Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Snow is Always Whiter

You know you’re in the deepest bowels of winter when you’ve got blizzards in Virginia. As January slithers out the door, it’s making sure to leave the wind howling, the clouds covering up a full moon, and plenty of snow falling all over these United States. Those of us who don’t live in Miami and San Diego are dealing with the bleak midwinter as best we can – turning up the thermostat, pulling on the gloves, sipping some hot chocolate, and cuddling beneath a blanket with a good movie on the TV.

This weekend, we decided to visit my parents in their home on the Jersey Shore, and so far we’re at 8 inches of snow and counting. Even here on the coast, there is no mercy. There are photos all over the house of family members in bathing suits and deep tans. You look at them and it feels like they’re all laughing at you, knowing that you couldn’t be further from what they were experiencing at that moment. Smooth sand between the toes, dolphins out there in the ocean, a good book in hand. Oh, if only ….

This morning, before the white stuff fell, I went for a jog out here in this wintry ghost town. The empty driveways and streets, the barren beaches, the gray skies – it seemed like a scene straight out of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. As my shoes pounded the lonely pavement and the wind smacked me in the face, my mind began searching desperately for something better to think about. So I started doing some quick math. OK, in two days it’ll be February, and that’s the shortest month. In 30 days it’ll be March, and when it’s March that means I can buy some baseball preview magazines. They’ll have spring training games by early March, and I can watch a few on TV.

In about 50 days, spring will officially begin. That week, I’ll do a couple of fantasy baseball drafts, and there might even be a few days above 50 degrees. April is about 60 days away, and April means ballgames. Real ones. By then, we might even see a few crocuses on some lawns. And my parents will be tooling around in their backyard down here, getting ready for springtime visits from their friends (who apparently choose their weekends away much better than I do).

The math, the thoughts of baseball, and the crocuses (or is it croci?) helped for a while. But soon enough, it was back to reality. The mini-golf courses and the ice cream shops were closed up for obvious reasons. The restaurants were getting ready to open for lunch, then close early on account of too much snow. The “Summer Rental” signs on folks’ lawns were flapping helplessly in the wind. I finished my run, took off my two layers of gloves, and stood for a moment in my parents’ Florida room.

This Christmas, we gave my mom a frame containing four photos from a Yankee game she’d treated us all to last summer. She and my dad have hung it up in this room, next to a recliner. There we are, sitting in the upper deck, six of us enjoying a weekday matinee game against the Orioles. Chelsea’s got a tank top on, we’re all wearing shorts, and you can see from the perspiration on our faces that it’s a hot one in the city.

As I looked at the photos, I remembered that it was so warm that day that we … well, we kind of complained a little about the weather. Grumbled to each other about how hot it was. Walked around the ballpark and stood in the bleachers at the end, where the full force of that afternoon’s sun planted itself on our reddening faces. I remember being a little happy when the game was over because there would be some air-conditioning on the subway. I recall Chelsea crying that she was too hot to walk anymore.

I can’t see the grass outside right now, beneath the half-foot of snow and all. But, you know, what they say is true. It is always greener …

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Steve Jobs, Willie Mays & My Bathtub

So tomorrow, when Steve Jobs slips on his black turtleneck and steps onstage in San Francisco, the information revolution will kick into yet another gear. The CEO of Apple will apparently be holding some sort of 10-inch tablet device in his hands – a device that might just take computers in a whole new direction, perhaps somewhere in between a laptop and an iPhone. Millions will surely flock to Apple stores, some to play with the thing, and many others to buy it. Countless companies will compete to promote their applications for downloading onto the new tablets.

It’s exciting, and a bit daunting, to see the extraordinary leaps that companies such as Apple and Google keep taking. What’s next? And how does what’s next change the world I’ve come to know? Will I be ready and willing to keep up? Or will I start to feel like my grandparents did when they were watching Bob Hope specials while I was tooling around with my Commodore 64?

I still subscribe to home delivery of two daily newspapers. I know it’s a lot of paper, and I know I could read the stuff on-line. But I like the feel of newsprint in my hands, and I like to turn the pages and find new stories on my own. We have seven bookshelves in our house, filled from top to bottom with hardcovers and paperbacks. I guess I could buy a Kindle or a Sony Reader and just download all those books. But I like attaching my little reading light onto the last 30 pages of my novel, and holding the book in my hands while I read at night. I don’t want my eyes to scan another screen in order to follow Christopher’s adventures as I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I want the kid’s journey in ink and paper, with a publisher’s logo on the back cover.

That’s not to say I can’t embrace technology; I am, after all, writing a blog. But life is always about balance, and I’d prefer to welcome the technology on my own terms. If I want Apps, I’ll get Apps. If I still want to clip my coupons from the Sunday paper, I’ll do that, too.

I think that Mr. Jobs and all the tablet-buyers would appreciate the newspaper we found today. It was uncovered while our bathroom was being demolished in advance of a much-overdue renovation. Somewhere beneath the old, cast-iron tub were a few pages of newsprint: One from the May 27, 1951 New York Times and the other from the May 25, 1951 Plainfield (N.J.) Courier-News. Both bear a yellowish-brown tint, and both are ripped all over.

But oh, there are some gems. We begin with The Times. A headline reads: “Chicken Now Vies with Beef as Food.” Reporter John Stuart tells us that the poultry industry has leapt into “fierce competition” with the beef industry for a place at American dinner tables. “The growth of chicken as such a factor can be illustrated by a few simple statements,” Stuart writes. “Sirloin steak was selling last week in New York retail markets, such as the nationwide chains, at $1.05 a pound. Chicken was 45 cents a pound for fat five-pound birds only twelve weeks old, tender enough to broil or fry and big enough to roast.”

The Times classifieds have some ads that Mr. Jobs might appreciate. One features the headline: “Electronics?” The rest reads: “To investor or organization now in allied field wishing to establish electronics business, we offer experienced technical and managerial personnel and fully developed product with civilian and military applications.” A different kind of app, perhaps, but still looking forward nonetheless.

We move on to the Courier-News. The headline “Bitten by Dog” follows with a brief telling us that “Ten-year-old Carol Adams … was bitten by a dog owned by Michael Lavelle … yesterday afternoon, it was reported to police.” Another brief tells us of a bicycle theft. Beside the brief, an ad encourages readers to convert their 10-inch television sets to 14-, 16- or 19-inch sets at “amazing low cost.”

The movie listings advertise “Kiddie Show” Saturday matinees as well as more adult films, such as “Where Danger Lives” with Robert Mitchum, or “The Bullfighter and the Lady” with Robert Stack. My personal preference is the Walter Reade Theatre, where, in person, “Bonomo’s Magic Clown and His TV Pal Laffy” will be appearing at 10 a.m. tomorrow. And, after the show, why not get something to eat? “Have You Tried Snuffy’s?” an ad asks us. “Tasty! Tempting! Shrimp ‘Caught from Snuffy’s Boat’ Try Them Fried or in a Cocktail.”

It was a different world, all right. And perhaps no story illustrates that better than a short piece in the Courier-News sports section. The headline reads: “Giants Call Up Mays.” It begins: “Willie Mays, 20-year-old Negro centerfielder, is slated to make his big league debut with the New York Giants tonight at Philadelphia. Alarmed by lack of power in his lineup, Manager Leo Durocher brought up Mays from Minneapolis in the American Association where he was hitting .477.” The article explains that Mays had 29 extra-base hits in 35 games at Minneapolis, including eight home runs and eight steals. Mays is, the article says, “reported to be a top flight speedster.”

Surely, issues of race led many sports fans of 1951 to overlook prospects such as Willie Mays, who would go on to become one of the best ballplayers in the history of the sport. But beyond that, it is amazing to see, six decades later, a news report so fuzzy on the details of a rookie who was hitting .477 in the minor leagues! In our world today, if a minor-league player were hitting for that average he’d be drafted in every fantasy baseball league imaginable, and he’d be blogged about and tweeted about every minute of every day.

But that was a different era, one old enough to sit beneath a New Jersey bathtub for three generations. My older daughter says she wants to take the newspapers with her to school tomorrow. I hope she does. And as she grows up and buys her Kindles and iPhones and – yes, Mr. Jobs – her tablets, I hope she’ll also remember the road that led her there. It's a Wi-Fi road now, but it was paved with newsprint.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Bunk Bed Nation

So now they have a bunk bed. Which raises the question: Will they – and we – survive?

Katie is on the top bunk, and Chelsea’s on the bottom. There are about a million stuffed animals on both levels, reading lights attached to the sides, and a mailbox fastened out of a Kleenex box attached to Katie’s upper bunk. (We have yet to notify the mailman that he needs to make deliveries inside the house now.) There are more pillows than either needs on each bunk, and water bottles perched on each girl’s rail.

It’s only been two nights … but so far, so good. There have been no fears of heights so far, no fallen ladders, and – especially – no middle-of-the-night fights.

When you’re growing up and sharing the same house and same bedroom, you’re bound to have more than a few skirmishes. Sometimes, it’s one smacking the other over who gets a toy. At other times, it’s a battle over the remote control. Still other times, it’s one not letting the other use her art supplies. Yesterday, the two were smearing mud on each other to show their disagreement over the mud pie-making process. Today, they were fighting over who got to point out the hidden pictures in the book we were reading.

They occupy the same living space for 17 out of every 24 hours during the weekdays, then for nearly every hour of their weekends. They don’t always share the same agenda, the same mood, or the same tastes in music. They get stir crazy sometimes during these winter days, and we watch them run around the house like untrained puppies. And yet, somehow, most of the time, they find a way to get along.

I was thinking about the girls’ relationship after reading several stories this weekend about the trials within America’s political process. There is a complete breakdown in cooperation between Democrats and Republicans, and there are citizens throughout this country who could not disagree more on so many critical issues facing the nation. Be it the economy, health care, the environment, immigration, gun control, abortion or national security, the lines seem to be drawn in permanent marker these days. While the president searches for ways to erase these lines, he finds obstructions everywhere he looks.

It used to be that the biggest rivalries in America were North Carolina-Duke and Yankees-Red Sox. Politics was always a fierce game, but inevitably there was a backroom compromise being made to bring folks together in Washington. The sharpest divisions were found within sports, and they faded from view once the games were over.

But in January of 2010, political compromise seems as distant as a world without the Internet. Today’s constant news updates, political blogs and tweets allow the rivalries to rage all day long, and while that may be more democratic in a way, it also leads to a lot more shouting.

I don’t know when it will calm down, but I’m certainly hoping it does. I’d love to see some civility, hear some dialogue, and feel some hope again. I’d like to know that people are listening, and not just hollering. I’d like to know that our media outlets are encouraging discussion, not division.

This all may seem as unlikely as a Yankees fan going out to dinner with a Red Sox fan. But actually, I’ve gone out to dinner with dozens of Boston fans. And I’ve had a great time, every time. We’ve even talked baseball, and by listening to their stories I’ve developed a deep appreciation for Boston’s history. I can even say I’ve come to admire a few Red Sox players. That actually feels good, and not at all traitorous.

It really is a nice bunk bed. The girls both look so comfortable in their little spaces. At night, the only sound we hear is the hiss of their humidifier. In the morning, they usually wake up together, pound down the stairs with their elephant feet, and – first test of the day – compromise on what kids’ show they’ll watch together.

I bring them some juice or a smoothie, and they sit together on the couch. They look up, say hi, then get back to their show. It seems that yesterday’s arguments are all forgotten. It’s a new day, and a time to work together.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Youth in Reverse

I should have known it was a bad idea. But you can understand the temptation. Here I was, on the day I turned 39, with a chance to go out for dinner and a movie with my wife. Dinner and “Avatar” couldn’t work inside the babysitting time frame. So, in an ill-advised moment, we chose a shorter flick: the Michael Cera vehicle “Youth in Revolt.”

“Juno” it wasn’t. Have I seen worse? Yes. But not many, actually. These days, we get out so rarely that I wanted something much better, especially on my birthday. So why, might you ask, didn’t we choose one of those movies with all the Oscar buzz? It’s a good question, and I think the answer goes no further than the movie’s title: As I cling to one last year in my 30s, how could I pass up anything with the word “Youth” in it?

At 39, I certainly hope to have many more years ahead of me. And there are plenty of people who would still consider me “young.” But even so, there’s no way I can claim to be a “youth” anymore. Thirty-nine is a precarious place sandwiched in between young adulthood and middle age – a place where many of us find ourselves balancing careers, families, personal wellness and social lives. It’s an exciting age, one where the present is full of more things than we could ever accomplish, and the past contains more memories than our brains can recall. And the future – well, that feels exciting and a bit scary at the same time.

So when you turn 39 on a Sunday in 2010, you do a few things. For one, you spend some time with your family. You go to church together, make smoothies for the girls, and show them scary photos from your high school yearbook. You do the “Happy Birthday” song, the make-a-wish, the candle-blowing with their help, the photo, then the photo do-over ‘cause so-and-so’s eyes were closed. You talk with your parents, brother, friends and in-laws, and you read all the kind wall postings on your Facebook page. You do something for yourself – go for a run, buy yourself a few CDs, watch a little football. You also do laundry and dishes and clean up the house, because, well, life doesn’t stand still for you, pal. And then, finally, you welcome the babysitter with open arms, grab some alone time with the love of your life … and watch the worst film you’ve seen in years.

It’s all very beautiful and gratifying, in many ways. But still, as you stare at that movie screen and see a baby-faced, 21-year-old actor looking back at you, it’s easy to wonder where the time has gone. And, while we’re at it, when those aches and pains are coming. And when the gray hair will fall upon you like a dusting of snow. And, dare I think it, when you and the wife will find yourselves too tired to even bother with dinner and a movie. “Youth,” you said? Two tickets for the eight o’clock show, please. shows that 18 men born in 1971 played Major-League Baseball last year. Just barely one player for every two teams. If you’re 39 years old and a professional ballplayer, you’ve probably got the word “retired” attached to your title.

Unless, of course, you have revolted – against aging, that is. As for me, I’ll take what life’s got in store. Bring on 39. Just give me a better movie next time, please.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Love & Haiti

Over the years, I’ve taught several students whose families hailed from Haiti. I’ve been continuously impressed with the pride all of these teens have shown for their heritage. All were either born in Haiti or had parents who were born there. The students had all spent time in the country, and would tell you about Haiti in a heartbeat. They’d share with you the beauty of the land, language and culture, as well as the struggles and poverty that have plagued the small Caribbean country.

Of course, I pray that all of these former students and their families were in the United States on Tuesday afternoon. I know that their hearts are torn, and that they are trying desperately to contact loved ones. I know they are feeling a sense of helplessness, as the last thing they can do right now is go to Haiti to help. Yet, a part of them surely wants to be there with food and bandages in tow.

Here in the Northeast United States, we’ve been complaining lately about the cold weather. We’ve watched some juicy news accounts of Conan O’Brien’s feud with NBC. We’ve heard about the Jets’ playoff hopes, and about Mark McGwire’s belated steroid confession. Interesting stories all.

But none are quite on the level with human beings trapped beneath rubble, thousands being buried in a mass grave, and a frantic attempt to bring antibiotics, water and high-energy biscuits to a nation overwhelmed with disaster.

We can make a donation. We can hope, pray, and wish for the best. We can talk about it and read about it, and watch the television news reporters who are often at their best when covering emergencies of this type.

But it’s hard to feel as though we can really do anything about it all. Helplessness, frustration and depression are common emotions when learning about suffering of this magnitude. Natural disasters can wipe out so many lives that it seems inconceivable to process it all.

So we turn, for inspiration, to the wisdom of youth. Today, I asked my high school seniors to write a journal responding to Margaret Mead’s famous quote about making a difference. The quote reads: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” We discussed the sentiments in Mead’s words, and students shared their reactions to it. One of my seniors smiled and explained that these words connected deeply with her own personal ambitions. “I want to be part of one of those groups someday,” she said. I nodded my head, and told her that was truly great.

It may just be a donation. But donations fund relief aid. And to save a life is to change the world. May we all find the thoughtful, committed places inside of us, and give Haiti some love in January 2010. It’s ready and waiting.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Good-Luck Feel to It

A few years ago, Amy and I were strolling along the beach in lovely Nahant, Mass., listening to the waves as they rolled in from the ocean. As we walked, I noticed a few intriguing rocks in the sand. I picked them up and inspected them. Three were round and thin like silver dollars, yet charcoal gray in color; the other one was pearl-white and more trapezoidal. All four, however, were smooth as a new marble countertop.

I rubbed them in my hands, and marveled at their texture. How many years had these rocks been tossed about in the Atlantic Ocean before finally landing in this little plot of sand? I cleaned them off and placed them inside the pocket of my leather jacket. It seemed a privilege to have found such beautiful stones; I couldn’t let them go.

It’s seven or eight years later, and I still have those rocks in the left pocket of my J. Crew jacket. I hold onto the stones as a collective good-luck charm, and I roll them around in my hands once in awhile as a stress reliever. I have never even considered taking them out; to do so would be to jinx myself for no good reason.

I was reaching into my jacket pocket for my gloves yesterday, and I felt the rocks briefly, as I always do. A little while later, I was reading about the Yankees. The story was explaining how New York still remains without a starting left fielder. The team has decided, it seems, that it can do without Johnny Damon next year. He remains unsigned. As I read this story, I saw no mention of rocks from Nahant. But I felt a connection here as strong as an August undertow.

Johnny Damon is getting older; he’s 36 now. He throws a baseball as weakly as any major-league outfielder in the game. He often looks overmatched against left-handed pitchers. You get the sense sometimes that he’s one pulled hamstring away from a long stint on the disabled list. And yet, when you try to find a team that has been worse because they had Johnny Damon in their lineup, you come up empty.

Amy and I moved back from Massachusetts in the summer of 2004, just in time to miss out on Damon and his Red Sox shocking the Yankees en route to their long-awaited World Series title. We were here in New Jersey when the Yanks shocked Boston by signing Damon before the 2006 season. We watched as Damon played terrific ball for all four of his seasons in New York. We listened as he became a willing spokesperson for the team, often doing the interview that somebody had to do, sparing his teammates the extra work. We watched in awe as he hit and ran his way into Yankees lore during the ’09 World Series, capped by his steal of two bases on one throw during Game 4.

The victory parade is long over, and the Yankees have already remade their team through some savvy trades and a risky free-agent signing. They’ve offered Johnny Damon a contract, and he’s asked for a bit more. There’s been an impasse for some time now. Reporters seem to be predicting that he’ll sign elsewhere.

If he does, the Yankees will go another route, most likely waiting a year and offering a nine-figure contract to Carl Crawford of the Tampa Bay Rays. Crawford is younger, stronger, faster and more electric than Damon is, no doubt. But there’s one major question mark I see with Carl Crawford: I don’t know if the Yankees can tuck him into their pockets like a rock from Nahant. I do know that they can do this with Johnny Damon.

Sometimes, you’ve just got to go with your gut, and hold onto your good-luck charms. They don’t wash up every day.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Sacrifices & Stuffed Bears

I would love, one day, to see Ryan Howard hit a home run in person. I’ve had tickets to two games in which he was on the field, and he has hit four homers in those two games. I saw him rounding third base after one of the blasts, and the others I missed entirely.

The reason for these misses is simple: I attended those ballgames with my children. And when you’re at a ballpark with young kids, watching the game is typically not their first priority. I was thinking of this yesterday, as my younger one celebrated her fifth birthday. I stood in the Build-a-Bear Workshop at Menlo Park Mall and watched a bunch of 4- and 5-year-olds place little red hearts inside newly stuffed bears, rabbits and dogs, and I recalled the day a few years ago when that Build-a-Bear store on the main concourse of Citizens Bank Park kept us from watching Mr. Howard land his mighty blows against the Atlanta Braves. In that case, the girls were begging for a stuffed Phillie Phanatic. We listened to their pleas, and eventually they settled for a Phanatic picture book over in the nearby souvenir shop.

Sacrifices. We make an awful lot of them when we enter this crazy racket called parenthood. We give up so much for our kids, and most of it is way harder to take than a rabid baseball fan missing a superstar’s home run. We begin by giving up sleep, one of our life’s necessities, for the sake of our kids. And then our free time becomes their own. Then our financial decisions become ruled by their needs. Eventually, our career paths, home decisions and vacation choices all become heavily influenced by the little ones we have.

There are times when it gets to be too much. Times when we find ourselves wondering when we are going to get a full night’s sleep again. Or when we’re ever going to get that weekend away – and if not that, perhaps just dinner and a movie? And if not that, then maybe just at least one hour in which we can get something done without a little creature climbing up our leg?

It can seem endless sometimes. And for moms, it’s even more difficult, as the young child so often looks to the mother as the lead parent. A trip to the gym? An hour at a coffee shop? A night out with friends? These are fantasies, better suited for the Travel section than our daily planner.

And yet, then these little creatures keep growing, and they find a way to climb not only onto your leg, but into your heart as well. They learn how to smile and welcome another kid to their birthday party. They ask you to turn on your iPod so they can dance to the Ting Tings with you. They ask if they can say grace before dinner. And then they actually eat their green beans. You ask them to flex their biceps, and they show you how strong they’re getting. They ask you to read a book, and together you learn something new together.

Tonight, as Chelsea was getting ready for bed on this birthday night of hers, we sat down at the computer and I showed her other famous people who were born on this date. We talked about Isaac Newton, and Louis Braille, and Floyd Patterson. After we looked at Julia Ormond, and the guy who did Winnie-the-Pooh’s voice in the Disney short films, I showed her my personal favorite of the January 4th celebrity birthdays: Michael Stipe. I played her REM’s pop song “Stand” on the iPod, and she smiled and swayed to the music. We watched the video to “Shiny Happy People,” and she wanted to know who the drummer was. I told her, then segued over to a clip of REM singing that same song, but with the words “Furry Happy Monsters,” for their Sesame Street performance. Chelsea had seen that clip before, and she seemed to find it really cool that this man who sang neat songs for a living was born on her birthday. I resisted the urge to play her “Orange Crush” or any of the darker REM songs, and led my shiny happy person off to bed.

So this little kid is cuddling with me on our couch, letting me teach her about the world, listening to songs I like, and singing along with me. Not such a bad night, actually. Pretty much worth about a million and a half sacrifices. I’ll take it, kid. Maybe next time we can even watch some clips of Ryan Howard’s home runs. You might like it.