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.