Posts Tagged ‘family’

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

BOOM

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

Wait, no, that’s quite not it.

Oh.

Oh my lord.

I was my Dad.

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

And then…PING!

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

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

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

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

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

And I remember that it always will be.

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The Forever of Opening Day

March 31, 2014

We trundled to school today side-by-side, hands in pockets.  The whipping wind still trying to push us back into our heavy coats and the doldrums of a long winter’s hibernation, but little G and I instead embraced our windbreakers, basking in the high sky and sun that beckoned toward warmer days…

…and baseball.

The two of us were indeed a sight to behold.  Gunnar shrouded his freshly-laundered Bryce Harper jersey with the traditional navy jacket of his Nationals.  He didn’t seem to mind at all that his Dad looked more like he was headed to the Breakfast Club, the shimmering satin blue of the vintage 1987 Mets jacket shimmering garishly in the early spring glare.

And so we smiled and shivered knowing that this illusion of forever, this connective tissue of our family moving into its fourth generation, was our reality once again.  So with our fist bump and kiss, we separated, but this time knowing that our pattern starts once again.  Knowing that when I see him after Math Club, the question “How was your day?” will not be replaced, but merely substituted, as “What was the score?” in our family means pretty much the same thing.  It is the beginning of that maze of conversation that may lead in endless directions: school, girls, politics, friends, girls, climate change, girls—on and on.  But that binding agent, that common ground that grounds our relationship—it always starts “What was the score?”

And that is what is so beautiful about baseball—a game that mimics life.  It’s seemingly endless schedule.  It’s leisurely pace.  It’s a game that’s doesn’t proffer the pompous grandeur of the Super Bowl or the spectacle so insane it can only be termed March Madness .  It’s a game that, if you allow it to, permeates into the fabric of life.  It’s astounding beauty and it’s background noise.  It’s spectacular moments and it’s 6th inning naps.  And it’s there, every day, offering the possibility of something new couched in the comfort of the familiar.

It’s there, of course, until it isn’t.  Until the cruel autumn winds come to sweep the game into slumber once again.

But the winds today are that of spring, and the game once again offers the promise of a forever stretching in both directions.  I’m eight years old sitting in the tattered wood seats at Shea, eating grapes as my Granda Lou correctly predicts the home run Neil Allen will give up to Dave Winfield to lose yet another game, continuing a winless streak for the Nathanson clan in Flushing that stretched from 1977-1983.  Yet at the same time I’m a grandfather, sitting with my two sons and their kids, explaining how their favorite first baseman is good, but there will never be another one quite like Keith Hernandez.

And it all begins again today.

“Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.” – A Bartlett Giamatti, The Green Fields of the Mind

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.

Love in the Age of Cooties

February 13, 2013
The one day I wasn't wearing a Starfleet t-shirt

The one day I wasn’t wearing a Starfleet t-shirt

The man perhaps most responsible for my marriage passed away 19 years ago today. No, not my buddy Ted who introduced me to my future bride and encouraged me to keep the faith even though she had a boyfriend. Ted’s alive and well and his little fella is about to turn 1 (happy birthday, Leo!). For while I may have never met Kir without Ted, I wouldn’t have had a shot in the world at wooing her without my Uncle John.

John Sisti was on the surface an intimidating, hard-scrabble Brooklyn boy. He was a black belt in Judo, and was determined when I came to visit to toughen-up his skinny, nerdy nephew with some rather painful throws, as well as trips to the clay pits to shoot the hell out of some tin cans.

But while I have to admit that I enjoyed the manly-man stuff more than I expected, it was in another area that my Uncle John and I truly bonded: women. That bond was formed out of a simple truth. He knew what he was doing with women, and I had absolutely, positively no clue. My Aunt Libby still likes to tell the tale of our walking their dog Ali as the sun set on their Vermont home. John had one hand on Ali’s leash, and the other firmly on my shoulder. He was teaching me the finer points of learning how to make your move on a girl without being too forward. He groped, we laughed, and he told me that it was all about confidence.

It was later that I really understood what John was really trying to do. He saw a smart, kind, sensitive boy that was so uncomfortable in his own skin that it made his heart break. He wasn’t trying to toughen me up or make me into a ladies man. He was trying to get me to love myself a thousandth as much as he loved me. Without him, I’m not sure I would have found enough self-worth to “make my move” when the right opportunity finally rolled around. For that, I will always be thankful.

Tragically, cancer claimed my Uncle before he had a chance to meet my boys. More unfortunate still because they could really use someone better at this whole “girls” thing than their Dad is. Because every time I think to give them advice, the 13-yearl-old in his room listening to the LP of the Star Trek II soundtrack pops up and says, “Uh, you’re giving them advice about girls?” I tend to get a little quiet after that guy shows up.

Even Chuck had more game than I did.

Even Chuck had more game than I did.

And so I look on in wonder as my big guy, the smart, baseball-loving kid who starts each morning watching an episode of Star Trek Deep Space Nine calmly tells me that he asked a girl to the Valentine’s dance…and she said yes! And the very next day, I pick up my little guy at school, this guy who plays in chess tournaments and is as happy diving into his math workbook as he is a pool. Suddenly, a little red-headed girl straight out of Peanuts scuttled up purposefully, looked my fella right in the eye, and said, “Gunnar, why do you have a crush on me?” He flashed those teeth so desperate for braces, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “You’re nice, so I just do!”

I’m still a bit befuddled by the fact that my two boys have already had more success with women than I had in my first 20 years of life. But, as I’ve thought about it, the one major difference that I’ve found between these two guys and me at their age is that, at no time, do they seem to hide who they are. They may not always be satisfied, and sometimes it exposes them to painful ridicule, but both these guys are who they are, and they’re okay with what they see in the mirror. And so as others shy away from the risk of rejection or ridicule, my guys are willing to put themselves out there.

It’s not confidence. I’ve seen the kids that kind of breeze through life and feel like they can do no wrong. It’s not even an inner conceit; that inner sense of self. It’s something different, something I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s an understanding of who they are, and a willingness to be that—openly, unreservedly—and let the chips fall where they may.

I know the toughest stretch—the teenage years—are still ahead. And perhaps this sense of self will crack under the relentless peer pressure of adolescence. But as my boys get ready for this Valentine’s Day, I can’t help but marvel at how right my Uncle John was about how an ounce of self-worth can make all the difference in the world.

And, most importantly, the girls dig it.