assignment to defend the KKK.

The article is, to my mind, fairly written—not overly defending the teacher or the parents.  The suspension came down over the fact that 7th Grade was too young to ask students to put themselves in the shoes of a hate group, but coming off reading To Kill a Mockingbird, the notion of seeing the perceptions of even the worst of people seems to me a challenging and appropriate assignment.

As a teacher, I could easily see myself making that choice, as arguing for the worst of people is often the best way to understand and ultimately undermine their arguments.  Perhaps 13 is too young and perhaps the assignment could have been couched better, but I find it hard to think that a teacher trying to create a challenging and thought-provoking assignment should be suspended.  There’s that line between disagreement and insult that Obama was talking about.

As I continued to wade through, I ran across an article that was a nerd’s must-click.  This one from The Blaze, best known as Glenn Beck’s online home, emblazoned, “Israeli actress playing Wonder Woman responds to UN giving her character the boot as ambassador.”  The flap, for those who aren’t aware, is that Wonder Woman was given a ceremonial ambassador for women’s rights with both the original TV Wonder Woman Linda Carter and current inhabitor of the character Gal Gadot celebrating the long history of the character championing women’s rights.

The Star-Spangled spandex and the animated version’s impossible body-type inspired a petition to remove the Themysciran princess from the UN-appointed roll.  Gadot, who has embraced the chance to play Wonder Woman as the roll of a lifetime, was less-than-impressed by the rationale behind the protest.  From the article:

“There are so many horrible things that are going on in the world, and this is what you’re protesting, seriously?  When people argue that Wonder Woman should ‘cover up,’ I don’t quite get it. They say, ‘If she’s smart and strong, she can’t also be sexy.’ That’s not fair. Why can’t she be all of the above?”

I had to say I was behind the sentiment of the article, but I do take issue with the article’s subtext.  Note in the headline the choice to say “Israeli” first.  The notion of “cultural imperialism” that some of those protesting WW’s inclusion has absolutely nothing to do with Israel.  Indeed her citizenship is entirely irrelevant to this particular story the way it is written.

Until…

At the very end of the article, as an aside, there’s this tucked away:

Gadot has come under attack in the past from social justice warriors for her background as an Israeli national, an Israeli Defense Force veteran, and a denouncer of Hamas.

Look how the article bookends anti-Israeli innuendo into a story that has absolutely nothing to do with the story.  To me, this is perhaps the worst traditional journalistic practice—the “wink-and-nudge” editorializing within a solid piece of reporting.  To me, it undermines an excellent, thought-provoking point about the need to look past labels (or the spandex) and see the value underneath.  Indeed, I dare any one of the protesters to sit down and watch the wonderful Independent Lens documentary Wonder Women! and not see the immense and complex contribution to the world that this character has to this very day.

So while I was disappointed by the way The Blaze decided to cover the story, there was still room there for agreement.  Indeed, the best defense for Wonder Woman came just days later from Eli Pariser’s Upworthy (wonderfully written—well worth the read).  And when the two ends meet, to me that can be the place to burst the bubble and start a real, productive conversation instead of a label-throwing fight that simply puts us once again in our ideological corners.

So whatever place in the ideological spectrum you are, go hop out of the slowly warming pot of water that is the filter bubble.  For the more we seek disagreement, the easier it is to find the space for common ground.

It’s Not Fake News – It’s SPAM

December 15, 2016

spam

Back when I was with the Union of Concerned Scientists, I ran a nice little feature called the Hybrid Timeline as part of our (Webby Award-winning — yep, still bragging a decade later) HybridCenter website. In an effort to combine both issue and consumer advocacy, we looked to give folks the most up-to-date information on how the hybrid car market developed, what was on the market currently, and what looked to be coming down the pike.

As we wrangled with EPA folks and Congress over the minutiae of weight-based fuel economy rules and whether pee-based technologies could be an effective particulate matter reduction technology for Diesel engines (I kid you not), it was actually quite nice to take a bit of a mental break and just surf the Web for news of a cool new car that might push the Prius off its perch atop the fuel-efficiency world.

At one point, I found a news story that sounded really exciting.  Toyota had made a concept hybrid supercar and it looked sweet.  Most concept cars never see the production line, as they are more intended to show what the technology could do, rather than be something that gets the full production treatment.  But this one site had a story saying that Toyota decided to go ahead with the car, nicknaming it the “Priapus.”  Now, this was before Tesla really even got off the ground, so the idea that a carmaker was going to go high-end with a hybrid was extremely exciting.  So much so for me that I posted it on our website without giving it a second thought.

After a few months, one of our engineers was perusing the site and said, “Uh, Scotty, have you actually taken a look at the site for the “Priapus?”  I think it’s actually something like The Onion.  I went to the site, and sheepishly saw that it did say “satire” in the header.  That said, I reread the article, and despite the fact that it was from a satire site, didn’t really find anything particularly funny about the article.  Perhaps, I thought, the author mixed in satire and fact.

So I went to the author and asked whether, perhaps, this was true, and if so where he got the information.  He responded quickly and succinctly, noting that anyone who might take the name “Priapus” seriously must be someone with, shall we say, special needs.

I think he was being satirical.

That was my first real experience with what we are now calling “Fake News.”  What it showed me was how much I personally was willing to look past in order to reinforce my own hopes, and how easy it was now in the age of the internet to see anything on the screen as potentially legitimate.

My mistake was pretty innocuous, all things considered.  I admitted my mistake and removed the Priapus from the timeline.  Not even once did it cross my mind to arm myself, drive to Toyota’s headquarters, and self-investigate as to whether the Pripus was really heading to market.

But that’s where we have evolved.  A few years back, we all got a giggle out of when the Chinese government would confuse an article from The Onion with actual fact.  But now, what we are calling “Fake News” is a cottage industry, going beyond cherry-picking of facts and gross exaggerations to creating outright lies.  And whether the end game is political or financial (from articles I’ve read, the latter seems more often the case), this phenomenon is now a common and disturbing part of our dialogue.

Now, there are far better places than this to get excellent information about the sources, motivations, and impacts of so-called “Fake News” than this blog.  I bow to the expertise of excellent investigative journalists and technology experts who are covering this, some of whom I’ve linked to in this post.  What I want to talk about is the fact that I think we are already losing the war of words with the term we have so far chosen.

To be blunt, “Fake News” just doesn’t cut it.  It is overly simplistic, implying only that what you are reading is not true.  Jon Stewart would often call his program “fake news.”  As noted, satire sites have been doing this for years, occasionally tricking the random dictator or clean car advocate.  Grouping in those who plant false and conspiratorial stories, sometimes even using false major network headers to hoodwink the public, have essentially been grouped into the same aggregate.  That both confuses and lessens what has become a growing, serious threat to discourse in our society, particularly our kids.

Worse still, the term “Fake News” has already been corrupted.  Donald Trump has cited major news sources being wrong about the election result as another example of Fake News.  Of course, this is in no way the same thing, but it has allowed those that profit and are ideologically strengthened by the propagation of lies-as-news to not only co-opt the term, but help to further erode confidence in genuine investigative journalism by branding it with the same brush.  And, sadly, the media itself has been complicit in reinforcing this muddled perception.

In the old days when print mattered, it was fairly easy to get a sense of what was real and what was fake.  Print cost money, so the difference between, let’s say, a thoughtful-yet-conservative source like the National Review was easy to discern from the tinfoil hat crowd, who published amateurish pamphlets in far smaller numbers.  But in the age of the Internet, it is now much harder for even a discerning reader to tell the difference.  Frankly, most mainstream news sources these days just look like filler for the sea of click-bait ads that generate the revenue.  This reinforces a false equivalence among sources of information.

And so with that, I would ask those concerned about this phenomenon to end the use of the term, “Fake News.”  We need something that better, and I believe we already have a term in our online lexicon that covers it:

SPAM

What we are seeing with these stories are nothing more than a new wrinkle on the Nigerian Prince just needing your bank account information to send you his riches, or that irresistible erectile dysfunction treatment just begging you to click through to virus-land.  Whether it be clicks-for-profit or malicious political tampering, we’re just seeing folks looking to dump crap online for the purpose of their own gain. That is a big difference between a satire site, or ideologically-driven commentary that might cherry-pick facts to suit their world view.  The latter IS an issue, and a significant one, but it is distinct in both its problems and its impact.

So call it SPAM News.  Or Social SPAM.    Or just plain SPAM.  Or, hey, come up with a better term that encapsulates not only the outright falsehood, but the malicious nature of this phenomenon—I’m all ears.  But I believe the longer we call it “Fake News” the more we turn a pressing problem into more white noise on the web.  This is an issue that needs more than identification, it requires stigmatization.

And so I ask all you readers, posters, and writers out there to please help not just educate, but change how we converse about SPAM in the news.  Because if we hope to have any chance to have a real dialogue about real issues, we cannot be entitled to our own facts.

Night at the Museum

December 2, 2016

night-at-the-museum

I’ve run some pretty spectacular birthday parties in my time, but Indiana Jones and the Museum of Mystery was my opus.  I turned the National Museum of Natural History into a giant scavenger hunt for my boy and his mini-Indy-hatted bunch, completed with a weathered-bag hung from a totem pole in the foyer containing a 10-pound anatomically correct Belgian chocolate skull.

It was an amazing experience.

And in all the time I’ve gone to museums or to the zoo, that’s the way I’ve always come out, thinking about the “experience.”  Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.  Museums are places to spectacle at our past, and our culture, and who we are as humans in this seemingly infinite multiverse of space, time, and emotion (which I would argue is a universe unto itself).

Indeed, I never saw a thing inherently wrong with all the times that I took my boys on the school trips to the Smithsonian.  Be it preschool trips to Natural History (indeed, that’s what inspired the party) to the annual elementary trips to the National Zoo, I found them a lovely way to take advantage of our proximity to the Nation’s Capital and give the kids a chance to get out of the classroom for a while.  On the bus ride back to school, I would always throw out some of the interesting facts we learned with the kids in my group.  I’ll admit there was a little of the CoachN in me, as I just can’t help trying to make pretty much anything into a learning experience.  Just ask my kids after we go to the movies: I’m insufferable…

A couple of weeks ago, my wife Kirsten and I did something that radically altered my perception of the museum “experience” and its place in our children’s lives.  We are contributors to the Smithsonian and often get (and dismiss) invitations to special events.  Busy people, busy lives and all.  But before summarily tossing another invite into recycling, Kir noticed that this invitation was to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  A special dinner event after normal museum hours.

My wife passes by the new museum every weekday on her way to the office, and even as early as 7am she has seen lines crawling around this gorgeous addition to the Mall as people seek the very limited number of same-day tickets.  The waiting list for advanced tickets now stretches into the summer.

And so we leaped at this opportunity.  Ole’ CoachN managed to dust-off and fit into a suit, and we headed for an evening on the town.  After a lovely meal of African American-inspired dished prepared by celeb chef Carla Hall, we snuck away from the speaker as we wanted to maximize our time touring.  As we headed down the elevator, Kir and I were chatting with the operator.  “You’re really in for something.” He said, his voice almost bursting with pride.  “Just remember that you’ve only got a couple of hours.  It’ll be easy to get lost and never make it out of the first couple of rooms if you’re not careful.”

“You mean we can’t get it all in tonight?” I said half-jokingly.

“No,” he deadpanned.

He could not have been more spot on.

The very design of the museum helps to tell the story.  Starting down below, we begin in narrow, dark corridors speaking to the origin of the slave trade.  I was spellbound by a particularly dark enclave with remnants of an actual slave ship, interspersed with both art and writing of the time of the misery and depravity of the trade both from the perceptions of the slavers and the enslaved.

The upward arcing story moves through emancipation and civil rights up until this very day, the swathes of artifacts, hand-written letters, films, music, and dynamic interactive features (the “lunch counter” computerized feature was particularly fascinating—a “choose your own ending” on topics such as bus boycotts and the Black Power movement that compared your answers with others attending) so rich that each small corner felt like its own separate lesson.

And that’s when it hit me.  Instead of thinking about a museum as experiential, what if we instead thought of it primarily as an educational device?  Yes, I do recognize that the two are wrapped up together, but from my time in museums and zoos, while the students might come away learning something, we think about how it was as a whole.  The learning is secondary.  Indeed in our rush to “cram it all in,” I believe we deprive younger students of true immersive learning.

Right now, the Arlington County Public School system is engaged in thinking about “re-imagining the classroom.”  Trying to think out-of-the-box about what education should look like.  My time in the African American History museum tore through that box and even the brick-and-mortar of the school itself.  Even more, it belied the growing obsession with “personalized learning” – a good concept based in the fact that students have different needs, but a danger in looking toward an increased reliance on technology in the classroom as its primary solution.

While I am in no way against iPads and laptops, I believe that technology further removes the student from the tangibly real.  That simply compounds the initial problem that a classroom is in itself a prism that instructs on reality of the world around us, but it is walled off from it as well.  Technology enables a more organized, diverse, personalized, and deeper box, but it’s still a box inside a box.

Museums are by their nature interactive.  At the very least, they require people to move from piece-to-piece, rather than having the pieces paraded before them in pages or on a screen.  They are three dimensional.  They are tangible.  They are real.  So instead of simply having a “day the museum” what if schools actually integrated topical segments into their established curriculum?  So, for instance, instead of trying to work through the entire Museum of African American History, the students spend time only on slavery.  All the students could go through a specific tour, or students could be broken up into groups and come back and report to the rest of the class on what they learned.  Then perhaps lunch and an hour to tour the rest of the facility as they’d like.  In-depth education with a little experiential on the side—essentially flipping the usual usage model on its head.

In this increasingly screen-centered world, we need to keep making tangible connections so that our kids might not only learn about our world, but to be reminded that our world truly exists.  Those connections are increasingly crucial as our online universe stovepipes information to an extent that facts and truth become disturbingly relative.

So what, Scott, are we going to bus kids to the museum every day?  That sounds ridiculously expensive, unrealistic, and only beneficial to children close to them.  What kind of pie-in-the-sky, lefty liberal solution is that?

Well, I have an answer for all of that, but involves something that has long been a struggle for the education system in America—integrated learning.

Next on this thread, a modest proposal.

Boy Over Boys, Part I: Fudge

November 29, 2016

baseball-fudge

It was a little Texas Leaguer over the third baseman’s head.

It was perfect.

My younger son doesn’t quite have the brawn of my big boy.  Okay, that’s an understatement.

You remember what Steve Rogers looked like with his shirt off before he became Captain America?  That guy looks like a body-builder compared to my twiggy little fella.

But like that pre-serum Steve, Gunnar has a competitive fire that outstrips his two-dimensional frame.  He’s become an accomplished bunter, and we’ve worked together to compliment his blips with bloops; drawing the 3rd baseman in with the bunt attempt and then slapping one by him.

I was watching from my perch as 3rd base coach, already thinking that with a good bounce he might get a double out of the dunk.  And, out of nowhere, the shortstop hurtled in the air and made a spectacular catch; his little body sprawled right on the cutout between the infield dirt and outfield grass.

Shortly thereafter, a single word hurtled in the air from down the first base line:

“FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUDGE”

Only he didn’t say “Fudge.” He said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word.

It was the 3rd out of the inning, which was about the only thing that saved Gunnar’s bacon.  For the mix of players changing sides allowed a bit of distraction from his latest episode.

“Did you hear what he said?” The young base umpire, a college kid collecting a summer paycheck, seemed a bit bewildered by the language he likely heard about every 0.25 seconds in his dorm.  But timing is, of course, everything, be it comedy, tragedy, or in this case, an inextricably intertwined combination.

“Yep.  Hard to miss,” chuckled Dave, the burly veteran I’ve had behind the plate since my older one was hitting off a tee.

Dave flashed me a look as I jogged toward my flailing first-baseman, now flinging his helmet to the ground.

“Do what you need to do, Dave,” I replied.

“I think you’ve got this, Coach,” Dave said with a bemused grin.

He knew that this was my kid in full meltdown.  And he thought that it was a kindness that he pulled back on what should have been done—namely throwing my son out of the game.

It was not.  Because now we had to do the dance.

Over the past few seasons, I’ve needed to cha-cha between gentle support and tough love as Gunnar battled his competitive demons.  I myself toggled between an empathy borne from my own boyhood tennis temper tantrums and full-body rage over stolen home runs, to a frustration bred from repetition and the aforementioned familiarity with my own failings.

Of course, Gunnar was benched for the rest of the game.  Of course, he eventually felt terribly about what he did.  He told Coach Steve that he felt that there was a monster inside him that he couldn’t control.  He tearfully apologized to the entire team during our postgame talk.

It was heartbreaking.

Again.

As we prepared for the next day’s games, I knew that this time, he had crossed a line that needed to be addressed.  For the moment, I needed to put Dad aside, and put my coach’s hat on.  And so I consulted with Coaches Steve, Bill, Kevin, and of course Coach Nolet’s Dry Gin on the matter.  All were supportive and understanding (or at least helped calm me down a bit with intensely floral drinkability).  And everyone agreed—this time there needed to be consequences.

We settled on a one game suspension.  My first instinct was to bar him from the rest of the tournament, but my coaches talked me down off that ledge, reminding me how hard it’s been on Gunnar to be the “Coaches Kid.”  For while being in that role can lead to preening primadonnas when the kid is the best on the team, the role can also create intense pressure on the player who has had to work his tail off just to be middle-of-the-pack.

Gunnar had gotten that most reviled of sports taunts – “You’re only on the team because your Dad is the coach!” – on several occasions at school.  In his earnest desire to prove himself, he made each pitch, each swing, and each play in every single game into an unending death-spiral of a tryout.  Every failure reinforced the bullies’ jab, and, because this is baseball, by its very nature he failed more often than he succeeded.  The Monster, a creature he came by honestly (indeed, genetically) grew into something he could no longer control.

This Monster, however, had to be put in a cage.  And so my son…my player…my son…and I talked.  I let him know I was proud of the fact the apologized to the team after the game, and I understood this was a part of him he didn’t like.  But he had crossed a line, and both he and the team needed to know there were consequences to these actions.

And so father-and-son, player-and-coach stared at each other—eyes welling and voices cracking with guilt, love, and remorse—embraced, and accepted each other for who we were.

I then loaded the trunk and headed down to the field.

Alone.

Only now do I realize that that was the beginning of the end.

Rooting for the Bully

November 14, 2016

roger clemens mike piazza

“Ball!” shouted the umpire.  Blue was good tonight.  He had been consistent for both sides.  And even as he called a ball for what seemed like the 20th time in a row, he maintained that slight, upward cadence that exposed neither frustration nor opinion on the pitch at hand.

The same, however, could not be said of our pitcher.  Walter, we’ll call him, was having the same sort of issues that we’ve seen since he was nine-years-old.  Back then, he was among the hardest throwers and biggest hitters in our youth league–without doubt a talent.  His father was the coach of our “A” travel team, and Walter during tryouts made sure to let all the new kids know who both he and his Dad were.  And his cabal ruled the roost, creating a social pecking order that at least in part led some players to join a competing travel system.

But now at 15-years-old, the small, warm pond of parent-coaches and prepubescent physical equanimity had both widened and cooled.  His father sat in the stands watching just as I did.  And while Walter’s arm still screamed talent, his mercurial control had become a real roadblock.

After having already walked in a run, Walter’s body language was there for the world (not to mention the umpire) to see.  Stomping, snatching the ball out of the air, eyes rolling like a slot machine.  Now, there were two errors sandwiched into his BB hoagie, but that was the classic pattern.  Pitchers set the tone for the team—for better or for worse.  And with Walter, a leadoff walk almost invariably led to a painful dance of fielders back on their heels.  Invariably, errors combined with walks would set the table for the occasional hit that would clear it off.

My boy had seen more than his share of this from behind the plate over the past few seasons as Walter’s teammate.  As I’ve noted, he wasn’t part of the club, only breaking through for a cup of coffee as an A/B player at 12.  He worked his way to the A squad at 14 when we moved to the senior league.  Now he and Walter were JV together, and my guy was stuck behind the plate.

Stuck, I say, because catching in the spring was tough, and the coaches made no bones about the fact my guy left something to be desired.  He’s an earnest kid; taking criticism to heart.  After the season was over he concluded that he really didn’t have what it took to get to that next level as a catcher, saying, “I worked as hard as I could, and I went from being a lousy catcher to being a thoroughly mediocre one!”

Having made the decision that it was time to leave the tools of ignorance behind, he delighted in the prospect of a fall season where he would be able to work on developing elsewhere.  With reps, he’s shown himself to be a solid first baseman, and has shown some potential on the mound as well.

But, alas, it was not to be.  The #1 catcher for the team plays hockey in the fall, and the main backup, a pal of his, developed a growth plate injury that ended his season early.  The only other backstop on the team struggled far more than Gus defensively with the pace of High School pitching, and also needed to develop elsewhere.  That left my guy…and only my guy…to catch for pretty much the entire fall.

This game was particularly frustrating, as rather than the usual teams, this was the annual series where the JV and varsity teams were “drafted” into two mixed squads and played each other in a best-of-three series.  I had thought this might give my guy an opportunity to get a break by being on a team with a varsity catcher.  But instead, he ended up being the only catcher on his team, while the other side ended up with three.

And so my son did the Dante Hicks, taking another beating both mentally and physically behind the plate, thinking all the while, “I wasn’t even supposed to be here today!”  But he also knew he had a responsibility to the team, and I taught him from early on that the most important part of being a catcher was to help his pitcher.  If the pitcher threw a 55-foot curve ball that bounced over the catcher’s head, it’s the catcher’s job to run get it and thump his chest, saying, “my bad.”  Why should a catcher suffer such abuse?  Because it’s his job to get the most out of the pitcher possible.  As I told him, “In the scorecard, the pitcher is Number 1 and the Catcher number 2 for a reason.”

It’s not fair, but it’s baseball.  It wasn’t designed to be fair.

But when my guy threw Walter’s latest wide one back to him, we were all privy to a pure primadonna moment.  Walter caught the ball and held it in place, starting Gus down.  In baseball parlance, the message was clear—I’m not getting the pitches called because you aren’t catching them correctly.

Now, framing pitches has never been one of Gus’s strong suits.  He’s gotten better but he’s still a little too quick to move the ball and tends to “drift” with the pitch instead of getting around it and sticking it in the strike zone.

But as the inning ground on, Walter decided to make his silent protest on every ball thrown, with the exception of the not-infrequent balls to the backstop and the not-frequent strike.  It was on about the eighth held ball that my guy finally got a little relief.

Interestingly enough, it came from the umpire, who removed his mask, as well as his impartiality.

“Son, that ball was six inches outside.  There’s not a catcher on the planet that can make that look like a strike,” Blue barked at Walter.  Soon thereafter the coach came out to give Walter the hook, as everyone had reached their saturation point.  The next pitcher managed to get the final out of the inning, and my guy hobbled off the field as if he were an arthritic veteran at the close of his career.  30 minutes in a squat will do that to you.

As he gimped, a senior on the varsity team came over from first base and started talking, and continued the conversation in the dugout.  After the game, I asked my son what he said.  “He said I was a good catcher, but I should never take that kind of shit from my pitcher, ever.  He said next time he does that, I should tell him to cut that crap out or it’s going to get physical.”

My immediate instinct was to climb him down off that wall.  Indeed, that advice went against everything I had said about the importance of bucking-it-up and keeping the pitcher in his pocket.  That catching is about the pitcher (not to mention the whole non-violent conflict resolution thing).  The pitcher has control of the game, and no matter whether he is your best friend or your worst enemy, the fate of your team begins with him.

Indeed, despite Walter’s history, I found myself as a parent being consistently loud-and-vocal in rooting for him.  He has talent.  He can help the team.  And he’s not going anywhere.  And with any teen, there’s always the hope that his maturity could grow with this talent, and in the end he could be a real asset to our team on and off the field.  What was the point in doing anything other than cheer him on?

But I was forced to reconsider.  Yes, our team’s success will depend on Walter when he’s on the mound.  Yes, he’s the one with the ball.  But there is a line that must be drawn between supporting his ability to help the team and simply enabling him to continue to abuse his teammates.

There comes a point when the catcher needs to make a stand.

My guy got a break at the next game, as the coach realized the mistake he made in the draft (I might have said a little something) and put another catcher on our team.  Gus got a chance to play first and even pitch an inning.  In the stands, I was chatting with Walter’s Dad and felt I needed to make a stand of my own.  He was well aware of the fact that Gus wanted “out” from behind the plate, and I noted that Walter’s actions in the last game helped cement those feelings.

His Dad, who even in the days when he didn’t make the team was always encouraging of Gus and praised his work-ethic, immediately responded.  “I have no idea what that was,” he said, shaking his head.  “His pitches weren’t even close.  I told him to apologize to your boy in school.  He texted me and he said he did.” (I must note that independent confirmation of said apology has been hard to come by).

That next Sunday, my fella went from catcher to coach, helping me out with the 12-year-old team his brother was playing on.  It was a tough sun directly in the catcher’s eyes, and our guy was really struggling back there, much to the consternation of our pitcher.  And while I worked to temper our tempestuous hurler between innings, Coach Gus took our young catcher aside.

“You do everything you can to help the pitcher,” he said, “but you don’t take shit from him.  He needs to understand that just because he’s on the mound, that doesn’t give him the right to give you crap.  If you think he’s out of line, you let him know.”

And that, my friends, is how movements begin.  Bravery can be contagious.

Hmm.  Maybe there’s a metaphor in that.  I’ll give it some thought.

Ping Pong, Baseball, and the Art of (Non) Competition

February 8, 2016

Ping Pong

“My recommendation.  Lift weights.  Heavy weights.  A lot.”

That’s what my older son’s coach told him at the post-season dinner that ended his first season playing high-school level ball.  He didn’t make the JV team as an 8th Grader, but was invited to play fall ball; an unofficial version the area high school teams playing in the Northern Virginia Travel Baseball League.  The coaches are not the high school staff, as they are not allowed to coach during the fall.  Instead, a group of former players in their teens and twenties volunteer to lead the squad.

These young guys all still love to lift, and lift big, and that’s been the gospel in baseball for a while now.  I remember in my injury-interrupted efforts to play college ball, the first thing my coach told me to do when I hit campus was to hit the weight room.  Indeed, strength training has now become a standard element of elite ball, as despite the fact that baseball has a more ecumenical reputation for focusing on performance rather than size, first impressions still matter.

And big guys get the benefit of the doubt.

So it was something of a revelation when Gus’s former travel coach, a seasoned veteran who has been helping kids in the area develop for the better part of two decades now, threw a wrinkle into the traditional off-season grunt fest: he recommended the kids play Ping-Pong.

I had never thought about it before, but the second I read those two words, it was a light-bulb moment.  Both for offense and defense, quick hands, anticipation, and tracking the ball are crucial to a developing baseball player’s skill-set.  And while I agree that getting stronger is important, neither strength nor speed are truly the foundational skill for quality baseball players – it’s quickness.

We asked our boys if they’d be interested in a Ping-Pong table as their combined gift for the holidays, and I was surprised that they both almost instantaneously agreed.  So I found a good deal on a nice table at Costco that fit in what was until December our indoor baseball/football/wrestling/light saber fight space.

Ping-Pong was huge at my high school, and I’m a fair tennis player, so I’ve always been pretty good.  And my skills have held up I garnered family bragging rights as I not only cooked our Thanksgiving dinner solo, but also managed to bag the trophy at the first annual Table Turkey Tourney over Thanksgiving.

And this brought me to a bit of a conundrum.  At the moment, I’m still better than my boys at the game.  Both my fellas have a competitive streak; certainly not a bad thing in itself.  And while I would sometimes let up a bit, I refuse to simply lose on purpose – they won’t get any better or learn any lessons from it (okay, maybe with a little drop of ego mixed in).

But at first what I found was that even after close matches and my noting that they were getting better (and they were), they really didn’t want to play me anymore.  When I coaxed them to the table, they would either get frustrated and either play angry (slamming the ball at my head) or just not take it seriously (slamming the ball at my head).  While they would play each other on occasion, our grand experiment (and investment) looked like nothing more than a holiday fad.

Determined to stem the tide of ambivalence, I thought I had found a fun “power with” way to bridge the competition gap.  I had suggested to my little guy that instead of playing against each other, we see how long we could hold a rally.  He was into it, and we had a nice 10 minutes trying to best our top number.  But as I dreamed of what a wonderful blog post I would be writing about “power-with Ping-Pong,” I found in fairly short order that that there was a downside.

For as we improved at playing together, our efforts to push each other with angles and pace diminished.  We held back, hit more softly, and aimed as much as we could for the middle of the table.  While it was fun, it was clear that the developmental end of the game was being thwarted by the cooperative one.

Once again stymied by, the answer I was searching for presented itself through that wondrous instrument of education: television.  My little guy, not normally huge tennis fan, does love the idea of sports greatness.  And after Serena Williams’s run at the Grand Slam last year, he was very interested in watching her begin a new quest.  So as Gunnar sat on the sofa and watched the Australian Open, my big fella toyed with the Ping Pong paddle; the tennis serving as a Pavlovian call to action.  I asked him if he wanted to play, and a deep throated, “Sure” warbled forth in lukewarm agreement.

But when he started to rally, it wasn’t with any seriousness.  Rather, he began to grunt like a tennis player every time he swung.  I started to become peevish immediately as the balls flew straight past the table (and at my head).

But this time, instead of going into “Coach Mode,” I caught myself.  One of the things I sometimes forget as kids – my kids included – is that getting a little silly is important at any age.  Any game, at the end of the day, needs to be a game.  We want our players to work hard and get better, but what’s the point if it’s not fun?

And so I pulled out my very favorite tennis grunt in history, the high-pitched “Wha-Unh!” squeal of Monica Seles.  And we stood there at the table, paddling, grunting, and giggling over our ridiculous contest.  We didn’t keep score, but we ended up having a number of epic rallies; the non-competitive competition allowed me the space to push him without him feeling like he was being pushed.

Gunnar, fascinated by the absurdity, but always the literalist, demanded to know if I was doing an accurate Monica Seles impression.  My wife had just come in, and showed him how well I screeched by finding an old Seles-Graf match on YouTube.  After affirming my skill, he demanded to join in, and a new family tradition was born.

The boys either play each other, their friends, or me must about every day now, and rarely do we keep score.  Instead we compete without competing, focusing on the fun.  The result is that both boys can now far more easily respond to balls with more pace.  Even if they hit the ball out, just by getting to it, they are showing that their reflexes and eye-hand coordination are improving.  Even though some video games do have an element of reflex and eye-hand coordination training, they really can’t match real-world physical interactions (at least not yet—virtual reality may have something to say about that soon).

I saw the proof that this training translates just this past weekend at my 11u travel team’s winter workouts.  I was running the pitching machine and had turned up the speed higher than they had seen it all off-season.  Gunnar, a solid if unspectacular hitter on my B-Team last year, stepped in and simply out-performed about 2/3 of the guys, including about half of the A-Team players.  It was clear that his ability to judge and react was profoundly improved with a couple of months tracking and chasing Ping-Pong balls.

So whether it’s a full-sized table or just one of those portable nets you can spread across in the dining room (but watch out for that chandelier!), I highly recommend Ping-Pong as an offseason training tool.  The Seles squeal is optional, but highly recommended.

Summer Camp, Spiderman, and the Social Art of Catching

December 17, 2015

Scott Catcher

Those who know me and my lunatic ways on the baseball field are often surprised to learn about how painfully shy I was as a child.  Many introverts are shy as kids, as we do not realize until later in life that while we can be social, and, yes, even enjoy being social, that it takes a tremendous amount of energy for us to do so.

As a child, this feeling of social depletion often leads to an aversion to and anxiety about being with people.  I remember this being especially hard for me at my one sleep-away camp, Blue Star, a Jewish camp in North Carolina.  In retrospect, it wasn’t a bad camp.  I made a good friend, almost landed my first real girlfriend, and hindsight tells me it had most of the usual activities and idiocies that movies like Meatballs tell me I should expect from the experience.

But I hated it.

I have come to understand that my particularly strong negative reaction came from the fact that you are never, ever alone at sleep-away camp.  From bunks to bathrooms, there is no respite from socializing other than sleep (fleeting as it was with the usual jackass pranks and early-morning bugles).

Those of you who aren’t introverts might think that the person reading the book in a crowded restaurant has that issue solved.  Now that I’m a little more comfortable in my own skin, I can do that and feel energized.  But at the ripe old age of 12, I knew that just made me look like the weird kid.

My one redeeming moment at Blue Star was in the annual talent show (Meatballs, I’m telling ya).  At that time, I was a huge Steve Martin fan; listening to Comedy is not Pretty until the needle wore out, and tacking his “Best Fishes” photo from the album along-side my poster of U.S. Senator John Blutarski.  My counselor refused to let anyone not participate, and told me to “do something” for the Gong Show portion of the competition.

I really can’t remember the routine, as when he literally pushed me on stage, I just kind of went somewhere else.  I remember poking fun at the guy who went on before me (he used a dead frog on a stick to do a dance) and teased the counselors.

I remember laughs.  A lot of them.

And I remember after asking my counselor whether people were making fun of me when they laughed.

“No way, man!” he replied earnestly.  “You were hilarious! Who knew Scott Nathanson was funny?”

In looking back at my childhood, I realize that there were two places “in a crowd” I actually felt energized: on the stage, and behind the plate.

The one unifying factor for both?

I was Spiderman.

That nerdy kid who put on the mask and became the wise-cracking hero.

Whether it was playing King Achashverosh, the drunken regent of Persia for my 3rd Grade Purim play (back by popular demand in the 4th!), or the lout of a husband who gets his just “desserts” in my fabulous filmmaker friend Thom Harp’s Proof is in the Pudding, putting on the mask of another character felt freeing rather than draining.

I felt the same way when I put on a catcher’s mask.  While normally my coaches had issues prying a single sentence out of me, when I caught, it was hard to shut me up.  I talked to my pitcher non-stop.  I urged.  I coaxed.  I may have even taunted the batters just a little, tiny bit at times.  I distinctly remember a few hitters telling me to, “Shut the hell up.”  I would merely shrug, and continue to yammer away.

And despite being born with a terminal case of “Catcher’s Disease”—I’m left handed—I was pretty darned good.  I remember getting validation early on.  I was nine, and our ace Pitcher Wes Winterstein was on the mound.  I was late to the game and arrived in the 2nd to find that we were already down to the Phillies 6-0.  To make matters worse, they had runners on first and second with no one out.  I remember the coach saying, “Thank god you’re here,” and taking out the boy catching in the middle of the inning as soon as I was suited up (not something I would do today as a coach, mind you).

The change in Wes was immediate.  I remember to this day yelling at him, “I’m back, let’s go!”  He stared in, and buzzed a strike down the middle.

The Phillies wouldn’t score again.

It’s funny how in the scramble to help kids find their own path, we coaches – and I think teachers and parents as well – will sometimes shy away from our own stories.  We don’t want to do the, “Back in my day…” thing; feeling rightly that each child and each generation has unique characteristics and qualities.  And as the mercury pushed up past 70 degrees this past Saturday, I organized a special catcher’s clinic for my 11-year-olds.  My main goal was to start working on how to frame pitches and the mechanical skills it takes to move (or not move) the glove.  And I had been watching a lot of videos on technique and found new approaches to framing I had never learned as a player.

But as I brought the boys to the backstop, all those old memories began to flood back.  And so we spent as much time talking about who you need to be as a catcher than what you need to do.  Both are important, but I realized just then that I had been remiss with my catchers in instruction on the former.  I think it’s because that, ironically for an introvert, that was the one part of this very difficult game (and an even more difficult position) that actually came naturally to me.

And so, I have committed myself to working more with my catchers in general, but go beyond just framing, throwing, and blocking.  Those skills make for getting better at playing baseball, but they don’t make for better ballplayers.  In addition, the social art of catching transcends the game itself, teaching empathy, leadership, partnership, along with verbal and non-verbal communications skills that can help a player mature as a person.

Now there are a million great catching videos out there (I’m quite partial to the Touch ‘Em All series, and this GameChanger blog has a nice compilation) that go into the mechanics of the position.  But for those interested, here are my tips that look at the skills you need behind the mask.

CoachN’s Social Skills Catching Drills

  • “Talk” with the umpire: A catcher is having a game-long conversation with the umpire, both verbal and non-verbal.  Remember that you want it to be a friendly conversation, not a debate.  Introduce yourself to the umpire at the beginning, and make him feel like you’ll do your best to give him the best looks at the pitches and protect him as best you can.  Then continue that conversation with every pitch you receive.
  • Your #1 job: be your pitcher’s best friend:  The best friend a catcher has on the team is whoever it is on the mound at that moment.  Your job is to make him feel comfortable and confident no matter what the situation.  Talk to him, point at him, take the blame for wild pitches if he’s having trouble even if it’s really not your fault.  Plain and simple, the pitcher is the center of the action and driving the plot, not you.  Your job is to try and get the best out of him you possibly can.  To geek-out a bit, he’s Luke, you’re Yoda.
  • Be positive: About the worst thing I have ever seen a catcher do is call time out, go up to the pitcher, and tell him that he stinks (and yes, I have seen that).  If you think that is a good move for a catcher, it’s time to find another position to play.  A catcher should be relentlessly encouraging to his pitcher, giving him fist-pumps and thumbs-ups on good strikes and close pitches, and little encouragements and the occasional pat on the keester if he’s struggling.
  • Be honest: If the coach comes out and asks you how you think the pitcher is doing, be honest with the coach.  You have the best view of the pitcher, and if you are focused on him, should be able to get perhaps an even better sense than he has as to whether he has anything left in the tank.  If you think he does, go to bat for him, as that buys you considerable cred with your pitcher and will pump him up.  The coach will make the final call, but you can definitely help him, the pitcher, and the team by being honest.
  • Speak like Spiderman: Chatty, competitive, and a little funny; just like you see the catcher in movies from The Sandlot to Bull Durham.  So talk all the time, not just when you have a conference on the mound.  While you need to feel out if this is working for your pitcher or the umpire, these are the good base traits for a catcher.  A chatty catcher will sometimes engage and sometimes annoy hitters.  Either way, they are thinking about something else other than the pitcher; that’s a good thing.  Chatty catchers help keep the umpire engaged and develop a relationship.  Getting a grin out a pitcher in a stressful moment helps to relax him.  Chatting also helps keep you focused and not falling asleep behind the plate.
  • The catcher/pitcher relationship does not end on the field:  When an inning is over, players tend to go find their buddies on the team and hang with them.  Remember, no matter what the case outside the ballpark, the pitcher is a catcher’s best buddy. Unless you’re getting ready to hit, spend the time in the dugout talking about the last inning—what was working and what wasn’t.  Go to the coach together and give suggestions (particularly if the coach is calling pitches) as to what pitches and locations seem to be working or if something is making your pitcher uncomfortable.  If it looks like a new pitcher is coming in the game, bring that pitcher together with the last one to share information.
  • Talk catcher-to-catcher: Talk to the other catchers on the team during the game.  You may not catch the whole time, but the catcher who was in the game should be giving information to whomever is coming in about the umpire, the pitcher, and anything you’ve seen in the hitters.  That information is vital and you do no favors to the next guy by having him come in cold.
  • Frame a ball, tell a lie: Umpires will know a clear ball if they see one–it’s usually anything more than 2-3 inches (that’s not much) outside the strike zone.  Any pitch you jerk from far off the plate is a lie you are telling to the umpire and your pitcher.  It makes both of them less trustful of you.  Just catch that ball and quickly throw it back to the pitcher to keep him in rhythm.
  • Move a strike, lose a strike: This is about the hardest thing to do at the same time that you are learning to stay outside the borderline pitches and catch the ball with a slight movement toward the corner of the plate.  If a strike carves the outside corner and you move it toward the middle, you are telling the umpire you think that pitch was outside.  If you catch a pitch crossing over the middle of the plate and you simply follow it as it finishes inside, you’ve turned a strike into a ball.  Same goes for a pitch at the top or the bottom of the strike zone.  For any pitch anywhere in the strike zone, the less movement, the better.  This may be a skill, but it’s also part of the conversation, as by holding a ball in place, you are telling both your pitcher and the umpire to, “check out that beautiful strike.”  Now that’s framing.

Now, you’ll note that this list does not include anything on the “field general” end, such as calling out plays and cuts and such.  I’m just starting that with my catchers, and really want them to get comfortable with the pitch-and-catch aspect of the game, as most coaches will tell you this aspect is about 75% of the job.

Until next time, True Believers!