Sunday, November 29, 2015


            It’s been an exciting Thanksgiving weekend, as my wife’s parents recently moved to the same town where my parents have lived for the past 12 years. After a couple of attempts at retiring up north, my in-laws realized that the Jersey Shore was more their style. So this Thanksgiving, my daughters were able to gather around the turkey with all four grandparents for the first time in their lives. It was wonderful.
            As I’ve aged out of some of the restlessness of youth, I’ve come to see just how much it can mean to feel comfortable and happy with your home. To have that roof and four walls, and to want to be there, is a special feeling. Thanksgiving, and the holidays that follow, are a yearly reminder of this.
            I was thinking about that feeling as I read a poem the other day. It’s titled “Home,” and it was written by Warsan Shire, a writer who was born in Kenya and raised in London to Somali parents. The poem addresses the world’s current refugee crisis, one that sees more people fleeing war and oppression than at any time since World War II, according to The New York Times.
            Shire begins her poem by writing, “no one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark / you only run for the border / when you see the whole city running as well.”
            The next stanza continues, “your neighbors running faster than you / breath bloody in their throats / the boy you went to school with / who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory / is holding a gun bigger than his body / you only leave home / when home won’t let you stay.”
            Since the flurry of recent terrorist attacks in Europe, Asia and Africa, there has been increased conversation about a topic that is as old as history – whether to allow an exodus of people to enter one’s country. There are always complications to this issue, but time has a tendency to align itself with compassion and openness, rather than with resistance and fences. Those who enter a new country, as my great-grandparents did in America, tend to do nothing more than give thanks and start their new life with ambition and devotion to their new home.
            It’s tempting, during times of fear, to think that countless people are out to get us. But in reality, most people just want what my in-laws found this year – a place that feels like home. When we forget this, we run the risk of becoming sharks ourselves.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


            As I write this post, my daughter is hanging out at a boy’s house. She is 13; so is he. His parents are there, as are other friends.
            But still. I want the boy gone. Goodbye.
            I’m just not ready. I have to be ready, but I’m not. I need to father a teenager, not a child. And I don’t get a script. Parents never do, especially for the oldest.
            It seems like a heartbeat ago, we were dancing in the living room to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” me swinging her in circles while she giggled and called for more. It feels like yesterday we were reading Fancy Nancy picture books together, her eyes beginning to recognize words and sentences as we turned the pages. It seems like last year she’d go to bed asking me to tell her a story, and I’d regale her with tales of my childhood, while she lay in the glow of a nightlight, listening intently.
            Now she takes her shower at nine, says a quick goodnight, sets the alarm on her iPhone, and goes to sleep. She wakes up and checks her Instagram and Snapchat, then dresses in her American Eagle finest, before munching on a quick bowl of cereal and heading off to the hallways of middle school.
            We butt heads pretty often these days. I tell her that I think she needs to broaden her friend base. I take away her phone when the device is taking place of the actual world. I encourage her to step away from the texts and Facetimes to go for walks and read books. She tells me to stop, stop, stop it, Dad.
            Did I mention the part about no script? Yes, I think I did.
            I know that if I push too hard, I’ll lose her. I also know that there are far worse things than a 13-year-old who needs to learn a few lessons about friendships and boys and the allure of devices. Much better that she learn this stuff now than later on in her teen years. But when you want to get the parenting stuff right, it’s hard to know when to pull back and when to go all-out. So, with my wife’s guidance, we pick our battles. Talking back to us? No way, Jose. Watching Dancing with the Stars after you’ve finished your homework, in lieu of reading? OK, your choice tonight.
            Asking if you can hang out at the boy’s house? Yeah, I didn’t make the call on that one, as you can imagine. But she’s there, and she’ll be home soon, and I’m sure she’s having fun.
            It’s getting harder to remember this as I climb into my 40s, but I was actually 13 once myself. And I can remember hanging out in basements with girls, playing “Spin the Bottle” while the more daring kids tried “Seven Minutes in Heaven.” That’s not happening tonight, and my daughter has so much of her innocence intact. But somehow I navigated the thrills and terrors of adolescence and came out in one piece. Why can’t I expect that she’ll do the same?
            Because she will, and my wife and I will be there for her every step of the way. But right now, I have to face the reality: I am parenting a teenager now. It’s a different Ring of Fire than the one we danced to all those years ago. But as I see the hormonal sparks and the flames of independence alight in our house, I need to know which fires must be extinguished, and which ones have to burn out on their own.
            Nothing is easy about this. But it is, in fact, what I signed up for. This is my daughter, my oldest child, my pride and joy. I don’t know the script, but I think there’s a lot in there about patience and love.
            And boys. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

True Companions

           We were practically children, closer to our teens than to our 30s. She had just graduated from college; I was not yet two years into my working life. And yet, on a Saturday in mid-September, we decided to pledge our lives to each other. Vows, and rings, an organ and a trumpet. A white dress, a black tux, and a whole lot of family.
            I recall my groomsmen and I driving out for an old-fashioned barber’s shave in the morning, then heading back to my house to play a game of Wiffle Ball before showering and putting on our tuxes. I remember walking into the church and feeling overwhelmed by the sight of so many of the people who’d filled the first 24 years of my life. I recall dancing more than I’d ever danced before, smiling for more photos than ever, and trying to find a way to freeze so many moments in my mind for all time.

            More than anything, though, I remember her. Amy. We were high school sweethearts who had stayed together – a throwback to the old days. A couple of kids who decided they wanted to grow up, then grow old, together. At our reception, we entered the Great Hall of Sailors’ Snug Harbor to the music of Randy Newman’s score for the film The Natural. Aside from the groom’s passion for baseball, the song also represented the natural fit we felt we were. I held her smooth hand, the one with the new wedding band on it, and saw the red hair flow beneath her veil. We danced to Marc Cohn’s “True Companion,” and chatted with our guests.

            That was 20 years ago today. A lot of time has passed since then, and we’ve lived a lot of life in those two decades. We’ve brought two girls into the world, while also losing grandparents and other loved ones. We’ve traveled and worked and moved and occasionally even relaxed. We’ve agreed, and disagreed, and found ways to work things out. We’ve tried to be there for the folks we love, and tried to do the same for each other. More than anything, though, we’ve grown – as individuals and as a couple. We’ve given each other space and pulled each other tight. We’ve supported and shown up for each other every day. We’ve enjoyed some traditions, while also seeking ways to make it all feel new again. It’s a delicate balance, it’s hard work, and it never stops being worth the effort and love.

            And so, after two decades of marriage, we’re hanging in there. It isn’t 1995 anymore, for sure, and soon it won’t be 2015, either. We’re closer to our AARP days than to our college ones. But some things haven’t changed over the course of 20 years. I’ll still take that sly smile, and the red hair, and the hazel eyes. I’ll still hold her hand, and talk with her about anything. I’ll still trust her and believe in her. I took a chance at age 24 in the hopes that I’d found the love of my life. It turns out I was right. I’m lucky, and I know that.

            So happy anniversary, Amy. It’s only here for a day, but tomorrow should be a good day, too. After all, you keep hanging in there with me. I’m ready to do the same with you for as long as we’ve got. Let’s keep at it. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Postcards from a Cross-Country Voyage

                For as long as we’ve been together, my wife and I have been a dependable couple who rarely stray from the measured, predictable route. We are people you can count on, but not people who typically inspire others to try new things. As we’ve raised our two daughters, those attributes made for some solid overall parenting, yet with an inclination toward the routine. Movie night on Fridays, dinner at Applebee’s or Chili’s on Saturday, and a weekend trip to Manhattan two or three times a year. During the summer, you’d usually find us visiting our parents for vacation, and occasionally springing for a weekend trip to Boston or Baltimore or Pittsburgh.
                Something starts to happen in your 40s, though, when you notice the clock ticking and realize that if you’re not going to add some spontaneity, adventure and variety soon, you might run out of time. Since we entered our 40s, Amy and I have completed endurance races (me a marathon, and she a triathlon), danced on stage, and swum with dolphins.
                This summer, we decided it was time to do something we’d long desired, yet never tackled: a cross-country vacation. Our girls were on board – even for the camping. And so, acting against type, we climbed into our Honda Odyssey at the beginning of August and drove into the frontier.
                In the end, the map, calendar and odometer show that we covered 20 states in 26 days, totaling 6,655 miles. The photos show that we saw prairie dogs and pronghorn, buffalo and bighorn sheep, mules and mule deer, and just a whole lot of lizards.
                Our younger daughter’s National Parks Junior Ranger collection features shiny badges from Arches, Bryce, Zion, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore and the Flight 93 Memorial. We have baseball ticket stubs from Kansas City, Cincinnati and Toledo, as well as mini baseball bats from the Louisville Slugger factory, and a souvenir patch from the Field of Dreams site in Dyersville, Iowa.
                The road took us from the Gateway Arch to the Delicate Arch, from Santa Claus, Ind., to Santa Fe, N.M., and from Park City, Utah, to Hill City, S.D. There were Badlands and Black Hills, canyons and cairns, as well as Cadillacs, ranches, and one Cadillac Ranch. We took photos at every National Parks sign with a stuffed Teddy Roosevelt doll that we’d gotten at a Washington Nationals game a few years ago, and we had a softball catch in 14 different states. We tossed the ball around outside Churchill Downs, at the Little League World Series, on a bridge in Wheeling, W.Va., in a sunflower field in eastern Wyoming, and on a veranda overlooking the North Rim at Grand Canyon Lodge.
                Restaurant receipts show that we sampled deep-dish pizza in Chicago, sopaipilla and buffalo burgers in Santa Fe, barbecue in Kansas City, and truffle mac n cheese in Sundance, Utah. Memory also shows that we had a lot of Subway sandwiches on late nights, and more than a few delicious dinners cooked over charcoal grills at campsites. Speaking of camping, we pitched our tent in the mountains of Pennsylvania, among the canyons of Utah, in the woods of southern Michigan, and even beside the highway, train tracks and airport of Amarillo, Texas. When not at a campsite or hotel, we stayed with family in Missouri and Utah, catching up on lost time and learning about life across the Mississippi.
                We traveled a lot in those 26 days, and we saw a lot of stuff. I can say that part of my goal was to broaden my girls’ horizons, and help them see how big and beautiful this country is. But parenting does not always give you a clear answer as to whether your intentions were met. I know the girls kept a scrapbook, and I know they told us they liked some of the places we visited. But I also know they complained a lot about seeing “too many rocks,” about hiking too much, and about enduring the dreadful lengths of some of our car rides. I had hoped they would spend time off their iPads, but a nine-hour drive from western Missouri to West Texas cannot be sustained by license-plate games and sing-a-longs. In some ways, the jury’s out on just what our girls gained from the trip. They’ll process it all in time.
                But Amy and I are old enough to digest these things more quickly. We know what we gained from those 26 days. Perhaps it is best described through a moment, rather than a sweeping, overall summary. For instance, take the afternoon we were all floating down the Colorado River, bulky life vests keeping us afloat, while a guide rowed our raft nearby. We stared at the sun-splashed canyons towering above us in a blur of orange and brown. Amy and I looked over at each other in disbelief. We didn’t say anything except “Wow,” but I think what we really meant to say was “What have we been waiting for?”
                Life in the 40s is shaping up to be a whole lot better than I thought. It seems as though a frantic focus on “What’s next?” has been replaced by a more centered query of “What’s now?” Amy and I don’t expect to have the amazing opportunity to drive cross country every year. But we think we can keep up some of this spontaneity and adventure. We are, after all, children of the ‘80s. And while driving through Chicago, we were reminded of Ferris Bueller, who once gave us some advice that might serve as impetus for a cross-country trip or two.
               “Life moves pretty fast,” Ferris said. “If you don’t stop and look around once in awhile, you could miss it.” We hear you, Ferris. It may have taken some time, but we got the message.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Keeping Score

            My daughter and I sat in a lifeguard chair perched beyond the left-field fence at FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood, N.J. These unique seats offered us a bird’s-eye view of a minor-league baseball game on a sunny Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago. And for my 10-year-old and me, it was the perfect setting for what we were about to do.
After all, it wasn’t just a baseball game we were ready to watch. On this day, we had decided to try keeping score together. This antiquated skill, which I had learned as a kid, was going to find its way into the brain of my daughter Chelsea. She said she was ready and wanted to learn. So we gave it a try.
Why bother with keeping score, you might ask? Even for a minor-league game like this, the play-by-play was available online, in real time, along with a running box score and up-to-date statistics for each player. Why bother sitting there with a pencil, circling “2B” if the hitter smacked a double, or writing in “6-3” if he grounded out to the shortstop? It’s a good question, and one my 13-year-old daughter was more than ready to ask as she chose not to participate in our exercise.
But on this day, Chelsea sensed that there was something about tallying your own numbers that seemed worth the effort. There was no algorithm or app involved in the data we were compiling. It was just us, with our trusty pencil and scorebook, keeping track of the game before us. And instead of blindly relying on others to tell us what we needed to know, we could glance at our scorecard and see who was hitting well that day, and who was struggling. Chelsea was particularly intrigued by the backwards “K” that indicates a batter struck out looking, and she was excited to shade in the full baseball diamond to indicate that a batter scored a run.
Of course, this day of keeping score was always about more than just numbers. The game itself was fun, but nothing extraordinary happened on the field. For my daughter and me, the most interesting part of that game took place in that lifeguard chair, when we sat down together and tried something new. Chelsea said it was fun, and I believe her. What I think she really meant, though, was it was fun to spend time with her dad.
No number-crunching or scorecards are needed to understand the importance of that.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Power of Our Passions

            When people ask me if my girls like baseball as much as I do, I have to be honest – they don’t. But in a lot of ways, that’s not really the point.
            When my brother and I spent our summer days immersed in all things baseball as kids, it wasn’t just the love of a game that we were developing. We were finding a passion, a hobby that we could hold onto for the rest of our lives. That passion would assist us in so many ways during our own personal growth, as passions often do.
When we made friends in school, baseball served as a conversation-starter. When our mother told us to read books over the summer, we often chose baseball biographies. As we discovered our mutual passion for writing, we practiced that skill by scribbling about baseball. And when we were in need of a thought to help divert our minds from a fear, stressor or family crisis, our thoughts bent toward the diamond.
As an adult, I learned that when you have a passion for something, people are energized by your expression of that hobby. My wife has always said that she loves to go to baseball games with me, because she can see the glimmer in my eyes. When I’m talking about baseball, friends and colleagues who know little about the sport will listen intently to my stories. When I’m finished, they often tell me I should write a book about baseball. Sometimes I tell them, yes, I’m doing that. Other times, I just smile and nod and thank them.
My daughters haven’t yet read the full manuscript I’ve written about coming of age with baseball at my side. But they’ve seen the passion, and it rubs off on them a bit. On Father’s Day, when we went to a minor-league game in Lakewood, N.J., my 10-year-old let me teach her how to keep score, and we sat in a big lifeguard chair beyond the left-field fence and tallied the hits and walks and strikeouts in our scorebook. When my wife and I gave our 13-year-old a Brett Gardner T-shirt this spring, she researched the Yankees left fielder on her phone and decided that he was a cutie. When I told her that Gardner had been named to the All-Star team this month, she said she knew that already. She’s keeping tabs on the guy.
So whether or not we pass along the affection we have for a specific hobby, the people around us still get something out of the energy we exude over it. Our 10-year-old may not know much about the Yankees, but Chelsea loves to talk about Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Percy Jackson and Harry Potter, and she’s finding a newfound interest in tennis. Our 13-year-old might not know who roams the New York outfield with Brett Gardner, but Katie teaches me plenty about pop music, fashion, photography and, yes, social media. When I’m teaching high school English and I describe the Shakespearean complexity of Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez, my students might not care a lot about that particular comparison, but it often helps them to make their own text-to-life connections. Mr. Hynes, how about Tupac Shakur? Or Lance Armstrong? Or Bill Clinton? All good, guys. All good.
So when I think about the role baseball plays in my life, I see it as twofold: There are the personal thoughts and ideas I have while thinking about the game, which have clearly meant a lot to me; and then there are the little sparks of inspiration that others might gain from my enthusiastic discussions of the sport. The people around me will do what they wish with those sparks, but it’s exciting to know that my own spirited love for something has left even the smallest mark on readers, colleagues, friends, students and family – and, yes, even on two particular daughters.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Poem for Summer

There’s a white Chevy ice cream van
playing Greensleeves
                                on my street.
As I mow the lawn I hear
the canned music.

My daughter, her brows pursed,
stops the van
                                and speaks.
“What song is this, who, laid
to rest / on Sandford Ave is beeping?”

The driver is an old Italian guy
selling popsicles.
He looks at my daughter and says,
“You no like-a?
There are two other songs
on this truck.
                                Here they are.”

He plays them.
                My girl winces.
                “You see?” he says.

My daughter tells him
it’s OK. Go on.
                Give us          
                               Christmas in summer.

Give us this mixture of seasons
that flicker
                for a moment
                                and then are gone.

She buys an ice pop
                                and he drives off,
While fireflies, their silent anthems sweet,
                                venture out to play.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

When Movies Move Us

            Every year, the number of journalists covering the Academy Awards season seems to increase exponentially. We may have reached a point where more reporters are covering the Oscars than the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. These legions of experts are feeding us loads of predictions, including the not-so-surprising news that the best movie of 2014 may not win the award for Best Picture tonight.
            If that happens, and Richard Linklater’s masterpiece Boyhood fails to grab the award tonight, it will be nothing new. In recent years, it has become commonplace for the best film to lose out due to the peculiarities of Hollywood politics. Lincoln loses to Argo. The Social Network falls to The King’s Speech. Brokeback Mountain is upended by Crash. Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line are beaten by Shakespeare in Love.
            Of course, there is a long line of great films that didn’t win the Oscar; you don’t need that award to be considered a classic. From Goodfellas to Raging Bull, from E.T. to The Graduate, from It’s a Wonderful Life to Citizen Kane, it’s a prestigious list. And that’s not even counting the amazing films that weren’t even nominated (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Singin’ in the Rain, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, just to name a few).
            If you’ve seen Boyhood, you probably walked away from the film rather amazed by Linklater’s depiction of a child’s coming of age from first-grader to college freshman. As a parent whose oldest child’s first 12 years span the same dozen years in which the film was made, I found it even more stunning. And I can’t quite understand the criticism that this film doesn’t have a straight, linear plot. Because in these past 13 years of being a parent, I haven’t ever found our family’s story to ever be a tight, well-defined storyline.
            We do the best we can as parents and as kids, trying to negotiate the different individuals with whom we live, and the different situations we’re faced with in life. Sometimes we make mistakes – big ones, even – and sometimes things work out better than we even deserve. It’s a day-to-day journey, and there’s no telling what tomorrow will bring.
We go to school, and meet new kids. We change jobs or move to new homes. We argue at the dinner table. We hop in the car and go somewhere, and learn more about one another in the process. We dance to pop songs. We head out to baseball games, parties and bowling alleys together. We hold each other close.
            It’s a story, all right, but one that’s told better in snapshots than in structured narrative. It’s the kind of story that Boyhood shows us so beautifully. Give me a few minutes of my girls at each age, and I’ll remember the main themes of our lives together at that point. In fact, those brief moments will probably tell the story more authentically than anything else could.
            If you took a few snapshots of our family right now, you’d see a lot of different images. You’d see two girls hunkered over their homework at the kitchen table. A 42-year-old mom sitting at her laptop to prepare lesson plans for the week. A 44-year-old dad researching map routes for a summer cross-country trip with his family. A teenager fighting through the shifting hormones and anxieties that come with adolescence. A 10-year-old in love with reading, from Harry Potter to Judy Blume. Two sisters on the living room carpet, dancing to Taylor Swift. A husband and wife trying, somehow, to grab a couple of hours alone together – but settling, most of the time, for a half-hour chat while making tomorrow’s lunches in the kitchen.
            None of these images tell the whole story. But put a few of them together, and you’ve got what you need. In truth, there’s no way to tell the whole story of a life. Maybe that’s why Boyhood is so breathtaking – because it actually understands that. It sees the rich narrative in those moments.
In one scene, Ethan Hawke’s character is camping with his son Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane. They’re eating s’mores while talking about Star Wars, and whether there will ever be a seventh film. “Return of the Jedi, it’s over, there’s nothing,” Hawke says. “I mean, what are you going to turn Han Solo into a Sith Lord?” After watching the Star Wars films together, my 10-year-old and I had nearly the same conversation. And I know I’m not the only one. This doesn’t tell you anything specific about either of us, except that we both love Star Wars. But then again, it also tells you that we know how to talk with one another, and hang out, and pay attention to the things that draw us closer.
So tonight, they can give the Oscar to whatever film they want. We’ll fill out our Oscar ballots and enjoy the red carpet, the dresses, the envelopes and the speeches. But we won’t stress over who gets the trophy.
When you see a movie that speaks to you from somewhere deep within, you don’t need an award to validate that. In the end, I’ll take the movies that move me, and hold onto those for the long haul.