Posts Tagged ‘kids’

Night at the Museum

December 2, 2016

night-at-the-museum

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

It was an amazing experience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” he deadpanned.

He could not have been more spot on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next on this thread, a modest proposal.

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15 Minutes and a Big Bag of Crap

September 30, 2015

I’m extremely proud of my big fella for many reasons, but for today, let’s talk baseball (shocker, I know).

That District title t-shirt has gotten a LOT of wear

That District t-shirt has gotten a LOT of wear

He’s used his experiences of just missing making the team not as excuse, but as motivation to make himself a better ballplayer.  This culminated in his making his first “district team” outright over the past summer and having a bang-up season with the bat, behind the plate, and on the mound.

Okay, that was just a little parental chest-puffing, as it’s what happened this fall that really got my attention.

As 9th Grade began, he was again selected to be on the “A” squad for the 14u travel team.  He’s made it—he’s where he has always wanted to be.  But then another opportunity presented itself, as his high-school team has a fall squad as well.  Very few kids who weren’t on the spring JV or Varsity squads ever play on this team.  Indeed, the coach of the team when he invited Gus to work out with them was very careful to state that there was likely not going to be room for him.

Given the amount of baseball rejection endured over the years, including not making the JV team when he tried out last spring, Gus could have easily—and justifiably—just said that he’s going to play plenty of baseball with his other team, and that with adjusting to being in High School, he’d just stand content on where he is.  Indeed, as a concerned parent not wanting him to overwhelm himself, I myself was leaning in that direction.

Sorry Nats fans (not sorry).

Sorry Nats fans (not sorry).

Not only did he accept the invitation to work out with the High School team, but he chose to miss the Mets-Nationals Labor Day game (you know, back when the Nationals were in a pennant race?  LET’S GO METS! Sorry can’t help myself) in order not to miss a single practice, even though he was told that just making one of the three would be sufficient.

In the end, he was indeed invited to play with the team, and is working his keester off to balance his academic demands while playing baseball six days a week.

And the point of all this is?

Gus sucks at catching pop flies.

[Insert sound of record scratching here]

I know, after heaping on all that praise, why am I focusing on what he struggles at?  Am I that kind of coach and father that is simply never satisfied and always picks on the weaknesses?

I really hope not.

But, ever since having his finger sliced open by the stitches of a ball on a pop fly back in 4th Grade (I know!  What are the chances? He needed four stitches), Gus has struggled with infield fly balls.  And whether it’s learning how to lay off a high fastball, stay in front of a sharply hit grounder, or, yes, get the right break on a pop fly, every single ballplayer, no matter how accomplished, has weaknesses in their game.  And practice is the time to focus in on those weaknesses.

But what kind of practice?

Indeed, after Gus had a fantastic game with his “A” squad a couple of Saturdays back, going 3-3 and having a great defensive day behind the plate, he still missed a foul pop fly at first base.  His coach complemented his overall game, and noted that his struggles with popups made him “look like a bad player” even though it is clear he is a very good one.

That’s when his coach sent him this video, one I think every player and parent should watch:

This video speaks to an essential truth, it is very difficult to become a better ballplayer just practicing those couple of days a week that even most travel teams do.  For my 11u team, it is especially difficult, as we’re limited to only one practice per week in the fall.

But this shouldn’t apply to my big boy, right?  I mean, he’s practicing or playing five or six days a week.  So he should be covered, right?

Again I say, not practice, but what kind of practice?

The one issue that video didn’t cover, and I think a crucial one, is that when teams come together to practice, it is so they can get better as a team.  In 90 minutes with a dozen or more kids, you simply don’t have the time to break down swings, do detailed mechanical analysis on fielding, or correct every single player’s release point on the mound.  Getting leads, hitting cutoff men, defending the bunt, situational hitting—all those and many more take priority over the individual—they have to, because it is a team sport.

So while a player will get some individual instruction during a practice, the only way to really work on getting better is to find time outside of the team practice to focus on the areas in need of improvement.

Now you might be saying, “But my kid spends every waking moment in the back yard practicing.  It’s getting him to crack a book that’s the problem!”

Again I’ll say…

What kind of practice?

Players of all stripes, but I’ve found this to be true especially of the talented players, tend to shy from working on the areas where they are weak.  It’s natural to want to improve on strengths, so good hitters love to swing and good fielders love to play catch.  To my big boy’s credit we were out last week for a full hour taking popup after popup, and he’s yet to miss one in a game after that.

Why is my wife the greatest woman in the world?  Exhibit A

Why is my wife the greatest woman in the world? Exhibit A

But for others, the myriad responsibilities and opportunities of modern youth call them away from the diamond or even back yard.  Other sports, homework, and, of course, those rectangular black holes of time and space often win out for right or for wrong.

While I agree to a certain extent with Coach Antonelli’s lament regarding the rigid overscheduling that often besets modern kids, these are the times in which we live.  So rather than fight the tide, I am trying a new system where I am giving my players a discrete, 15 minute task every day we’re away from the field.

To me, doing practice outside the team is about trying to build a routine—something that can help kids gain self-discipline and organization skills.  Yes, it helps them become better ballplayers, but it really plays into my mantra as a coach to try and make youth baseball about something that transcends the game itself.

Here is my Arlington Aces Fall 2015 Practice Chart.  It focuses each day on a different aspect of the game; including the mental and physical conditioning they’ll need to step up even more during the winter.  While I have no doubt that many coaches may have different—and perhaps better—ideas for their players, I believe this to be a solid template of drills designed to keep kids motivated but not overwhelmed.

Now, as to that motivation, I know that kids are also, well, kids, and I know that even the baseball-loving guy or gal might submit to the siren song of the boob tube.  But there’s another thing I know kids like.

Crap.

They like to say the word because it’s rude without being profane.  And despite all those electronics, a piece of candy or a little squirt gun is still a huge draw.

A world of pure imagination.

A world of pure imagination.

And so I have created CoachN’s Big Bag of Crap (patent pending), filled with candy, chips, and cheap little toys I get on clearance.  In order to earn a pull from the magic bag, they need to do one of three things:

1) Turn in their weekly practice sheets with each day signed off by their parents;

2) Win our weekly “Grinder of the Week” t-shirt—an award given to four players who showed exemplary grit and determination irrespective of statistics;

3) Have a perfect team warmup.  We have a relay play they must do 10 times perfectly.

I have had some issues with kids focused more on the BoC rather than the practice, it is easy to turn the conversation back to the matter at hand by simply saying, “If you’re talking about the bag, you’re not getting anything from the bag.”  And the resounding “BAG-OF-CRAP” chants that delight the kids and make parents ever-so-slightly uncomfortable is worth the fairly insubstantial investment to stock it.

I hate you.  No, I love you.

I hate you. No, I love you.

So whether it is for love of the game, or love of crap, finding the ways to get kids thinking about practice as more than just showing up to a field will help them mature both as players, and as people.

And, yes, I do filch a treat now and again.

Stupid delicious Swedish Fish.

Coach’s Corner: The Post-Game Chat

October 30, 2013

Grays HuddleIt’s not only players that need to learn from their swings-and-misses, but the coaches, too.  So I wanted to note an experience from this past season that started off pretty poorly, but evolved into something I think really helped reinforce one of the core life-lessons that sports can teach kids: teamwork.

Over seasons past, if there’s one thing I’ve learned is that when the game is over, parents really want to get their kids out of there.  I get it, lots to do—homework, shower, food, bed, other sports, sleepovers, or maybe the parent actually has something she/he would like to do that doesn’t involve their children (gasp!).  My parents have been insanely patient for years as I do my “On The Line!” routine after most games, and I wouldn’t want to press my luck any longer.

So I save our talk about the game we played for the next practice.  After warmups, we all gather, take a baseball knee, and take stock of our previous effort.  I’ve played on teams where this conversation was all one-sided, as the coaches went-on-and-on about either what we did right, or more often, what we did wrong.  Frankly I never felt particularly inspired after those conversations.

So instead, this season, I’ve tried to turn the conversation over more to the players.  And so both for my 9-year-olds and my 12-year-olds, I asked them to each tell me one thing we could improve on, and one thing we did really well.  I thought it was the perfect way to get the kids really thinking about the game, and feel like they are having a conversation, not just being spoken at by grownups.

Well, in both first attempts, these conversations were spectacular failures.  As I went around, players were reluctant to say anything bad at all, and when they said something good, it was something generic like “Uh, I thought we hit pretty well.”  The sound of crickets chirping (which were often audible during the many awkward silences) was probably more inspiring than what was being said.  It also just took WAY too long to get through and the boys were itching to just stop talking and play baseball.

With that titanic whiff, I knew that I needed to adjust my swing.  So at the next practice for my little guys, we all took a knee and I said, “Let’s just talk about the good things.  Everyone tell me what we did well.”  This time, there was more conversation, “I got that great hit!”  “I threw a no-hit inning!”  “I made that out at shortstop!”  Without exception, each and every statement was self-referential.  Certainly not surprising, but it started to lapse into something closer to a competition for who did the most to help the team.  Not where I was looking to go.  So a little more contact this time, but definitely a foul ball.

When the practice for my big fellas came ‘round and we started our talk, I adjusted again.  “I want everyone to tell me one good thing you saw another player do in our last game,” I asked.  At first, I could see the look of shock on their face, as if I had sat them down on a baseball field and asked them a trigonometry question.  The hypnotic song of the cricket was just gaining steam when one of my players peeped:

“Uh, I thought we hit pretty well.”

It looked like Strike Three for CoachN, but right after that, another player noted the really great double that Kevin hit.  Then a comment about a shutout inning for Evan, and another about Ian’s big play at 3rd.  The conversation finally started to flow, and, by the end, we had spent 15 minutes going over just about every big play in the game.  And with each positive comment, you could see not only see the look of satisfaction of the player getting called out, but how good the player that was making the compliment felt about doing it.  Suddenly, everyone wanted to say something nice about another guy, because it made them feel good, too.

I was curious to see whether this would translate to my younger players, and, sure enough, the same thing happened.  And the next week, when they were really in the rhythm of it, you could tell that they prided themselves on being able to remember key plays others made.  So when someone made the more general platitude, “I think we all really played good defense,” it meant so much more given the context of our conversation than it did when it was just “Good Thing/Bad Thing.”

The only other adjustments I’ve made to the post-game chat now is that I call for the “5 Top Things” as sometimes the boys get so into it that it bleeds into our practice time.  I’ve also put my coaches in “Devil’s Advocate” position, as we point out during the cavalcade of positivity some of the things that we can do to get even more awesome than we were the game before.  And, of course, after everyone talks, if a kid who made an play we didn’t talk about is just dying to mention it, well, sometimes you just gotta strut…

In sports, competition is so ingrained that I often think in competitive terms even with team-building efforts.  In our warmups, we split the kids into two groups and have them compete for how many grounders with good throws they can field in a row.  Then there are foul-ball hitting contests (something I’ll talk about in another post) where additional points are awarded to the team who hit the most foul balls with two strikes on them.  But here, in this case, this is a team exercise which is really an “everyone wins” experience where the win comes from making someone else feel good.

As any coach will tell you, it’s worth all those whiffs when you walk into that one good home run.  And this one, to my mind, is a no-doubter.

Coach’s Corner: Teaching Your Players to Whiff

October 24, 2013

“A great hitter makes an out 70% of the time.”

That’s the old cliché that supposedly “says it all” about baseball.  And there is a lot of value in it.  It shows the difficulty of the game (I still contend that the single hardest thing to do in all of sports is to strike a pitched baseball), and the value in learning to deal with failure—or more accurately to help redefine what success is.

Will never forget his "Taming the Monster" in Game 3

Will never forget his “Taming the Monster” in Game 3

That said, there was a wrinkle on this old piece of wisdom that helped me look a bit differently not only at helping kids hit, but on my personal style as coach.  For those that know me, it will come as no surprise that this sage advice came from the mouth of a New York Met.  Bobby Ojeda (aka Bobby O), a 1986 hero and current analyst for the Mets’ SNY network, was examining the approach of Lucas Duda, a burly power hitter mired in yet another slump.  He felt that Duda was losing his aggressiveness and was spending too much time trying to work the count.

That kind of “Baseball 101” commentary isn’t going to win any Emmys, but what he said next was somewhat revelatory for me.  “He needs to swing-and-miss more,” Ojeda said.  “Because a swing-and-a-miss is not a bad thing.  A batter learns from it. He gets a sense of what the pitcher is trying to do to him, and where his timing is.  Indeed, the worst thing a batter can do for his timing is sit and look at a bunch of pitches.

Scorecard KNow, I have stolen a fantastic piece of advice from one of my fellow coaches, whom I heard in a game say to a batter, “The first two strikes are free.”  He meant that a batter shouldn’t get down on himself with a swing-and-a-miss, or a taken strike on the first two.  I’ve spun his advice a bit differently, and told my batters that, “The first two belong to you.”  Same basic idea, but I feel that if the batter feels like for the first two strikes, it is he who is in control of the at bat, not the pitcher, it puts her/him in a better mental position.  And as we know from former Mets manager Yogi Berra, “Ninety percent of the game is half-mental.”

But never in my almost 40 years of baseball did it ever occur to me that swinging and missing might actually be a good thing.  But not only does this make a sense from a baseball perspective, it is a fabulous life lesson for young players.  Whether it is developing a successful swing or successful vaccine, ultimate success is grown from a “test-adjust-test again” method.  So a swing-and-a-miss is not a failure, it is an attempt at success that, while not successful that time, can be learned from, refined, and put to better use.

Yogi always looked best in the blue and orange

Yogi always looked best in the blue and orange

I’ve put this philosophy to work already with my little guys with some really good initial success, as one of our issues in this early kid-pitch phase has been watching third strikes go by.  It’s natural in our league, for when you get to ball four, instead of a walk you get the coach to come in and pitch to you, which is a comforting and usually less difficult task.  So in practice, I developed a “foul ball” drill where you were ALWAYS batting with two strikes, and the goal was to actually foul the ball off, not to put it fair.  I did my best to throw pitches inside and outside so they’d learn to swing at anything close and how to pull the ball foul on inside pitches and slap them the other way on the outside ones.  I love to the kids about how much I LOVE foul balls, as it’s the kind of counter-intuitive reasoning that makes baseball such a fantastic teaching tool.

But, sometimes, my pitches were WAY out of the zone.  And sometimes they’d swing at those, too.  But rather than say, “Ooh…don’t swing at those,” as is my instinct, I instead said, “Great, you learned something with that swing, didn’t you?  Great job, now you know.”  I’ve taken that philosophy into the games as well, cheering for “GWs” or “Good Whiffs.”  For even on a strikeout, there was something learned for the next at bat.

Now, there’s a whiff when your swinging, and a whiff when you’re coaching.  I’ve had more than a few of those.  Next I’ll give you an example and how I took this philosophy to turn an uncomfortable conversation into a home run for teamwork.

The Giving Field

May 15, 2013

As I stood out over my lunch hour looking at that cone-shaped stretch of muck, I might have just as well been looking in the mirror.

I wondered until that moment why when so many other coaches and parents cursed and/or ran from the thankless, back-rending effort of tending to a baseball field—especially when the county in its infinite wisdom has used red Georgia clay as the base on so many of our diamonds—I have leaped at the opportunity.  Indeed, I’ve dirtied the back of my formerly pristine Highlander Hybrid with such an assortment of gardening equipment that when I open the back, it puffs forth a cloud of dust Pig Pen would be proud of.

Now I understand.  It’s because the field and I are the same.

First off, we’re both introverts.  Now, when I say introvert, I know that brings immediately to mind the sullen stranger hiding at the corner at the party, wallowing in the misery of being in such proximity to actual socializing.  Introverts close the door and bury their heads in books or video games, preferring those worlds to the painful reality of human interaction.  Introverts don’t do this:

Thanks to TJ Arrowsmith

Thanks to TJ Arrowsmith

But of course they do.  For introversion or extroversion is not about what you do.  It’s about how you feel when you’re doing it.  An extrovert has a natural affinity for being around others.  Indeed, they derive energy from social interaction and seek it out.  I see it at my local school every day, watching as parents easily interact with others and seek out conversations; lingering around well after the kiddies have gotten their high-fives or hugs and scurry off to class.

We introverts can have that same conversation, the same smiles, and derive the same enjoyment out of social interactions.  The difference is that for us, it’s work.  Not “bad work” mind you, but work nonetheless.  It doesn’t come naturally for us, and therefore it drains our batteries rather than restoring them.  Being social is putting on the tux, while solitude is a sweatshirt and well-worn pair of jeans.

And that’s just where the field and I were, enjoying the mutual aloneness where we spend most of our time, but at the same time preparing ourselves for when the time comes for our children to come again and play.  All we want is to provide for them; to bring them unbridled joy in a couch of safety for a couple of hours.  Then, off they’ll go happily slurping their juice boxes.  And we’re a little more worn for the experience, but satisfied, too, because we know we were a part of bringing that delight despite the muddy footprints and aching muscles stamped upon us.

We need each other, and so I drag my oversized rake through its clotted soil, hunting for drier patches in which to fill holes and even out areas around the bases and plate made more worn by the nature of the game.  Each deeply imbedded footstep I erase feels like a bad hop avoided, like another chance for a child to play.  And when an hour-and-a-half later I look back upon the field, sweatshirt soaked and jeans caked with a plaster of orange earth, I felt as renewed as my partner looked.  Indeed, it felt almost empathic, as if I had taken its bumps and bruises into my aching, middle-aged bones to serve a greater good.

How many workouts can boast that kind of psychic benefit?  Eat your heart out, Tony Horton.

After I had taped-up a few signs around begging, “PLEASE do stay off the dirt infield and allow it to dry for games tonight,” the field and I parted ways as I went home to work, parent, cook, and get then get ready for the game.  I returned with both boys in tow.  As they munched on soy “chick’n” strips and then began to warm up in the outfield, I took out my field drag (yes, I’ve got one of those, too) and began to smooth out the surface.

And it was perfect.  Just soft enough not to be dusty, but it had dried enough to mask my footsteps as I towed my device around the field.  As I began my second pass, I quickly checked my watch to see if I was going to have enough time to really get my geek on.  In the trunk I had a bag of chalk, my cheap but functional liner, and my own clever creation, two planks of 1 ½ x 3 foot pieces of Styrofoam I sawed out from a larger piece left in our shed by the handyman, “because who knows when you might need it?”  Light, mobile, and when you put them together, it makes half the size of an official batter’s box.

And there was a sound of thunder.

Drop.  Drop.  Drop.

Drizzle.

Rain.

Pour.

Teem.

In ten short minutes, my field was a lake.  Streams of water rand through it, crying those saddest of words:

No Game Today.

As the sun flickered forth, I looked out at my partner in exasperation, and began to thumb an email to the team telling them not to bother coming out.  But at my feet was the heavy black bucket where I kept my field measuring equipment, including a long length of heavy string.

And the field spoke to me, saying, “There’s more to a tree than just its leaves.”  I looked and saw that the outfield was wet, but not a swamp.  Instead of the “forget it” email, I instead said, “No game, but we’ll be out here for a bit if you’d like to come down.”

I grabbed that string and made a semicircular “fence” in the outfield.  Then I grabbed my plastic plate and bucket of whiffle balls and spent the next hour playing Home Run Derby with 10 eager boys.  We made the rules on the fly, the kids shagged the balls, argued about the foul line, and swung for the fences.  We high-fived, slurped juice boxes, and the kids stole my hat and made me chase them.  A sip of lemonade out of some very wet lemons.

As the rest of the gang had cleared out I began to walk over to clean things up.  I was struck that from my angle, the string had made the field smile. We had, together and alone, brought another kernel of joy to our little corner of the world.

And we were happy.

“Hi Mom!”

April 29, 2013

It was majestic.  A towering shot to dead left field that cleared the fence by a good 15 feet.  It was my big fella’s first ever over-the-fence home run, and it came at a moment that might have been even more important an nerve-wracking than in a game.  He did it at tryouts for the county all-star team (a team he had tried out for the past two years, made the first cut, but didn’t quite get all the way there).

The coach boomed “Going, Going…Gone!” as the ball sailed into the brush behind the wall.  My wife, a bit perplexed as to the social dynamics of the moment, inquired to our friends as to whether she was allowed to cheer at a tryout.  I believe one of my old co-coaches said something like “Damn straight!” as he popped off the stands to chase down the ball (which now sits proudly on Gus’s bookshelf).

Indeed, there was only one small fissure in this perfect gem of a moment.

I wasn’t there.

Thousands upon thousands of pitches thrown.  Countless hours in the yard, at the field.  I have been there for almost every single baseball moment in this boy’s life since he first toddled his way toward a plate with a big foam BlastBall! bat.  And yet here’s how this moment of triumph looked from my perspective:

Home Run Text

When I saw the text, after the flash of fatherly pride gave way to sullen selfishness, I immediately remembered that this moment had already been masterfully captured:

Well, sometimes you just gotta laugh. Hopefully it’s the first of many.

My Other Son

April 26, 2013

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

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

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

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

…and press the send button.

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

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

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

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

Dear Mr. Nathanson,

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

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

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

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

Golem: The Hero Project

March 6, 2013

You know what they say about real estate: location, location, location.

Last year's fun, tucked away in a nice quiet corner.

Last year’s fun, tucked away in a nice quiet corner.

I guess I should have been excited about being given one of the prime spots at my little guy’s elementary school’s Multicultural Night.  We were right at the top of the stairs, impossible to miss—Israel front-and-center.  After brushing away the urge to suddenly discover my Slovenian heritage, I began setup for my second year representing the Jewish State.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I absolutely love the fact that the biggest school event of the year is one that celebrates the diverse cultural backgrounds of the school students, parents, and teachers.  The kids are given passports, and run around the school to different tables representing different countries.  When they have stopped in and participated in whatever that country has to offer, they get the requisite stamp on their passport.

I think the twist would have given me away

I think the twist might have given me away

It’s just that I was absolutely exhausted by the worry and work of tending to my big guy’s concussion recovery (he’s doing much better now, by the way).  Just putting things together and manning the table was somewhat daunting at the moment.  Now add to that a location that guaranteed the deluge of smart, inquisitive, and energetic K-5 kids and I was hitting myself for not bringing along that bottle of Plymouth to go along with the Play-Doh.

I remember being really spent after my maiden voyage at the Israel table.  Last year’s theme was holidays, and, as you might remember, we took advantage of the proximity to Purim to do Haman Hangman and teach kids about the “Hebrew Halloween.”  Trying to manage that again, but this time at the center of the storm, was positively daunting.

Great moment, but not much competition for Hansel and Gretel

This year, the theme was folklore and fairytales.  This is something that gave me and the other Israel table parents some consternation.  Israel itself is a young country, so the amount of folklore developed since 1948 is fairly small.  One could point to the bible itself as Israeli folklore (and, some might argue, fairytales), but that seemed out-of-sync with the vibe of what they were looking for.

Finally, we decided that there was such a rich folklore tradition within the Jewish diaspora experience that it was just too good to pass up.  It also gave the opportunity to teach kids about the concept of a people without a nation.  And, as a nerd, there was really only one story choice:

Golem.

For those unfamiliar with the story, here’s my excerpt from the activity sheet I put together.

Fantastic book to introduce kids to Golem. Click on pic to find out more.

Fantastic book to introduce kids to Golem. Click on pic to find out more.

Legend has it that in 16th-century Prague, Czechoslovakia, the Israelites were being threatened because a lie was spread that Jews were kidnapping Christian children. As a mob gathered to attack the Jews, the head Rabbi of Prague turned to a passage in the Torah that referred to an “unformed substance” or Golem (GOH-ləm).  Through a mastery of Jewish mysticism, the Rabbi formed a mound of clay into a large human-like shape.  Finally he inserted a parchment with the most sacred Jewish prayer, the Shema, and the Golem came to life.

Unharmed by human weapons, and growing larger and more powerful by drawing strength from the earth itself, Golem was a determined protector of the Children of Israel.  But Golem became so powerful that even the Jews themselves started to become fearful.  Eventually, the Rabbi would use his powers to return Golem to the earth, even though he came to treasure his life as much as any human being did.

Golem SwampThingCan you see why a geeky guy like me loves this story so much?  It’s essentially Frankenstein meets Superman.  Indeed, Golem has been featured in comic books from Swamp Thing to The Hulk, and in pop-culture hotspots from The Simpsons to the Pulitzer Prize-winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Resistance was futile.

Given Golem was formed from a mound of clay, it leant to a great activity for the kids—Build Your Own Golem.  Armed with a rainbow of Play-Doh tubs and paper plates, the kids molded their own heroes and brought them to me for me to mark with their name and their Golem’s name in Hebrew (or the best approximation my 6th grade Hebrew School training could approximate).  As the first little girl brought me her fire-breathing butterfly, I found that I needed to kneel down to more comfortably write on her plate.  I did not get up again for two-and-a-half hours.

Location, location, location.

knee_padsAnd while my hamstrings are still recovering some two weeks later, I have to say I am so very glad I didn’t let my fatigue (and self-pity) get in the way.  I wish we had been a little less crazed, as we weren’t actually able to do the photos and videos of the kids as I had hoped.  But both their creations and their answers to my questions were absolutely fascinating.

As you might expect, there were plenty of the “boys will be boys” crowd that just wanted to talk about the cool ways that their Golem could destroy things.  When I noted the fact that those powers could be used just as easily for evil as for good, most responded, “Well they just use it to kill the bad guys!”  When I challenged them to think about one way they could use their power to do something other than to destroy, I got a lot of quizzical looks and “Can you just give me my stamp now, please?” But I also got a lot of good thinking.  Lightning bolts that could light lightbulbs and controlled storms that could spin wind turbines, to name a couple.

And then there were the “outside the box” notions of heroism.  A winged Pegasus that spread friendship with a flap.  A tree of life that provided food for the hungry.  My favorite was a little girl with a pretty pink Golem.  When I asked what powers her hero had, she shrugged her shoulders shyly.  Her Dad wrapped his muscular arm around her shoulders and urged her to answer.  “Is your Daddy your hero?” I asked.  She grinned and nodded her head, looking up at him for approval.  “And what makes him your hero?” I continued.  She pondered for a moment, and squeaked, “He loves me.”  This time, it was my turn to grin.  “Love, my grandmother always said, is the greatest power of them all.”  We named her Golem Ahav—love in Hebrew.

folding chairWhether you go with Golem or just a “build your own Super Hero” project, I cannot recommend this activity enough.  I would have loved to have done this in a classroom environment where the kids get to build, discuss, and share their designs, and more importantly, their thoughts on heroism with each other.

Just make sure you’ve got a chair.

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.

Backyard Birthdays Hits the Road: Gunnar Golf!

October 11, 2012

Heaven lies on a paper plate

Okay, I admit it, I’m firmly planted in the OCD department about a few things.  Pizza, for example, is a bit of an obsession.  To me, only New York Pizza is pizza. When we went up to Citi Field to see the Mets as part of our follow the Mets on July 4th tradition, I discovered my kindred (though somewhat more potty-mouthed) spirit, Collin Hagendorf of the Slice Harvester blog.  He led us to New York Pizza Suprema right across the street from MSG.  And to quote one of my pop-icon heroes, Special Agent Dale Cooper, New York Pizza Suprema must be where pies go when they die.

I guess I love good pizza so much because, for me, a real slice is a Ratatouille moment.  When the crust has that soft, almost melty (I know that’s not a word, but it’s the best way of describing the sensation) inner layer, but that crisp snap at the bottom; when the cheese has that perfect light sheen of oil, and the cheese achieves that impossible balance between melting in your mouth yet still providing a springy chew; when the sauce is perfectly wed with a hint of sweetness and garlic—I’m instantly eight years old again, sitting at Angelo’s pizza in Queens, with my father, step-mother, sister, and step sisters, my Batman sneaker-clad feet dangling from my chair above the floor, melting in my chair as the pizza melts in my mouth.

Washington Deli’s selection. Highly recommend the basil slice, and they even have a solid Vegan slice!

So when pretender pizza comes rolling around, not only the taste, but even the look…even the smell just feels like an insult to what pizza is supposed to be.  It’s why I was so delighted that Nationals Park decided last year to bring in Flippin’ Pizza, a reasonable approximation to a New York slice—the perfect ballpark food for this vegetarian.  And, other than saying goodbye to the amazing people I worked with at the Union of Concerned Scientists, the hardest thing about leaving was that I would no longer be just two blocks away from Washington Deli, the best New York slice I’ve had outside of NYC itself (the only ones who really get the crust right!).

I know what you’re saying.  “Uh, Scott?  Wasn’t this post supposed to be about something called Gunnar Golf?”  Well, like I said, OCD.  But I’m getting there.

Like pizza, one of my most keen early childhood memories is of golf.  But not just any golf.  About a half-hour’s drive away from my first Atlanta home was a miniature golf course called Sir Goony Golf.  Now long gone (though it looks like there’s one still standing in Lake George, NY), I remember driving down Roswell Road, seeing the trademark red roof of Pizza Hut (blech!) on the left, and knowing that just one light later, over the horizon, would pop the massive yellow Tyrannosaurus Rex using its stubby little arm to bounce a plywood caveman up and down like a yo-yo.

Iconic

From hole number one, when you faced down Humpty Dumpty sitting on that big ole’ wall, you knew you were in for a challenge.  An ostrich dipped its beak into a hole.  An alligator with glowing eyes peeped its fanged mouth open just long enough to allow a ball to pass.  A castle’s door teased and blocked.  And, of course, there was that T-Rex.  Challenging?  Yes.  But, because it was “Goony” there was that sense of imagination, of silliness, of plain, simple, fun that couldn’t be beat.  Seeing grown ups, from my Mom and Step-Dad, to my Grandma and Grandpa who were real golfers hem-and-haw over just missing the Kangaroo’s pouch made the whole experience truly fantastic, with the emphasis on “fantasy.”  And when we went to visit Grandma Helen and Grandpa Nat down in Florida, and learned that there was a Goony Golf with three different courses, including a massive Purple People Eater whose black, bumpy tongue revolved around to tip balls in or drive them out?  Let’s just say that I was eying the haunted house hole to see if it had indoor plumbing.

Oooh, on this hole, they have TWO sticks! How wildly creative!

In some sense, I think this is why I really don’t like normal golf.  But I do understand its appeal–nice walk, fun cars, and cocktails while “sporting.”  What I really, really cannot stand is that miniature golf impostor…putt-putt.  Yes, some of you may think that putt-putt and miniature golf are the same thing.  Indeed, many putt-putt courses mask themselves in the name miniature golf the same way Pizza Hut uses the word “pizza.”  But while miniature golf is an invitation to a world where creatures monstrous and mythic work to block your every path, putt-putt puts a stick in the way of the hole.

So, much as my excess of snobbery runs toward poor pizza, so too does my nose lift upward at putt-putt courses.  To me, they symbolize the laziness that beset family entertainment when video games first really hit in the 1980s.  My beloved Goony Golf and its T-Rex became extinct, and instead my friends were having their birthday parties at Putt-Putt Palace, a large arcade with a flat, listless, lazily constructed course attached as an afterthought.  I mean, if you can play pretend inside a TV screen, why bother with the real thing, right?

Camelot Mini-Golf instead of Disneyland? Oh yes, we did.

Fortunately, real miniature golf is not dead.  Indeed, Kir, the boys, and I have been from Stony Brook, NY to Anaheim CA and many points in-between in the hunt for the most challenging, most goony golfing in the land.  Unfortunately, however, none of those courses are in the Washington, DC area.  Closest to us is the county-run Upton Hill Park, a pretty-decent putt-putt course as the well-manicured grounds do have some passably clever holes, including one huge hill the kids love to run down (and all parents therefore fear).  And when Gunnar, who has started doing real mother/son golf lessons (which is awesome) absolutely begged me to have a mini-golf party, Upton Hill was really the only option that we could reasonably ask guests to come to.

This, of course, brings me to OCD, Mk. 3—the birthday party.  I won’t go into details here, but for those of you who haven’t been following my blog for very long, I hold a very special place for the birthday party as a cornerstone of childhood memory.  It is a wonderful opportunity to make kids feel special and also, in my typical SHYB fashion, provide opportunities to teach fundamental teamwork and conflict partnership skills.  Just use the search function on my home page and type in the word “birthday” and you’ll get a flavor about how I’ve tackled everything from Middle Earth to the Olympiad in our back yard.

So I was, of course (no pun intended) unwilling to simply sit back and allow Gunnar’s party to simply be a walk around some passable putt-putt holes.  At first, I envisioned bringing Halloween props and doctoring up each hole so it more closely resembled a real mini-golf course.  But as obsessive as I am about these things, that seemed a bit too high maintenance even for me.

Now THAT’S a Clown’s Mouth!

Then, I remembered my experience at a very clever indoor mini-golf course in Atlanta, Monster Mini Golf.  In one particular hole, at the beginning, there was a spinner.  When you spun, whatever you landed on, you had to putt that way.  Among the options were putting with your eyes closed, and having someone lie down on the course to make themselves an obstacle.  And then it dawned on me—if you can’t make the course itself goony, change they way you play the course so it’s creative and silly.  And so, Gunnar Golf! (patent pending) was born.

The Gunnar Golf Cup!

You’ll find here the Gunnar Golf! setup, and the many games I came up with, from blindfold putting to using your club like a pool cue to the player favorite, using the “crazy ball” which was an Unputtaball, a weighted golf ball that would turn in random directions upon hitting it.  One thing I did which really helped keep things competitive, but friendly was have two tiers of competition.  The 5 lowest individual scores would qualify for a chance to go to an individual playoff to win the Gunnar Golf! Cup, each group was also a team.  The top team would get a chance to pick their prizes first at the end, so the members of each group were actually rooting for each other and helping each other out.  It really helped keep the teasing and bragging to a minimum, which I think helped provide a nice balance between individual achievement and teamwork that I always like to have as a party base.

Upon seeing the list, both my wife and my Mother-in-Law felt that playing Gunnar Golf! every hole would take too long.  I agreed, and we did it every third hole.  That allowed us to stagger our starting hole (Group 1 started at hole 1, Group 2 at hole 2, etc.) and keep the action going.  Even then, we didn’t get through a full 18 holes within our two hour play/eat cake window.  So if something like this seems interesting to you, think to either simplify the game play, or allow yourself a little extra time.

The kids’ reactions to Gunnar Golf! were very interesting.  Most really enjoyed it, but some said they like regular golf better.  When I asked why, it wasn’t that the challenges weren’t fun, but that playing the regular way was easier.  Unlike when you are creating a world (and rules) from scratch in your backyard, when you do an on-site party like this and twist conventional rules, the kids know that there is another way to play it, so that all-important suspension of disbelief is a bit harder to accomplish for some.

$4 of fun

That said, the kids thought the Unputtaball was extremely cool.  Frankly, you could just bring one of those and have a random draw on who has to play with that, and I think you’d have a hit.  But what I also found interesting is that the kids really gravitated to the mathematics aspects of the game.  Just the concept that you could do better than a hole in one, and the concept of that mathematical impossibility, that you could get a hole in negative numbers, was very intriguing to them.  And that really helped in one case, when one player who had one of the higher scores was the first to get a hole in -2.  Even though he struggled elsewhere, he had bragging rights over that (and used it!).

The other popular mathematical concept was the Math Ball holes.  Not only did the kids enjoy using their noodle trying to figure out the math problem, but because they got to do it before or after the hole, they knew that it was separate from playing the hole itself.  It combined the mental and physical by keeping them separate.  It really intrigues me to think about the possibilities of combining physical activities with mental exercises to help make learning more fun and fun activities more educational.  So, in that alone, this was a very worthwhile experiment.  And, of course, for the Mr. Numbers Birthday Boy, Math Ball was, slightly inaccurately, a no-brainer.

And so another birthday passes, and thanks to the “Caddy Crew” of Kirsten, Mor-Mor, and Gus, we were able to take the backyard birthday on the road and show that you don’t need a giant yellow T-Rex to make golf some goony, creative, and even educational fun.

And the pizza after the golf wasn’t half-bad either.