Posts Tagged ‘bullying’

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.

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.

Is Competing Bad for Kids?

February 13, 2014
Sorry, Tom, any youth coach can tell you different.

Sorry, Tom, any youth coach can tell you different.

“Coach, we have a crier!”

The voice rang out from Tommy, my first-grader, and it wasn’t the first time.  Over the first three weeks of my first ever CoachN’s FUNdamentals class, this same little boy had made the same call each week as his Kindergarten teammate had become teary-eyed.

In my rush to make sure that the class continued, the first two times it happened, I zipped right past Tommy and right to Kyle, seeking out the source of the problem.  “Are you hurt, big man?” I asked, resting a hand on his shoulder.   A sleeve swept at the wet on his face, more successfully smearing rather than cleaning.  A simple shake of the head indicated that despite his frustration, he really, really wanted to play.

On the third occasion when we divided up into 3 teams for our Gorabigator fielding competition, Tommy once again unleashed his clarion call.  This time, however, I thought ahead.  Before talking with Kyle, I went to a knee, put my hand gently on Tommy’s shoulder, and said,

It's all about being a teammate.  I'll explain the Thor hat later.

It’s all about being a teammate. I’ll explain the Thor hat later.

“Tommy, what’s the most important thing about being a baseball player?”  His big brown eyes lit with the recognition that, perhaps, I wasn’t going to give him an approving pat on the back.

“Uh, being a…uh…team…sport,” he mumbled.  Close enough to run with.

“That guy over there wearing the same hat as you?  That’s Kyle.  Remember that he has a name, and it’s not Crier.”

I knew I had his attention, but I also knew I’d have it for about 10 seconds more—and that was all I could spare to make sure I kept the drills from lapsing into chaos.  “So while I know you’re just trying to help me, do you really think that’s respecting and supporting your teammate?”  Tommy shook his head slightly but definitively.  Point made.

Kyle was, of course, watching this from the wings.  I decided not to say anything to him at that moment other than, “Kyle, let’s go—glove to the ground.”  He slurped, sniffled, and fielded a grounder cleanly.

After the drill it was time for water break.  And I caught a break, as I had hoped that in coming to his defense, Kyle would open up a bit.  He came up to me and said, “Coach, do we have to do another game today?”

The question was a curious one to me, as I’ve found one of the key ways to keep kids interested in doing drills was to make the drills into competitions.  By splitting the kids up into two or sometimes three teams, I was able to keep them in the action while providing an incentive for the players to cheer for their teammates.  That’s what all the coaching books told me, and for years it’s been the perfect recipe.

So what gives?

“Why don’t you want another game, Kyle?”  I asked, seeing tears starting to well up once again.  He bravely kept his emotions from overwhelming him, and croaked, “I just don’t want to lose!” I responded with my standard line born from a million competitions-induced tears before:  that competition wasn’t about winning and losing, but striving to get better.  He reluctantly accepted my sage wisdom, and went onto be one of my biggest hitters of the day.  As we gave out star stickers for our hats, I have Kyle a big gold star for “comeback player of the day.”

Hey, cake has eggs in it!

Hey, cake has eggs in it!

Problem solved, right?  Coach Scott’s great!  Give us the chocolate cake! And so forth.

But the next day, I was walking home from school drop-off with Kyle’s mother Yvonne.  “I heard that Kyle started slowly but finished strong yesterday,” she said.  I noted that I found out that Kyle was worried about losing, and talked to him about why we compete.  She sighed in that most parent-like of ways, and responded that Kyle was like this with anything that was competition oriented.  He was afraid to watch his favorite team play baseketball because he couldn’t handle seeing them lose.  He was always worried about his school work being all right because if it wasn’t, he felt like he had failed.  He even said, despite his obvious passion for baseball, that he didn’t want to play on a team because he was afraid his team might lose.

I empathized with Yvonne, my boys having had plenty of on-field meltdowns themselves over the years.  But when she was talking about Kyle, I flashed back to the competitions we were having over the past few weeks.  “What’s the score?” the kids would beg me over-and-over again.  But, no, most of the time, it was actually different than that.  It was “how much does the other team have?”  While that worry was more pronounced with Kyle, it was clearly present with all of the kids.  They were so preoccupied with what the other team was doing, so focused not on winning, but not losing,  that it took away from the team-building that I told all these kids’ parents was at the core of what I was trying to teach.

This wasn’t Kyle’s problem.  This wasn’t Tommy’s problem.  This wasn’t any of the kids’ problem.

It was mine.

Have you seen meltdowns playing this game?  I have, too.

Have you seen meltdowns playing this game? I have, too.

To put it in conflict partnership terms, the competitions I created became almost entirely power over focused, a “win-lose” scenario that split the kids apart rather than bringing them together.  And I realized that when kids get a little older, as I’m a bit more accustomed to with my boys being 9 and 12, they can more easily separate friendly competition with teammates from “do-or-die.” But for younger children just emerging from the cocoon of constant parental validation where first steps and first poops in the potty are fêted with World Series glee , they are really just starting to learn what competition actually is, that’s a hard distinction to make.

So, how to fix something like this?  Make sure every competition ends in a tie?  That doesn’t really take away the in-game issue, as they don’t know the game is rigged.  Remove competition entirely and go with the “everyone gets a trophy” philosophy?  I have to say that irks me as a coach.  Competition does test players, and helps them to get better.  It does teach essential cooperation and team-building lessons that help build better ballplayers, and people.  And it is simply more fun, as it brings urgency and goals to the table.  And, yes, it is a part of life kids need to learn how to deal with.

Yes, I keep the helmet on during drills.  Safety first!

Yes, I keep the helmet on during drills. Safety first!

The next week, I donned the Thor helmet borrowed from my son’s Halloween costume and began our “Hit Like a Hero” lesson.  As I did the week before, I broke the kids up into two groups, and gave them the arcane scoring system for mechanics and result.  I looked at Kyle, and could see the nerves already building up in his intense, earnest face.

“This week, we’re doing things differently,” I said.  These two groups are still one team.  Your goal is to get to get to 200 points.  If you do that together, everyone gets a star!”

I could see it on Kyle.  I could see it on Tommy.  I could see it on everyone.  There was no one in the room that could beat them.  Either they would win the game, or not.  They’d work hard, but not have to worry that anyone else in the room was better.  This was still competition, but it was a power with rather than power over exercise.

“Ready to play?”

“YEAH!” they bellowed.

The dynamic of the competition could not have been more different, even though the words were the same.  “How many do we have?” they queried constantly.  Then they’d run back to the other group to see how many they had.  As they approached the 200 point mark, the kids were screaming their support for each other.  And when the barrier was broken, it was a giant hurrah and high-fives all around.

That night, I got an email from Yvonne.  Kyle had decided that he wanted to supplement the team hats that I gave all the players with home-made jerseys because, she said, “it was something to show that he was a good teammate.”

The new uniforms weren’t quite done by our last session (I can’t wait to see them, but I’ll have to wait another week because of this darned snow) where we started using our “Green Arrow Throws” to start working on improving accuracy.  When I again broke up into two groups for a game, Kyle immediately came up and said, “Is this another points one where we’re together?”

“Absolutely, Kyle.  You’re working as a team.”

“Awesome!” he said, pumping his fist, “I love those!”

So do I Kyle.  So do I.

The Power Beyond Words

September 6, 2013

}z}Shanah Tovah everyone, and happy 5774.  While I’m a pretty secular Jew myself, I find the cultural roots, most specifically the notion of Tikkun Olam – the fact that we are partners with the divine in an effort to heal the world – to be important guideposts for living my life.

My mother, however, is quite religious, and even with her advanced medical training, finds the teachings of the Torah and her faith to be essential components of her being.  Our differences in perception of what it means to be Jewish sometimes lead to friction, but the commentaries she sends to us each Sabbath and holiday are often food for thought.

The one she sent for Rosh Hashanah from Rabbi Yehuda Amital struck me as particularly compelling, as it related back to parenting and relationships.  On the surface, that doesn’t seem to be the point, as the relationship it is talking about is between man and God.  Here’s the operative paragraph to chew on:

A person who turns to God faces a dilemma.  Generally, turning to God in prayer consists of using words.  However, human language was created for dialogue between people, between one finite creature and another.  There is something tragic about the fact that a person must use human language when turning to God.  Human language limits, constricts, and distorts.  It cannot express what is found in the chambers of our hearts.  Human speech is fundamentally different from divine speech.  God, after all, uttered “Remember the Sabbath” and “Keep the Sabbath” in one statement. This is an entirely different mode of expression than human speech; it is a completely different essence.  The blast of the shofar solves the dilemma, as least to some degree.

At first I thought about this statement in terms of sound, and it was very resonant regarding the power of sound to create emotion.  From the power of a movie soundtrack to create an emotional response that the scene itself alone cannot, to that song that moves you even though you can’t remember most of the words, sound strikes an instinctive chord in us.  It creates bonds that transcend language and ideology.  So, as the Amital suggests, if we look to speak with our metaphorical hearts rather than our intellect, using pure sound to express our feelings makes a lot of sense.

But then my mind wandered to a different place.  A recent visit by my parents, my aunt, and my brother who was in town from Barcelona for the first time in years.  Mom and I had a disagreement, and she flashed me the look.  You all know what I’m talking about, as every mother has one.  While sound imparts more of a purity of emotion, a look conflates emotion with reasoning.  You don’t just “go with” a look, you attempt to decipher its meaning.  But because the look shares that primordial origin, the meaning of the moment oft becomes hopelessly conflated within the entire prism of a relationship.  My mother’s look disapproval struck not just the parent in me, but the child.  And it hurt.  A lot.  It caused me to lose my temper and allow the moment to blossom into a full-fledged argument.

When tempers calmed a bit and my mother and I talked the next day, I told her that I didn’t think she realized the power she had, and how those looks can wound even a grown-up child.  She responded that those expressions are, “like breathing or blinking your eyes.”  She felt that she displayed tremendous self-control by walking away from the situation without saying anything.  And no doubt that was the case.

But while I understand that non-verbal emotional expressions become so ingrained that they become reflexive, I started to really think about whether the look was something beyond control.  In looking at my own behavior as both a Dad and a coach, there can be no contesting that I have indeed crafted a pretty potent look myself.  Sometimes, when it “just comes out” I see that look back saying, “Oh, no, Dad is mad” as their heads spin the Wheel of Misfortune regarding what’s coming next.  But now I have a different perspective on the power I am wielding over them.

So what the incident with my mother brought to light and Reb Amital’s commentary shed light upon was that, much like we look to mediate what we say to our kids because we know the power of words, we also need to be aware of the power of non-verbal communication, perhaps even more than what we say.  For it is the recipient of the look that is telling the story, and the plot is often a lot different than what we meant it to be.

The (Book) Review: Sidekicked

September 4, 2013

As I bone up on what I hope to be “the competition” – a.k.a. Super Hero novels targeting the tween/young adult demographic – I thought I’d share my impressions of what I’ve read.  I’ve actually been simul-reading several novels, but here are my thoughts on the first one I finished.

Sidekicked-198x300The Book
Sidekicked, by John David Anderson, Walden Pond Press, published June 2013

Genre
“Realistic” Fantasy—Super Hero

Age Appropriate
7 and up.  Think Harry Potter for the Super Hero set.  Funny with mild, cartoonish violence and a focus more on how a real-life middle schooler would deal with the trials and tribulations of being something more (or perhaps less) than normal.  Romance plays its role, but in entirely the innocent sense of the word.  A little sprinkling of crude (though not foul) language and potty humor, but one couldn’t imagine anything else from a red-blooded American 12-year-old boy.  That said book reads a bit younger than the Harry Potter stories, so I am not sure it would have as much appeal to teen readers unless they are specifically Super Hero fans.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  While Anderson strives to capture the sensibilities and voice of a middle schooler, he doesn’t avoid some wonderfully descriptive language and puts together a very solid plot.  In many ways, he brings a sense of realism to the genre, moral conundrums and all, without falling victim to the “Dark Knight Disease” I mentioned in my previous post.

Book Availability
Widely available in hardback (it was just released this summer) and e-book in any number of forms.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
Andrew Bean is an excellent middle school student, but as a Super Hero, he kind of sucks. His alter-ego, The Sensationalist, doesn’t have the incredible strength and speed of his friend Jenna, a.k.a. the Silver Fox, and he can’t turn his body into a lump of impenetrable rock like the new kid in class, who incidentally seems to be making a play for Jenna.

How does a super nerd compete with Super Cedric?

How does a super nerd compete with Super Cedric?

Instead, he’s stuck with the power to feel, see, smell and taste absolutely everything.  So while his fellow sidekicks in training are leaping all over the secret sidekick training center in the basement of their school, he gets to sit at a desk and sniff into test tubes to hone his “skills.”  And did I mention the rock guy with the chiseled abs is making a play for the one girl who actually seems to like him?

And if being the least super Super wasn’t bad enough, Drew managed to get paired with about the worst Hero you could imagine.  The Titan, his personal idol and once the city of Justica’s greatest champion, now had more battles with barstools than bad guys.  But Drew signed off on the sidekick’s code, and was determined to figure out how to prove his worth to worth to the world…and to Jenna. And when the most notorious band of baddies return, the very same gang that sent Titan into his unexplained tailspin, everything Drew thought he knew about his friends, his family, and even about being a hero itself, is called into question.

My Review (minor spoilers)

I’m a sucker for a good sidekick story.  It’s one of the reasons one of my all-time favorite Super Hero incarnations is The Tick.  In all its incarnations, while the big blue idiot may be the title character, the story is really about Arthur, the average guy trying to keep up in a super-powered world.  It’s his story that grounds the ridiculous world of Supers that makes the whole thing work so well. Anderson seems to be of that same school, and comes up with a wonderful way to bring that same sensibility and sense of humor to the middle grade market.

Hard to decide, but I think I loved the live action version most.

Hard to decide, but I think I loved the live action version most.

Drew is our Arthur, seeming the worst of the best; possessed of powers that are seemingly not very super at all.  Indeed, Drew’s abilities provide fertile ground for great description and very funny moments (who knew you could fart in a test tube?). Drew’s story is told first person, and I think Anderson does a very nice job capturing the voice of a brainy, nerdy, extremely self-conscious 12-year-old.  If I were to nit-pick, I think some of the descriptive language he uses feels like it goes beyond his narrator, which I think is the issue from time-to-time in choosing first person with a child’s voice.  That said, it never feels so overboard that I lost the feeling that I was hearing things from Drew himself.

For the first three quarters of the book, I thought Anderson did a brilliant job making all of the “super” problems Drew encountered into essentially the same problems just about any middle school kid has, only pumped up on steroids.  The handsome other boy with an eye on the girl he is into isn’t just handsome, he’s handsome and he can turn himself into living rock.  The feeling of anxiety about keeping secrets from parents, in this case super powers and being a sidekick to the greatest Super Hero in history (or, some semblance of him) is a powerful metaphor for that increased feeling of alienation that so many pre-teens start to feel as they change.  Now throw in the fact that his Super Hero idol is a shell of his former self, and Drew gives readers a surprisingly deep-dive into the way kids begin to emerge from the cocoon of childhood into the oft harsh realities of life.

A similar conundrum to Man of Steel, but far more deftly handled.

A similar conundrum to Man of Steel, but far more deftly handled.

Anderson also does an excellent job playing with some of the core messages behind the Super Hero convention.  What makes a bad guy bad?  What are the ethics of being a hero?  Is “Thou shalt not kill” an essential part of a hero’s code?  How do the non-supers feel in a world filled with “freaks?”  All those are covered in a way that in no way feels preachy, as the middle school prism helps make these questions feel fresh and resonant.

As taken as I was by the setup, I have to say that the finish was not quite what I had hoped for.  It was still good, but it felt fairly conventional.  I felt like I was going from reading something entirely original to a solid copy of many stories I had read before.  The villain’s final reveal didn’t come as much of a surprise to me, but I was okay with that.  The rationale for the villain’s behavior, however, felt a bit staid.  But, as a discussion point, the blurred line between good and evil is an excellent one.  Better yet because it is NOT told in the “shades of gray” way that so many Super Hero stories today are told.  It is a real moral dilemma, not simply another ode to nihilism like we see in so many of today’s Super Hero stories.

In all, Sidekicked is a welcome addition to the genre and antidote to the growingly grim path Super Heroes have been taking.

Overall Read Score: 4 out of 5 stars.

Opportunities for Discussion
I’ve already noted a number of questions that the book takes in my review.  On top of that, Anderson himself has done parents and teachers alike a favor with a nice little discussion guide you can find on his website (.pdf).  As I noted, the book does a nice job of keeping the humor going through the book so that the very interesting and serious points being made about power never feel like an after school special.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Of Boy Scouts and Superman

March 18, 2013
The wife?  Gorgeous.  The rest?  Meh.

The wife? Gorgeous. The rest? Meh.

I hate nature.

Not that I want to destroy it or anything; I spent the better part of two decades as a lobbyist and organizer trying to save it.  But in terms of enjoying it, let me just say this.  You see a picturesque ocean, I see an endless stretch of something that I can neither stand on nor breathe in.  Hell, I can’t even drink the stuff.  I’m still not sure what’s so beautiful about that.  With our annual trip to the Keys coming up soon, trust me, I’m going for the pie.

I was noting this particular out of my myriad peculiarities this past Friday, which happed to be “Scout Day” at our synagogue.  A number of boys, girls, men, and women including several of Gus’s classmates got up on the bimah and spoke of the connection between scouting and Judaism, most notably the emphasis on doing good deeds (mitzvot).

Whenever I see those Boy Scout uniforms, they burn like a scarlet letter on my parenting soul.

Ahoy!  I be Homerrrr!

Ahoy! I be Homerrrr!

You see, my big boy has in the past expressed some interest in joining the Boy Scouts.  And it probably would have been good for him, too, given my wife is not a huge fan of “roughing it” and my idea of communing with the land is a lovely stretch of well-manicured savannah abruptly enclosed by a semicircular fence bracketed by two garish yellow foul poles.  The pangs of guilt in not adequately preparing him to survive the zombie apocalypse are amplified by the social deprivation he’s expressed at not being part.  It’s the classic “all the cool kids are doing it” argument he expressed to me once again as we drove home.

But even with the young men proudly speaking of all the mitzvot they have done as Boy Scouts, perhaps in honor of the upcoming Passover holiday, this Pharaoh’s heart hardened and once again said, “No, no, no.  To Boy Scouts you cannot go.”

And take that cursed walking stick with you, camper!

And take that cursed walking stick with you, camper!

Indeed, I saw more than a certain sad irony in a mention of Scouting Day at a synagogue.  Jews have historically been a people on the outside looking in.  On Passover, we are instructed to remember our time as slaves thousands of years ago as if it were happening to us right now.  “For you were slaves in the land of Egypt.”  We are commanded not to ignore injustice both by deity and by tradition—something I find bonds me to Judaism despite my rather militant agnosticism (I don’t know, and neither do you).

But, of course, as we sat there hearing these young men speaking of the environmental and social ethics of Scouting, we heard nothing of the great white elephant—the national BSA’s continued singling out and exclusion of any gay or lesbian children or parents from being a part of the organization.  I understand why this was excluded from the program—I’m not quite that obtuse.  There was no reason to cast a pall on these kids who got so much out of this experience with this inconvenient truth.  But I don’t think I’m the only one in the sanctuary who could feel it ghosting the proceedings.

I tend to prefer the "warts and all" philosophy

I tend to prefer the “warts and all” philosophy, however

What surprised me a bit as Gus and I discussed this issue once again was the discovery that when he talked with his friends who were in the Boy Scouts, each and every one of them vehemently denied that the BSA had this policy.  Now, I don’t think that their parents have been lying to them.  Indeed, I just had a discussion with a couple of our good friends who have their son in the Boy Scouts.  When they decided to do it, the issue of the national policy was absolutely part of their discussion.  But knowing that in this liberal haven of Arlington that the issue would have little-to-no impact on their particular troop made them feel the on-the-ground positives outweighed the rhetorical negatives.

That seems quite reasonable to me.  And I’m sure that the fact that Gus’s friends have no idea about the BSA’s anti-LGBT policy is not a concerted effort on their parents part.  They joined the Scouts at a very early age, when this issue would have frankly been too complex to explain to them.  Given in a liberal place like Arlington this issue just simply isn’t an issue for their troops, it’s simply never come up.  And because in so many other ways the Boy Scouts is about respecting and helping others, it just seems antithetical to any child participating that it would also have such an exclusionary and discriminatory policy.

Can't hate this guy

Can’t hate this guy

As I continue to mull this decision, I always remind myself that my own moral compass is certainly far from true north.  For instance, I always loved the (should be in the) Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, and even though I was taken aback when he called Rush Limbaugh “American Royalty” back in 2005, I decided that I would divorce the catcher from the man, and continue to be a fan of the player.  Why shouldn’t that same principle apply to the Boy Scouts?

It is actually a somewhat similar issue happening right now in the nerd world that gave me a bit more clarity. As you might remember, I rather enjoyed Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, which will be coming out as a motion picture in November.  Indeed, I was quite intrigued to hear that DC comics is giving him his own Superman series to play with.  But then, I was hit with the news that Card is anti-gay marriage and has made some statements over the years that could be considered quite homophobic.  Here’s a very thorough article from Hollywood.com that traces the saga, and the publicity problem that both DC and Summit Entertainment have on their hands.

May be the closest I come to seeing the movie, unfortunately

May be the closest I come to seeing the movie, unfortunately

I’m far more iffy now as to whether I’m going to complete my Read It Then See It on Ender’s Game, as not only does Card personally believe in something I find terribly discriminatory, not only does he belong to what I believe to be a discriminatory organization (the National Organization for Marriage), but he is a member of their board of directors.  He is therefore actively using his celebrity to empower an organization that’s entire purpose—unlike the Boy Scouts—is to discriminate against the LGBT community.

There seems to be a difference in my mind between personal differences and institutionalized discrimination.  And while BSA is a private institution, it is still an institution.  So this is why I will still put Piazza’s #31 on my back, but Card’s Superman comics will remain on the shelves and I will continue to deprive my children of the unquestionable benefits of the Boy Scouts on this principle.

I admit fully that the line from disagreement over objectionable personal belief to institutionalized discrimination can sometimes be a murky one.  But it is that institutionalization of bias that, as a former slave in the land of Egypt, I simply cannot abide.

ew.

So this is the slightly wavering, yet deeply-etched line that I draw in the sand, and what I am committed to teaching my children.  If the BSA lifts its policy (something that doesn’t seem likely in the near future), however, I would be happy to allow my sons to take part.  Heck, I’ll even go on a camping trip with them.

Just don’t expect me to like it.