Posts Tagged ‘Parenting’

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.

Boy Over Boys, Part II: Summer’s End

January 5, 2017

2014_baseball_sunset

You can read Part I here

One of my greatest points of pride came years ago, when my big-guy was starting kid pitch.  One of my parents who worked at the same firm as my wife told her that I was the best parent coach he’s ever seen.  He complimented my ability to connect with the kids, but what impressed him most was that unless you actually knew me, there was no way you would ever know which player on my team was my child.  Both my kids knew from the very beginning to call me “Coach” when we were on the field, though I never made that express ask.

But my need to leave Gunnar behind for this, what may well have been our final game of the season, was an X-factor to which I was unprepared.  My co-coaches and I had talked about what we’d tell the other kids—whether to make it a discussion, a teachable moment, etc.  Even after that conversation, I wasn’t sure how to approach it.

I waited until the whole team had gathered for BP, resisting the inevitable early queries.  I sat them all down in a sliver of shade as a very thirsty tree fought valiantly against the record heat.  In the end, I felt that we had a game to play, and this wasn’t the time for an after school special.  So I just kept it simple:

“As you can all see, Gunnar isn’t here.  While you all know how sorry he was about his actions yesterday, there are some things that cross a line and go beyond regret.  Gunnar crossed that line.  He will not be at today’s game.  He told me to tell you that he accepts and understands this consequence.  He asked me to wish you good luck and he hopes to be back with you tomorrow.”

No questions.

Simple nods.

Bats and helmets.

Thank god…

The game itself was a wonderful distraction.  When the first pitch was thrown, CoachN clicked in, and it really felt like another game with my boys.  We played well, winning 12-6, with my shoulder-batted slugger Ford leading the way with 3 hits, 4 RBIs, and pitching two quality innings (we took him out early after getting a big lead to save his arm in case we went deep).  It was satisfying, as we staved off elimination and set up a rematch with the Alexandria Aces, a team that mercy-ruled us in our first tourney game–perhaps the worst game we had played all season–on our home field, no less.

Both my boys…and my boy…would get a shot at redemption.

Alas, there would be no storybook ending.  At least not in the traditional sense.

We played a much better game, as did Gunnar.  He worked a walk, stole second, and helped manufacture an early run.  He also bailed out Ford who despite our best plans just didn’t have much left in the tank, inheriting a bases loaded, 1-out situation in the 2nd inning and getting a comebacker and a huge strikeout to end the frame.  His clenched-fist, “Let’s GO!” was met in the dugout with a celebration more fit for a championship than an early-game jam.  As I saw them congregate and congratulate, for that one moment, I was just a Dad.  For every one of these Aces were not just rooting for the team.

They were rooting for my son.

Seeing these boys come together around my boy at that moment transcended the rest of the game, and the game itself (we lost 9-6 after a determined comeback).  All season long—and for three years running—we had preached the idea that everyone on a team depended on each other, and that picking up a player when he was down was as important as lifting him up when he succeeded.  In this moment, it was both combined as one.  These kids clearly sensed that their teammate needed lifting, and they did not need a coach’s speech or a parent prompt to come to their buddy’s aid.

And with that, our season was at an end.  We finished with our traditional pool party, me breaking into their wrinkle-fingered fun just long enough for them to suffer through another warble-voiced coach’s speech about how far they came as a team and as people.  I chatted with parents, patted players on the head, and started thinking ahead to fall ball.  They would be rising 12u players now, and this would be our last year together—the end of our journey together.

But life is what happens when you’re making other plans.

And it was time to choose boy…or boys.

Boy Over Boys, Part I: Fudge

November 29, 2016

baseball-fudge

It was a little Texas Leaguer over the third baseman’s head.

It was perfect.

My younger son doesn’t quite have the brawn of my big boy.  Okay, that’s an understatement.

You remember what Steve Rogers looked like with his shirt off before he became Captain America?  That guy looks like a body-builder compared to my twiggy little fella.

But like that pre-serum Steve, Gunnar has a competitive fire that outstrips his two-dimensional frame.  He’s become an accomplished bunter, and we’ve worked together to compliment his blips with bloops; drawing the 3rd baseman in with the bunt attempt and then slapping one by him.

I was watching from my perch as 3rd base coach, already thinking that with a good bounce he might get a double out of the dunk.  And, out of nowhere, the shortstop hurtled in the air and made a spectacular catch; his little body sprawled right on the cutout between the infield dirt and outfield grass.

Shortly thereafter, a single word hurtled in the air from down the first base line:

“FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUDGE”

Only he didn’t say “Fudge.” He said THE word, the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words, the “F-dash-dash-dash” word.

It was the 3rd out of the inning, which was about the only thing that saved Gunnar’s bacon.  For the mix of players changing sides allowed a bit of distraction from his latest episode.

“Did you hear what he said?” The young base umpire, a college kid collecting a summer paycheck, seemed a bit bewildered by the language he likely heard about every 0.25 seconds in his dorm.  But timing is, of course, everything, be it comedy, tragedy, or in this case, an inextricably intertwined combination.

“Yep.  Hard to miss,” chuckled Dave, the burly veteran I’ve had behind the plate since my older one was hitting off a tee.

Dave flashed me a look as I jogged toward my flailing first-baseman, now flinging his helmet to the ground.

“Do what you need to do, Dave,” I replied.

“I think you’ve got this, Coach,” Dave said with a bemused grin.

He knew that this was my kid in full meltdown.  And he thought that it was a kindness that he pulled back on what should have been done—namely throwing my son out of the game.

It was not.  Because now we had to do the dance.

Over the past few seasons, I’ve needed to cha-cha between gentle support and tough love as Gunnar battled his competitive demons.  I myself toggled between an empathy borne from my own boyhood tennis temper tantrums and full-body rage over stolen home runs, to a frustration bred from repetition and the aforementioned familiarity with my own failings.

Of course, Gunnar was benched for the rest of the game.  Of course, he eventually felt terribly about what he did.  He told Coach Steve that he felt that there was a monster inside him that he couldn’t control.  He tearfully apologized to the entire team during our postgame talk.

It was heartbreaking.

Again.

As we prepared for the next day’s games, I knew that this time, he had crossed a line that needed to be addressed.  For the moment, I needed to put Dad aside, and put my coach’s hat on.  And so I consulted with Coaches Steve, Bill, Kevin, and of course Coach Nolet’s Dry Gin on the matter.  All were supportive and understanding (or at least helped calm me down a bit with intensely floral drinkability).  And everyone agreed—this time there needed to be consequences.

We settled on a one game suspension.  My first instinct was to bar him from the rest of the tournament, but my coaches talked me down off that ledge, reminding me how hard it’s been on Gunnar to be the “Coaches Kid.”  For while being in that role can lead to preening primadonnas when the kid is the best on the team, the role can also create intense pressure on the player who has had to work his tail off just to be middle-of-the-pack.

Gunnar had gotten that most reviled of sports taunts – “You’re only on the team because your Dad is the coach!” – on several occasions at school.  In his earnest desire to prove himself, he made each pitch, each swing, and each play in every single game into an unending death-spiral of a tryout.  Every failure reinforced the bullies’ jab, and, because this is baseball, by its very nature he failed more often than he succeeded.  The Monster, a creature he came by honestly (indeed, genetically) grew into something he could no longer control.

This Monster, however, had to be put in a cage.  And so my son…my player…my son…and I talked.  I let him know I was proud of the fact the apologized to the team after the game, and I understood this was a part of him he didn’t like.  But he had crossed a line, and both he and the team needed to know there were consequences to these actions.

And so father-and-son, player-and-coach stared at each other—eyes welling and voices cracking with guilt, love, and remorse—embraced, and accepted each other for who we were.

I then loaded the trunk and headed down to the field.

Alone.

Only now do I realize that that was the beginning of the end.

Summer Camp, Spiderman, and the Social Art of Catching

December 17, 2015

Scott Catcher

Those who know me and my lunatic ways on the baseball field are often surprised to learn about how painfully shy I was as a child.  Many introverts are shy as kids, as we do not realize until later in life that while we can be social, and, yes, even enjoy being social, that it takes a tremendous amount of energy for us to do so.

As a child, this feeling of social depletion often leads to an aversion to and anxiety about being with people.  I remember this being especially hard for me at my one sleep-away camp, Blue Star, a Jewish camp in North Carolina.  In retrospect, it wasn’t a bad camp.  I made a good friend, almost landed my first real girlfriend, and hindsight tells me it had most of the usual activities and idiocies that movies like Meatballs tell me I should expect from the experience.

But I hated it.

I have come to understand that my particularly strong negative reaction came from the fact that you are never, ever alone at sleep-away camp.  From bunks to bathrooms, there is no respite from socializing other than sleep (fleeting as it was with the usual jackass pranks and early-morning bugles).

Those of you who aren’t introverts might think that the person reading the book in a crowded restaurant has that issue solved.  Now that I’m a little more comfortable in my own skin, I can do that and feel energized.  But at the ripe old age of 12, I knew that just made me look like the weird kid.

My one redeeming moment at Blue Star was in the annual talent show (Meatballs, I’m telling ya).  At that time, I was a huge Steve Martin fan; listening to Comedy is not Pretty until the needle wore out, and tacking his “Best Fishes” photo from the album along-side my poster of U.S. Senator John Blutarski.  My counselor refused to let anyone not participate, and told me to “do something” for the Gong Show portion of the competition.

I really can’t remember the routine, as when he literally pushed me on stage, I just kind of went somewhere else.  I remember poking fun at the guy who went on before me (he used a dead frog on a stick to do a dance) and teased the counselors.

I remember laughs.  A lot of them.

And I remember after asking my counselor whether people were making fun of me when they laughed.

“No way, man!” he replied earnestly.  “You were hilarious! Who knew Scott Nathanson was funny?”

In looking back at my childhood, I realize that there were two places “in a crowd” I actually felt energized: on the stage, and behind the plate.

The one unifying factor for both?

I was Spiderman.

That nerdy kid who put on the mask and became the wise-cracking hero.

Whether it was playing King Achashverosh, the drunken regent of Persia for my 3rd Grade Purim play (back by popular demand in the 4th!), or the lout of a husband who gets his just “desserts” in my fabulous filmmaker friend Thom Harp’s Proof is in the Pudding, putting on the mask of another character felt freeing rather than draining.

I felt the same way when I put on a catcher’s mask.  While normally my coaches had issues prying a single sentence out of me, when I caught, it was hard to shut me up.  I talked to my pitcher non-stop.  I urged.  I coaxed.  I may have even taunted the batters just a little, tiny bit at times.  I distinctly remember a few hitters telling me to, “Shut the hell up.”  I would merely shrug, and continue to yammer away.

And despite being born with a terminal case of “Catcher’s Disease”—I’m left handed—I was pretty darned good.  I remember getting validation early on.  I was nine, and our ace Pitcher Wes Winterstein was on the mound.  I was late to the game and arrived in the 2nd to find that we were already down to the Phillies 6-0.  To make matters worse, they had runners on first and second with no one out.  I remember the coach saying, “Thank god you’re here,” and taking out the boy catching in the middle of the inning as soon as I was suited up (not something I would do today as a coach, mind you).

The change in Wes was immediate.  I remember to this day yelling at him, “I’m back, let’s go!”  He stared in, and buzzed a strike down the middle.

The Phillies wouldn’t score again.

It’s funny how in the scramble to help kids find their own path, we coaches – and I think teachers and parents as well – will sometimes shy away from our own stories.  We don’t want to do the, “Back in my day…” thing; feeling rightly that each child and each generation has unique characteristics and qualities.  And as the mercury pushed up past 70 degrees this past Saturday, I organized a special catcher’s clinic for my 11-year-olds.  My main goal was to start working on how to frame pitches and the mechanical skills it takes to move (or not move) the glove.  And I had been watching a lot of videos on technique and found new approaches to framing I had never learned as a player.

But as I brought the boys to the backstop, all those old memories began to flood back.  And so we spent as much time talking about who you need to be as a catcher than what you need to do.  Both are important, but I realized just then that I had been remiss with my catchers in instruction on the former.  I think it’s because that, ironically for an introvert, that was the one part of this very difficult game (and an even more difficult position) that actually came naturally to me.

And so, I have committed myself to working more with my catchers in general, but go beyond just framing, throwing, and blocking.  Those skills make for getting better at playing baseball, but they don’t make for better ballplayers.  In addition, the social art of catching transcends the game itself, teaching empathy, leadership, partnership, along with verbal and non-verbal communications skills that can help a player mature as a person.

Now there are a million great catching videos out there (I’m quite partial to the Touch ‘Em All series, and this GameChanger blog has a nice compilation) that go into the mechanics of the position.  But for those interested, here are my tips that look at the skills you need behind the mask.

CoachN’s Social Skills Catching Drills

  • “Talk” with the umpire: A catcher is having a game-long conversation with the umpire, both verbal and non-verbal.  Remember that you want it to be a friendly conversation, not a debate.  Introduce yourself to the umpire at the beginning, and make him feel like you’ll do your best to give him the best looks at the pitches and protect him as best you can.  Then continue that conversation with every pitch you receive.
  • Your #1 job: be your pitcher’s best friend:  The best friend a catcher has on the team is whoever it is on the mound at that moment.  Your job is to make him feel comfortable and confident no matter what the situation.  Talk to him, point at him, take the blame for wild pitches if he’s having trouble even if it’s really not your fault.  Plain and simple, the pitcher is the center of the action and driving the plot, not you.  Your job is to try and get the best out of him you possibly can.  To geek-out a bit, he’s Luke, you’re Yoda.
  • Be positive: About the worst thing I have ever seen a catcher do is call time out, go up to the pitcher, and tell him that he stinks (and yes, I have seen that).  If you think that is a good move for a catcher, it’s time to find another position to play.  A catcher should be relentlessly encouraging to his pitcher, giving him fist-pumps and thumbs-ups on good strikes and close pitches, and little encouragements and the occasional pat on the keester if he’s struggling.
  • Be honest: If the coach comes out and asks you how you think the pitcher is doing, be honest with the coach.  You have the best view of the pitcher, and if you are focused on him, should be able to get perhaps an even better sense than he has as to whether he has anything left in the tank.  If you think he does, go to bat for him, as that buys you considerable cred with your pitcher and will pump him up.  The coach will make the final call, but you can definitely help him, the pitcher, and the team by being honest.
  • Speak like Spiderman: Chatty, competitive, and a little funny; just like you see the catcher in movies from The Sandlot to Bull Durham.  So talk all the time, not just when you have a conference on the mound.  While you need to feel out if this is working for your pitcher or the umpire, these are the good base traits for a catcher.  A chatty catcher will sometimes engage and sometimes annoy hitters.  Either way, they are thinking about something else other than the pitcher; that’s a good thing.  Chatty catchers help keep the umpire engaged and develop a relationship.  Getting a grin out a pitcher in a stressful moment helps to relax him.  Chatting also helps keep you focused and not falling asleep behind the plate.
  • The catcher/pitcher relationship does not end on the field:  When an inning is over, players tend to go find their buddies on the team and hang with them.  Remember, no matter what the case outside the ballpark, the pitcher is a catcher’s best buddy. Unless you’re getting ready to hit, spend the time in the dugout talking about the last inning—what was working and what wasn’t.  Go to the coach together and give suggestions (particularly if the coach is calling pitches) as to what pitches and locations seem to be working or if something is making your pitcher uncomfortable.  If it looks like a new pitcher is coming in the game, bring that pitcher together with the last one to share information.
  • Talk catcher-to-catcher: Talk to the other catchers on the team during the game.  You may not catch the whole time, but the catcher who was in the game should be giving information to whomever is coming in about the umpire, the pitcher, and anything you’ve seen in the hitters.  That information is vital and you do no favors to the next guy by having him come in cold.
  • Frame a ball, tell a lie: Umpires will know a clear ball if they see one–it’s usually anything more than 2-3 inches (that’s not much) outside the strike zone.  Any pitch you jerk from far off the plate is a lie you are telling to the umpire and your pitcher.  It makes both of them less trustful of you.  Just catch that ball and quickly throw it back to the pitcher to keep him in rhythm.
  • Move a strike, lose a strike: This is about the hardest thing to do at the same time that you are learning to stay outside the borderline pitches and catch the ball with a slight movement toward the corner of the plate.  If a strike carves the outside corner and you move it toward the middle, you are telling the umpire you think that pitch was outside.  If you catch a pitch crossing over the middle of the plate and you simply follow it as it finishes inside, you’ve turned a strike into a ball.  Same goes for a pitch at the top or the bottom of the strike zone.  For any pitch anywhere in the strike zone, the less movement, the better.  This may be a skill, but it’s also part of the conversation, as by holding a ball in place, you are telling both your pitcher and the umpire to, “check out that beautiful strike.”  Now that’s framing.

Now, you’ll note that this list does not include anything on the “field general” end, such as calling out plays and cuts and such.  I’m just starting that with my catchers, and really want them to get comfortable with the pitch-and-catch aspect of the game, as most coaches will tell you this aspect is about 75% of the job.

Until next time, True Believers!

Making Brain Candy TV a Healthy Treat

August 8, 2012

Scott…Hate…Oobi!

Gus and Gunnar are now blissfully past the little kids’ TV phase.  I remember the horrors of Oobi, a group of talking hands with eyes on a finger ring speaking only in the 3rd person.  Of course, it was Gunnar’s absolute favorite, so much so that I was not only forced to listen to the cavity-inducing dialogue every day, but he insisted on playing Oobi games online as well.  The games did help him with rudimentary counting, so I was okay with that, but the choice of “baby talk” grammar is, I have no doubt, responsible for every gray hair in my head today.

In this age where networks and PBS compete with cable channels like Sprout, Nick Jr., and Disney Junior compete not only for viewers, but more important to their bottom lines, for merchandise customers, my mind normally goes to the worst case scenario as TV executives look to maximize the “Mom, I want one!” by appealing to the most base and vacuous instincts of our kids.

Disney: We even know how to make a bloody bandage cute!

And that would seem to be exactly the tradition that the new Disney Show Doc McStuffins would be in.  Aimed at the 2-5 set that the American Academy of Pediatrics says is better off without TV anyway, McStuffins is about a little girl who plays doctor on her stuffed animals.  From my understanding of the show, there is no real discussion of biology or anatomy, and none of the problem-solving or language-building skills you find in a show like Dora the Explorer.  It was intended as pure, unadulterated fluff.

That is, until a TV executive got hold of it.

In this article in the New York Times, the story of what changed Doc McStuffins is told:

Chris Nee, who created “Doc McStuffins,” said, “Disney, to its complete credit, looked at my pitch and suggested that we make the characters African-American.” Her original Doc McStuffins was a little white girl.

Gary Marsh, the president and chief creative officer of Disney Channels Worldwide, said “Doc McStuffins” reflects a type of hypersensitivity to the power of television on young viewers. “What we put on TV can change how kids see the world, and that is a responsibility that I take very seriously,” he said. “By showcasing different role models and different kinds of families we can positively influence sociological dynamics for the next 20 years.”

In addition to the fact that the characters are predominantly black, it is the Mother who is the role-model doctor, and the Dad is a stay-at-home who is the primary caretaker to the star (something near-and-dear to this Dad’s heart).  This formula has won Doc McStuffins huge kudos in the online community, including a “We Are Doc McStuffins” Facebook page with the faces of female doctors around the country.  And, more importantly to Disney, sales of Doc McStuffins toys are selling briskly.

You never know who a silly little show might influence.

What I find most interesting about this is that, like Martin Luther King Jr. expressly telling Nichelle Nichols to stay on the bridge of the Enterprise even though she was often no more than a glorified secretary in the original Star Trek, true meaning and importance from television can come from more than just words.  From Uhura to Doc McStuffins, our entertainment can, perhaps more than any other medium, help to carry the kind of color-blind messaging that our culture needs to move beyond ignorant bias.

McStuffins itself also shows that such moves are in no way a sacrifice for a corporation, but instead a potential boon.  It seems the show’s merchandise is selling well across cultural lines, just as that little Latina, Dora the Explorer has.  So not only is multiculturalism a way to teach King’s timeless lesson about not the color of the skin, but content of character, but it is a way to create brand differentiation that can actually help build a commercial market.  In conflict partnership terms, that’s a “win-win.”

Hopefully this success will breed more and more copycats, lending more significance to the saccharine of toddler TV.  So long as they don’t try to stick eye-rings on a rainbow of talking hands, that is.

The Tale of the Pink Ladies

June 26, 2012

I’ll get back to the battle for Middle Earth shortly, but this “moment in sports” is just too good not to share.

Love the goof-ball team pic. The Mets fan in me must remind you that the “A” is for Arlington, not Atlanta

It was Gus’s first summer baseball tournament this past weekend, and after the highs (2-2 with a home run!) and lows (some tears shed from a rough pitching outing) of the Arlington Thunder’s first game, we zipped out with his pal Jack for a quick bite before game two.

One burger later, we found ourselves with a little extra time on our hands (they don’t call it fast food for nothing).  As we wended our way out of the parking lot, just past the pediatric dentist which either had a volcano or the world’s worst abscessed tooth on its roof, was the familiar red bull’s-eye of Tar-zhay.

“Ooh, please can we go?  PLEASE!?!” the boys erupted in unison.  “Why in the world would you want to go there?” I asked, mentally ticking off the bathroom cleaner, kitty litter, and fresh underwear on my shopping list.  “For the toys,” they said, completely incredulous.

And so we headed in, their bodies pulled directly into the vortex of playthings on the far side of the great maze of consumerism.  After the requisite boy teasing (“Oh, you want this Hello Kitty purse!”  “Well, you want this Teletubbies play set!”) Jack settled into the Nerf weaponry section, deciding whether the projectiles looked more realistic in a solid palate or in camouflage, while Gus was staring-down the super-hero figures (Never, EVER, call them dolls…Seriously.).

For while Lord of the Rings is still his major fiction passion, I finally broke down a week ago and allowed him to start watching Batman Begins, the first of the Christopher Nolan trilogy.  For while The Dark Knight, and from what I am seeing, The Dark Knight Rises are extremely dark, very adult tales, I felt that the first film was, while certainly not cartoonish, is a story an 11-year-old could handle.

Indeed I felt the realism of the film might actually be useful in offsetting the fun, but desensitizing levels of violence in other Super Hero films he had been watching lately, most notably the new Marvel movies like The Avengers, Thor, and Captain America.  Indeed, I found that, at least for Gus, giving him more context actually helped him put the violence in better perspective than the “harmless” violence in the more comic book-style movies, just as Lord of the Rings helped him with processing what happened to his cousin on 9/11.

Bane’s looking a little stiff

Needless to say, Batman Begins is now his favorite of all the Super Hero films, and he looked lustfully at the five-figure Batman/Catwoman/Bane figure set selling for a robust $22.99.  He had a gift card sitting at home from his birthday party, and when I told him I would spot him the money and just take his gift card when we got home, the box left the shelf at the speed of avarice.

After a big win in the second game, we trekked our way back home and celebrated together with a Chinese dinner.  Of course, our table at Asian Kitchen became a battleground as Gus and Jack created their own Dark Knight Rises plot, which consisted mostly of guttural noises as the five figures beat the unholy hell out of each other.

Our table was actually in a fairly high-traffic area, as it nestled next to a large tank which housed two gorgeous serpentine white fish.  Children and adults like would stop by to look at the undulations of these lovely creatures.  The boys would take the occasional peep up to answer a question or take a bite of food, then it was back to Gotham with a vengeance.

That is, until they came.

I must admit to having a Sandy t-shirt in elementary school, though I liked Frenchy, too.

Four platinum pigtails attached to two beautiful young ladies bobbed their way toward the tank—toward us.  Dressed in matching magenta summer jumpers, the Pink Ladies’ approach immediately triggered my son’s girl-dar.  “Quick, hide the toys!” Gus commanded, as Jack had his back to the approaching storm.  “Huh?  Why?” Jack retorted.  Gus’s huge blue eyes widened in an urgency that bordered panic.  He nodded his head toward the Pink Ladies as subtly as possible for an 11-year-old boy, which of course looked more like a muscle spasm.  Jack swiveled his head, and I could swear it just kept turning, Exorcist-style, back into place.  And, in a flash, all evidence of Bane, Catwoman, and Batman were gone.  Just two boys sitting politely with their hands resting under the table.  Nothing to see here.  Move along.  Move along.

“Uh, pretty cool fish, huh?” Gus blurted as the Pink Ladies stood mesmerized by the spectacle.  “Yeah, they’re beautiful,” said the taller one, a small smile creeping on her face as she glanced down at the table.  The boys looked at each other, their arms moving toward the center of the table as if seized by a magnet.

About ten seconds later, the Pink Ladies made their way back to their table.  And about ten seconds after that, Bane and Batman battled once again.  And if ever there was a clearer battle between the boys they are and the men they are becoming, I have not seen it.

Me, I’m rooting for both sides to win.

Backyard Birthdays for Tweens, Episode II: Know Thine Enemy

June 18, 2012

So as I mentioned back in part one of the epic journey toward my soon-to-be 11-year-old’s Lord of the Rings party, I had an idea in my head on how to make this post-modern fantasy pay off.  My only concern was that I needed to find willing victims for my particular brand of insanity.

But, Mr. Carr, I’m your BIGGEST fan!

You might remember that for Gus’s 10th birthday party, the noir adventure of the Decade Thief, the kids were guessing from about half-way through that it was Ms. Nathanson who dunnit.  I had actually predicted that might be the case, and had asked the elementary school music teacher and rock star in residence Mr. Carr if he’d be willing to take 10 minutes to come over and hide in an unlit shed holding a birthday cake with a mask on.  His declining of my invitation was polite, professional, and smacked of his very justified fear that I wanted to lock him in our basement and force him to teach Gus piano… forever.

But while I now see how absolutely odd my request might have seemed, I still loved the idea of having the children’s local celebrities—their teachers, coaches, and parents—make a surprise appearance to really throw the kids for a loop.

And so I set up the invitation noting that the Great Eye of Blood had corrupted the adult world, and only the children had remained innocent enough to battle its evil.  And what greater “Eye-rony” would there be than the Evil Eye using the people these children loved and respected more than anything in the world as the instruments of their destruction?

And so, learning my lesson in both the alarmingly high level of my own idiosyncrasy, and the need to cast a wide net in order to catch enough grown-ups willing to pick back up their childish things, I sent out the following email to the parents of all kids invited to the party, as well as a number of their teachers and coaches:

Subject: A slightly odd (but fun!) invitation

Hello everyone, Scott (Gus’s Dad) here.  Let me come right to the point.  I need your help the evening of Saturday ,June 16, and I’m willing to make it worth your while. 

As you likely know, Gus’s birthday comes right at the end of the school year.  As I thought of what to do for this year’s requested theme, Lord of the Rings, an idea came up that I think would be really special for the kids, and fun for us grownups, too.

What’s a castle without a slide?

I’ve set up the plot noting that grown ups have fallen under the spell of the Evil Eye (see my invite attached).  Given how much kids love to take on the grownups, I’d say that your unexpected presence will be far more fun than even the foulest of creatures of their imagination could create.
After you’re done being defeated by the forces of good, we’ll send the kids inside for cake and a LOTR film fest, and I’ll bring out some of my own “Witches’ Brew” and some food for you to help celebrate a job horribly done, and to wish farewell to the golden age of Elementary School for these kids, as they’ll probably be “too cool” for this kind of stuff once they’re hardened middle schoolers.

So, if you’re still reading this, here is what I’m thinking:

  • Kids start the party around 4.  I will lead them through an adventure until about 6.  
  • Kids have dinner to rest up for battle at 6.  Grown ups come at that time to “get into character.”
  • Between 6:30 and 7, the Evil Eye will announce its horrible presence.  The forces of good will be ushered out to the back yard for the final battle.
  • This will NOT be a crazed melee.  We will be playing this more like a strategy game where attacks will be in turns.
  • I have not worked out all the combat details yet, but, yes, there is a chance you could get a little wet or dirty.  All weapons will be soft so injury to anything but pride will be highly unlikely.
  • We’ll send the kids in around 8 and bring the grownup stuff out.
  • Yes, significant others are welcome to come even if they are not willing to participate in the Evil Eye’s efforts to throw the world into eternal darkness.
  • Ask around–I make VERY good cocktails.

So, there you go.  In order to get things together, I’ll need to know by June 9 if you might be able to make it.  No problem if you can’t or just are not interested.  I know it’s a bit of an odd request, but those who know me understand that odd is pretty much standard issue.

Thanks all,

Scott (aka the Evil Eye of Blood)

I call Ash!

So, what do you think.  Would you have said yes?  Or would you have said, “You’re nuts.”  Perhaps both?  Well, I was thrilled that I could coax over a dozen grownups, inclusive of THREE elementary school rock stars to join my Army of Darkness.  So who looks crazy now, eh?  Okay, it’s still me, but at least I’m not alone!

Next, I will conclude this trilogy (can’t do a LOTR party justice without a trilogy!) and tell you how the battle for Modern Middle Earth “played” out.

Do You Believe in Miracles?

June 14, 2012

You’ve got to be kidding me, God.

That’s what I was thinking as Gus stood at the plate.  He had been mired in a slump ever since coming back from breaking his finger, and now he stood there—my son— down one with two outs and no one on representing the final out of our season.

Gus made a play at the plate and asked his Mom if he looked like Josh Gibson. Love a 10-year old who knows his history.

But even more than that, he represented the final out of our era.  I had been coaching Gus and many of the players on this Grays team (named after the Negro League Homestead Grays, who used old Griffith Stadium in DC as a second home) since Kindergarten.  With Gus about to graduate 5th grade and enter the brave new world of Middle School, next year they would graduate to the upper level of the league, one where kids are drafted rather than kept together.

Given I had such a connection with these kids, and reached the level of my own incompetence in coaching, I knew this year would be my last with them.  As I looked at these young men with their peach-fuzz facial hair, deepening voices, and constellations of blemishes cracking open that Pandora’s box of manhood, I remembered the children they once were.  Chasing them with the “tickle monster” an orange hand puppet that filled them with joyful terror as I trailed them around the bases making nummy noises.  Playing the  “Hit the Coach!” game where they all pelted me with tennis balls at the same time.  Teaching these little boys lessons in teamwork, cooperation, and focus all wrapped up in the joy of playing what to my mind is the greatest game ever invented.

These boys were now young men, and the baseball we were playing now was more mature as well.  We got off to a very slow start, as just about every team except ours had at least two hard-throwing pitchers.  The first half of the season was filled with strikeouts, frustration, and more than a few games lost by mercy rule.  But I saw this “crisis” as an opportunity to teach another wonderful lesson that baseball offers.

After a particularly bad loss to the powerhouse Dodgers, I stood at the plate the next day at practice, a group of sullen pre-teens looking at me dejectedly.  I told them that I saw our problem, and our solution did not lay in swinging harder or faster, but in swinging slower and more softly.  I had their attention, confused and disbelieving that it was.  “Coach,” I said to Coach Craig, standing on the pitcher’s rubber, “throw the ball in here as hard as you can.”

Textbook form

He let it fly, but rather than taking a hard cut, I just took a soft, slow, controlled swing, and the ball jumped off my bat. Hardly moving, the ball flew all over the infield, and even a couple making into the outfield.  “Holy crap!” Kiarash yelled, stunned at what he was seeing.  “Okay Coach,” I chirped, “really let it go.”  He threw even harder, and I turned and bunted.  High, low, inside, outside, he simply couldn’t get one by me.

I turned to the boys, their attention now completely wrapped.  “Gents, I have taken a look at our scoresheets, and in our league, if you put the ball in play, you get on base 75% of the time.  We are now done with swinging for the fences.  If we are going to be successful—this is the way we need to play.  Anyone interested?”

They ran to get their helmets on.

And so for the rest of the season, we worked on our “Bunt, Slap, Swing” drill and, suddenly, we were a team with a new identity.  We beat the Red Sox, a team who mercy ruled us just three weeks before.  We beat the A’s by six runs and it wasn’t even that close.  And we beat the Cardinals by mercy rule.  When other teams came in before games, I’d hear their players say “Oh, we need to be careful, this is the team that bunts all the time.”

And yet, here we were in the first round of the playoffs, having used all our tricks to score six runs against the Yankees.  But they had seven, and Gus now had a 2-2 count. One strike left in Grays history.  And it was my earnest, emotional, and passionate son who would now carry the stigma of ending not only a season, but an entire chapter in our lives.

I know it’s not THESE Yankees, but whenever we play a team with that name, this is all I can think of.

The Yankee pitcher came set, and launched a nasty fastball right on the inside corner.  Gus was late, but just timely enough to get a piece of it.  Foul ball.  What little was left of my voice was bellowing from the 3rd base coach’s box.  Lord only knows what trite statements I was bellowing out.

Another ball heaved toward the plate, this one just low—Gus had managed to fill the count.  But the next pitch was another bullet, this one over the outside corner.  But Gus wasn’t going to go quietly, he reached and slapped, with perhaps a centimeter of the bat grazing the very bottom of the ball.  The faint plink of aluminum on leather indicated that it was still 3-2.  I wanted to claw the flesh from my bones.  I wanted to beg that pitcher to just slow it down a bit—give the kid a chance, for chrissake!

I held my breath as he let the bullet fly toward home…

I’m an agnostic, so I don’t know if there is a God, or baseball gods, or Zeus has decided that he’s a baseball fan.  But I thanked all of them and more when Gus trotted down to first base on a walk.  He stole second, came to third on a wild pitch, and on a slow roller to third which was fielded cleanly, the first baseman just missed holding onto the throw, and Gus scored the tying run sending us to what ultimately was an 8-7, extra-inning victory.

While I felt badly for the Yankees and we coaches made sure the boys settled down quickly to shake hands, I couldn’t help but think that, no matter how far we went in the playoffs, these kids had now created a memory that they will take with them wherever they go, and a life lesson that with determination, thinking “outside the box” and making the most out of what you have, even those small-ball Grays could find big-time success.

Maybe that’s not a miracle after all.  Maybe it’s something even better.

Letter to My Kids: Play it Forward

June 12, 2012

Just a quick note to everyone that my guest column over at the wonderful blog Letters to My Kids is up and running today.  I’m following on the heels of a couple of other wonderful Dads, so while you can find my specific column here.  I’d suggest you actually check it out from the home page, scroll and enjoy.  While you’re reading, I’ll be out shopping for a third eye for my Evil Eye of Blood costume.  More on that soon.

“Could You Just Shut Up, Please?”

May 3, 2012

As I’ve noted in past posts, I coach both my sons’ baseball teams; a hectic, exhausting, and absolutely exhilarating endeavor.  My younger son, Gunnar, is really showing some signs of natural skill.  He’s developed a very pretty left-handed swing (far better looking than his old man’s) and is one of the few kids on his team that can consistently catch pop-flies and throws from his teammates.  Indeed I think we’re going to try and jump him to kid-pitch this fall and test out to see whether he’s ready for that big step.

First kid I know to break a metal bat. It died a hero.

Gus, my 10-year-old, however, has shown no such innate ability.  He’s not especially fast.  His arm is average at best. He does not have lightning quick reflexes and is naturally a bit ball shy.  His depth perception is not particularly good, making fly balls an adventure.  When he swings a bat, or fields a grounder, it all looks extremely robotic—like he has to think through every single step.

But despite this complete lack of natural talent, Gus has willed himself to become a very good baseball player.  So good, actually, that he got invited to play on the all-star team this past fall.  Every single coach he has ever had—myself included—all say the same thing about Gus: he’s a hard, hard worker.

At baseball camp in NC. 100 degrees and ready for more.

So for the past few weeks, Gus and I have been in the back yard, the cages, and baseball fields from dusty to swampy getting himself ready for the tryouts for the spring all-star team.  For while he was asked on the fall team, the spring team is much more competitive as many of the best athletes in the area play a sport other than baseball in the fall.  We had him in the best possible shape and he felt really good going into the tryout.

As we were driving there, I was chatting with him incessantly about what to remember.  “Relax and attack.”  “Run to the spot of the ball.”  “Glove to the ground.”  Nothing he hadn’t heard a thousand times before.  Amazingly, one valuable comment did escape my mouth.  I said, “Gus, normally I’m your coach, but here you are trying out for other coaches, and today I’m just your Dad.  So do you want me to give you advice during the tryouts, or just shut up?”  He paused for about, oh, three-tenths of a second, and replied, “Could you just shut up, please?”

Well, he was polite about it.

And, as agonizing as it was, I did just that.  And he had a very solid tryout.  He caught just about every fly ball, though, as always, each was an adventure.  He wrestled each ground ball into his glove and made solid, if not spectacular throws to first.  He hit a few balls hard, and fouled-off anything he couldn’t catch up to.  He was always around the plate with his pitches, and blocked a number of balls in the dirt when he caught.

When we heard that there would be only one tryout (last year there were two rounds) all of us went home feeling like he had a solid 50-50 shot at making the team.  Gus had spend the next two days talking to every friend, teacher, and building custodian he could find talking about how excited he was about the fact that he thinks he had a better chance this year of making the team than last year, and how nervous he was about it.

While Gus was at school, the e-mail came from the coach.  I opened it and saw it was addressed just to me—not a good sign under these circumstances.  It was indeed bad news: Gus had been among the last players cut from the team.  Here’s a bit of that very kind note:

“We really enjoyed working with Gus in the fall and have seen a dramatic improvement in his skills and his confidence as a ball player.  As always, Gus was attentive, hardworking, and respectful throughout the process and has been a pleasure to coach.  I know Gus will continue to work on his game and will be a better player for it.”

Immediately Kirsten and I started texting and talking a mile a minute trying to figure out the right approach to giving our boy this piece of crushing news.  Coach Joe had said a number of nice things about him, and that he’d like to reserve the opportunity to “call Gus up” if another player was not able to be part of the team for some reason.  So stress the positive, right?  We’re proud of him for giving it his all.  He should feel fantastic at the fact that he’s among the top 10-year-old ballplayers in all of Arlington.

And I used all of these lines, and a few I can’t remember word-vomiting out on the walk home from school.  But none of these words were a magic elixir, as I watched him struggle to hold himself together, his massive blue eyes welling up in disappointment.

I felt powerless.  I couldn’t fix this.  He had tried and failed, and he was devastated.  To make matters worse, he was scheduled to pitch for my team the very next day against the league team that Coach Joe is in charge of.  Unbelievably, my eternal spigot of words had run dry, so I just walked silently with him.  He kept a few paces ahead so as not to make eye-contact.  When we got home, he immediately made a bee-line upstairs to his room, and shut the door.

I could hear his cries of anguish from the floor below—my heart was shattering.  But despite my strongest desire to barge right in there and hug, hold, talk, soothe…to save him—I didn’t go in.  I realized that not only could I not rescue him from this pain, I couldn’t even make it a little better.  He needed to go through this himself.

An hour later, Gus emerged red-eyed from his room, hungry.  As I fixed him a snack, I casually mentioned the game against Joe’s team.  “If you’d rather not start tomorrow, that’s no problem, bub.”  At first, he said nothing.  He just munched his Sun Chips.  When he was done, he got up and ambled toward the bench by our back door where his glove rested.  He picked it up, and, staring down at it, said, “Dad, can we go out in the back yard and practice pitching?”

“Just let me get my glove, big guy.”

The next day, he stared down a lineup of mostly all-star players, and he pitched his heart out.  He gave up a couple of runs to in the first, but only one solidly struck ball.  He struck out a couple of their best hitters, and absolutely dominated the second inning pitching not with his arm, but with his head.  Up, down, inside, outside, fast, faster, slower, slow.  He made the most out of what he had, and kept us in the game for three innings (the first time he’s ever thrown more than two).

We didn’t win the game, but Gus’ attitude rubbed off on his teammates.  When the next team to use our field was showing up, parents looked up at the scoreboard, then looked at all the chatter, fire, and camaraderie in our dugout, and wondered aloud, “Which team is winning this game?”  I could not have been more proud of Gus and the Grays—showing how passion and determination can transcend even the numbers that supposedly determine the difference between winners and losers.

And so this highly-involved, highly-verbose coach and Dad learned that sometimes by holding back, we give our kids the power to feel what they need to feel, and empower them far more than even the kindest words or biggest hugs can.  So while being a hands-off guy is probably not in my future, I’m going to try and remember that sometimes shutting-up is actually the best advice of all.