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?”


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.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Firefly Nights

I like to call these the Firefly Nights. The orange and pink tint of sunset paints the western sky, and dusk begins to fall as the thermometer dips its toes below 80 degrees. There is just a faint whisper of a breeze, and as you sit on your front steps, you wish the weather could be like this all year long. (You think about this some more, and realize it could be if you lived in Miami.) You think about going in for some ice cream, but it’s just too beautiful to move. And just when it seems the night couldn’t be more pristine, the flickers begin.

Their neon yellow lights shine, then vanish – there’s one, in the driveway! Another, over by the bush! Here’s one, right above us! Don’t hurt him, Katie – OK, you can hold him but don’t squeeze him.

She holds a small black insect in her hands. It sits there uncomfortably for a moment, like a dog being walked by a toddler. Finally, Katie opens her hands, and the bug flies away, only to illuminate his lower half for her – for us – as it elevates into the evening sky.

Fireflies are indeed the metaphor for summer. So perfect. So beautiful. And yet, so fleeting. Just when you feel like you’re settled into firefly mode, they’re gone. And so is summer.

If there is one day that best captures the fleeting nature of summer for me, it’s that second Tuesday in July. The evening of baseball’s All-Star Game. The night when the sport of summer celebrates its best players and puts them all on the same field. For young baseball fans, it’s the stuff of dreams, watching your heroes dueling it out in matchups you’d never see on any other day. In a lot of ways, it’s the most perfect game of the season.

And then it’s gone. As I write this, it’s already been gone for 24 hours. Tomorrow, baseball’s second half begins. In two weeks, we start hearing about the “dog days of August.” Even worse, the sports section begins reserving primary space for football training camp.

But this week, if you sit outside after dinner, you can still see those little night lights as they throw their annual summer bash together. They are the real all-stars, the true fireworks, the swarming of the Bastille. Summer is still fresh, they tell us – fresh as some Jersey corn, or a soft peach.

When I was about 10 years old, I used to go after fireflies with my yellow Wiffle ball bat. I guess it was boy stuff, and eventually I’d listen to my parents and stop. But today, no way; I’ll take my swings somewhere else. I’d rather savor the beauty. I don’t want those fireflies to leave any earlier than they must.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Seeking Youth, Amid BlackBerrys & Balance Boards

Katie is 7 1/2 years old. She’s still young and innocent enough to find immense pleasure in a picture book, a crayon, and a G-rated movie. The highlight of her day is still the time she gets to spend with her parents, grandparents and sister. She’s willing to do a split in the middle of a doctor’s office, as she did today, if she thinks someone might be interested in paying attention to her. She still ranks the boys in her class based on how well they play tag, and she’s still young enough to sleep with a stuffed Cookie Monster.

Lately, though, Katie has been telling me how much she really, really wants to be a teen-ager. She keeps asking me about cars, and says she wants to buy a convertible one day and drive it around. (I hope she’s planning on finding a lucrative summer job to pay for that one.) Katie stares at our cell phones, and at the ones she sees in stores, and nearly drools over them. “When I get a cell phone,” she told me yesterday, “I’m going to buy a BlackBerry.” (See the previous parenthetical aside for my parental response.)

The girl has watched one too many High School Musical films, and seen one too many Disney Channel sitcoms, and Dad knows he has to do something about that. But, as I told her tonight, she is experiencing a common element of human nature – to want what you don’t have. There are very few people in the world who would pass up a chance to be 7 years old again. But here she is, at that gorgeous age, and she wants those years to go more quickly. Katie, please. You have it all right now, kid. Savor the moments.

Katie likes to poke fun at her dad because he’s approaching an age that he doesn’t like to talk about much. “Daddy, you’re almost 40,” she says. I tell her, with stiff upper lip, that I’m only 38 years old. But she knows she’s got me going just with the mention of it. I always liked the fact that I could watch baseball games and see whole teams made up of players who were older than me. Sometime in my early 30s, that changed to about half the players. Now, as I stand just a mere 18 months from my fourth decade, I search around for a player or two on each team who might be my age or older. On the Yankees right now, there is no one, although Jorge Posada is just seven months younger than me. Pitchers tend to hang on a bit longer, so I watch with comfort as men like Tim Wakefield, Jamie Moyer and Randy Johnson continue playing ball well into their 40s.

But while Jamie Moyer’s ability to defy the normal retirement age feels good to me, it doesn’t mean I’m any younger. The other night, my wife asked me to try the Wii Fit, which we’d picked up recently. When you first start off with this exercise gaming system, the Wii Fit software asks you to step on the Wii Fit balance board. It takes in your age, weight, center of balance and body-mass index in order to know what programs it should give you for developing balance, strength, aerobic health and yoga. Near the end of this testing session, the program asks you to do some balancing exercises, shifting your weight in certain ways as requested on the screen. I more or less sucked at this, as my balance has always been bad. So bad, in fact, that I once tripped over first base while trying to leg out a single back in Little League. (At home, this was par for the course, so while the other parents in the stands tried to show restraint, my mom and grandmother howled with laughter.)

So I’m a bit clumsy; I know that. But I also run and work out and keep myself active. So I didn’t care about this stupid Wii test. But then the software, in its gentle, robotic voice, had the nerve to tell me what my “Wii Fit” age is, based on my overall testing. I felt my pulse quicken, and my eyes narrow on the screen.

“Your Wii Fit age is … 42.”

To summarize, the scene that ensued involved a 38-year-old, physically unbalanced man becoming quite mentally unbalanced as he stood on a plastic balance board in the middle of his living room. I think a lot of the words I said rhymed with “duck” (Katie’s first word, by the way), and were directed toward a machine that could not hear me. My wife (whose Wii age is like eight years younger than her f-----n’ real age, was in hysterics.)

The girls were asleep at this point. But if Katie had been awake, and if she’d seen her dad flip out on this video game over the issue of age, she would have (a) started spending less time with Dad and (b) ceased all discussion of convertibles and BlackBerrys and anything else related to growing older. She would have grabbed hold of her stuffed Cookie Monster, trudged back upstairs, and cuddled up in the soft glow of her night light.

Friday, July 3, 2009

The Coach & The Closer

One of my favorite interviews as a newspaper reporter was with Kay Yow, the legendary North Carolina State women’s basketball coach who died earlier this year after a long battle with breast cancer. When I walked into Yow’s office to interview her in 1994, I wondered nervously how she would deal with me, a 23-year-old reporter from a small-town paper. I needn’t worry: As soon as I walked into the room, Yow shook my hand, looked me in the eyes and told me how nice my tie looked. That was a young reporter’s introduction to class.

During my interview with Kay Yow, I asked her to explain just how much a national championship would mean to her. She told me that it would be an incredible accomplishment, one that she’d gladly spend the rest of her career striving to achieve. However, she said that the thing she’d like even more would be to win a title, and then, while standing on that mountaintop, realize quite clearly that this victory was not the most important thing in the world.

That was a young reporter’s introduction to perspective.

I’ve been reading a lot about Mariano Rivera this week – for good reason, as he became just the second player in major league baseball history to record 500 saves on Sunday night. There has never been a closer like Rivera, as his on-field accomplishments amaze even the most casual baseball observer. Respect for Rivera the player stretches far beyond his New York Yankees fan base.

But the thing I’ve always liked best about Mariano Rivera is the way in which his outlook toward sport mirrors that of Kay Yow. He has always wanted to win, in the worst way. But in every interview, in every speech he gives, Rivera exudes class and he exudes perspective. He seems to know that when he’s on the field, he should compose himself with dignity and treat his opponents fairly. He also seems to understand that when the game is over, there is so much more life to live – win or lose.

Mariano Rivera doesn’t seem to be slowing down, so I imagine he’ll continue to amaze us with his late-inning heroics for some time. But I’ll always be paying closer attention to the way he composes himself off the field. It’s not every day you get that kind of role model.