Sunday, March 28, 2010

There Go My Heroes

The heroes are everywhere in late March. They’re tossing in three-pointers en route to the Final Four. They’re filling the pages of baseball preview articles on the long road to Opening Day. They’re scoring third-period goals in pursuit of a Stanley Cup. And they’re finishing the fourth quarter strong in preparation for the NBA Playoffs.

Heroes. We use that term a lot in sports. Ever since the sportswriters and radio broadcasters began telling us about the exploits of Babe Ruth, Joe Louis and Jesse Owens, millions of Americans have dreamed of becoming the next great athlete. Very few of us make it to that hallowed place, but the dreams of getting there can help form the foundation of a childhood.

There comes a time, though, when most of us begin to expand our definition of “heroism” to include some of the people we’ve learned about in history class, as well as some individuals we see around us each day. Perhaps we include the firefighters who helped rescue someone we know. Maybe even the doctors who operated on our grandmother. Or, better yet, the parents who are with us each day in so many ways.

As my freshmen read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird this winter, we talked a lot about heroes. Students discussed the most impressive heroes they’d encountered in their 15 years of life so far, and I heard a lot about parents, siblings, aunts and uncles. When we finished the book, I asked the kids to write about the character they found to be the book’s truest hero. As they wrote their essays, more of the teens chose Atticus Finch than any other character. One of American literature’s best-known characters, Finch’s heroism lies in his ability to give fully of himself – both to the world around him and to the children he is raising.

As I reflect on – and grade – these essays, and as I sample some of the March Madness and baseball previews, I think about the heroes I’m seeing today. And as much as I’d like to tell you that the Butler Bulldogs or the Opening Day starters are my heroes, I’m looking in the same direction as my freshmen. I see heroes closer to home.

For one, I see my colleague Sara. This is Sara’s spring break, when she should be resting and taking some time to gear up for labs and lessons she’s got to teach. But Sara is actually in Haiti this week. Thanks to the support of some extraordinary colleagues and students, Sara was able to hop a flight to the earthquake-ravaged nation this week and is helping in whatever ways she’s needed. Last I heard she was digging latrines and drainage ditches in a refugee camp.

Secondly, I see my friend Siobhan. After nine months of pregnancy and some 17 hours of labor, Siobhan gave birth to a gorgeous little girl a few days ago. Right now, Siobhan’s life is in its most intense period of adjustment. She’s finding the strength to raise another human being, and on far less sleep than she’s ever had in her life. But she and her husband couldn’t be doing any better if they tried – they’re as devoted as two parents can be, and their daughter is an enormously lucky little girl.

So Sara and Siobhan are two of my heroes in late March, 2010. They’re giving for a living right now, Atticus-style. You can watch someone snip a basketball net off a rim or spray champagne in a teammate’s face all the time. But you don’t always get to see someone change another’s life. I saw two such people this week. And when you looked into their eyes, you could see that gleam of pride.

They knew the definition. They knew, deep down, that they were embodying real heroism. It was just like my freshmen said – the great ones are all around us.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Caring Like a Centerfielder

During baseball’s off-season, Yankee fans spent a lot of time discussing the losses of two key outfielders. In a couple of months, however, these same fans will be spending far more time talking up the newest pinstriped outfielder.

Johnny Damon is in Detroit now, and Hideki Matsui is in Anaheim. But Curtis Granderson now mans one of the most revered positions in sports – centerfield for the New York Yankees. Hall of Famers Earl Combs, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle have played there, as have perennial All-Stars Bobby Murcer, Bernie Williams, Rickey Henderson and Damon. Now Granderson, an All-Star in his own right, gets a turn at the expansive green grass of Yankee Stadium.

Granderson will hit, he’ll run, and he’ll make great plays in the outfield. But that’s just part of the reason why New Yorkers will be wearing his No. 14 all over the city in the months ahead. They’ll like those homers he plants in the short porch in right field, but they’ll also notice how agreeable he is to interviews, and how personable he seems. Even more important, though, they’ll notice how much work Granderson does for individuals in need.

Giving back is something many of us have done, athletes included. But in the difficult economic climate of 2010, it’s tempting to think more of ourselves than of others, particularly when our own finances are not what they have been, or when our family and job responsibilities seem overwhelming.

And yet, great societies always survive and thrive due in part to the compassion we show toward one another. Winston Churchill once told us, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Using Sir Winston’s equation, Curtis Granderson has made quite a life for himself. His Grand Kids Foundation has worked to improve education and youth baseball opportunities for inner-city kids. He has served as an “ambassador” for Major League Baseball, traveling to Europe, China and South Africa to promote the game. Last month, he stood alongside Michelle Obama as MLB’s representative in support of The White House’s anti-obesity program. The University of Illinois graduate has even written a children’s book encouraging kids to chase their dreams. It’s no wonder that in 2009, MLB players voted Granderson winner of the Marvin Miller Man of the Year Award, given to the player whose on- and off-field performances most inspire others to reach higher.

This is quite a man we’ve got here in New York, and I for one can’t wait to learn from his compassion. I was thinking of Granderson yesterday as I stood on Springfield Avenue in Newark with a group of high school students. It was 75 degrees and sunny – by far the nicest day of the year so far – and these teen-agers had chosen to spend four hours handing out lunches and clothes to homeless and other low-income men, women and children at two locations in Newark. They were talking with the individuals we met, and listening closely as one man offered them advice on life across the street from Newark Penn Station.

My students all hail from a suburban town where poverty exists, but is often hidden by the abundance of wealth teeming from the renovated houses and ritzy storefronts throughout town. The kids could have been shopping in those stores yesterday morning, our lounging at home with their iPods or PlayStations. But instead they were giving, and giving earnestly. When we finished, the smiles on their faces told you the story. Giving felt good, as it always does, and these kids would gladly do more. Some, in fact, were back at work today – this time painting a mural in their town’s community center. It’s no wonder this club keeps growing in new and exciting ways; more kids keep experiencing the fulfillment that comes from reaching out, like a centerfielder chasing a long drive, and extending their reach into areas of need.

There’s one other thing you should know about Curtis Granderson – he’s got a fabulous smile. It’s a genuine, ear-to-ear grin. I think I understand where he gets it from; I saw that grin yesterday in Newark.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

When the Heavy Stuff Comes Down

We don’t get many cyclones here in Central Jersey. There’s a time for everything, though.

Four inches of rain and powerful winds can do terrible things, and they did just that in the New York City area yesterday. Mother Nature brought her torrent of tears to our backyard as well, and she wasn’t willing to negotiate. When the soil had held all the moisture it could contain, the water began streaming up through our basement’s foundation. We pleaded with her to stop, but her lack of cooperation left us with no choice: We pulled out the heavy artillery, plugged in the Shop-Vac, and got to work.

Mother’s response was simple: Shop-Vac this, buddy. No machinery, towels or buckets were going to stem this flow of water. We felt like Little Leaguers up at bat against Johan Santana. As the water rose and spread, the goal became simple: Save the basement. So we did.

By 3 a.m., when the rain had finally subsided, the dozens of gallons of water we’d cleaned up were all safely streaming down the drain. Our carpet is toast, but the basement lives on to see another daylight savings time. Compared to many others in our area, we were very lucky. Amy and I stumbled to bed, and morning arrived far too quickly.

As I was scrambling to mop and sweep and vacuum last night, I found myself thinking quite a lot about my brothers and sisters in Haiti, Chile, New Orleans and Indonesia, who in recent days, months and years have endured exponentially worse conditions due to natural disasters. I was trying to salvage some carpet strips we had bought at Home Depot; the earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis we’ve all seen and read about mercilessly swept aside homes, cars and, of course, lives.

I have no real idea what it’s like to live through a true natural disaster. But there was one moment in the middle of the night when I believe I got a small glimpse. Amy and I have had more stress than we’d like in recent weeks – lack of sleep due to our new puppy, winter illnesses in the house, many inches of snow to remove, dual work schedules, and stuff everywhere as the bathroom gets renovated. It’s been hard to find any time to connect and really talk with each other. As a result, we’ve both had much shorter fuses lately.

But at three in the morning, after five hours of fighting this force much stronger than us, it was clear that we had worked incredibly well together, and had prevented this problem from becoming so much worse. It’s not the first time we’ve found strength in each other and endured something difficult together. It’s what we vowed to do 14½ years ago, and what we’d gladly vow to do again today.

What’s more, it’s what anyone who cares for another will do in the face of extreme challenge. Maybe that’s why, amidst all the deep sorrow and mourning in Haiti, I’ve seen photos of individuals smiling and hugging each other. In their eyes, you see the message: We’re still alive, and we’re helping each other find a way to tomorrow. When you’ve found a way through the darkness by holding the hand of another, it seems that there’s a special kind of grace to that. And these moments of peace might just carry along a clarity, perspective and fellowship that you had misplaced somewhere.

Before the storm, Amy and I were complaining about losing the hour to daylight savings time. We were hoping to squeeze in some time to watch “The Hurt Locker,” but we worried that the lost hour and our puppy’s wakeup time would make a mess of that.

Mother Nature took care of that “problem,” and Kathryn Bigelow’s film will wait until another day. But at 3 a.m., as we stood on the cold tile floor of our basement, Amy and I couldn’t have cared less about watching a movie.

We had made it through. Together. So we turned to each other, in between the furnace and the slop sink, and embraced. Not quite Best Picture material, but at the moment it did just fine.

Friday, March 12, 2010

When the Mighty Fall

There are times when you just have to suck it up.

My sister-in-law writes on my Facebook wall: “Hey Warren, what do the NCAA Tournament and flip-flops have in common?”

I know, Lynn – they have no heels. No Heels. Ha. Ha. Ha.

When you root for a team that wins a lot, and then that team has a surprisingly terrible year, you’re going to hear about it, and you’re going to have to take some punches. Last year, North Carolina held aloft the Division I men’s basketball championship trophy. This year, the Tar Heels are 16-16, and will play no part in the NCAA Tournament.

Nobody’s cryin’ for you, buddy, so don’t even start complaining.

The barbs are even coming from your own students, who rely on your judgment for their grade-point averages. You know it’s a bad year when even they are taking swipes at you, reminding you of just how badly UNC lost to Duke last week.

I get it, kid. Take out your Hamlet book. You can play Polonius today.

Last year, the two sports teams for which I root passionately – the Chapel Hill men’s hoops team and the South Bronx pro baseball team – both won championships. Even for two of the most successful teams in American sports history, titles in the same year had never happened before last year. And it may never happen again. So for a fan like me, it was definitely a cool year in that way.

But in 2010, the mighty fell on that hardwood – or at least the mighty became reliant on freshmen who are still learning the college game. The Tar Heels will be back, but this year’s tournament will belong to other teams, with other fan bases. It’s still fun to watch, just without the personal connection.

To an extent, this year’s Flip-Flop Tournament has me turning my attention to Spring Training, to how the Yankees are shaping up. No need to worry about people telling me that New York is out of it this year. These defending champs are still wearing their navy-blue Grapefruit League uniforms, with the starters playing a couple of innings before the rookies get a look.

Baseball is waking up from its winter nap, and the excitement of a new season approaches. But it’s still kind of distant right now. Let’s be honest – college basketball is where it’s at in mid-March, and if I avoid the games it’s only out of spite.

My sister-in-law went to Siena, which has a far better men’s basketball team than North Carolina has this year. Now that is something truly rare. So enjoy, Lynn, and root for those Saints every step of the way. You never know.

Just remember this one, though, when you’re passing along the social-networking jokes. It’s an oldy, but I’ll take it any day.

Q: How do you know God loves the Tar Heels? A: He made the sky Carolina blue.

Redemption awaits. Even for the mighty.

Monday, March 8, 2010

New Life

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon, and the mercury had finally inched above 50 degrees. We were driving along the highway, and Katie had a question.

“Daddy,” she asked, “is this your first life?”

“Umm,” I stammered, attempting to focus on the road while also trying to answer the deepest question a child of mine has ever asked me. “As far as I know, yes. What has you thinking about this, Katie?”

I wondered if a whiff of the spring-like air had Katie thinking about reincarnation. In fact, she said she’d been thinking about her great-grandfather, who passed away a few years ago. She was wondering if his spirit was still in heaven or if, instead, it had settled inside a dog. My grandfather had loved the golden retriever we’d had for many years, and the two often seemed to be connected by forces much stronger than a leash.

Katie’s memories of the people and animals no longer with her speak volumes about her sensitivity, as well as to her understanding of the autumns in our lives. Her hope for rebirth speaks to our universal connection with this season of green that awaits us, awakening just around the corner.

In Florida and Arizona, they’ve been thinking spring for weeks already. The ballplayers call it “Spring Training,” and they’re already playing games against each other. There are young players hustling to impress their managers, older players trying to make one last comeback, and unfortunate players whose early-season injuries have them wondering just how fruitful their springs will actually be.

Fans travel from around the block and around the globe to watch these baseball players up close in Spring Training. They watch the players stretch, long-toss, practice grounders and take batting practice. Players sign autographs, and rest easy with the knowledge that every team, now and for the rest of the month, is tied for first place.

New beginnings. A fresh start. In so many ways, the seasons of life are all about this. We seek the patience to endure the harsh winters of life, the fortitude to gather up our strength for the long walk home, and the present-mindedness to savor the moments of grace that bloom before us.

A cardinal sits on a barren tree, a harbinger of things to come. A final patch of snow melts into the grass, now wet with moisture and promise. A dog dashes around the yard, sniffing all the fresh smells this sleepy ground holds. A veteran pitcher tosses two innings in Tampa to work on his off-speed stuff. An outfielder shags fly balls and does some jogging in the outfield.

I think it’s my first life, Katie. But the winter is long, and your question is fitting. As for your great-grandpa, I think he’s in all of us, to an extent. Kind of like a spring breeze.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Bringing the Olympics Home

I was admiring the Stephen Colbert Winter Olympics magnet in Ellen’s classroom, and it got us started on how much we miss the Games already. Ellen, who is a friend and colleague, loves the spirit, excitement and intensity of the Olympics so much that she’s still got some events left to watch on her DVR, four days after the Closing Ceremonies. I’m envious.

I have followed sports for as long as I’ve been watching TV, and I’ve followed them closely ever since Santa gave me a subscription to Sports Illustrated just before I turned 11. I’ve worked as a sportswriter and covered everything from the Final Four to Putt-Putt tournaments. Even so, there are really only three sports experiences that bring my enthusiasm to a level that I’d deem passionate: One is the entire baseball season. The other is NCAA basketball in March. And the third is the Olympics, both summer and winter.

I love the Olympic fortnight and all its built-in drama. I love the kid out of nowhere who takes the silver, I respect the favorite who holds on and takes the gold as expected, and I’m inspired by the gutsy athlete who completes the race despite injury. I watch the cheesy NBC profiles, I put my trust in Bob Costas, and I even look forward to the Olympic-themed commercials. Someday, I hope to attend an Olympics in person.

But as March begins, the Vancouver Winter Olympics are finished. Gone. Amy and I have no DVR, so there’s nothing on tape to watch. It’s on to the rest of our lives.

Or is it? Shaun White and Shani Davis may not be here in our house, but the more I look around the more I see some Olympic-caliber events taking place around me. In fact, La Casa Hynes could easily bid for the site of the next Household Olympics. I can’t see the IOC voting against us, really. I think they’d love it.

For one, you’ve got the Bunk Bed Jumping event. See 8-year-old hopping on her top bunk to impress Grandma. Hear Grandma ask 8-year-old to stop horsing around. Watch 8-year-old leap from the top twin-size bunk, only to land on the bottom full-size bunk with all the weight and velocity of a ski jumper. Watch the wood split in half on the side, and see the bottom mattress slither to the ground. Hear Mom yell. Loudly.

After you’ve caught your breath, give Puppy Gate Crashing a try. Walk into the kitchen to greet your 10-week-old golden retriever. Watch the small furry dog dive toward you, only to slam belly-first into a plastic puppy gate. See her fall on her back on the linoleum, only to hop up with tail wagging. Really, who needs a halfpipe?

For the more detail-oriented sportsmen, there is Blankie Searching. Just before bedtime, hear a 5-year-old tell you that she can’t find “Blankie.” What was once a hospital blanket holding an infant is now a small, gray cloth the size of a Girl Scout badge. Search through every room, pick up every pillow, and rummage through each pocket as you try and find this dirty piece of cloth.

Oh, there is so much to savor in these domestic games. For the biathletes among us, try Stain Shooting. Your job here is to wear your nicest school clothes, get through a day of school with the clothes still clean, then figure out a way to spray that tomato sauce directly on the sleeves of each shirt just as you finish your meal. You can’t miss the target, because then Mom and Dad would actually have it easy for once. It’s not just a bowl of penne, kid: It’s everything you’ve ever dreamed of.

As we close out these games, let’s turn our attention to the Dimetapp Marathon. Since it’s winter, we’re trying to see how many consecutive days someone can have a stuffy nose and require two teaspoons of our favorite grape medicine. We’re shooting for a new winter record here, so let’s not stop at three weeks, please.

This is great. I’ve got to get NBC on the phone. Poor station is back to regular programming again, which means more of that Leno-O’Brien nightmare. Notice how no one talked about that these past few weeks? All because they were eating up the hockey, curling, skiing, skating and sledding. Just imagine if they had the chance to watch even juicier events, like Vicks Steam Humidifier Cleaning, Taylor Swift-on-the-iPod Dancing, or the frenetic Grab-the-Coat-and-Leash-Before-the-Puppy-Pees-on-the-Floor race?

Frankly, I’m embarrassed I hadn’t thought of this earlier. But now I’m ready to bring sport to a new level. The Olympics don’t have to end, folks. Just look around you, build a podium in the laundry room, and go for the gold.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Prince Charming Goes to Preschool

She calls him “Jimbo” now. She is 5, he is 4, and they are in love.

Chelsea and Jimbo. Sittin’ in a tree.

Maybe it’s all the princess and fairy movies that turn 5-year-old girls into little Cinderellas, eagerly awaiting their Prince Charmings. I can remember Katie, at 3 or 4, greeting my return home from work with the following command: “Daddy, you need to come upstairs with me now so we can get married.” And on we’d go, to dance at the royal wedding in her bedroom. (Katie, are you sure you don’t want to go outside and have a catch?)

Chelsea is more of a Tinker Bell kid, but she buys into the Disney-fied view that the love of her life is just a heartbeat away. She’s also gotten a heavy dose of the High School Musical medicine, and it’s clear that her preschool classmate and fellow church member Jimmy is the Troy to her Gabriella. (“It’s hard to believe / That I couldn’t see / You were always there beside me ...” )

They play together in school, attend each other’s birthday parties, and sit together in church. On a recent Sunday, Chelsea and Jimmy could be seen drawing together in the pew, coloring pictures of Adam and Eve. For Valentine’s Day, he gave her a necklace. With Tinker Bell on it, of course. When we explained to Chelsea that she and Jimmy will be attending different kindergartens next year, she bawled.

There will come a time, sooner than I’d like, when the word “boyfriend” will send a shiver down my spine. I have already developed a three-point plan for the first real boyfriend that either girl brings home: First of all, he needs to come over and do homework with her, at the kitchen table, at least two nights a week; second, he needs to come to church and out to dinner with us a few times; third, he needs to spend a weekend helping me paint the basement. Then we’ll see.

For now, at least, the older one is giving me no such worries. Katie, at age 8, is far removed from that once-upon-a-time world of knights in shining armor. By first grade, she had begun to have real conversations with boys in her class. And they had reached a tacit understanding: If Katie could run as fast as them, or beat them in sports, then she was super cool. Katie met those requirements, and that was all the boys asked of her. Katie asks nothing of them, except that they understand she’s got way more important things to do right now than look for her own Troy. Reading, gymnastics, art, swimming, her new puppy – those are the loves of her life right now.

Chelsea, I’m sure, will follow suit and drift away from the world of preschool romance. She will find her own inner Hannah Montana and drift away from Gabriella. But I have to say, I think I will miss it.

Maybe you have to see her sit down next to Jimmy, and watch the way they communicate through subtle changes in their bright smiles. You have to see the way they look at each other – not so much like two kids in love, but like two kids who have forged a partnership through a critical stage of growth and development. They are lifting each other up, and helping each other figure out how to socialize, play fair, be considerate and care for their peers. You ought to see them hug, in a way that goes beyond the awkwardness of 5-year-olds and into the embrace of companionship. It’s something to see.

So go on, kid. Go to preschool. And don’t forget to say hi to Jimbo for me. He doesn’t have to paint the basement. Let’s have him over for a play date.