Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Snapshots of a Decade

She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts / She's cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers

It has been the soundtrack of our post-Christmas days, this bouncy pop song from Taylor Swift. Santa was kind enough to place an iPod Nano beneath the tree, so as soon as Daddy was able to place some songs onto Katie’s tiny orange device, Miss Swift has been gracing every room with her tale of heartbreak. Katie sings along passionately, and her little sister immediately follows suit.

The year in review. The decade in review. No matter what media outlet you’re reading, watching or listening to, you’re being fed a tidy synopsis of the most important events and personalities of the year, as well as the nine that preceded this one. For 2009, we get Taylor Swift, Michael Jackson, Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter and our beloved president, among others. For the ‘00s in review, we get everything from Jeter and Alex Rodriguez to Presidents Bush and Obama. We get Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, as well as George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson and reality television. We get Nintendo and Apple, as well as Enron and Madoff.

It’s enormously difficult to sum up a decade’s worth of news, notoriety and nostalgia. You can try and capture it all, but you’re bound to miss something. And the truth is, when it comes down to life, we rarely frame our existence inside of ten-year spans. When they talk about taking life “one day at a time” in 12-step programs, they’re on to something. At its best, life is more about snapshots than grand re-caps. It’s made up of moments we can recall with 12-megapixel clarity, and sounds we can hear with Bose-speaker crispness. And the beauty of it is that no one can remember a moment in exactly the same way.

I can feel the Boston Globe special edition in my hands as I rode the North Shore commuter rail home on September 11, 2001, and read of the madness and chaos that had enveloped the city of my birth and changed the world in which I lived. I can see the flickering candles at every intersection in Salem, Mass., three days later, as my neighbors stood vigil on their street corners in a collective show of mourning and respect for their country. I can see the charred pieces of metal still standing in Lower Manhattan when I walked by the Trade Center remains 3½ weeks later.

I can see the glistening brown hair on the head of our first-born child, and I can hear her first cries as she entered the world and nestled in her mother’s arms nearly eight years ago. I can feel the arms of my wife as we embraced after losing a child in utero two years later. More than a year after that, I can see our younger daughter’s calm demeanor develop as she took her first quiet nap in the hospital’s nursery. As I held Katie up and pointed out Chelsea to her, I can still hear Katie’s first words to Chelsea. It was an impromptu song, or perhaps a prayer: “Twinkle, twinkle little star / How I wonder what you are ... ” I can still taste the tears that slid down my cheeks at that moment.

I can feel the strong left hand of my grandfather, as I held him and explained to him that the cancer had spread throughout his body. I can see the tears as he came to grips with the reality of his situation. I can hear his nasally, North Shore-of-Staten Island accent as we talked about the Yankees in those final weeks together. I can hear him greet me with the “Peanuts” nickname he’d always given me: “Hey, Chahlie Brown,” he’d say. “Come in and eat som’in’. I got soup in dee icebox. You can heat it up. And dere’s plenty o’ ginger ale, too.” I can recall sitting down and listening to him talk about my grandmother with love, knowing that he’d be with her again, soon.

I miss my grandfather. And my grandmother, too, as well as my dog and all the other family members I’ve lost in the last 10 years. I remember them in moments that I treasure in the very core of my heart, just as I savor the moments of birth that Amy and I have experienced during this ten-year span. Birth and death, ever intertwined: It was a spring afternoon in 2001 when I leaned forward and whispered in my dying grandmother’s ear that we were expecting. She was unable to respond at this point, but I asked her to watch over the kid. At night, when Katie is drifting off to sleep, I tell her stories of the great-grandmother she never met. She listens, every time.

Snapshots. I bought Amy a camera for Christmas; it was time. In studying up on all the point-and-shoots, I learned that more megapixels do not necessarily make for a better camera. If you’re looking to bring in as much light as possible, sometimes less is more. And when the light comes in, and the angle is right, you’ve got yourself one beautiful picture. An image to hold onto, no matter what the year.

We take stock this time of year, we make resolutions, and we reflect. More than anything, though, we hold onto the pictures that fill the photo albums of our minds and souls. This is where time really does stand still, and where a decade is just a word.

Dreaming ‘bout the day when you wake up and find / That what you're lookin’ for has been here the whole time ...

You said it, Taylor. Crank up that iPod. Happy new year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Crunch Time

The rush is on, for sure. Cars lined up by the dozens to enter the Watchung Square Mall, the Woodbridge Mall, the Menlo Park Mall. Here in Jersey, you don’t get anywhere without having to turn via the jughandle. And when you’ve got a jughandle jam, you’ve got traffic. This is the price you pay for holding out on the shopping ‘til the final days before Christmas in the most shopping-frenzied state in America.

I’d like to say I’m all done, but there’s always this nagging feeling I have when it comes to holiday shopping for my wife, Amy. This is a woman who, in one of our first Christmases together, produced a giant, 4-foot-tall box filled with presents, all of them for me. I have tried to keep up throughout the years, and have given her some thoughtful gifts. But she’s always been a step ahead. And, well, I do have some of those stereotypical guy shopping habits. I am not creative enough (“Wow, such a nice cookie sheet!”), I don’t keep the gifts secretive enough (“Honey, what size pajama top are you again?”), and, shame of shames, I dare to think about the cost of what I’m buying sometimes (“Such a nice book – and look, it’s still got the Borders $3.99 bargain price sticker still on it!”).

Oh, I’ve gotten better over the years, and I think I’ve got some fine presents picked out for her this year. But do I have enough? That simple question puts a lump in my throat and leads me back to the drawing board. Hmm, maybe just one more little thing for her. Can I find that perfect last stocking stuffer?

Let’s start with the Target circular. To use a baseball analogy, Target is the Mark DeRosa of retail. DeRosa, a free agent who’s played in recent years for the Cubs, Cardinals and Indians, can play all three outfield positions and all four infield spots. Target, like DeRosa, can fill all your needs, and he never feels like a cheap fill-in. Where else can I pick up an iPod, a new bicycle, some slippers, a gallon of milk and my prescription from the doctor, all while staring at a bright red bull’s eye? OK, I’m in the CD aisle at Target and I see a stocking stuffer – a Taylor Swift holiday CD for $6.99. But I flip over to the back side of the CD, and I see that it’s only got six songs. I guess that’s why it’s $6.99. And one of those songs is a re-make of a Wham! holiday tune. As a child of the ‘80s, there is one thing I know very well: You cannot improve on Wham!. On to something else.

Kohl’s has a touch-free soap dispenser for $24.99. That’s kind of strange: Wouldn’t a touch-free dispenser make our bathroom feel more like a public restroom? And what happens when the thing doesn’t work? Maybe she’d prefer the $9.99 dual foot massager. But how many people actually use the mechanical massagers they receive for Christmas? And wouldn’t they all prefer the real thing?

Now I’m checking out JCPenney, and my eyes are drawn to the tabletop air hockey game. We both would play that, and we’d really enjoy beating each other. (Nothing more therapeutic for a marriage than destroying your partner in a tabletop sports game.) But where in the world are we going to fit the thing, in between the kids’ American Girl dolls and Webkinz and play-kitchens and art supplies? Ugh … on to something else.

Macy’s: Ice traction slip-ons for $9.99. Very practical, true: But if I’m going to get her something this practical, I’d might as well buy her AA batteries. CVS has “Holiday Pup” from Hallmark, who, for $5.99, will wiggle his ears while “Jingle Bells” plays. Definitely not practical. And definitely not therapeutic. More like maddening.

There are popcorn makers galore, and they’re cute. But don’t the microwaveable bags work just fine? Wii games abound, and many are on sale. But how many do we really have time for in this house? There’s a cute Yankees throw blanket at Modell’s, but it says “27 Time World Series Champions” all over it, and that of course will be outdated by next fall.

And so the search continues. I may find something, or I may not. Either way, I think Amy will be cool with the gifts she finds under the tree. And I, no doubt, will slap my knee at some point in the morning and say, “That was what I should have bought her!” It will hit me.

Just a bit too late.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Wonderful, George

“You want the moon? Just say the word and I’ll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey, that’s a pretty good idea. I’ll give you the moon, Mary.”

“I’ll take it.”


Our married names are Warren and Amy Hynes, but this time of year we often call ourselves Mr. and Mrs. Bailey. During the holiday season, we like to slip It’s a Wonderful Life into the DVD player at night, and recite the words to the screenplay along with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. We’re like a lot of folks in our love for this movie. A film doesn’t get its own board game, holiday ornaments and cookbook unless it’s got a solid fan base.

Granted, Frank Capra’s 63-year-old movie can be a bit corny, dated and silly at times. But it’s also so much more real than 99 percent of the films that strive as mightily as it does for a happy ending. Capra is going to let you leave his film smiling, but he’s also going to fill your eyes with tears as the credits roll. He has made this happen because the film has tapped into a universal feeling in the form of Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey character.

We can work backward from the film’s final scene, as George finds a message from his guardian angel, Clarence, inside a copy of Tom Sawyer: “Dear George: Remember no man is a failure who has friends.”

These words are needed because George Bailey has nearly given up on his life out of a deep feeling of failure. His career and life are at a crisis point when Clarence arrives, as George is tired of the sacrifices and the unfulfilled dreams he’s endured throughout his life. Of course, he has not yet noticed the incredible impact he’s had on those around him – be it his wife, his children, his brother, his colleagues, or the hundreds of people he has helped through his job. He’s unable to see just how extraordinary a life one man can live, even in a small town, with a drafty old house to call home, and a job supervising a broken-down building and loan operation.

When Clarence shows George what the world would be like had George never lived, the stressed-out man has his epiphany. George realizes how much he’s done, how many he’s helped, and just how wonderful it all really is. He is brought first to a state of delirious joy, then to a moment of speechless wonder. You couldn’t wipe the smile off his face if you tried. Not that we would try; we’re grinning along with the guy.

We know the story, after all. Many of us find ourselves wondering, at times, if we’ve really accomplished much, and if we’ll ever fulfill the lifelong dreams we’ve had. It can be hard to see just how much we’ve done, and just how many lives we’ve touched. It can be difficult to realize that the life we’re living is not equal to the dreams we once set simply because it has been better in some awfully important ways than anything we ever could have dreamed up in our sleepy adolescence.

The George Bailey who lives in the Hynes house has never found himself leaning over a bridge on a cold winter’s night. But he’s had his share of self-deprecation and frustration over the goals not yet achieved, or the material goods not yet affordable. I did not grow up to play shortstop for the New York Yankees, nor have I won a national teacher of the year award quite yet, nor published a dozen books before age 40.

And yet, when I look at my Mary – who, by the way, also plays the role of the angel in this family – I feel grounded and fulfilled in ways that feel an awful lot like the emotions George finds inside of him at the end of the film. When I see our children, and our family, and yes – of course – our many friends, I feel George’s joy along with him. It’s a joy of contentment, and of pride, and of deep gratitude.

“What’d you wish, George?”

“Well, not just one wish – a whole hatful. Mary, I know what I’m going to do
tomorrow, and the next day, and next year, and the year after that.”


Here’s to the power of dreams. But more than that, here’s to the stunning beauty of the dreams we’ve fulfilled but not yet recognized. May the angels of our little worlds reveal them to us always.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Very Merry

We head out for a drive, and my wife pops in the new Bob Dylan Christmas CD. It’s Amy’s latest attempt at persuading me to listen to holiday music earlier in the season: Buy an album by one of my favorites, and dare me to turn it off. Smart move, of course. The music begins, and it’s a stunning sensory experience – the ol’ man’s craggy voice, playfully croaking out “Here Comes Santa Claus.”

This CD has been widely praised by music critics, but none of the reviews I read were written by a 7-year-old. Katie listens quietly for a moment, then offers her own critique: “Mommy, he sounds like he has to cough.”

Leave it to the babes to put it all in perspective. They are, after all, front and center this time of year. Whether it’s the holiday decorations, the letters to Santa, or – get this – the “Elf on the Shelf” who hops from one perch to another each night in our house, ‘tis the season for bringin’ out the wonder. (And spoiling them to the core as well, but that’s kind of a lost cause, especially when even Bob Dylan’s on board the sleigh.)

We try to let the merriment win out over the stress, but that can be hard when you’ve got an elf on your shelf. When Santa delivered this, it was designed in part to help an older sister who has been struggling in recent years to hold onto the magic. Katie’s had her doubts about the man in red, yet has also expressed a deep desire to believe. So when a little red elf appears on the entertainment center, with an accompanying book explaining that Santa has sent him to keep an eye out, the kid is fascinated at first. Until, of course, she lies down in the dark of her bedroom and sees the little guy’s big, brown eyes staring at her. She panics, and begins to cry.

“Why do we do this to her?” I ask Santa. “Don’t worry,” she says. The next day, Katie has rebounded nicely, naming the elf “Freddie,” declaring that he is a she, and asking us to buy a dress for the thing. Merry, indeed.

The joy of giving has long won out over the joy of receiving for Amy and me, and our favorite moments during this season always involve hosting friends, or shopping for others, or giving gifts. We’ve developed a little tradition in recent years of going out on Black Friday, at about 10 in the morning, to see if we can find a few deals. Shopping on the day after Thanksgiving is a lot like baseball’s free agent market at this time of year – there are a ton of potential purchases out there, some of them at really good prices. But still, you wonder, is it worth the money even if it’s 50 percent off?

We decide that the new Wii “Winter Sports” game, with two motion sensor devices thrown in, is worth $50, and so Amy now knows one of the gifts in her stocking. I tell her that the new Pearl Jam CD for $6.50 is a great deal, so there goes a drop in my stocking. We decide that three dispensers of Bath & Body Works antibacterial soap are not worth standing in a line 25 deep, even with the $10 sales price, especially considering the Centers for Disease Control’s advice against overusing antibacterial products in the home.

They are merry all right in Bath & Body Works – at least a hundred Black Friday shoppers, most of them women, smelling body wash and trying out hand-held massagers. Their voices, when jumbled together, sound something like Charlie Brown’s mother in the old Charles Schulz animated specials: “Whaaa … whaaa .. whaaa.” I take in the bustle for a moment, then begin to feel something akin to Katie’s feelings about Freddie, and bolt for the door.

It’s quieter in the car a day later, as we drive home from a Thanksgiving visit to Amy’s parents. The girls are watching a movie on the DVD player, while I pay attention to brake lights, speed limits and asphalt. As the movie ends, the girls watch the two principal characters kiss. Katie lets out a big ol’ second grade “Ewwwww.” Her 4-year-old sister, on the other hand, has a different take. “Katie, you know, someday we’ll be doing that too,” she says.

I manage, just barely, to keep the car on the road.

And so the holidays begin, with Dylan in need of some Ricola, Freddie popping up all around our house, the gifts piling up in the closet, and Chelsea talking with her sister about making out. She’s been chosen to play Mary for the preschool’s Christmas program, and the charming young boy who’s playing Joseph has been Chelsea’s “boyfriend” now for more than a year. She claimed him right away, and will no sooner give him up than she’ll relinquish the blanket she carries with her each day.

Should we worry about lovebirds in the stable? No, not yet. As she practiced her entrance into the church today, Chelsea happily skipped through the sanctuary, up to the manger. The preschool director asked: Chelsea, isn’t Mary supposed to be pregnant at this point? Chelsea nodded. True enough. Maybe a soft gallop next time.

It’s just so hard to hold back the merriment.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Sure Things

The baseball news was predictable this week, as the two most dominant players of 2009 were awarded Most Valuable Player honors for their respective leagues. Albert Pujols and Joe Mauer are quite likely two of the best players many of us will ever see on the baseball field, and both were more consistently brilliant this year than in any other. There are few sure things in baseball, but Pujols and Mauer are two of them.

Sure things. We take comfort in those two words – the idea that there are things we can rely on, day in and day out, never wavering in their constancy. For Chelsea, our 4-year-old, there have been several sure things in her life – the parents, big sister and grandparents who care for her, the white house she calls home, and the little preschool she attends every weekday.

Oh, and one other thing – there has been Blankie.

Every day since she was first able to hold something in her hand, Chelsea has carried around the white blanket that she was wrapped in on the day she was born. It’s a standard maternity ward blanket, white with yellow ducks, pink and blue chicks, and little green hearts. For three years, Chelsea’s blanket remained in rather good shape. We’d wash it every so often, and while it began to look weathered, it remained intact.

Three years, apparently, was all that this cotton material could take. For nearly two years now, we’ve watched Blankie literally fall apart in Chelsea’s hands. It went from a full-size blanket to a brownish, cotton thing the size of a hand towel, to an even browner piece the size of a handkerchief, to the small, fabric-sample-size remnant she carries around today. She tucks it together with a red ponytail holder. It is so brown that I’ve taken to calling it “Raggie” and declaring it a health-code violation. Chelsea just smiles, takes another sniff of her sure thing, and holds it tight.

Until Sunday, that is. Sometime between the time we got home from church and the time we went to bed, Blankie became misplaced. And, unlike the countless other times when we’ve searched for and found the little cloth, this time Chelsea’s friend was hiding for real. Chelsea said she knew we’d find him, and she agreed to sleep with a backup blanket she has dubbed “Cheesie.” She held this replacement friend in her hands, with its own pattern of yellow ducks, stars and hearts. But it wasn’t the same.

Monday came and went. No Blankie. Tuesday arrived, and still nothing. Meanwhile, Mauer and Pujols were picking up their sure-thing trophies, comforting the fans in Minnesota and Missouri.

But there is only one MVP in Chelsea’s life, and considering how much it’s meant to her she was surprisingly calm about it all. On Tuesday, when she decided to color, she pulled out her bin of crayons. And there, nestled among the Crayola rainbow, she saw her friend. She lifted Blankie up, smelled him, and smiled. “He smells like crayons,” she said to me. Usually one to avoid sniffing that dirty thing, I found myself taking a quick sniff. Crayons, indeed.

As we gather with our families and friends this Thanksgiving, here’s a toast to the sure things. Here’s to the people, the pets, the places, and, yes, even the blankies that are there for us. We’re not always as lovable as we could be every day, and sometimes we’re worried, or afraid, or sad. It’s at those times when a little comfort is all we need. A hug. A kind word. A sunset. A sniff of old cotton.

A reassurance. Even if it’s weathered and worn and smelling of crayons.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Fantasy Farmers

For 30 minutes each day during the baseball season, I sit in front of a computer and completely lose myself in a world of make-believe. I set my lineups, add and drop players, make trade offers. I read up on baseball-player news, and I strategize. All of this, of course, involves an imaginary, fantasy-baseball team that exists solely on the Internet. The players are real, of course, but they don’t really play for me. I’m trying to craft a team that will perform better than the teams run by a dozen other grown adults, who are also giving a half-hour of their life to this child’s play.

When I do this, I experience an odd mixture of glee and guilt. I’m excited because this is genuinely fun for me, as it is for the many millions of fans worldwide who are quickly turning fantasy sports into the real sports pastime. And yet, I also feel some pronounced guilt, since there are obviously a billion more productive things I could be doing with my life during that half-hour. Sure, we all need some time to decompress, and many of us do so on-line. But I could be on freerice.com, or reading important news stories, or e-mailing a friend.

The strongest guilt, though, has always come from the other adult who lives in this household. My wife has perfected the look – head cocked to the side, eyebrows pursed, a half-smile on her lips. “What are you doing?” she asks while I click and type furiously over my cereal bowl. “Didn’t we say we were going to church together this morning?”

“Um-hum,” I mumble. “Just give me a second, and I’ll be right there.”

Now the arms are folded in front of her, and she’s giving me the nod. “Sure,” she says. “Whatever you say.”

We get to church late, and now I’m really feeling guilty. She doesn’t say a word, making it even worse.

So this is how it’s gone for five years. Every winter I tell her that I’m going to quit the fantasy baseball scene next year, and she assures me that I won’t. March comes, and she’s right. It all begins again, and that odd mixture of feelings comes back to me while I peer at my lineup over that cereal bowl.

But no more. Next year, without question, will be different. I say this not because I plan to cease playing fantasy baseball. Quite the opposite. What I’m saying is that I’ve finally been relieved of the marital guilt.

The reason is simple: My wife raises fantasy livestock. She’s planting make-believe sunflowers. She’s up to level 25.

We’ve had some odd crazes in the history of American pop culture, but FarmVille is definitely up there among the best of them. According to a New York Times article a few weeks ago, more than 62 million people have signed up to play this Facebook application, which allows its players to tend to a virtual farm all their own. Zynga, the company that created FarmVille, told the Times that 22 million people log into their FarmVille account at least once a day.

When I check my Facebook page, I see these bulky animal and crop drawings, with messages stating that friends of mine are looking for lost cows, or have found wild turkeys, or just discovered mystery eggs, or simply want to say “Thank You” to all their FarmVille friends. It is agricultural madness. It is Atari meets Facebook meets Amish Country.

We should have seen it coming, of course. Many of the adults who are playing this game grew up with such odd passions as Cabbage Patch Kids, Q*bert and the Smurfs. We know that strange fads make life more fun. We’ve kept our Rubik’s Cubes and our Tickle Me Elmo’s, thank you, and we’re on the lookout for the next strangely obsessive thing.

It would be fine if only Amy checked her farm once a day. I would be totally cool with that. However, it’s become a challenge just to talk with her once the girls are asleep. Really, how could you bother to converse with your husband when there are blueberries to harvest, and animals to feed, and hay bales to arrange in the design of a Christmas tree?

You could say that this is karma, and that I’m getting what I deserve after all those hours of fantasy baseball. You’d be right, of course, but I see it differently. I envision a conversation this April, when I’m on the computer one Saturday, and she gives me that look again.

“Honey, are you checking your fantasy baseball?” she’ll ask.

“Yup,” I’ll say.

“Can you get off the computer? We’ve got things to do.”

“Nope.”

“Are you serious? You’re really going to play that all day?”

“As long as I want to.”

“Come on – let’s get a move on.”

“Sorry, babe,” I’ll say. “But you buy fantasy pigs in your spare time. You harvest fantasy corn. You earn fantasy money when your fantasy chickens lay fantasy eggs. You inform your friends that fantasy ugly ducklings have shown up on your fantasy farm.

“So if you don’t mind, I’m going to take just a few more minutes with my little fantasy baseball, where at least the players are real.”

She’ll stare at me for a minute. “Are you done?” she’ll ask.

“I am,” I’ll say, smiling to myself. Patting myself on the back. Little fist-pump beneath the desk.

She’ll continue: “Let’s go.”

I’ll lower my head, and click hibernate. “OK,” I’ll mumble.

The guilt again. Damn farmers.

Monday, November 16, 2009

No Game Tomorrow

It was 10 o’clock on a Sunday night, and we were watching Matthew Broderick and Frank Whaley chase a Komodo dragon through a shopping mall. There was a time when I actually paid money to see this film in a theater, and found myself mildly entertained. But I was a teen-ager at the time. Yet here we were, my wife and I, flipping through the channels and stopping to watch some of “The Freshman.”

This is what happens when the baseball season ends.

I know, who am I to complain? The team I root for won the World Series; there are Yankees championship commemorative magazines wherever you look. Joe Girardi and his boys are on top of the world, and they get to stay there all winter long.

And yet, that’s the problem – the all winter long part.

For no matter how well your team does, whether it’s last place or the last men standing, the fact remains that when that final out is made in the deciding game of the Fall Classic, all true baseball fans feel a very real sadness. It’s all over. Another season in the books. No game tomorrow.

There are leaves to be raked, and winter coats to unpack, and holiday catalogs to peruse. The heat is on in the house most evenings now, and I have a hard time getting home in time for a jog in the daylight.

Life is a series of seasons, both in sports and in weather. As the baseball concludes, so does any last remnant of summer. Katie, Chelsea and I are a lot more likely to be inside reading books than outside playing ball these days. My mom and I will talk about the holiday movie season rather than the baseball postseason. My brother and I will try and make plans to meet for dinner in Manhattan, rather than in that giant ballpark in the Bronx.

And, yes, Amy and I will watch a few minutes of a long-forgotten Matthew Broderick comedy in lieu of a few innings of a ballgame. Granted, the MLB Network does air old games all the time. But watch too many of those and you begin to feel like you’re living entirely in the past.

Every few days, it hits me almost like a bolt from the blue that the Yankees are champions. There’s no bitter regret over a crushing playoff loss. Only the image of players, fans, and coaches dancing in victory. Fabulous.

Yet finished. The clock ticks, and we move on. We find new rhythms and new routines for our days. Here’s one I like: Chelsea has finally decided on a favorite TV show. In an amazing way, it’s become my favorite, also. On weekends, we like to take it in together, talking through the stories.

It’s called “Wonder Pets!” It’s kind of like watching Mariano Rivera, except with domestic animals singing. The show stars a turtle, guinea pig and duckling who are closet superheroes called to save the day during each episode. Their job is to help an animal in trouble. And this they do, with incredible efficiency, optimism and success. Like the Yankees closer, their saves are quite predictable. Like Rivera, they smile a lot. Unlike Rivera, they sing.

But oh, if only Mariano had a mike on the mound, he’d surely croon the Wonder Pets’ favorite words: “What’s gonna work? Teamwork! What’s gonna work? Teamwork!”

Yes, we have some new routines, new seasons, new days in the Hynes household. We will handle that just fine. And when the weather gets a bit colder than we’d like, we’ll remember this date: April 5.

Opening Day. Fourteen games scheduled, including Yankees at Red Sox. It will get warm soon enough.

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Snowstorm in Lower Manhattan

I tell the girls we won’t get close enough to see the players’ faces, but that they’ll hear the roars, see the streams of white paper falling from office windows, and feel a kind of excitement you don’t experience every day. I know this from the last time I tried to see a ticker-tape parade, in 1996. That year, the only Yankee I could glimpse from half a block away was Kenny Rogers, and that was only because he had climbed on top of his float. But the sound of hundreds of thousands of voices echoing through that canyon of gray buildings? The streams of paper showering you from above? That’s why you come to this thing.

Amy and I figure we’ll enjoy the trip more by driving into Staten Island and taking one of the mighty orange ferry boats to the city. It’s a great idea, if only there were parking spots to be had on Staten Island. After finding a spot about a mile away from the ferry terminal, we’re all finally on our way, passing by Lady Liberty and Ellis Island in the mighty harbor.

Walking up to the parade route, I see a sign hanging from the Fraunces Tavern Museum on Broad and Pearl streets. It reads: “See the Magna Carta.” I do a double-take. Say what? The Magna Carta is here, on Pearl Street? If that’s true, I’m starting to feel guilty for walking by, for kind of wanting to see CC Sabathia more than the document that changed the world. I wasn’t really ready for that choice.

We move on, and turn left onto Beaver Street. From here, we can make out the floats as they roll by, about a hundred yards away. There goes Derek Jeter, wearing some shades and flashing his smile. There’s Andy Pettitte, videocamera in hand. Oh, and that’s definitely CC – all 6 feet 7 inches of him. “There’s CC,” a father says to his son, and holds him up. What an impressive man Sabathia is – truly a document all his own.

We wave to Mariano Rivera, as he fittingly closes out the parade. The girls come down off of our shoulders, we take some more photos, and walk through the printer paper, the ticker tape, the toilet paper and the phone book pages. It looks like a snowstorm has hit, and this part of the city has the communal feel of a snowstorm as well. We stand in line for some soft pretzels, which aren’t hot, but oh well. A sanitation worker with broom in hand waits patiently for us to move so he can get started with the hours of work he’s got this afternoon.

There are so many people wearing brand-new Yankees gear, leaving little reason to wonder how the team can afford so many high-priced players. One fan has taken marker to her jersey, writing the words “Have My Baby” underneath the “Teixeira” on her back. Sorry, miss, but Tex is spoken for. Another fan wears a Mike Mussina jersey, calling to mind the former New York ace who joined the Yankees after their last world championship in 2000 and retired after last season.

Back at the ferry terminal, they have decided not to add any additional boats today, despite the fact that thousands of navy-blue-clad people are standing elbow-to-elbow in the terminal, waiting to travel back to Staten Island. We’re feeling the crush of bodies around us. Chelsea is crying. I lead the way as we excuse ourselves and move out of this crowd. A man curses at me, and I ignore him. Minutes later, dozens of police officers arrive as there have apparently been injuries among the thousands pushing forward in that crowd. We’re out of here. So much for the communal feeling.

Outside, a young family like ours is standing along the East River walkway. They’ve left the ferry terminal as well, and they’re taking photos. We chat for a few minutes, and it’s getting back to the kind of day it’s supposed to be, one in which people let their guards down a bit and share a greeting or two. Over at the South Street Seaport, a man is leading a child in a “Let’s Go Yankees” chant. A man is running up to scare a pigeon from behind with his noisemaker. Amy buys the girls some ice cream cones, and that, for Chelsea, is the real highlight – chocolate all over her face, the sweet taste of Haagen-Dazs in her mouth.

A fleet of ferries has arrived to clear out the terminal – anyone for planning ahead next time? – and the girls are ready to head home. Broadway is making its way back from paper to asphalt, and the Yankees are all at City Hall now. Workers are hammering a pylon into the ground south of the Seaport, and a helicopter takes off from the nearby heliport. A guy in a Yankees jacket walks into Fraunces Tavern. (I can hear his chant now: “Magna Carta! dun-dun-dundundun. Magna Carta!”)

A pair of tourists drive by on rented bicycles from Central Park. Amy and I smile to each other. We want to stop and tell them that this is not the way it is here every day. Electricity doesn’t run at this high a voltage all the time in New York. Only when powered by paper, passion and pinstripes.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

November 4, 2009

We started the night in a tavern, a couple of miles from our house. Amy and I were munching on nachos as Andy Pettitte picked his way through the Phillies lineup in innings one and two. My mom, who was staying with us last night, had offered to put the girls to sleep so we could get out for a few hours together. I had come from work, and wasn’t dressed for a tavern or a ballgame. But Amy didn’t seem to mind; nor did Andy.

The last time the Yankees clinched a World Series in Game 6 – 13 years ago – I was in a bar back on Staten Island, on the job as a newspaper reporter. I was interviewing locals for a reaction story on a tight Saturday deadline – so tight that I would have to dictate the story from a pay phone on Forest Avenue. I didn’t have any time to feel nervous over whether Jimmy Key could outduel Greg Maddux, nor did I have time to roar over Joe Girardi’s game-changing triple. Last night, however, there was plenty of time to take it in, as we munched on our nachos, then on wraps and fries. Of course, there was also plenty of time to get nervous.

The TVs in the mostly-empty restaurant area, where we were sitting, were a few seconds delayed compared to the TVs in the bar, which was packed with men and women wearing navy-blue spring training jerseys. The delay provided an interesting experience, as we heard the roar to celebrate Hideki Matsui’s second-inning home run before we actually saw it with our own eyes. It looked mighty good, even on delay.

The roars grew even louder when Matsui came up again, this time drilling a two-run single off of Phillies starter Pedro Martinez in the third. Back home, Katie and her grandma were getting dizzy with delight. Katie, who at 7 has never seen the Yankees win it all, picked up the words to the Yankee fans’ chant for longtime nemesis Martinez. She stepped in front of the TV and shouted: “Now who’s your daddy, baby?”

The time delay gave us yet another clue that Matsui would come up big in the fifth, and before long we were watching his long double drive home two more. This was feeling too good to be true. It was also feeling like we should stay here, since this spot had brought such good luck. But Amy wanted to get home. And there was that one annoying, 12-year-old Phillies fan across the room. So we hopped in our cars.

Wrong move. Ryan Howard homered off of Pettitte while we were nearing the house. My fault; I had left that lucky, time warp of a spot. Sure, the Cajun shrimp wrap could have been better, but the tavern had given the Yanks a great lead. Should I turn back?

I didn’t turn back. I got home to see Joba Chamberlain end the Phillies’ rally. My mom was on the phone with my brother, Eric. He was in his home, in Brooklyn, with our friend Neil. They sounded optimistic; we talked for a while, and promised to speak again later.

I was not going to clean the house, or do the dishes this night, as I so often do to calm the nerves in late innings of Yankees playoff games. No, I was going to hang in there, live or die, with this one. I picked a lucky spot, in the corner of the living room, and stood there. Damaso Marte! Down goes Utley; pump the fist. Down goes Howard; pump it again. Who knew the guy had it in him? I called my dad, who hadn’t come up to our place with my mom this week, and was therefore watching the game alone. He said he was still up, past his bedtime, and had enjoyed Johnny Damon the most of any player in this series. I felt the same.

It was time now for Mariano Rivera. He began his nightly dissection of a lineup; even so, the outs couldn’t come fast enough. The TV cameras showed Yankees fans pounding on that blue padding covering the walls of the field, like 6-year-olds trying to wake their parents up on Christmas morning. Let’s go! We want our presents!

Santa Closer didn’t let them down. As Rivera induced Shane Victorino into a harmless groundout to complete the championship, I hugged my mom, hugged my wife, and called my brother and Neil. We talked about where we’d been back in 2000, when the Yankees last won it all. We wondered about who would win the MVP, Matsui or Rivera. Eric and I marveled at the way in which Mike Bloomberg kept angling himself into the photos up on the podium, and longed for some spontaneity in the postgame awards presentation. We laughed about a lot.

After a few minutes, I said goodbye to Eric and to Neil. My mom watched the postgame interviews with us for a while, then went to bed herself. Amy and I headed to bed as well, and she drifted off to sleep.

It’s just a game, I know. And yet, how many days in the last few months have I talked with both parents, my brother and Neil on the same day, while also spending a few hours sitting with my wife? How many times had we all taken a break from the rat race to slow down and make time for one another? Was Matsui’s monster game just a sporting accomplishment, or was it part of a larger call to community that had brought families, friends and colleagues together, if even for one night?

The girls would want to hear all about it in the morning; it was time for me to get some sleep as well. The Yanks had done it again, and it had been a good night. A little like Christmas.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Act IV, Scene IV, Game IV: Where Fortinbras Meets Johnny Damon

He didn’t hesitate for one second. Just glanced over his shoulder, saw the opportunity, and seized it.

Jerry Seinfeld has said that we root for sports teams so that we can be “make-believe happy” when they win, and “make-believe sad” when they lose. This argument sees sports as a fantasy world, one where the events on the field, court or ice don’t have a direct impact on the real lives we’re living.

It’s true; of course it’s true. And yet … there are moments in all the arenas of entertainment – a ballgame, a movie, a book – when that “make-believe” world does move us, inspire us, direct us in some way. We see a deeper meaning in the actions of a Chase Utley or a Sean Penn or a Jay Gatsby, and we take something away that might find its own place in our minds, our hearts, our souls.

It’s the top of the ninth inning, two outs, tie game, World Series Game 4. Johnny Damon, the 35-year-old left fielder for New York, has singled his way to first base after a nine-pitch at-bat against Brad Lidge of Philadelphia. With Mark Teixeira at the plate and batting left-handed, the Phillies shift their infield to the right in order to better defend against the slugger. Damon notices this. As Lidge kicks and fires a pitch, Damon takes off for second.

The throw is late, and Damon knows he’s got second stolen. What he also knows is that because of the shift, third baseman Pedro Feliz has taken the catcher’s throw at second. The third thing Damon knows is that no one – not Lidge, not the left fielder, no one – is standing on third base.

And so, with Feliz holding the ball a foot or so away from him, Damon pops up from his slide, gives that little glance over the shoulder, and takes off again. Feliz reaches out with his right hand, but it’s too late. Johnny Damon has stolen two bases in one play.

Now Lidge has to be more careful with his breaking pitches, as one in the dirt could bounce off the catcher and score Damon. Lidge hits Teixeira, then offers Alex Rodriguez a high fastball. By the time Rodriguez’s double is retrieved in the left-field corner, Damon has crossed home plate and the Yankees are on their way to a victory over the Phillies.

Will New York win the World Series? Don’t know. Will Johnny Damon be a Yankee next year? Can’t say. But really, in the end, those yes/no answers are not nearly as interesting as this bigger question: How does an individual find himself so ready and able to execute in the heat of the moment? How is he able to think quickly and take advantage of an opportunity most wouldn’t have even noticed, all of it coming at one of the most pressure-packed moments in his working career?

Baseball is just a game. But for those of us who have found ourselves feeling those knots in the stomach before major life moments – a major presentation at work, a job interview, a first date, a critical moment with family – it’s nothing short of inspirational to see a speedy left-fielder take a window of opportunity and turn it into a game-changer. He was prepared, he thought on his feet, and he executed.

Shakespeare knew all about this kind of thing, this gathering up of inspiration from those we’ve never met. Here’s Hamlet, still trying to find the courage to kill the uncle who has murdered his own father. As he walks through the countryside, Hamlet comes across young Fortinbras, a Norwegian prince who is leading his army through Denmark to fight for a tiny plot of land in Poland. Hamlet realizes that this prince is willing to fight to the death “even for an eggshell,” while he himself is struggling to act for a much clearer reason.

“How stand I then,” Hamlet says to himself, taking stock. If Fortinbras can go for it all in Poland, then why not Hamlet, too? “I have cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do't,” Hamlet says.

Indeed, sweet prince, we catch your drift. We’ve had moments like that, too. We had one on Sunday night. If Johnny Damon can make it happen in Philadelphia, then maybe we’ll be ready in the clutch as well. When the moment is right, and third base is open, and the hot lights are shining, we’ll give that little glance behind us. We won’t look back long enough to second-guess, or overthink – just long enough to know it’s time to seize the day.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Autumn's Circle of Drama

At this time a year ago, I found myself astonished at the cool demeanor that Barack Obama displayed under intense pressure. From John McCain to Sarah Palin to debate moderators to news reporters, nearly everyone tried to break through Obama’s cool and bait him into snapping under the spotlight. He didn’t do it.

I remember writing last year that his demeanor reminded me of New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera, the king of closers. Both men work with a humble, confident elegance, and neither man acknowledges the pressure that leaves nervous onlookers biting off the last of their fingernails.

In October 2009, Mr. Obama is now more than nine months into his first term as president – a job he won thanks in large part to that cool confidence. In October of 2009, Mr. Rivera is also still at work this year, thanks to the success that his New York Yankees have had in this season’s playoffs. New York begins its quest for a 27th World Series title tomorrow night against the defending-champion Philadelphia Phillies.

Rivera personifies grace under pressure among baseball’s active pitchers. And while his job is nowhere near as taxing as Mr. Obama’s, there are very few people on this earth who can stand on a pitching mound in front of 50,000 people and execute flawlessly. Even former President George W. Bush, before throwing out the first pitch for Game 3 of the 2001 World Series – arguably the most visually triumphant moment of his presidency – got some advice from Derek Jeter of the Yankees before walking out to the mound. (Jeter advised the president to throw his first pitch from the rubber; Bush did so, flawlessly.)

That mound can be a lonely place. And when a couple of men get on base, time begins to speed up, and the rhythm that every pitcher craves is disrupted by runners taking leads off the bases, crowd noises intensifying, and the inner demons of second-guessing your pitch selections. Before you know it, there’s a liner headed into the gap, and someone’s warming up in the bullpen.

And yet, there are men who just don’t seem to care about the pressure. In fact, they seem to invite it. You need a big win? Just bring it on, they say. In years past, these big-game pitchers came with names like Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Whitey Ford and Jack Morris. In recent years, postseason dominance has belonged to men such as Curt Schilling, John Smoltz, Josh Beckett and Cole Hamels.

Which brings us to this year. Among the numerous reasons to watch this year’s series – two historic teams who’ve only met in the Series once before, two powerful home run-hitting teams, two rabid fan bases – perhaps the most interesting aspect is the sheer number of pitchers on either team with ice in their veins.

The Phillies sport an ace pitcher by the name of Cliff Lee – a left-hander who has pitched as well as anyone in the sport over the past two years. Lee has been nearly unhittable in the postseason, and he’ll start three games if needed. The Yankees counter with their own ace, C.C. Sabathia, who has been just as dominant as Lee this year. Sabathia, unlike many pitchers, seems even more relaxed on the days in which he pitches. No sweat, he seems to say.

When it comes to veterans, the Phillies have one of baseball’s best players over the past 15 years – a wily veteran named Pedro Martinez. He spent most of the season gardening, waiting for a contending team to offer him the money he felt his reputation deserved. When the Phillies ponied up, Pedro answered the call with the kind of pitching that has already made him a Hall of Famer. The Yankees have their own legend, Andy Pettitte, who broke Smoltz’s record for most career postseason wins when he led the Yankees to their 40th pennant on Sunday night. Pettitte’s aw-shucks personality is completely at odds with his intensity and brilliant execution under the spotlight.

Philadelphia has a brilliant young talent in Hamels, last year’s most successful postseason pitcher and World Series MVP. The lefty has been inconsistent this year, playoffs included, but his resume promises he won’t be a pushover. In the bullpen, the Phillies offer closer Brad Lidge, who has had his share of well-documented playoff meltdowns, yet has been perfect in save opportunities since joining the Phillies before the ’08 season. And the Yankees, well, yes, they still have Rivera. He will be 40 later this year, but he’s shown no signs of pitching any differently than he did at age 26, when he won his first World Series with New York.

The pitching mound is an 18-foot diameter circle. The slim, white pitching rubber stands 10 inches higher than the rest of the field. The pitcher faces a batter who is standing 60 feet, 6 inches away and holding a large chunk of wood in his hands. It can be a lonely and intimidating place.

But at its best, that mound is a place of empowerment. It is a place where an individual finds more confidence than he ever knew he had. It is a place where a man like Los Angeles Angels pitcher John Lackey can shout at his manager, “This is mine!” when that manager comes out to the mound to remove him, as Mike Scioscia did on Thursday night against the Yankees. It is perhaps the most beautiful sight in baseball – an individual not only willing to carry his team on his back, but demanding it.

Give me the pressure. I can handle it. I want to handle it. I believe in myself. Yes I can. Yes we can.

Twenty years ago, I last pitched in an organized baseball game. It was my high school’s last regular-season game, and if we won we’d be in a one-game playoff for the last remaining spot in the postseason tournament. I was up against a manager whose teams I’d been facing since I was 11 years old, and I’d never beaten him.

We were leading, I recall, and I got in some trouble in the fourth inning. I got out of the jam, and as I jogged off the mound, our manager – now the superintendent of schools in a town near mine – walked over to me. I turned to him and barked: “Don’t you dare take me out! You’re not taking me out of this game!” He looked at me, turned away, and smiled. “I’m not taking him out,” he muttered. We won the game.

There were plenty of moments on the mound when I didn’t hold up so well under pressure. But on that day, for that one afternoon, I was everything I’d ever wanted to be as a pitcher. As Pedro and Andy and Cole and Mariano and all the others get ready for the ’09 World Series, I’ll be looking for the nerves of steel. The man who can make that ball dance under the hot lights. The man who handles drama like Obama.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

A Need to Read All About It

Whenever I watch a sporting event closely, as I always do during the baseball playoffs, I think about the story I would be writing if I were still working as a sportswriter. Tonight, for example, as I’m watching John Lackey blank the Yankees in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, I think about the options: There’s the “momentum” story, on how quickly the pendulum can shift from one team to another; there’s the Lackey story, on the way in which he’s dominated in a must-win game (and will he be available in relief should there be a Game 7?); and there’s the “offense” story, on whether the Yankees really have enough hitting to (a) close out this series and (b) have a prayer against the mighty Phillies.

Of course, I don’t have a deadline to meet tonight; instead, I have classes to teach in the morning. I’m ready for those, and looking forward to them. But when I finish working tomorrow, I’ll look forward to reading what others did write about the game. In particular, I’ll be looking for the latest from my friend Steve Politi, with whom I went to college and who now serves as the lead sports columnist for the Star-Ledger of Newark.

Steve is one of the best sportswriters in America, and he’ll be writing brilliant stories for a long, long time. That is, unless newspapers cease to exist.

There has been so much written in recent months about the decline in readership among daily newspapers, thanks to the combination of Internet, television and radio news outlets. Newspapers have folded, slashed salaries, eliminated positions, and required their staff members to take furloughed vacations. It has been dismal before in the newspaper world, but never this bad.

And that, my friends, is more than a shame; it’s a national crisis. There are many reasons why America’s democracy has thrived for 233 years, not the least of which is the ability of daily newspapers to document the actions of government officials, business people, political leaders, law enforcement officers, entertainers and, yes, even sports teams. Newspapers provide an indispensible depth of coverage and professionalism, and they tell the day-to-day story of America better than any other form of communication we’ve ever created.

When we pick up a newspaper, we’re presented with a wide variety of stories and opinions, and many of the things we learn on those broadsheet pages are new to us. Many of the opinions expressed on those pages are different from our own, yet are there for us to read and consider. As Nicholas Kristof wrote in a March New York Times column, reading the news on-line allows us to self-select the news we read. That is not necessarily a good thing. “When we go online, each of us is our own editor, our own gatekeeper,” Kristof wrote. “We select the kind of news and opinions that we care most about … there’s pretty good evidence that we generally don’t truly want good information — but rather information that confirms our prejudices.” How can we truly learn when we’re looking for things we already know?

Some might argue that with so many people reading on-line, we’ll always be able to hold people accountable and keep democracy in place. But the news on-line, like the news on TV, is always dominated by images. And that means “balloon boy” stories will find more readers and viewers than stories about, say, elections or war atrocities. Sensationalism typically numbs us to the things that truly impact our lives.

And it’s not just the news section that delivers the goods when it comes to daily papers. When tomorrow’s Times and Star-Ledger appear on my driveway, they’ll provide information about area activities that I would never have known about otherwise. They’ll also tell me about new businesses that have opened in the area. And, yes, they’ll give me plenty of information about tonight’s Yankees game.

Things have changed in the ballgame since I started writing this post. The Yankees stormed back to take the lead against the Angels’ bullpen, then lost that lead – and the game – when their own pitching stumbled. Out of my original column ideas, the “momentum” story is the only one with legs. Steve is likely switching gears as we speak, finding a newer angle that will fit with the events of the past hour.

It’s not easy work. Never has been. But I know Steve will pull it off. Great newspapermen and women like him have been making newsprint sing for centuries. And I, for one, am still ready to read all about it.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sweet Dreams, Daddy

In my last blog entry, I wrote about losing my children to Neil Diamond. I wrote of the hope we all hold out, that our kids will embrace our own passions and hobbies, giving us the chance to spend quality time with our kids while also still enjoying the things we love.

For me, things got worse before they got better in that department. But, at least for a fleeting moment, they did get better.

First, the worse. I have asked, cajoled, pleaded and demanded that she please hold off on this music until at least Veterans Day. In the past two years, I have amended that to after Halloween. I cannot, will not, go any further than that. When it hits November 1, I only drive with her when I must. There’s no room for me anyway, as the entire passenger seat is filled with holiday CDs. I tell the girls that this is not normal, and that they should feel free to ask the woman to take these CDs out at any time. They’re sitting in the back, after all, so they’re held hostage to their mother’s two-month-long Christmas-music binge.

So it’s the first Sunday in October, the sky is blue, it’s 70 degrees, and the four of us are driving home from church. I am about to put on some pop music, or NPR, and maybe even find a song that I can tell the girls about. But before I can do so, this woman (I could refer to her as “Amy” or “my wife,” but I’m embarrassed to) says to the girls, “Should we put it on, guys?” They respond immediately: “Yes!”

She slips in a CD, and I hear the jingling bells. No, please. Then I hear Tom Petty. Oh, this can’t be. It is. He launches into a song called “Christmas All Over Again,” which is fun to hear on December 15. Once. Mind you, it is October 4th at this moment, and I am hearing this song. Katie, our older girl, immediately responds: “Yes, turn that up!”

I’m not going to bother with her. She’s lost already. I turn back to Chelsea, who at age 4 is still plenty malleable. “Chelsea,” I say, “it’s not too late. There’s still time – I can save you from this madness.”

Chelsea looks at me as if I’ve just offered to take away her favorite blanket. “I want this,” she says. “I love Christmas music.”

That woman next to me is now howling, pounding the steering wheel. “You haven’t worked hard enough, honey,” she says. “You’ve got to pound it into them. Pound it in.”

Insanity. First of all, I’m not pounding anything into my children. They should come to love whatever they want – as long as it’s not this. Which brings me to my second point – it is just wrong to be playing these songs on October 4th. I can’t sit in this car. As much as I hate to say it, I’ll take Elmo, Barney and Raffi yet again over hearing a Tom Petty holiday song two weeks removed from summertime. I’ll even take the Wiggles over this.

So, with parenting angst at its height, we come to this evening. This night is special to me because my mom and her Neil Diamond records are back in her own home, and my wife and her ho-ho-ho’s are out for the night. So it’s just me and the girls. We’re reading books and drawing, while Daddy catches the Cardinals-Dodgers playoff game in between pages of our Franklin book.

At one point, Chelsea looks at the TV and notices the gorgeous cardinal logo on the visiting team’s jerseys. Katie looks up as well and starts asking how the Dodgers got their team name. As I explain that they were named for “trolley dodgers” in old Brooklyn, the girls are talking about the trolleys they’ve seen, and we’re doing some vocab work, figuring out what the verb “to dodge” means. A few minutes in, they get it.

Katie wants me to tell her some other team names, and how they got started. I tell her about the 1960s Houston Colt .45s, and how they figured out that naming themselves after a gun was a bit over-the-top, and hence the Astros. She’s interested. She wants more. I talk about the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869, and how they became the Reds.

Out pops a baseball history book, and Katie wants to see photos of Babe Ruth. Then she’s asking about Lou Gehrig. I show her Joe DiMaggio, and tell her that her own great-grandfather pitched against him once (true story). She’s amazed at this, and responds, “So that means we’re famous!” I tell her about Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra, and Reggie Jackson.

We head up to bed, and she carries this five-pound baseball book up with her. As I’m putting Chelsea to sleep, she asks who Pete Rose is. Then she brings me a photo of Joe Carter, after his World Series-winning home run of 1993, and asks why he’s lying on the field surrounded by teammates. “Is he hurt?” she asks. “No,” I say, “he’s just overcome with joy.”

Katie asks me to tell them one more baseball story before bed. I go into the 1978 one-game playoff between the Yankees and Red Sox, and we’re talking about Bucky Dent’s big home run, and Lou Piniella’s game-saving play in the sun, and she just wants more. The girl can’t get enough. “Give me details,” she says.

This is too good. Beyond good. This is heaven on earth. I want to keep going, telling them more. But it’s after nine and they have to go to sleep. I sing Chelsea a song, and she’s out cold. I kiss Katie on the forehead, and wish her sweet dreams.

She doesn’t have to wish me the same; I got my dream already tonight. Tomorrow, I’m sure they’ll be back to Neil and Tom and Bing Crosby in that car. But tonight, they were in Daddy’s zone, and they liked it. Nobody’s taking that away.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Good Times Never Seemed So Good

I have tried, at various times in the past few years, to introduce the girls to my hobbies and passions. I bring them to a ballgame, play them a Springsteen CD, read them some of my writing, take them to Manhattan. They’re always interested, and I think they appreciate my sharing the things that I love to do without forcing them to like it, too.

Of course, I’d love it if Katie started wearing a CC Sabathia jersey, or if Chelsea started listening to “Born to Run.” But there’s no promise of that, of course. I’ll embrace the passions they develop, and encourage the girls to pursue those. That’s my job.

And yet, some things are just not fair.

I understand that the girls might not think it’s all that amazing that Derek Jeter broke the Yankees’ franchise record for hits. I know they might not want to sit down and watch his at-bats on TV. I know that the subtleties of Springsteen’s images of longing might be a bit over their heads. But please, I do not deserve this …

It’s my mother who hits the jackpot. Walks in the other day with a DVD, and says the girls just have to watch it. I listen to their conversation, and start shaking my head. It’s him again. Neil Diamond, live in concert from Madison Square Garden. The woman has seen this man in concert about two dozen times, and knows every single song he has ever recorded. In the world of pop culture, this man is beyond a passion for her. If she could buy a bottle of his sweat, she’d do it.

The girls know all about Neil Diamond – they’ve had no choice but to listen to him, and they’ve heard me groan whenever his music begins playing at their grandparents’ house. And yet …

They say sure. They’d love to watch the DVD.

I am cleaning the house, stewing with jealousy. I glance into the living room, and there the girls are, their eyes glued to the TV while this 68-year-old man, glittering with sequins, reaches out with his left arm and croons “I am … I said / to no one there / and no one heard at all, not even the chair.”

I could toss on “Thunder Road” right now, and dare the girls to tell me that “I Am … I Said” can hold a candle to my guy’s music. But I know they’d ignore me. “Look at him work the crowd,” my mom says, and the girls watch intently as this man, looking like a washed-up figure skater, pauses mid-chorus and brings 20,000 baby boomers to their knees. He continues, hitting the chorus with that nasally voice, the “yeahhhhh,” the eyes closed tight, the arm always reaching out toward a fan who’s frothing at the mouth. I try to mock him in the living room, and the girls wave me off. “Stop it, Daddy,” Katie says.

His signature song comes on, and the girls can’t control themselves. As the chorus to “Sweet Caroline” nears, Katie jumps onto the arm of our couch, pumping her fist in the air as she cries out at the top of her voice: “Good times never seemed so good / So good! So good! So good!”

It’s time for bed, and they don’t want to stop the DVD. My mom promises them she’ll watch the rest of it with them tomorrow, and they consent to that. They’ll have to wait another day to see how he works the crowd in “Love on the Rocks.” What a shame.

My whole life, I’ve had to listen to this guy and his pop songs. Several of them are catchy, I’ll grant him that. But so many others are painfully mediocre. For years, I longed for the day when I could get a little more highbrow with the music I played for my own kids. And just as they’re reaching the age when they might actually listen to a few more songs of mine, in swoops Nana with her DVD.

It’s just a matter of months now before she takes Katie to see the guy in concert. Soon, Katie will be wearing a Neil Diamond concert T-shirt, and asking me to buy her an iPod so she can listen to his songs while doing her homework. She’ll buy an old VCR copy of that awful “The Jazz Singer” film remake, and watch it endlessly. She’ll name her first kid “Shilo” or “Soolaimon.”

OK, maybe that’s going too far. It’s time to take a deep breath, let go of this petty envy, and chalk one up for Mom. Music tastes aside, she found a way to pass along her passion to another generation. And really, how awesome is that?

I’ll get my chance someday. For now, I’ll have to watch as this 63-year-old woman sings “Forever in Blue Jeans” along with her granddaughters. I can think of much worse. You go, girls.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Beauty and the Bucs

You start your trip to PNC Park by walking over the Roberto Clemente Bridge. It’s a gorgeous yellow bridge in a city filled with gorgeous yellow bridges. On game days, the bridge is closed to vehicles, so pedestrians can have it all to themselves. As you cross the Allegheny River, you see riverboats in the water below, a sparkling skyline behind you, and the ballpark itself in front of you. As you reach the gate entrance, you come upon a tall statue of Clemente himself, just finishing a swing for all time.

This eight-year-old stadium, which the Pittsburgh Pirates call home, is one of the most spectacular ballparks in America. We finally had the chance to check out the park last month when we visited Amy’s uncle, who lives in nearby Beaver, Pa. Uncle Bill, who is in his mid-80s, was up for a Bucs game, so we drove into the city with the girls. When I got to the ticket window, the attendant there told me that with my kids there, we could all have a student discount rate that night of $10 per ticket on the left-field line. I said, well, sure.

So just to recap, we started this trip to a ballgame by (a) hooking up with family, (b) walking across a pedestrian bridge, (c) looking at a fine work of art and (d) getting surprisingly affordable tickets to a major-league baseball game. Once in the park, we had a crystal-clear view of the bridge and skyline, while also feeling very close to the ballfield itself (the park has a capacity of just over 38,000). Uncle Bill had been here before, so he regaled me with stories of his previous trips to this field, and to the Pirates’ previous parks, Three Rivers Stadium and Forbes Field. The girls, who are usually a bit antsy by 7:00 at night, were surprisingly calm throughout the night game. Even they could tell: This setting was truly perfect.

Pittsburgh, Pa., is perhaps the most underappreciated city in America. Take a ride up the Duquesne Incline funicular to the top of Mount Washington, and find yourself staring down at a bustling, modern city skyline, as well as the dynamic convergence of Pittsburgh’s three rivers: the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio. It is a view unlike any other, and the trip up the hill on a red trolley car, scaling Mount Washington at a 30-degree incline, is worth the trip in and of itself.

Finish your Incline trip and drive into the Strip District to grab a sandwich from Primanti Brothers. Pick your deli meat, then watch the cook stack cheese, French fries, cole slaw and a tomato on top of your meat – all of it between two slices of Italian bread. Take a bite. Then another. Amazing.

Spend hours in the Carnegie Science Center, checking out everything from a submarine to a robotics exhibit to a planetarium. Savor some pop art at the Andy Warhol Museum. Visit the city’s colleges – Duquesne, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh, to name a few. Visit the National Aviary, take a riverboat cruise, and – if you’ve got connections – visit Heinz Field on a Sunday in autumn to watch that football team with the six Super Bowl rings as it once again bolsters Steel City pride. More than anything else, though, just get yourself to the riverside and walk. Take it all in.

Later this month, Pittsburgh will serve as host to the G-20 economic summit. Reporters from around the world will be there, and this aesthetically pleasing city will get its due. Stories will be written around the world praising the city of Pittsburgh for its appearance, its mettle, and its culture. It will all be well-deserved. Uncle Bill knew this a long time ago. He knows enough to stay the hell out of town that week, but he’ll be watching TV at home and smiling at the glowing reports on Pittsburgh. “Come check out Beaver,” he’ll say to the TV. “We’ve got a beautiful town up here, too.” And he’s right; they do.

If you’re going to bolster your city’s image, it’s helpful to do it with a winner. When the visitor looks at Heinz Field, he or she recognizes this as the new home of the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers. As for PNC Park, well, it’s easy enough to connect the stadium with the Pirates – they’ve been playing baseball in this city since 1891, after all. But this franchise, with its five world championships and numerous Hall of Famers, is not at all a winning team in 2009. In fact, this year will mark the 17th straight losing season for the Pirates. That’s the longest losing streak ever in any of the nation’s pro sports leagues.

That’s not pretty, to say the least. When we visited the Pirates, they were hosting the Phillies. There were more than 17,000 fans present, but half of them were wearing Philadelphia red. When Pirates fans tried a cheer of "Let's Go Bucs," they were quickly drowned out. When Philadelphia's Ryan Howard hit a go-ahead home run, the stadium erupted in cheers for the visiting team.

We were walking back across the Clemente Bridge by the time Howard touched home plate; the girls were tired. The city was still sparkling, and the water in the Allegheny glimmered as riverboats cruised along. Pittsburgh was steeling itself for the flurry of visitors that late September will bring. As the economists, entrepreneurs, reporters and world leaders descend on the city, the Pirates will be home, playing baseball in their jewel of a park. It’s a good week to have your sports team playing home games.

Just imagine the excitement, though, if Pittsburgh were actually in a pennant race. You’d have had to grab your binoculars and take the Incline up just to see the game live. Or you’d have had to catch the Bucs on TV with a sandwich in your face at Primanti.

That’s the kind of thing this city deserves. It’s got the beauty; now it needs the buzz. Come on, Pirates – make the place proud.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Tell Me What to Think

I am tired of the experts. Take them away. Far away. I want some peace.

There was a time, about 90 years ago, when all Americans learned about current events from people who wrote for newspapers and magazines. These folks, we hoped, had done their due diligence, and were presenting us with the straight facts. There were times, of course, when print journalists took advantage of our reliance on them, even going so far as to provoke wars that we couldn’t see. But for the most part, journalists took their responsibility quite seriously.

As the middle of the 20th century unfolded in a blaze of technological glory, radio and television journalists were added to the fold. They began as experts – a Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley portraying an air of distinction and class, presenting us the news without commentary. Tough TV reporters, from Dan Rather to Ted Koppel, brought us a powerful and informative combination of words and images. They worked hard, and we trusted their reports.

The past 30 years have brought a well-documented technological revolution, one that has given us the ability to do so much more than we could decades ago, and with such breathtaking celerity. I’m as pleased as the next guy that I can use my debit card, and watch cable TV, and check my e-mail, and send a text to my wife. Amazing stuff.

But there’s always a price that we pay for the progress we make. In the case of journalism, the proliferation of cable stations and web sites has led to a fervent competition for readers and viewers. Whatever gives your ratings a boost, you go ahead and do. Whatever increases your number of web-site hits, you do.

And what most of these 21st-century news sources have found is that the modern media consumer likes an abundance of commentary. When we’ve got the ability to switch channels and web sites with the click of a button, we’re much less likely to spend any time on a point of view with which we disagree. So if your consumer is self-selecting his news anyway, why not toss out a bunch of opinion-based “news,” and know that if your opinions match his point of view, he’s sticking with you? Create a cable show or a blog or a web site, put someone on a soap box, and let the consumers come to you.

This is where we find ourselves in this summer of 2009. And the results are not pretty. It’s not the details of the health care reform act that we get – it’s the spin, and hence the misinformation. It’s not the economic background we get, to better understand how our financial system works – no, instead we get the advice, much of it conflicting, on what we should do with our money. Even in matters such as sports, it’s not the news we focus on so much as the expert “fantasy sports” consequences of David Wright’s injury or Brett Favre’s comeback.

We live in a world of shouting voices, all of them trying to tell us what to do. They desperately want us to spend time with them, and they’re doing the same thing that mountebanks were doing 150 years ago, selling quack medicines from atop a platform in town squares across the country. They’re playing on our insecurities, telling us that they’ve got the solution to what ails us, and that we ignore them at our own peril. They just have a slicker presentation, with graphics and YouTube spots.

It’s quiet tonight. I’ve got the TV off, and I’m getting ready to sit down and get back to the Dave Eggers book I’ve been reading. I can hear the crickets outside, and they sound nice. They sound like they get along, and even appreciate the value of a little consensus once in awhile.

I’ll return to the madness in the morning. But when I do, I’ll try to fight off those insecurities, and look for the straight news first. I want to make up my own mind, and take my time in doing it.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Heat - and Sweet - of the Moment

Pfoooough.

Slick, gray skin. Dark eyes stare at us from just beneath the water.

Splash.

Translucent shadows of the animal streak beneath our red kayak.

Pfoooough.

Water sprouts up through his blowhole as he propels himself above the water. His dorsal fin hits the waves first, followed by his muscular body, then his tail fin. He keeps his eyes on us as he slips beneath the water, as if to say, “What’s up, kids?”

He is toying with us, this dolphin, swimming laps around us with a buddy. He’s trusting that we’re not there to harm him, and so we all hang out in the glistening waters of the Atlantic for a while. After a few minutes, the friend eggs him on, and he leaves us.

Breathless.

It was a top-10 moment for Amy and me, as we sat on our kayak off the Jersey Shore, watching these two dolphins from no more than five feet away. We found ourselves amazed at how, in a moment’s time, something so extraordinary can happen.

Throughout most of our lives, things don’t change a whole lot from one moment to the next. But then there are times when the dolphins appear out of nowhere, and we’re given the chance to open our eyes, take it all in, and savor.

There are also moments when things change dramatically for the worse. Take David Wright, a supremely talented New York Mets baseball player, who awaited a pitch on Saturday afternoon from San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain. Wright has seen a lot of fastballs in his life, even faster ones than Cain’s 93-mile-an-hour heater. But this one had a different trajectory, and as it sailed at Wright’s head, the Mets third baseman was unable to dodge it. Five days later, the concussion fallout has Wright resting on the disabled list, hoping for a full recovery.

It all changed in a moment’s time.

Our most glorious, and most trying, moments often come at us without much notice at all. But what we do with those moments afterward – that’s what makes us who we are. For my wife, seeing those dolphins was not enough. She came home and told our kids all about it, told her parents and my parents about it, told her sister, told the hot dog guy at the beach. Sent a status update to her Facebook friends. She wanted to share the moment with others, perhaps brightening their day a bit. This wasn’t a moment she wanted to keep only to herself.

As for David Wright, he had already prepared for his moment of extreme pain, although he didn’t know it at the time. The New York Times published a story just two days before Wright’s injury about a new baseball helmet that Rawlings is developing – one that the company claims can withstand the impact of a 100-mile-per-hour fastball. Some of the major-league players interviewed for this story said they would never wear the helmet, as it’s too bulky and has too much padding for their liking. Wright, on the other hand, said this to The Times: “If it provides more protection, then I’m all for it. I’m not worried about style or looking good out there. I’m worried about keeping my melon protected.”

And two days after the pitch smashed into his helmet, and he was sent to the hospital, and the Mets worried for their slugger – two days later, there was David Wright at Citi Field shaking the hand of the man who had thrown that ball. Publicly displaying his forgiveness to the young fans out there who had wondered how their hero would respond.

The melon. That’s what David Wright wanted to protect. It’s also the name for a part of the dolphin’s body, at the front of the head. It’s used to communicate, via sonar. To share.

They come at us, these moments – sometimes faster than a fish in the ocean, or a 93-mile-an-hour heater. We can’t accurately predict them, try as we may.

But we can think an awful lot about the way we’ll handle whatever we get. That, in the end, is what people notice about each other.

Measuring Heart

Donald worked with flowers for a living. He arranged bouquets for weddings (my own included), funerals (my grandparents among them), and just about every major event you can imagine. He put food on his family’s table, loved his wife and kids, and cared deeply for his employees.

So it was no surprise that Donald’s family, friends and employees showed up, tears in their eyes, to pay their respects when he died of cancer this past weekend. Flowers were there, too – dozens and dozens of colorful bouquets. At first, this may have seemed unnecessary for a florist, but as you looked around the funeral parlor, it felt perfect. This was what he did – he made beauty out of everyday stuff. So a tribute to his life was not complete without the roses and lilies.

So many of us work hard to find beauty in the ordinary, and yet we give ourselves such a hard time about it. We worry about whether we’re earning enough money, and whether we’re impressing our peers, parents and children enough with the things we’ve accomplished.

But there isn’t any salary range for personal fulfillment or community service. Beyond his flower shop, Donald taught developmentally disabled adults how to grow flowers in a greenhouse. He also taught his wife’s elementary-school students how to plant and care for flowers. He did these things, and didn’t necessarily care who knew about them. This was part of who he was. He didn’t become rich helping these adults and kids find beauty in the bloom of a flower. But the richness of what he did there cannot be measured.

You hear about ballplayers going to hospitals sometimes, and it’s like a toss-in piece of information. What matters most these days is the player’s WHIP or OPS or VORP. Jeff Francoeur, an often-maligned ballplayer due to his underachievement as a hitter, has been lighting up the public-relations department of his new team, the New York Mets, thanks to his energetic trips to visit kids in need this summer.

Francoeur has to hit the breaking ball better in order to play baseball for years and years. But he doesn’t need that skill in order to win in life. All he needs is an eye toward personal fulfillment, and an understanding of what success really is. He can talk to Donald’s kids if he wants. He can talk to a lot of us, who might not make as much money as Jeff but know what it feels like to coach a Little League team, or work in a soup kitchen, or raise a child. Or listen.

It doesn’t take much to make this beauty happen. Just a lot of heart.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Champions of the Boardwalk

Every summer, Amy and I take one night out of our visit to my parents’ home in Cape May in order to brave the fiercest of summer elements. I’m not talking about fishing or surfing or nightswimming. I’m talking about walking the Wildwood boardwalk.

If there is a kingdom of kitsch, this is it. Come and ride the Sea Serpent coaster! Come and take a monster truck out on the beach! Come and win a 3-foot-tall stuffed bear by tossing softballs in a basket! Come and see the 4-D movie experience! Come and take your picture dressed in old-time clothing! Come and hit the live target with paintball guns!

The lights, the sounds, the constant movement, the mobs of people, the children awake far beyond their bedtimes, the tram cars rumbling toward you, the sweet smell of fresh funnel cake. It is all there. And yet, as hectic as this place is, it’s impossible for us to resist that one visit. It’s partly for nostalgia, since we’ve both been coming down here for more than 30 years, and partly for anthropology, as there is just some awesome people-watching to be done here on these wooden boards.

And when you’re watching the people, you start with the T-shirts. Boardwalks such as Wildwood have more T-shirt stores than any tourist spot outside of Times Square. But while Times Square has the typical New York shirts, places like Wildwood have a delicious gumbo of options. And the boardwalk walkers buy them all.

You begin with the celebrity T-shirts. When I started coming to Wildwood more than 30 years ago, it was the Farrah Fawcett and Shaun Cassidy silkscreens that sold the most. This year, the Michael Jackson memorial shirts abound, but so do “Lil’ Wayne for President” designs.

After the celebrity shirts, you move on to shirts that play off of pop culture buzzwords and images. In years past, the boardwalk was filled with T-shirts proclaiming “I Shot J.R.” or “Where’s the Beef?” This year, there are an inordinate number of Sesame Street shirts (not sure why there’s such an interest in Grover this year). Another T-shirt played off of today’s technology by proclaiming, “YouTube MySpace and I’ll Google Your Yahoo.”

Which brings us to the raunchy slogans (I think we’re there already, although I’m still trying to figure out that Yahoo part). The “Gettin’ Dirty in Jersey” shirts seem very popular this year, as do a number of graphic designs involving the universal symbols for men’s and women’s restrooms.

It’s a gumbo, all right: In one store, we saw a SpongeBob silkscreen design next to a Jesus Christ design, next to Borat, which was next to Barack Obama, which was next to a design stating, “Boobies Make Me Happy.”

As tempting as the aforementioned designs may be, this year’s boardwalk walkers are choosing one T-shirt above all others, and it has nothing to do with Lil’ Wayne, Grover or Google. It is the red Philadelphia Phillies T-shirt.

The defending champs are everywhere you look, from the Ferris wheel to the pizza stands. There are World Series shirts. “World Champions” designs. And the names and uniform numbers of virtually every starter on this year’s team. In just two hours, we saw no less than seven Phillies players’ names on boardwalk T-shirts: Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, and even Cliff Lee, who hasn’t even been on the team for two weeks yet.

The Jersey Shore is always flush with Philadelphians, but it is rare that this city has the chance to flaunt a sports championship. They are doing it in 2009, that’s for sure. For me, this brought back memories of the summer when I was 10, when the Phillies were fresh off their other baseball title. That year, the boardwalk was full of Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton jerseys, and despite my allegiance to the Yankees I found myself feeling happy for these fans, as they had finally seen the Phillies win it all for the first time since the team’s origin in 1883.

This summer, 28 years later, another generation of boardwalk walkers have a chance to show off their long-awaited glory. And even though Ernie, Bert, SpongeBob and Lil’ Wayne are selling like hotcakes, they can’t keep up with Chase Utley this year. The Phillies are number one. For the second time in 126 years. Please, gloat all you want. Eat a funnel cake. You deserve it.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

There's No Place Like Home

There are times when it’s a good idea to move, and then there are times when the idea of moving is more impressive than the actual move itself – times when we find ourselves sitting among the boxes in our brand-new home and realize we’re already missing things about the old place. The feel of a wooden banister. The angle of the morning sunlight in your bedroom window. The route you took in walking to the park.

Two cases in point: the New York Mets and New York Yankees.

The Mets, a middle-aged baseball team from Flushing, played for 47 years in a stadium commonly referred to as a “dump” by many of the individuals who played in it and visited it. Shea Stadium was not a fabulous place for watching or participating in a game, so many Mets fans – and players – were thrilled to see the team invest time and resources into the new park now known as Citi Field (until a bank merger changes that name, of course). When you take your first step into Citi Field, and find yourself marveling at the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, you know that the Mets have chosen a better home. When you enter the stadium itself and look at the kinky angles of the field itself, you are certain this is a much better ballpark. It’s got charm even with the airplanes still roaring overhead.

The Yankees, a century-old team from the Bronx, played nearly 90 years in a stadium commonly referred to as a “cathedral” by many of the people who played in it, visited it, and wrote about it. Even with its somewhat gaudy refurbishing in the mid-1970s, Yankee Stadium remained one of the most charismatic and breathtaking locations in the history of sport. Walk onto the upper deck from the dark tunnels inside the stadium, look out onto that field, and immediately you’d lose your breath at the vast sea of green, the glimmering monuments beyond them, and the brilliant blue of the padded outfield walls.

The hallways inside the stadium provided no view of the field. There was not enough room to build dozens of luxury boxes, and very little room to add restaurants. Apparently, these were problems. So the Yankees, in the midst of a long stretch of success, found most fans receptive to the idea of a new home. And now they have one. It is a most impressive structure – with a giant “Great Hall” in the entranceway, and a promenade extending around the entire park so that fans can eat their hot dogs, walk around the park, and still see the game. There is a museum, with its one-hour wait during the game, and all kinds of places to eat and drink, from the Hard Rock CafĂ© inside the park to Tommy Bahama’s Bar overlooking 161st Street.

It has everything you’d ever want in a ballpark. It’s like the six-bedroom house you never thought you’d be able to afford, and now you can. So why not go for it? The only problem is, once you’re there, that charm you remember from your older place is gone.

Monument Park? Sure, that’s still there – tucked beneath the bulging, black-tinted windows of the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar. The imposing upper deck? It’s there, too, just not as big, since they needed more room for pricey luxury suites and lower-level seating. The field? It’s there, of course –just no longer the centerpiece of the place, as there are so many other distractions to grab your eye. It’s hard to pull your eye away from a baseball field, but damned if the Yankees don’t pull it off, from the 59-by-101-foot video board in center field, to the blinding white cement of the promenade, to the multiple levels of seating, to the additional signage on the outfield walls, to the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar, you get the point. Great things still happen on that field, but it doesn’t feel like a place where mystique and aura live anymore. This new ballpark has a museum you can visit; the old place was a museum.

So now they’ve got fences, black netting and scaffolding around the old Yankee Stadium, and we’re left with a new park that costs a lot to enter, but doesn’t carry the memories and the comfort with it. We’re going to have to make the best of it, somehow.

Home. My wife says it’s time we take a look at the houses now on the market. Might be a good time for a change, she says. Let’s give it a try.

I trust her, and will look with her. But I know that new homes are not always an automatic upgrade, even if they come with big-screen video boards. Sometimes, you walk in and can’t find yourself anymore. You’re disoriented. And regretful.

Throughout the new Yankee Stadium, there are dozens of employees dressed in navy-blue shirts and khaki pants, holding up small signs that read “How May I Help You?” At first, I saw this as a wonderful gesture on the part of the team to help fans navigate the new place. But now, after three visits, I think it’s something more. These people are there because so many of us have lost our way when we walk into that “Great Hall.” The employees may help me find the bathroom, but they can’t direct me toward the mystique.

Unless, of course, they’re willing to walk across the street with me, and tear through the black netting.

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Trade That Wasn't

So the July 31st deadline has come and gone, and the deal did not get done. Sure, Victor Martinez, Jake Peavy and Scott Rolen were sent from one baseball team to another, making the fans in Boston, Chicago and Cincinnati quite happy. But the big deal just didn’t come through.

Here at the Hynes home, Katie and Chelsea were unable to trade their dad today.

They did try. Katie sat down with Dad and laid out the reasons. “Dad, here’s my list of the top four things you’re not good at as a dad. Number one, you make us eat too much healthy food. Number two, you don’t let us watch enough TV. Number three, you make us clean too much. And number four, you hurt our hair when you try to brush it.”

I told Katie that out of those four flaws, I was actually proud of three of them. She wouldn’t have any of it. And, as July comes to a close, Katie is wondering if she can deal with another 5 ½ weeks of this. My wife, you see, is working full-time this summer while I stay home with the girls. This is something I’m enjoying immensely, and it has given the girls and me time to do everything from reading to trying out new playgrounds to playing baseball in the backyard.

But every splendid summer has its dog days. Today, when Katie and Chelsea spent much of the morning pushing each other – culminating in Chelsea hitting the deck inside a Stop ‘n’ Shop, I chose not to spank my kids in the produce aisle, but instead to promptly take away their privilege of eating dessert tonight. That, of course, led to the moaning refrain: “Mommy!

“Mommy’s not here, girls, she’s working.”

“We know, but we want her. Mommy!

“Why don’t you start by not hitting each other?”

“Mommy!”

Good grief, as Charlie Brown once said. As always, the mutual loss of a privilege led both girls to bond together in a pact against Daddy. Suddenly, there was no more pushing – just a good solid agreement that life with Mommy is sooo much better. They hit the phone lines, dialed up some teams, but couldn’t find the right trade partner.

(I thought about making a few calls myself, to be honest, but it’s just too hard to make a trade-deadline deal when you’ve got to vacuum up the 4-year-old’s lunch because she chose not to eat over her plate.)

In the end, we were stuck with each other. And, well, I’d like to think that the girls are not too heartbroken. After all, we did start our day with a fruit smoothie made by yours truly (flaw #1). Both girls downed their smoothies in less than a minute, as they always do, and Chelsea even asked for more. Later on, we went to the library so that they could receive prizes for reading books, something they did with the television off (flaw #2). In the afternoon, they even helped their dad clean the house in advance of a family visit (flaw #3). And at no point today did I ask to comb their hair.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman warned last week that the best trade-deadline deals are sometimes the ones you don’t make. He knew that his talented young players were too good to give up, even for the tantalizing promise of something new. Katie and Chelsea don't work with Mr. Cashman, but they must have come to a similar conclusion today. Even without dessert.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

An Iron Horse in the Library

Every summer, the girls and I read tons of books together. We drive over to our local library, pick out a dozen or more picture books and chapter books, and bring them home to read on our living-room floor. For every 100 minutes the girls read, the library gives them a small prize. Our house is filled with plastic frogs and glow-in-the-dark tops and fuzzy fish, all small trophies for the girls’ literary endeavors.

The other day, Katie and I sat down and read a picture book chronicling the life story of Yankee great Lou Gehrig. She was immediately drawn to the book’s information on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and asked me more questions than I could answer. She noticed the vast difference between Gehrig the muscle-bound Iron Horse and Gehrig the sick man. We talked about the baseball, but mostly we talked about the man’s life. She paid attention.

This was a teachable moment, and also one close to my heart. I was born 30 years after Lou Gehrig died. But his gratitude and calm in the face of defeat has always struck me as supremely heroic. When Amy and I drew up potential names for our kids – unaware of whether it would be a boy or a girl – I found a quick favorite for boys’ names: Luke Eric. While the middle name is my brother’s first name and the first name is both beautiful and biblical, there is a special catch to these two names. Say them together: Luke Eric. Lukeric. Lou Gehrig. Perfect.

We had girls, of course, so the name is unused for now. But as Katie and I discussed Lou Gehrig, I brought her over to the computer, and called up YouTube. I showed her Gehrig’s famous Yankee Stadium speech from July 4, 1939, in which he spoke so eloquently of his good fortune in life. She watched him speak. She paid attention.

Yesterday afternoon, my mom took the girls to Yankee Stadium – Chelsea’s first Yankee game, and Katie’s second. Amy, Eric and I came along as well, and the girls enjoyed it all – from the Dippin’ Dots to the giant scoreboard to our walk around the park to Mariano Rivera’s slow jog from bullpen to mound.

Katie’s most lasting memory, though, came when that giant scoreboard showed a live photo of a gentleman in a wheelchair. His name is George Murray, he’s 38 years old, and he has ALS. Murray was the Yankees’ guest through a special week of community initiatives known as HOPE Week (HOPE stands for “Helping Others Persevere & Excel”). The team went all-out in bringing Murray and his family to the park yesterday, and his story was told in between innings earlier in the game.

Murray’s optimism was clear as he spoke on-screen, and Katie and I could feel the spirit of Gehrig as we watched him and his family. The game was fun, but this man’s story was real. With all the wide-eyed sensitivity she possesses, Katie paid attention.

We’re not yet ready to read Tuesdays With Morrie, perhaps the most famous book about a person with ALS. But we’ve moved on to a book about children with disabilities, which Katie picked out at the library. She wants to know what cerebral palsy is, and how someone can be born with spina bifida. We’re reading, and we’re learning.

Funny how the story of a baseball player can lead to so much more.