Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Wii Have a Problem

Now I know what it feels like. The achy joints, the sore shoulder. I need an ice pack for my elbow, a massage for my back.

My baseball career ended 20 years ago, at age 18. I was a decent pitcher – for high school. As I started college at the University of North Carolina, I quickly realized that my talents were better suited for writing about sports, and so I did. I can still throw a mean Wiffle ball, and I play a solid shortstop on my work-league softball teams. But I am not a baseball player anymore, dream as a may. If I want to see a man my age ice up his arm after a game, I can watch Andy Pettitte.

And yet, why is it that my arm now feels as though it’s just thrown 80 pitches? Where’s this pain coming from? I haven’t been tossing baseballs recently. But … ahem … well … I have been going through the pitching windup lately. A lot, actually. But in my right hand, there hasn’t been a baseball. Just a white remote control. In front of me, a strange-looking character with no arms. And he’s been beating me.

We bought a Wii the other day. And, like so many who are addicted to Nintendo’s interactive video-game system, I’m messing up my joints with this thing. Andrew Das of The New York Times calls it “Nintendinitis.” Doctors across America are unanimous in their assertion that repetitive use of this game can strain our joints.

They are right.

And the sad thing is, it’s not even supposed to be my toy. We bought the thing for the girls. They had mentioned that they’d love to try it, so much that for the past several months, we’ve asked family members to give the girls Target gift cards for all their holiday presents, with the Wii in mind. As the school year ended, we picked up all the gift cards, took a trip to Target, and made our donation to Nintendo’s recession-proof revenue stream.

The girls like the thing, particularly the bowling game. At 7 and 4 years of age, though, they’re good for a few minutes of Wii, then it’s on to their next activity. Their parents are a little bit different.

I haven’t been able to beat the computer in baseball yet. So I’m hooked, and the shoulder is feeling it. I’ve not yet figured out how to consistently return a serve in tennis, either. Hence, the balky elbow. I’m good at the boxing, so I do that for a pick-me-up. But it hurts to jab at nothing for 10 minutes straight.

To Nintendo’s credit, they give multiple warnings on the Wii system encouraging users to take a break and rest the body. I look forward to heeding their advice at some point. But this is the same person who, 25 years ago, spent summer days trying to amass half a million points on Atari’s “Asteroids.” There is a reason why I haven’t had a video-game system for years. I should have known better.

And yet, I could be worse. The girls know this already. The other night, as I was leading them up the stairs to bed, we passed a person on the way. Typically, I would call this person “their mother” or “my wife.” But at this moment, she was neither. Her arms were out in front of her, the white remote control grasped like a gun. On the TV in front of her, there were bull’s eye targets. And geese. And some sort of flying saucer thing. And, yes, this mother/wife person was shooting – at everything. The targets, the saucers, the geese. The sound of exploding objects could be heard throughout the room.

The girls and I tiptoed up the stairs. I told them not to pay any attention to that other person. They nodded their heads in agreement.

Wii have a problem.

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Ring of Pop

Among the many simple pleasures in life, few are sweeter than a captivating pop song. There’s the immediate gratification such a song provides, be it on the car radio, inside our homes, in a restaurant, or at the ballpark in between innings. (My current pop-song thrill arrives when I hear the Ting Tings’ contagious “That’s Not My Name.”) Beyond the momentary pleasure, though, these perfect pop songs also carry an important element of time and place, as they serve as signposts to our lives. They help us to connect the often frenetic dots of our life, and to place an important, yet fleeting, memory in the context of a three-minute hook or riff.

The songs we choose to remember may differ with each of us, and they don’t necessarily have anything to do with our overall music taste. But they have stamped themselves into the fabric of our lives, and our nervous systems get a jolt of sorts when we hear these songs. I don’t need to listen to the music of the Bangles all that often, to say the least. But one note of their song “Eternal Flame” has me tossed into the sweetness of the first time I kissed my wife, 20 years ago. I’m not a huge follower of Outkast, but two seconds of their song “Hey Ya!” place me in a Boston subway, watching a young man walk onto the Orange Line with the song blasting from an old-school boom box, daring us all to not tap our feet to the rhythm. By the time I hear the chorus, I’m remembering the moment my oldest daughter started singing this at home, at less than two years old – her first favorite pop song. I don’t know if I can name more than two Ace of Base songs, but give me the chorus to “The Sign,” and I see myself singing this at the top of my voice in a North Carolina apartment, a young 20-something finding a theme song as I looked for divine guidance on decisions related to career and relocation.

The world may get more complex every year, but a perfect pop song is delicious in its simplicity. The Beach Boys, Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Madonna and Prince are just a few of the artists who found a way to create three to four minutes of musical heaven. But no one has ever done it better than Michael Jackson. And I don’t know if anyone ever will.

I listen to some of his songs today, the day after his premature death at age 50, and they give me the immediate urge to tap the feet, sing along, bob the head – as they always have. Better yet, these songs unfold the calendar in my mind, as I make that connection between the music and what I was doing at the time I first heard the song. I see the autumn of my seventh-grade year, when my brother, friends and I sit in front of the TV and watch the “Thriller” video with eyes wide open; I see the summer before my senior year in high school, when I buy my first-ever CD player, plug it into my stereo system in the basement and christen the thing by blasting “Man in the Mirror”; and I see my junior year in college, when I clean my first-ever apartment while singing along with “Black or White.”

The man lived a difficult life, and he made some decisions that puzzled a lot of people. I don’t have any answers for that, nor is it my business. But I do know his songs, and I know that they have brought me the dual pleasure that pop songs can bring – pleasure of the moment, and pleasure of the memories. That is the gift of the perfect pop song, one that Michael Jackson could deliver as though every day were Christmas.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Showing My Face

I broke down. Finally. I had tried to convince myself that I didn’t need it, didn’t want it, could quite easily live without it.

But I did it.

I joined Facebook.

As a 38-year-old, I can certainly conceive of a life without on-line social networking. I’ve never been a part of such a thing, so I’ve kept in touch with friends, or fallen out of touch with friends, the way most of us have for years – by either picking up the phone, writing a letter, or failing to do either. I’ve made plans with friends, gotten together with them in person, and felt the comforting reassurance of knowing there are people in this world who care about me.

I’m not a neophyte when it comes to the computer; I work with one all the time, as a teacher and writer. So I know all about Facebook. My wife is on it, and she sent me an invite months ago. I left it sitting in my inbox, while I peered over Amy’s shoulder and watched her read her wall postings and friend requests. I also read Vanessa Grigoriadis’ excellent New York magazine feature story from a few weeks ago, titled “Do You Own Facebook? Or Does Facebook Own You?” I read news stories about the terms of service, and I talked with people who were on it, asking them about the pros and cons.

More than anything else, though, I thought about Katie. This is my oldest, the 7-year-old whose childhood development involves seeing, observing and questioning most everything her parents do. I thought about that Saturday morning a few months ago, when she had trouble prying me away from checking out my fantasy baseball team. “Daddy, why are you always on the computer?” she whined. “If you don’t stop doing that, someday I’m going to be doing the same.”

That line got me away from the computer screen in a hurry. Perceptive, to say the least. And it makes you think: If I’ve got my writing to do, and my lesson plans, and checking my e-mail, and (yes, I know) checking my fantasy baseball, how in the world is there time for Facebook? How can I possibly fit this in without bringing Katie’s prophecy to fruition?

It’s a legitimate question, and I don’t have a clear solution to it. But Katie has always been a good listener, so I suppose I’ll handle the Facebook issue the same way I’ve handled everything with her: by talking it over. I’ll tell her that there are people out there in this world with whom I have fallen out of touch, and that this Web site provides a place to see how they’re doing, and get back in touch. When you’re 38 years old, you’ve fallen out of touch with more friends than you’ve kept. So what a gift it is to have a place where you can make an instant connection with someone you care about, yet don’t see much anymore. Maybe, at its best, Facebook can even help me make plans to see those friends once again.

I think Katie will understand this. She’ll even tolerate it, and ask to see my Profile. We’ll look at it together, and I’ll tell her stories about the friends I have there.

As for the fantasy baseball, well, you know, that’s a different story. She’s got a point there.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Counting Throws

After his days as a minor-league pitcher were over, my grandfather supplemented his income by playing baseball for semipro teams. He played for two different clubs in the mid-1940s, and traveled around the New York City area to pitch games in these very competitive, business-sponsored leagues. The money was good and the baseball was fun, so my grandfather found himself pitching two games a week. This was a lot, but he pushed it even further at one point and pitched four games in eight days. As you might expect, he felt a tear in his elbow while unleashing a pitch, and that was the end of his golden left arm.

By the time my brother and I grew into young ballplayers, my grandfather instructed us to avoid throwing curveballs as kids. He wanted us to let our arms grow naturally and avoid any extra strain. We took his advice, and paid close attention when he showed us that his injured left arm was 3-4 inches shorter than his right. We learned how violent the baseball pitching motion is, and did all we could to avoid overdoing it.

As a baseball fan, it is aggravating sometimes to hear all the talk about pitch counts, and to see managers limiting the number of times a young man gets to throw a ball toward home plate. It seems that we’re always seeing managers take their young pitchers out of the game early, all for the sake of minimizing the pitch count.

Even my grandfather would get annoyed when pitchers were taken out just because they’d hit a certain number. But he’d also holler at the pitchers when they wasted too many pitches. If you’re up to 100 pitches in the fifth inning, after all, you haven’t been pitching all that well.

In the end, my grandfather understood what those managers were doing. Pitching long into a game is not a sign of who’s a real man and who’s not. Warren Mueller was a great man. He had a ton of heart. But his arm endured violent, career-ending damage from extreme over-use. This happens in fields across America, all the time. Baseball managers know this.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Bats, Balls, and 'Boring Stuff'

It’s been far too long since my last blog entry – the longest stretch I intend on taking between entries. I’ve been working my way through end-of-year teacher grading and a brutal allergy season, but it’s time to get back in the saddle.

A stack of essays and a high pollen count do not create a perfect spring day. But in between the schoolwork and the sneezing, there have been some golden spring moments spent playing softball with my girls. The oldest, Katie, is playing on a local girls softball team this year, while the youngest, Chelsea, is just figuring out how to hold a bat. It’s a lot of fun watching Katie at games and practices, as she is learning how to really play this game of bases, balls and bats. When a ground ball is hit to her, she tries to react and field the ball, then stand up tall and make her toss to first base. When she’s up at bat, she’s trying to keep her eye on the ball and make contact. Saturday, they switched from tee-ball to live pitching in the third inning, and Katie – who is a lefty – punched a grounder down the third-base line, Ichiro-style. She doesn’t know who Ichiro is, but I do, and I shouted out his name from the sidelines. No one acknowledged. They saw no connection between my 7-year-old and the masterful Mariners right fielder. But somewhere in that part of my brain where I used to envision myself as Graig Nettles up at bat against my neighbor (who was probably Nolan Ryan), I could see Katie wearing No. 51 and delighting the Seattle faithful.

When we’re home, and we go out and play in the backyard, the game is even more fun for Katie, as she can smack Wiffle ball pitches all over the yard and dance around the bases. I try to teach her the game’s rules a bit, and she’ll even hop inside to watch some of the Yankees game or the college softball tournaments to figure out what a walk is, or what it means to hit a foul ball. She still doesn’t realize that you can stop at first base or second and settle for singles and doubles. But, to be honest, it’s a lot more exciting to see the kid scamper around the bases.

Work can be a grind, no matter what your profession. And if allergies are all I’ve got to worry about health-wise, I’m a lucky man. It’s a joy to have these moments with the girls, hopping around the backyard in pursuit of a hot grounder. They bring so much happiness to a day. And yet, I find myself thinking some days that I haven’t done much with the girls – haven’t taken them on a day trip in awhile, or on a big vacation. It can be easy to forget how important those moments in the backyard are, for them and for me.

This past Sunday, Amy and I took the girls to see the Disney/Pixar film Up, yet another astoundingly beautiful film from the artists at Pixar. At one point during the movie, the character Russell (a young boy on an adventure with senior citizen Carl) is reflecting on the memories he savors most with his dad, who isn’t around as much as he’d like. Russell remembers sitting outside an ice cream shop, counting red and blue cars. “I think the boring stuff is the stuff I remember the most,” he says.

As the summer of 2009 approaches, I can only hope that the girls and I find tons of boring stuff to do together. It’s what makes a life.