Friday, November 25, 2011

They've Got the Whole World in Their Hands

The girls sat down at the bar and waited to order. When the bartender walked over, he looked at my 9- and 6-year-old daughters and asked if they were OK with blue. The girls nodded. He reached beneath the bar, then handed each of them a hunk of blue clay.

“What would you like to make?” he asked Katie.

“A bird,” she said.

“Very good choice,” he said.

“And you?” he asked Chelsea.

“A pencil,” she responded.

“Excellent,” the man said, then proceeded to show both girls the first steps to their creations.

They say you can find anything in New York, and I’m more convinced of that now than ever. I say that because my girls and I drove into the city two weeks ago and went to our first clay bar. That’s right – just beneath Houston Street, on a charming side street off the Hudson, you can take your kids to a bar where they sit and make things out of clay.

It’s part of the Children’s Museum of the Arts, which recently reopened on Charlton Street with loads of artistic opportunities for kids. Walk into this museum and you can paint to your heart’s content, create your own an advertising logo, learn stop-action animation, draw cubist art and use markers to tag your own graffiti. And, yes, you must sit down and try the clay bar. Joe, the bartender, will be happy to see you.

Joe creates the same thing you’re making, and he models each stage for you from his side of the bar. He showed Chelsea how to turn little slivers of gray clay into a facsimile of the ferrule that connects the pink eraser to the wooden pencil. He showed Katie how to make eyes and a beak, then handed her some fluffy pipe cleaners so she could add a few feathers to her bird. As the girls focused on each stage of their clay creations, Joe worked the bar, assisting other kids. A glance down the black marble bar top revealed a turtle, a mermaid, a motorcycle, and a shark complete with fish in mouth.

I’ve been reflecting on Joe and the clay bar this month and during this Thanksgiving weekend. It’s hard to know just what you can count on in this autumn of 2011. We’ve got a federal government that can’t function and a financial crisis that seems to know no end. We’ve got a college sex scandal rocking the country and college tuitions that are no longer affordable for many Americans. We’ve got wars and uprisings in Asia and Africa, and climate change-induced weather uprisings in our own backyard.

So with the world seeming to be out of our reach these days, it’s comforting to find something you can hold in your hands, and shape to your heart’s content. For some of us, it’s a dish we cooked for Thanksgiving. For others, it’s a card or e-mail we’ll be sending to a friend over the holidays. For still others, it’s the tree we’ll be trimming or the menorah we’ll be lighting during the next month.

For my girls earlier this month, it was the clay. They collaborated with Joe for a good hour, and came away with the best creations they’d ever sculpted. The bird and pencil now sit prominently in our living room – proud reminders of what can happen when we work together, experience wonder, and create beauty. Reminders of what it feels like to hold a piece of this crazy world in your hands. It’s still possible to do those things in this world today. Just hop up to the bar and find out for yourself.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Thinking Different

A few weeks ago, my brother and I took my girls to see the Jim Henson exhibit now running at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. The wonderful exhibit chronicles Henson’s entire career, from commercials and Jimmy Dean talk-show appearances in the 1950s and ‘60s through the mega-success of Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock and the Muppet movies in the final two decades of Henson’s life.

I saw this exhibit with Eric and the girls in late September – before the passing of Steve Jobs, before the release of the latest Wilco CD, and before the St. Louis Cardinals’ stunning World Series victory. But as I reflect on these very different events from Autumn, 2011, they all remind me of that very rare individual – the one who can visualize and create something that is not there. Jim Henson, Steve Jobs, Jeff Tweedy and Tony La Russa fit that bill – and for different reasons.

Henson is so well-known for his creative genius that Jobs placed him and Kermit the Frog on one of Apple’s “Think Different” ads in the 1990s. Take a single image from any Muppet – say, Kermit playing the banjo at the start of The Muppet Movie – and you find yourself shaking your head at the sheer ingenuity. Since his death last month, Jobs has been eulogized by many as his generation’s Thomas Edison for his contributions to the technological revolution in which we currently reside. As Guggenheim perfected the printing press, Jobs perfected the smartphone. Jeff Tweedy has led Wilco to a place where pop music defies categorization, and that is meant as the highest compliment. Is this band, now well into its second decade, a pop band? Rock? Alternative? Country? Roots? The more you search for a clean label, the more elusive – and hypnotic – Wilco becomes. And as for Tony La Russa, anyone who is willing to buck the status quo in baseball deserves some kind of plaque in Cooperstown. La Russa’s willingness to think different in how to use pitchers and position players alike – and his ability to win a World Series with the likes of pedestrian players such as Nick Punto and John Jay in his starting lineup – is puppetry at its finest.

Tony La Russa retired yesterday – more than 2,700 wins were apparently enough for the man, and he’s ready for something else in life. With his jet-black hair and his bowl haircut, La Russa looks a bit Muppet-like. He and Jim Henson would probably have a lot to talk about. La Russa would surely compliment Henson on his adroit use of lesser-known puppets such as Bunsen and Beaker. Henson would likely fine-tune the Cardinals’ “rally squirrel” to give it a more human dimension. Jobs would probably recruit them both for an iPhone commercial, complete with Wilco soundtrack.

Yes, the geniuses are out there, and they’re still changing the world. It may seem as if we’re living amid a whole lot of ordinary sometimes. But in spite of the reality-show nonsense and movie-sequel mania, there are still innovative entertainers creating great art for us all. And despite the copy-cat technology in your nearest Best Buy, there are still inventors changing the way we live. Somewhere beyond all those American Idol songs, there are also still musicians crafting truly new sounds. And way out beyond the SportsCenter highlights, there are women and men thinking about sport in ways that no one has dared to think before.

The exhibit in Queens is titled “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World.” As we scan the headlines and the cable channels, this world doesn’t seem all that fantastic sometimes. But if we look within, open our minds and think different, it can seem damn near amazing. Great enough to make a frog sing. Or a Cardinal cheer.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Coconut Man

Time can speed up on you when the game starts getting beyond your reach. There’s just too much going on, and suddenly you’re feeling as if you’ve lost yourself. You’re a starting pitcher watching the runs cross home plate, like Zack Greinke of the Milwaukee Brewers was last night. You try and breathe deep and slow it all down.

But it’s hard to do. And I’m not just talking about baseball.

Life in the 21st century often seems like it’s playing out in fast-forward mode. We’re in the car, on the phone, online, answering a text, updating our status, and clicking. Forever clicking. Before we know it, the day is gone. And our to-do list and inbox have grown larger.

Two weeks ago, my wife and I had the rare opportunity to leave those clicks behind and let time slow down for a few days. To celebrate my 40th birthday earlier this year and Amy’s 40th next year, we flew to the Bahamas over a long weekend. Our trip was planned with one goal in mind: to relax.

So, over the course of three days on Cable Beach, we read books and held hands in front of the glistening Caribbean. We swam in the water, pointing out fish and picking up shells for our girls. We walked. We lay in a hammock. We ate big breakfasts. We hugged a dolphin. We slept. And, most importantly, we talked – lots. All those things that the typical day doesn’t give us time to say, we said. We also listened to each other, and this led to a lot more nodding and smiling than those fast-forward days often allow.

Two weeks later, we are very much back in New Jersey, where life has returned to normal. The question, of course, is how to go about it all in a way that makes time feel like it’s moving at a slower pace. How can we stay in the game and keep it within our grasp? How can we put life back in “play” mode?

Maybe the Coconut Man can help.

He was strutting along Cable Beach, selling Pina Caladas, Bahama Mamas and Bahama Papas. He smiled to everyone as he walked up and down the white sand with a coconut in hand. “Day-Day-Day-Day!” he shouted, as he bopped along, asking each vacationer if they were up for a drink. I was engrossed in a magazine article when he walked past me, but as I peaked up from the newsprint, he and I locked eyes. “My man, I know you’re reading, and I’m not going to bother you right now. But when you’re ready for some coconut, you just give a call.” We both nodded and parted ways with a fist-bump.

Another tourist approached the Coconut Man for help in getting some beach chairs. Instead of saying this wasn’t his job, the merchant called out to a hotel employee who took care of it. As yet another tourist bought some Bahama Papas, she gave the Coconut Man change that he couldn’t break with the money he had on him. So he explained this, went into the hotel, and got the right change. All the while, he never stopped smiling.

To walk through life with that kind of zest, that kind of awareness of all that the day-day-day-day has to offer, is something to see. Now granted, the Coconut Man is living in a pretty relaxing place to begin with. But selling drinks for a living on the beach is not as calming an experience as being a tourist on the beach. Yet, the Coconut Man seemed to spend his days seeking out all the sunshine, seashells and sand that a day can bring.

How can we keep the game from speeding up? Perhaps the solution lies in being ready for those seashells and coconuts, whenever and however they surface. And, to take it one step further, we can also seek out those shells, rather than assuming an ordinary day lacks the potential for beauty. It’s not easy, especially when runners are on base and the home crowd is roaring in our ears. It’s hard to hear the water lapping at the sand when the daily buzz is humming. But it is there, if we look – and listen – hard enough.

I don’t know if we’ll ever get back to the Bahamas, or encounter the Coconut Man. But I’ll see other people who carry his zest, and find the hidden “Carpe diem” inside their coconuts. Maybe, on my best days, I’ll even be one of those people. Now that’s something for the to-do list.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The End of Summer

As my girls and I were walking our dog the other day, I spotted a lone firefly blinking his way through the dusk. He was floating around the rear bumper of an old Buick, perhaps looking for his friends. I watched his self-illumination with longing, and wished him well as the dog pulled me away.

I guess that firefly didn’t get the memo. Either that, or he was granted one of life’s greatest gifts – an eternal summer. Ah, perchance to dream.

For those of us not living in San Diego or Miami, summer does come to an end every year. We try to ignore it, but those fireflies depart so that fallen leaves and carved pumpkins can take center stage. Baseball’s regular season gives way to baseball’s playoffs, which yield to pro football. It’s a different season, with different rhythms.

Most of us who work as educators in the Northeast have started school this week. The first week of school always feels like you’re going from zero to 75 miles per hour in about 10 seconds flat. Even if we’ve spent days preparing our rooms and curricula, there are just so many new variables that can only arise when those students first walk in the door. They’re here now, and the marathon has started – as it always does – with a sprint. But we will manage our new challenges as they arise, and make sure we’re nurturing our new students in all the right ways. It’s what we do.

And as we do so, we’ll glance over our shoulders and notice summer cruising away. Maybe it’s attached to that Buick, with the firefly serving as escort. Most likely, though, it’s somewhere we simply can’t be right now – like down in the Caribbean, or out in the desert. Last weekend, my wife and I took the girls to the USS Intrepid museum on the West Side of Manhattan. It was fascinating to be on an aircraft carrier and inside a submarine, and the girls enjoyed it quite a bit. But every time we stood on the port side of the ship, we all found our eyes drifting to the giant cruise ship docked just north of the Intrepid. This Carnival ship was boarding for a late-afternoon departure. Some passengers sat in the boat’s restaurant, visible through tinted windows. Others walked around the place, checking out their home for the week. Still others sat on their balconies, staring at us.

It was just too much to take – these lucky souls, boarding their ship for a summer extension. Finally, we turned away, and began walking southbound along Hudson River Park. We stopped to watch some tiny waves lap up against rocks and soda bottles near the Circle Line dock. We watched bicyclists and in-line skaters zoom past us. The girls got to pet a horse from the police department’s mounted squad. And then, as we neared the end of our sun-drenched, late-summer walk, I overheard two women talking as they strolled by us.

“I love the Dairy Queen near me,” one woman said, “because it only accepts cash. That way, I can’t stop there unless I have the money on me.”

The other woman nodded, about to say something. And then they were gone. I had no interest in eavesdropping, so I kept walking. But I took some small consolation in the fact that this conversation was every bit about summer. I could taste that Blizzard – soft-serve vanilla with bananas, please – as we made our way back to Penn Station.

Summer is a collection of strikingly vivid details, photographed with slow exposure. We savor these details, filled as they are with wonder, serenity and – cue the ice cream – even temptation. But this season always manages to leave us. And, like any great romance, the longing makes us love it all the more when it comes back.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Waterlogged American Dream

So much for the American Dream. The two-story Colonial, the wraparound porch, the white picket fence, the backyard garden. Who needs a mortgage when you’ve got hurricanes with which to contend? Here in the Northeast this week, homeowners are dreaming more of an end to the flooding, the sewage backups, the dampness and the fallen trees. They’re dreaming of having their power back. They’re dressing like fly fishermen just to walk out in their streets.

In our home, Amy and I were lucky. We pulled our first all-nighter in some time Saturday as we worked to save our basement. After about 10 hours, 50 towels, dozens of buckets of water and hundreds of broom sweeps, we kept the water from destroying our finished basement.

But we were lucky. We had the chance to fight off the water. For those in nearby New Jersey towns such as Cranford, Paterson and Manville, there was simply no way to stop the rush of water that Hurricane Irene brought with her. For these families, there will be a long road back to normalcy. It is the same all along the East Coast, from Vermont to North Carolina. For some families, there are also individuals to bury in the days after this vicious storm. Talk about a week.

In most of New Jersey, the streets are now passable, although nearly every curb is filled with giant tree branches. For those still without power, the hum of generators can be heard, and extension cords stretch across the street as neighbor helps neighbor. What looks like a midweek yard sale is actually a family’s basement belongings, drying out on the lawn. Most traffic lights are working again, and war stories can be overheard in workplaces, libraries, stores and parks.

It’s been a tough five years for U.S. homeowners. For nearly a decade, Americans were able to make hefty profits from their homes as real-estate prices soared and lenders doled out cash by the bundle. But since the mortgage bubble burst, the American Dream has given way to a bevy of foreclosures, a huge dip in most families’ equity, and a realization that your starter home will likely be your finishing home as well. On top of all that, many regions of America have suffered from severe natural disasters, from New Orleans to Missouri to Alabama to Arizona to the entire Northeast.

So that brings us back to my initial point – what’s to make of the American dream? Should we be working so hard to buy our own homes anymore? Is it all really worth it? I’m 40 years old, and I’ve spent far more time this week thinking about French drains than French kissing. Is that really the sign of an improved quality of life?

Homes are a lot like kids, it seems – they’re a ton of work and money, they make you nervous, they require constant attention and tender-loving care, and – often when you least expect it – they make it all worthwhile. On Sunday night, as our endless day came to a close, a pink sunset decorated the western sky. I stood beneath that setting sun with my daughters, and they wore baseball gloves on their hands. As the swift breeze of Irene’s tail filled our lungs, we tossed a neon yellow softball back and forth. We had this peaceful catch in our own backyard, where we could laugh and talk and throw to our heart’s content. Katie pumped me some fastballs, then hopped inside. Chelsea stayed out awhile longer, and she kept catching and throwing and chatting away. I listened, and caught her tosses.

It seemed like my 6-year-old could play catch all night. On this particular evening, her dad definitely could not do the same. As we finished our catch and walked inside, I heard the crickets starting their song in the gathering darkness. Inside, I heard the running water of two girls brushing their teeth. I walked upstairs to sing my daughters to dreamland in their bunk bed, and, after a few songs, I heard the soft breath of sleep.

In the end, it can be a house, a condo, an apartment, or a FEMA trailer. It’s not the home that makes up the American Dream. It’s the living that goes on inside and outside it. I’ll hold onto my house, all right. (I might even add one of those fancy French drains.) Because in the end, the fury of a hurricane can’t hold a candle to the love of a family. It’s not the American Dream that matters most; it’s the American spirit.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Fatherhood, D.C.

One of my favorite Bruce Springsteen lines comes from a lesser-known song from a few years ago, titled “Long Time Comin’.” At one point in the song, the narrator tells us at that he is expecting another child. As he lies beside his partner and feels the little one “kickin’ inside,” he promises himself, “I ain’t gonna f--- it up this time.”

When my wife and I saw Springsteen perform this song in concert a few years ago, he told the audience that his older son, Evan, was in the audience. Springsteen said his son had suggested that he tweak this particular lyric. The younger Springsteen felt the narrator should instead say, “I ain’t gonna f--- it up as much this time.”

It was a beautiful story to hear, as I thought about my own journey ahead with two daughters. Here was one of the most successful men in America, sharing an anecdote that carried with it two messages: One, that you can never get it completely right as a parent; and two, that when they’re old enough to size you up as a parent, your kids will probably forgive your flaws.

I’m nine and a half years into that parenting journey now, and it never gets easy. But it remains the most fulfilling and amazing thing I have ever done. This past weekend, Amy and I took our girls to Washington, D.C., for the first time. In a whirlwind three days that featured a ton of walking and a lot of memorable first for the girls, I also caught a glimpse into the ways I am both struggling and soaring as a parent.

We begin with a time when Daddy did, indeed, f--- it up a bit. When we arrived at the U.S. Capitol early Saturday morning, we were told that we had to throw out all the food we’d brought along for the day. Visitors cannot bring any food or drink into the Capitol, no matter how early you got up to make those sandwiches. I thought about all the money we were wasting, and grew flustered. The girls saw this, and they watched as Daddy sweated the small stuff. Then they watched as Mommy got mad at Daddy for this.

I come from a long line of small-stuff-sweaters, and I want Katie and Chelsea to know that there are times when you just have to let things roll. I want them to live the serenity prayer, and accept the things they cannot change. But they’re not going to do this if I don’t model it. As we move forward together, it’s an area where I know there’s work to be done. Eventually, I dropped our food and drink in the trash can, and we walked inside the Capitol to marvel at the rotunda. And for further proof that things do work out when you let the small stuff go, our need to buy lunch brought us to the most diverse and delicious museum cafeteria I’ve ever visited, at the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian.

So losing our lunch at the Capitol will not go down as my most impressive moment as a parent. However, there were other times during our Washington weekend when I faced fatherhood with a positive spark that even Teddy Roosevelt would admire. As we sat in the upper deck of Nationals Park yesterday to watch the Washington nine take on the Philadelphia Phillies, the mighty Phils took a one-run lead into the bottom of the ninth inning. I sat beside Katie, and told her about the different paths that the Nationals and Phillies were on – for Washington, the goal is to build a winner; for Philadelphia, the mandate is to win now. As Phillies reliever Antonio Bastardo mowed down the first two Washington batters in the ninth, I told Katie about some times in baseball history when teams have tied games with two outs in the ninth. We watched as Washington’s Ian Desmond flailed at the first two pitches from Bastardo, and noticed as tens of thousands of visiting Phillies fans stood up and clapped.

And then, somehow, Ian Desmond found a pitch he could hit hard. Very hard. As the ball rocketed off his bat and into the left-field seats, Katie and I leapt to our feet. We exchanged high-fives. She jumped up and down, then took my new Nationals hat from me and put it on her head. The Phillies fans quietly took a seat. One inning later, as the Nationals won the game on the very rare walk-off hit-by-pitch, Katie cheered again. One sunset later, as we took I-95 northward through the dusk, Katie was still asking me questions about baseball. About the Red Sox, Yankees and Babe Ruth. About the Cubs and the billy goat. About the intense allegiance of Phillies fans.

“Daddy,” Katie said before drifting off to sleep in the backseat, “at your high school, you should teach a class on the history of baseball.”

My girls may not end up loving baseball like I do; I hold no expectations either way. But in a ballpark in Southeast D.C., I offered Katie a glimpse of what it’s like to feel passionate about something. And it was contagious. She felt the vibe, and left Nationals Park on a high.

Maybe for Katie and Chelsea, the passion will be art, or swimming, or engineering, or chess. Whatever it is, I just hope it’s there. And when I see that glimmer in their eyes, and hear the thrill in their voices, I’ll hope that my own love for things like baseball and writing has helped make their own passions possible.

When that happens, it’ll be a long time comin’. And it’ll be one of those moments when I’ll know I didn’t f--- it up as much this time.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Steinbeck Summer

Each summer, I try to read a classic novel that I’ve never gotten around to reading. This year, I decided on The Grapes of Wrath. I’ve always considered myself a big fan of John Steinbeck, but I decided that I could no longer make such a claim without reading his most famous book. Now it’s true that the best-known chronicle of life in the Great Depression doesn’t exactly make for typical beach-reading. But then again, the summer of 2011 is not your typical summer.

Our government leaders point fingers at one another while millions of workers search for jobs. Our retirement accounts sit in peril while the Dow Jones industrial average loops up and down like a Six Flags roller coaster. Foreclosed homes and defaulted mortgages pile up like stacks of broken beach chairs and umbrellas beside a garbage can in the sand. Vital programs created to help those in need are tossed aside like old paperbacks, while tax incentives to help the wealthy are preserved like Kindles inside tight leather covers.

It’s a summer that sounds and looks a lot like the America depicted in John Steinbeck’s novel. Steinbeck writes of giant farms that grossly underpay migrant workers, of banks that corrupt our economy out of greed, and – most importantly – of individuals who somehow survive all of this by constantly helping one another, even when that help puts their own lives at risk. More than 70 years after Steinbeck’s novel, it’s very easy to find Americans pointing fingers at one another in 2011. What’s much harder is finding leaders like Ma Joad, Tom Joad and Jim Casy, who lived and worked with an eye toward equality, brotherhood and fairness.

The economic, social and political connections can clearly be made between The Grapes of Wrath and this American summer. Yet, as I read this novel, I also found myself making a personal connection of a different sort. Throughout the book, there is a constant contrast between the visual beauty of the American land and the appalling sight of struggle and suffering. As difficult as it can be to read of death and destruction in the midst of economic peril, Steinbeck makes sure we also know that this country has not lost its aesthetic beauty. Not by a long shot.

“The spring,” he writes, “is beautiful in California. Valleys in which the fruit blossoms are fragrant pink and white waters in a shallow sea. Then the first tendrils of the grapes, swelling from the old gnarled vines, cascade down to cover the trunks. The full green hills are round and soft as breasts. And on the level vegetable lands are the mile-long rows of pale green lettuce and the spindly little cauliflowers, the gray-green unearthly artichoke plants. And then the leaves break out on the trees, and the petals drop from the fruit trees and carpet the earth with pink and white. The centers of the blossoms swell and grow and color: cherries and apples, peaches and pears, figs which close the flower in the fruit. All California quickens with produce, and the fruit grows heavy, and the limbs bend gradually under the fruit …”

As I read this novel, I sat in a beach chair overlooking a shimmering ocean, dotted by white sailboats, gray dolphins and foamy waves. Later on, while walking the beach with my family one evening, white ghost crabs popped out of little holes in the sand all around us. As my wife and I took a friend out for a kayak ride a few days later, we watched migratory birds fly above us to the comfort of marshland, and we felt the refreshing kiss of water on our hands and feet.

It’s the time of year in which many of us take more time than usual to notice the astounding beauty of whatever slice of America we call home for the summer, or for the week. We walk beneath the lamplights on a cobblestone street, or watch the half-moon as it glistens off the waves, or feel the caress of a mid-August breeze while licking our soft-serve cone. Wherever we are in America, that beauty is always around us, with the same kind of mystical comfort present in Tom Joad’s promise to forever be with his mom in the final pages of The Grapes of Wrath: “I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look.”

In the 72 years since John Steinbeck published his most famous novel, there has been no solution to the differing agendas of rich and poor Americans. That is most definitely a work in progress. But those words Steinbeck shared with us about the American pastoral still ring true as we look out upon the countryside, the seascape, and the rolling hills of 21st-century America. If we could all find a way to work together as effectively as this natural world does, we might just make it through. All of us. Your land; my land: you and me.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Down in a Hole

The kid didn’t ask for much; he just stood next to me with a metal shovel in his hand. My nine-year-old nephew had his lotion and bathing suit on, and he wanted me to take him to the beach. To dig.

He wanted to pick a spot in the sand and dig the biggest hole ever. Bigger than any he had ever dug before. I’d been in on some of those earlier holes, and they weren’t anything to sneeze at. But this was going to be the greatest hole that Connor had ever made. And he wanted my help. Like Barack Obama and John Boehner, this was our chance to “do something big.” But unlike our president and House speaker, no one was going to stand in our way.

And so we dug. It started at 11 a.m., and the digging quickly moved from smooth, white sand to brown, moist sand. Rocks and shells began to surface, making the work more difficult. But the kid wasn’t fazed by a thing. We widened the hole as we dug deeper, and eventually made steps so we could get in and out. We took turns, as there was room for only one digger at a time. We put stakes in the sand around the hole to notify others that this was a construction site. Occasionally, we took ocean swim breaks to refresh ourselves.

By 4 p.m., the hole was deeper than my nephew is tall. Almost five feet of digging, all in the glorious bright sun of July’s final day. By the time he had finished, Connor felt very proud of himself. He would have kept digging, too, had it not been time to head back for dinner. He posed for some photos, jumped into the hole one more time, then worked with his mom and me to fill the hole back up with sand.

As we worked, the English teacher in me surfaced just a bit. “Connor, do you know what ‘endurance’ means?” I asked. We talked about the word, and compared the runner of a sprint to the runner of a marathon. “The marathon runner needs endurance to go all that way,” I said. “Today, you’ve got endurance with the way you’re digging this hole.” He understood the point, and when I asked him about it again this morning, he remembered the word and its meaning.

Endurance. It’s definitely a buzzword in baseball this time of year. Which teams have the endurance to plow through those dog days of summer? Can they stay cool in the heat and keep their focus? Are they able to hang in there for the grueling marathon of six months and 162 games? In the end, having the opportunity to win in baseball or any other sport is all about one thing – how far you’re willing to dig.

We’ll find out who baseball’s best diggers are as August unfolds. I can tell you this, though – whatever those athletes do on the diamond this summer, they won’t impress me as much as Connor did yesterday. I saw endurance with my own eyes, and it was about as impressive as watching a kid dig all the way to China.

Friday, July 29, 2011

An Afternoon with Yogi

He walks more gingerly than he used to, and he talks more softly than he once did. But his smile, his sense of humor, and his easygoing manner are all still there, as they’ve been for the 65 years that he’s been in the public eye.

I got the chance to meet Yogi Berra yesterday, thanks to the generosity of a friend and colleague. My friend Hedy invited me to the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center on the campus of Montclair State University to watch the 86-year-old Yankee legend respond to interviews from high school students, as part of a sports broadcasting camp. The camp, which Hedy helps coordinate, is run by her brother, David Siroty, as well as sports journalists Bruce Beck, Ian Eagle, Dave Popkin and Mike Quick. It’s an extraordinarily impressive camp, as evidenced by the quality of the students’ work and the dedication of the experienced teachers.

So as a guest of the camp, I sat in the auditorium of Yogi’s museum and watched him sit down in a white folding chair, a Yankees cap atop his head and a Yankees jacket over his polo shirt. He held his cane in his hands and listened closely to every student’s question.

It was fascinating to watch Yogi handle the questions. Sometimes, he’d give a direct answer, such as when one student asked, “Yogi, was Jackie Robinson safe or – ” “Out!” the former catcher barked before that question could even be completed. Robinson’s famous steal of home during Game One of the 1955 World Series between the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers still stokes the competitive fire within Berra. Another student asked, “Yogi, what did you tell Derek Jeter after his 3,000th hit?” Yogi: “I told him it was about time.”

Most of Yogi’s answers, though, were not as direct. More often than not, Yogi took the student’s question as more of an invitation to tell a story. Somewhere in that story was an answer to the question. But in essence, the question was more of an opportunity for Yogi to reminisce. For instance, after sharing his humorous compliment to Jeter about that 3,000th hit, Yogi then started telling the students that he’s also joked with Jeter in the past about swinging at (and missing) high fastballs: “I asked him, ‘Why did you swing at those high ones?’ ” Yogi recalled. “[Jeter] said, ‘Well, you swung at them.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but I hit them.’ ” When asked about his batting style, Yogi didn’t speak about his three MVP awards or his 358 home runs. Instead, he brought us back to 1950, and told us that he’d come to bat 597 times that year and struck out only 12 times. He said he retired in 1965 after just nine at-bats because he struck out three times in one game. That’s how he knew it was time. “I retired that day,” he said.

When asked about his best and worst moments with George Steinbrenner, Yogi smiled, sighed, and brought his listeners back to the early 1980s. He told stories about young players whom the late Yankees owner traded away (such as outfielder Willie McGee) or threatened to demote (such as Dave Righetti). Yogi eventually got around to sharing his good moments with Steinbrenner, but only after telling us that Willie McGee (who retired when these students were toddlers) was a great talent, and that he was traded to the Cardinals for a pitcher named Bob Sykes. McGee smacked more than 2,000 hits in his career, while Sykes never pitched a game for New York. Yogi remembers that.

It’s the details like this – McGee for Sykes – that always amaze me when I’m listening to one of my elders talk. For years, the vivid storyteller in my life was my grandfather, Warren Mueller. Many of my grandfather’s stories were about baseball, too, as he played professionally in the Boston Braves’ minor-league system during the 1940s, then played semipro ball for years afterward. My brother and I would ask my grandfather so many questions about his playing days, and he’d remember the details of a game in 1944 better than he could recall what he’d eaten for breakfast that day. He always seemed grateful that his grandchildren wanted to know so much about his life, and he never stopped telling us stories. He told us about the tryout he had with the Brooklyn Dodgers at age 18, about the games he pitched with the Hartford Senators in 1944 and ’45, about the exhibition game in which he pitched against Joe DiMaggio in ‘46, and about the flourishing semipro baseball scene on Staten Island in the 1940s (done in by television, he’d always say). Just two days before he died, my grandfather told me for the first time that he’d pitched against Jimmie Foxx.

Warren Mueller has been gone for almost five years. My brother and I miss his voice, his laugh, and the stories he told. I didn’t know what to expect from yesterday’s visit to hear Yogi Berra – I’m not really big on star-gazing, and I had plenty of interviews with famous people during my work as a journalist. But what I ended up hearing from Yogi was some of my grandfather’s voice inside of his. Sure, the details were different, and they involved the most famous team in the history of American sport. But the rhythm and the purpose for these stories were the same.

All the campers and teachers took pictures with Yogi afterward, and David got me in for a photo as well. My photo looks silly, as I’m not posing and smiling for the camera. Instead, I’m standing there talking with Yogi. I shook his hand, introduced myself, and blurted out a few sentences about how much I appreciated the job he had done managing the 1984 Yankees. That team was out of contention early and brought up their best prospects in the summer for a long audition. I was 13, and at the apex of my childhood fascination with baseball. “You let the kids play,” I told Yogi, “just like the Mets have to do this year.” He smiled back, and said something that I couldn’t hear amid the din of the auditorium.

It may seem strange that I botched a photo with Yogi Berra. But I think I know what was going on there. I wasn’t really trying to talk with Yogi in that moment. I think I was just trying to get in a few more words with my grandfather.

Yogi, I’m sure, understood. When one student asked him how he felt about being honored at Yogi Berra Day more than 10 years ago, the man in the Yankees cap started to choke up as he remembered the day. “I’m getting emotional right now,” he said.

Mortality is more real and lasting than any home run or tag at the plate. That’s why we tell stories, and that’s why we listen.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Play Ball, Baby Doll

There have been a lot of baby dolls roaming around the house this July. While my girls have spent part of their summer dancing through the sprinkler, riding the ocean waves and swimming with friends at the pool, another part of their summer has been spent changing diapers and pushing carriages. One plays with an American Girl doll, while the other has a life-size infant doll, with frighteningly real facial features.

Daddy’s not much for dolls. I watch them, and feign interest when they tell me how “Amanda needed a nap,” or “Abby wants to go for a walk around the house,” but really I don’t like baby dolls much. Every parent has a terrifying fear of the child walking up to them at age 16 with the words, “I’m pregnant.” So the sight of my daughters practicing parenting is not exactly a dream scenario.

Of course, girls aren’t the only ones interested in pint-sized versions of themselves. From Muppet Babies to Cabbage Patch Kids, boys and girls alike have been drawn to reenact their own childhoods by caring for and watching fictional babies. As I sat in a bookstore the other day, I even came across a new comic book titled “Hulk-Sized Mini-Hulks.” I was stunned – at the content, the repetitive nature of the title and the spot-on proper use of hyphens. The comic book involved the exploits of three toddler Hulks – one green, one blue, one red. Every story was one page long, and every tale was easy for kids to follow. Hulk-Sized Mini-Hulks. At a store near you.

So maybe I was just one of those kids who never felt the need to tickle little Elmo or cuddle a baby doll. But I can recall a thing or two about using toys to while away a summer’s day. In the case of my brother and me, the object of our focus was Star Wars figures. The original three Star Wars films were a mutual passion of ours, not to mention most of the boys in America, during the late 1970s and early ’80s. Sometimes, Eric and I would re-create Star Wars scenes or craft new ones of our own.

But during the summer, with baseball fresh on our minds, we’d put these figures to work playing ball. With the legs of one of the figures, we’d draw the shape of a baseball diamond on the brown shag carpet in our living room. Then we’d divide the Star Wars figures into two teams, and we’d sit the figures down in the nine positions found on a baseball diamond. Eric would then grab one of the cannonballs that came with the Ewok figures from Return of the Jedi, and we’d use that as a baseball. One of us would toss the cannonball toward home plate, and the other would sit behind the plate holding a Star Wars figure’s head. As the pitch came in, we’d whip the legs of the batting figure forward, and the cannonball would fly.

What next, you might ask? Well, if the cannonball struck one of the position players, it was recorded as an out. If it landed untouched, it was a base hit or, in the case of a ball that fell beyond the outfield wall, a home run. My mother shook her head at this sight, and walked away. But we plowed on, and even kept statistics. Somehow, a little Ewok named Wicket W. Warrick led the league in home runs. He was a tiny, bear-like thing, and I think Eric liked him so much that he tried harder to hit home runs with Wicket at the plate. The toothy Gamorrean guards (protectors of Jabba the Hut) were a close second in the home-run race. Their girth played a role in their ability to launch one out of the “park,” not unlike Greg “Bull” Luzinski, who was finishing his career with the White Sox at that time.

That was a long time ago. I don’t play Star Wars baseball anymore. As I watch two little ones scamper about the house, I have yet to see them hold any home-run derbies with Amanda and Abby. They’ve been a lot more low-key than Eric and I were in our day. But hey, if Daddy ever feels the urge, he could try and draw up a diamond on the Pottery Barn carpet. We could roll up one of the doll’s socks for a ball, and make a little bat out of cardboard. The girls could even learn scorekeeping while we play.

But then, when the bases are loaded and Daddy’s really getting into this, someone’s going to need a diaper change. And off the girls will go, into their creative and nurturing worlds. I’ll clean up the mess, then vacuum the carpet so my wife doesn’t see any evidence when she gets home.

And I’ll go back to age 40, with just a little more affection in my heart for Amanda and Abby. Hey, the kid could hit; I’ll give her that.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Who's Your Daddy? He's a Jock Again

It’s been 22 years since I last wore a jock strap. It was the summer of 1989, and I was playing American Legion baseball with my cousin and a number of other young men at ballfields throughout Staten Island. I was getting ready for college, where I would leave the pitching mound for the sports desk of my school’s newspaper. Before long, I was covering sports on a daily basis.

Twelve years ago, I left daily newspaper work for public-school teaching. At this point, I was no longer interviewing athletes and other individuals during the summer months. Instead, July and August became a time for rest, rejuvenation and reading. Certain summers have also offered time for those medical visits that were put off during the school months. This has been one such summer.

But this year, I didn’t have just any old medical procedure. No, this year was special. This was the summer in which Daddy ensured that he could not become anyone else’s daddy. This was the week that saw a husband trudge through the front door, asking his wife for a pillow and an ice pack. This was the year that found a 40-year-old man wearing a jock strap for the first time since Rick Astley was churning out pop hits and Michael Keaton was Batman.

I haven’t needed the cup, mind you; just the strap, to help ease my way back into manhood. I am learning, as I begin my fifth decade, that there are certain medical procedures that help foster the increased humility that seems to come with age. There are parts of the body that, when prodded, do not leave me feeling like the king of the world, or even of my zip code. This trend, I’m sure, will only increase in scope as the years roll along.

For those of you who would like a little more color to the description, I will give you just this: When the Novocaine wears off a few hours after you leave the urologist, it feels as if you’ve awakened five days after being beaten below the belt with a baseball bat. You never felt the intense pain; just the heavy, please-get-me-some-Tylenol-right-now ache. It subsides, a little each day. But walking is hard. For someone who prefers running four miles to lying in a hammock, it’s probably harder on my state of mind than anything else.

But as I fight the stir-craziness, I’m forced to sit down, relax, and do the things that an on-the-move, to-do-list guy often doesn’t allow himself to do. I have sat down and made playlists for my iPod. I’ve read the newspaper. I’ve watched A League of Their Own with my girls in the backyard, at dusk, while eating ice cream. I’ve read with my girls, and watched them perform G-rated Katy Perry dance routines. I’ve sat down with my wife and planned our summer trips.

It’s not easy being laid up, but there are much more difficult things in life than this. Perhaps the hardest part of all was figuring out how to explain to a 9-year-old why this procedure was even necessary for Daddy. She was too old to just gloss over it, but too young to know everything. So after a brief, scientific discussion about the birds and the bees, she nodded, telling us that all those nature shows we’ve been making her watch make so much more sense now.

So if we got through that dicey discussion, surely I can make it out of this jock strap. It will take some time, I’m sure. But hey, maybe once it’s over I can find myself a men’s baseball or softball league. I’ve got a head start on the equipment already. And you know, as a pitcher, I can even handle it if an opposing team starts to heckle me.

The most creative way to get at a pitcher is to do to him what Yankee fans notoriously did to future Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez in his later years. “Who’s your daddy?” the Yankee faithful shouted to Martinez, ever since the day he lost to the Yankees in September 2004 and told reporters, “I tip my hat and call the Yankees my daddy.” New Yorkers jumped all over this, and Pedro smiled all the while as 50,000-plus asked him this rhetorical question every time he entered Yankee Stadium.

I was born the same year as Pedro. Beyond that small similarity, our baseball skills have nothing in common. He is a legendary hurler; I am a teacher and writer. But I do think I can handle the heckling just as well as he could.

“Who’s your daddy?” you ask? Most definitely not me. I’ve got the scars to prove it.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Derek Le Grand

Just about everything that needed to be written about Derek Jeter has already been typed and submitted in these past 48 hours or so. The most highly anticipated 3,000th hit in baseball history has come and gone, and the world is still turning. Jeter achieved his milestone in glorious fashion yesterday – that much we know. Jeter did it with class and humility – we know that, too. The kid caught Jeter’s home run ball and gave it back for free – that we also know.

We know a lot about Derek Jeter – in some media outlets, we’ve learned much more about him than we have about the current budget negotiations or the fighting in Libya. But this is the Yankees, after all. And so, in the spirit of Jetermania, this writer has just one more story to add to the shortstop’s big day.

So I had just finished a jog in the park yesterday afternoon, and I hopped into my car. It was just before two, and as I drove toward the park’s exit I turned on the radio. I remembered that the Yankees game had started at 1:00, so I was about to switch over to it. But as I reached for the radio, the FM station I had on was playing its best mix of the ‘80s, ‘90s and today, and on came Duran Duran’s “Rio.” As I passed playgrounds and barbecues in the park, I thought to myself, “I haven’t heard that song in awhile.” So I left the station alone, and enjoyed the tune.

As Simon Le Bon finished crooning and the synthesizers faded out, a disc jockey popped on the air and announced, “Congratulations to Derek Jeter, who has just joined the 3,000-hit club.” My jaw dropped, and I quickly turned on the game. But by this time, the celebration had ended, and Curtis Granderson was up at bat. The first Yankee ever to notch 3,000 hits with New York had achieved history, and I had missed it for a 1983 pop song.

Now since that moment, I have seen extensive video footage of Jeter’s home run for hit No. 3,000. I’ve seen video of his other four hits yesterday, I’ve seen interviews with Jeter and other Yankee players, I’ve heard and seen the kid who caught the ball, and I’ve even witnessed inexplicable coverage of baseball players’ tweets regarding the Jeter hit. But all of this was, of course, after the fact. In the live moment, when the excitement of sport is at its highest, I chose Simon Le Bon over Derek Le Grand.

I could try and stretch for some symbolism here, but that would be a lame attempt at making the pieces fit. I could try and tell you that Duran Duran makes perfect sense, since Jeter got to 3,000 hits by being Hungry Like the Wolf every game. I could tell you that he made it to 3,000 by attacking every at bat with A View to a Kill. I could say his success was all caused by The Reflex he exhibited when pitches came his way. Or I could tell you that the Yankees players mobbed him at home plate like a bunch of Wild Boys.

But really, that’s all too cheap and cheesy. I’m above that.

There is one thing I will say, though, about my radio selection yesterday afternoon. Baseball games and pop songs may sit in different places on the radio dial, but in the end, both are really designed for the same purpose – to make us feel like a kid again. So no, I was not listening to John Sterling as he called Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit. But I was listening to a song that brought me back to being 12 years old again. And really, can it get much better than that? Why does Derek Jeter play baseball, after all, other than to feel like a kid himself? And why do we watch him, other than to feel the same?

Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand / Just like that river twisting through a dusty land / And when she shines she really shows you all she can / Oh Rio, Rio dance across the Rio Grande

The 3-2 from Price: Swung on and hit in the air to deep left / That ball is high, it is far, it is gone! He’s homered! / Derek Jeter homers to tie the game, and there it is – hit number 3,000 / Is that dramatic? Is that ultra-dramatic? What a way to achieve the milestone of 3,000

Different verses, different stations. But whichever we choose, it’s all about feeling young again. And it’s worth doing, at least another 3,000 times.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Summer in Slo-Mo

A blissful breeze whispered off the water in Cape May, N.J., as I sat among a group of thirteen glowstick-toting celebrants. We sat in beach chairs and on blankets in the cool sand, waiting for the sun to set and the fireworks to begin. Someone handed me a piece of blue-and-red plastic that lit up if you pressed a button. I pressed it; the red, star-shaped top glowed like a lighthouse in Vegas. Behind me, friends were munching on Muddy Buddies. To my left, kids were gobbling up chocolate-chip cookies. All around us, a buzz of children’s voices filled the air.

The promise of summer peaks on July 4th, in a way that feels both exhilarating and far too fleeting. Summer itself comes and goes as quickly as a firefly’s flicker, with a sweet taste that lasts about as long as a soft-serve vanilla cone with sprinkles. We await those fireworks with joy and anticipation – and then they’re gone, and it’s already July 5th.

If only we could find a way to stall time, and turn our summers into more of a meandering brook than a roaring river. A few weeks ago, I introduced my girls to the Back to the Future movies. They were captivated by the adventures of Marty McFly and Dr. Emmett Brown, even in the less-than-spectacular sequels. It’s been more than 25 years since Marty and Doc first flew that DeLorean, but to my wife and me, the story was just as captivating as ever.

Maybe that’s because as we grow older, we long to control time much more than we ever did as a youngster. Does another Fourth of July really have to fly by so fast? Is it almost time for baseball’s All-Star Game already? Do I really see back-to-school specials in the Sunday circulars?

Slowing down the pace of summer is, of course, impossible – it’s like trying to catch a kite after you’ve let it go into the heavens. It sails away from you, and all you can do is watch, reflect, and savor the memory.

But wait a minute … does it always have to be this way? I mean, what if the kite, say, gets caught somewhere – on a roof, maybe – and then you retrieve it? Can’t that happen? Isn’t that something straight out of Doc Brown’s playbook?

As Sunday afternoon breezed into Sunday evening, we stood on the beach with our dear friends the Fergusons. My friend Brent decided that the wind had picked up just enough, and out came his kites. You should know right off that flying kites is not just a way for Brent to relive his childhood. While this 40-year-old man does have the curiosity of Doc Brown, Brent also has a Carpe Diem approach to life that leaves more than enough room for experiencing the momentary beauty of a kite in flight.

So he started with an Omega kite, which took to the air quickly and somehow ended up in my hands. While Brent got the kids started with a box kite and an owl kite, I kept letting more string out, as this multi-colored kite turned into a small speck in the summer sky. The seagulls flew far beneath it, and the wind kept it strong and secure in the air. It seemed, to my eyes, a half a mile away.

Brent watched, captivated, and encouraged me to let the string out completely. I did, and it was at this moment that we learned something new – the string was not attached to the handle. Goodbye, kite. We all shouted in surprise, then watched helplessly as the Omega soared northward into the blue sky. Brent’s first kite, gone forever.

Another beachgoer walked over to us, having witnessed the whole thing. As he spoke with Brent, he pointed at the kite. “You know,” he said, pointing upward, “it’s taking on air again.” And so it was. The kite string was caught, somewhere. It was no longer flying away. Brent went down to the street, to try and find the string. No luck.

As he walked the streets of Cape May in search of an elusive sliver of string, I took the box kite and started letting the string out on this one. After some conversation and planning, we decided that I would walk toward the Omega kite and try to get it twisted around the box kite. Then I’d try and pull them both back home.

Now I have never been to Afghanistan, and I’ve never seen kite fighting in person. But after two years of teaching Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, I must have learned something about handling a kite. Because as soon as I approached the Omega kite with my box kite, they danced around each other, and the Omega wrapped itself around the box kite’s string. Some 20 minutes later, I stood on a sand dune with both kites dropping into Brent’s outstretched hands. Thirty minutes after that, we finished tracking the string, which had caught itself on the roofs of five different houses. That kite was caught, all right. Had we not tried to save it, the kite would still be flying, five days later.

In all, it was only an hour of joyful salvation in the sun. But in retrospect, maybe it was a little more than that. Maybe for that hour, Brent and Warren really did turn into Doc and Marty – and instead of Plutonium, all they needed was string and wind. With that kite, you could say that Brent and I slowed summer down just a bit, and made the fleeting moment last longer than it should have.

A little more than 24 hours later, we were all at the beach together, watching the fireworks sparkle. As the pyrotechnics brought summer to its paramount moment of promise, we both thought of the colors we’d seen sparkle in the air the day before. We thought of that hour when the river became a brook, and a freed kite chose not to glide away. It was a bit like a firefly that glowed all night, or a vanilla cone that never reached bottom. It was summer in slo-mo – about as hard to find as a DeLorean on the streets.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Red, White & Rainbow

It’s been a good week for rainbows. As we strolled along the extraordinary High Line on the west side of Manhattan last Tuesday, my wife and I happened upon a collection of helium-filled structures called Rainbow City. The striped, balloon-like objects in this temporary park on 30th Street are made of different colors and shapes, and can be pushed around and jumped into all day long. The following day, my friend Jeremy and I encountered a rainbow of neon lights while attending a Brooklyn Cyclones minor-league baseball game on Coney Island. While watching the Cyclones players pitch and throw and field, we enjoyed the vibrant colors of the Wonder Wheel, Luna Park and the Cyclone roller coaster beyond the ballpark.

Throughout New York City this past week, from Chelsea to Coney Island, rainbows have been all the rage. It’s not every day that you get to see and feel civil rights history in your midst. While many states struggle to find their conscience on the issue of gay marriage, New York State’s governor and legislature chose on June 24th to offer every New Yorker the right to marry, no matter what their sexual orientation. As we strolled along the High Line and saw couples of the same sex walking together, Amy and I felt inspired to know that they could – if they so choose – join us in an institution that they have every right to try.

Tonight, at around nine o’clock, millions of Americans will gather at shorelines, in parks and on beaches. They’ll look up and see a rainbow of colors lighting up the summer sky. They’ll sing songs about America, they’ll toss around a baseball and they’ll eat a few hot dogs. On this day in which we celebrate the independence of our country, I’m especially proud of the state I have called home for most of my life. Come on come through, New York, New York. In the spirit of red, white and rainbow, I can only hope that others are right behind you.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Pizza Tourist

So when you’ve finished with the vasectomy consult, it’s not exactly surprising to need some time for yourself. I had gone over the diagrams, procedures and expectations for post-op discomfort with my friendly doctor, and was now fully versed on what to expect. As I left, I decided to take myself to the gym – I figured if I’m going to give away some of my manhood, I’d might as well do so with strong pectoral muscles.

But after I’d finished working out, I still needed something more as I tried to prepare for the impending sensation of a frozen bag of peas at waist-level. So I called my wife and told her I was going to get us some pizza. She said no problem. But this wasn’t going to be just any pizza, I told her. This time, I was finally going to drive 15 miles to a place I’d been wanting to try for years. She knew it was that kind of day, so she told me to take my time.

When Amy and I were first married, we’d often drive around New York City to sample the pizzas that received the highest rankings from Zagat and The Times and New York magazine. Now that we live in New Jersey, we keep an eye on the pizza rankings dished out by the Star-Ledger and New Jersey Monthly. But we notice that the best pizzas come from all over the state, so it’s a little more difficult to try these places.

But every time we see a list of New Jersey’s best pizzerias, we always see one place on the list every time – a little joint in the shadows of the Goethals Bridge named Al Santillo’s Brick Oven Pizza. Santillo’s is a tiny pizzeria located inside a side entrance of an unimpressive building on South Broad Street in Elizabeth. It has no seating; just takeout and delivery. And as you might imagine, they don’t deliver to houses 15 miles away. With the spot located in a bleak little patch of urban landscape between the New Jersey Turnpike, the Goethals and Route 1, it’s not an ideal spot for laying out a blanket and having a pizza picnic.

So the time was never right for our family of four to try Santillo’s – until this recent evening, when I had the cojones to make it happen. As I pulled up to the two-story gray building, I saw the sign, and the walkway up the side alleyway. I stepped into the little place, and there was Al himself behind the counter. As he brought me my pizza, he asked if this was my first time at Santillo’s. I told him I’d been reading about his place for years, and was driving from 10 towns away.

He smiled. “Oh, you’re a pizza tourist,” Al said. Then he waved for me to follow him. I did.

Al brought me back to the brick oven itself, with its narrow height and intense heat. He explained that his family had made the oven in 1904, and it’s been operating for three generations. He showed me the long-handled, wooden pizza peels hanging above us, and we stared at a large cheese pie cooking inside.

I told Al that we’re from Staten Island, and we’ve always taken pride in eating good pizza. He nodded. “That’s what being Italian is all about to me,” he said.

Al asked me to sign an e-mail list, which I did. Then he shook my hand, and wished me well. I drove the 15 miles back home, where the girls and Amy were waiting patiently. It was clear, as we started eating, that the Santillo family knows how to make a pie. We ate and talked together, and my pizza journey seemed like time well-spent.

A couple of weeks from now, I will be sitting on our couch, watching a ballgame in significant discomfort. That bag of peas will be nestled comfortably in my crotch, I will be achy and irritable, and I’ll try to find a way of explaining what’s going on to a 9- and 6-year-old who don’t really understand what precipitates the need for such a procedure. The gym won’t really be a good idea, and I won’t be in the mood for much driving.

So Amy, my dear, if you’re reading this blog post at any point, I’m just letting you know that a nice pizza from Santillo’s would go over real well during that recovery time. You can say it was your idea, and I’ll go along with it just fine. I’ll take one large cheese pie – nothing special. We pizza tourists just need a little delivery every once in awhile.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Springing Forth Lessons

It’s been a whirlwind of a spring, one that has kept me away from this blog for far too long. As the school year nears its end and my students turn in their finals, I’m finally seeing some daylight. I can’t overstate how much writing means to me, so it’s been tough not finding the time to post some blog entries. So it is time.

I usually use this space to write about life, with a little baseball mixed in, since the world as I see it is framed by diamonds, chalk lines and foul poles. So with a little baseball and a lot of details, I thought I’d share nine lessons learned over the past three months – one for each inning.

Lesson No. 1: Don’t mix baseball getaway weekends with tattoo conventions. It was designed as a fun little chance for the guys to get together, drive around the Mid-Atlantic, and watch some games. My brother, our friend Neil and I braved the cold and rain of early April to catch a Rangers-Orioles doubleheader in Baltimore. While the games and the crab soup at Camden Yards were fabulous, we were a little surprised by the scene at the Sheraton Hotel that Neil had booked for us. We didn’t realize that (a) there was a tattoo convention in the hotel that weekend, (b) the convention took over the entire lobby, and (c) the elevator to our wing was at the end of the lobby, past every tattoo table. Now nothing against tattoos – I know plenty of people who have them. But when you’re dressed up for a ballgame, and you look the part – cap, jackets, souvenir cups – you kind of stick out when surrounded by body art. We made it through unscathed, though, and I managed to avoid the temptation to ask someone if they could ink an interlocking NY onto my shoulder. Wouldn’t have played well in Baltimore anyway.

Lesson No. 2: It’s OK to give away a foul ball. It is, of course, every child’s dream to catch a foul ball at a baseball game. When I was 16, I was lucky enough to catch a ball at Yankee Stadium. It was a foul tip off the bat of Yankees utility infielder Jerry Royster, and I caught it after it had bounced off the facade behind home plate, then off a few sets of hands, before settling into my right hand. The girl next to me told me she was impressed. I blushed. Some 24 years later, I was sitting in the stands at the aforementioned Orioles game, when Baltimore right fielder Nick Markakis knocked a foul ball my way. I tracked it, shifted to my left in the empty row in which I stood, and saw it land just over my head. But the man behind me couldn’t negotiate his beer and the ball, so it bounced off his hands and into my row. I picked it up quickly, sat down and studied the cowhide and red stitches. It looked fairly clean, and I thought of how much the girls would enjoy this souvenir. But then I thought about what had kept this ball out of the guy’s hands. He couldn’t two-hand it because he was trying to hold onto a beer that had probably cost half as much as the ticket he bought for the game. Could I blame him? Slowly, I stood up and walked over to the man. I handed him the ball. He thanked me, and I sat back down. Instead of handing the girls a ball when I got home, I told them my story. The moral, of course, is clear: Always treat Orioles fans better than Red Sox fans.

Lesson No. 3: You can speak to the enemy. In fact, you can even get him tickets to Fenway. A couple of weeks ago, our friend Tom had a 40th birthday party in his backyard. His wife, Kim, decorated the yard to look like Fenway Park, complete with a Green Monster made of tarp and tape, a cardboard Citgo sign and a spray-painted diamond on the grass. We were even asked to wear red. This is a difficult invitation for a Yankees fan to receive in the mail, and even more difficult to have to pay a babysitter for the opportunity to sit in a replica of my least favorite team’s home stadium. And yet, as we ate barbecue, listened to Irish music and chatted with friends, I handed Tom an envelope. Several of his friends had been e-mailing one another before the party about pooling their gift money for a larger present. As they discussed the options, the baseball fan in me kept coming back to the same idea. Tom is a wonderful guy – some Red Sox fans actually are, I have learned – and this year’s Boston team is one of the best that’s ever played in Fenway. So I recommended we all buy Tom and his father two tickets for a Red Sox game, with their seats atop the legendary Green Monster. All agreed, and we made this happen. And so, on a warm summer’s day, my friend will surely sit in the best seats he’s ever had for a ballgame. And aside from the design on the cap he’ll be wearing, I can’t imagine a much better way for him to spend the day.

Lesson No. 4: The tooth fairy works past dawn. It was 6:55 a.m., and Chelsea walked down the steps with sleep and bewilderment in her big brown eyes. “She didn’t come,” my 6-year-old said, holding her plastic tooth case, her baby tooth still snug inside the case and not a single greenback to be found. Think fast, I told myself. And so I did. “Chelsea,” I said, “that’s because the Tooth Fairy works until seven o’clock every morning. She doesn’t like it when curious little girls wake up early while she’s still making deliveries.” She nodded, as this seemed to make some sense to her. I saw the case in her hand, and added, “But, if you’d like me to place the case on the front steps to make it easier for her, I can do that.” Chelsea handed me the case, and this seemed to please the Tooth Fairy a lot. After a few frenetic moments involving a search of my wallet and a toss of glitter on the front steps, I was on my way to work. And I didn’t even notice the small child’s tooth in my back pocket all day.

Lesson No. 5: I have accepted my wife’s boyfriend. It took some time before I was willing to share Amy with another, but I have decided I can live with it. It’s still not much fun, watching them cuddle together on the couch, but we all make concessions. They commiserate over Facebook, weather updates and angry birds, and it seems to make her happy. I am speaking, of course, of Amy’s iPhone, which I have written about before. I’m not a big smartphone guy, and I’ve voiced concerns that too much of our society is becoming devoted to the tiny computers in our midst. And yet, we’re driving together, and trying to find a movie theater or a restaurant, and she just presses a button and finds the answer. I don’t have a response for why that kind of help is bad for me. As long as no one’s looking at that information while they’re driving, it’s actually pretty great. And so far, she has never denied my own requests for cuddling on the couch. Of course, sometimes it’s the three of us, and I say OK. She gets the best of both worlds.

Lesson No. 6: There’s always time in the day to create beauty. We had just returned from the unveiling of our friend Roy Chambers’ found-metal sculpture “Don Quixote,” outside the Raconteur Bookstore in Metuchen. This artistic wonder had captivated the girls and I both, and it certainly inspired Katie. So as our 9-year-old sat down to create an artistic rendering of Charlotte’s Web for her third-grade book project, she fed off of Roy’s inspiration and crafted the characters from E.B. White’s story out of clay. By the time she finished, Katie had completed her most impressive piece of artwork so far. She knew it, and she felt proud of it. Of course, she had Roy to thank. (See more of Roy’s artwork at

Lesson No. 7: One man’s stadium theme song is another girl’s kindergarten swan song. If you’ve ever been to a ballgame at Yankee Stadium, you’ve heard Frank Sinatra’s voice. It booms out of the potent stadium speakers after the final out is made, and the Yankee fans love to sing along with Ol’ Blue Eyes, especially after a New York victory. The song, of course, is “New York, New York,” and it’s become a part of Gotham sports culture, even finding its way into Knicks and Rangers games. But last week, in a little auditorium in Central Jersey, a group of little boys and girls stood up and stole Sinatra’s – and Yankee fans’ – thunder as the piano began to play: “Start spreadin’ the news, I’m leaving today / I want to be a part of it: First grade, first grade.” And as they sang their way out of kindergarten, the little 5- and 6-year-olds sounded more lovely than 50,000 baseball fans ever could.

Lesson No. 8: It is possible to mix punk rock, mini golf and trapeze lessons. If you were in a certain part of New York City today, you would have seen adults swinging on a trapeze near a giant Mark di Suvero sculpture. And you would have seen families playing mini-golf with the Staten Island Ferry and Statue of Liberty as their backdrop. Oh, and you also would have seen moms, dads and kids bicycling their surreys past mosh pits. Only in New York, for sure, but more specifically – only on Governor’s Island. For years, this tiny island just off the southern tip of Manhattan has been in a sort of limbo, waiting for its next raison d’etre. And wow, has the city ever fulfilled its role of using its resources to create community, art and opportunities for wonder. We spent this Father’s Day biking around an island with panoramic views of New York Harbor, all the while experiencing other pieces of culture we never would have encountered. If you live anywhere near the New York City area and haven’t checked this place out, it’s time.

Lesson No. 9: There are fathers, and then there are fathers. My friend and colleague Darren lost his wife, Kelly, to cancer nearly two months ago. She was 32 years old and, like her husband, was a tremendous person. Darren is celebrating his Father’s Day with Elliot, their 2-year-old daughter who is obviously adjusting to a much different childhood than she had at first. My cousin, Tim, has a wife named Lauren who, a few months ago, developed bacterial meningitis while nine months pregnant with her daughter. The baby was delivered safe and sound, but Lauren fell into a coma and experienced severe swelling in the brain. She has been unable to walk or talk ever since, and has been fighting off infections for much of these past four months. As Lauren has bravely fought for her life and her health, Tim has cared for his 2-year-old son, Cohen, and his newborn daughter, Claire. As we send out our many Father’s Day greetings today, I think especially of my friend and my cousin, who have fulfilled the role of father in ways that surpass description. They are heroes in every sense of the word. Happy Father’s Day to them, and to all the dads out there.

As for me, it’s been a great day, and a very busy spring. A lot has been learned, with so much more yet to come. That’s what summer is for.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Forward, March

March can be a grind. It’s a month that does what it wants, when it wants, and leaves the rest of us to pick up the pieces. Like Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, March recklessly disregards anyone else as it whirls and swirls its way toward selfish ends. One day, it’s 70 degrees. The next, it’s snowing.

Spring begins, and we lift our hopes at the sight of crocuses blooming. But then March startles the crowds by announcing that nothing’s changing yet, and a deep chill returns. Eventually, of course, March and Old Man Winter will step aside and allow the more temperate April to take center stage. We’ll sigh with relief, only to groan a few days later when the temperature soars to 85 degrees.

You don’t feel much like spring when there’s snow on the ground. They tell you that the baseball season begins next week, but that seems like a farce. March leaves us in this netherworld, unable to plant our feet squarely on any settled ground. So, as a means toward survival and pleasure, we stay inside and turn on our televisions. We break out our brackets and watch young men glide across hardwood courts, in a dance they like to call March Madness.

The NCAA men’s basketball tournament offers a surfeit of athletic drama, equaled only by a few other sporting events – the Olympics, Wimbledon, the Kentucky Derby, and the World Series. To turn on your television and know for a fact that somewhere over the course of a few hours you will see a season hanging on 1.7 seconds – that’s just a sports fan’s dream. So please, let the baseball players shag some more flies and get in their morning workouts down in Florida and Arizona. No rush – we don’t need them yet.

I’ve got my eyes set on Harrison Barnes right now. I’ve been following North Carolina basketball closely since I stepped foot on the Chapel Hill campus some (gulp) 22 years ago. I’ve seen a lot of players in Carolina blue touted as the “best since Michael Jordan.” It’s become a cliché of sorts. But this time, it may be for real. UNC has won three national titles since Jordan left for the NBA Draft 27 years ago, but I’m not sure the school has produced as skilled a player as Harrison Barnes in that quarter-century. At 6-foot-8, Barnes is long, lean and lithe. He does not run; he glides. The freshman can shoot a 3-pointer as easily as he can dunk, and he can steal a ball as easily as he can pop a jumper. He will be playing basketball for a long, long time. For now, though, the Tar Heel faithful are the ones lucky enough to have him on their side.

Soon enough, Barnes’ season will be over – either with a tough tournament loss, or with a terrific title run. And then baseball will drag spring back to us, and we’ll have reason to stand outside again and think about doing some lawn work. I’ll plant some grass seed while daydreaming about the Yankees’ chances this season.

Tonight, though, the snow continues to fall. And March exudes its ever-present madness. It’s not a day to dream of pinstriped sluggers; it’s a day for freshman forwards in high tops. I’m ready for tip-off.

Friday, February 18, 2011

iLost Her to iPhone

Twenty-two years ago this week, I found the nerve to ask a cute red-head if she’d go out on a date with me. She said yes, and after more than two decades she still hasn’t said no. In a generation in which high school sweethearts are no longer common, Amy and I have managed to stay together from proms to college diplomas to career changes to parenthood. We’ve gone from singing Debbie Gibson songs to each other to crooning Bruno Mars to each other.

We’ve called four different states home, lived together at five different addresses, owned two dogs and begun raising two children. With all that under our belts already, you’d figure we’re a sure thing for one of those golden-anniversary celebrations someday.

You might think so. But you’d be wrong. In the same week that we celebrated our anniversary of being together, Amy made a swift and decisive choice. She’d had enough. My wife has left me – for an iPhone.

She waited impatiently for February to arrive, when Verizon finally began carrying the smartphone of her choice. When the e-mail arrived in her inbox announcing that orders could be taken, she pounced on it like a tiger, and in a few days’ time she held a sleek, black computer in her hands. Amy began making phone calls with it, texting her friends, taking photos, surfing the Internet and downloading applications. She sat up in bed each night this week, transferring her contacts and figuring out how to use this expensive and tantalizing device.

I was in the house during much of this time, but I wasn’t noticed. The card I had bought for her lay on her night table, and the white daisies (her favorite) that I’d bought stood all alone in a vase. But Amy didn’t see these things. She was busy getting the Weather Channel app on her phone, and choosing separate rings for her calls and texts.

In school, my seniors are currently reading Frankenstein, and we’re talking about the ways in which human creations can become “monsters” that end up hurting us in ways we never anticipated. During this past month, we’ve seen computers used to propel revolutions for democracy in the Middle East. We’ve also seen a computer beat the best human contestants on Jeopardy! And we’ve seen computers used to keep baseball fans updated every hour on the St. Louis Cardinals’ contract talks with Albert Pujols. In class, we’ve talked about the ways in which computers and smartphones have been used not only to help, but also to stifle society, creating problems such as texting while driving, cyber-bullying and a dearth of face-to-face communication. At home, I’ve begun reading M.T. Anderson’s gripping novel Feed, a futuristic tale in which computers are inserted inside the heads of human beings. Our technological revolution knows no bounds, and so it’s worth wondering just how Mary Shelley’s novel of nearly 200 years ago intersects with Anderson’s modern-day, cautionary tale.

In my pocket, I carry a simple flip phone, and it allows me to call people when I need to reach them. I’ve started texting a bit, so I wouldn’t mind a little pull-out keyboard. But that’s all. If I need to write someone an e-mail, it can wait until I get home or arrive at work. I think the computer’s got me hooked more than enough as it is.

But as for Amy, she has chosen to embrace the monster. Her phone/camera/radio/video-game player is in a nice yellow case, and she’s showing it to anyone who asks. Her doctor’s visit the other day was extended by several minutes as her doctor and nurse asked her to show them the phone and its features. She has given our girls a chance to play some games on it, and she’s ready to get some music on her new toy this weekend.

She and I remain in the same home, and there are times when she says a brief hello. But for now, my Sharona has found herself a new beau. I asked her if she’d given it a name yet, and she said no. I guess they’re still getting to know each other.

I’ll keep the hope alive, and wait for a quick glance up from the Pac Man app or the photo library. I even used my own technology to make her a little playlist for our anniversary. Instead of a 1989 mix tape with Gibson’s “Lost in Your Eyes” on it, this was a 2011 MP3 file anchored by Mars’s “Just the Way You Are.” But amidst the sweet love songs, I snuck in a subtle warning. It was another Mars song, the pop hit “Grenade.” In the tune, Mars sings vividly about all the things he’d do for his love – from catching the aforementioned grenade to taking a bullet to jumping in front of a train. The catch, however, is that the narrator’s lover “won’t do the same.”

Bruno doesn’t tell us exactly why his lover won’t return his passion. But after this week, I think I know the answer: She had Verizon, too. And during this winter of Bruno’s discontent, his girl also found a 3G, 16-gigabyte other man. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been with her for 22 days or 22 years – that iPhone is luring her away with ease.

You can buy her daisies, sure. But in a moment’s time, she can call up a crisp photo of a daisy bouquet and use it as her phone’s wallpaper. Here in the confines of Appledom, the petals never die and fall all over your table; they’re always pristine. And she can play Debbie Gibson songs whenever she wants. If she’s bored enough, she might even call up a photo of you. Until, of course, another text arrives.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Alps, Applebee's & Andy

According to Major League Baseball’s schedule, pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in just nine days.

No way. This is impossible to envision. Young men in short-sleeve shirts, fielding grounders? Sorry, bud – that’s beyond my ken. Not in this winter of 2011, when everyone from Maine to Mexico is feeling the wrath of Mother Nature. Video from Spring Training seems about as plausible as live footage from Oz.

In much of America and Europe, the onslaught of snow and ice this winter has been as relentless and frightening as the slew of 90-degree days were this past summer. Scientists tell us that climate change brings with it extremes, and so here we are, with several feet of snow blanketing New England and several feet of rain falling in Australia.

Here in Central Jersey, there’s usually no snowstorm that can stand in the way of a good day’s shopping. But even in the malls, you see the haggard looks and hear the groans of frustration. Outside, the snow-plowed parking lots leave mountains of the white stuff. It’s like the Alps, but with Applebee’s.

In the midst of an all-out ice storm Wednesday morning, Punxsutawney Phil had the effrontery to forecast an early spring for us all as he waddled out of his little hole in Pennsylvania. Thanks for the pick-me-up, little guy, but you don’t get the pleasure of my attention this year. You can’t waddle out of a cozy little hibernation hole and tell me I won’t be shoveling for long, while you and your little groundhog friends kick back and cuddle where the snow don’t fall.

We try to follow incredibly important news stories from Egypt, Tunisia and Washington, yet find ourselves constantly clicking over to The Weather Channel, where we find Jim Cantore howling with shock over the sound of thunder in the midst of a Chicago blizzard. Revolutions in the Middle East are world-changers, but it can be hard to focus on that when I’ve got a constant “Winter Storm Warning” box at the top of my page. And when I see a story in The New York Times explaining that this is the second consecutive mild winter up at the Arctic Circle, I am rendered speechless and feel the urge to re-watch An Inconvenient Truth.

Pleasant diversions come at us throughout February – Super Bowl Sunday, Valentine’s Day, President’s Day Weekend, the Grammys, the Oscars. We grab hold of these and search for a way to forget about the shovels and rock salt. We rent a movie, stir up some hot chocolate, hop on the treadmill. But then we look out the window again, and the frosted flakes are falling once more.

So yes, February 14th is the first day that teams require pitchers and catchers to report to Florida and Arizona for their first Spring Training workouts. Any ballplayer with fire in his belly has been getting his body ready for several weeks now, but next week the athletes start gathering in the same facility with their old and new teammates. Over in Tampa, the Yankees will start their “spring” without Andy Pettitte, the lefty legend who chose to retire Friday rather than leave his family for another long season. After 240 wins, it’s been a terrific career for Andy. He leaves his team with class and dignity.

I can recall a summer’s day, 13 years ago, when I sat with my brother in the old Yankee Stadium and watched Pettitte strand Florida Marlins baserunners all over the basepaths en route to another crafty victory. It was vintage Pettitte – double-play grounders, clutch strikeouts, fist pumps. As I sat in my shorts and T-shirt and cheered Andy on, all seemed right with the world.

Now, as Andy Pettitte retires, he heads back home to Texas – typically a warm state year-round, yet one that has experienced bitter cold and severe storms this winter. As the Super Bowl is played in Cowboys Stadium tomorrow, we’ll find folks bundling up for the game just a few hundred miles north of Mexico. We’ll shake our heads in disbelief.

Up here in Jersey, we’ll remember Andy Pettitte fondly, and we’ll tune into the big game tomorrow as well. But as much as I’d like to read a reflection on the Yankee pitcher’s career or watch a preview of the Super Bowl, I have a sinking feeling that I’ll be checking in with Jim Cantore and those ceaseless storm warnings. Andy Pettitte always knew how to gut it out through those tough spots; those of us living through this bewildering winter know deep down that we must do the same.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The End of Restlessness: Mr. Intensity Turns 40

As Amy and I snuck out to see True Grit Friday night, I found myself identifying more with Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf character than with Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn. The younger, greener LaBoeuf seemed more like me than the jaded, grizzled Cogburn. But as I write this blog, and reflect on the reality that I have turned 40 years old today, I must ask myself when it will be that I start identifying more with cagey curmudgeons than with young idealists. After all, does the word “young” even apply to me anymore? And what about that 6-year-old who was jumping on me Saturday morning, taunting me about being “old and 40”?

Resolutions. It’s the time of year when we make – then break – them. Chelsea, at 6, is working on limiting the amount of tattling she takes part in during 2011. I’ve taken to calling her WikiChelsea due to all the leaks she’s spilled on her sister lately. Katie, who is now 9, has apparently resolved to play outside as much as possible, perhaps taking our advice that she has her whole life to watch Teen Nick but only a few precious years of so much blissful free time to venture out and imagine.

My wife Amy has resolved to make no all-encompassing resolutions this year, but instead to take what each day brings and handle it with care. Not a bad idea. As for this 40-year-old, my 2011 resolution is a simple one: to relax.

It sounds so easy, of course. But for a man once nicknamed “Mr. Intensity” in college, making room for down time is about as foreign to me as rooting for the Red Sox. It’s just not really a part of my makeup. I am the kind of person who has always chosen to clean the house over sitting down and watching TV. My young adulthood is chronicled extensively through two decades of to-do lists, day-by-day calendars and white-board scribbles.

A week ago, my last full weekend as a 30-something was filled not with writing or relaxing but instead with a sudden realization that I needed to re-insulate the attic. After six hours of non-stop work, I collapsed into bed only to awaken the next morning with an allergic reaction that led, eventually, to a doctor’s visit and a round of antibiotics. So much for resolutions.

When I reflect on the now-completed portion of my life known as young adulthood, I think of so many fabulous moments – of marriage, parenthood, family life, friendships, teaching, writing, baseball, vacations and service. But I also view my young adulthood as an era of restlessness: No matter how great the moment was, I was always thinking, “What next?” I never felt quite satisfied with the present, and always found myself pushing hard for something bigger and better in the future. While this bespeaks a certain kind of optimism, it also makes it awfully hard to relax.

So perhaps it was fitting that the last weekend in my 30s was spent exhausting my body in order to save on heating bills. It served as a perfect bookend to a young adulthood that began with the mass-mailing of 125 resumes to newspapers across the country. I’m not a 22-year-old embarking on the life of an independent young adult anymore, but I have maintained that restless soul. And while it’s helped me get a lot of stuff done, I have to admit it’s worn me down a bit.

And so 40 arrives. The attic is insulated now, and that should cover a good 25 years. The medicine has me starting to feel better again, as I hoped it would. But will I respond to the return of bodily energy with yet another grand idea that requires 110-percent effort? Will Mr. Intensity be at it again? Which project will the to-do list herald next?

I don’t know. I did ask Amy for some yoga classes for my birthday. I don’t know how it will work out – when I tried yoga 15 years ago, I found myself sitting there thinking about the things I needed to get done during all those quiet moments with the lights turned off. But perhaps two decades of restless exhaustion have produced at least the awareness that it’s time to make this year’s resolution stick. I’m not talking about an end to goals and dreams – they live on forever. But if 40 teaches me anything, it may be that a little relaxation can do more for those goals and dreams than any day-by-day calendar ever could.

Some down time might just slow the pace enough to carry me from a state of frenetic accomplishment to one of peaceful fulfillment. And if that’s where I’m headed, then please, bring on the yoga, the meditation, and the big four-oh. I will trade you my hectic young adulthood in exchange for an era of composure and perspective. It may be a sign of age, but that’s OK. It’s time.