Friday, November 11, 2016

The Way a Blog Ends ...

            More than eight years ago, I started writing this blog. I’ve published nearly 350 posts in that time, and it’s been a tremendous experience. I started out with the idea of connecting baseball and life, and even named the blog and the web address after that idea. One year, I even wrote 162 baseball-to-life blog posts in 162 days, choosing a different player each day as inspiration for that post’s topic.

            Eventually, I started shifting away from the baseball-to-life theme, and began writing more about life itself, with a focus on parenting. At times, I snuck in a little bit about teaching, or politics, or baseball. But whatever the topic, I tried to use the blog to explore the ways in which we might find some elements of hope and connection in this crazy world.

            At its best, the blog might have approached the writing style of Anna Quindlen, the columnist I grew up seeking to emulate. At its worst, the blog read like a cheesy greeting card. Most of the time, it was somewhere in between, with a style that read like a combination of Dave Barry, Charles Schulz and a Sunday sermon.

            Today, it is time to move on, and leave The Pitch behind. For one thing, it still bills itself as a blog about baseball and life. And really, after a month in which the Chicago Cubs won the World Series and Donald Trump claimed the White House, how can any baseball-to-life story top that drama? Secondly, I am ready to write with a bit more focus on the things I know best – education and journalism. I will continue that in my new blog, There’s already a post there, ready for you!

            So for those who have checked out this blog over the years, I thank you so much for taking the time to read my writing. I appreciate your comments and feedback, and I hope there’s been a post or two in here that made your day a little bit brighter; that’s really all I was striving for to begin with.

            These are extraordinary times, and all of us are trying to figure it out, no matter where we stand politically. I have no interest in saying it will all turn out OK, because I don’t know that. But sometimes songs creep up on you during stressful times, kind of like a prayer. I’ve been reading Bruce Springsteen’s book Born to Run lately, and this week I’m hearing the lyrics from the final song of his Nebraska album in my head:

            Still at the end of every hard day people find some reason to believe.

            I’ve got no words to improve on that. Thanks for reading, and may we all find our own ways to keep the faith.

Monday, November 7, 2016

November 8, 2016

            Tomorrow it will finally be over. The most stressful presidential election campaign in recent memory will be history, and we will all move on.
            And finally, the story will become what we have long been neglecting: For the first time in the 240 years of these United States of America, a woman will have been elected president.
            I will keep this in the forefront of my mind as I walk into the voting booth tomorrow. I will think of the famous women who have served as trailblazers in our country, from Harriet Tubman to Susan B. Anthony to Amelia Earhart to Eleanor Roosevelt to Oprah Winfrey.
            I will think of my grandmother, Anne Hynes, who was a tremendous bank clerk, but whose gender and family obligations kept her in that position, even as she trained the man who would eventually run the bank.
            I will think of my mother, just a year older than Hillary Clinton, who was told as a young woman that she had two career choices – nursing or teaching. She chose the latter, and did a tremendous job of it. But what else could she have excelled at had she been given the opportunity? Those of us who know her can tell you: A whole lot.
            I will think of my wife, who like so many mothers in our generation has juggled the “mommy trap” of full-time job and full-time parenting, finding a way to make every school function and game and cookie-baking for our girls, while also shining at her job each day.
            I will think of all the young women I worked with in the sports department of my college newspaper, who did not pay attention to professional stereotypes and knew that glass ceilings were ultimately made to be shattered.
            I will think of the supervisors I have had in my jobs, so many of them women, who have led newspaper sections, English departments, schools and school districts with tremendous skill – all while also leading their own families as well.
            I will think of my female students, who have soared through their academic careers and into every conceivable profession – from education to medicine to writing. I will like their proud social-media posts tomorrow, and I will wonder if one day I might find myself voting for one of them.
            And, of course, I will think of my two daughters, who at 14 and 11 believe they can do anything they set their minds to doing. When they awake Wednesday morning, they will believe that even more.
            It has been a hard election, and we all know that. But tomorrow is a day for history, and a day to celebrate. I’m going to do that. Whatever your political viewpoint may be, I hope you will find a moment to acknowledge this too. It has been a long time coming. I’m glad the wait is over.

Friday, November 4, 2016

This Is Us

            The other day, my wife told me we needed to watch a new TV show together. This is significant, as it will be just the fourth show we’ve watched together this century. Other than The West Wing, Glee and Friday Night Lights, we’ve missed out on this “golden age” of dramatic television. We heard great things about Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire, The Sopranos and Homeland to name just a few, but have found ourselves feeling lucky if we’re able to catch an inning of a baseball game or the opening skit of Saturday Night Live.
            The reason for this is very simple: We had our first child in January 2002, and have spent the past 15 years absorbed in that work. It has been the No. 1 priority in our lives, and will remain so for as long as they’re beneath our roof. Even now, as I write these words, I sit in a Starbucks on a Friday evening while our younger daughter plays laser tag at a friend’s birthday party. Sure, it’s prime date-night time or, at the very least, DVR-watching time. But an 11-year-old and 14-year-old need you to make dinner, wash the clothes, clean the house, enforce the technology time and chauffeur them everywhere. We’re Uber-parents, all right, but we work for free.
            The show my wife selected is called This Is Us, and from what I hear lots of people are watching it. After just two episodes, I’m not sure if it’s a bit too melodramatic for me, but I can definitely connect with its depiction of ordinary life in extraordinary ways. The average day of parenting consists of more ordinary moments than I can name, but when viewed through a wide-angle lens it is extraordinary enough to take your breath away.
            Take this past Halloween, for instance. I had to work until 6, and when I got home the girls had decided not to go trick-or-treating but to focus instead on giving candy to the little ones in our neighborhood. Then they changed their minds, painted their faces, and headed into the neighborhood with bags. Then the older one, Katie, changed her mind again after two houses, and they came back with about four pieces of candy. Chelsea, our younger one, held a canvas trick-or-treating bag that had the year and name of every costume she’d every worn written in marker, from Boots the Monkey to Glinda from Wicked. It was kind of sad and depressing to see them bail out on the only thing they’d ever done on Halloween night, but we made the best of it and spent time together until Katie headed up to her room to clean her fish tank.
            Sometime toward the end of the tank cleaning, we heard Katie start to cry. She had filled the tank with water that was too warm, and it had killed the Betta fish. She’d fed and cared for her fish every day for the two months since we’d been given a tank and she had bought the fish, and now this. So at 8:30 on Halloween, I found myself holding a spade in our backyard, digging a hole for Polly the fish. No one else wanted to see me do it, but flushing had been declared out of bounds. So it was just me and Polly, in the darkness of Halloween. I tucked her into the ground, patted the dirt and headed back inside.
            This is us. There’s nothing all that unusual about our domestic life, but at the same time we are making our way through these days together, and when families do this they carry a resiliency and poetry that is hard to believe sometimes. As parents, it feels like we’re in the trenches so much of the time, but at the same time we’re also helping lead a parade of pride and progress.
            We negotiate phone time, beg for clothes to be put away, celebrate improved math scores, discuss friendship choices and encourage their development of identity. We love them madly, but we parent with maddening inconsistency at times, and we find ourselves mad at each other and ourselves when yet another day goes by without any couple time. We bury the fish, tuck away their trick-or-treat bags, and give them a hug. We tell them we love them, and they whisper “Love you too” before we close the door.
             One of these days, Amy and I will watch another episode of this show. The free time will surface eventually, and we’ll cuddle up together. As we watch, we’ll notice the parallels between life and art. We’ve missed a lot of good TV over the years, that’s for sure. But we’ve been busy – writing our own story. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Teddy, Truman, Cubs & Indians

            All right, enough about this year’s presidential election. It’s getting too stressful, and we’ve all surely made up our minds by now. It’s time to focus on two other election years, and on two previous presidents.
            Let’s talk about Teddy and Truman. Let’s discuss 1908 and 1948.
            Here’s why: On Tuesday night in Cleveland, this year’s World Series will begin, and the two teams playing will be the two who have gone the longest since winning their last titles. The Cleveland Indians have not won a championship since ‘48, when the first Baby Boomers were in diapers and World War II had just ended. And the Chicago Cubs have not claimed a title since ’08, when the first Model T was coming off the assembly line and one of our Mount Rushmore presidents was deciding not to run for re-election.
            The Indians and Cubs have endured some of the most depressing strings of losing seasons in professional sports history in the many decades since they last held a title trophy aloft. Their fans have continued showing up, though, holding out hope every April and cheering them on through excruciating September and October collapses.
            But here they are, and it’s clear that one of them will end their losing streak over the next 10 days. And as they engage in this year’s Fall Classic, the Cubs and Indians will bring back memories of the men who occupied the Oval Office when these teams last stood atop the baseball world.
            Theodore Roosevelt and Harry Truman both started as vice presidents, and both stepped in after the elected president died in office less than a year into a four-year term. Roosevelt’s focus on taming corrupt robber barons and using executive powers to enhance programs such as conservation made him an American hero, leading to his re-election in 1904. In ’08, Teddy decided against running again, and promoted his friend and cabinet member William Howard Taft, who was elected a month after the Cubs won their second consecutive World Series. 
             As for Truman, he took office in a tumultuous time, and found a way to help steer the U.S. through the end of World War II and into the United Nations. After almost four years, it seemed that the American people were going to vote against Truman for re-election and favor Republican Thomas Dewey. In fact, the Chicago Daily Tribune even printed a headline reading “Dewey Defeats Truman.” But this time, the news media and pollsters really did get it wrong, and Truman was re-elected to another four-year term. A month later, the Indians claimed their second title.
            History has painted Teddy and Truman as two of the 20th century’s strongest American presidents, and they are widely respected for their determination and frank talk. As I review some of their most famous quotes in the fabulous collection found on, I see words that inspire on multiple levels. First of all, as with any great line, they can inspire an individual in need of hope. Secondly, they provide much-needed perspective for a nation searching for its next leader. And finally, they give long-suffering baseball teams – and fans – words to live by. Let’s give a listen.

-          “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.” 
-          “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.” 
-          “Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.” 
-          “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” 

-          “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” 
-          “The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.”
-           “We must have strong minds, ready to accept facts as they are.” 
-          “Believe and you’re halfway there.”

The World Series games will be played this week, and one group of fans will cry tears of joy. The election will be held on Nov. 8, and we the people will select a new leader. After that, life will go on for us all. Whether the signs on our lawns or the jerseys on our backs reflect the winner, we will have our own victories to pursue. Circumstances will arise in which we’ll need to decide whether we want to step “in the arena,” and whether we are ready to “believe” – in ourselves, in a cause, or in that which we can anticipate but can’t yet see.
            I guess what Teddy and Truman were really trying to tell us is that if you can sense a reason to hope, and you can feel the courage of your convictions, then you need to go for it. “The only man who never makes mistakes,” Teddy once said, “is the man who never does anything.” These former leaders would tell us to make sure we take the initiative, and don’t let the words and actions of others guide our own self-direction.
           Go Cubs go, for sure. Go Indians, absolutely. I’m with her, of course. But more importantly, go Warren. Go all of us. We can get through this together. As another American president once said, yes we can.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Locker-Room Talk

            I have been working out regularly for some 30 years now, and I’m proud to say that even in my mid-40s I still get a good five or six workouts in each week. I say this not to brag about my fitness, but to bring up the point that in these three decades of working out, I’ve heard quite a bit of “locker-room talk.”
            Today, for instance, I popped into the gym for a morning swim before getting some work done on a school holiday. I heard a couple of men discussing which professions get Columbus Day off, as it was clear that there were more people in the gym today. I also heard two men talking about getting their flu shots, with one asking the other if he’d be getting a pneumonia shot as well.
            When I’m quickly changing or showering in the locker room, I typically overhear certain types of conversations. There are always the sports discussions – banter about the Yankees, Knicks, Giants, Jets, and pretty much every football team you could name. There are also the lifestyle talks – about food, vacations, movies or music. Occasionally, I also hear talk among friends about issues of the day – politics or income or race, sometimes in classic debate style, and always respectful. Sometimes there might even be some talk about marriage or dating. But that talk is often more about personality, interpersonal dynamics, and getting along with your partner – not so much about physical features.
The most common type of talk I overhear is the basic “Howya doin’?” banter. I hear men who’ve known each other for years catching up, and asking how things are going. As they get older, men are aware of time passing and like to check in on their friends’ health, especially if they haven’t seen each other in awhile.
So there are assorted types of conversations that go on in a gym. But in my 30 years of working out, there’s one thing I have never, ever heard in the locker room - even in four years playing high school baseball and four more years working out on a college campus. Never have I heard a man talking about how cool it is to walk up to a woman and grab her genitals. Never have I heard men talking about how much they want to just walk up to women and kiss them without consent. Never have I heard such disrespect for women.
I don’t know how we’ve arrived at a point where a man who does talk like this is (a) running for president and (b) dismissing it as “locker-room talk.” As a father of two girls, I don’t really even want to think about this issue much more. I just want to say that I go to locker rooms as part of my life routines, and I don’t hear people talk this way. So there must be a better label for the candidate’s words. To use his own vernacular, let’s start with “disaster.” And then let’s make sure he remains a troubling, loud-mouthed civilian on Nov. 8.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Master of Stories

            Most of the time, life’s moments seem to pass by in fast-forward. We find ourselves standing at the counter at 10 p.m., making the kids’ lunches and wondering where another day has gone. The list of things to do and places to be is ever-growing, and the social media overload vies for any free time we might have.
            In short, 21st-century society is desperately lacking in downtime – in a chance to reclaim ourselves and reconnect with life beyond that to-do list. Perhaps that’s why, despite the BuzzFeeds and Snapchats and Twitters, many Americans have been reaching for podcasts and longform journalism in recent years. It’s as though they are saying, “Enough is enough,” and crying out for the power of deliberate storytelling.
            We all have known people in our family, friend group, school or workplace who knew how to tell a story. We have sat down and listened to these people share details and narratives that painted pictures in our minds. For my brother and me, our grandparents were the key storytellers in our early lives. Our dad’s mom told us about her Norwegian mother and Icelandic father immigrating to America and adjusting to this new world. Our mom’s mother regaled us with tales of her brother, who could light up a room, yet had passed away before we were born.
            Our dad’s father died when we were young, but not before he had told us all about his favorite baseball player as a child, Zack Wheat of the Brooklyn Dodgers. And our mother’s dad, who lived until we were in our 30s, filled our lives (and tape recorders) with tales of his brothers and sisters, minor-league baseball career, marriage to our grandmother and battles with alcoholism. He was our personal podcast before there were any, giving us stories we could file away and download when life called for it – stories that were by turns gritty, nostalgic and at times hilarious.
            Our grandparents, and their generation, are almost all gone now. But not completely. Sunday, an 88-year-old California man bid goodbye to his job as baseball’s premiere storyteller. His name is Vin Scully, and he called Dodgers ballgames for 67 years, from 1950 all the way to this past weekend. His longevity is unparalleled in baseball, but Scully’s gift was much more than sheer perseverance. He was the best storyteller in a sport flush with them, and he could make even a passing baseball fan feel enraptured in tales about players’ lives, American history and the unique quirks of baseball.
            There were a number of years in which Scully called World Series games for NBC, and many of us heard him add stamps of literary brilliance to dramatic October moments. For those who lived in Brooklyn and then Los Angeles, Scully’s voice was part of the soundtrack to spring and summer, guiding them through three score and seven years of Dodgers: from Jackie Robinson to Sandy Koufax to Maury Wills to Steve Garvey to Fernando Valenzuela to Mike Piazza to Clayton Kershaw to Corey Seager. And for those who used streaming or cable services to subscribe to every Major League Baseball broadcast, Scully’s voice could still be heard across the nation as he called Dodgers home games by himself in the broadcast booth.
            I listened to Scully’s final broadcast on Sunday, as he told stories of great Dodgers-Giants rivalries of old, while calling a game in which the San Francisco Giants defeated the Dodgers to earn a playoff berth. Scully had grown up rooting for the Giants, then spent more than three-quarters of his life working for the Dodgers. It was a perfect sendoff for the great broadcaster, and he signed off in class modest style, telling his listeners that he always needed them much more than they needed him.
            He also departed by paraphrasing a quote from Dr. Seuss, telling us not to be sad that it’s over, but rather to “smile because it happened.” With these words, Scully was connecting his career with the essence of storytelling. We do tell stories so that we can smile about the things that have happened, and this in turn helps assuage the losses we experience, as well as the relentless passage of time. These stories give us moments we can’t forget, and which we will pass along to those younger than us. Be it a grandparent, a teacher, a good friend or even a broadcaster, storytellers give us the chance to press pause on life, and savor what is richest and most beautiful about this time we get on Earth.
            Vin Scully is still very much alive, and he will keep sharing stories with his children, grandkids and great-grandchildren. He might even pop into a broadcast booth now and then. But wherever he goes, he will leave us all much richer for the time he spent with us, turning a nine-inning ballgame into the fabric of life.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Fear Or ...

           So I was driving down to my parents’ house in Cape May on Friday, and I had a lot on my mind. First of all, I kept hearing this one guy’s voice in my head. He’s from New York, like I am, but he’s running for president, and he had given a convention speech the night before, which I had heard in part. It kind of freaked me out, because there was so much darkness in his words. He was saying in his speech that “our very way of life” is threatened in America, and that the person he’s running against leaves a legacy of “death, destruction and weakness.” He said these are very difficult days in America, and that we need to take care of our country first. The thing that upset me the most was when he told America, “I am your voice.” I have never lived under a dictator, but when I study them, they usually say things like that, tapping into our fears and convincing us that they know what we need.

            I was wondering what drew people to this guy and his rhetoric of fear and passion. I was wondering if this was the message I’d keep hearing in the days and months ahead. I had music playing on my iPod, and was paying tribute to the late Prince by listening to his tunes. In between songs about little red Corvettes, raspberry berets and purple rain, I listened to the lyrics from the song 7, which is the closest Prince every got to predicting the future when he released it almost 25 years ago. “I saw an angel come down unto me,” he sang. “In her hand she holds the very key / Words of compassion, words of peace.” In his Book of Revelation-type lyrics, Prince sings of a world in which “the young” are “so educated they never grow old.” He even sings of “a voice of many colors” singing a song “that’s so bold.” Well, I thought, that’s a different person with different ideas than the one I’d heard the night before. But I kind of like this vision of a world where compassion and combined voices lead the way, better than I like the sound of footsteps approaching.

            I arrived in Cape May and went down to the beach the next day. Every day, there are teenagers on the beach who sell umbrellas and beach chairs, then pick them up at the end of the afternoon. I’d noticed that the chair seller on our stretch of the beach had a tattoo on his upper chest. I stopped him and asked what the tattoo said. He read it to me: “Fear is nothing more than a mental monster you have created, a negative stream of consciousness.” I looked that up later, and saw that it comes from Robin Sharma, a Canadian writer. This young man, dragging umbrellas and chairs through the soft sand, seemed to have already arrived at a very different way of looking at fear than those words I heard on Thursday night. In fact, he’s so confident in these words that he wears them on his tanned torso.

            As I lay on the beach, I read a book by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, titled Fire Shut Up in My Bones. In terms of coming-of-age memoirs, they don’t get much better. I read about Blow’s attempts to find inner peace after a childhood incident left him violated and afraid. Earlier in the week, the author’s most recent Times column had spoken of the recent violence against civilians and police with the words, “It’s not either/or, but both/and.” As someone who has lived through tragedy, Blow is well-suited to help guide our country out of the struggles we face. He chooses to do so through words of love.

            After arriving back from the beach, I gathered up my dog and took her for an early-evening walk. Around the corner, I saw several yellow and orange pieces of paper tied to a tree with pieces of string. As I walked closer, I saw a sign in front of the tree, identifying it as a “Poet-Tree,” and inviting passersby to take one. My dog and I stood in front of the tree for a while, reading poems, many of them about nature, lots of them by Robert Frost and Mary Oliver. I took a poem from Oliver titled Wild Geese, whose beautiful lines speak of shared pain, shared progress, and shared tomorrows. “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, / the world offers itself to your imagination, / calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -- / over and over announcing your place / in the family of things.”

            There are strong words of fear in America today. But wherever my wheels and feet seem to take me, I keep hearing reassuring words of grace. There’s a lot to talk about at those presidential conventions – our country has as much room for improvement as any. But we had a president once who said something about fear, something many have echoed in the 83 years since he said it. And it remains as true as the morning sun: The only thing we have to fear, my friends, is fear itself. The rest is today’s challenge, tomorrow’s triumph, and the music of life. 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Choosing Love

            This week, my wife and older daughter have been fixing up houses in eastern Tennessee with a group from our church. As part of the Appalachia Service Project, they’ve been working together to make the world just a little bit better, while also meeting people from a different part of our country. The church group consists of teens and adults – some of them black, some white, some gay, and some straight.
Yesterday morning, I helped my father deliver food to people in need in Cape May, NJ. As we walked through the small housing project that often gets lost in this vacation wonderland, we handed chicken, frozen vegetables and pasta to all kinds of grateful people – some of them black, some white, some older, and some quite young.
            In my high school, I’ve helped run a community service club for 10 years, and the teens who run this club choose our activities. Their favorite job is delivering meals to homeless and low-income individuals in Manhattan. When they do this, I stand to the side and watch our club members interact with the people in need who walk up to their table. Some of the needy are black, some are white, some are Latino, some are Asian. Some are gay, some are straight, and some are transgender. Our own club members also hail from a variety of races and ethnicities.
            The events of this past week in America have been so troubling that it’s difficult to think about it all without feeling afraid for our nation. I’m not a TV guy, so I don’t watch the wall-to-wall coverage that our cable news stations offer. I prefer to read the news. This morning, I came across an opinion article in The New York Times, written by Charles M. Blow, whose meditations on race in America are well worth reading. In his piece, Blow writes about the necessity of choosing love in times of violence. He writes that when we say this, some are likely to accuse us of “meeting hard power with soft,” and of choosing a weaker route.
            But, Blow writes, “That is simply an illusion fostered by those of little faith.” Anger is so easy to access and use recklessly, he writes. “The higher calling — the harder trial — is the belief in the ultimate moral justice and the inevitable victory of righteousness over wrong … When we all can see clearly that the ultimate goal is harmony and not hate, rectification and not retribution, we have a chance to see our way forward.”
            There are so many ways we can address the current racial crisis in America. Perhaps the most important first step is to listen, learn and engage in productive dialogue. A former colleague of mine posted on Facebook yesterday that he had recently taught Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, the National Book Award winner that explains with clarity and historical depth why an African-American individual might doubt that true change will come in American race relations. In my own world, my co-teacher and I showed our high school seniors Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing this past year, and Steve James’ documentary The Interrupters last year. None of our students had seen either film before, and they all had lots to say, think and write about after seeing these important films.
            We all can do more to engage our minds in thinking deeply about race in America. We can pay closer attention to the words of our current president, who has spoken about matters of race in complex and important ways. We can hold discussion groups where we listen and share our experiences. We can think, and wonder, and imagine what it would take to reach a place of equality, understanding and peace.
            Most of all, we can follow the lead of those who have shown us how to do this hard work. More than a year ago, a young white man brought racial violence to a level of cruelty similar to that of this past week. The man visited a church Bible study in Charleston, S.C., then proceeded to kill nine African-American men and women during the Bible study. Two days later, that church modeled forgiveness in a way that might at first seem impossible. “You took something very precious away from me,” the daughter of one of the victims told the shooter during a bond hearing in which he appeared via video link in court. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
            These words are at the heart of what Charles Blow is talking about, and at the heart of what we sorely need. Bullets cannot move mountains. But faith and fellowship can. Racial anger is real, and it’s grounded in facts. It needs to be heard, and discussed, and addressed with changes in laws and attitudes. The work we do together in areas of race is everyone’s business. It is not something that affects only some. The responsibility is on all of us.
            But we know it can be done because it is being done – by my wife, daughter and their friends in Tennessee this week. By my dad and his friends at the housing project in Cape May. By those service club teens at my school. And in thousands upon thousands of other places, where we choose love over hate, and where we work to build bridges.
Nearly 20 years ago, my wife and I brought a group of teenagers to a national youth gathering for the Lutheran church in New Orleans. Every night, tens of thousands of teens would walk to the Superdome and sing songs together. The emcee of the event was a young woman in her early 40s, a pastor from New Jersey. She was dynamic and inspiring. After the gathering, I wrote to her and she wrote back. She gave me ideas on how to make a difference in the world.
Today, that woman is the pastor of our church. She’s in her 60s now, and my wife and I view the words and themes in her sermons as a map toward the ways in which we can help make positive change. Oh, and she happens to be African-American.
As my pastor makes her way back from Tennessee with the church group this weekend, I know her heart is heavy from the violence and unrest in America. But I also know she will choose the route taken by Charles Blow and Barack Obama and my teacher friend and my service club kids and, of course, the parishioners in Charleston. She will choose love. And she will preach love. And we will hear her, and give it a try. 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Hamilton for President

I am not throwing away my shot!
I am not throwing away my shot!
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot!

This spring, our house has been pulsing to lines like the one above, from the smash-hit musical Hamilton. The show tells the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton through hip-hop, dance and brilliant modern-day storytelling. Anyone who has seen the sold-out musical or listened to the bestselling album has probably been hooked on the songs just as my wife, daughters and I have been. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music, lyrics and dynamic method of bringing Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography to life are captivating in ways that call to mind other groundbreaking musicals such as Rent and Book of Mormon – shows that dared to be different and offered a new direction for Broadway.
            Part of what makes Hamilton so impressive is the degree to which it speaks to our modern-day world. In Miranda’s hands, we see a show that addresses many of our hot-button issues of 2016, from immigration to race to financial policies to foreign affairs to electoral politics. Hamilton also makes it clear that heated debate – yes, even heated fighting – has long been a part of American politics.
            But despite the musical’s indisputable relevance, I’d guess that even the subject of this show would be surprised at the level of absurdity present in the 2016 presidential election campaign. It’s all been very well documented, so I’m not going to review it with you again. But suffice it to say that no matter how much Alexander Hamilton might be intrigued by the idea of attack ads, Twitter posts and sound bites, he would be disappointed in the tone of this election. After all, this was a man who much preferred taking on his opponents face to face instead of letting others fight his battles for him.
            And that’s where things get most frustrating for me as I follow the current presidential campaign (from a distance, as I can’t bring myself to get too close to something this ugly). When I hear candidates raise ideas that they clearly don’t plan to follow through on, but that serve to rile up an angry base, I am reminded of a memorable line from The Great Gatsby.
By the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel (which, like Hamilton, speaks to the 21st century throughout every page), narrator Nick Carraway can no longer refrain from judging two of the characters he’s been describing for us. The husband and wife due of Daisy and Tom Buchanan have left a disaster in their wake as they leave town, and Nick knows that they will not be the ones to suffer from this. He says, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
This, in a nutshell, is Donald Trump. He raises ideas and proposals that he will never bring to pass, even if he were to be elected president. He will not actually build a giant wall on the U.S. border with Mexico, nor will he arrest women seeking abortions. But because he says these things, Trump brings out emotions in those who take him at his word. And the mess that someone like this can make overshadows any positive steps he could conceivably take as a leader. But he’s a smart man, and he knows that if he says there might be riots if he’s not his party’s nominee, he is both planting an idea and recusing himself of any blame for such violence. He won’t be the one committing any violent acts, so he’ll just shrug his shoulders and say he’s disappointed at what happened.
This kind of behavior is not just a political thing, of course. It’s human nature. We see it when Kim Kardashian posts a nude selfie, knowing that her influence will lead young teenagers to try the same. We see it when Roger Goodell says that if he had a son he’d love to see the boy play football, when in fact the NFL commissioner doesn’t have a son and knows that many youngsters who play will sustain concussions unless the game is made safer. We see it when Ted Cruz promotes Christianity on the campaign stump, knowing that this is being read by some as code for “no Muslims.” So long as you imply your point instead of directly stating it, you’re as safe as Tom and Daisy.
Humans can be sneaky communicators, and they also know how to use their power, wealth and social status to make a tremendous mess of society. They know that their words and actions can hold incredible weight, and they are willing to use that leverage to watch others start a fire after they’ve left the lighter fluid on the floor.
Alexander Hamilton had plenty of flaws, for sure. But he acted on his beliefs, said what he thought, and made his own mess – even the one that led to his own death. “Every action’s an act of creation,” Miranda sings in the song “My Shot.” It’s not uncommon for works of art to speak to our needs better than the leaders we’re considering for elected office. This year, that is particularly true. Miranda’s miraculous work of art is worth every moment we give it, for through his words we might just find a way out of this electoral mess we’re in, and into the light of engagement, collaboration and hope.
It’s time to take a shot.

Monday, January 25, 2016


            According to the U.S. Census Bureau, I am now officially middle-aged. I can’t say I felt much different last Sunday when I turned 45, but the number does seem a bit daunting. A couple decades ago, I wrote a weekly column for the Staten Island Advance about living through my 20s; one of the columns talked about how old 25 felt. I think back on that and laugh.
Of course, 20 years from now I might reflect on 45 as a young milestone. But while it’s true that age is relative, it’s also true that 45 is a much more definitive marker of aging than 25 was. For instance, I am now older than every athlete on a major American pro sports team. The oldest, NHL right winger Jaromir Jagr, is more than a year younger than me. If I were running for president this year, I’d be considered a “young” candidate, but I’m still five months older than Republican Marco Rubio, and just a few weeks younger than Ted Cruz. In terms of entertainment, I’m in the Matt Damon-Ethan Hawke age range, which is not too bad. But still, I was 23 years old when Justin Bieber was born, easily making me old enough to be his parent.
So yeah, 45 is a bunch of years. But it’s still only halfway to 90, so there’s no reason to panic. Yet there are certain physical signs reminding me that middle age is beginning. The most obvious is the eyesight. When I’m reading a book with my glasses on, the words only look focused when I push the glasses down the bridge of my nose. When I’ve swallowed my pride enough, I will buy reading glasses for the times when I’m wearing contacts. After all, I’m already struggling at school when I reserve a laptop cart and need to open it with a combination lock. My students sit patiently waiting for me to open the cart, while I stare down at the lock and wait for my eyes to slowly begin identifying numbers.
There’s also the height thing. When doctors ask for my height, I proudly say that I’m 6-1, although I know that is no longer the case. The disks between my vertebrae have thinned out, and I’m shorter than I was at 22. I try to combat this with exercise, and I know that yoga would help as well. But even so, the ravages of time and gravity have had their way with my spine. When I spend hours outside shoveling like I did yesterday, my back reminds me of just how cranky it’s getting.
So yes, there are numerical and physical signs of aging. But perhaps the most glaring sign of being middle-aged is in the interactions with people younger than me, and the generation gaps that are now fully apparent. Take the popular mobile app known as Snapchat, for instance. I have had computers in my life ever since I was 12 years old. And yet, I just don’t understand the need for taking dozens of photos and short videos that get sent to friends, who can view them for just a few seconds before they disappear. It seems like an exercise in futility.
As my students prepare for class to begin, many of them stare at their phones, give a little smile, and before I know it they’ve taken a Snapchat photo, to be added to their Snapchat “story” that will be sent to their 200 closest friends later in the day. The same thing happens when I’m driving my older daughter somewhere, and she sits in the back seat posing and taking more pictures than you’d see at a Kate Upton photo shoot. She then begins playing her friends’ Snapchat stories, and I hear quick bursts of shouting or singing, and my daughter laughs at these bite-size forms of communication while I struggle to identify what her friends are even saying.
Generation gaps are as common as diminished eyesight and shrinking spines. And with this particular gap, I am reminded of a skill that I have maintained and improved after four and a half decades, but that I fear my daughter is losing all too early: the ability to pay attention. I am still more interested in placing my photos in an album than in shooting them off for a five-second viewing; I’d rather write a blog like this than fire off a tweet; and I’d prefer to read a story or book than an Instagram caption. I want to spend time with my thoughts and communication, rather than treating them like a series of buttons to be pushed. I worry that younger generations are losing the ability to take time with the interactions that help make a life richer.
There is no way to write this without sounding like an old man, even older than one who can’t read his combination lock. But I think the key to generation gaps is going beyond the recognition of them, and moving into bridging the gaps. Is there something that both generations can learn from each other – something about the Snapchat world that I don’t quite get, and something about the joy of sitting with words and thoughts that my daughter doesn’t understand yet? Were there similar elements at play for me 30 years ago, when my parents were advising me to pay attention to the world beyond Commodore 64 video games and fantasy sports statistics? It would take a degree of patience on both sides to sit, listen and learn, yet I’d be up for doing that. My daughter, who is forever closing her bedroom door behind her in true 14-year-old fashion, is a tougher one to pin down; but there’s no reason to stop trying.
Age is both relative and very real; 45 is nothing if not a reminder of that. I’ve downloaded the Snapchat app, but I can’t figure it out yet. And it’s hard to read unless I push down those glasses.