Monday, December 17, 2012

Our Stories, Our Songs

            For as long as I can remember, I’ve put my girls to sleep by telling them stories and singing them songs. For our older daughter, Katie, it has always been stories. When she was tiny, she preferred fictional tales, such as the one about the purple-polka-dotted bunny who was ostracized for his unique appearance – that is, until a little girl found him and loved him just the way he was. After awhile, Katie grew to prefer real-life stories, especially ones about the things I did with my brother when we were young. For some time, she even requested more specialized stories about times when I was playing with my brother and one of us got hurt. (Thankfully, I had a limited supply of those.)

            For our younger daughter, Chelsea, it has always been songs. She has found comfort in being sung to sleep by my wife or me, with our voices at lullaby volume as we croon “Rainbow Connection” or “You Are My Sunshine” or “Hey Jude.” As we move closer to the holidays, songs like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” ease their way onto the bedtime song list. At some point, we find ourselves singing to a child who is fast asleep, her breathing slowed and her pink blanket cuddled in her arms.

            On a recent evening, Chelsea asked me to sing her a few songs, and when I thought she was asleep, she popped back up and requested another. By the eighth song, my 7-year-old was still awake, and I’d sung the equivalent of a late-‘90s John Mellencamp album. I told her that she was old enough to start easing herself to sleep on her own after a few songs. She cried about that for a bit, and eventually gave in to sleep.

There are times, when the girls are begging us to stay up with them for just a little longer, that I want the stories and songs to end for the night. I crave some time to myself, away from the kids for a bit. The desire for some downtime is a natural feeling, and I don’t feel guilty for thinking it. Of course, Friday’s events in Newtown, Connecticut, remind me of just how precious every moment is with my children. But when I think of Friday’s massacre, as well as the past seven weeks since Hurricane Sandy, I also am reminded of the importance of our own stories and songs.

            We have a little wooden decoration in our house that reads, “You Are the Author of Your Own Life Story.” I bought it because I think it’s true: Each of us tells our own story each day through our actions and words, and together we work to tell our society’s story through our collective expressions. In the last two months, there have been a whole lot of stories in our immediate world that are sadder and more shocking than most of the things we’re used to here in the Northeast. Of course, additional stories of war and natural disaster around the globe compound the sadness.

            But we still hold the key to so much of this societal story. We still have the ability to turn that story into a song. My friend Steve Politi, a tremendous sports columnist for the Star-Ledger of Newark, wrote a piece a few weeks ago about the Point Pleasant High School football team, and how these young men walked from house to house after Hurricane Sandy in order to help people clean out their storm-ravaged Jersey Shore homes. A new friend of mine named Judy in Bay Head, N.J., has told me some stories about moms who can’t afford holiday gifts because of all they’ve lost to the storm, and my school is working to buy gift cards so those moms can go out and buy those gifts. Yesterday, President Obama told stories of teachers and students whose heroism defies description in the midst of true terror at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

            We tell these stories through our own words, and we tell them through our actions. Steve wrote the inspirational story about those football players, but they lived it themselves. There is no storm that can overpower that kind of goodness; Sandy’s a chump in comparison. The president can share the anecdotes in his speech, but these adults and children found grace in a conflict far beyond what most of us will ever face. That’s part of their story now, and it’s shocking in its sheer courage.

            It’s the holiday season, and some of us are not in the mood to celebrate much this year. That’s a natural feeling in the wake of so much sadness and loss. But if we had the chance to ask all the individuals who died from Hurricane Sandy, and if we had the chance to ask those who were killed in Newtown on Friday, I think they would encourage us to celebrate our lives with one another. They’d remind us that our stories are not over, and that we’ve got some people out there whose lives we might be able to touch today and tomorrow.

            They’d also remind us that we’ve got some catching up to do – there’s been too much sorrow in too short a time period. The story has fallen too far off course. We need to bring some joy back now, with little time to spare. Our individual and collective stories need a lift; they need to feel like a song again. So what do you say? Let’s reach out to one another and begin. I’ll start with the one about the purple bunny … 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Strength in What Remains

            I met a woman named Fiorella last weekend. She lives in a one-story house less than half a mile from the Atlantic Ocean, close enough to hear and smell the sea. The siding of Fiorella’s house remains, as do the beams and hardwood floor inside. Everything else is gone.

            Fiorella is an elementary-school teacher on Staten Island, and she lives in Midland Beach – an area of New York City decimated by Hurricane Sandy, sometimes with fatal results. Like so many others around her, Fiorella has nothing left but the framework of a home. On Saturday afternoon, she looked at the piles on her curb – of garbage bags, wooden posts, damp drywall and waterlogged sandbags – and spoke to the people standing outside with her.

            “I know it’s hard to believe, but it really was a nice house,” she said. “I had a little fence around the outside, and it looked pretty.”

            Fiorella was taking photos of everything, presumably for whatever insurance or FEMA purposes she could, and she was looking through the bins of soaked belongings outside her home. While she did so, a team of volunteers – some of them teachers like myself, others Mormon disaster-relief workers, others friends or concerned neighbors – worked to unload the contents of Fiorella’s basement. Wood, drywall, tools, Christmas decorations, books – all of them were lugged out. The most efficient means of cleaning ended up being a snow shovel – scoop up the stuff, then dump it into a trash bag. We carried it all out, from the complete works of Shakespeare to the little desk decoration reading “World’s Greatest Teacher.”

            When all but the washing machine had been carried out of Fiorella’s basement, she asked that we take photos with her. I asked how she was doing, nearly two weeks after this monster of a storm had changed her life so dramatically. She said that at first, it seemed unbearable. But then, each day, helping hands have come to her home. Each day, something has been done – a wall taken out, or furniture removed, or a basement cleared out.

            Fiorella has a mortgage on this house, so it’s not as if she can just pack up tomorrow and move farther away from the ocean. There are four neighborhoods worth of homeowners dealing with this dilemma on Staten Island, areas that look more like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina than anything you’d recognize in New York. As the city posts red, yellow and green stickers on homes to identify the level of damage, homeowners like Fiorella wonder what they can do, and how they can recover from this massive punch to the gut.

            And yet, they are here. They survived this storm, and their gratitude is so clear when you speak with them. There’s Anton, who lost his basement in Oakwood Beach but fed the volunteers who helped him with donuts, water and coffee. There’s Kevin, who has nothing left in his bungalow on Midland Beach yet thanked volunteers when they brought him food and toiletries. There’s Chelsea, whose house in South Beach was spared but spends all the time she can helping her neighbors. There are Staten Islanders up and down that borough’s east shore working to make the best of what has happened to them.

            Fiorella said it’s hard not to feel your spirits lifted when so many people show up to help you. I told her I was amazed at the amount of hope she exuded – she talked about putting the photos of volunteers on her Facebook page, of all things. But then, as I celebrate Thanksgiving today, I guess Fiorella’s loss has led her to do something that some of us only do occasionally – she’s looked around her and taken stock not of what she’s lost, but of what she has. And those Facebook photos reveal more than just social-networking cool – they show a sense of community and fellowship that can’t be replaced. You can get another copy of Shakespeare, and there are plenty more Christmas ornaments to be had. You might even be able to rebuild your house, with a little help from your friends and certain bureaucratic procedures.

            But you can’t replace life or love, and Fiorella’s got an abundance of those. So for that reason, I think she’ll be OK. As for me, I’m just incredibly thankful I met her. And you know, it still is a beautiful house. Because a house is only as lovely as the people inside it.

            Happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Carrying the Fire

            A tree has fallen through the fence and into our yard. Our power is long gone. And we are lucky.

            We saw, clip and carry bundles of limbs and branches to the curb. We set up the generator that Amy’s parents gave us and get it running. We share power and conversation with neighbors. We watch as workers remove a tree from a roof down the block.

            The skies are gray. There is a giant wall of wood in front of our house. The branches are gone from the back, leaving empty holes where wooden fence used to be. The homeowners behind us can’t even think about fixing those holes because there’s another tree on their front lawn, having fallen across the street amid a tangle of wires.

            Amy and I feed the girls, read with them, and do a puzzle. We watch old episodes of The Cosby Show on Amy’s laptop. As we go to sleep, the rest of the gas runs out of the generator.

            Day two begins post-Sandy, and we spend hours searching for gasoline. We come up empty. I reach out to friends and learn about the tree that fell through this one’s roof, and the tree that fell on that one’s car. But my wife and I also hear that both of our parents have power. Amy packs the girls into the car and heads up to her parents and sister in Connecticut. I stay behind, working with a neighbor to siphon gas from his car. While the gasoline trickles into our gas cans, I rake an elderly neighbor’s leaves and branches. Eventually, I get the generator going again. People walk the streets in search of wood for their fireplaces. They take some of mine. The skies are gray.  

This is all beginning to look like a scene out of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road. In that book, a father and son trudge through the desolate streets of a land that will never return to normal, searching for a way to survive. The dad keeps telling his son, “We’re the good guys” and “We carry the fire.” The son listens, and they hold onto hope. The book asks us to consider whether life is more about hope or more about despair. In this post-Sandy world, as tempers flare at gas stations and the power remains out, McCarthy’s question seems more and more relevant.

            But on Wednesday night, shortly before bed, the power springs back to life in my house. It stays on, and it seems to be just a few blocks that have it. I turn off the generator, go to sleep, and wake up to a home still powered and heated. With the wireless router now working, I turn on my laptop and begin to learn more about what’s been happening outside of my small world. As I do this, I begin to wish I didn’t know. The stories, the photos, the videos, the Facebook postings – they all feel like a high-tech recreation of McCarthy’s story. I clean up my house, return it to normal, and think about how I can help.

            The friends with the tree on the house and on the car don’t need help yet, as they need insurance adjusters and utility workers to arrive first. The neighbors down the block with no power, though – they’re happy to sleep over. Their thermostat had been down to 55, so they’re thrilled with 70 degrees and a warm bed. We chat for a while, and they go off to sleep.

            I return to my laptop and begin to realize how much despair there is on the east coast of my hometown, Staten Island, N.Y. On Friday, I pack up the car with clothes, towels, blanket and dog beds, and drive to the parking lot of a bowling alley in the Dongan Hills section of Staten Island. Burly men greet me at the car and unload the contents. I stand for a moment and look out at hundreds of bags of donated items, with makeshift signs indicating “Men’s Clothing” or “Blankets.” I see families walking around in search of items to sustain their lives, now that everything they have is gone. I feel a lot less concerned about that tree in my yard. The desperation I see here reminds me of my trip to New Orleans’ Seventh Ward this past summer.

            I decide against driving around to witness the destruction – I don’t want to be a natural-disaster tourist. I drive home, go food-shopping, and meet our neighbors back at the house. They stay over again, and we watch Bruce Springsteen sing for the suffering. We talk some baseball, too, which feels nice.

            The sun shines on the first Saturday morning in November. My neighbors get their power back. They thank me and leave with smiles on their faces. The friends with the tree on their car got it off, and it’s still driving. The friends with the tree on the roof have decided to go ahead with their plans to have their daughter christened today. My brother and I are the co-godfathers. Amy and the girls will meet me there.

There will be no party at the house after the ceremony; it’s not that kind of week. But we will be there, and we will stand beside our friends and their infant girl, and we’ll witness a different kind of water than the one that fell and flooded on Monday.

Another family of powerless friends may come by tonight, and if they do we’ll eat dinner together and talk and perhaps they’ll stay over and be warm. As for Staten Island, there are plans in the works for more drives and fund-raisers. Here in Jersey, the utility workers remain on the job, around the clock, restoring the grid one town at a time.

It’s beginning to feel, little by little, like the good guys might win this one after all. It’s beginning to feel like some hope remains after this truly terrible storm. In The Road, it’s never easy for McCarthy’s fictional father and son to “carry the fire.” In the real-life world of New York and New Jersey this week, it hasn’t been easy for us, either. But even in those gray, desperate days of our lives, it’s really the only way.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Opportunities Missed, Opportunities Gained

            I have a long history of missed opportunities at Yankee Stadium. There was that game against the Royals that my brother and I decided to skip back in 1996, only to miss a walk-off, two-run homer by Darryl Strawberry. There was the playoff game against the Mariners in 2001, when I landed tickets only to fall ill the day of the game and miss it entirely, including a home run by my favorite player, Bernie Williams.
There was the game against the Red Sox back in 1993, when my friend Stew and I drove to Yankee Stadium to see then-Red Sox stars Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs take on the Yankees only to realize when we got there that Stew’s automatic car window wouldn’t close on the driver’s side. He said there was no way he was leaving his car window open in a city parking lot, so we drove home.             And, to top it all, there was that Billy Joel concert at the Stadium back in 1990, when Amy and I had field-level seats but got caught in so much traffic that we arrived in time for the second encore. We stood on the field and sang along to the final three songs.
            When you go to events, you’re bound to miss some things. I obviously have. But I don’t get to Yankee Stadium as much anymore, so there’s not much room for any regrets. If I go to a game, I stay until the end and enjoy every minute. That was the plan last weekend, when I went to the big ballpark in the Bronx with my family.
            My mother had a tough summer health-wise, and we’re all thrilled that she’s feeling much better. So we decided to celebrate her birthday with a game at the Stadium. We arrived in our upper-deck seats behind home plate in time for the Saturday matinee, with six of us excited to watch the game together – my mom, my brother, my wife, our two girls, and myself.
            By the time the first inning had ended, the game was one hour old. The Yankees held a 3-2 lead in this sloppy contest, and our younger daughter was already wondering when the game would be over. But the girls settled down and started to enjoy the details of this ballpark, from the foul poles to the flags atop the stadium to the groundskeepers dancing to the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” Unfortunately, the Yankees and their opponent, the Oakland A’s, had not come ready to play their best baseball, and they dragged a 5-5 tie into extra innings.
            Our oldest daughter got caught up in the excitement of the late-innings drama, and we hung in there through 12 innings. When the 13th inning began, we’d been in Yankee Stadium for five and a half hours. Everyone was hungry, and the girls were restless. By the time we’d made our way down to the lower level, the A’s had started the 13th inning with three home runs, taking a 9-5 lead and sending us out of the park with no regrets. True, the Yankees would have last licks in the bottom of the 13th, but we had seen enough for one day.
            We took the D train downtown, and got off on West 4th Street to stop for dinner before driving home. As we walked toward the Italian restaurant we’d chosen for dinner, I passed another restaurant that had its windows wide open on this beautiful evening. As I glanced at the tables and diners to my left, I noticed a wide-screen TV behind them. And on that TV, I saw a live shot of Yankee Stadium. Atop that image was a score: A’s 9, Yankees 9.
            Say what? My mouth dropped. I turned to my mom and told her what I’d seen. She called out to the others, who found another restaurant window in time to stand on the sidewalk and watch the Yankees score yet another run in the 14th inning to win by a score of 10-9. We stood beside a man who’d left the game himself, back in the eighth inning, and he shared high-fives with us after the winning run crossed home plate.
So yes, the Yankees did execute the ultimate comeback while we were cruising along an underground tunnel in Manhattan. And yes, we missed it all. Add it to the list, right?
            But I have to say, I have a different spin on those missed opportunities at age 41. Sure, I wasn’t there to see the end of the game, and it was chaotic and dramatic and wonderful for the home fans. But remember, this day was never really about a baseball game. It was about a family celebrating a birthday, a mother, and good health. The only missed opportunity would have been to not go at all.
            And that’s how it’s always been. The day my brother and I missed the Strawberry home run? We actually spent that afternoon hanging out together at the Jersey Shore. The time I missed that playoff game because I was ill? I got to relax at home with my wife, and she pampered her sick husband. The day that Stew and I missed a game because of his window malfunction? We ended up taking another car to enjoy a nice dinner together that night.
            The Billy Joel concert? Well, that just stunk however you look at it. No silver linings there.
            But last weekend, as the Yankees gathered around home plate to celebrate their win, my family stepped into a fabulous restaurant on Houston Street to cap our day together. The girls had perked up, they were hanging out with their uncle and grandmother, and my mom was telling stories. The pizza arrived at our table, and we dug in hungrily.
            It was a success, however you look at it. There are no regrets about quality time with the people you love. And hey – somehow in the midst of it all, our baseball team had won a ballgame. Go Yankees. Go Mom.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Ring

            In American homes today, it’s nearly impossible to predict the roles that husbands and wives are playing in each family dynamic. With so many adults either working multiple jobs, struggling to find work or staying home while their spouse works, traditional roles are out the window. In our family, Amy works two jobs, while I teach full-time and dabble in tutoring and free-lance writing on the side. So when it comes to things like cooking, cleaning and shopping, the work gets done by whoever is around to do it.
            Yesterday, Amy had an open house for her real estate job, and I was home with our daughters. The girls were playing with a neighborhood friend, so I took advantage of the time to do about eight loads of laundry, unload and reload the dishwasher, and clean whatever couldn’t fit in the dishwasher by hand.
            After Amy came home from work, it was time to put on some jeans and clean myself up a bit. It was, after all, our anniversary. The babysitter was coming by 7:30, so we hoped to get two or three hours to ourselves.
            As I washed my hands before leaving, I interlocked my fingers to lather them with soap and immediately felt something different. The nerve endings spread to the brain which brought out the panic and the words: “Where’s my ring?”
            I looked at my left ring finger. It was not there. The thin, gold-and-platinum wedding band, which I had worn every day of my life since September 16, 1995, was not on my finger. I checked with Amy, to see if she had played a trick on me, and she assured me she had not.
            So where was it? And why was this happening on our anniversary, of all days?
            My immediate instinct was that I had not been missing the ring for long. After all, I noticed it so quickly when washing my hands. But I am, after all, 41 years old now, and therefore I am starting to lose my mind ever so gradually. So Amy and I rewound our weekend. Could I have lost it while swimming at the gym on Friday? No, because Amy had a photo of me and the girls while apple-picking on Saturday, and, when she zoomed in on my left hand, you could see the ring.
What else had I done this weekend? Not much, actually, aside from cleaning house, washing the car, going to church and heading out for a run. Had it slipped off in the soapy water while cleaning the car? We checked the driveway, and found nothing. Was it in the sink where I’d been washing cups and glasses? Nope. Had it come off in the pockets of the new jeans Amy had bought for me? No, it hadn’t. Had I dropped it in the offering plate at church? No, we do electronic giving.
By this time, the babysitter had arrived, and we had to go. So Amy and I went out to eat, to celebrate 17 years of marriage, with only one of us wearing the wedding band that symbolizes this commitment. We had a great dinner and talked about other things, but every once in awhile I’d blurt out another possibility, asking, “Do you think it could have come off there?”
After we arrived home, we decided to choose sleep over more ring-searching. But when I woke up, I knew what was next: the garbage. I found an old pail, put a fresh bag around it, and proceeded to take everything out of the bag I had tossed in the trash can the night before. It took about 40 minutes, and it was awful – a rotisserie chicken, mac and cheese, week-old guacamole, mushy cereal, and dozens of soiled paper towels, napkins and wipes – all of which I unfolded and checked deliberately.
No ring.
By this time, the flies were swarming, and my hands stunk something awful. So after cleaning up the garage, I headed straight into the shower. Afterward, I walked into our bedroom to grab some clothes. As I pulled out a pair of underwear from my dresser, I heard a metal object fly across the room. It then began rolling along the hardwood before falling to the ground beneath Amy’s dresser. I got down on my knees, reached for the ring, and put it on my finger. At this point I thanked God.
I know this is the part of the story where you’re expecting me to put it all together, and tell you what it means that my wedding band was nestled comfortably atop of a pair of black and gray boxer briefs that I had shoved into a full dresser drawer after folding that eighth load of laundry on Sunday – just before going in to wash my hands.
But I’m sorry; I don’t know what to say. All I can tell you is that yes, 17 years is a long time. And yes, there are a lot of days in which it feels like our marriage is simply one of chores and errands and begging our children to do what we ask. A whirl of wedlock, where the last thing anyone’s thinking about is gold and platinum.
And yet, even without that piece of metal, I did go out with my wife last night. As we’ve done ever since we started dating, we hunted out a great pizzeria – one that served us locally grown mushrooms and onions along with mozzarella and parmesan cheese on our pie. It was so good. And we sat across from each other, eating and talking and looking into the eyes of our life’s partner.
That part, of course, was there all along. You can symbolize it in whatever way you want – through a ring, a pizza, a load of laundry or 40 minutes of garbage-sifting. It ain’t always pretty, it’s far too hectic and it will never be predictable. But I will take it, every day. I know, after all, who put that ring on my finger. And so long as her hand is in mine, we’ll be all right.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Daddy, Seriously

            I was vacuuming. She was in the shower. I propped open the bathroom door for a moment to quickly sweep the tiled floor with the vacuum.
            At this point, the 7-year-old poked her head out from behind the shower curtain.
            “Daddy, seriously,” she said. “I’m taking a shower in here and I want some peace!”
            I stared ahead, looking into the eyes of this child I helped bring into the world, and I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. She ducked back behind the curtain, merrily applying conditioner to her hair. I closed the door, shaking my head with wonder.
            My girls are changing before my eyes. There was a time when they wanted me around them all the time – to read to them, to play make-believe school with them, to dance with them. Now my girls, who are 10 and 7, are more content watching TV, fiddling with their iTouches, or playing around with makeup. A few days ago, they took the tissues out of every Kleenex box in the house and turned the boxes into two pairs of make-believe ice skates. We have a giant stack of tissues in the living room, and torn pieces of cardboard all over the floor.
            “For the past 10 years,” I told my older one the other day, “I believe I’ve been a great father. But I am honestly not sure how to parent you right now.”
            Katie, the 10-year-old, is leading this change. She, after all, is the one who’s genuinely entering a new life stage. Her pre-pubescent hormones are leading her to all kinds of emotions and moods, and I am quickly learning that I need to pick my battles. I also need to understand that privacy is becoming more important to her, and that’s not necessarily a problem. Chelsea, the younger one, is more or less tagging along. She’s still just a little one, but she’s not going to let Katie enter this sassy phase alone.
            I have thoroughly enjoyed raising two daughters, and have embraced everything from the princess movies to the baby dolls to the boy bands. But right now, I could really use a little guy who wants to have a catch in the backyard. I could use a LEGO Star Wars video game, or a burping contest.
All summer long, their infatuation was with an Australian show about teenage mermaids. They watched and taped the show every day, then reenacted scenes from it with each other. They used their Flip video cameras to create mermaid stories. They stared up at the moon to see if it would turn them into mermaids. They made plans for mermaid Halloween costumes.
After letting them watch back-to-back episodes of the show, I’d ask them to stop. They’d whine and ask for more. I’d put my foot down. The battle was on, and eventually they’d give up. Then, a few minutes later, I’d hear something upstairs. Yes, they’d turned on Katie’s computer, logged onto YouTube, and found another episode of the show.
Mom and Dad have their work cut out for them. And remember, Katie is only 10. There are many more adventures ahead. But I think this is a lot more than my kids copping an attitude; they are, after all, always wonderfully behaved in public. They do care deeply about their family members and friends. They do, eventually, clean their rooms. And they still love to tell and listen to stories.
I think this new life stage that Katie is entering (with Chelsea in tow) requires some adjustments from Dad. I’ve got to come at things from a different perspective now, and parent my 10-year-old with an eye toward making sure that I’m the kind of dad she wants to come to with problems when she’s 16 or 17. If it means I sit down and watch some mermaid TV, or pop upstairs to watch them dance for a while, then so be it. If it means we negotiate over the iTouch play time, or they clean their rooms once a month instead of once a week, then so be it. If it means I bend a little on some rules, only to clarify which ones are non-negotiable, then so be it.
A few days ago, we were walking through a wooded path toward a gorgeous, rocky beach in Plymouth, Mass. We were with our dear friends, and had spent a lovely weekend with them. As we walked and chatted, Katie took one of my hands, and Chelsea took the other. It was only for a couple of minutes that they both held on, but it was enough.
Enough to remind this father that he’s still relevant. Still needed. Still loved. Daddy, seriously – that stuff doesn’t change.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Dreaming in Diamond

            One day a few weeks ago, I had a rough morning’s sleep due to early-‘80s pop music. I don’t know why, but every time I closed my eyes I kept hearing the chorus of Neil Diamond’s song America. Just when I would settle comfortably back to sleep, it would hit me …

            They’re comin’ to America / Today!
            Then the synthesizers, then his voice again, filled with gusto: Today!
            And again, with feeling: Today!
            Once more, to complete the cycle: Today!

            I lay there and wondered, just what was this song doing in my brain? Was it a stray leftover from a Fourth of July fireworks show? Was it my subconscious voicing support for President Obama’s recent immigration policies? Was it a longing for that mediocre Jazz Singer remake from which the song came? Or was it an “undigested bit of beef,” to borrow from Scrooge’s sleepy tirade toward Marley’s ghost in A Christmas Carol?

            Eventually, I stumbled out of bed, conceding defeat. By now, the song had progressed beyond chorus and moved into full symphonic form. I could see Diamond in his sequined top, left hand oustretched, reciting “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” toward the end of the song. I could hear the roar of middle-aged women as they cheered on the pyrotechnic-fueled performance and screamed for the middle-aged man singing for them. I could hear that one word, over and over: Today.

And, somewhere in this image, I saw my mother.

            I’m 41 years old, which means that it’s been more than 41 years since I began listening to Neil Diamond. To me, his voice is kind of like the sound of a microwave oven beeping or a car door slamming. Which is to say it’s intimately familiar, yet rather annoying.

            Now I know there is no use in criticizing the greatness of Neil Diamond. I am well aware that his popularity is beyond reproach. No one this side of Bruce Springsteen can fill an arena so quickly – and to think that he still does it after 30 years without a hit single. The columnist Dave Barry got such a rise out of readers when he criticized Diamond’s song “I Am … I Said,” that he was able to churn out a book inspired by the experience, titled Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs. I have been to a Neil Diamond concert, one of the more than 20 that my mother has attended with her fellow Diamond disciples, and I have seen the passion. I know what it looks, and sounds, like.

            I respect anyone who has a passion for something, and I know that those passions vary wildly from person to person. I love baseball, for instance, but I know there are many who find plenty to dislike about it. So I don’t feel an obligation to make others’ passions my own. I simply try to understand and appreciate them. For my mom, Neil Diamond has been the epitome of the dedicated singer/songwriter, whose words and music touched a nerve inside of her and brought about an emotional connection similar to the one I have with Springsteen. She also has felt the energy of this man on stage, and has followed the blinding glitter of his sequins. I don’t know how many times he sings Sweet Caroline these days, but she has sung along with every line. She’s stood and clapped for Cracklin’ Rosie, Forever in Blue Jeans, and Kentucky Woman. She’s bought all the retrospective box sets, and the live albums, and the Christmas CDs.

When it comes to my own playlists and my own concert choices, I tend to shy away from Neil Diamond. But apparently his recordings are still so deeply embedded in my psyche that I dream in Diamond. And having heard the live albums just as much as the recordings, I actually hear the live version of America in my sleep. So to clarify, the lyrics I really woke up to were this: “They’re comin’ to America / Today, yeaaaaahhhhh / Today, yeaaaaahhhhh.” The man waves that hand out to the crowd, shouts out a big yeah, and gets the women to fall at his feet.


So that brings us to this week. I was on the Garden State Parkway on Sunday afternoon, driving down to the Jersey Shore at the end of a weekend. I was making this trip at such an unusual time because of my mother. She was in a hospital down the Shore, and that wasn’t supposed to happen. It’s been a tough summer for her health-wise, and there was an emergency surgery being planned. She was in pain, and I needed to be with her. The surgery, which would happen the next day, went just fine, mind you; after a long week, my mom is doing much better.

But back to that car ride. As I was driving down the Parkway, I needed something to lift my spirits and keep me focused. I remembered that recently, my friend Cullen had given me a ton of great music for my iPod. Among the albums he had given me were several years’ worth of Billboard Hot 100 hits. I’m a sucker for the 1980s. So for this particular car trip, I scrolled down the album list and punched in “1988.”

Two hours never went so fast. There was the obvious George Michael, INXS, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Guns N’ Roses. But that was only the beginning. There was Rick Astley. Terence Trent D’Arby. Taylor Dayne. Robert Palmer. Debbie Gibson. Breathe. Belinda Carlisle. Def Leppard.

By the time Billy Ocean’s “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” flowed from my speakers, I was singing and swaying, my hands patting the steering wheel as if I were a member of Mr. Ocean’s percussion section. When The Escape Club’s “Wild, Wild West” followed shortly afterward, I was truly 17 again.

When I had reached the hospital, I paused whatever Richard Marx song was playing at the time, turned off the iPod, and went inside to see my mother. She was glad to see me, and we sat together and watched the Olympics’ closing ceremonies. George Michael was there singing. So were a bunch of other ‘80s pop stars. My mom said they didn’t sound so good. I couldn’t really argue with that.

And then it all came to me. It had taken several weeks, but I’d finally unlocked the secret to my unfortunate Neil Diamond dream. I had figured out the moral – that  whether it’s our friends, our children or our mother, there are always going to be passions we don’t fully understand. But before we knock those passions, we might want to check out the man in the mirror first. In my case, I chose the mirror on the driver’s side.

Now if you’ll excuse me, Steve Winwood is calling my name. Just roll with it, baby. Today

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Where Paint and Hope Collide

            The teal-colored paint was all over my shorts, shirt, work gloves and skin. I stood atop the metal ladder and finished off the side of a house, brushing from side to side. It was such a small thing – such a tiny drop in the bucket – but at least it was something.
            I’ve been wanting to get to New Orleans ever since August of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city and Gulf Coast region with the worst natural disaster in American history. At the time, though, I had an infant and a toddler at home, so it wasn’t easy to leave them for a service trip halfway across the country. This year, though, I was asked to chaperone six teens to New Orleans for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s triennial national youth gathering. One of our five days in New Orleans would be dedicated to service. With my kids now older, it was a better time to leave them and my wife and get myself to the Big Easy. Last week, we made our trip.
            I was impressed with the degree to which New Orleans’ main tourist districts are still thriving. Led by its delicious food, vibrant music and festive atmosphere, the city has shown an astounding determination to survive. But when we took a bus trip to the Seventh Ward last week for our day of service, the atmosphere was different. In the area we visited, it seemed as if 60 percent of the houses were renovated, while the remaining 40 percent were abandoned or boarded up, with vegetation growing unchecked. I know that other sections of the city are in even worse condition than this. Many individuals have chosen not to return to New Orleans, and have started their lives over again in new cities and states. This is the biggest heartbreak of New Orleans, post-Katrina – that it still, at times, resembles a third-world country. In the United States of America.
            Some of the New Orleans residents who are rebuilding their homes have received help from the government and from non-profit organizations. Our work last week involved collaboration with Habitat for Humanity. As we arrived at the homes we’d be painting on North Villere Street, teens and adults from states across the country hopped out of two buses and started covering the outsides of two homes with colored paint – one of them teal, the other army green. The teens from my church painted the porch of the teal-colored home, while my fellow chaperone and I took on the side of the house. As we dipped and brushed, the homeowner of the green house arrived along with her brother. In true Habitat spirit, they grabbed paintbrushes and got to work as well.
            When we had finished painting the teal house, I helped put away the ladders, then walked over to the homeowner’s brother. I asked him what the experience of Hurricane Katrina had meant to him. He answered with an optimism that surprised me: “Katrina was meant to come to New Orleans because it taught us how to get away,” he said. “So many people here only knew New Orleans, but Katrina forced us to leave and learn about other places.”
            New Orleans, he said, will always be home. But the evacuation had helped him to make an informed decision on whether or not he wanted to live here, he said. I asked him if New Orleans will survive this. “Oh yeah,” he said, adding that the city’s residents wouldn’t give this town up because “we love to party too much.” When I asked him if America had forgotten New Orleans, he pointed to people like us who were venturing out of the tourist zones for the first time, in order to help.
            The bus was packing up, as we had finished painting the teal house, with the green one nearly done as well. I shared with the man how much I’d been wanting to get to New Orleans for the past seven years. Now that I was here, though, it felt like such a small thing. A few hours of help on one house, out of the many thousands still in need of love and labor.
            The young man turned to me and said what I knew to be true: “Every little bit helps.” From what I can see, America has not forgotten New Orleans. But there is still so much to be done there. It is one of our truly unfinished jobs. I am home again now, but I don’t think it will take seven years for me to get back again. I’ve got paint-stained clothes to remind me.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Our Devices, Ourselves, & Our Communities

I finally got around to reading Alone Together, Sherry Turkle’s influential study of technology in the modern day, and I can’t praise it enough. When you’re living through a seismic cultural change, it can be so difficult to step away and study the frenetic movement around you. But Turkle, a psychologist and MIT professor, has managed to use her academic training and pinpoint perspective to provide a deeply important view of the technological changes around us. I can’t think of many books more relevant to our world today than this one.

The book was published just last year, so its content is current. But most important, Turkle uses her psychological training to ask questions that will remain pertinent throughout the years to come. Are we, first and foremost, coming to expect more from our devices and less from the people around us? Are we really living a full life, or are we setting up moments so we can chronicle them on our Facebook wall? Is that Facebook wall an accurate portrayal of who we are, or is it a pose meant to showcase us in ways that make us look cool?

Are we interacting with one another in ways that bespeak community, or are we communicating in isolation, from a distance? Do we hesitate to call each other now, deferring to the text, e-mail or tweet in lieu of a real-life voice? Are we able to put the devices away, or have they changed us so much that we’re unable to leave them behind? An interview subject tells Turkle, “Technology is bad because people are not as strong as its pull” (242).

I picked up this book partly because of the changes I’ve seen in others, and partly because of the changes I’ve seen in myself. In the past decade, I know I’ve been influenced heavily by the devices around me – none moreso than the one I’m typing on right now. I don’t have a smartphone, so I’m not yet addicted to apps and don’t have constant access to the Internet. But when I turn on my laptop, it seems as if there is a magnetic pull to it, drawing me to respond to e-mails, check my “favorite” web sites, and research things I’ve been thinking about lately.

This technology is fascinating, of course, and I can spend all day listing ways in which the computer and Internet have helped me or others I know with information, education and communication. But as Turkle reminds us, we have lost a lot to these devices as well. She argues that we have every right to desire solitude, privacy, downtime, attention, and the ability to live in the moment. We can’t just cede these essential virtues to the technological revolution. “We deserve better,” the author writes. “When we remind ourselves that it is we who decide how to keep technology busy, we shall have better” (296).

My parents like their e-mail and their iPad, and they go to classes at the Apple store for help with using their devices. But overall, they are old school when it comes to communication. They like to call their friends on the phone, and they especially like to hang out with their friends in person. I’ve spent the past few days with them in their house on the Jersey Shore, and we’ve had a constant stream of visitors knocking on the door to stop in for a while. There are moments when I hear the knocking and think to myself, “Couldn’t they have texted to say they were coming over?” But then I realize that I’m missing the point. They step in, and moments of sharing and spontaneity take place.

These moments spread beyond the house itself, as evidenced when we found ourselves at the beach on July 4th, waiting for the annual fireworks display at sunset. My wife, daughters and I were there along with my parents. But so were our friends Laura and Mark, who have been close with my parents for nearly 20 years and were inspired to move to this Shore town because of their visits to my parents. This week, Laura’s brother and his family were vacationing here as well, so they joined us on the beach. And Laura’s friends from New York were in town, staying in a hotel my parents had suggested, so they also joined us. My older daughter, Katie, had brought along her face paint and was drawing fireworks and flags on kids’ faces. Another girl, whom we didn’t know, stopped over to our blanket for a face-painting as well.

I had the Wiffle ball in hand, and was tossing pitches to a 2-year-old boy named Gabriel, the son of Laura’s friends. He smacked some nice line drives back to me with the yellow Wiffle bat. His dad helped him with the batting grip, and Mark helped catch the balls Gabriel hit.

There was a lot of fellowship in that sand on a Wednesday night in July. Flashes sparkled as folks took pictures of the activity. Some of those photos might be on someone’s Facebook page by now. I understand that, and accept it. But an evening like this is typical for my parents – computers take a backseat to conversation and communion. It’s a real-life version of what Sherry Turkle is asking us to consider preserving. As I sit here at my laptop, with the cell phone and iPod beside me and the Internet a click of the mouse away, I have food for thought. I think I’ll post a blog – then go outside for a quiet walk. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Leaving Home, and Coming Home

                I took a trip back to college this past weekend. It had been awhile – more than a decade, in fact – since I’d set foot in Chapel Hill, N.C. Raising young children can make it difficult to drive 500 miles, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise that we’d gone so long without visiting Tar Heel country. But when two friends contacted us with plans for a reunion of former sports writers from my school’s daily newspaper, Amy and I knew it was time to bring the girls down South.

                As we drove down Interstate 95 on our way to North Carolina, I recalled the many trips I’d taken up and down this crowded highway.  I also remembered my dad and other friends asking me if I planned to live in the Research Triangle after college. I was, after all, writing about North Carolina sports for a living back then, which included covering the amazing basketball scene of the Atlantic Coast Conference. I also had unlimited access to dogwoods, sweet tea and barbecue. What could be better?

                I had thoroughly enjoyed the University of North Carolina, I found the sports scene to be truly enthralling, and I had come to meet a lot of great people in Chapel Hill. But ultimately, I wanted to be back north. My reason was simple – there were just too many pieces of New York that felt more like home. I wanted to hop on the No. 4 train, exit at 161st Street in the South Bronx, and see the mighty gates of Yankee Stadium before me. I wanted to drive eastward along the Pulaski Skyway on a clear night, heading toward the Holland Tunnel and viewing the elegant Empire State Building as it pointed skyward. I wanted to pop over to my old neighborhood in Staten Island for a pizza at Denino’s or Joe & Pat’s and an Italian ice at Ralph’s. When another journalist friend asked me why I was coming home, I told him it was because there was no Yankee Stadium in North Carolina. He said I had a point.

                As we traveled down I-95 on Friday, I was reminded of that Southern longing for New York several times. The signs for Brooklyn Bridge Road in Laurel, Md., called to mind the greatest bridge in America. The exit for Bowling Green, Va., reminded me of the oldest public park in New York, where tourists board Circle Line boats for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The signs for Willis Road in Chesterfield, Va., reminded me of New York Knicks legendary center Willis Reed, and the majestic Madison Square Garden court where he’d filled the paint. Even the highway that brought us into Chapel Hill – Route 54 – holds the same number as Rich “Goose” Gossage, whose blazing fastball closed out so many Yankees games in my childhood.

                New York’s geography and culture are deeply engrained in my self-identity and thoughts. When Amy and I lived in Massachusetts for five years earlier in our marriage, we felt similar longings for a glimpse of the skyline or a taste of the pizza. By the time Amy was pregnant with our second child, we were back in the New York area. By the time our girls were old enough to walk without complaining, they were strolling the High Line, Rockefeller Center and Brooklyn Heights.

                That said, geography does have its limits. This weekend, ultimately, was not at all about New York – no matter how many highway-sign connections my mind could make. Saturday night, we found ourselves in one of the great minor-league baseball stadiums in America, the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, N.C. As the Bulls ran roughshod over the Buffalo Bisons on the field, I sat in Section 124 beyond the right-field foul pole along with seven former sports writers of The Daily Tar Heel, as well as the paper’s longtime general manager. I hadn’t seen any of them in at least 10 years, so there was a lot of catching up to do. As we sat together, we shared stories of work, parenting, family and vacations. We talked about the past, the present and the future. We met one another’s children, and tested one another’s memories. I watched my old friends interact with their sons and daughters, and felt the love that passed between them.

                As I sat with my old friends on this glorious night in early summer, I thought again about home. It’s true that certain places feel more familiar than others, and draw us back to them like magnets. But ultimately, there’s nothing more like home than a day spent with people you care about deeply. I haven’t set foot in North Carolina for almost 12 years. But as I scanned the outfield here in Durham and listened to my friends tell me their stories, there was no place in the world I’d rather have been.

So yes, home is a bridge and a stadium and a pizza pie. But in the end, those New York spots only mean so much to me because I’ve shared them with family and friends. In the same way, Chapel Hill and Durham will always be home, whether I’m living there or not. Because these are places where I’ve connected with others. Back in 1993, we were hunched over computer monitors, scrambling to meet newspaper deadlines. This weekend, we were lounging in the outfield seats, talking and cheering and doing the wave.

            Wherever that kind of connection happens, whenever you feel it, you’re home. No maps or exit signs required. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Hay Fever in the Homestretch

Marathons end in a sprint, as every runner grinds it out for that final quarter-mile. The legs are burning, the body aches, and the heart is pumping. We can see the finish line, sure. But as of this moment, we are so not there yet.

School years are marathons. And up here in the Northeast, it’s time for that final sprint. Teachers like me are trying to keep our wits about us as we juggle the grading of final exams, the report-card entries and the assorted end-of-year gatherings. Most days, it’s enough to scramble the brain.

Case in point: Before a Sunday of grading papers, I drive over to my church to serve as worship assistant for our morning service. Running late, I slip into the robe room beside the sanctuary, quickly clip on my microphone, then grab a robe out of the closet to dress for service. Once ready, I enter the sanctuary to sit down beside the altar for service. As soon as the service begins, my body triggers an allergic reaction to the dusty robe I’m wearing. I begin sneezing. My nose starts running. And it’s now time for me to read the first and second Bible lessons to the congregation.

I turn on my mike, step up to the podium with handkerchief in hand, and try to read from the Old and New Testaments while also dabbing at my nose. I lose my place a couple of times, get through the readings, and retreat to my seat. After the pastor reads the gospel, I quickly walk back to the robe room, where there are tissues in an adjoining bathroom.

I get there and let out a giant sneeze. Then I blow my nose. I blow again. “Whew!” I say to myself.

Then I hear a knock on the bathroom door. The communion assistant is giggling. He says the following words to me: “Turn your mike off.”


Yes, I am a teacher and it is June. I am sneezing and blowing my nose into a live microphone before a stunned church congregation. Instead of a sermon, they’re getting Hynes hay fever. This is what it’s like in that last quarter-mile of the marathon.

I did make sure to turn off the mike before I cursed. Then I sat down in a chair in the robe room, trying to decide how to play this. The embarrassment was intense, but I thought back to the movie Naked Gun, and recalled the famous scene in that film in which Leslie Nielsen’s character steps into a bathroom without turning off his mike. Yes, it could have been much worse than a sneeze and a couple of nose blows. Much worse.

So I walked back into the sanctuary, continued my work as worship assistant, then asked folks afterward if they had enjoyed my impromptu entertainment. The teens in attendance had loved it all, and so we talked about just what might have happened had my problem not been a dusty robe, but instead an overload of baked beans. In the end, I was pleased with myself for turning this embarrassment into something that I could laugh about along with others. I came home and told my wife, and it made her day.

So back to that marathon again. We’re almost there, teachers. Hang on tight. Keep on running. But please, take it from me – keep a tissue handy. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Win, Lose or Wedgie

It all happens in one swift motion, faster than you can say the words “first grade.” My 7-year-old is standing on the grass before her team’s tee-ball game. She fields a soft grounder from her coach, sets herself and tosses the ball back to him. As soon as her right arm has let go of the ball, she points skyward twice in a John Travolta disco move to some imaginary song. The softball and disco vibe now out of her hands, she immediately reaches back and pulls out a wedgie.

All in one motion, and impossible to repeat – unless, of course, you’re a kid.

I’ve been playing some softball lately with my girls, and it’s taught me a lot about patience and perspective. They are 10 and 7 years old, and they haven’t played a lot of softball or baseball in their young lives. The fact that they wanted to play in a local league this year was a special treat for me, since baseball is – in case you hadn’t noticed – a bit of a personal passion. Amy and I have been careful not to push any specific sports on the girls; we’ve chosen instead to require that they stay active. So we’ve watched as they’ve tried swimming, soccer, gymnastics, dancing, archery and now softball. It’s true that if they want to build up their skills and qualify for that prized college scholarship, they’ll have to specialize soon; such is the world of children’s sports in the 21st century. But we’re OK with being old school on this one – they can play whatever they want, for however long they want.

This year, it’s softball. And that brings us Chelsea and her fellow 7-year-olds, knocking the extra-cushiony softball off the tee and jogging to first base, their pink and blue helmets bobbing up and down. They show off their cartwheels while standing in the infield, and sometimes sit down for a rest while in the outfield. A group of them broke into song on the left side of the infield Saturday, crooning One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.” Sometimes, they actually focus on the game, and learn a thing or two about making the throw to first or keeping their eyes on the ball. Mostly, though, they do the cartwheels.

Katie’s 10- and 11-year-old teammates are more competitive and more focused. This transition has been somewhat difficult for my older daughter, as she is not a big fan of competition. She doesn’t much care for the concept of winners and losers, which I think is more healthy than not. On the other hand, though, fair and fun competition also can benefit kids a lot in their own development, so we’re trying to encourage Katie to dabble in it. She’s also a perfectionist who struggles with the fear of failure, so she’s been reluctant to swing the bat – after all, she might not hit that yellow ball. I’ve offered to pay her a dollar for every time she strikes out swinging – a deal that would have made me a wealthy young man – but we’re still working on it.

For now, Katie’s teammates are showing her how much fun a sport like softball can be. They make up all sorts of songs for each other when they’re up at bat, turning their dugout into a veritable off-Broadway show. They bring eye black to the games, and ready themselves for the sun by looking like real ballplayers. They practice hard and play hard, making the throws on force plays and running out all their grounders. They give high-fives to teammates who make outs, and blame no one for mistakes made on the field. Sure, they’d like to win. But they’d never let a win or loss stand in the way of a friendship.

Katie sees this camaraderie and feels a kind of relief she can’t yet describe – a realization that trying hard and missing – or losing – can still be totally OK. Especially if your friends are singing with you. And especially if you’re gathering in that circle after the game, your hands piled atop one another’s, and shouting out your team’s name in unison.

Katie and Chelsea like to practice with me in the backyard, where Katie is more comfortable swinging and Chelsea is still working on her soft-toss-disco windup. When we’re out there, we go over softball and baseball rules, so they can understand the game a bit more. Katie recently discovered the bunt, and has realized that being a lefty gives her an advantage if she wants to lay one down. Someday, perhaps. Mostly, though, we just hang out together, spending some precious springtime hours throwing the ball around.

The dog tries to jump in on our games as well, which is hard because golden retrievers aren’t bred to catch or hit softballs. But maybe the dog isn’t so confused, after all. Maybe she just gets the idea that when family and friends are out playing a game together, life can be really good – win, lose or wedgie.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Pressing Pause

When my parents bought our first VCR almost 30 years ago, I can remember looking on in amazement as they pressed the “FF” button on the machine. There was the movie, passing before me silently at super-speed. My dad used to use that feature when he wanted to bypass a love scene – he’d stand in front of the TV, press fast-forward, and let his body shield us from the (gasp!) passion taking place.

We craned our necks to try and sneak a peak. That first encounter with fast-forward seems so quaint in 2012, especially since I’m at a point where it feels as if my regular life is moving at the same speed as those old VCR tapes from 1983. From work to family to volunteer activities to errands to housecleaning, I’ve felt in recent months as if this life is moving so fast that I simply can’t keep up. Too much is happening at once; just too much.

We’ve all been there. But when we are, we might find ourselves asking a few questions: How can I slow down this runaway train and feel whole again? Is there such a thing as down time? And if I find that time again, will it bring with it the inner peace I know is out there somewhere?

In between today’s work life and home life, I attended a seminar at my school. It was coordinated by a colleague who has brought a visiting poet to our school for 10 years running. This year’s visiting poet was Michael Dickman, an award-winning and widely-published literary star. In the seminar, Dickman led a group of students and educators in a wonderful close read of a Jane Kenyon poem. But in between the lines of this poem, he kept sprinkling in little pieces of life and writerly advice. I took notes.

“If you have an intimate relationship with language,” Dickman said, “that will mean that you will have a better life.”

Later on in the session: “Really great art can make you see the world again as if for the first time. Something that can lead you to hold still for a moment and really see the world is pretty remarkable at this point in time.”

Still later: “People who write more are better writers.” And, finally, “Poetry can help prepare you for things you don’t even know are coming.”

As I scramble through these hectic hours, my legs running like Fred Flintstone in his car, something nags at me most days. It’s a simple mantra, and sometimes it whispers in my ear, while other times I don’t even hear it.

Sit down and write. You’ll feel better. It makes you whole. 

I don’t write poetry like Michael Dickman does. I’m a prose guy, but that doesn’t matter. Everything I heard this man say today resonated clearly with my own living and writing self. It brought the whispers to a louder volume – and, if only for a moment, it got me to hit the pause button for a while.

So here I sit, putting some words into this blog for the first time in a month. Perhaps there will be another one soon after. Perhaps some other writing as well. In the springtime, Michael Dickman sometimes writes poetry while at baseball games. He roots for the Tigers – of both Detroit and Princeton. We talked about baseball for a little while after the seminar. Poets tend to gravitate toward this sport, which unfolds in both a narrative and lyric manner.

I told him that I write a blog about baseball and life. He scribbled down the web address. I thanked him, and left him with the teens who had wonderful questions to ask. I drove home, popped in a Johnny Cash CD, and tried for a while to press play instead of fast-forward. It felt right; I think I might try it again soon. And you know, my dad’s not standing in the way anymore, with the remote in hand. I can experience the passion all for myself now.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Buy Me Some iPads & Cracker Jack

I’ve been a Yankees fan for 35 years now, ever since that Sunday afternoon in June when my mother drove me to the ballpark in the South Bronx for the first time. It was Bat Day, 1977, and I was handed a wooden bat with Thurman Munson’s name and Burger King’s logo engraved on it. It didn’t matter to me that the Yankees lost to the Minnesota Twins that afternoon. As I stared out at the vast expanse of green before me, and as I heard the crack of bat against ball, I was hooked. A Yankee fan for life.

Since that day, I’ve chatted about the Yankees all the time with my mom, brother, grandparents, friends and wife. Even my dad, who grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers and was deprived of the chance to bring his sons to the ballpark that sparked his childhood dreams, has come around to talking Yankees with us. And my daughters, despite their marked preference for Webkins and Glee, have their moments of joining in some pinstriped passion.

When talking baseball with others, it can be uncomfortable to share the fact that I’m a Yankees fan. There are, of course, those 27 championships to gloat over – 16 more than any other team in baseball history. With the Yankees sporting baseball’s highest payroll every year, it’s easy to assume that I’m a front-runner. Here in New York, Mets fans may have more misery, but they can always claim the integrity of sticking with their team no matter what the outcome.

Yet, I came of age in the 1980s, the one decade in the past five in which the Mets can clearly say they were New York’s team. I watched the Yankees go 14 consecutive years without making the playoffs, and saw the Mets claim a World Series title and a division crown during that same stretch. Had there been a Wild Card team during those years, the Mets would have made the playoffs six times in seven years. Meanwhile, the Yankees were stumbling along with a variety of managers, general managers and high-priced veterans. So I know what it’s like to see your favorite team implode in front of you while other local club gets all the press.

The past 17 years have changed that landscape quite a bit, though, as the Yankees have made the playoffs every year but one since 1995. It may seem a bit outdated to use the old cliché that cheering for the Yankees is like rooting for U.S. Steel. So to update it a bit for 2012, cheering on the Bronx Bombers is more like cheering for higher quarterly reports from Apple. Ho-hum. Buy me some iPads and Cracker Jack.

But with all honesty and understanding, I ask you this: What can I do? Must I feel guilty for the Yankees’ success? Should I stop rooting for the Yankees simply because they have won too often? Do I push aside my memories and toss that old Thurman Munson bat in the trash because of my adult awareness of economics? Is competitive imbalance enough reason to turn aside the rush of childhood joy that accompanies the sight of an interlocking NY? Aren’t all of our baseball passions much more about feeling 8 years old again than about thirsting for victory?

In recent years, Major League Baseball has taken important steps to level the playing field somewhat in terms of team revenue, thanks in large part to revenue-sharing and luxury taxes. In addition, changes to the way the game is played and scouted have turned baseball into a sport dominated by the best young players teams can find. The Yankees have won just one championship over the past 11 years, and their 2012 club is just like all the others they’ve put together over that time period – very talented, but with clear weak spots. They might win, and they might not.

So I’ll cheer for the Yankees in 2012, just as I always have. But at age 41, I’ve matured to the point where my heart no longer breaks if the Yankees’ season ends with a loss. Because I know that whenever my team loses, there are other fans, with their own passions and memories, who are delighted over their team’s victories. Last year, as the St. Louis Cardinals claimed their 11th championship, millions of Redbirds fans were glorying in their unexpected triumph. That’s pretty awesome to see, no matter what the team. This year, I’ve got my eye on the Royals from Kansas City, who have not made the playoffs since their championship season of 1985, and who are unveiling a team filled with some of baseball’s top young talent. It might not be this year for the Royals, but it may be quite soon. I’m also watching out for the Nationals of Washington, who have even more young talent than Kansas City, and could contend for the playoffs as soon as this season. Washington has only seen one baseball championship, and that was nearly 90 years ago. Perhaps it’s about time for a second.

A new baseball season is set to begin this week. I’m hoping to get to a couple of Yankees games this year, where I can see that big green field and hear those bats and balls connect. The season will unfold, and I’ll follow it like a novel I can’t put down. But no matter what happens in the end, it will have been worth it. It always is.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Antonio and Me

As a high school teacher, I’m on the move nearly every minute of the day. From teaching classes to planning lessons to grading papers to meeting with colleagues to conferencing with students, it’s a whirlwind of activity. And that’s not even counting the after-school club. Or the paperwork. Or the lunchroom duty.

With so much to do, the first week of March comes as a shock to the system for New Jersey high school teachers. For it is during this week that we must stop everything for three mornings in order to proctor the state’s standardized test – a three-day math and language arts exam that 11th-graders must pass in order to graduate. Standardized tests have become, well, standard in America, with each state’s exam going by a different name yet fulfilling the same objective.

When proctoring this exam, it’s not permissible to grade papers or plan lessons. Teachers are expected to keep their eyes on the students, and to make sure the juniors are writing in the correct sections of their answer books. For the two teachers who are paired together in each room, this amounts to some nine hours of slowly strolling up and down aisles. By the end of Day Three, you become intimately familiar with the layout and design of your assigned classroom.

This year, I found myself paired with Martin, a friend and colleague who teaches math. As we began Day One, we glanced around the room while students tapped away on calculators and penciled in bubbles. It soon dawned on us that this room, which is used for Spanish classes the rest of the year, was not just a classroom. It was much more than that. In fact, you could call this room the educational equivalent of a shrine to one man. That man: Antonio Banderas, movie star.

In front of me, I quickly spotted seven photos of Antonio – all of them dutifully printed out to fill up student poster projects on the Andalucia territory of Spain, of which Antonio is a famous native. To my left, another Antonio filled up a giant poster to promote reading. “Antonio Banderas apoya a las bibliotecas de America,” the poster read, as Antonio gingerly fingered a copy of Don Quixote, his forced smile revealing a bit of discomfort with the Cervantes text. Eight Antonios, I figured, was enough. But then, when I glanced behind me, I saw Antonio smiling from the cover of AARP magazine, just beside the chalkboard. I glanced at the magazine cover’s subhead: “Antonio Banderas: The actor and his wife, Melanie Griffith, open up about family, fidelity, and addiction.”

Martin and I quickly realized we were trapped in a world of Antonios, guiding us through all phases of life, from regional geography to reading to recovery. Martin, who still remembers his high-school Spanish, scribbled a quick note in Spanish to the classroom’s regular teacher: “How many Antonios do you need in one room?” he wrote. The next day, she had written back a response: “There are never enough Antonios!”

Oh, I would beg to differ. But imprisoned as we were under the gaze of Antonio’s sultry eyes, Martin and I looked closer and noticed the different Antonio personas: Some pictures featured the polished, hair-slicked-back Hollywood Antonio; others featured the gel-infused curls of a looser, more European Antonio; and still another featured a long-haired, shirtless, blue-blazer Antonio that seemed to have inspired Russell Brand’s entire career.

By Day Three, Martin was driven to the point of haiku:

Antonio B
His eyes … Everywhere in here
It’s kinda creepy

As for me, my more serious nature led not to poetry, but to a mental self-inventory. It was time to compare my own life to that of Antonio’s. I am 10 years younger than the man, but both of our careers have gone on long enough that a comparison seemed valid. So, Antonio, here goes.

If there’s one thing that’s clear to me about my career so far, it’s that I’ve had my hand in a little bit of everything. I’ve taught high school, taught college, written for newspapers, written for magazines, blogged, raised a couple of kids, stayed active in the churches I’ve attended, and led some community service work. It’s hard to pinpoint one thing that would form the lead to my own obituary quite yet. Whatever legacy I’ve got to leave seems kind of varied and all over the place.

But is that really a problem at age 41? Or does it simply make me more like my good friend Antonio? After all, what is Antonio Banderas’ signature movie role so far? Is it Philadelphia or Evita? The Mask of Zorro or The Legend of Zorro? Spy Kids or Spy Kids 2? Shrek 2, Shrek the Third or Shrek Forever After? Puss in Boots or The Skin I Live In? It’s kind of hard to tell.

Whichever Antonio film you like best, it’s clear that the man does not yet have a clear, calling-card role. And that means a couple of things: First of all, the man is versatile: From Tom Hanks to Madonna to Pedro Almodovar to ogres and donkeys, he mixes it up with just about everyone. And secondly, his shining hour may still be ahead of him. We might not have seen the best of Antonio yet – no matter how many posters he graces in a high school classroom.

So although you will never see nine photos of me in a school classroom – I say that with enough certainty to bubble it in with a No. 2 pencil – you might see me, like Antonio, establishing my legacy in the years ahead. And someday, when I’m visiting Andalucia with my wife to celebrate a Teacher of the Year award, I’ll turn on the TV and see Antonio accepting his long-awaited Oscar.

“How far we’ve both come,” I’ll whisper. Antonio will look up at the TV and nod knowingly. There will only be one of him in the room. And I’ll find such power in the moment that I’ll turn to haiku. Somewhere, Martin will be smiling.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Crossing Borders in the Garden

As my seniors begin to count the days to graduation, I try and keep them engaged in high school English by giving them assignments they’ve never had before. One such assignment involves a film-analysis unit. Their job is to study a movie as closely as they would a book, then write an essay on the film. This year, I chose John Sayles’ Lone Star, the 1996 indie classic. As they watched the film, I asked my students to write an essay analyzing the borders that are crossed, both literally and figuratively, in this story.

As Chris Cooper’s Sheriff Sam Deeds seeks to solve a long-ago Texas murder mystery, Sayles opens up his screenplay and camera to take on more than just a classic Western plot – he turns his movie into an exploration of what it means to be an American. Issues of race, immigration, assimilation, ethics, historical accuracy, family strife and the burdens of our past all come together in this movie. There are, to say the least, a lot of borders to cross. As my students watched the film, it was fascinating to see which borders they were willing to grapple with in their analysis, and which ones they chose to avoid.

Border-crossing is a theme we’ll be sticking with for a while this semester, as we’ll follow up Lone Star with Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner. As we explore this film and book, we might find ourselves more aware of other borders being crossed in the world around us.

If we follow basketball, we might have noticed one such crossing at Madison Square Garden Friday night. The World’s Most Famous Arena has been noticeably quiet during basketball seasons for more than a decade now. But this year was supposed to be different, as the New York Knicks sought to end their years of misery by suiting up two perennial All-Stars. Yet, despite the presence of stars Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks were off to a dismal start as February began. Then, a week ago, Anthony was lost to injury and Stoudemire had to leave the team due to the death of his brother. That left New York in even worse shape, and set up for a lost season.

So, with nothing to lose, the Knicks handed the ball to an undrafted, second-year point guard out of Harvard. A California-born kid of Tawainese and Chinese descent. A young man who could have walked the streets of New York at any time and been recognized by no one. Jeremy Lin is his name, and his NBA career includes two brief stints with teams that let him go.

Sometimes, those borders get crossed when you’re least expecting it. The undrafted point guard has scored 20 or more points in five straight games – all them won by the Knicks. After Friday’s 38-point outburst against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, Jeremy Lin is the toast of New York sports. The Garden is rocking. The Knicks can’t keep Lin’s jersey in stock. Linderella, some are calling it. Linsanity, others say.

Less than a week after the Giants claimed their fourth Super Bowl title, all eyes are on the Knicks. Less than a week before Yankees pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training, all eyes are on the Knicks. This is the way it’s supposed to be in New York in February. But it hasn’t been that way since the Patrick Ewing Era ended, and that’s a long time ago. Now, as a skinny, slick-moving guard slices through opponents’ defenses, there is hope again for the Knicks.

And as many hibernating Knicks fans cross this sports border into basketball fandom again, we find ourselves dribbling across other lines as well. As we watch a basketball player who is neither white nor African-American guide the Knicks to victory, we smile at the knowledge that anything can happen in sports, and our assumptions and expectations can be proven wrong as quickly and as emphatically as a 360-degree spin move.

There are a lot of people out there who love basketball and play it really well, and Jeremy Lin is one of them. He is by no means New York’s lone star – in fact, his style of play encourages teamwork much more than ball-hogging. But as Lin and the Knicks find themselves playing their best basketball of the year, and as an arena full of New Yorkers of all races and ethnicities shout this young man’s name, it is a moment worth noticing in sports.

Sure, it’s just a hardwood floor with a bunch of sweating athletes on it. But at its best, sports is a place where borders get crossed left and right – so much that it’s hard to see the dividing line at all. So embrace the Linsanity, New York. Embrace it fully.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Holden On

I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth. I don’t know why. It was just that she looked so damn nice, the way she kept going around and around, in her blue coat and all. God, I wish you could’ve been there.

For the past three years, I’ve been teaching freshman English again, just as I did earlier in my career. When I review my school’s reading list to prepare my curriculum each summer, there are some titles that I hem and haw over, unsure as to whether I want to give that book a go again. And then there are others for which I have no such doubts; I know I’ll be teaching them. And I know some of my students will be glad that I did.

It’s been 61 years since J.D. Salinger wrote The Catcher in the Rye. Some of those in education have voiced doubts about the book’s relevance in 21st-century America. Some of my students dub Holden Caulfield a “whiner” who can’t stop complaining about everything he sees. Some find it ironic that Holden calls so many people a “phony” when he himself is lying, drinking underage and smoking. They see no reason for a kid to give up on his grades and flunk out of four schools.

I listen, and hear my students’ reactions to this 16-year-old boy who sees so much to frown about in his world. Some may find fault with Holden’s words and actions, but when I ask them if there are things that they find annoying or phony in the world, my students flood the classroom with answers. All manner of human behavior is brought up, as they complain about the actions and words of friends, teachers, celebrities, coaches and family members. I ask them to write about these observations, and they do that, too.

By the time my students meet Holden’s 10-year-old sister, Phoebe, and see the ways in which she’s able to help save her brother from giving up on this world, they’re hooked. They understand by now that Holden never hated the world – he simply couldn’t understand how it could be so full of negativity. He didn’t see why children have to grow up into adults who make such poor decisions and endure such difficult experiences. He didn’t see why we have to give up our innocence in this life. “Certain things they should stay the way they are,” he muses. “You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”

It is Phoebe who helps Holden see that he’s got to find a way through this. The 10-year-old sister challenges her 16-year-old brother to focus on the positive in spite of the many negative things that are, and always will be, around him. Phoebe’s mantra, if she had voiced one, would be similar to that found in the holiday cards sent by a dear friend of ours named Kathy. Our friend’s message is simple: “Heavy on the joy.” It sounds so easy to do, but as we all know it can be hard to keep our minds on the things that bring us love and joy – especially when we see and feel the things that invoke anger, fear, grief or depression.

My wife and I don’t have a 10-year-old Phoebe at home right now. No, our 10-year-old has a lot more Holden in her at this time. As our Katie grows into a girl who can see with eyes wide open, she notices things that make her nervous. This world ain’t easy, and Katie can tell. Her 7-year-old sister still sees it all as one cool dance party, but Katie’s days of unbroken bliss are gone. She sees the phonies and the fearful things, and she isn’t at all sure what to do about it, except worry. I tell her that she’s inherited this all from me, as my own mother had dubbed me “Warren the Worrier” by the time I was 10. I tell her that I had to figure out a way to think about the beauties more often than the phonies, and that I found, as a writer, ways to explore some of the things that concerned me about the world. I tell her that she can do the same.

Katie listens intently, and she takes it all in. She reads, and writes, and goes for walks. All activities that Holden enjoyed, too. Since she could talk, she’s also asked me to tell her stories before bedtime. So tonight, for the first time, I told her a little about Holden. Some of it went over her head, which is fine. I really just wanted her to think about the part at the end, when Holden watches Phoebe on the Central Park Carousel. As Phoebe sits on her horse, smiling and reaching for the gold ring, Holden sits on a bench out in the rain and just starts crying. For once, these are not tears of pain, but tears of joy. Heavy on the joy. The kid sees a moment of pure beauty, and he realizes that moments like this do win out in the end. That life is very much worth living. That even the people who annoy you often end up being OK when it’s all said and done. That the innocence may fade, but the goodness can last.

Katie listened to the end of my story, then faded off to sleep while I sang “Rainbow Connection” to her and her sister. Someday we’ll find it / the rainbow connection / the Holdens, the Katies and me.

I’m finished with Catcher for this school year. But I’m never really finished with Catcher. None of us are. We take it on every day; Katie’s just starting early. The phonies are everywhere; but the carousels are, too. It just takes a little more work for some of us to see them. And man, when we do, it really does make us so damn happy. Damn near bawling.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Turning Tom Seaver

It was full-blown baseball nerdiness, but we enjoyed it anyway. It was the kind of thing you’d never figure out unless you lived in our world. And we only did it whenever one of us had a birthday.

My brother Eric, my friend Ron and I had a mutual passion for baseball that far exceeded anything our mid-1980s world had to offer. So we expanded that world on our own. We went to stores and had our T-shirts silkscreened with Yankee uniform numbers and names long before sporting goods stores started selling those shirts. We joined fantasy baseball leagues long before those statistics could be compiled by web sites. We played Wiffle Ball for hours with make-believe lineups made from major-league teams.

And then there was this birthday thing. Instead of saying “Happy 17th, Warren,” my brother and friend would say to me, “Hey, you’re Mickey Rivers this year.” Instead of being 23, I was “Don Mattingly.” And instead of wishing one of them a happy 31st, I’d tell them they’d reached “Dave Winfield.” I guess when you’ve got so many uniform numbers floating around amid your baseball memories, you’d might as well find a use for them. So, during each birthday, we’d connect our years-old to the numbers worn by those pinstriped heroes we used to cheer for every summer night.

And during those years when there were no great Yankee uniform numbers attached to our new age, it was even more fun to try and remember lesser-known players who’d worn those digits. “You’re Bob Shirley,” one of us would say when we’d reached age 29, harkening back to the left-handed reliever of the mid-1980s. Or “Happy birthday, Kevin Maas” when we turned 24, referring to the slugging first baseman who started off his Yankee career like a superstar, then quickly became a much more pedestrian hitter.

I am pretty sure that the woman who would eventually marry me heard some of these conversations, and yet she chose to remain with me. You’d have to ask her why. I guess the important thing to tell you is that as I stand two days shy of 41 years of age, I do not partake in this nonsense anymore. I don’t sit around and think about the ballplayers who have worn the number my aging body will be donning throughout the year. That’s really kids’ stuff, to be honest.

Tom Seaver. Eddie Mathews. Sterling Hitchcock.

OK, so maybe I do think about it a little bit. Just for a minute. Then I move on to other, more mature stuff. Like writing a blog about baseball and life.

Number 41 is not a big Yankee number. There have been somewhat effective pitchers with the number, such as Hitchcock and some guys from my childhood, like Joe Cowley and Shane Rawley. But it’s not a number you’ll see on a pinstriped uniform for sale at Modell’s. Over in Queens, however, Number 41 means an awful lot. Even more than it does in Atlanta, where Eddie Mathews’ number 41 is retired. Mathews was a great player, but he played nearly all of his career in Milwaukee, before the Braves moved south. For the Mets, however, Number 41 represents the only player in team history ever to have his number retired.

They called him “Tom Terrific,” and Tom Seaver lived up to every bit of that nickname. In a 20-year career, Seaver won more than 300 games and became one of the best pitchers of his era. He spent 11 of those years with the Mets, and most New York fans will tell you that the Mets should never have let him go. As a Yankee fan, I always followed Seaver from a distance, except when he showed up as a Yankees broadcaster after his retirement. But when I’d go out on the field to pitch, I’d always hear coaches comparing my delivery to that of Seaver. I had the full windup, the “drop and drive” delivery that saw my right knee scraping the ground and my right foot pushing off the rubber, followed by the overhand delivery with the good follow-through. Just like Seaver.

Of course, that delivery was the only similarity you could find between my pitching style and that of Tom Seaver. Once the ball left my hands, you might compare me to, say, Charlie Brown. But for an average pitcher, I was apparently pretty to watch. A vague reminder of a classic.

So that brings us to age 41 – a little more vintage than I envisioned myself being back in my pitching days. But here I am, Tom Seaver in age. I’m not dropping and driving anymore. Just workin’ for a livin’, raising a couple of kids, and still in love with the cute redhead I met back when I was still pitching and making those corny birthday jokes.

It’s not the kind of thing they retire uniforms for, I guess. But I’ll take it. And as for the growing older bit, why worry? There’s lots to look forward to. After all, I’m only one year away from Mariano Rivera. Three away from Reggie Jackson. And five away from Andy Pettitte.

Plenty of numbers to throw around for a good long while. Baseball nerds unite. And blow out your candles.