Archive for the ‘Serious Stuff’ Category

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.

“They’re Not Jewish”

December 16, 2016

national-menorah

It’s one of those memories that burn.

23 years ago or so, I took a girl to an Indian restaurant in Adams Morgan.  She was friend’s with my roommate, and from the first time I met her, I knew this tall, beautiful woman could talk, drink and think circles around time.  If she ever actually liked me, I knew immediately this had the potential to be much, much more than just a hookup.

And so I took a chance, and on our first official date, I said something that I knew might make her run the other way.

“I really like you, but I value our friendship.  And I think there’s real potential in our relationship.  So I just want to tell you up front that one thing I need is to have my children raised as Jews.  If that’s not something you’d consider, we should just stay friends, as I don’t want to lose that.”

I remember her saying she appreciated my honesty.

And I also remember at that moment I thought I had just tossed the best thing I ever had out the window.  The strains of Tevya’s “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof strained in my mind’s ear.

But it wasn’t.  She asked if that meant that she needed to convert.  I said absolutely not.  Not long after, we were roommates, and a few years after that, engaged.

That’s a wonderful memory, but it’s not the one that burns.

As we decided to start our lives together, one thing we were looking at was the right fit for us, and our future children, was a synagogue.  I was brought up in a conservative household, and still enjoyed the rituals and traditions and underlying philosophy of Judaism—particularly the notion of Tikkun Olam; the notion that we are partners with the almighty to assist in the perfection of the world.  My work, my coaching, and my writing are entirely infused with that concept to this day.

But despite my background, I was a skeptical about taking our interfaith relationship in that direction.  Intermarriage is something of a “crisis” to many conservative Jews, and I wanted Kirsten to feel welcomed for who she was.  But I didn’t rule it out, either.  And one of our synagogue shopping stops was the largest conservative synagogue in the D.C. area, Adas Israel, was only a couple of Metro stops away.

And so I called to ask about whether we could attend a service and talk to the rabbi.  A woman with a distinctly New York accent got on the line.  I remember her name was Tobie.

I told her our situation, and what we were looking to do.

“So how do you practice?” Tobie inquired.  I was a bit taken aback as I didn’t expect this to be about me.

“Uh, I light candles pretty much every Friday,” I stammered back.  “I attend services on the High Holidays, and I’m always home for Pesach.”

There was a pause.  And then there was a sentence I will never, ever forget.

“That isn’t Judaism.”

Stunned, I mumbled, “Uh, okay.”

Then she started rambling.  Something about my needing to invest more in the rituals and how important that was, and reconnect with my Judaism in a meaningful way.  None of that mattered, as she had already lost me with that most insulting of phrases.  It wasn’t that her opinion was better.  Not that she was more connected to the Jewish community than I was.  It was that everything I felt and believed was invalid.  I did not have the right to believe or feel the way I did.

That isn’t Judaism.

That’s what burned.

I do not now nor did I then believe that was the way that Adas Israel itself wanted to speak to young Jewish kids like me, and I don’t hold it against the congregation.  But I will never forget that, in all my life and among the many anti-Semitic jabs taken at me over the years, I have never felt as insulted as a Jew as I did that day.

And then I got a chance to read about our prospective new Ambassador to Israel.

To quote from today’s New Yorker:

“Finally, are J Street supporters really as bad as kapos? The answer, actually, is no,” Friedman wrote in Arutz Sheva. “They are far worse than kapos—Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi death camps. The kapos faced extraordinary cruelty and who knows what any of us would have done under those circumstances to save a loved one? But J Street? They are just smug advocates of Israel’s destruction delivered from the comfort of their secure American sofas—it’s hard to imagine anyone worse.”

Asked about this piece of wisdom recently at the Saban Conference, in Washington, Friedman doubled down. “They’re not Jewish,” Friedman said of J Street, “and they’re not pro-Israel.”

They’re not Jewish [epm. added]. This is a calumny of the most disgusting order. But hardly a new one. Netanyahu, in the hope of solidifying his conservative and religious base, was once overheard whispering in the ear of the Sephardic leader and rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri, “The left has forgotten what it is to be Jewish.” The question of Jewish identity has for centuries been a matter of debate and halakhah, Jewish law. It has never, to my knowledge, been a matter of bankruptcy law.

Friedman’s view is Tobie on steroids, and taken now to a global scale.  He goes beyond disagreeing with those that dissent from his viewpoint, and goes even beyond dismissing those viewpoints.  He delegitimizes.  And not only the viewpoint, but, like Tobie did to me, he delegitimizes the people behind the opinion.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is excruciatingly complex.  I’m not going to get in to the details here but for anyone who wants to get a flavor for just how tenuous a lasting peace was even at its zenith of hope, I highly recommend Dan Ephron’s excellent work, The Killing of a King.  There are sides-within-sides-within-nuances-within-conundrums.  Those that try and make this simple on either/any side is doing a tremendous disservice to their own argument.

But this is about something beyond the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and beyond Israel itself.  To elevate a man who chooses to question not the validity of the argument, but the validity of the person, is someone, and something that is beyond question an insult to governance, regardless of issue or viewpoint.

Both America and Israel built their democracies on disagreement.  It has helped to check direction, strengthen argument, and create enduring institutions where the voice of the “other” had to be heard.  The selection of David Friedman is contrary to what is best in both peoples.

I AM a Jew.  I AM and American.  As “real” as any other.  And the minimum I expect from those that govern is to acknowledge those fact, regardless of my viewpoint.  The fact that this is actually a matter of debate at this moment should give every American and every Jew, regardless of their viewpoint, pause and cause to leap past politics and understand that there is something truly dangerous to free society afoot.

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.

Post Election Stress Disorder

November 9, 2016

bruce-wayne-president

Frustration.

Powerlessness.

A feeling like your voice doesn’t matter.

Anyone feeling that way today?

Frankly, I’ve been feeling that way for the better part of a year now.  It’s why while I’ve been busy as Dad and Coach and certainly have some stories to tell, SHYB has been in a virtual shutter.

I’ve started dozens and dozens of posts.  On the need to rethink the way we teach kids baseball.  On how I reacted when a young player said to me—“You’re weird!”  On the demise of the Super Hero genre even as it rises.  On the exchange between my 15-year-old son and my mother when he linked his own experiences being bullied for his stutter to the actions of our President-elect.  Those and many more gathering dust on the virtual shelf.

I cannot finish them.  Any of them.  And I’m struggling to keep going even at this moment.  I’ve reached a point where I simply don’t like the sound of my own voice.  In the constant drone of social media, the endless chimes of incoming email, the explosion of availability of news both true and “truthy,” my words feel redundant and trite.  My voice does not feel special, or even valuable.

And last night didn’t help.

Or did it?

I started Stop Hitting Your Brother to take a look at parenting and pop-culture from a conflict-resolution standpoint.  And, in this moment when we face four years of an almost literal “Bully Pulpit” I have heard those like Van Jones say, “What do we tell our kids in the morning?”

I know this is hyperbolic, but the feeling I have today has a strange taste of 9/11.  I remember in the days after the attacks, I started looking online at potential jobs in smaller towns in the Midwest.  With DC as one of the ground zero locations, I worried for my infant child and thought perhaps it might be better to head elsewhere to better protect his future.  Given Canada’s immigration site crashed last night, I’m guessing others are dealing with a similar emotional déjà vu.

It was that fear of the unknown—the horrific prospects the Id of my imagination happily filled—that made me feel unable to ground myself in the reality of that moment.  I knew the world was profoundly changed, and in a way that dashed my dreams of a post-Cold War world where, while we still struggled with the complexities of ethnic hatred and economic disenfranchisement, was a world that was better than the one that we had left when the Berlin wall fell.

Ironically, we woke up today on the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with a President-elect who used the building of one as his signature.  And that 9/11 feeling of a diminished, depressing future – of a country not struggling to overcome its past demons, but one who would prefer to ignore them (and some even celebrate them) in favor of the illusion of past greatness sears my soul with a disturbingly similar dread.

Now, I’ve seen folks like me posting and writing inspiring and consoling lines from Anne Frank and MLK.  Believe in the good in people.  The arc of history bends toward justice.  This Huffington Post piece that tells us we should tell our kids that we will protect them from the big, bad, Trump first and foremost.  And with those yawps into the perceived darkness come the unsure retorts of those seized by it – we are simply not sure anymore: of the light in people; of the arc of justice; that we can or should tell our kids that everything will be all right.

I don’t buy it.  My belief in this country is profoundly shaken.  But this moment — at least for me — is saying something different.

For me, it brings to mind another profound philosopher, Ms. Rachel Dawes.  Don’t know who that is?  Well, of course, she’s the assistant DA and long-time friend of Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins (hey, it’s SHYB — of course there’s going to be a pop-culture reference).  As she said to an apparently vapid billionaire playboy:

“It’s not what you are underneath.  It’s what you do that defines you.”

To be honest, I’m not sure people in general have a “nature.”  And I’m not sure it matters.  The idea of recompense for good deeds is alluring, but it presupposes some kind of emotional payment that may never come.  Instead of proffering a better vision of a future I am entirely unsure about, what I feel like I can do is figure out what I think I can do today that will make our world a little more loving, a little more tolerant, and a little more understanding of others.

Obama told us to hope.  But maybe it’s better to just act hopefully instead, and let the chips fall where they may.

An election is a competition, and we get very caught up in the “winning.”  It’s understandable, given everything that is on the line.  But, as a coach, I get the fact that no matter how hard you work, no matter how well you do things, someone out there just might do it better.  Or someone might take a great pitch you made and flair it just over the infield for a game winning blooper (my best analogy at the moment for a candidate who won more votes but lost the election).  The result, however devastating, should not…cannot… invalidate the effort.

I am fearful today, I will fully admit.   I have less hope than I had 24 hours ago.

But I think I have found the power to act hopefully.

To show my children through my actions what I think the world should be whether it ever ends up that way.  That tolerance, inclusion, and love is how we should both live and give no matter what comes back to us in return.  That the value is in the effort, and that failure is part of the learning experience, and helps make us better people and our future actions more effective.

My first step in this process is right here, right now.  I will reclaim my words and my voice on this blog, and in my books.  I may still very much doubt who I am underneath, and what I do may define me in a way I don’t like.

But it is what I do.

I encourage all of you who feel like I do to go and do, too.

Well, what do you know, I finally finished one.

Why Utley’s Slide Matters to Youth Baseball

October 11, 2015

WinFor RubenMy older boy was playing a game last week in Fairfax County with his high school JV team.  This being his first experience with this level of baseball, it’s been quite the education for him.  For rather than play in the JV division, his team is playing other varsity teams, meaning big, strong kids with pitchers hurling well north of 80mph.

Gus has struggled a bit at the plate, as has almost every player, but he’s held his own.  And his team was holding a 3-1 lead going into the 7th inning of a well-contested battle.  Gus was catching, and our new pitcher was struggling badly.  He had already given up a run, had walked four batters, and they had the bases loaded with no one out.
When the count went to 3-2, we awaited the inevitable.  Our pitcher went into his stretch, came set, and…

THONK

…the lights went out.

10pm.  Nite-nite for this particular field.

The 7th inning ceases to exist, and we win 3-1.

As the gossamer batter threw his shadowy helmet to the ground in frustration, all of us parents looked at each other with a guilty grimace.

“That’s not a good ending for anybody,” said Joe, one of Gus’s former youth travel coaches, whose son is also on the team.

I am reminded of this given the ugly events that happened last night with Chase Utley breaking the leg of Ruben Tejada in the NLDS Game 2 between the Dodgers and my beloved Mets.  While the event wounded my not-so-inner Mets fan, it and the reaction to it hurt CoachN more.

Here’s what I posted on Facebook in an open letter to MLB:

Dear MLB.com you, and the umpires you employ, decided to show baseball-loving kids around the country that, so long as you think you can get away with it, it is okay to try and hurt a defenseless player because the play is so important.

I heard the talking heads on MLB Network talk about how catchers are now protected, so why not middle-infielders? THEY ARE PROTECTED! THERE IS A RULE! It just takes the minimal courage involved in simply doing your job.

This is made far worse by the fact that it was Chase Utley, a Hall of Fame-caliber ballplayer with a history of playing dirty. I’m not going to sugarcoat that. Hard-nosed is fine, it is great. But Utley has crossed that line multiple times, and your cringing from the proper course of action is an open encouragement for hyper-competitive players and coaches to think that somehow this is acceptable because, after all, the Dodgers won in the end.

Youth baseball, particularly at the travel level, is plagued by the “Winning is the Only Thing” mentality. It is a significant reason why participation in travel baseball is down across the country, as parents are increasingly wary of putting their children in a system where their values and priorities for their kids, such as fair play, respect for teammates and opponents, and that the competition is as important as the result, are subverted by a concept of the game that prioritizes results over process or even the rules themselves.

Your umpires, and then the subsequent confused, half-hearted, finger-pointing “defense” of what happened by Joe Torre only serves to reinforce this notion.

As a Mets fan, I was okay with losing last night. Not only did we already win one, the Mets have given me a thrilling season win-or lose. What you and your umpires have done by cowering away from upholding the rules damages the game in ways well beyond this game or this series, or even the Major Leagues itself.

As a father, a youth coach, and a fan, I am disgusted by everything that has happened during and after that play. You should be ashamed. I will certainly be addressing this with my players, as hopefully at least someone can learn the right lesson from this event.

With greatly diminished respect,
Scott Nathanson
Manager/Head Coach
CoachN’s FUNdamentals

Utley has now been suspended two games for the illegal slide.  As one Twitter poster noted, “I wonder if Tejada can appeal his broken leg?”  Of course, Utley has appealed, like a true bully refusing to admit he’s done anything wrong.

For while my son’s victory came with a bit of embarrassment to his team, Utley and the reaction by his Dodger teammates and Major League Baseball has embarrassed the game.

Making Mandela Meaningful to American Kids through Sport(s)

December 5, 2013

Sport has the power to unite people in a way that little else can. It can create hope where once there was only despair. It breaks down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of discrimination. Sport speaks to people in a language they can understand. – Nelson Mandela

I’ll get back to my baseball tale soon, but I simply must take the time out to honor the passing of what, as you might gather from this blog, is a personal hero.  Nelson Mandela was such a remarkable man in so many ways, and his journey from nonviolence to armed struggle and back to nonviolence, particularly because the road back was one taken while in captivity, is one of the most remarkable personal tales ever told—and it was told on a global stage.

But while most of us grownups remember Sun City, Biko, and the shantytowns built all over college campuses in the 80’s divestment movement, our kids have lived in a world where South Africa has been a non-issue on the American news stage.  Apartheid is history, and not one most schools teach to elementary and middle schoolers.  So on the day of his passing, I struggled to think about how to make this amazing man connect to my suburban white kids.

And then I remembered the quote from above, and the story of the 1995 rugby world cup that was captured in the movie Invictus, staring Morgan Freeman and Mandella.  I quickly scanned Netflix to see if it was streaming, but, alas, no dice.  Instead, I got even luckier, as the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary The 16th Man was ready to roll, and it is also available in its entirely on YouTube as embedded below.

We boys watched this just a couple of hours ago, and both pronounced it, “Very cool!”  I really can’t imagine a better hour spent with my kids today than watching this.  Much like the movie Lincoln gave you a measure of the full man by taking a small slice out if his life, The 16th Man gives you a sense of this pivotal moment in both South African and world history, and the enormity of his courage and his strategic thinking to bring a nation together that seemed virtually certain to be torn asunder by hatred, violence, and revenge.  I cannot imagine actors doing a better job in relating the personal and emotional journey that the South African rugby team went on than the players did themselves.

I think what makes this great for kids is that, at its center, this is a classic underdog sports story with a magical ending.  But the sport here transcends sports, and shows Mandela in a relatable and heroic light that is both true and resonant for today’s kids.

As we discussed it, my little guy immediately made the connection between Mandela and Rosa parks, and we also started an interesting discussion about the current flap over the name “Redskins” for Mandela took one of the most hated single symbols of the apartheid era, the Springbok of the national rugby team, and wore it on his head and his heart, even in the most uncomfortable of circumstances.

I’m so glad I had the chance to share that moment with my kids, and hope that Mandela’s spirit smiled a bit in knowing that his wisdom will continue to make a difference in children around the world who may not have even heard of him until today.

Rest well, Madiba, the epitome of a life well lived.

Jason Collins: The New 42

April 29, 2013

jason-collins-cover-single-image-cutHe’s not a fresh faced California kid with soft hands and cleats with wings. He’s a journeyman center who has probably played with half the players in the NBA.

But our kids need to understand that this is their Jackie Robinson moment.

I went to see 42 on Saturday and will have my review of it soon (a very good film overall), but I just wanted to urge each and every one of you out there to have your sons and daughters read and live through our very own 42 moment.

Jason Collins has become the first active player in professional team sports to declare openly that he is gay. This moment opens up endless opportunities to discuss differences, prejudice, and understanding with your kids. As Jackie Robinson’s journey showed the importance that sports had on the concept of race, I believe we are seeing something of equal importance here. As unlike the overwhelming horror of Syria, for example, something like this gives us a space that is easier to access with our kids as it is right where we live, both literally and figuratively.

And, luckily, Collins himself has written a fantastic piece for Sports Illustrated talking about who he is and why he is coming out now. He parallels with the civil rights movement with passages like this:

My maternal grandmother was apprehensive about my plans to come out. She grew up in rural Louisiana and witnessed the horrors of segregation. During the civil rights movement she saw great bravery play out amid the ugliest aspects of humanity. She worries that I am opening myself up to prejudice and hatred. I explained to her that in a way, my coming out is preemptive. I shouldn’t have to live under the threat of being outed. The announcement should be mine to make, not TMZ’s.

The hardest part of this is the realization that my entire family will be affected. But my relatives have told me repeatedly that as long as I’m happy, they’re there for me. I watch as my brother and friends from college start their own families. Changing diapers is a lot of work, but children bring so much joy. I’m crazy about my nieces and nephew, and I can’t wait to start a family of my own.

The fact that Collins has a long career already is, in some ways, an advantage. He doesn’t need to prove that he can play and coexist with straight men—he’s already done it. The fact that he has a straight twin brother who also plays in the NBA helps to dispel the myths that “it’s just at choice.”

Thank you for your bravery, Jason. Now please read, share, teach, and learn, and let’s all make the most out of this piece of living social history.

My Other Son

April 26, 2013

After birthing him from just an inkling of passion, it’s finally time to send him out into the world.

You’ve poured your soul into his development.  You remember arranging the playdates, a tinge of nervousness over whether he’d be liked, but still tucked away in the safety of your own control.  Even when he wasn’t quite right, it was always up to you to help fix it—to be his gentle guide toward completion.

IndyParty Skull Gus IIBut now you and are simultaneously so very proud and so absolutely terrified when it’s finally time to send him off, beyond the tentacles of your adoring care, into the arms of those charged with helping him become part of the larger world.  They can’t love him like you do.  See him like you do.  He’s so much a part of you that any issues, any hiccups, any failures can’t help but feel like a stain directly on your soul.

And yet, with that flutter in the belly that whisks your myriad insecurities with the intoxicating liquor of hope, you let go…

…and press the send button.

It’s funny that, even though I’ve sent more pitch letters to agents than I’d care to admit, it was only with today’s effort that I recognized the incredible emotional similarities between writing and parenting.

As checked my letter for the umpteen millionth time, the image of my doing that disgusting thing that all parents do—licking my fingers to get that smudge off my son’s face before school—darted through my mind.  As I noted the positive reaction that my “beta testing” group of 9 to 15-year-olds had to my manuscript, I was awash in memories of the G-men toddling with preschool friends while the parents passive-aggressively compared developmental statistics.

And the groaning strain in the pit of my stomach that leapt forth as soon as I clicked send?  Well, I have that same feeling just about each and every time Gus or Gunnar step to the plate.  Each ball that whirs toward them, each time they step gently forward and coil their hands in preparation to swing, the countless pitches I have thrown to them in the back yard circle around my gut like a whirlwind of abject fear and impossible optimism.

mightydoveThe biggest difference in sending AJ, the hero of The Adventures of…MightyDove!, off as compared to my other two boys (other than his non-living status, that is) is the fact that that Gus and Gunnar went off to a wonderful public school system where the experts are paid to help make the most out of their skills.  My other son doesn’t live in that socialist wonderland.  Instead, he faces the harsh reality of the marketplace.  No agent is compelled to take AJ in and help him grow up.  The boy of my brain has to earn his way into school even before trying to earn the grades to make him a success in life.

Dear Mr. Nathanson,

Thank you for your query. I’m sorry, but I have to pass on this one. While I appreciate the opportunity to consider your work, I don’t feel I connected enough with the material here to be the right agent for it. Please keep in mind that this business often comes down to personal taste, and another agent may feel differently about your project.

Again, thanks for thinking of me for this. I wish you the best of luck finding the right representation.

So that’s the latest one.  The nice thing is that AJ seems okay with it.  His Dad, however, is a bit more put out.  But then the faint sound of metal plinking soundly upon leather reverberates in my mind.  A ball struck solidly into the outfield, my boy making his triumphant turn toward second base.  I’ve thrown a million pitches and I’ll throw a million more to Gus and Gunnar in order to hear that sound…to have that feeling…once again.

And so I take a deep breath, reach back, and ready myself for another pitch.  After all, once you put the ball in the air, you never know what might happen.

Ain’t that a chair in the head

February 28, 2013

It’s always hard when he cries.  It has been ever since he was a baby.  It’s because of those eyes.  So huge…so blue.  Oceans of glistening sorrow designed to drown a parent’s heart.

But this time was different.  And it was all over one little 6th Grade reading assignment called a “Blog Prompt.”  He was supposed to take any quote he liked from a book he’s been reading and write up a short statement about why he liked it and how it moved the conflict of the story forward.

Thanks for making my son cry, fellas.

Thanks for making my son cry, fellas.

He chose a quote from The Hobbit, with Gandalf giving Bilbo a hard time over a simple “Good Morning.”  It’s a funny scene that is used in the film as well.  He and I briefly discussed how that seemingly small aside speaks to the larger plot and relationship between the two characters.  I didn’t feel I needed to say much, as it was a yawningly easy assignment by his straight-A standards.  So I went upstairs and left him with pencil and paper to take care of business.

When I came back down a half-hour later to get dinner ready, I found an ocean roiling at the table.  He had been able to write down Gandalf’s pithy jibes, but that is where his assignment ended.  “I can’t do it!” he cried out in frustration.  “I try to think about it, but nothing comes out!  It’s all jumbled up in my head.”

He looked defeated.

Exhausted.

Broken.

Yes, broken.  For that’s truly what he was. Two days earlier as he quietly sat and read, a heavy school chair came tumbling down on his head as his buddy behind him lost control trying to take it down from his desk.

Welcome to the world of parenting a child with head trauma.

A hero in life and art

A hero in life and art

As I was collecting the shards of my heart off the floor, my mind turned instantly to, what else, pop-culture.  I remembered an interview with Christopher Reeve and his wife Dana.  After the accident that left Superman a quadriplegic, she soothed his misery by saying, “Yes, your body is broken, but it’s still you.”  His mind was intact, and in his remaining time, he went on to be a forceful advocate for spinal injury research, act and direct in a very interesting version of Rear Window, and even return to the world of Superman by taking on a recurring role in Smallville.

But this bright, funny, introspective kid of mine simply wasn’t him.  Parts of him were there, but both emotionally and intellectually, a significant part of who he is was veiled behind scrambled neurotransmitters and the fog of chemicals that release with the onset of a brain injury.  As the doctor at the SCORE concussion center at Children’s Hospital explained to me, Gus, like other kids with significant concussions, have what amounts to a “software problem.”  It’s not inflammation or a typical bruise.  A concussion is more akin to a computer getting caught in a bad loop, only, as my wife cleverly put it, there is no CTRL-ALT-DEL to reset the system.

Instead, it is the maddening process of waiting, worrying, and, for me, attempting to keep the ghosts of my past at bay.  Until he starts to improve, Gus is really not supposed to do anything to intellectually stressful.  This makes avoiding boredom a real challenge, especially when TV is supposed to be doled out in very limited doses.  So when Gus brought out a deck of cards, I thought that was a great way to pass a little time.

Best...poker...ever.

Best…poker…ever.

He knew Blackjack, but he had never played Poker before and was curious to learn after seeing the crew of the Enterprise-D ante up on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  So I sat there teaching him the rules, and we spilled out popcorn kernels to serve as chips.  The look of delight on his face when he successfully bluffed me for the first time was priceless—mostly because it was an expression that looked like my Gus—a glimpse of what he used to be, and, yes, I know intellectually, what he will be again.

But that intellectual awareness couldn’t stop the memory of the last time I sat at a kitchen table and taught someone Poker.  I was a few years younger than Gus is now as I sat with my Grandpa Nat, who had come to stay with us after suffering a debilitating stroke.  I slowly explained the cards, and we played most hands face-up so I could give him strategy pointers.  He seemed to enjoy it, but all I could think of was that I was teaching this game to the man—the icon—who had taught it to me.

Shut up.

Shut up.

So as my boy slowly and bravely reboots, I have been made painfully aware that in terms of the sheer power of the emotion, concern trumps pride, anger, and, yes, even love.  Or as I think about it, maybe worry is more like a “force multiplier” if you’ll forgive the military terminology; enhancing all of those baseline emotions with an almost uncontrollable ferocity.

And it is why as I take this hopefully short stroll in the shoes of those parents with special needs kids, my already sincere respect turns to wonder and admiration.  Two weeks of this has been positively exhausting.  And while I understand the enormous strength and scar tissue a parent can generate when caring to the needs of a child, the mere concept of having this level of anxiety as a constant partner is close to unfathomable to me at the moment.

Ah, as I’m writing this, Gus just finished that darned blog prompt on his second try (City of Ember quote this time—he listened to the audiobook).  Small headache afterwards, but no problems and no tears.  So as a return to school is looking more imminent, I guess I have only one other job to do; choose the brand of bubble wrap I will be encasing him in for the rest of his life.  I wonder if they have Nationals’ colors.  He’ll like that, I’m sure.

Guns in America: Redefining Responsibility

February 7, 2013
I mean, THIS is the guy you want to hear about gun control?

I mean, THIS is the guy you want to hear about gun control?

And so before I turn back to my pop-culture strength (don’t think I haven’t noticed far more likes for my latest Read It and See It than for my gun control rants…), let me polish off my little suggestion on this important debate.

And so The Nerdy Blogger Dad Solutions to Gun Violence Act of 2013, as I’m sure the bill will come to be known, began with the ambitious proposal of mandating state or local police forces around the nation place two officers in every public school in the country.

Remember, it was the NRA itself that opened the door to this major initiative, and I’d have a hard time seeing even Wayne LaPierre arguing that there are any better “good guys with guns” than our own police.  But unless there’s a gun fairy that I am unaware of, we were going to need to pay these new cops.  To make this program an unfunded mandate would be unpalatable to liberals and conservatives alike.

But when we are filling these new police positions, what is it that we are paying them for?  To guard against the kind of horror we saw at Newtown, right?  Where a disturbed individual gained access to horribly destructive weapons that were legally in his mother’s collection.  If that is the case, then what we are paying for is the responsibility we have as a society for our 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.

There's no Effing guarantee.  Come on, sing it with me!

There’s no Effing guarantee. Come on, sing it with me!

Freedom, my friends, isn’t free.

And that’s the potentially uncomfortable new prism of responsibility that I think those who support and participate in our armed society need to wrap their heads around.  The responsibilities of a gun owner don’t stop at keeping their weapons under lock-and-key.  They extend to the dangers as a whole that an armed society present as a whole.  The “legal” vs. “illegal” guns is a moot point, as virtually all the weapons in our society were produced legally and then over time through insufficient registration and background checks filtered into the black market.  It is simply yet another price we pay for our right to bear arms.

And so in order to pay for this program, I go back to the brilliant idea that my wife proposed: treat guns like we do another dangerous but legal commodity—cigarettes. For much like the smoker who may never fall ill still has to pay the taxes that go to help ameliorate the damage cigarettes do to society as a whole, so too would responsible gun owners be contributing to mitigate the larger costs of gun violence.

But guns are a different animal insofar as the fact that once a cigarette is smoked, it no longer poses a continued danger to society.  I therefore suggest not a sales tax on guns, but an annual fee on all guns owned, tiered by that weapon’s destructive capacity.  So if you want the right to have that AR-15 in your collection, you need to pay for the heavy price society has to pay when weapons of that type fall into the wrong hands.

Of course, the stickers will need to be a little smaller.

Of course, the stickers will need to be a little smaller.

This would, of course, mean, that all gun sales and transfers, whether they be at gun shows, between brothers—you name it—would have to be reported and registered, as you need to know who has the gun to know who gets the bill.  And so I have little doubt that there are some gun owners out there that would be uncomfortable with having to tell the government which guns it has (though there really is no reasonable argument that it would be unconstitutional).  But if we have to register our cars, tell me why again we shouldn’t have to do the same for our guns?  Back to that public sentiment thing, a recent poll suggested that more than three quarters of Americans thought that gun registration was a good idea (and this one was even taken before Newtown).

Of course, this system could get gamed, but it would provide some financial disincentive for just trading guns around like playing cards, and progressively so for the most dangerous weapons available.  It would also make guns something that isn’t a “one-and-done” purchase.  Every year there would be a chance for a family to weigh to the costs and benefits of having a gun or guns in their home.

I admit that many demons will gnaw their way forth with details.  But for those who would chafe at a police mandate, I wouldn’t mind if states or localities are granted opt-out power to use the funds that would go for police instead be spent on other gun violence reduction initiatives from buy-back programs to rebates for smart gun purchases to education campaigns for gun safety. And for those who don’t like the fact that their guns are being taxed when they don’t pose a danger, I could see deductions for storing weapons at secure facilities rather than in the home.

Maybe it can work both ways.

Maybe it can work both ways.

I also admit this is NOT the ultimate solution to gun violence in America. But what we have seen with cigarettes is that by taxing them and using that money to help highlight their danger, it has provided a societal counterbalance to the “smoking is cool” notion that prevailed in previous generations.  This in turn has led to progress in curbing smoking despite the fact there are no intentions on making it illegal.

So instead this proposal is a way to reframe the conversation we are having about guns.  There are no convincing statistics that say that an increasingly armed society is increasingly safe.  Indeed, most convincing statistics say just the opposite. But if we put more cops in schools, and redefine responsible gun ownership as not just an individual responsibility, but a societal one that honesty portrays the burdens of these weapons alongside the rights, perhaps we can push past this rhetorical impasse and pull together reasonable people toward common sense solutions.

And that, to me, is the conversation worth having.