Posts Tagged ‘children’

Coaching Kids—Are We Doing it Wrong?

December 20, 2019

My Arlington Babe Ruth T-Ball Kids. To them I’m “Da Commish”

So this 50-year-old is about to try a new trick, as 2020 will mark my first year coaching high school baseball. I’ll be Head Coach of the JV team at Falls Church High School (Go Jaguars!) and hoping the old axiom, “We all rise to the level of our own incompetence,” will not apply.

I think I’m a pretty good coach. I’ve been at it a while and have gotten more compliments than critiques. But, as I noted in my last post, I’ve found in mid-life that the more I learn, the less I know. This doesn’t mean that I think learning is stupid. But having so much confidence in what you know that you’re unwilling to have it challenged—or better yet, to challenge it yourself seems at best counterproductive.

That’s why as a coach, I consider myself a “lifelong learner.” I credit my past successes, but think it’s folly to believe that just because something worked in the past that it’s the right way to do things. And baseball is a particularly dangerous game in this regard due to the conservative (small c) nature of the game. We care about tradition, and the fact that we feel we can compare players from 25, 50, or even 100 years ago and see an even competition play out among them in the diamonds of our mind.

I have a lot of tools in my coaching education toolkit. For drive time, I’m a podcast guy, though not a religious listener to any one in particular. One of my faves is Coach Caliendo’s Baseball Outside the Box. I was intrigued by a particular episode called “Decision Making in Practice” as I’m always looking for new practice tips and liked the idea of something that seemed to include the mental side of the game. For having graduated from coaching kids to teens, one thing I can tell you without question is that coaching a 12-year-old and a 13-year-old is decidedly not the same.

Now, I have coached mostly boys, so I will leave my thoughts on girls and baseball for another post (I absolutely have thoughts on that one—get ready Little League as there is a black mark on their collective soul in that regard). But there is no doubt that each and every teenage player I’ve worked with is trying to listen to me while their Hormone Monster, and Shame Wizard bark constantly in their ear. Now add the sometimes invaluable, sometimes head-smacking chatter of their parents and teammates, and that’s a whole lot of internal and external chaos all on hand while trying to play a very difficult game at a high level.

So while I was listening as always for tips on new drills, this time thinking about things that might be more advanced for h school-level players, the guest on this particular podcast, Coach Kyle Nelson of Cornerstone Coaching Academy, made two comments that got me thinking in an entirely different direction.

The first comment was a shorter aside near the end of the program when Coach Caliendo asked him about what sort of things he is trying to do now to make himself better as a coach:

COACH NELSON: One of the things I am going to do this year at our school…is go to different practices. I’m going to go and watch a volleyball practice. I’m going to watch a football practice. I’m going to go watch a soccer practice. And I’m going to figure out what they’re doing that I like. Is there something they are doing that I can learn from and incorporate into what we’re doing. Because coaching is coaching, right? The sport is just the tool you are using to do it.(my emphasis)

As I’ve made quite clear on this blog, I’m a baseball guy. But this simple statement really hit me. In my interview with the Athletic Director at FCHS, I noted that my primary goal as a coach is to give my kids the life-skills that baseball brings, focus, handling failure, problem-solving, dedication to a goal beyond just your own, and devotion to a regimen, among others.

But this quote for the first time really reversed my whole prism on why I coach. I don’t coach because I love baseball. I love baseball because at heart, I’m a coach. Baseball happens to be my particular canvas of choice because I grew up with it and see the benefits the game brings to kids. But I know plenty of people who are equally as passionate, and for very similar reasons, about their sport of choice.

Coach Nelson’s comment also reframed an earlier conversation he was having, this time about one of my favorite things—coaching mistakes. For while I love to hear coaches talk about their successes, I find it just as valuable when they talk about their shortcomings. Goodness knows I’ve made plenty, and discarded everything from standardizing pitching motions to focusing on top-hand swinging. But Nelson’s comments I found more illuminating:

COACH NELSON: Yeah, that’s one of my biggest complaints about the way I used to teach and used to coach… I could get players to get good at hitting in practice, but it didn’t always translate into a game… Or I could get players really good at fielding ground balls off of the backhand when they knew it was coming.

But with baseball, with the exception of the pitcher, almost everything we do is a reaction. To give you an example of this, the next time you’re working with a kid to catch, and you’re working blocks, throw about four or five blocks in a row…and then throw one down the middle, and watch them drop to their knees and have it hit them in the chest.

What you realize is, is that you’re working the mechanics of blocking, but one of the most important parts of blocking is recognizing the pitch that needs to be blocked and to beat it there… You’re not using that mechanism at all when you are simply blocking 10 pitches in a row. So I would say that happened about seven or either years ago when I looked at our practices and said, “We need to get more decision making into our practice before performing a skill.”

We need to have them make a decision when they’re hitting. They’re not just going to come in the cage and swing at the first eight pitches that we throw. We throw balls in batting practice on purpose. We throw bad pitches on purpose, because if they don’t work on pitch selection in practice, when are they ever going to work on pitch selection? Well, that will be in the game, and if they’re not very good at it, and coaches are going to get upset with them swinging at pitches above their hands, or swinging at balls outside… But if you allow them to get away with that in practice, you’ve really fed the problem.

For infielders, we’ll work “Here’s ground balls at you, here’s ground balls to your forehand, here’s ground balls to your backhand.” They don’t need to read the ball and make a decision on what kind of a movement they need to make.

That to me was seven or eight years ago. I really made that change because I felt like I wasn’t preparing guys for what they actually were going to see. I was preparing them to be really good in practice, but not really good in the game.

COACH COLLANGELO: You know what? Makes 100% sense. And I’ve got to believe that coaches in the U.S. and around the world at all levels, especially at the younger levels, because I’ve said on the show many times we’ve got to make sure that our coaches working with the younger levels, some of them happen to be volunteers, some are not because there are now travel teams running young teams so they’re professionals in the game. A lot of them are guys who study the game. I’m hoping more and more they are taking this philosophy because it’s the only way I see the game getting better.

Kids get a lot better and have more fun because they get to make decisions… Practice is a lot more fun. They get better…

While this is great advice on its surface, including more game-like decision making in practices to get them more prepared for game action, this led me a step further. If, “coaching is coaching,” then why practice, why play games, if we’re not using them to instill the life lessons the game allows us to bring to the players? Are we so invested in the granularity of our particular sport that we as coaches miss opportunities to bring something more valuable to our kids?

I now think so.

After happening by this ESPN piece on how Evan Langoria went from an unrecruited high school player to a Major League star by focusing on his mental approach to the game, I became really intrigued with the “coachability” of the mental side of the game. I bought and read Heads Up Baseball 2.0 written by Tom Hanson and the late Ken Ravizza, both noted gurus of the mental game (Ravizza is prominently featured in the Langoria piece).

I’ll give a full review of this book in my next post (short review—it’s tremendous, all baseball coaches should have one and I think it has value for all sports coaches and, I think educations and parents as well), but the one major ding I had on it—at least at first—was the fact that it is very redundant. Their method, RAMP-C (Responsibility, Awareness, Mission, Preparation—Compete!) is repeated over-and-over in both name and image, and the specific instruction they have for offense, defense, and pitching is so similar that by the end I felt it almost felt like filler.

But then it struck me—the book is written with the same repetition that the authors are asking of the players and coaches; developing a muscle memory with the material that would make it routine. And as I worked with my teen players on the RAMP-C method, I did note that sometimes players would chafe at the repetitive nature of this approach. They understood the value, but it was clear their Hormone Monster was also saying, “Shut the hell up and let me go play, Coach Jackass!”

But while teens might chafe at redundancy, young children eat it up. As this Psychology Today article so perfectly puts it, young children want and need repetition to learn. What might be excruciatingly annoying to an adult (see my personal version of hell listening to The Wiggles “Fruit Salad” song for the 500th time), it is not only desired, but required for a kid.

And yet, while the mental side of the game is really the portable skill that 99% of player will take with them into their adult life, and the vast majority of youth players will never play high school ball (not to mention about 0.5% of all high schoolers will ever play pro ball), I now realize we are waiting too long to focus on the mental skills with our children. Given the rising tide of childhood and teen anxiety and depression, it makes that much more sense that we reimagine sports as a classroom teaching support skills for mental health and strength.

But our shortcomings in this regard are only natural. Most coaches in the 5-9u levels are volunteer parents, just like I was. They are good-hearted amateurs looking to teach the game “right” and focus on the fundamentals; in the case of baseball it’s hitting, throwing, fielding, and running. But what Heads Up Baseball shows is that it is just as easy, and far more valuable in the long run, to teach them how to use routine to help command focus, or how to use a cleansing or energizing breath to take control of your own emotions, among many other life lessons.

So, in my usual long-winded fashion, I have come to the realization that we’re leaving too much on the table for our kids to start focusing on the mental side of the game when they’re older. For my sport, I believe that Little League, Babe Ruth, and, yes, the proliferate of travel teams that in many cases are replacing league play (much to my dismay) need to start integrating the RAMP-C or other methods into the game at the youngest levels, when kids are most responsive to repetition and routine. There are ways to make these methods fun and age-appropriate (we actually use some in the “Game & Derby”(pdf) system I’ve developed for Arlington Babe Ruth (I’ll get to that post, too).

For if you teach a kid to swing, s/he’ll hit for a decade, maybe two. But teach a kid to compete, and s/he’ll compete for a lifetime.

Home Run on the Edge of Forever

May 11, 2017

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

I’m voting for Big Fish as of now.

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

And Gus went deep.

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

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

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

The left fielder slowed down, and turned to watch.

Did that really just happen?

It did.

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

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

The Chocolate Donutz-eating t-ball team;

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

The B-Team catcher starting to find his form;

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

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

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

Working his keester off and moving up to A;

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

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

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

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

Feeling his way back after missing two weeks; and


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

Wait, no, that’s quite not it.


Oh my lord.

I was my Dad.

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

And then…PING!

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

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

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

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

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

And I remember that it always will be.

Coaches Matter

January 9, 2017

courtesy T.J. Arrowsmith

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

His signature line?

I’m getting too old for this shit.

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

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

What the hell am I doing?

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

And then over the weekend, I received this message:

Coach N,

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

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

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

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

And coaches matter.

Night at the Museum

December 2, 2016


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

It was an amazing experience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” he deadpanned.

He could not have been more spot on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next on this thread, a modest proposal.

The Terrible Necessity of Loss

October 23, 2013

It wasn’t the fact that his voice had dropped three octaves in the past six months.  Something in his voice sounded different.

“Mom?  Dad?  I think Star is sick.”

I’ve heard that voice almost every day for the past twelve years.  Delighted and distraught.  Worried and wondrous.  Crazy and crestfallen.  Pained and petulant.  But this…this was different.  This was the sound of concern.  But not the “I’m worried about my test” or “I’m nervous about today’s game” kind of concern.  The deep monotone went deeper than the words in conveying that something was wrong.  Something that may not be able to be put right again.

Kir and I followed Gus upstairs and looked into the tank.  One frog, Comet, the younger of the pair, stroked in nervous circles, even more active than her somewhat hyper norm.  On the other end of the spectrum sat Star, the more curmudgeonly of the two, who spent most of her time brooding inside the miniature sphinx sunk in the depths of the cloudy water.  But instead of her normal squat, she was splayed out in the corner, almost on her side, a flipper resting oddly upward on the side of the tank.  When Comet rocketed by, the elder made a slight twitch, but no more.

There was little room for doubt.  Star was dying.

She had come to our home on a fluke.  Gus was in 2nd grade and for science, the teacher had bought one of the “Grow-A-Frog” tadpoles and they watched it grow.  Of course, once the experiment had reached its amphibian conclusion, there was that pesky question about what to do with the actual life that evolved before them.

And yes, we felt so “lucky” when we heard the exciting news out of that ecstatic seven-year-old that he had won the frog lottery.  Star was coming home with him!  With our permission, of course.

A grin of breathless anticipation.  Giant blue saucers blinking, begging.

Resistance was futile.

And so Star became a part of the family.  We explained to Gus that this was his frog to take care of.  We would fill in for him if he was away, but otherwise Star’s fate would be on his hands.  Earnest to a fault even at that young age, Gus took his charge seriously.  He fed her to the letter of the instructions, and watched as she continued to grow.  He asked for a larger tank for his birthday as he felt Star was cramped by her small school tank.  And when we read up on the frog and found that they were social creatures, he made the decision that he wanted to grow Star some company.  That’s when we received the mysterious box with nothing but a small bag of water inside that I threw away, realizing just before the garbage many came that it might just have a tadpole inside.

He had spent five years looking after this animal, his first real charge.  Before that he had the odd carnival-won goldfish with the two-week average lifespan.  I think we managed to get a couple of months out of one.  The flush down the toilet was quick and painless.  But for a 12-year-old, 5 years is pretty much your entire life.  Those baby and toddler years would be no more than fantasy save the embarrassing photos and video.  And those pre-K years are spotty at best.  Elementary school is when memories truly take root.  Those memories persisted every day when a few miniscule specs of food drifted their way down to the bottom of the water toward his grand dame.

“I don’t think she can make it back to the top of the tank to breathe,” he said.  These were water frogs, but needed the occasional trip to the surface.  “And she’s so skinny,” his voice dripping that that most wonderful, contemptible of emotions—empathy.

I flew to the Internet as Kir comforted him, noting that dealing with loss is an integral part of owning a pet.  I Googled “Sick Grow-A-Frog” and gleaned enough information to confirm that at five years, Star had reached the average lifespan for her kind.  It also noted that for a sick frog, a transfer into some fresh water can be helpful.

And so I dusted off Star’s old, small tank—the place where she first came to us.  I rinsed a handful of white gravel and patted it evenly at the bottom, then splashed some distilled water until the tank was a third full.  Then it was a turn with a more murky fluid, as I plunged an old Orioles souvenir cup into the larger tank and gently captured Star.  With a carful pour I dropped Star into her new, old home.  Gus immediately sprinkled a few grains of food in, hopeful that perhaps with the contrast of color Star might more easily be able to find sustenance.

“I think that’s the best we can do for her now,” I said.  “We’ve made her as comfortable as we can.”  Gus nodded silently and got himself ready for bed.  As Kir and I left the room with a kiss on the head and a stroke of the hair, that middle-school voice warbled, “Good Night” – the deep concern beginning to crack through the determined monotone.

In the morning we peeked anxiously into Gus’s room, and found Star was still with us.  Indeed, she seemed to be moving a little more.  Kir and I both cautioned him not to get too excited, but if she showed some signs of progress that there was some medicated food available we could order.  He went off to school not exactly a bundle of joy, but not singularly preoccupied, either.

A few hours later I went to check on Star and found her in a surprising position.  She had managed to get upright, her eyes peeking over the top of the film of water.  Two flashes of thought ran their way through my mind at that moment.  One was “I wonder how much that medicated food costs?”  The other, a little less base, recalled a moment with my dear Grandma Mary in her last days.  We visited her in the hospital, watching as she lay there, a slip of a woman haloed by flow of tousled white hair.  And, for just a little while, she came back to us.  Having been fed through a tube for days, she sat upright and talked to us.  The doctor asked if she’d like to try anything to eat, proffering Jell-o and broth.  She responded with a clarity we hadn’t heard in weeks:

“An egg.”

We all laughed, and the doctor smiled and said, “not quite yet, Mrs. Nathanson.”

She left us just days later.

Gus came down that evening, eyes wide like a Second Grader, but this time with not beginnings to be found, but endings.

“I think Star died.”

We rushed upstairs, and there she floated, flat on her back.  There was no think about it.  Star’s ascent was that last bright flair.  A final feast of chicken our old cat Peter had before we had to put him down.  A hearty laugh of my Uncle John as he gave me tips on how to win over this new girlfriend I had named Kirsten while cancer overtook him.  A Christmas hug my Father-in-Law Andy gave me before cancer stole him from us.

An egg.

Kirsten rubbed his back and stroked his hair.  I carried the tank that once held that little tadpole out of sight.  And there was a new noise.  Gus cried.  But much like his deep monotone, it was a different cry than I had ever heard before.  It wasn’t getting hit by a pitch or insulted by some bullies.  It was the knife of loss etching its first real scar on his soul.  For even though he still remembers his Pappy Andy and felt the pain of his passing—this death was his to own.

Gus took a few days, allowing the sorrow to dilute into sadness, and decided to dispense with anything too drawn-out for Star’s resting place.  He did want her committed to water, but a swirl down the toilet seemed a bit too callous.  So he and I crossed the street, a small Ziplock bag with enough water to make Star look like she was still swimming, and slipped her down the storm drain to float away to the local river.  A simple “Goodbye Star” was all he wanted to say, and it was back to homework.  The pain wasn’t gone.  It would never be gone.  But it had begun to index itself, tucked among first grand slams, Straight-A report cards, and a day when he brought a small tank home with the first life that was truly in his hands.

Now Gus faces another decision.  A frog the owner no longer wants is looking for a home, and Comet could use a new friend.  When I ask him about it, I see the struggle etched on his face.  He wants to do for Comet what he did for Star, but to bring another life means invariably handling another death.  It is an experience he is, understandably, reluctant to repeat.

Aren’t we all.

And yet we go on, risking pain because of that most lamentable, essential human condition – the need to love.  It is a terrible and crucial truth.

Pets are a portal to that critical life lesson.  No, not portal.  They are a shovel.  They dig the hole in which greater loss will be cast in.  They dig away at the childish notion of the eternal.  But all that is dug out is not lost.  Instead, it builds a mountain of memories and responsibilities that temper the pain of a moment with the joys and headaches of living life, day-by-day.

Goodbye Star…

…And thank you.

“Young. I feel…Young.”

September 4, 2012

Don’t tell me the guy can’t act

Spock’s body was jettisoned out of the Enterprise toward the pulsating light of a newborn planet.  Kirk stood there on the bridge, arms resting on the railing, his face expressing the impossible contradiction of the profound sadness of loss and the wonder of renewal.

“Are you okay, Jim?  How do you feel?” Bones queried, hand reaching to his old friend’s shoulder.

His voice cracked as he fought back the tears that refused to reveal if they were of pain or joy.  “Young,” he said.   “I feel…Young.”

And this is precisely how I feel each Tuesday after Labor Day as the cocoon of summer splits open and my children remove the “rising” from their grade monikers.  This year, the feeling is particularly strong, as both boys changes are profound.

For Gus, it is the thrill and terror of the big pond that is Middle School.  Last week, when we went successively to Gus’ 6th Grade orientation, then back to his old Elementary School to meet Gunnar’s 2nd Grade teacher, you could not help but be overwhelmed by the sheer difference in size.  And it wasn’t that Gus seemed the guppy in the ocean while at his new digs, but rather when we went back, he seemed more to me like a blonde Godzilla kind enough to avoid stomping on the good citizens of Tokyo.  He had literally outgrown his old school.

Click pic to find out more about the artist. Best representation of Adam West Batman I’ve ever seen

But, of course, the joyous contradictions of adolescence remained.  We spent his final day prepping his new notebooks with printed artwork of his new obsession, Batman, in the varied guises he adores (including the Adam West variant—how awesome is that for an 11-year-old?).  Once we were done decking out the new school supplies, we relaxed with some TV.  He, of course, asked for Batman (Begins), then Batman (Beyond), and then Batman (The Animated Series).

Normally the 11-year-old inside of me would have jumped at any of these options, but the old-grouch version of Dad was out.  I was admittedly having the back-to-school blahs, and was saying “no” to all choices more out of the fact that it was the most convenient outlet for me to be a jerk at the moment.  “I’m tired of watching the same thing a thousand times!” I barked, booting up Netflix on the iPad to see what new options might be around.  Gus groused but acceded, and Kirsten was smart enough to let the grumpy boy (that’d be me) have his way.

As we scrolled through the options, I quickly thumbed past all live action Nickelodeon shows Gus desired.  As I fumbled for any decent choice, under “Family Drama” up popped Friday Night Lights.  I’ve seen the show, and I loved it.  But it deals with some pretty adult topics, not to mention the very real and serious issue of a high school kid becoming a paraplegic.  I wasn’t sure he was ready, but my wife in her wisdom said, “Gunnar’s not home, and I think this is a perfect family show.”

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose

And so the three of us watched the pilot, and discussed everything from serious sports injuries to teen drinking.  And, indeed, it was a great vehicle for us to start addressing some more grown up issues with our all-too-grown up boy.  Perhaps even more than with that farewell to the carpool the next morning, it was this moment that made me realize we had arrived at the next stage in his—and our—lives.

That feeling was cemented as I walked Gunnar to his school all alone this morning.  For him, this was perhaps an even more historic moment.  Glebe Elementary School now, for the first time in his academic life, had only one Nathanson.  And because of the four academic year split between them, Gunnar will never be in the same school with his brother again.  He sill held my hand as we walked to school, but when I told him to sit in front of the line for his class, he exasperatedly told me, “No, Dad, it’s boy-girl-boy-girl” as he squeezed behind one of his female friends.  He had this.  No big blonde brother or old salt-and-pepper Dad required.  This was his school now.

And so, here I sit in a house empty of school kids but surrounded by the memories of what they were.  The signed baseball from The Grays championship year.  Gunnar’s snowman ruler he made me in Kindergarten.  The Sepia-toned vision of my bride before this adventure even began.

And I feel old.

And young.

Ready to rule the school!

Old because I realize so much has past.  But young because the new experiences for our children—first steps, first tooth, first hit, first date (oh, dear lord)—keep revitalizing me.  Indeed, for all the different experiences I have had in my life, nothing is quite akin to parenting that combines that feeling of familiarity with a sense of genuine renewal.  I guess that’s the difference between the “new” of doing it yourself for the first time and the “renew” of seeing it through the eyes of your children.  And it is a most powerful and wondrous difference indeed.

And so to all you parents out there experiencing these swirling emotions with me, I wish you good luck, safe carpooling, and, of course, that you Live Long and Prosper.

How the Tooth Fairy Saved Santa, and Just Maybe the World

July 18, 2012

I made mention of this personal story in my review of Nicholas St. North, but I felt it was worth a full telling.  Hope you enjoy…

“Oh, that’s so gross,” my wife Kirsten said as Gus rooted around in his mouth.  We had been through this before, but, for the first time, Big G had taken it upon himself to tear a loose tooth out.  With one final, gurgling twist, his hand came free and brought with it the bloody treasure.  He, of course, promptly shoved it right in his mother’s face, eliciting  the satisfying reaction of disgust so prized by boys (of any age).

Can’t wait to see what William Joyce has up his sleeve for the Tooth Fairy (coming out in October)

I handed Gus a napkin to start the clotting process along, and clapped him on the back.  I realized at that moment that we were out napkins to hold the tooth in.  “Hold on, sport, I’ll grab a tissue you can save it for the tooth fairy,” I said, dashing into the nearby bathroom.  No luck, not even any TP to use instead.  I immediately sped upstairs to grab one.

When I came back down, Gus was gone, but my wife was sitting there sporting a bemused grin, the tooth resting in her open hand.  “He’s outed the Tooth Fairy,” she said before I could even query about the expression.

This was no small thing for us, as Gus is a boy that has always preferred to live in Willy Wonka’s world of pure imagination.  A good Jewish boy, he was at the forefront of the great 5th Grade debate in school as to the existence of Santa Claus—arguing in the affirmative.  In 4th grade, he did ask Kirsten, our resident gentile, whether Santa is real or make-believe.  Showing her lawyerly prowess even in the realm of parenting, she simply replied, “Gus, Santa is magic.”  For a boy that swings his long sword fighting the forces of Mordor as easily as he swings a baseball bat, he needed no more convincing than that.

The fact that Gus has held onto Santa for so long has caused me some consternation.  Certainly not from a religious point of view.  I’m a pretty secular Jew, though very proud of my heritage and tradition.  Indeed, Kirsten and I agreed the children would be brought up as Jews well before marriage was a certainty.  I did, however, understand that Christmas was an important holiday for her side of the family.  We explained to our boys that they were very lucky in the fact that their Mor-Mor had personal contact with Santa, and so they’d be able to score presents even though they were Jewish.  I’ve been baking (and partially eating) cookies, writing notes, and mixing oatmeal with sprinkles for reindeer food over the past decade to help perpetuate this fantasy.

But as he fought his friends with such ferocious certainty (“How do you know that Santa didn’t just ask your parents to help out?!?”), I was both confused and concerned.  When the inevitable truth comes out, will he be devastated?  Is perpetuating Santa’s myth, especially once we get to double-digits, just lying to our children?  Where do we draw the line between magic and reality?

As I looked at that tooth, I realized that the magic was over.  Indeed, as Kirsten recounted the story of the Tooth Fairy’s demise, science clearly won the day.  Some months back, Gus had found a tooth in Kirsten’s desk drawer.  He suspected it might be his, but wanted to test his hypothesis.  So he put it under his pillow because, of course, any self-respecting Tooth Fairy would know when there’s a tooth under a pillow.  When the tooth remained, it was curtains for the fairy.

With the withering insights of scientific investigation having so easily conquered the Tooth Fairy, Santa and the innocent pleasure of childish things obviously stood no chance.  And, indeed, I mourned the passing of this age where science and fantasy walked side-by-side in a world where innocent wonder prevailed.

Then, something interesting happened.

The time had come to say goodnight, and Gus lumbered over to get the usual battery of questions about his oral hygiene routine.  When flossing was assured, we started off to bed.  He then turned to Kir and I, paused, and said with a grin, “When I wake up, will there be money under my pillow?”  Kir and I laughed.  “Buddy, I’ll just give you the money, how about that?” my wife said.

“No!  I want to wake up and find it under my pillow, Mom,” he replied adamantly.

Kirsten shook her head.  “Why would you want that when you can just have the money now?”

“I just do,” he said, pleadingly.

“I don’t get it,” she replied incredulously.

But, just then, I did get it.  Indeed I got a lot of things.  I got that all my stress about Santa was misplaced, because reality can always bend to the interests of the imaginative mind.  When Gus was battling Orcs in his playroom, he knew it wasn’t real, yet he fought with equal fervor.  So just because the Tooth Fairy ceased to be a reality, that in no way made it less important in his mind.  They myth we had created for him was more important that what was real.  It was a tradition—something there was no need to let go of simply because it was a fiction.

Ah, but dear Tevye, sometimes traditions stay the same even when they change.

I found Gus’ perspective revelatory.  In a world where politics and religion wage an interminable battle over what is “truth” and “fact” the answer may well just be “Does that matter?”  Instead, questions like “Does it make you happy?” and “Does it help others?” may well be more important in the long run.  Indeed, both fact and fiction have distinct, yet vital roles to play in answering those questions.  And they can work together side-by-side, and even trade places from time-to-time.

Gus found a five dollar bill under his pillow the next morning.  Usually it’s two bucks a tooth, but the Tooth Fairy thought he deserved a bonus.