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.