Saturday, October 23, 2010

Full of Beep

She speaks Beep. I do not know the language. But I am trying.

My 5-year-old daughter, Chelsea, has always been a bit on the shy side. Her primary objective in life is to be cozy, and to spend time with her mom and grandparents. She goes to school and tolerates it well enough, but school can’t hold a candle to sitting quietly on the couch, sniffing her blankie while watching TV. Or sitting at the kitchen table with her mom, doing a jigsaw puzzle while sipping apple cider.

After both of our school days are done and we’re home together in the house, I ask Chelsea how her day was. She glances up at me from behind her blankie, keeps walking, and says just one word: “Beep.” I tell her that I’d really like to know how she’s doing. Again: “Beep.” For my third try, I get a bit more specific and direct: “Chelsea, can you please tell me what you did today in school?”

You guessed it. Beep.

I don’t understand where it comes from, or why the girl has turned into a blonde-haired version of Road Runner. But whatever the reason is for this girl’s affection for Beepness, it has happened. And it seems to offer her the same comforts that the soft blankie does: A place in which the demands and stresses of the big, wide world need not be considered. It’s a world where you don’t hear about homework or new math problems or Monday-morning wakeups. You just spend your time counting beep.

I work a lot with language, as a teacher and writer. And I know that we can communicate in a lot of different ways. In literature, popular writers such as Junot Diaz and Khaled Hosseini often bring multiple languages into their prose. In politics, campaigns resort to metaphor-loaded jargon that often obscures any real talk about issues. In our daily lives, many of us communicate via e-mail, status postings and text messages in a short-hand, symbolic language that might have confused even a lover of invented words such as Shakespeare. And in baseball, there are entire books devoted to explaining the language of this sport, so that the casual viewer might have some idea how to tell the difference between a “Baltimore chop,” a “little dribbler” and a “screaming liner.”

So if we’re playing so much with language already, why not toss a little kindergarten Beep into the mix? There’s room under the tent for that as well. Yet while playing around with language is completely fine, the use of said language to avoid ordinary conversations can be a bit more troubling.

So I am working on cracking the Beep code. My initial approach has been to join in the game. So in recent days, when I’ve seen my little girl, I’ve asked her this: “Chelsea, how was beep today?”

“Beep,” she responds.

“Sure,” I say, “but did you read beep in class? Or did you draw beep instead?”

She cracks a smile, and we play at this game for a while. I still don’t get much specific information about the school day, but I do feel like she’s letting me into her world somewhat.

Last Friday, as my wife and older daughter were at Brownies, I got a couple of hours together with Chelsea. I picked her up from school, we did the Beep dance for a while in the car, then we headed out to Target together. We walked through the aisles, looked at some stuff, then I bought some things from the pharmacy and food sections.

As we arrived home, Chelsea hugged her mom and told her about our trip to the store. And while her recap began in a happier tone, Chelsea soon shot her mom a more serious look and lowered her voice to a register of disappointment.

“And at the store,” Chelsea said, “Daddy didn’t buy me one single thing.”

Some ideas need no secret language to convey. I shook my head at these words, then looked at my wife with a smile. As for Chelsea’s material desires, I’ve been there, done that. But on this afternoon, I was under the impression that our time together was all that mattered.

Seems like Daddy was full of beep.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Piano Man

Grading papers is a craft of sorts – you want to provide valuable feedback to help a student improve those skills, yet you can’t spend an hour on each essay. That would leave you with no life whatsoever. So you work efficiently, red or purple pen in hand. And you write those comments in a manner that is part-teacher, part-psychologist – you’re always aware of whose work you’re grading, and what tone you should use in order to leave that student feeling better about his or her potential, no matter what the final grade may be.

It’s a little like the work of a hitting coach. Instead of fine-tuning a batter’s swing or follow-through, you’re honing some reading and writing skills, via full-class sessions, conferences and written feedback. And instead of poring over video and scouting reports, you’re studying The Great Gatsby and A Raisin in the Sun. You don’t expect to become a household name through the work you do, but you know that if you do it well, there will be more than a few students who will come back and thank you someday.

As I was practicing my grading craft Monday, I did so with another craftsman working in the basement below me. His name is Lee Bulkley, and he’s been tuning pianos for four and a half decades. Some kind neighbors had given us their piano upon moving, and this early-‘80s Kimball upright needed a tuning in the worst way. So, thanks to our friend Peter’s recommendation, we invited Lee over to take a look. He walked in, greeted me, and sat down at the piano. He played a few notes, stopped and said, “Well, it sounds awful, but it’s something we can work with.”

There are craftsmen, and then there are craftsmen. In my book, Lee Bulkley more than earned his italics on Monday. The man spent four and a half hours in our basement, delving into the bowels of that piano in search of a sweet sound. He adjusted the tension of strings and oiled the metal pins that held these strings in place. Every hour or so, Lee played a full tune on the ivories to give the piano a test drive. As I worked through my seniors’ tests on A Streetcar Named Desire, I did so to the sounds of Lee playing “The Entertainer” and “Hello, Dolly!” If a few of my students earned higher test grades than normal, it’s because of the mood that Lee’s music left me in as I sat at my desk.

Occasionally, I walked downstairs to check on Lee. At one point, we digressed from talking about pitch, broken keys and the evolution of the Kimball, and instead started discussing careers. Lee shared with me the reality that his business is not faring so well these days. As with so many businessmen in 2010, Lee has had more profitable years than this one. He’s thinking of new ventures, he said. Right now, he’s looking into real estate.

There was a time, not so long ago, when learning a craft and perfecting that craft were seen as some of the highest accomplishments an adult could achieve in life. In this 21st century, though, it has become possible to computerize so many of the things we use and value. While this has its advantages, it also tends to leave the craftsman behind.

And when we do that, we lose something. The Lee Bulkleys of this world have provided an awful lot of soul to the music of life. Losing them would be a bit like assessing our students solely through standardized tests. Or teaching youngsters how to hit a baseball via YouTube videos.

Lee got halfway through the tuning process on Monday. He’s coming back soon, to finish the job. He estimates it will take another four hours. I look forward to seeing him walk up the driveway, toolbox in hand. And I can’t wait to hear him test out his handiwork with a song or two. I may even put the grading aside this time, and just sit and listen.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Closers & Connections (One Sixty-Two: Day 162)

Writer’s note: One Sixty-Two is a season-long series of blog posts connecting baseball’s major-league players to life’s universal themes. Just as there are 162 games in a season, so there will be 162 posts in this series. Let’s play some ball.

Day One Hundred Sixty-Two: Mariano Rivera, New York Yankees

When I was taking journalism courses in college, I studied many of the great American sportswriters. It didn’t take long for Roger Angell to quickly become a favorite. Angell’s breathtaking New Yorker essays showed me the extent to which baseball writing can be literature. I studied Angell’s stories and noticed his attention to detail, as well as his willingness to go beyond balls and strikes and into the larger stories taking place in a ballpark every day.

Thanks to writers like Angell and the incomparable Gary Smith of Sports Illustrated, my life as a sports fan, sports reader and sports writer is framed by the dual observations of the game itself and the stuff of life surrounding that game. My heart pounds when Mariano Rivera enters a Yankee game in the late innings of a playoff matchup: He’s out there, after all, because New York is trying to protect a razor-thin lead against a formidable foe. But amid the nail-biting suspense, I try and see the big picture as well. I view the cool with which a man like Rivera goes about dispatching elite hitters every day, and wonder how different his nerves are from those of a man who welds together steel beams 100 stories above Manhattan, or a woman who defuses bombs for a living. As Rivera finishes off a hitter for the final out, I wonder what it says about the man that he is able to smile and shake hands while also maintaining a composure that seems to say, “The win was great, but it’s not everything.”

When Rivera closes a game, as he’s done better than anyone in history, he seems to enjoy the moment while also looking ahead. Even after he’d finished off the Philadelphia Phillies in last year’s World Series, Rivera stood on the dais at Yankee Stadium and announced that he was ready to play ball for another half-decade. The man can finish things, but he knows that every ending is really just another beginning.

“Baseball is not life itself, although the resemblance keeps coming up,” Roger Angell wrote in his book Season Ticket. The great part about this aphorism is that you don’t have to force it. My wife bought some Turkey Hill ice cream today at Stop & Shop, and it came in a Yankee-themed box with a flavor titled “Pinstripe Brownie Blast.” Now that is an example of a forced baseball-to-life connection. We didn’t need the brownie blast to see baseball and life interweaving – clearly, my wife had gone food shopping without eating a full breakfast today, and her hunger had left her buying food items in a manner befitting George Steinbrenner’s free-agent splurges of the 1980s: She was eagerly snatching up the fancy-looking stuff, buying on impulse rather than deliberate planning. Amy may not like this ice cream in the end, but for the moment it was a headline-grabbing purchase in our house.

Another arduous regular season draws to a close this weekend, with the playoffs set to begin in a few days. Sometime during the week, I’m sure Amy and I will find ourselves sitting in our living room, watching nervously as Mariano Rivera takes to the mound in the ninth inning. Our hearts will race a bit, but I’m sure we’ll calm ourselves down with a nice bowl of Pinstripe Brownie Blast. It will taste good enough to remind us both that baseball, like life, is about far more than the drama of the moment. In my final days of life, I don’t know that I’ll be able to recall what the Yankees did in 2010. But I know I’ll be able to remember what it felt like to sit next to my wife, eating some ice cream with her, while watching a ballgame together in our home.

In the end, it’s always about the connections – with those we know, with those we meet, and with our own selves. It’s always more about the hug Rivera just gave to his catcher than it is about the final pitch he threw. You don’t build a relationship with a pitch. But you can do it just fine with a hug.