Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looking Back, Stepping Forward

                As 2013 comes to an end, I find myself thinking of my friends Peter and David, both of whom died far too young during this past year. Their families are spending these holidays with a hole in their hearts, one that will not be closed anytime soon.

                I cannot bring Peter or David back, nor can I heal their families’ wounds. But I can enter 2014 with a desire to live each moment fully; it’s the least I can do to honor these dear men. As I near age 43, it’s time, I think, to focus less on what’s next and more on what’s now. As I enter my mid-40s, it’s time to think less about checking off the to-do list and more about checking off the bucket list. Life, ultimately, is less about getting the errands done than it is about doing the things that fulfill us. It’s more about discovering what we could do than it is about tallying up what we should do.

                So here’s to a new year of resolutions, best intentions and fresh starts. Here’s also to those who leave us with legacies and memories. They may not be with us in the flesh anymore, but they offer us an inspiration that we can carry with us every day, no matter what the year.

Monday, November 4, 2013


                I’m no rock star, but I now know what it feels like to crowd-surf. I have run the New York City Marathon.
                In our mid-20s, my wife and I attended the marathon for the first time, and we were amazed that such a spirit of community could be found in a city of eight million people. I vowed to run that race someday, and experience it on the other side of the barricades. It took me about 15 years, but yesterday I finally got there.
                Running 26.2 miles is a bit preposterous, and runners hit their own “wall” at different points in this race. But the spectators who line those 26 miles make it impossible for you to give up on the race. You write your name on your shirt, and they call it out – “Come on, Warren – you’re doing great!” You need some human touch, and they’ve got their hands out for some high-fives. You need hydration, and the volunteers are there every mile, handing you your Poland Spring or Gatorade. You need a reason to think you’re a hero, and there are firefighters standing along the route clapping for you.
You need some inspiring music, and there they are, 130 musical acts across the whole route. There’s plenty of rock, R&B and rap to get you moving, but check out the gospel music in Fort Greene and Harlem! And how about the students and alumni at Bishop Loughlin High in Brooklyn, playing “Gonna Fly Now” from Rocky, as they have for years? No need for headphones on this run.
You need signs to motivate you? Look no further. Here’s one that reads “You Run Better Than the Government.” Here’s another that says “You Are All Amazing!” And still another that reads “Run Faster – I Just Farted.” Eventually, you find a sign that looks more familiar – it’s got your name on it, and your children are holding it. You give your family members a hug, and tell them you’ll see them soon. The hugs seem to numb those aches, and get you moving up First Avenue.
Now you’re in the Bronx, and you’re starting to feel the burn. But here are three people on the sidewalk beside you chanting, at the top of their voices: “You can! And you will! You can! And you will!” The hop returns to your step.
As you enter Central Park after a grueling incline up Fifth Avenue, the spectators take it to another level. They call you out by name on a regular basis now, well aware of the pain you’re feeling. There is no way you can keep this up without their voices rising in volume, to overcome the doubts you might have. Do it, they say – you’re almost there. You turn onto Central Park South, just a mile more to go, so focused that you miss both your family and Tony Bennett standing behind the barricades.
It’s just too close. Dig deep, you tell yourself. And as the wall of sound echoes along the street, you are propelled there, surfing that crowd for just a few more meters. You cross the finish line, walk a few paces, and there they are – the volunteers handing you your medal. You’ve got it around your neck now, and the emotion is so strong you can’t breathe for a moment.
You walk slowly through the park, a heat sheet wrapped around your shoulders. It’s quiet now, just a bunch of exhausted runners trudging through the gloaming. But you don’t need the cheering now – it’s gotten you to where you stand.
Outside the park, on Central Park West, you near the family reunion area, where more hugs await. But before you get there, another volunteer drapes an orange marathon poncho around your shoulders. With this final, silent gesture, the most incredible day of civic engagement, community fellowship and pure love you have ever experienced is over.
And every time you think about it, your eyes well up with tears. Greatest city in the world. Greatest feeling ever.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Middle Years

            She has an eight-period schedule in her backpack, a cell phone in her pocket, and braces in her mouth. Yes, it is time – my oldest daughter is about to start middle school.
            For years, I’ve been telling her she needs to stop growing, and stay young so that her parents don’t feel so old. Unfortunately, she didn’t listen. So on we go, into this new and somewhat terrifying phase of life. The challenges lie just ahead, from hormones to homework. My wife and I have tried to prepare for these changes through the conversations we have with Katie, the rules we set for her, and the behavior we model. Most of all, we just encourage her to focus on her studies.
            And that’s where it got a bit tricky this summer. Katie is 11 years old, and she enjoys reading. But there’s no book as interesting to her as a YouTube video. There’s no poem as delightful as a video blog. There’s no short story as engaging as a music video. Throughout these past two months, Katie has logged a lot more summer hours on the devices than with the books.
            I point to this as a sign of the tech-addicted, 21st-century child. I fear for the future success of my sixth-grader. I set limits, pull the plug, pull at my hair. Here it comes, I say. She’s doomed.
            But somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I remember. Summer of ’82. I’m heading into sixth grade. I glance at a couple of books my mom gave me. But more than anything else, my goal in that summer is to tally 500,000 points on Atari’s “Asteroids” game. I vividly recall the moment, one late-August night, when I achieve my goal. No one is there to congratulate me. My wrist aches from repetitive joystick motions. But I am happy nonetheless.
            During that sixth-grade year, I can also remember the joys our family’s brand-new VCR brought me. I can remember trying to watch a movie on videocassette every day of the year, from Airplane II to Star Trek II. On top of that, I can remember saving up for as many cassette albums as possible, be they Foreigner or Rick Springfield.
When I try to remember what I learned in sixth grade, things get a little fuzzier. I know I did fine, and I know I did all my homework. But it’s also clear that the technology and entertainment areas of my life were at least as important as the academics.
Now before we get to the obvious moral of this story, let’s clarify a few real differences between 1982 and 2013. When I was playing a game on Atari or watching a movie, my parents knew exactly what I was doing. When Katie’s in her bedroom watching YouTube, there’s a lot more mystery involved. And when I was Katie’s age, there was no such thing as social media. New generations bring new challenges – that much is certain. But my memories remind me that the instincts and interests of an 11-year-old do more or less stay the same.
Katie will do her homework and study hard; she loves to learn, and she loves a sparkling report card. But as she heads into the awkward and eye-opening stage known as middle school, she’s also going to need some time in front of the screen instead of the books. Whether I admit it or not, it’s a part of the child’s education. I’m living proof of that.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Living the T-Shirt Slogan

            For years now, my mom and wife have been buying our family T-shirts by the “Life is Good” company. Aside from being the most comfortable cotton shirts you can find, these tees are also the happiest clothes in the world. Their simple logos feature the now-famous stick-figure drawings with brief slogans promoting the simple pleasures of life.
            Keep it simple. Enjoy the ride. Spread good vibes. Peace out. Stay cool.
            The cheerful optimism embodied by this company is admirable, but there can be times when it feels forced. Hey, what if I’m having a bad day? Aren’t there times when life is more complex than a T-shirt slogan? Perhaps that’s why some have chosen to instead embrace the line of “Life is Crap” products also available. The glass, after all, may not always be half-full.
            Of course, it’s all about perspective. And whatever your outlook on life, there are days when you can’t deny it – life really is good. You don’t need a T-shirt to tell you this, because it’s right there in front of you. And more often than not, we feel this way because of the simple pleasures around us. Today, my wife, daughters and I had the chance to live out the T-shirt slogan, and we won’t soon forget it.
It started with the girls’ agenda – they wanted to spend the last of our four days in the Chesapeake Bay area hunting for sea glass. My younger daughter Chelsea took to sea-glass searching a few years ago, and she’s got an eye for finding the stuff. During a typical beach day at the Jersey Shore, Chelsea will spot one or two pieces, then take them back to my parents’ house, where she adds them to a vase filled with tiny pieces of sea-smoothed glass.
            We’d never looked for the stuff in Maryland, though, so we took the advice of our hotel clerk and tried a tiny beach, no more than 100 yards long, on a slender finger of land jutting into the Chesapeake. As we stepped onto the sand of Claiborne Beach, we couldn’t believe our eyes. It was a sea-glass cornucopia. We found white, brown, blue, green, even red. Some were the size of pebbles, others were the size of clam shells, and plenty more were in between.
            As we searched for and lifted these glistening pieces of softened glass off the shore, we stood ankle-deep in deliciously temperate waters, under cloudless skies, with no one else on the beach. Sailboats dotted the bay, and the patter of soft waves meeting sand filled our ears.
            After an hour and a half of walking and searching, we had netted half a gallon full of sea glass. We had cleaned up the earth a bit, added to Chelsea’s collection, and enjoyed nature at its most pristine. It was the kind of experience you don’t often forget – the kind of memory that holds a family together during those difficult days when the glass seems half-empty. We were smiling, but more than anything, we were in awe of the perfection of it all.

            As we picked up our shoes and prepared to leave the beach, another family arrived with pails, shovels and towels in hand. We asked a woman if she could take a photo of us together in front of the bay, and she did. Katie held the bag of sea glass, but Chelsea held the message. She was, after all, wearing her favorite T-shirt. It read, “Life is Good.”

Friday, July 19, 2013

Many the Miles

            I’ve been thinking about marathons lately. I’ll explain why in a bit, but first to the brainstorming. I’ve realized that I’m no stranger to long races. I teach, after all, and the school year is nothing if not a marathon. Twelve months are condensed into ten, complete with opening-day jitters, ambitious autumn months, sluggish winter days, and a wall of fatigue that must be overcome to reach the spring homestretch. By the time June arrives, my colleagues and I are exhausted from running these many miles at a sprinter’s pace.
            I also follow baseball closely, and the ol’ ballgame is the marathon of team sports. A month and a half of spring training is followed by six months and 162 regular-season games, followed again by a month in which the championship team plays anywhere from 11 to 20 postseason games. When the season ends in late October, some players will have suited up for nearly 200 games of nine innings or more. Those of us who play and follow baseball have learned the importance of patience, both within a single game and within a long season.
            Beyond the game, I’m also married, and that ring I wear represents a marathon of a different sort. It’s one with challenges and joys I cannot anticipate, but which I also can’t navigate safely without being present, patient and passionately in love with my wife. There’s nothing more difficult than growing up with someone, but marriage is just that. We’re not the same couple we were in 1995, but it’s kind of amazing to look back and know that my wife and I have been running this race together for almost 18 years.
            The marathon of parenting is perhaps the most difficult of all, as you have less control over where that race goes. You give everything you have along the way, and sometimes it feels as if you’re running with the weight of the world (or at least a couple of kids) on your shoulders. And then, after all the miles of nurturing, you realize at a certain point that you must let go. You stay ready and willing to parent when needed, but you also realize that it’s time to step back and let them run free.
            Life itself, of course, is the grand marathon, the one we are running, walking, skipping or crawling through each day. This is the mystery race, as we don’t get to pick the distance. Perhaps it will be 88 years, as it was for my grandfather, who would have turned 95 today. Or perhaps it will be a much shorter 42 years, as it was for my dear childhood friend David Ross, who passed away on Monday. We get what we get in this life, and we hope we can spend it enriching the lives of others – which both my grandfather and David managed to do in abundance.
            I’m thinking in all these marathon metaphors because I’m running a literal marathon this year. I’m training for the New York City Marathon, which I have long dreamed of running. I’ll traverse the five boroughs on the first Sunday in November as part of the Arthritis Foundation’s marathon team. I’m using my race to raise money for this organization’s enormously important work. My mom has had rheumatoid arthritis for almost four decades – a marathon much more impressive than anything I’m doing. She’s kept her spirits high and inspired others during her race, so the least I can do is jog for a few hours in honor of her.
            We try, as we move along this road of life, to make meaningful connections before we reach the finish line. It’s what makes it all worthwhile, from the grueling stretches to the steady miles to the moments of euphoria. In the spirit of marathons, life and connections, I’m going to take a moment to share with you the link to my marathon page. If you’d like to make a donation to the Arthritis Foundation, you can do so there – and if you do, I thank you so much. Meanwhile, let me hit the road again, and let us all continue the many marathons of life.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Parenting from the '80s

When my daughters heard that I had changed my ringtone to the opening bars of a-ha’s song “Take on Me,” they didn’t look at me quizzically, nor did they groan or shake their heads. They just nodded, and the older one sang along.

I am a child of the ‘80s, and there is nothing that can change that. The fact that I chose a 1985 pop song by a Norwegian trio for my cell phone is not something I’m actively choosing – it’s more a part of the fabric of who I am. From parachute pants to Cosby Show re-runs to Back to the Future films, I am forever attached to the decade of my coming of age.

My girls know this, and they live with it. They know that I don’t love every movie, song or TV show from the ‘80s, but they know that I like more movies and songs and pop culture tidbits from that decade than I do any other. It’s as much a part of me as my affection for the Yankees, New York City or pizza; I grew up with it, and it helped define me.

When it comes to the business of parenting, I have learned that it’s best to use what you’ve got in your arsenal of experience, as you never know what your kids are going to present to you each day. I’ve got a treasure trove of 1980s pop-culture nonsense swimming around in my head, so I figure it’s best to use the stuff as best I can when raising my daughters.

So, without further adieu, I present to you my own top-10 list of advice from parent to child, straight out of the 1980s. Enjoy.

        1.    “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” - Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: Girls, there will be so many days in your life when you’re tempted to check off the items on your to-do list. But true joy and fulfillment comes with living in the moment. At the end of your days, you will savor those memories far more than you will the countless errands and chores you’ve completed. I’m not saying you should cut school, as Matthew Broderick’s Ferris does in the 1986 film. But look out for all the ways you can savor the world around you.

        2.    “I wanna be the one to walk in the sun.” – Cyndi Lauper, Girls Just Want to Have Fun. The clouds are always out there somewhere, and you can always feel as though your days have been marred by challenges beyond your control. But if you’re actively seeking joy, you can find a way to bring the sun into your life, no matter what’s going on around you. It’s not easy, but if you want it badly enough, happiness is always within reach.

        3.    “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” – Back to the Future. When Christopher Lloyd uttered these infamous lines at the end of this classic film, the tires of his car folded up and the car soared in the air, into the 21st century. Nearly 30 years later, there are no flying cars yet in our world. But there are pocket-sized computers, cloned animals and electronic cars. There may always be roads in your life, but be ready for the changes, because they are most definitely going to keep coming.

        4.    “Every breath you take / Every move you make / Every bond you break / Every step you take / I’ll be watching you.” – The Police, Every Breath You Take. While we’re on the subject of technological advances, let’s talk about social media for a second. Every year, more and more venues open up for people to share their lives with others on the Internet. Choose wisely when stepping into this fray; know that when you share something, it’s out there for people to see forever. Guard your privacy carefully, posting and tweeting within your comfort zone.

        5.    “If you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change.” – Michael Jackson, Man in the Mirror. Always give of yourself, and help those in need. There is no other way to live this life than to care for those around you. This ranges from thinking about how you can help large-scale issues such as the environment and economic disparities, to how you can help individuals, such as the elderly neighbor across the street or the classmate struggling with an illness. Keep your eyes open, and be ready for the ways in which you can make a change.

        6.    “Get on your feet / Get up and make it happen.” – Gloria Estefan, Get on Your Feet. Whatever you do in life, make sure you don’t become a couch potato. There are just too many awesome things worth doing out there, and not enough time to do them. Don’t spend your days sitting in front of the TV, or the tablet, or the smart phone, or whatever device is around you. To truly live, you must get up and get outside. That will never change.

        7.    “We’ve gotta hold on to what we’ve got.” – Bon Jovi, Livin’ on a Prayer. There will be times in your life when you feel the tug of your career, social adventures, or financial opportunities. Just remember that these things will ultimately pale in comparison to the tug of your family and friends. The people who love you are with you for the long haul, no matter what you accomplish at school, or in your job. Hold them close to you, and don’t neglect them.

        8.    “Now I think it’s time I led my life on my own / I guess it’s just what I must do.” – Human League, Don’t You Want Me. There will come a time when you will tell me you’re ready to move out of the house, and start your own life. I will try to talk you out of this at first, but I promise you now that I will come around and support you. Because I will know, deep down, that it’s time for you to take your own, independent steps forward. As a parent, it will be so difficult to let go, after raising you for so long. But I promise, I will let go.

        9.    “I’ll be right here.” – E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. When you grow older, there will be days, weeks and perhaps even months when we’ll be apart. But whenever you think of me, I will be with you. And you can rest assured that you will always be at the center of my thoughts. That’s the beauty of good parenting – we set an example for you, and then hope that you’ll follow our lead for the rest of your days. In that way, we are always there for you. Saying goodbye will never be easy, just as it was hard for E.T. and Elliott. But true love transcends any separation.

        10. “But I’ll be stumbling away / Slowly learning that life is OK.” – a-ha, Take on Me. So we finish where we begin, with the cell phone ringing and the one-hit wonders from Scandinavia singing. I leave you with their advice – that no matter how hard life seems at times, your struggles will not last forever. This too shall pass, folks often say, and they’re right. Whenever it seems that life has handed you another hurdle, and you find yourself stumbling, remember that things will ultimately resolve themselves. It may take awhile, but things will work out in ways you never could have imagined. Just take a deep breath, and keep moving forward. It will, in the end, be OK.

It’s often said that the 1980s were a shallow decade. I beg to differ – if you look hard enough, you can find a lot of golden nuggets out there among the seemingly trivial pop culture of the decade. Wisdom can be found in all kinds of places. Sometimes, it’s even enough to raise a child on. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Love is in the Air

            “We Have Big Peonies,” read the sign outside a Central Jersey nursery.
            It must be June. As the first day of summer nears, the weather reaches a blissful state, the sun shines most of the time, and the fireflies dance for us at night. It’s enough to put love – and lust – in the air.
In 2013, that lust is literally flying through the air, as the loudest loverbugs you’ll ever meet – the 17-year cicadas – now blanket the East Coast. Their mating buzz changes the atmosphere a bit, as they add the sound of high-voltage power lines to an otherwise gorgeous night. It’s an intense sound, not quite what you hear when you imagine romance. But hey, to each his own.
After all, the cicadas are young and in love. It’s a fierce, fleeting feeling, and I hope they’re enjoying themselves. The last time these insects were visiting our skies, I was young and newlywed. Amy and I were in our mid-20s, and we were spending our free time enjoying vacations together, furnishing our new apartment and going out to dinner in Manhattan. It was 1996, which honestly doesn’t seem like that long ago.
In ’96, Bill Clinton was winning re-election and staring down Newt Gingrich in a budget crisis, the Unabomber was arrested, and England was dealing with “mad cow” disease. For baseball fans like me, 1996 marks the first full seasons in which Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte were playing for the Yankees. For music fans, 1996 means Alanis Morissette, the “Macarena,” and Hootie & the Blowfish. At the movies, the first “Mission: Impossible” movie was playing alongside “Independence Day” and “Twister.”
When I was coming of age in the ‘80s, it was common to hear people wax nostalgic about growing up in the 1960s, as though that were ancient history. Bryan Adams’s pop song “Summer of ’69,” for instance, hit the Billboard charts in 1985 – just 16 years after the actual summer of 1969. Can you imagine a singer today penning a hit about the “Summer of ‘97”? I didn’t think so.
There’s just not a lot of affection for the era of our cicadas’ last visit. But then again, these buzzers aren’t interested in any long-term nostalgia. We may save their shells or wings, but they’re not into mementoes. The cicadas are all about living in the moment. That, after all, is what young love is all about.
Yesterday, we spent part of Father’s Day on Governors Island, that extraordinary piece of land in New York Harbor, nestled in between Lower Manhattan and Red Hook, Brooklyn. Yesterday’s big event at Governors Island was the Jazz Age Lawn Party. Hundreds of young New Yorkers took the ferry over to the island wearing their best flapper dresses and Gatsby suits. They flirted while dancing the Charleston and sipping the no-longer-prohibited alcohol.
But later on, as the 1920s costume partiers took the ferry back to Manhattan, another ferry brought hundreds of even younger adults to Governors Island. These folks were wearing neon tank tops and bikini tops, and they were wearing sunglasses even as the sun set. This was an electronic dance music concert, and the DJs were already pumping the beats as the partiers arrived.
There will come a day when this, too, will be nostalgic, and parents in their 40s will be telling their kids all about how cool the EDM concerts of the past were. Maybe they’ll dress their kids up in neon and take them to a nostalgic dance-music lawn party at Governors Island. By then, there will be new sounds of love and romance.
               But every 17 years, when the high-pitched buzzing returns, we’ll be reminded that no matter what the era or the sound, young love is all about living in the moment. It comes and goes so fast, you’d better just enjoy it. Like a firefly’s flicker. Or a cicada’s life above ground. Or – yes, I must say it – the blossoming of a big peony.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Setting Up the Net

            My daughter Katie has had trouble picking a sport. From gymnastics to softball to swimming to dance, she’s hopped from one to another without commitment. She has an athletic build, and her body enjoys sports. Her mind, however, struggles with competition and with falling short of perfection. So we keep trying new sports, and we keep trying to help her become patient with herself as she learns each sport.
            I’ve tried just about everything to convince her to play. First, we had gentle conversations about the value of sports and competition. Then I started coaching her team. After that, we moved into bribery. And finally, I tried guilt.
            Katie, you know that Mommy and Daddy don’t make a ton of money. So with your athleticism, it would really help if you could earn a scholarship to college through sports. So do you think you could go ahead and play – for us? For your future?  
            The guilt trip didn’t work either, so we moved on to the much healthier option of giving Katie her own choice in the matter. This spring, she tried a new sport. And this time, the enthusiasm hasn’t waned after a few months. The choice this time: volleyball. Katie has been digging, setting and serving her way through clinics and practices. When she’s tall enough, she’ll try spiking. So far, the kid seems to enjoy the teamwork and the skills involved. She’s no superstar at the sport right now, but she doesn’t seem to mind that at all – which, of course, is the best sign of all.
            My wife and I didn’t play organized volleyball as kids, but we did partake in the occasional game. We did so because there was a volleyball net in my church’s gym/fellowship hall. Amy and I were both members of my church’s youth group – in fact, that’s how we met. In between flirtations, the two of us sent balls over the net in low-stress games of volleyball.
            We’d start off our youth group meetings with a Bible study or a conversation about our lives, and afterward we’d head down to the gym. There were other games we could have played besides volleyball, but one of our fellow teens so enjoyed volleyball that he’d get to the church early to make sure the net was up and waiting for us before we’d even arrived. So, in essence, he made the decision to play volleyball for us.
            His name was Pete Thomassen, and he didn’t encourage these games because he was the most amazing volleyball player in the world. He just knew that this game was the perfect way to bring a lot of kids together. It was quiet leadership of the sort you would hope for from a youth-group teen. For a mature young man like Pete, that was easy to do.
            It’s been more than two months now since Pete died, suddenly, in his sleep with no forewarning whatsoever. For his wife, Sandy, it’s been the most difficult spring you could imagine. Their two young children, Erik and Chloe, are the sweetest children you could ever meet, and they are facing the biggest challenge in their little lives with brave and beautiful smiles. Amy and I brought a dinner to Sandy and the kids the other day, and we were astounded by the power of love within this family. There’s no script for how to handle this, but Sandy and the kids are doing all they can to care for one another. Of course, that’s exactly what Pete did for them.
            So in addition to loving the fact that Katie is playing a sport again, this volleyball thing has a little extra meaning for me this spring. It’s a reminder of my friend, who savored the days in his 43 years, and who knew how to bring people together on either sides of the net. As an adult, Pete and Sandy loved to host barbecues at their New Jersey house every Memorial Day. If you were in the area, they said, stop by and have a burger.
            We will keep stopping by to see Sandy and the kids in the weeks and months ahead. At some point, I’d like to tell them about their dad’s volleyball games. Maybe they’ll want to set up a net as well. Perhaps Katie and I can teach them a few things about the game.
That’s the funny thing about sports. No matter which sport you eventually pick, and no matter how competitive you are, the games find a way of helping you connect with someone – with yourself, your parents, your siblings, your teammates. Even with the spirit of a friend who’s gone far too soon.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Back to Basics

              The world of pop music has undergone more sea changes than any of us can count over the past 60 years, but the newest trend is surprising even to hardy top-40 fans such as myself. In case you haven’t noticed, foot-stompin’ pop is all the rage now. A grizzled voice, a few banjos, a “hey” and a “ho,” finished off with the sound of boots hitting hardwood – it’s Billboard gold right now.
              I’ve got no problem with it, and most of the bands in this genre – Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, Of Monsters and Men, to name a few – are a nice complement to the other genres in the pop music galaxy, from rap to hip hop to R&B to country pop. Throw in a little more standard rock, and you’ve got the most diverse array of pop music this side of 1985. Neat as it is, though, it’s still shocking to turn on a mainstream, top-40 radio station and hear banjos. Just a year after Earl Scruggs died, the instrument he mastered is holding its own alongside Auto-Tune and boy bands.
Cool as it sounds, though, I think this foot-stompin’ pop is about more than just the whimsical tastes of music fans. Something this different has to carry some symbolic weight. Twenty years ago, we saw a similar trend when MTV introduced the widely popular “Unplugged” series, where famous musicians strapped on acoustic guitars and crooned their hits in stripped-down fashion. Twenty years before that, singer-songwriters such as Jim Croce, James Taylor and John Denver ensured that the quiet, thoughtful, acoustic song would remain a part of our pop-music canon for individuals not named Dylan. I found the “Unplugged” fad to be a necessary reaction to what had become an overload of synthesizers and heavy metal in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. The early-‘70s quiet guys were a natural foil to the blossoming of hard rock in the late ‘60s.
This time around, Mumford and all his sons and cousins are here for a couple of reasons: First of all, they’re not really quiet songs, so much as anthems – and in a time of so much uncertainty, the anthem does a lot of people an awful lot of good; it always has. Secondly, I think the stripped-down approach of banjos and boots is also a harkening back to our past – to a recognition that there are some things we did better in previous generations, and it’s at least worth reflecting on that.
When Bill Monroe and Woody Guthrie were playing bluegrass and folk music back in the 1930s, America was undergoing an economic crisis even worse than the one we’ve had in the past half-decade. But during those years, the country took some courageous risks in fighting its way out of the misery it faced. Today, as we watch our government leaders play a dangerous game of chicken with our economy, we might long for the days of banjos and fiddles, as they were accompanied by bold action.
Also, as we watch severe storms ravage our country, we might find ourselves reflecting back on the last time a man-made natural disaster struck our country. The shock and debris of Hurricane Sandy remains with us still, and maybe we’re ready to revisit the days of the Dust Bowl to think seriously about what happens when we alter our climate – and what we can do to fix it. Woody Guthrie sang about that, too.
Or if we’re into sports, maybe the Lumineers’ “Ho Hey” reminds us a little of Willie Mays’ “Say Hey” days. Perhaps the stripped-down pop of now connects with the stripped-down baseball game being played once more, at long last. With performance-enhancing drugs on their way out of the game, baseball has become what it was before the juicers took over – a game in which pitchers dominate. Many of us were told as children that the hardest thing to do in sports is to hit a baseball coming at you at a rapid speed. The laws of physics support this theory completely, and without those drugs we’re seeing the game become what it was meant to be. Getting a hit three out of 10 times at-bat is once again a Hall of Fame-worthy accomplishment. Striking 40 home runs in a season is once more enough to win a home run crown. And pitching a shutout is once again commonplace.
So when we read about Willie Mays dominating the game in the 1950s, we read about a man who did this through his own natural abilities. As baseball prepares for a new season, we feel more confident than ever that the fakers have either been caught or are about to get caught. And that’s something  to say “hey” about. It’s also reason to appreciate the beauty of the 2-1 game, instead of the 12-9 slugfest.
There are a lot of amazing things that happen in a 2-1 game. Players think carefully about their decisions. They work together a lot. They take courageous risks. They appreciate a well-played game, in which the playing field is level.
They do the things that make the game great, and they don’t need any performance enhancements to do that. It’s the same way with economies, global weather patterns and even pop songs – just keep it honest, dare to be different, and try a little collaboration. Make some music together. Banjos allowed. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Brothers in Arms

            I haven’t followed football nearly as much in my adulthood as I did in my adolescence. This year, however, I am fascinated by the Super Bowl matchup that the National Football League has provided. If I told you I grew up rooting for the San Francisco 49ers, you’d figure I’m into this game because the Niners are in the title game for the first time in 17 years.
            It is cool to see San Francisco winning games again, but that’s not why this game is so interesting to me. I’m going to be watching it for a more basic reason: because I have a brother. I have a brother against whom I competed during every day of my adolescence. So as the football world prepares for a Super Bowl in which opposing head coaches Jim and John Harbaugh are brothers, I feel as though a part of my life will be played out in that game.
            My brother, Eric, is three years younger than me. So by the time he was about 7 years old, we were ready to compete in just about any game we could find. As we grew older, that competition became fierce. We’re not just talking about games that helped us wile away a few hours. We’re talking about games in which our thirst to beat the other left us spending every ounce of energy we had in pursuit of victory.
            Some days it was Wiffle Ball games on our driveway, with one of us hitting a soaring ninth-inning home run off the telephone pole to crush the other. Other days it was one-on-one basketball in the backyard, with our breaths visible in the crisp winter air and Eric’s squared-up jumpers piling up the points against Warren’s wild hook shots. Still other days it was tennis matches at swim clubs and assorted local courts, with Warren’s Stefan Edberg-like finesse doing battle with Eric’s John McEnroe athleticism. On rainy days, it was Matchbox car duels, with my wheels up against his. On snowy days it was video games, tackle football and snowball fights.
            There’s no real end to the events that my brother and I headlined in the Hynes home. I can keep the list going for some time – we haven’t even gotten to Pinewood Derby cars, for crying out loud. Whatever it was, we were locking horns in a duel that was absolutely essential to us both. In order to learn who we were as individuals, we needed to size ourselves up against one another in the heat of battle. Everything we’ve become since is partly the result of those matchups. Of course, the fact that we loved each other dearly – both during and after every game – can’t be left unsaid. But in those games, words of love were the farthest things from our lips. It was a battle to the end.
            So on February 3rd, it will be Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers against John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens. What makes this so amazing is that for each man, winning Super Bowl XLVII would be the ultimate career achievement. And yet, in order to claim this prize, one man will have to defeat his own brother. This, my friends, is grand drama.
            When I think about those games with Eric, I remember a similar rhythm to our matchups: I’d get out to the early lead, playing soft and loose, and Eric would quickly get frustrated. As my lead grew, he’d then throw something of a tantrum. When I saw him get upset, I’d keep playing hard, and there was no drop-off in my effort. But psychologically, his tantrums reminded me of something deep inside – the reality that I’d rather see my brother succeed than watch myself win. This didn’t always lead to me losing, and there were countless times when Eric – a superior athlete – would have come back and won anyway. But I can think of a few times when we were locked in a fierce duel, and I looked him in the eyes and realized my truest competitive desire – to see Eric triumph, even if that came at the expense of me.
            Today, my brother and I are both writers, and some of our aspirations are the same. We don’t compete with one another for stories, but if you created a scenario in which there was space for only one of us to get a book published, I’d step aside in a heartbeat.
            So when I watch the Super Bowl, that’s what I’ll be looking for – who yields first? Which brother has that inner desire to sacrifice himself for the other? I’ll be scanning my TV set in search of that split-second of mercy. That complex brotherly love, mixed in with the fierce competition. That’s what makes this game, in some sense, the ultimate in sporting matchups. The Super Bowl is always the biggest game in sports, but this time it’s also two brothers playing tackle football in the snow. I may not watch football much anymore, but I wouldn’t miss this game for the world.
            Unless, of course, my brother calls, and asks if I want to shoot some hoops.

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Incredibles

            It was fitting this week that the Baseball Writers’ Association of America released its Hall of Fame voting results just one day before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their Oscar nominations. If baseball looks closely enough, it may find a solution to its most weighty problem on that Oscar ballot.

            In 1994, a vicious labor dispute led to the cancellation of the entire baseball postseason, embarrassing the sport to such an extent that many wondered if fan interest would ever resurface. However, once the games resumed in 1995, America’s pastime stormed back with a vengeance, just as it did after the Chicago White Sox scandal of 1919, when several players “threw” the World Series by taking money from gamblers.

            In the 1920s, baseball was saved in large part by a portly man whose mammoth home runs brought fans to the ballpark in droves. In 1998, baseball was saved in large part by two muscular men whose mammoth home runs electrified the nation. But there was a difference between the way in which Babe Ruth saved baseball in the 1920s, and the way in which Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa saved baseball in the late ‘90s. Babe Ruth, according to writers and historians, was known to enjoy many a good drink; he succeeded despite taking a performance-inhibiting drug. McGwire and Sosa, on the other hand, seem to have succeeded due to performance-enhancing drugs. And with their success, baseball fully entered its Steroid Era.

            Home run records fell by the dozens in those late ‘90s and early 2000s. Barry Bonds hit so many home runs so often that he was walked a record 232 times in the 2004 season. There has never been anything like this, as home runs soared over fences with a frequency you had to see to believe. But then again, you had to see these ballplayers’ muscles to believe them, too. During that 2004 season, Bonds turned 40 years old. Yet, he looked more like the lead character from Pixar’s ’04 film hit The Incredibles than a typical 40-year-old athlete. The bulked-up ballplayers, who were free from any kind of steroid testing, flexed super-sized biceps, pecs and quads that brought to mind Mr. Incredible and his giant, muscular body.

            A lot has gone down since 2004 in Major League Baseball, as we’ve learned that so much of that excitement from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s was created by performance-enhancing drugs. Who took what, and when, and how much is impossible to know for sure, as there was no steroid testing until 2006. There was no agreement on in-season testing for human growth hormone until yesterday. Athletes in search of an edge turned to syringes to enhance their own skills, and they got rich doing so.

            And so, when several of the most celebrated players of the past 15 years became eligible for Hall of Fame candidacy this year, the baseball writers sent a powerful message by electing no one to receive baseball’s highest honor in 2013. Not the guy with seven MVP awards. Not the guy with seven Cy Young awards. Not the guys with 3,000 hits, 500 or more home runs, or 3,000 or more strikeouts. Nobody.

            Some of these eligible players did not take steroids or human growth hormone, but through its massive cover-up baseball did not allow us to know who was cheating and who was playing fair. So, this year, every player suffered the consequences.

            It was an era of irresponsible, unhealthy, and deceitful behavior. But it is also true that during this time, baseball fans devoured the record-breaking offense with much enthusiasm and not much questioning. It is, therefore, rather difficult for us to point fingers at these players without pointing fingers at ourselves as well. They were, after all, giving us what we wanted. We cheered and clapped for the guys who looked like Pixar characters, so the sport created more and more of them.

            So that brings us to the Oscars. Back in 1995, Pixar introduced a revolutionary form of digital animation with the now-classic film Toy Story. Half a decade later, after the success of A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2, it was clear that this company had changed the way movies were made. Thus, in 2001 the Academy began awarding an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. In the first 11 years of that award, a Pixar film was nominated eight times. This week, the company picked up nomination number nine.

            Baseball can look at this Oscar category and follow suit with its Hall of Fame dilemma: Simply take the players from the Steroid Era and vote them in under “Best Animated Players.” Some of them were on the juice and some weren’t, but baseball gave us no way of knowing. So we’ll treat them all like we do Buzz Lightyear, Wall-E and Mr. Incredible – we’ll give them their own category. And if the dust ever clears and we get full disclosure, we’ll consider nominating them for the regular Hall as well, just as Pixar movies like Up and Toy Story 3 have also been nominated for Best Picture.

            It’s fitting that this year’s Pixar nominee is a film titled Brave. If only Major League Baseball had shown some degree of courage during the Steroid Era, we might be looking at our recent sports history through a different lens. But brave they weren’t. So the baseball writers called them out on that this week. Even Mr. Incredible can’t save the day with this one.