Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Heat - and Sweet - of the Moment


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


Translucent shadows of the animal streak beneath our red kayak.


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.


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.