Monday, March 30, 2009

Thirty Years

I was wearing a navy blue Yankees jacket, I remember that. And denim overalls, too. They were brand-new, and I’d never wear them again. Not after the doctors had finished cutting through them to get to my broken body.

It was a Saturday night – March 31, 1979, and I was going out to dinner with my parents. I was 8 years old, and my brother, Eric, was 5. My dad had just dropped us off on Forest Avenue, across the street from the restaurant, while he went to park. My mom held Eric’s hand and mine, and we were waiting for a clearing so we could cross the street. I have no idea why I did this, but as we stood on the street, just inside the curb, I let go of her hand. And started out into the street.

I got halfway across the street. But then there was that car, traveling toward me in the far lane at a pretty good speed. I started to run diagonally, but wasn’t able to get out of the way fast enough. I went flying into the air, landing on my head in the gutter. My mother screamed. People all around the restaurant sprinted toward my body as fast as they could – my dad, who’d seen it as well, the first among them …

I’ve been feeling a bit depressed lately. About career stuff. I’m 38 years old, and it’s nearly 10 years since I made the non-traditional move of switching from full-time journalist to full-time teacher. I wanted more one-on-one interaction with young people, to inspire and encourage them the way so many teachers and pastors had done for me when I was young. I’ve found teaching to be fulfilling, as I had hoped it would be, and I’m proud of myself for working so hard at it and making a difference in the lives of others.

But, as with most teachers, I don’t make a lot of money. And so when I look around sometimes, I get envious at what others have. I think about the car we can’t afford, the vacation we can’t take, the towns we can’t even think about moving to. I look at our TV, our camera, our sofa – all functioning, but weathered with age. I want to upgrade my life.

And yet …

Thirty years ago tomorrow, I was struck by that car on a dark street in Staten Island. The car’s impact sent me up, rather than down, which saved my life. I don’t remember much about that first week, but I did eventually learn that I had broken my right femur and hip bone. I was in traction at Staten Island Hospital for six weeks as the bones healed. Eventually, I developed a slight seizure disorder, possibly spurred by the accident. My parents were the ones more permanently scarred by this event, though, to the point where even today they still look after me sometimes as though I’m 8 years old (I am sure I'd do the same). My brother, too, can still recall the image of his only sibling tossed in the air like a rag doll. Our family, in an instant, was nearly shattered.

I was driving home tonight, heading west on I-78 through the Watchung Reservation. I spotted something on the side of the road – a deer, perhaps. I slowed the car down a few miles per hour and found myself wondering for a moment what would happen if that deer had darted into the highway and caused a fatal collision for both of us. If I had just a few moments left to live, what would be the final thoughts in my mind? Would I die wishing that I’d earned a few thousand more, or bought the girls a new TV on my final day?

Or would I think about how much I’d want to see their faces again, or hear my wife’s voice, or eat a meal with my parents, or spend some time talking baseball with my brother? Would I think about the achievements unaccomplished, or would I think about the unbelievable, underappreciated joy of moments spent with the people I love?

I have every right to think about my career, and to care about it deeply. But if there’s one thing that March 31, 1979 taught me, it’s that perspective and gratitude are everything in life. It can all end so quickly. And if it doesn’t – if you do get another shot, as this 8-year-old in the Yankee jacket was given that night – then you might want to lean more toward the joy than the jealousy, and more toward the things you have than the things you don’t.

There’s a little scar on my right shin, left over from that cast I wore for a month and a half. The skin has a different texture there, on that inch-wide scar. It’s smoother. Softer. More delicate. Kind of like the hand of an 8-year-old. Or life itself.

Sunday, March 15, 2009


I recently finished reading What is the What with some of my 12th-grade English students. The book, written by Dave Eggers, tells the tortuous life story of a Sudanese refugee. The man, named Valentino Achak Deng, survived unspeakable horrors during the second Sudanese civil war. Valentino fled to Ethiopia by foot, then on foot again to Kenya, before making his way to America after more than a decade in refugee camps. After experiencing so much suffering and pain, Deng still found the strength to tell his story to Eggers, who turned it into a work of both witness and of art.

The courage, perseverance and dignity of Valentino is astounding to any reader, but particularly so to suburban American teen-agers. His is so unlike most of the stories they read or view in today’s news outlets. There are no tabloid romances in here. No tales of steroid use among ballplayers. No billion-dollar bailouts. Valentino’s story also takes us about as far away from our distracting, multi-media world as we can get. There aren’t any iPhones, PlayStations, Blu-ray movies or text messages in this book. It’s a lot simpler, a lot starker, and a lot more sobering.

Time and time again, many of my students talked about how distant this story felt from the lives they have led so far. Yet, they also spoke of the perspective and deeper insight they had gained from reading it. Having read the book twice myself, I can certainly echo my students’ wise words.

Sudan has experienced a nearly unfathomable degree of suffering and injustice in recent decades. My students are aware of Darfur, and they’ve connected the suffering there to that found in the Holocaust literature they’ve read. But they also know that there is plenty of suffering much closer to home, from families who lost their homes in New Orleans, to individuals suffering from loss of jobs, to those who don’t have enough money for food and shelter. As they reflect upon this book, and as they prepare to enter the world beyond high school, I can only hope that my students remember Valentino’s experience when the opportunity to serve others presents itself.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Madness & Fantasy of March

So it’s that time of year when millions of men and women put aside those stories about economic depressions and international crises and health-care reform, only to take out the sports section, study the experts’ predictions, and make their own picks.

It is, of course, the time of year we call “March Madness.” But in 2009, that term doesn’t apply solely to the NCAA basketball tournaments. No, this third month of the year has come to be known for much more in the world of sports. As fantasy sports continue to grow exponentially, March has also become the season for fantasy baseball drafts. For some, this means selecting players on a computer for two hours on a Saturday morning. For others, it means sitting in a living room for an entire day drafting players in a league auction.

Many people call either of these options a grand waste of time, and they are most certainly entitled to that opinion. But the fantasy craze is not going anywhere, and it has quickly developed into one of our national pastimes. I have found that when it’s given a small compartment in my life, fantasy baseball can be a blast – a wonderful way to unwind for 30 minutes. When given a larger place in my life – say, the master suite – it becomes a complete hindrance between me and the life I’d genuinely like to live.

I’ll give it a try this year, for the fifth time in my adult life. But as I think about which players to draft, I’ll do so with an eye glued to that other March competition – the one involving real athletes in lose-and-go-home contests. The NCAA Tournaments – men’s and women’s – are a true sports fantasy, as they feature more drama and intensity than anything this side of the Olympics. I can’t wait.

As I’m watching those first-round games next week, I’ll likely have my Sporting News fantasy-baseball guidebook on my lap to read during commercials. If I’m getting tired, I might find myself drifting off into some sort of March Mixture. Such as …

The Sweet 16 of Sluggers. Best hitter on the planet, folks, and just 16 players left in the regional semifinals. The matchups:
Top seed Alex Rodriguez vs. 16th-seed Lance Berkman.
Albert Pujols (2) vs. Mark Teixeira (15).
Hanley Ramirez (3) vs. Carlos Beltran (14).
David Wright (4) vs. Manny Ramirez (13).
Matt Holliday (5) vs. Chase Utley (12).
Grady Sizemore (6) vs. Miguel Cabrera (11).
Josh Hamilton (7) vs. Ryan Braun (10).
And Jose Reyes (8) vs. Ryan Howard (9).

Who makes it to the Elite Eight in your pool? I’m going with A-Rod, Pujols, Hanley, Manny, Holliday, Cabrera, Hamilton and Howard. That brings us to quite a final eight. A-Rod versus Howard? I’ll take Rodriguez. Pujols against Hamilton? Sticking with Albert. Hanley against Cabrera? Sorry, kid, but I’ll take Miguel. Manny against Holliday? Manny in a romp.

Your Final Four – A-Rod against Manny. Pujols against Cabrera.

I’ll leave that selection up to you. Just in case you were wondering, though, my champion plays in a West Coast offense.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Baseball, Meet Peanut Butter

I keep looking for reasons to feel proud of baseball. I peak at the headlines, in search of stories that will make this beautiful game look as gorgeous to me now as it was when I was 8 or 9. But I keep falling short.

I see the same names in the headlines each day, and for the same reasons: Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Miguel Tejada, Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi. Some days, I wonder why anyone would choose to become a fan of a sport in which there has been so much cheating.

I look a little further, and I see a general manager resigning amidst allegations of kickbacks from signing bonuses. I glimpse deeper, and I see stories of men signed to contracts in the millions, yet club employees fired in order to pinch pennies. Every day, I see a new story about a man who, in the midst of a global recession, continues to turn down an offer to earn $45 million over the next two years, just to play left field and hit baseballs.

What is the point? Why am I still reading about this sport? What would be the reason to follow a game that has lost its way so wildly?

I can’t say I have a convincing answer to these questions. I don’t think I can persuade anyone why this sport is worth their time more than, say, watching a movie or tooling around on Facebook or iTunes.

But, then again, I’ve been thinking about peanut butter lately.

It’s been a couple of months now that we’ve been reading about the salmonella outbreak traced to a peanut company in Georgia. We’ve seen hundreds of peanut-butter products recalled, and read of hundreds stricken and several believed to have been killed by the salmonella, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Federal investigators are now claiming that the Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakely, Georgia, knowingly shipped contaminated peanut butter, and had mold growing on its ceiling and walls. The company has filed for bankruptcy protection.

Unethical actions have led to sickness, death, fear and unemployment. Another national shame has enveloped our country.

And yet, I do love my peanut butter.

I have, of course, made sure to avoid all recalled peanut-butter products. But as for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, they remain a staple of my lunchtime diet. I expect they always will.

I am separating the product itself from those responsible for manufacturing and selling some of the said product.

Peanut butter, like baseball, is rather lovely in its essence. It’s got a simple, homespun elegance that has attracted devotees for decades. We know the sticky-sweet taste of a PBJ, so much that here in New York we’re even willing to spend several dollars for a sandwich at the high-end Peanut Butter & Co. restaurant in Greenwich Village.

And we know the simple elegance of baseball as well. We know the dash from first to third on a hit-and-run. The pickoff at first base. The shoestring catch. The squeeze bunt. The ground-rule double. The pitcher who escapes a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam.

It is a fabulous product, this game. It will be so forever. The scandals will come and go, as will the unsavory characters. Many of them will do their best to ruin the game itself.

But we will demand better. Just as the president must confront this peanut butter scandal with improvements in federal oversight of America’s food, so will the government and sports world at large demand that Major League Baseball right its ship.

These demands have already begun, and they will continue. Because, no matter what the product, it is always the consumers who hold the ultimate power. You can try to fool us, and sometimes you will. But in the end, our voices will be heard.

So go ahead, buy me some peanut butter (and Cracker Jacks). Because you do care if I ever come back.