Posts Tagged ‘Tweens’

The (Book) Review: Sidekicked

September 4, 2013

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

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

Genre
“Realistic” Fantasy—Super Hero

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

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

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

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

How does a super nerd compete with Super Cedric?

How does a super nerd compete with Super Cedric?

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

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

My Review (minor spoilers)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Read Score: 4 out of 5 stars.

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

Overall Family Discussion Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

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Why So Serious, Superman?

August 7, 2013
Speaking of Wonder Woman, I HIGHLY recommend this fascinating documentary on Super Heroes and what they have meant to girls and women through the decades.  Click the pic for the link.

Speaking of Wonder Woman, I HIGHLY recommend this fascinating documentary on Super Heroes and what they have meant to girls and women through the decades. Click the pic for the link.

As some of your know, I’m currently working to get my own take on the Super Hero story, The Adventures of MightyDove, out into the public eye.  Of course over the past decade, the likes of Batman, Iron Man, Captain America, and company (though it still frustrates me that Wonder Woman can’t get off the ground) have hit the big screen running, and have fought their way into the mainstream.  Being a guy who remembers comic conventions being nothing but white boxes in the back room of a cheap hotel, it amazes me to see nerd culture firmly established a primary driver of pop culture.

My big fella, now twelve, has discovered the series Smallville, a show full of intrigue and teen angst wrapped up in a Superman package—perfect for an imaginative pre-teen.  While Smallville became something of a wildly uneven show after about the 3rd season, especially after losing Michael Rosenbaum, who was to my mind still by far the best Lex Luthor ever depicted either animated or live action, it did a nice job jugging the very delicate balancing act needed of the genre.  You don’t go 10 seasons without doing something right…

Show never quite got its full mojo back once Lex left.

Show never quite got its full mojo back once Lex left.

With their “No Flights, No Tights” axiom, they endeavored to seat characters who felt real into the unreal world of Superman.  While sometimes redundant with the “freak of the week,” they always managed to capture the sense of almost comic bewilderment when the wild and wacky happened.  It always gave you that small edge of the tongue-in-cheek that allowed you to feel amused at the situation even as the world—or at least Clark and Lana’s relationship—were put ever in peril.

Yet as much as Gus is currently obsessed with Smallville, he didn’t really love the latest Superman iteration, Man of Steel.  Indeed, he and I both came to a similar conclusion after we took in the movie.  Great effects, thin plot, and absolutely no joy.  We both came out feeling that the failed reboot that was Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (interesting to note that it gets a 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, far higher than the 56% for MoS) was actually more entertaining because, despite its many flaws, it felt more like, well…Superman.

Superman II was hokey, no doubt, but Man of Steel could have used a little more hokey

Superman II was hokey, no doubt, but Man of Steel could have used a little more hokey

Of course, Mr. Hippie Nerd here had a very difficult time with the climax to Man of Steel.  [SPOILERS] Indeed, I was actually a bit heartened to learn that producer and Dark Knight Trilogy director Christopher Nolan actually vehemently disagreed with Zack Snyder’s decision to have Kal-El snap Zod’s neck.  Not only has Superman always been about finding ways not to kill the enemy (see the animated movie Superman vs. The Elite now streaming on Netflix for a great example), but the film actually set up a perfect device (the terraforming of Earth to make it Krypton-like) to defeat Zod without resorting to death.  Snyder seemed to go out of his way to make sure that the man who stands as an example of what humanity should aspire to would be pulled down into the abyss of, “Sometimes you’ve just got to kill the bad guy.” Nolan wasn’t the only one to express dismay over Snyder’s decision.  Grant Morrison, a well-known comic book writer whose titles include the All Star Superman series, had this to say:

“It’s a credible Superman for now. But I’m not sure about the killing thing. I don’t want to sound like some fuddy-duddy Silver Age apologist but I’ve noticed a lot recently of people saying Batman should kill the Joker and, yeah, Superman should kill, he should make the tough moral decisions we all have to make every day. I don’t know about you, but the last moral decision I made didn’t have anything to do with killing people. And I don’t think many of us ever have to make the decision whether or not to kill. In fact, the more you think about it, unless you’re in one of the Armed Forces, killing is illegal and immoral. Why would we want our super­heroes to do that?”

[END SPOILERS] Indeed, this trend to pull Super Heroes down to “our level” is in no way limited to our favorite Kryptonian orphan.  Iron Man 3 took our wise-cracking Tony Stark down a dark hole of addiction and PTSD.  Captain America: The Winter Solider, is already being billed as “darker” – more of a 70’s noir feel.  And even the most comedy-laced mainstream hero there is, Spider-Man, was so angst-ridden, so humor-free in his latest incaration that even star Andrew Garfield admitted that it was a problem with the first film.

Now THIS is a Pixar sequel I want to see

Now THIS is a Pixar sequel I want to see!

Increasingly, the whole genre seems to be suffering from Dark Knight Disease.  Not that the TDK trilogy wasn’t excellent.  It was.  But so was Thor, the Avengers, and Sam Rami’s first two Spider-Man films.  Not to mention The Incredibles and Megamind, both of which were successful even venturing into the realm of pure comedy. And did I mention all those films made a load of green?  So no excuses to be found there for always taking our heroes down the dark path.

My greatest fear of this “hyper-realistic” trend is, by removing the joy from Super Heroes, they are extracting the most essential element of the genre: imagination.  Not that you can’t create a serious yet imaginative Super Hero film.  But for the audience, the genre is removed from that dreamlike, aspirational quality.  Super Heroes may have powers, but they cease to become super.

In the urge to make these heroes more like us, we lose the wonder that makes us want to be better, to be more like them.  And I think that is a genuine loss to our kids, who despite the mainstream audience and grown-ups engaging in cosplay, should still be who we make these stories for.

With the announcement that The Dark Knight Returns author Frank Miller is consulting on the new Batman vs. Superman film, my skepticism deepens that much more.  TDKR was a seminal comic book series, turning Batman into a gothic, noir struggle where each and every hero—even the sainted Superman—had feet of clay.  But it was the opposite of inspirational: a desperate slog through a dystopian future with only the faintest glimmer of hope at the conclusion.

Okay, I don't NEED the Batusi, but...

Okay, I don’t NEED the Batusi, but…

While I don’t need Batman dancing the Batusi to be satisfied, I urge the stewards of Super Heroes to remember that the entire genre is predicated on the fantastic notion of what could be.  That is what sparks the imagination of children of all ages to strive to be more than we are, to want to do something to make the world a better place, just like this amazing Mother told her young son after he discovered that Superman wasn’t real.

So when it comes to saving Super Heroes, I think the best advice is to relax and don’t take it so seriously.   Just imagine all of them in their underwear.  That always seems to do the trick.

It is designed to break your heart

August 2, 2013

Barcroft Park

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.” – A Bartlett Giamatti, The Green Fields of the Mind

15-3.

That’s how badly the DC Dynasty had whipped us Arlington Cardinals in the wee morning hours.  It happed just the day before, in what now has been coined “The Great Hangover Game of 2013.”  You see, our young B-teamers, 11 and 12-year-olds all, had bounced back after getting thrashed by the Arlington A Team–the Storm–in the first game of this, our last tournament of the season, to actually win the next game by mercy rule.  The ecstasy of that 11-1 win, a game that started at 8pm, kept most of our kids up past midnight that night.

And any parent can tell you that a pre-teen with a bad night’s sleep is a truly gruesome sight to behold.  As our boys staggered onto the field for an 8am start, they looked more like they’d be hunting for brains than baseballs.

15-3.

And yet, here we stood the next day in the semifinals against that very same Dynasty, headed out to the field for the bottom of the 6th and possibly final inning of our season, and the story was a very different one.

7-7.

Once again, we had gotten down early, but this time we had our top pitchers on the mound, and our ace contained the damage and, with solid defense, we were down only 4-0 going into the top of the 4th.

Raj, our #2 hitter, led off the inning and worked a nice walk to get us started, and my big fella Gus followed with a booming double to right centerfield, our first well struck ball of the game and a capper for his breakout offensive season where he batted .533.  And even though Gus eventually got thrown out at home, our guys still carried that momentum forward doing what we worked on all season: working the pitch counts, laying-off the high heat, and focusing on putting the ball in play.  By the time the inning had ended, it was more than a brand new game.

5-4.

When we trotted out to try and defend that slimmest of leads, it would be my guy on the bump.  Gus was our #2, but had really developed into a solid pitcher in his own right.  After giving up a leadoff double to their best hitter, Gus managed to do what the Dynasty could not.  He worked around an error, an infield hit, and a walk.  Walking the tightrope as he had done all season, he managed to escape the 4th with only one run scored.  The bottom of our order was then no match for their pitcher, however, and we found ourselves out there again deadlocked in the bottom of the 5th.

5-5.

Gus again worked his best through a batting order far deeper than ours.  He gave up a bloop single which in our league is essentially an automatic double as with leads and 70 foot basepaths, it is the rare day when a runner gets caught trying to steal.  They played a fundamentally sound game and bunted the runner over to 3rd.  Now our entire season was dancing up the baseline, attempting to induce a wild pitch.

And, of course, up once again stepped their big fella, whom our parents had nicknamed, “The 30-Year-Old.”  He had burned us the day before with a home run that sealed our mercy-rule fate.  He already had two doubles on the day.  And puberty seemed to be rushing upon him so quickly that I swear you could see his stubble growing as he waved his bat menacingly in the batter’s box.  As I viewed the matchup, I could only think of one possible solution:

Surrender.

“Step off, Gus, step off!” I yelled, remembering a point in an earlier tournament that season when I wasn’t vocal enough in calling time out and it cost us (that’s a story for another day, but it’s a good story).  He complied, though glaring at me in that, “Dad, you’re the assistant coach, you know,” kind of way.  I turned to Danny and pled, “Walk him.  Let’s walk him.  Let’s intentionally walk him!”

Hey now.  Don’t give me that look.  It made perfect baseball sense.  Mr. 30 was the guy who has beaten us all weekend long.  There were two outs, and the most important run was at 3rd.  I was simply trying to apply a sound strategy to a big moment—perhaps with just a small touch of, “My boy has had such a great season, please-please-please don’t make him pitch to this brute!”

Danny called time and trotted out to the mound to chat with Gus.  I immediately ran to the ump to see if we could simply declare a walk rather than throwing four intentional balls, something that you are usually allowed to do at this level.  But when Danny returned, he simply said, “No walk.  Gus wants to pitch to him.”  Abject terror and immense pride washed through my body in what, though I hope to never validate, is what I would expect a small heart attack feels like.  My son toed the rubber, and let the first pitch fly.

He attacked high in the zone, and got Mr. 30 to take the bait.  Swing-and-a-miss—strike one.  A ball outside to even the count, then a low called strike on the outside corner to get him way up.  All season long, we had worked on varying location.  None of our pitchers, even our best ones, had “swing and miss” stuff.  So location and changing speed were our bread-and-butter to compete.  Now, it was time to execute.

“Climbtheladderclimbtheladderclimbtheladder,” I muttered over and over, hoping that our catcher Harry would make the right call.  I saw him come ever so slightly out of his crouch.  Yes!  Yes!! Do it!!!  Gus fired the ball right at chest level, and—PLINK—the ball went sky-high right to the left side, a towering fly to the infield.  Gus had done it!  He beat the behemoth!

As the ball sailed in the air, its hue shifted from a dirt-smudged white to neon green.  For in my mind’s eye, that ball became one of the hundreds of popups Coach Mark and I had swatted at our fielders with a tennis racket in what we called the “Sky High” drill.  It was the perfect way to safely whip soaring popups in the air so our fielders would know where to be and how to communicate.  It was one of those perfect coaching moments: a huge situation where you prepared these very players for this very thing.

But when both the 3rd baseman and Shortstop took two staggering, silent steps backwards, confidence turned to prayer.

A teeter.  A waiver.  A desperate lunge.

A ball making, quick, popcorn-like bounds as it landed safely in the short-outfield grass.

6-5.

Then our crimson uniforms were suddenly replaced with jerseys marked “Chico’s Bail Bonds.” A rage-fueled throw back into the infield careened past the 2nd baseman, allowing the runner to take 2nd.  And the only reason he didn’t get to 3rd is that the equally ill-advised throw back in managed to find the 2nd baseman’s shin, as he wasn’t even looking when the throw came bounding through.  After a ground ball single scored the next run, you could feel it all getting away.  But Gus, much to his credit, settled down and struck out the next hitter, giving us a small gasp of life in our season.

7-5.

Now, if you are skeptical of baseball gods ruling the fate of we mere mortals on the diamond, the top of the 6th should make you a true believer.  For we stood there with two outs, our season saved by the juggle of a catch in what would have been a game ending double play.  Tyler, the boy who had lunged at that fateful fly, came up to the plate.  Ty had been mired in a slump and was moved down in the order, and was not having a great day at the plate.  He got down early in the count, but each time the final pitch seemed destined to find leather, a small sliver of aluminum got in its way.  He fought back to fill the count, and, after a 10-pitch at bat, worked the walk.

Bases loaded, two outs.

Okay, sure, that’s a huge moment, but not the magic you were expecting?  Well Tyler’s walk brought the at bat a full year in the making.  For at this very tournament last year, in this very same semifinal game, in this very 6th inning, up stepped Jack, our centerfielder, who has been playing for me since 2nd grade.  In that moment, he lined a ball to Left that seemed ticketed for a game winning double, only to have the ball picked off by the fielder that the other team’s coach admitted was, “the kid we hide because he can’t catch.”

The statistical implausibility of this at bat happening again a year apart was enough to make me believe in the Easter Bunny (and I’m Jewish).  As he approached the plate, I could feel his apprehension as his chest filled and sagged.  Rustling up what little emotional control I could muster, I managed a smile and said, “Jack baby, you know you can do this because you’ve done it!  This time, just find a hole!”  Maybe it was just me, but Jacked seemed a bit heartened—and a lot determined—when he stepped over the eroded chalk line.

I saw him in his wide-open, left-handed stance, something we changed together to get him diving toward the ball so he could cover the outside corner.  And when that outside fastball came, JC was ready to roll.  CRACK.  A screaming grounder to the left of the 3rd baseman.  He had a shot at it, but it was too hot to handle and crawled up his arm and into left field.  Even with 2 outs, however, there wasn’t enough time to get that tying run in as the outfielder was playing too shallow.

7-6.

But, on the very next pitch, with our last-place hitter at the plate, the pitcher uncorked a wild one, and our runner dashed in safely.  I had to chide Jack who rather than running down to 2nd base decided to strut and clap his way to the bag.  “Get to the bag, then strut, big guy!” I yelled.  He grinned and nodded.

After a well-earned walk loaded the bases again, our leadoff hitter rapped a ball on a line, but right at the 2nd baseman.  No lead, but a mini-miracle for all concerned.

7-7.

And so Gus, our middle of the order hitter, the guy who had pitched more innings than anyone else—my son—was asked to go out one more time to save our season.

He didn’t have quite as much pop on his fastball, but was still locating well.  He got ahead of the leadoff hitter, and induced a weak fly ball to right.  But the yips got the best of our right fielder, despite the pre-game instructions for outfielders to “run in and dive for any close ball” he pulled up and allowed the popup to drop.  A quick steal of second, and trouble was once again looming.

As they did the last time, the Dynasty looked to bunt their runner over.  But this time, Gus was ready, and kept the ball up high-and-away twice inducing two foul pops to get ahead 0-2.  We needed the K desperately, and he loaded up to go low-and-in.  But the ball stayed up, and ran right over the middle of the plate.

And there was a sound of thunder.

A walkoff.  A walkoff home run, no less.

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart.

As we lined up and awaited the conclusion of the Dynasty’s home plate dogpile, I noted that our boys were surprisingly chipper, save one devastated blond fella.  I realized then that Gus had in the most sincere sense taken one for the team.  All the mistakes were washed away, because we had come back from them.  Even the missed fly ball to open the inning didn’t matter, because the home run made it irrelevant.  It’s not that they wanted it to be Gus’s fault.  But a piece of each and every one of them were relieved that it wasn’t their fault.  They were proud—rightfully proud—of their hard work and their fight and, even in a loss, felt that this B team put in an A effort both today, and throughout the season.

But, as the boys settled in for post-season cake and pizza, it was my boy with his back turned at the next table, shoulders hunched from the piano that fell on his shoulders.  All the coaches, this one included, took their turn at cheering him up to no avail.  Even one of the coaches of the Storm came over to tell him how well he played.  That bucked Gus up a bit, but the moment, the brutal finality of it, was an anchor no adult could pry free.

But someone could.

“Hey Gus!  Don’t be so down.  You actually did us a favor, as I didn’t want to get our butts kicked by the Storm again anyway!” said our #1 pitcher, patting him on the back.  “Yeah!” agreed Raj, “Who the heck needed that?”  A small grin, a seed of the joy that season had been until that very moment, fought its way through the heartbreak of the moment and broke through the gloom.  A hand reached for a slice of pizza.  And, not 10 minutes later, Gus sat on a see-saw doing his darndest to knock Tyler off as he in the glorious stupidity of youth attempted to balance in the middle.

The next evening, Gus was having dinner and as he wolfed down his 7th taco, casually told his Mom, “I’m ready for baseball to start again.”  “Gus, it’s only been a day,” Kirsten replied, incredulously.

“Really?  It feels like it’s been 10 years.”

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

“Young. I feel…Young.”

September 4, 2012

Don’t tell me the guy can’t act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose

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

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

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

And I feel old.

And young.

Ready to rule the school!

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

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

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.