Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Tuning in to the Holidays

            It starts in our house around Halloween. That’s a solid month too soon, in my opinion. But I do not cast the deciding vote.
            You walk into my wife’s car, or into our house, on, say, Oct. 25, and you hear it right away – the jingle of bells, accompanied by a catchy tune about Santa or Frosty or Rudolph. Along with this music you hear the singing voices of three individuals – my wife, my older daughter, and my younger daughter. The dog does not sing along, nor do the guinea pigs. But if they could, I’m sure they would.
            Everyone in our house loves an early start to Christmas music – except for me. Call me crazy, but I prefer to hear my Christmas music during the Christmas season. Of course, the rest of my family reminds me that the season is whatever time period you define it to be. My wife and daughters happen to view it as a two-month advent season; I prefer the more standard, after-Thanksgiving definition.
            The interesting thing is, my definition seems to be the one on its way out. In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of holiday-themed radio stations in America, and many of them are switching to this format earlier in November, if not sooner. A recent New York Times article by Ben Sisario identified an Atlantic City, N.J., station that switched to all-holiday music two weeks before Halloween. We’ve always noticed retail stores setting up for Christmas early; now the dials on our car radio are doing the same.
            In our house, we have an agreement that they don’t play Christmas music when I’m in the house until after Veterans Day. Amy and the girls kind of honor that, and I kind of let it go when they forget once in awhile. My reasons for holding off on holiday music are twofold. For one, I find the season to be a whirlwind of both joy and stress, and I prefer to take on that combo for one month instead of two. And second, I really, really like Christmas music – therefore, I don’t want to ruin it by playing those songs too much.
Scrooge said he would keep Christmas in his heart all year long; he didn’t say he would play “Jingle Bells” 24/7. There is a difference, in this man’s opinion. So while I’m always ready for community service, or gift-giving, or time with family, my ideal window for actual holiday songs is after Dec. 10.
And on a day like today – here on the doorstep of Christmas – I’m ready for all the holiday music you’ve got. Give me Mariah, give me those Very Special Christmas albums, give me the Rat Pack and Elvis and Band Aid and Burl Ives. Play it loud today. Jingle those bells. Run, run, Rudolph.
The cool thing about my family’s obsession with this music is that when I am in the mood for the stuff, I have quite the collection of holiday music from which to choose. A few years ago, I even bought Amy an iPod Nano specifically for her Christmas songs. It is completely full. So there’s a bounty of songs at my fingertips.
And there are is a lot of underrated holiday music out there. In terms of holiday albums, some of the best underplayed CDs are Annie Lennox’s A Christmas Cornucopia, Darlene Love’s It’s Christmas, Of Course, and Chris Isaak’s Christmas. In terms of underrated holiday songs, I love Billy Squier’s “Christmas is the Time to Say I Love You,” The Kinks’ “Father Christmas,” Fiona Apple’s version of “Frosty the Snowman,” Louis Armstrong’s “Cool Yule” and Coldplay’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” to name just a few.
I could go on. If you buy the Andy Williams/Johnny Mathis-fueled cliché of it being “the most wonderful time of the year,” you can see why artists would want to write songs about happiness, faith and goodwill. The matching of catchy tunes with joyful hearts creates the perfect setting for uplifting art. We peer into the details of our lives and find it all there for the taking: Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, treetops glistening, sleigh bells jingling – a beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight.
When you think about how much great holiday music is out there, it almost makes you want to play those songs a little earl – wait a minute. What am I saying? That’s not what I mean – the music’s good, yes, and I honestly could use a good two months to play it all, but do I really want to start it so soon? Wait, do I?
See, that’s the problem with these blog posts – you meander too much and you end up contradicting yourself! Or maybe, as you probe deeper into the issue, you start to recognize your true feelings. Maybe Scrooge does play holiday songs all year. Perhaps that’s the whole point. If these songs are a reminder of who we are at our best, why cap their timeliness?
It’s a question best left to each individual. For now, it’s December 24, and that’s as good a day for Christmas music as any. So soak it up, and sing it out. Throw your arms around the world at Christmastime.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Final Out

            The evening chill has added its November bite, the jack-o’-lanterns are starting to sag, and the darkness is upon us an hour earlier. This can mean only one thing: Another baseball season has ended. Indeed, the parade has already been held in San Francisco, where the Giants are world champions once again. And a season-ending celebration has taken place in Kansas City, where the Royals took pride in going from also-rans for 29 straight years to World Series runners-up in 2014.

            For all who follow baseball, though, the end of a season is sad no matter which team you follow. The odyssey that began with Spring Training in mid-February has wound its way through a six-month, 162-game regular season, followed by another month of Wild Card games and three full rounds of playoff series. And now it’s over.

            The bitter chill arrives. Bundle up, and bake some cookies.

            While the season’s end brings a kind of mourning for many of us, it’s also a time of more poignant regret for those who made their teams’ final out of the year. Those players have the added bonus of reliving a moment of failure again and again, wondering what might have happened had they taken a different swing, or managed their at-bat differently. Salvador Perez of the Royals will see his ninth-inning pop-up to Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval on repeat in his mind, wishing he had just made better contact. But he didn’t, and he can’t get that moment back again.
            In our family, we’ve got a ballplayer who made her team’s final out of the year. Chelsea, our 9-year-old, enjoyed her travel team’s fall season very much, and she clubbed her share of hits for her team, the Wolves. But on a drizzly Monday evening a few weeks ago, Chelsea found herself up at bat with her team trailing in the last inning of a single-elimination playoff game. The Wolves were down by three runs, the bases were loaded, and there were two outs. As her team cheered her on, Chelsea smacked a shot toward second base. And then … the ball landed right in the glove of the opposing team’s second baseman.

            As the teams congratulated each other and the winning club celebrated, Chelsea felt the tears begin to stream down her cheeks. Her coaches assured her that there was nothing to feel sorry about, that she had done a great job all year. But Chelsea had wanted to win, and she felt embarrassed that she had made the last out.
            When we got home that night, I told Chelsea that some of the best hitters in baseball history have made the final out in playoff games. I showed her the line drive that Hall of Famer Willie McCovey hit to second base to end Game 7 of the 1962 World Series. I showed her Bob Welch’s strikeout of Reggie Jackson to end Game 2 of the 1978 World Series. This at-bat is one of the more electrifying playoff encounters you’ll ever see, and Chelsea found herself captivated by the competitive fire of that moment.

This week, I shared with her the news that another player had made his team’s last out. Perez popped up to third with the tying run on third base, 90 feet away. Perez was an All-Star this year, and he started more games at catcher in one season than any player in Major League history. He had been hit in the knee with a pitch earlier in Game 7, making it difficult for him to stride at full strength. Perez’s season was anything but a failure. And yet, here he was, making that dreaded last out – just as Mike Trout, baseball’s best player, had done two weeks earlier against Perez’s Royals in the Division Series.

The best thing about baseball is that there is always another season ahead, another set of games to play. But for a few dark months between November and March, there is no baseball. And that is sadder than any final out – the reality that balls and strikes and pitches and swings are gone for now.

Chelsea has her uniform ready for the spring softball season. She wants her glove to be oiled some more, and she’d love a new softball bag. The final out was a sad one for her, but it was also a motivator. She’ll keep practicing. And somewhere out there, beyond the darkness, spring awaits. There will be more games, and more chances. Whether you’re the Royals or the Wolves, you know it’s true. Baseball never dies.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The American Dream: A Shortstop with Standards

            When Derek Jeter made his Major League Baseball debut in the spring and summer of 1995, it was a busy time in America. An act of domestic terrorism had recently struck Oklahoma City, and the Unabomber was on the loose. The United States Congress was at sharp odds with the president. Acts of savage cruelty abroad had led the U.S. to take military action in Bosnia. Extreme heat waves in the Midwest had many wondering what was happening to our climate. A trial in Manhattan was under way for the 1993 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center. A Brooklyn man had recently been sent to prison for life after shooting and killing several people on a Long Island train. And a certain former NFL running back was on trial for murder in Los Angeles.
            There were a lot of frightening things happening, and it was hard sometimes to find your footing in what felt like an uneven world. But one September evening, a baseball shortstop helped us remember how inspiring humans can be when they’re at their best. Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. had been playing his position every day for nearly 14 years without missing a single game. On September 6, he broke the record that many had thought to be untouchable – Lou Gehrig’s mark for consecutive games played. When the 2,131st game of Ripken’s career became official, his teammates encouraged him to jog around Oriole Park at Camden Yards, shaking hands and slapping high-fives with fans. As millions of people watched Ripken on TV, they shared a moment that was clearly about much more than baseball.
            In the 19 years since that summer, you can argue that a lot has changed in this world and this country, but that an awful lot has also stayed the same. There are still too many people out there engaged in activities that we struggle to understand, from terrorism to domestic shootings to governmental infighting to ignorance of global warming. We read more of our news online these days than we did in 1995, but we often hesitate to scan the headlines, sometimes because we just don’t want to hear about another crisis.
            Derek Jeter has been working at his job in the Bronx during every one of these past 19 years, often excelling at his job during our most frightful collective moments. He led the New York Yankees to 125 wins in 1998, when the Clinton-Lewinski scandal held Americans’ attention. He won the World Series MVP award in 2000, leading the Yanks past the cross-town Mets a few days before the American presidential electoral process entered a state of chaos. He made two of the most extraordinary plays in playoff history during the fall of 2001, just weeks after the attacks of September 11. He led the Yankees to their 27th championship in 2009, one day before the Fort Hood shootings. He led the American League in hits in 2012 at age 38, with the Yankees finishing their postseason run a few days before Hurricane Sandy hit. During these moments, Jeter didn’t ask for the applause, nor did he view himself as larger than life. He just said he was living his dream, playing for his favorite team, and wanted only to win. His modesty, maximum effort and grace under pressure were all we needed to feel that maybe things were not so bad out there as they seemed.
            Human nature being what it is, we can be sure that individuals will continue making decisions that frighten, confuse and worry us in the days and years ahead. Even in the world of sports, we have seen a whole host of poor decisions, from steroid use among baseball players to off-the-field violence among football players to neglect of head injuries in several sports. But in spite of this constant turmoil, there are always individuals out there who inspire us. Some of them are artists, others are teachers, and others are just people we love who serve as our personal role models. And, yes, there are also athletes. Since Cal Ripken’s moment 19 years ago, other sports stars have stepped forward and provided more examples of excellence on and off the field. Athletes such as Tim Duncan, Peyton Manning, Mariano Rivera and Grant Hill have gained such respect within and beyond the world of sports because of the way they’ve carried themselves day in and day out. When young athletes arrive in the pros saying they idolized Manning or Hill while growing up, you know it’s not just because of how great these players were in action. It’s also because of the class they showed while playing the game.
Before I knew the name Derek Jeter, I was covering the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team as a college senior in Chapel Hill. I had just written dozens of stories chronicling the team’s second national championship under Coach Dean Smith in 1993, and I was invited to the program’s year-end dinner. As I sat in the arena named for Smith and listened to him speak, I was struck by the tears this often-stoic coach shed while speaking of his players. He cared just as much for the walk-on bench player as he did the leading scorer, and he spoke more about players’ grades and post-college plans than their basketball accomplishments. That evening, I sat next to the late Doug Marlette, whose editorial cartoons had won him a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize. Marlette, who lived in a nearby town, was a big Tar Heels fan. When I asked why he loved UNC basketball, Marlette began speaking of Smith. “He has such standards,” Marlette said, explaining that when you set such high goals for yourself and those you lead, you tend to win – and win with integrity.
Three years later, I was watching Derek Jeter celebrate his first championship with the Yankees, and I heard him speak reverently of the Yankees’ manager, Joe Torre. I saw him embrace his parents, and refrain from even the slightest boast. This, you could tell, was a man with standards. It’s hard to believe that he’s already 40 now, and that his career will end this weekend in Boston. Last night, in his final game at Yankee Stadium, Jeter heard more than 48,000 people cheer his name for more than three hours straight. He said he nearly cried several times, and felt it was he who should be thanking the fans. Again, the modesty.
The highlight reels can show you all the clutch hits, diving catches and great throws in Jeter’s career. But really, that’s just part of the story. You needed to hear those fans last night, chanting “Thank you, Derek,” just as you needed to see Cal Ripken take his lap around Camden Yards. These were gifted, millionaire athletes, on the receiving end of adulation that seemed at odds with a harsh, cynical world. We’ve taken a lot of hits over the past two decades. But somehow, we keep finding the sparks of light. Sometimes those sparks are standing at shortstop. Only in moments like these can you see just how ready and willing we are to applaud those who hold onto standards in this crazy world of ours.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Pennant-Race Memories: Handle with Care

                It’s likely that the New York Yankees won’t make the playoffs this year, giving them two straight seasons without a playoff berth since 1992 and ‘93. If the Yankees are your favorite team, as they are for the residents of the Hynes household, this is disappointing. But if you’re paying attention to the full baseball season, you know that several groups of long-suffering fans are getting the chance to see their teams in a pennant race this summer. That is the story of baseball in 2014, and it’s a great one.
You’ve got the Kansas City Royals, absent from the playoffs for 29 years, standing in first place in their division. The Baltimore Orioles, out of the playoffs for 28 of the last 31 years, also in first place. The Milwaukee Brewers, who have made the playoffs just four times in their 45-year existence, holding onto first place. The Pittsburgh Pirates, who last year made the playoffs for the first time in 20 years, in the Wild Card chase. And the Toronto Blue Jays, absent from the playoffs for 21 years, also in the Wild Card hunt. Even the Washington Nationals, trying to bring playoff baseball to the nation’s capital for just the second time in 81 years, in first place.
When you look at this season from the vantage point of long-awaited hope, it gives you reason to worry little about whether usual playoff suspects such as the Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies, Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox will make the postseason this year. These teams and their fans certainly will survive. But the Royals! How can you not root for the kids in Kansas City? Even baseball’s two most consistent teams this year, the first-place Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Dodgers, have not won a World Series since Rick Astley, Richard Marx and Gloria Estefan were ruling Billboard’s Top 40.
A few weeks ago, I took a weekend trip with my brother and our friend Neil, to spend some time together and celebrate Eric and Neil both turning 40 this year. When we go away together, the three of us usually travel to baseball stadiums. This time, it was an Orioles game one night, followed by a Nationals game the next. We watched the home teams win their games, and the stadiums were loud and full. We were impressed by how many fans dressed in the colors of their teams – Orioles orange and Nationals red. It also was impressive to see the teams enjoying their own traditions – Orioles fans belting out John Denver’s “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” during the seventh-inning stretch, and Nationals fans cheering wildly for Teddy Roosevelt as he won the nightly race of mascot presidents, beating out Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson and Taft.
There was a lot of late-summer hope in the voices and eyes of these Mid-Atlantic baseball fans. The same can be heard and seen in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and other mid-size cities around the country, where the local teams are giving their fans reason to avoid thinking about football quite yet. In the end, though, these pennant-race ballgames always mean more than wins and losses. If you’re traveling to a game with your friends or family, you’re going to have time to sit together in the stands and talk, perhaps even about stuff more important than balls and strikes.
I can tell you about a lot of the Yankee games I’ve seen with Eric and Neil, but I also can tell you about many good talks and laughs we’ve had at the ballpark in the Bronx. During our Maryland weekend, we talked a lot of baseball but also caught up on one another’s lives, sharing stories of recent trips, photos of kids, and songs we’ve been enjoying. We took in the games, but also searched for tasty ballpark food together, with Eric raving over the jerk chicken in Nationals Park and Neil savoring his chili dog. I’m sure I can dig up some details of the games from my memory, but none of them come to mind as clearly as the three of us munching on late-night nachos in a pub in Alexandria, Va., or discovering the historic Maine Avenue Fish Market on our walk to the Nationals game, or singing the Traveling Wilburys’ Handle with Care together as Neil drove north on I-295, heading home.
So in this late summer of 2014, those of us in New York will never be Royals. We’re Yankees fans, so we’ll take what we can get. But as the people in Kansas City and Pittsburgh and Baltimore and D.C. get together for an energizing pennant race, we know that their fans will love the baseball. But Eric, Neil and I can tell you that in the end, a great game is really just an invitation to deepen a friendship. Put on those orange or red T-shirts, grab some jerk chicken, and create some memories together.
Everybody’s got somebody to lean on.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Where Bounty Hunters Meet Center Fielders

             Like so many kids her age, my 9-year-old daughter has become a Star Wars fanatic. It’s amazing that Star Wars has never become retro; it remains current, be it through the films, the LEGO phenomenon, the action figures or the books. For Chelsea, her immersion happened out of the blue; we were talking about the Star Wars movies, she expressed a desire to watch them, and before you know it we had watched all six films together in the course of a week’s time.

Like my brother and me three decades earlier, Chelsea was not content with merely watching the films; she wanted to talk about them in-depth, to the point where we continuously pressed pause on our DVD remote so we could debrief what had just happened. She wanted to know whether the Emperor had really died when Darth Vader threw him down a seemingly endless shaft at the end of Return of the Jedi. She wanted to know why Darth Maul was killed so quickly in The Phantom Menace. She wanted to know what exactly was happening with all the Senate proceedings in Episodes I, II and III (if only I could help her there). Chelsea loved Yoda and R2-D2, sure, but she also was fascinated with Greedo, Lando and, of course, Boba Fett.

I was discussing Chelsea’s Star Wars fascination with my brother, who was my childhood companion in all things Star Wars (Eric even went so far as to leave one of his Han Solo figures outside our house one winter so that Han could be frozen, as he had been in The Empire Strikes Back). My brother was, of course, thrilled with Chelsea’s appreciation for the films, and we got to talking about some of Chelsea’s questions and interests. As gripping as the George Lucas’ Star Wars stories are, there are flaws in the films, and Chelsea’s questions raise some of them. Perhaps none is so obvious, though, as the decision to offhandedly kill Boba Fett at the beginning of Return of the Jedi.

Over the past three decades, Boba Fett has grown into one of the most popular Star Wars characters of all, which is amazing considering how few lines he has, and how marginal he is to the overall plot (his main job is to bring Han Solo, frozen in carbonite, to Jabba the Hutt during The Empire Strikes Back). But Boba looks cool, has a Dirty Harry-like, minimalist swagger to him, and never shows his face beneath his green, red and black mask. And yet, during a fight scene early in Return of the Jedi, Han Solo accidentally knocks into Boba Fett, igniting his jet pack and sending the bounty hunter directly into the mouth of an alien with giant teeth, located inside a desert pit. With that careless move, Boba Fett is gone from the Star Wars saga. As the Walt Disney Company, which now owns Star Wars, prepares for Episode VII, it must do so without Boba Fett and his cult-like following.

Of course, that needn’t stop Disney; there’s already talk of a stand-alone Boba Fett film that would cover more of his life before he wound up in the alien’s mouth. But even so, this character’s story does say something about how important it is to keep your eyes on the ball when crafting a narrative. Sometimes, you have a jewel in your hand and don’t realize it. With the Star Wars saga, George Lucas created a modern-day version of the Greek myths, which has delighted my generation and my daughter’s; but he missed the boat on Boba Fett.

This kind of thing happens all the time, in fact. We’re often so intent on adding one piece to the story that we forget another, perhaps more important piece. Other than Star Wars, the only narrative I’ve had time to watch this summer is the six-month-long epic known as a baseball season. But even here, in Major League Baseball, there are Boba Fetts among us. Several ambitious big-league teams made daring trades on the July 31 trading deadline in an attempt to stockpile enough dominant pitching to win the World Series. But in making these trades, clubs such as the Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals and Oakland A’s traded away players who were important contributors to the clubs they had. By tossing those players into trades, they may have lost themselves a Boba Fett and gained nothing more than another Stormtrooper. When the Tigers traded their leadoff hitter and center fielder Austin Jackson for starting pitcher David Price, Jackson actually had to be removed from the game in the middle of an inning. When the Tigers fans realized what was happening, they gave Jackson a standing ovation.

Austin Jackson is not the best player in baseball; David Price, on the other hand, is among the game’s elite right now. But in order to win, baseball teams must rely heavily on the delicate chemistry of their club. To trade a young, developing player who has done nothing but contribute during his 4½ years in Detroit is risky. The Tigers are a different team now, as their plotline has been altered. They may still win, but it won’t feel the same without Austin Jackson in center.

My daughter, of course, doesn’t care about the Detroit Tigers. But she is still excited about Star Wars. She bought some LEGO “microfighter” ships the other day, and she borrowed an armful of Star Wars books from the library as well. As she scanned the book, Chelsea asked me who my favorite character was from all the films. I told her right away: Boba Fett. She nodded, understanding completely. We turned to his page in the Star Wars Character Encyclopedia, tucked in between Bib Fortuna and Boga. “Cool and calculating, Boba Fett is a legendary bounty hunter,” the page begins.

At that point, I should have shown Chelsea the Boba Fett death scene, and compared it with the clip of Austin Jackson jogging off the field in Detroit. But she would have just said I was being weird like English teachers can be sometimes, making all those deep connections. And she’d be right. But it’s also true that some of us have to stand guard over our stories, lest the next bounty hunter – or center fielder – end up in the desert pit.  

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Flying Leap

               I’d hit another grounder to the left side of the infield. It was probably going to be an out, I knew. But I was 12 years old and I wanted a hit, so I clenched my teeth and ran as fast as I could toward first base. As I neared first base, my cleats pounding the dirt, I saw the first baseman reaching for the throw. I was about a stride and a half short of the bag, so if I wanted to beat the throw I was going to have to make this stride longer than normal.

                I leapt in the air like a clumsy gazelle, and landed just short of first base as the throw landed softly in the first baseman’s mitt. I was still in hustle mode, though, and recognized that I hadn’t yet touched the base. So as I lifted my right foot, just centimeters in front of the base, I tried to graze the bag with the toe of my cleat.

As I did so, I did more than graze the base; I tripped myself. Before I knew it, I was flying headfirst toward right field. I landed in the dirt and chalk behind first base, and closed my eyes as a cloud of dust surrounded me.

                My parents, brother and mother’s parents attended nearly every game I played. At this game, my mom, brother and grandparents were sitting in the stands right along the first-base line. After my self-tripping belly-flop, there was silence for a moment. And then, I heard it: My family erupted in laughter, much louder than anyone else in the stands or dugouts. I turned my head, and they were standing up, pointing at me, covering their mouths, crying tears of laughter. I think I recall hearing the word “stupid” at least once. I know I heard my grandfather’s contagious laugh, which had a rhythmic wheeze to it.
              We all play different roles in families, and sometimes those roles are unhealthy reactions to family dynamics and personal struggles. Other times, those roles are simply a natural part of who we are, and they serve to solidify our familial bonds somehow. In my childhood, I was an athletic kid who also had a knack for being clumsy in dramatic, hilarious fashion.

                There was the time in Wildwood, N.J., when I was on crutches with a broken leg and walked into a restaurant with my parents. I leaned against a curtain, expecting there to be a wall on the other side of it. There was no wall, and I fell to the ground like Danny Kaye doing his best slapstick routine. A waitress rushed over to me, and I smiled at her. “I’m just dropping in,” I said.

                There was the time outside Hershey, Pa., when I had just finished a bumper-boat ride with my brother. I got up to step off the boat, and missed the deck. Next thing I knew, I was underwater, looking up at the inner tubes of these boats, no openings in sight. The attendant pushed the boats aside, reached in and pulled me out before I could panic. I stood there, straightening my glasses, reeking of gasoline, with water dripping off my clothes. My brother, then 8 years old, had already watched too many commercials. He raised my hand and said, “Warren for Pennzoil!”

                The stories go on – the day I tried to teach myself the harmonica and passed out from hyperventilation; the afternoon I was throwing myself fly balls on the front lawn and found myself waking up flat on my back, having missed a ball that briefly knocked me out; the day I was climbing our flagpole and fell, only to find myself hanging in mid-air by the hood of my jacket; and the multiple times I found my Cub Scout self bandaged after trying to learn how to use a pocket knife. It’s no wonder my grandfather nicknamed me “Charlie Brown.”

                When I tell these stories to my daughters, they laugh just as hard every time, and they love to hear them again. It’s almost as if they were there, they know the details so well. My parents and brother seem to enjoy the stories just as much as ever, too. I know there’s something to that. In my adulthood so far, I’ve been a pretty intense, earnest man, who has a tendency to take himself too seriously. As I move into my mid-40s, I’m striving for the joy of the moment more than the stress of perfectionism and to-do lists. Self-deprecating stories seem like a good start.

                I eventually got up from the dirt beyond first base, and kept playing that game. My team probably lost – we lost most of the games that year – and I probably begged my mom for a soda and knish from the refreshment stand afterward. But those are just guesses – I honestly don’t remember anything else from that game except my flying leap. There really isn’t anything else that matters as much. It’s funny how the sound of your family laughing at you in public can feel so much like love. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Homemade Mess

It’s been quite a stretch. The Christmas and New Year holidays were followed quickly by the punishing onslaught of snow and freezing temperatures. Then, just as March revealed a possible light at the end of the wintry tunnel, our household fell into illness mode, from the sinus infections that struck us all to the mysterious ailment that slammed my wife, landing her in bed for 10 days. As we turned the corner into April, everyone finally started feeling a bit better. Now, as our Spring Break begins, there’s the task of catching up on all the work that needs to be completed, from grading papers to drafting lesson plans to completing free-lance writing assignments.
            All of which leaves very little time to address the house in which I live. So as I work at home this weekend with my wife and girls away for the weekend with family, I push the laptop away for a second and glance around me. And I must admit, what I see is not pretty. It’s something we’ve all witnessed at one time or another. It’s just, well, it’s what you’d call a mess. A mess that, in its own way, chronicles the four punishing months that have ensued since we were singing Christmas carols and decking those halls back in December.
            I begin in our sunroom, which seems to be inviting all seasons as it sits between our kitchen and backyard. I see the softball-sized, red-and-green Christmas balls that were used on our front lawn (for what, I’m still not sure), and the extension cord that lit our evergreen in the backyard for the holidays. It took two months for the snow to uncover that cord before we could retrieve it in March, and it might take another two before the cord goes back in the basement tool closet. Next to that cord, I see leftover lawn and leaf bags, unused bottles of liquid bubbles, metal marshmallow roasters, a pair of winter gloves, and softball equipment. On the table out there is an Easter egg-dyeing kit, and beneath that table is a gingerbread village kit, and beside the gingerbread village is something called a “Flower Pot Cupcake Baking Kit.”
            Things have to get better in the other rooms; it can’t be that bad all around. And it’s true, the rest of our house is more liveable. But wow, how things accumulate. In the kitchen, our daughters’ January birthday napkins sit beside our younger daughter’s first-communion certificate from March. In the living room, a stack of birthday cards (also from January) lie beneath the winter-themed travel tissue packets, which themselves lie beneath the never-to-be-used-Target-impulse-purchase Easter lights.
In our study, which doubles as the girls’ playroom, a three-month-old “Super Size Crystals” experiment sits on yet another hutch, while a magnetic bulletin board holds pieces of paper that read “St. Patrick’s Day” and “Sale! Come Now,” followed by a reminder to those playing a long-forgotten game of make-believe store that “Whoever is the first to spend 6 dollars or more will get the mystery item!”
            I think we’ve all won that promotion, girls, as this house is nothing if not a harbor for mystery items. A jar full of mushy green goo (more “Super Size Crystals,” perhaps?) A new doorknob, to replace the one I had to break down when my older daughter accidentally locked herself in her bedroom a few months ago. A pair of ice skates beside a pair of shorts beside a hand-cranked flashlight beside a magnifying glass beside a CD copy of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
It is just too much. At the landing beneath the stairs to my daughters’ upstairs bedrooms, a pink pig Pillow Pet sits beside a board game titled “Pop the Pig.” It’s a fitting pair for this time of year, when families like mine feel like we’ve been living in pigsties for just too long.
I guess that’s why they call it “Spring Cleaning.” I’ll get to it one of these days.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Creativity's Fate

                Earlier this month, Laura Pappano wrote a story for The New York Times about the increase in creative studies programs at colleges and universities. With the workforce demanding more ingenuity from workers, colleges are teaching students how to think more creatively and seek out resourceful solutions to the problems of an ever-changing world.
            It’s rather stunning, as an educator, to see an article like this. For most of my teaching career, the focus of our national education dialogue has been on standardized testing – on ensuring that no child is left behind in mastering the essential skills. I’ve seen many teachers work very hard at ensuring that those skills are met. I’ve also watched teachers find wonderful ways to teach those skills while also incorporating creativity into their lesson plans. But still, it’s confounding to hear so much talk for so long about mastering the skills, and then hear calls for a shift of sorts.
            Of course, our strongest thinkers offer a balance of critical and creative thinking. They plan ahead, then figure out how to improvise. They analyze the reading or solve the equation, while also imagining new ways to see the text or the equation. To use a baseball analogy, they strive to be the Derek Jeters of the world. The New York Yankees shortstop, who prepares for his final season in 2014, has always worked hard to master the fundamentals. But, at the same time, Jeter has always known when to create – his flip toss in the 2001 Division Series against the Oakland A’s standing as perhaps the best improvisational play in the history of baseball.
            Most educators would suggest that we strive for that balance. But they might also warn us to be careful that we don’t push the concrete so hard that the creativity seems undervalued. It’s a lesson demonstrated beautifully in The LEGO Movie, the latest children’s film to feature a powerful message for kids and adults alike. Without spoiling the plot, let’s just say that the film’s final half-hour makes a very strong case against stifling the creativity of our children. As the film winds to an end, we are reminded of those moments in our early years when we sat with LEGOs or Star Wars figures or Barbie dolls or erector sets, and the world was ours to shape.
Times have changed, and we can talk all we want about the needs of our high-tech world. But we also have a long history in our country of honoring and valuing the innovators. In my classroom, I keep some old Apple publicity posters featuring famous artists and leaders, with that simple slogan “Think Different” next to the photos of Jim Henson, Pablo Picasso, Amelia Earhart, and others. Whether we’re parents, educators, filmmakers, or shortstops, we all share the responsibility to nurture the creativity in our kids. It’s a no-brainer.

Friday, February 14, 2014

February 1989: The New Girl

                She was in the back seat and I was in the passenger’s seat. We were sitting in a sedan, driving from the Staten Island Ferry terminal to my church in the Willowbrook section of Staten Island. I hadn’t really known this girl before the day began, but I knew her now. She was, in fact, all I could think about as our chaperone’s car cruised along Crystal Avenue and the radio station played Debbie Gibson’s latest song.
                It’s funny how the smallest of decisions can change a life or two. My church’s youth group was taking a February field trip to the Statue of Liberty and South Street Seaport. My brother and I, along with several other teens, were among those taking the trip on this Sunday. One of my fellow 12th-graders, a girl named Erica, had asked a school friend of hers if she wanted to go along. The friend had said yes, and she joined us in the crowd of teens traveling by cars and ferryboats to our destination.
This new girl chatted with me during the Circle Line ferry ride to Liberty Island, where our conversation was interrupted by a then-immature younger brother of mine, who was playing a game of “punch your brother in the crotch.” Somehow, the girl and I were able to ignore this painful distraction, and before long our voices and eyes became more flirtatious. By the time we were walking up the stairs of Lady Liberty, the new girl was massaging my shoulder. On the ferry back to Manhattan, she was snuggling up against me for warmth amid the chill of New York Harbor. At South Street Seaport, we ate pizza together, and I realized that my 18-year-old hormones were fully engaged.
So, on the walk back to South Ferry, we drifted to the back of the line and, when the moment was right, we stopped and let the others walk ahead. I knew little more than her name, the sing-song melody of her voice, her strawberry blonde hair and the high cheekbones that framed her face. But after turning toward the new girl, I now knew the taste of her lips. It was clear that this might lead somewhere.
In that car ride back, Debbie Gibson was singing her monster hit of the moment, “Lost in Your Eyes.” The new girl told me later that as she listened to that song, she thought about my brown eyes and the song felt right, in a mix-tape kind of way. When the girl told me later that she had a boyfriend, I said I wasn’t going to get in the middle of that, but to keep me posted. Two days later – on Valentine’s Day, no less – the girl broke up with her boyfriend. The next day, I asked her out. She said yes.
It’s a sweet and corny little high school romance story, and many of us have something like it. The difference here, I guess, is where this went afterward. While most of my peers waited to find their life partners much later, this girl and I couldn’t shake each other. In fact, we’ve been together ever since. Her name is Amy, and we’ve been married for 18 years. Tomorrow, it will be 25 years since I first asked her out.
Growing up together was not always easy, and I wouldn’t suggest this path for my daughters. But I guess we’re living proof that when it feels right, and the girl you see beneath the glitter of the Brooklyn Bridge looks like everything you’ve ever wanted, you might want to kiss her then and there. You never know where it might take you. The Debbie Gibson song is nostalgia now, but the girl is still new to me in all the right ways, every day.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Cinematic Soul

                Last night, my wife and I sat with our daughters to watch the Super Bowl together. We savored Amy’s chicken chili, laughed at Stephen Colbert’s pistachio commercials, and admired the Seahawks’ championship defense. But to be honest, Amy and I were thinking about something else on Sunday; we were mourning the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
            For more than 20 years, we’ve been astounded, time and time again, by Hoffman’s acting. Whenever you thought you’d seen the depths of human emotion plumbed as far as possible, another Hoffman film would surface, and you’d find him exploring the human soul even further. His obituaries do a fine job of listing the films, but picking your favorite Hoffman movie moment is about as difficult as choosing your favorite novel or dessert. Even my 12-year-old daughter, who recently saw Hoffman in Catching Fire, had become a fan.
            In my 12th-grade English classes, we recently watched Hoffman in his Oscar-winning portrayal of Truman Capote, after we’d finished reading In Cold Blood. We used the film Capote to close out a unit on how true nonfiction really is, and whatever students thought of the movie or Capote’s book, they had nothing but praise for this actor who had managed to re-create the mannerisms and moods of a man who had died more than 20 years before the film’s release.
            The thing I found most fascinating about Hoffman as an actor was his ability to bring dignity and accuracy to his roles, whatever they were: a music critic, a political hack, a spiritual leader, a boarding-school student, even a shy, gay boom operator. I’m no film critic, so I’ll be careful not to try and act like one here. But when I think of all the Hoffman movies I’ve seen, perhaps no role impressed me as much as his portrayal of a home-care nurse in Magnolia. In that film, Hoffman’s character, Phil, does little more than listen to the stories of a dying man, his trophy wife and estranged son. But as these characters share their pain with Phil, he feels their struggles deeply, even to the point of weeping. Hoffman’s character shows us that being present and compassionate is in many ways the essence of life.
            My brother, who is a film critic, saw Hoffman at the Sundance Film Festival last month. He, like many others who live in New York City, had also seen Hoffman many times in Greenwich Village with his family, just living an ordinary life. Of course, addiction often does not announce itself on the ski slopes of Utah or the streets of Manhattan. It’s often a solitary and dismal experience, one to which Hoffman succumbed yesterday. There’s no way to gauge the loss to this 46-year-old man’s family and friends, let alone to movie fans like Amy and me – it’s just deeply sad in every way.
            As a parent, Hoffman brought his family down to Cape May Point, just a few miles from my parents’ home. When I’d go out for jogs in that area, I’d keep an eye out for a blond-haired, bespectacled man, likely wearing a wrinkled T-shirt and shorts. If I had seen Hoffman taking out the garbage or helping his kids ride their bikes, I know I would have just nodded the same way I did for anyone else I passed on the roads there. That, I figured, was the ultimate respect I could have given to an actor who had achieved much fame and fortune, but who had never tried to present himself as anything more than the rest of us.
            I never saw Hoffman in Cape May. I’ll be back down there in a few months, and I’ll go out for more jogs. This time, I won’t be looking for my favorite actor. But when I’m passing through Cape May Point, I’ll think of Phil the nurse, or Scotty the boom operator, or Capote. The greatest gift an artist or craftsman gives us is a body of work that lives longer than he does. Hoffman has done this with astounding success, and his films serve to remind us of all that he offered in his brief time here, while also connecting us with the complex emotions we feel, hide, express and share.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

When the Innocent Are Guilty

When we watch our children dance through the early years of their lives, we often view them as tiny pieces of perfection. It’s tempting to see them as harmless blank slates, kids who love their parents and want nothing more than a hug and some ice cream.
But what happens when they take a step beyond the naïve innocence, and make a real mistake? What happens when they do some real damage? To be more specific, what happens when your nine-year-old plays too rough with her guinea pig and seriously injures her own pet?
So far, our younger daughter has wanted little more from life than a good book, some music, a family to love and a blanket to hold. She’s been “an easy kid,” as they sometimes say. But she’s just nine, so we know we’ve got unseen challenges ahead. On a recent day, one such challenge revealed itself. With a new friend over for a playdate, Chelsea was showing off her beloved guinea pig, a mostly white-furred animal named Marshmallow. For some reason, Chelsea decided to drop Marshmallow on her bed, letting the animal bounce off the mattress. On the second or third drop, the guinea pig didn’t bounce up, but instead crumpled down and rolled over.
Chelsea saw this, and immediately put her guinea pig back in the cage. She told us that her pet had been hurt, but it took some time before she gave us the full story. Her fear of getting into trouble superseded the need to give her parents vital information. Once we figured it all out, we saw a guinea pig that was dragging both back legs behind her, unable to walk normally. My wife cleaned the animal up, and made sure she ate some hay and drank some water. Chelsea, now fully realizing what she had done, cried herself to sleep.
The first thing my wife and I decided was that there was no need for additional punishment on our part; the girl’s pet was suffering, and that provided more than enough consequences for Chelsea. But we did see a need for some real conversation, about how and why this had happened, how Chelsea could prevent it in the future, and why we need to tell the truth when we’ve made a mistake, even if it does bring with it some feelings of guilt. As we talked this through, my wife and I shared with Chelsea some mistakes we had made at her age, to make sure she knew that her parents were not speaking from on high. She listened, nodded, and talked with us, aware of how much we respected her decision to tell us the truth.
It’s been a few days now, and Marshmallow is slowly using those back legs more and more. They don’t appear to be broken, and we’re hoping she is on the mend. It’s going to be tough if the guinea pig doesn’t recover, as that will haunt Chelsea for some time. The knots are there in our daughter’s stomach, and we can’t make them all go away right now. What’s done is done.
Our daughter feels a little less innocent today than she did a week ago. But when that happens, perhaps the best way to grow from this is to communicate about it. Chelsea has decided to write a story, about a girl who is learning how to tell the truth more. She’s mapping out her story web and her characters, and she’s been sharing the outline with her parents. We’ve praised her every step, telling her it sounds like a great story.
 I can only hope that when she finishes this story, Chelsea will have the chance to read it to a sprightly white guinea pig, who will be motoring around her cage in a state of healing. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Frozen in Time

              Considering the fact that I have watched, played and written about sports throughout my life, you’d think I might feel more regret over the reality that I have no sons. But for the past 12 years, I’ve honestly found it fascinating to be a father to daughters. My two girls have brought me on an eye-opening cultural journey that has covered Elmo and Dora, Disney princess dresses, American Girl dolls, pretend-school lessons, pet guinea pigs, and performances of Wicked both on Broadway and in our living room. Katie and Chelsea are not really interested in sitting down to watch a ballgame with me, but they have brought a world of new experiences to my life.
                Lately, their activity has focused on some songs from a movie soundtrack. It is, of course, the soundtrack to Disney’s Frozen – the album that stands behind only Bruce Springsteen’s new record among the best-selling LPs in the nation. For the past month, children and their parents have waltzed out of movie theaters singing the songs from Disney’s latest animated feature, then quickly downloaded the album from iTunes upon their return home. The songs, which sound more Broadway-ready than the typical multiplex fare, are bolstered by the voice of Idina Menzel, the actress who originated the role of Elphaba in Wicked and Maureen in Rent. Menzel’s rendition of the song Let it Go from Frozen is one of the Oscar nominees for Best Original Song.
                In our home, the girls have been blasting the Frozen songs from our little Bose speakers and lip-synching their way through the whole show. In the car, even with no music on, they’ll practice certain lines together. They’ve seen the movie twice, and are clamoring for thirds. When our youngest turned nine three weeks ago, she asked for a cake in the shape of the film’s snowman character.
                Now I’m no cheerleader of Disney’s traditional portrayal of young female characters. The funny thing about this movie, though, is that even though all of the typical princess set pieces are there – the castle, the gowns, the big eyelashes, the handsome love interest – this film is ultimately about none of those things. It’s about two sisters, and their overriding love for each other. It’s about how far you’ll go to protect and save the best friend you have in the world. In our house, that’s a story worth some attention.
                As my girls sing along to the film’s song Do You Want to Build a Snowman?, we hear the story of a younger sister who is being pushed away by her older sister, and can’t understand the reason for it: “We used to be best buddies / And now we're not / I wish you would tell me why.” The younger sister asks once more for some play time, but after being told to go away, she hangs her head and sings, “Okay, bye.” As I hear my girls singing this together, I recognize that we’re getting close to the time when this exact scenario will play out in our home. Katie is 12, and she’s spending more and more time in her room trying on makeup, watching YouTube videos and, yes, texting. At nine, Chelsea is more interested in playing with her older sister than in spending time alone in her room. More often than not, Katie still plays with Chelsea. But those moments of rejection are nearing, like the gathering of dusk before night falls.
                When it comes to music, I find it incredibly annoying to hear the same song over and over. But as my girls sing the Frozen tunes together countless times – and, to be honest, they’ve got a third singer in their group in the form of my wife – I can’t help but feel some relief amid the repetition. Because it seems that Katie and Chelsea have found something that transcends age differences and hormonal swings. They share a love for music and performance, and that love may connect them when other things do not. My brother and I are three years apart, just like my girls are. As kids, we had our stretch of time when I needed my space from him. But we always had our sports, be it a Yankees game on the TV or a 1-on-1 basketball game in the backyard. Even when we shared few words, there was still plenty of communication in the form of a last-second jumper on the patio, or a Dave Winfield home run on the basement TV.
                My brother turns 40 in two weeks; I just turned 43. We talk about a lot of things now, as adult siblings do. But we still have a soft spot for the sports stuff. Years from now, I can see Katie and Chelsea spending an afternoon together, perhaps at one of their apartments, or maybe out shopping. There comes a point when they turn on some music. For fun, they click on the Frozen album. They smile, and start singing. Together. 
               We only have each other / It's just you and me / What are we gonna do? / Do you wanna build a snowman?