Thursday, December 27, 2007

Too Many Santas

When did Santa Claus become ubiquitous?

I know from watching old holiday movies like Miracle on 34th Street that he has been a department-store regular for years, and I understand that he must maintain some sort of intelligence network, given his ability to know when you are sleeping, etc. But this year it seemed like we couldn’t go anywhere without running into him. He made an appearance at our town’s Christmas parade in early December, and A.J. waited in line afterward to sit in his lap and make his Christmas wish. A week later, Santa was back--this time at the neighborhood kids’ Christmas party. Again, A.J. stood in line for another lap session. It was not long after this that I spotted a sign advertising a Santa appearance at the local Walgreen’s. When Santa starts showing up at the pharmacy counter, you know things have gone too far. I imagined a long line snaking through the dental hygiene aisle and past the shelves of Theraflu, leading finally to a beleagured man in red sitting near the rotating display of non-prescription glasses, handing out bottles of Xanax.

When we were getting ready for our annual weekend stayover in downtown Chicago, a friend asked me if we were gong to see Santa at Macy’s. I had to laugh. We’d had more than enough Santa by then.

But on Christmas Eve, just after the sun had gone down and we had put out a bunch of luminaria in front of the house, we saw an enormous full moon rising. It was a nearly perfectly clear night, and one thin tendril of cloud was scudding across the moon as it hung just over the eastern horizon. We told A.J. to keep an eye out for Santa’s sleigh in the sky and we all agreed that it would be wonderful to see him and his reindeer in mid-flight, backlit by the big yellow disk.

A.J. did keep scanning the skies, but made no sightings. And maybe I’m just projecting here, but I think he was happy to be merely looking for Santa and, for once, not seeing him.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Snowplows

All around our town, the pickups and SUVs have sprouted snowplows for the winter . After big snowstorms, you see a lot of stocking-capped men driving around, shovels up, in an almost priapic display of self-sufficiency. We had our second big storm of the season over the weekend, and already the endlessly salted streets are looking as bleached as old bones. I went out after lunch today to get a few Christmas gifts, and the sun was so low that it looked like it was getting ready to set by mid-afternoon. The snow is piled up in mounds in front of our house and we have some truly impressive icicles hanging off our ice-dammed gutters. We are in full winter siege mode here, and it’s not even really winter yet.

On Sunday morning, right after the latest of the big snows, I got out my skis and was able to ski from the front door to the river about a mile away. I went out onto the pier to get a view down the river, where just a few days before I had seen a wild swan swimming. There was no swan this time, but all down the banks of the river the tree branches, coated in ice, were silvery in the sun. When I turned around to head home, one of the men in the snowplow trucks was making his way toward the pier. He pulled up alongside me and rolled down his window. “I saw you go out on the pier,” he said, “and I thought you were going to jump in the river.” We both laughed, and I didn’t bother trying to explain about looking for the swan. But I skied home in the path his truck had made in the street, where he had scraped away the deep powder and left a slick, packed layer of snow and ice. It was the fastest and best skiing I had found that morning. Mr. Plow comes through again.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

At the Library

I spent part of my day yesterday working in the public library in the next town over. I do this every once in a while when I need to get out of my office at home and I don’t feel like overspending for over-roasted coffee at the local coffee house. The library is a good one, with a strong collection and plenty of welcoming places to sit and work. But something about spending my working day in a public library always unsettles me. At midday the crowd in the library consists almost entirely of women, small children and the elderly folks who prowl the periodical shelves. It’s like being the only able-bodied male left in a town where all the other men have gone off to war. You feel as if you have to explain yourself, account for your presence there.

A little while back, Michael Gorra wrote this tribute to the New England town library in the excellent online journal The Smart Set. I’m late in linking to it, but it’s still worth a read. Gorra is mostly interested in small-town libraries as relics of a Yankee past, and touches only briefly on the actual utility of these places for their patrons. I wonder what he would make of our library, with its multimedia “teen zone,” its sprawling DVD collection, its rows and rows of computer work stations. It’s amazing and it’s free and Gorra is right when he describes town libraries as remarkably “open and generous places.” But that doesn’t mean I can make myself feel like I belong there.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Wheels

I have an old friend from high school, M., who has made a complete success of his life but still likes to joke (well, half-joke maybe) about his one paramount regret: that he never went out for the high school football team. M. ran the high-hurdles in school and he was tall and fast, and one day the football coach saw him and, figuring he would make wide-receiver material, asked him to come out for the team. But M. declined. And 25 years later, we’re still talking about that moment as if it was the pivotal one in his life.

“Yeah, I could have been one of the great ones,” he’ll say in a mock-tragic tone borrowed from melodramas about dissipated ex-boxers. He’s joking, I know, but he’s been making the joke for a couple decades now, which makes me think there may be some substantial regret beneath the joke.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot now that A.J.’s flag football season, his first in organized football, is over. It was, for me, a strange, exhausting, often exasperating and ultimately wonderful experience. For A.J., I think, it was just wonderful.

Trying to teach a bunch of six-year-olds to play football—or even getting them to sit still and listen for a few seconds—was one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done. It leaves me with a whole new level of respect for teachers who have to work with these kids every day. But I’m also very glad I volunteered to help coach because it gave me a chance to watch A.J. fall in love with football.

We had a little end-of-season pizza party for the kids a while back. J., the other coach, gave awards to all the kids; A.J. won the Most Valuable Player award. J. also had the kids present me with a football that they had all signed. It was one of the nicest presents I’ve ever received and I was completely taken by surprise. I loved that all the signatures were in their scrawly first-grade handwriting and they all wrote their jersey numbers next to their names, just like little pros who are used to working the trading-card show autograph circuit. So I’ve got this ball in my office now and it means an awful lot to me.

I got to know some of the dads a little (I’m convinced that the fact that A.J. turned out to be such a good player earned me some kind of social capital) and I was especially impressed with J., the coach, a former free safety at Michigan State who turned out to be a very sweet guy. A funny thing happened in the second week of the season. A.J. had two really impressive touchdown runs in that week’s game and all through the next practice J. kept calling him “Wheels.” I could tell A.J. loved it, too. Well, the next week, A.J. scored two touchdowns again, but J. just called him by his name at the next practice. So when we got home, A.J. says to me—not sadly, just matter-of-factly—“Coach didn’t call me Wheels this week.”

So the next time I saw J., I told him this story about what A.J. had said to me—just because I thought it was cute and funny—and for the rest of the season, he never once called my son anything but Wheels.

Wheels is absolutely football crazy now, by the way. We just got back from a week at his grandmother’s house, including a 16-hour drive, and he spent just about every spare minute asking me to toss him the football we brought with us. We played catch with that ball in Interstate rest stops in seven different states.

And already A.J. is asking about next season. He wants to play in the tackle league, with full pads and full contact. I’ve written before about my ambivalence about kindergarten kids playing competitive football: It just seems like too much too soon. (Let’s not even start the discussion of the way they turn the kindergarten girls into cheerleaders.) But first- and second-graders playing tackle football seems even more extreme somehow.

Why this mania for accelerating all the experiences of childhood? For guys like my friend M., not going out for high school football could seem like something approaching a life-altering decision. Maybe for A.J. and kids his age, the decision to go out or not go for 80-pound pee wee football in second grade will one day seem just as momentous. But I can't imagine a better season--one more full of gifts--than the one Wheels and I had this year.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Thanks, but No Thanks

Just in case you've not yet had your fill of Thanksgiving-related reading, my piece on arguments over the religious dimension of Thanksgiving is online at Slate. Or are you saving room for pie?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Fear of the Flush

Yesterday's New York Times had a piece by Tina Kelley on kids’ fear of automatic flush toilets. With their flashing lights, unpredictable flushes and loud whooshing, Kelley writes, the toilets are “the stuff of nightmares” for some toddlers.

There was a time when I would have dismissed such a story as the worst kind of lifestyle puffery, a topic not worthy of a serious paper. Is there no minor hurdle, I used to wonder, that these self-absorbed parents can’t somehow turn into a traumatic event?

But parenthood changes a person.

I look at such a story now and I see that it involves three topics—child behavior, irrational fear and bathroom fixture design—that absorb an inordinate amount of my attention on a daily basis.

And I remember that my own son went through a period when he, too, was terrified of automatic flush toilets, a fear that severely complicated at least one of our cross-country drives. I recall stopping at every interstate highway rest stop between Chicago and the Cumberland Gap so that my boy could take care of his business, only to have him refuse to go near the automatic flush toilets. For the sheer combination of frustration, social embarrassment and utter helplessness in the face of your child’s need, there is no experience quite like finding yourself in a crowded public bathroom in Kentucky, begging your son to please, please defecate, while the poor kid, pants around his ankles, screams in terror and holds his hands over his ears.

I never knew life was so complicated until I became a parent.

Friday, October 26, 2007

All the Rage

My essay on anger, "All the Rage," is back as the cover story in the current Utne Reader. It won a "Best Article of the Year" prize from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education after it appeared in Notre Dame magazine earlier this year. Read it here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

On the Train with Walter Kirn and GBV

Spent my 90-minute train ride into the city yesterday reading Walter Kirn’s sharp Atlantic essay, “The Autumn of the Multitaskers.” Multitasking, Kirn writes, stresses us out, dumbs us down, and, extrapolating from his personal experience, makes us drive off the highway and through barbed-wire fencing at high speeds somewhere in Wyoming.

So I sat there on the train nodding in agreement with Kirn’s arguments (“multitasking eats up time in the name of saving time”) and silently urging him on (“The First Law of Multitasking dictates, any two or eight or 16 processes that can overlap must overlap”) and pulling for Kirn to tell ‘em off good, and yet, the entire time I was reading and agreeing and urging on, I was also listening to Guided By Voices via iPod and earpiece.

And the problem with this kind of behavior—and there’s really no way to say this without sounding like a cranky Luddite coot—is that it ill-serves Walter Kirn and Guided By Voices and me, because an essay as fine as Kirn’s and a song as good as “Everywhere with Helicopter” both deserve to be appreciated on their own terms and not merely as strategies to distract me or insulate me from the noise of the guy in the next seat over braying into his cell phone.

I’m old enough to remember making that same train ride without cell phone or iPod and not really minding it. But it can’t be done today, or at least I can’t recommend it. There are too many other people multitasking, making their own noise, and you need some kind of barrier against all the bustle. So you plug in, dial up, pray for a signal and get through the ride. And the more media you can manage, the better your protection and the better we all get along. I guess that’s called mutually assured multitasking.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Standing Still

A.J.’s flag football team, the Browns, is heading into the playoffs with a three-game winning streak. There are times now when they look like an actual football team, which is an achievement for a bunch of six-year-olds. Still, I remain mostly convinced that football and first-graders really don’t mix. The biggest problem is just getting them to stand still. You know, in football, you’re supposed to get into your formation at the line of scrimmage, get set and stay set until the ball is snapped. That doesn’t happen a lot in our league. At yesterday’s practice, for example, M. kept trying to stand on his head while he was supposed to be lining up at right tackle. We tried to explain to him that this was against the rules of football, and when he kept at it, we even tried to threaten him with pushups. But that stuff doesn’t work. To most six-year-olds, push-ups seem like a lot more fun than having your coaches tell you to line up and stand still. There have been times this year when M. standing on his head, or C. whipping his mouth-guard at everyone in sight, or D. picking handfuls of grass and dumping them on N.’s head would have gotten to me. I know I’ve come home from some practices feeling like I was about to develop a nervous twitch like Inspector Dreyfus from the Pink Panther movies. But maybe I’m getting better at this coaching thing. I’ve learned a lot in the two and a half months I’ve spent helping to coach this team, and the most lasting lesson has to be this: If your right tackle wants to stand on his head at the line of scrimmage, and your right tackle is six years old, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.

Go Browns.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Marred by Politeness

My work takes me inside a lot of college classrooms, where I’m supposed to observe and gain insight into the lively Socratic give-and-take of American higher ed. Problem is, that hardly ever happens. In most of the classes I’ve observed, the rule seems to be that kids keep their heads down and their mouths shut. They’re pretty unshakable about their reticence, too. It makes me a little uncomfortable, sometimes, to be sitting in the back row of a classroom while some earnest but not very inspired prof is trying to draw his students into a discussion, only to be met with dead silence. It’s like one of those socially awkward moments, embarrassing for everyone, that you can only ride out and hope will end soon. Except some of these classes last for an hour and a half. That’s a lot of awkward.

Verlyn Klinkenborg, who writes about rural life and other soft stuff on the New York Times editorial page (I was going to call him the house hayseed, but that’s too snotty) had a piece in yesterday’s paper about the hyper-polite students at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota.

He writes:

I sat in on four classes, which were marred only by politeness — the deep-keeled Minnesotan politeness that states, as a life proposition, that you should not put yourself forward, not even to the raising of a hand in class.

Things always warmed up, but those first lingering notes of hesitation were something to behold. I tried to think of it as modesty, consideration for others and reluctance in the presence of a guest — from New York nonetheless. And yet I kept wondering just how such bright, personable students had become acculturated to their own silence.



He notices this habit of “self-negating silence” even slipping into his students’ writing, particularly the work of female students. “I can hear them,” he writes, “questioning the very nature of their perceptions, doubting the evidence of their senses, distrusting the clarity of their thoughts.”

I’m not sure why Klinkenborg makes a distinction between his male and female students on this point, because, as he points out, the problem of claiming authority to observe and comment is a basic one for just about any writer. “It’s a delicate thing,” he writes, “coming to the moment when you realize that your perceptions do count.”

In some ways, professional writers have it easy, because if nothing else they can claim the authority conferred by the people who hire them, who accept their pitches, who pay them. If someone at The New York Times Book Review thinks my essay is good enough to buy, then who am I to argue? (Of course, I had to give myself permission to pitch the thing in the first place, but that’s a whole other story.) I’ve written about the most personal stuff in my essays, and it’s not always easy for me to set that stuff out for anyone to read. But what’s a little paradoxical is that the magazines that publish my highly personal work and spread it to newsstands and barbershops and library reading rooms for strangers to read, also provide me with a kind of institutional cover. A reader can think what he wants about me and my work, but he can’t change the fact that I was paid well for my writing and given the imprimatur of the Times or CondeNast or whoever.

Where it gets really hard for me to assert my authority to observe and comment is in less professional settings, like this blog. I suppose that’s another paradox. Because isn’t the Internet supposed to be empowering, isn’t it supposed to make citizen journalists or belle-letrists of us all? But I’ve had a hard time feeling at ease writing this blog, and part of the reason is that I have no template for how it’s supposed to read, and I have to operate without the cover of some publishing institution. So, even though this blog is read only by my friends and the people who love me and a few web-searching insomniacs mistakenly sent here by Google, and even though it’s just a speck in the great big ever-expanding blog universe, I end up feeling just as exposed writing here as I do writing for the largest-circulation newspapers and magazines.

In a way, that’s a problem of claiming authority, the same one Klinkenborg’s students face. Some of us are still “coming to the moment when you realize that your perceptions do count.”

Monday, October 8, 2007

Patrick Starfish Springs a Leak

A.J.’s mom was out with a friend all day yesterday, kayaking of all things. And so I had the job of hanging around the house while A.J. and his friends tore around, and occasionally through, the place. There was only one slightly bad accident, when A.J. and his friend C. bumped heads while playing jump-off-the-stairs and ice packs had to be produced for both of them. They kept the ice packs on their heads for about five seconds each before they started having what I guess you would have to call ice-pack fights with them.

Later, while I was downstairs reading the paper, C. snuck into our bedroom (which is supposed to be a kid-free zone) and dragged in a four-foot-tall water-filled plastic figure of Patrick Starfish (co-star of “SpongeBob SquarePants"), which C. proceeded to punch repeatedly until the thing sprang a leak and pretty well soaked our bedroom floor.

It was at this point that I ordered the boys out of the house, to see what kind of damage they could do to the side yard.

I got the water cleaned up as well as I could (I went through three beach towels), turned on some music (Lorraine Hunt Lieberson doing Handl arias) and poured myself a bourbon (I’d made myself wait until five o’clock). I watched A.J. and C. play one-on-one touch football in the angling autumn sunlight and even their constant arguments (“I got you!” “Nuh-uh!” “Uh-huh!”) didn’t really bother me. I don’t know if I should credit Handl or the bourbon or the autumn light.

Later, after C. had gone home for dinner, A.J. talked me into a few last football plays outside before bedtime. He likes it when I kick off to him and he tries to return the kick for a touchdown and I try to tackle him. This time, I caught him at midfield and picked him up and spun him around a few times before I put him down. He squealed through the whole thing.

“There’s no squealing in football!” I told him, trying to sound like a hard-ass football coach. “We’re not playing My Pink Pony here!”

He laughed. “You’re the weirdest and funnest dad in the world,” he said.

Then it was time to go in and get ready for bed. But that’s one tackle I’m going to remember.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Escape from the Hinterlands

The whole family made an escape from the hinterlands last weekend, spending a couple days downtown celebrating our seventh wedding anniversary. Our headquarters was the W hotel on Lake Shore Drive, and it turned out to be one of those hotels that tries awfully hard to let you know how stylish it is. There was, for starters, the techno music thumping in the elevators and the scent of aromatherapy wafting through the lobby and the many cutesy design touches. The first thing A.J., our six-year-old boy, found upon entering the room was a set of small wooden blocks on the dresser top, with words printed on each side of each cube that you can arrange and re-arrange to make your own little sentences, as with those refrigerator magnet poetry sets. One of the blocks had the word “sex” printed on it.

“Daddy, what’s sex?” A.J. asked me.

Well, I didn’t lie, exactly. I told him that his sex was male, that sex was the set of characteristics that made each of us either a boy or a girl. He seemed to go for it. His next question had to do with whether the hotel got SpongeBob on the TV.

Later we all walked over to the little beach at the foot of Ohio Street, which was deserted enough for the two of us to run foot races up and down the sand while A.J.’s mom watched and took pictures. It wasn’t the most exciting thing we did that weekend—A.J. was probably more excited about the children’s museum or the aquarium or the hot dog we ordered him from room service. And the grownups liked the dinner at the Gage and the handholding in Grant Park, all made possible by the babysitting services of our friend H. We spent a lot of time talking about our wedding and the band and the dancing and how, seven years later, it still has to rank as one of the best days ever.

But back to the beach.

The thing about the beach was that it had been a hangout of mine about twenty years ago when I was working not far from there. I was in my first job out of college and I still fancied myself too artistic and soulful for office work and so I used to spend my lunch hours in long, solitary walks through the park and along the beach, carrying books of poetry that I sometimes even read. In those days, Navy Pier was still pretty much a deserted shell, but you could walk the length of it and when you reached the end of it, look back at the city looming and feel appropriately moody and misunderstood. Now Navy Pier is something like a cross between a carnival and a shopping mall. On our way to the children’s museum, we had to wade through all the gift shops filled with kids demanding trinkets from their stroller-pushing parents. Out in the plaza, there was a man dressed in a tiger-striped body suit doing some kind of pantomime/modern dance hybrid for an audience of tired-looking families.

It’s been six years since we left Chicago for the hinterlands and sometimes it seems like the city itself has moved to the suburbs and started a family. It wears the same kind of distracted expression that you sometimes see on fathers trying to get through another Sunday with the kids.

On Sunday morning, I went for a run through the rose gardens and past the museums and along the lake and I survived all the bicyclists trying to run me down and I met up with my beautiful wife and beautiful kid for breakfast. We ate outside, something I hardly ever like to do, but the morning was so lovely that even I had to enjoy it. Even the too-stylish hotel seemed not so bad.

But what I will remember from the weekend are the races on the beach with A.J. It’s a good thing he is around to show me, finally, how to really have fun on the beach.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Dressing to Coach

I’ve been noticing something strange at A.J.’s flag football games. (Yes, something even stranger than the idea of five- and six-year-olds playing organized football.) I’ve noticed that some of the coaches really dress the part. For the last two weeks, A.J.’s team has played teams whose coaches have worn matching polo shirts in their team’s colors. Last week, in fact, his opponent’s coaches not only wore matching polo shirts, but also carried clipboards--though what they were writing down there I can’t imagine. Really, the only other thing they needed to look like aspiring Nick Sabans or Tony Dungys were headsets.

Those of us dads who help coach A.J.’s team have made no effort to color-coordinate. We usually show up in basic suburban dad get-ups: t-shirts and flip-flops, running shoes and baseball caps. Maybe that makes us lousy coaches and bad dads. But am I wrong in thinking that the matching coaches shirts smack of trying too hard?

What puzzles me is that I watch a lot of football and I’ve seen hundreds of pro and college and even high-school coaching staffs dressed like this, and it has never struck me as odd. But outfitting yourself like this to coach a bunch of first-graders (kids, that is, who are less interested in whether they are on offense or defense at any given moment than in making sure that someone remembered to bring their post-game snack) just seems wrong. Which makes me wonder: What’s the cutoff point for color-coordinating coaches? At what age level can coaches wear matching polo shirts in team colors and not look like complete yutzes?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Chasing Van Gogh

A.J. and his mother made a trip to the Art Institute a few days ago. They’ve been reading the kids’ book Chasing Vermeer and A.J. had the idea of seeing some Vermeer paintings for himself. Honestly, I don’t remember being all that enthused about 17th century Dutch genre painters when I was a kid, but then A.J. is a little different.

I don’t know if the two of them actually got to see any Vermeer. When they returned home, all the talk was about the miniatures collection and a Richard Misrach photo exhibit. And A.J. had a new viewfinder, with slides of a dozen or so works from the Art Institute collection. I asked him which was his favorite, and he showed me Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” I told him I liked Van Gogh’s painting of his bedroom, and A.J. said he wanted to take another look at it. After looking, he announced that he liked that one, too.

Then, because I have this annoying habit of trying to turn too many conversations into teachable moments, I decided to quiz him about the Van Gogh. I asked him if he thought the room looked peaceful or scary. He thought for a second, then he said, “I don’t know, I guess it looks peaceful.”

I said, “Okay, but to me it looks kind of scary.” A.J. looked at it again and asked me what I meant. I said, “Well, maybe it doesn't look scary, maybe it just looks a little creepy.” A.J. looked at it again, and said, “Yeah, I see what you mean. It kind of looks like it’s going to come alive.”

I said, “You know what, that’s a great way to put it. I think that’s exactly what it looks like.”

A.J. looked pleased with himself, and then we put the viewfinder away. He wanted to play some football in the yard. Van Gogh was a nice painter and all, but postimpressionism can’t really compete with two-hand touch.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Middle-Age Wasteland

I’ve written before about academic defenses of teenagers, quoting psychologist Robert Epstein, whose book The Case Against Adolescence argues that kids are more competent than we think and that most of their problems stem from restrictions placed on them by adults.

In today’s New York Times researcher Mike Males writes that too many experts on adolescent behavior malign kids “to draw attention from the reality that it’s actually middle-aged adults—the parents—whose behavior has worsened.”

I like Epstein’s argument against infantilizing teens, but I can’t really bring myself to take sides in any debate about whether teen or adult behavior is more disturbing. I’d rather take the misanthrope’s position: People keep proving themselves capable of making asses of themselves at any age.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Little Presidents

Every day A.J. comes home from school and unloads his backpack on our kitchen counter so that his mother and I can look over the art projects, penmanship practice sheets and math workbooks that he has brought home. Yesterday, there was something else, too: A list of the kids in his class. And there, about halfway down, I saw it. There is a boy named Grant in his class. When I saw that, I had to stop myself from shouting, “Another one!”

Lately I have been noticing how many little kids are running around in the world with the last names of presidents for first names. The boy in A.J.’s class is the second six-year-old Grant we’ve gotten to know in our small town. Then there was Harrison, from t-ball. And Madison, the little girl across the street. And I’m pretty sure there was a girl named Reagan in his preschool class a couple years ago.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not trying to make fun of these kids’ names. They are perfectly good names, most of them. (I have my doubts about Reagan.) I just wonder what’s behind this proliferation of presidential last names as kids’ first names.

I’m not ready to go out on a limb yet and posit this as a full-fledged theory, but I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that presidential names have otherwise pretty much disappeared from our culture. A while back in this space I noted that fewer and fewer schools are being named for presidents or for any other kind of person. The trend now is to name them instead for natural features or animals. (There are, reportedly, more schools in Florida named for manatees than for George Washington.)

Maybe the only form of presidential memorial available today is to name your kid after your favorite former chief executive. In a few years, teachers everywhere will be asking little Roosevelts and Buchanans to stop copying from little Van Buren.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Game Boy

A few months ago, I came home from a visit to my mother’s house with a load of ancient sports equipment and board games that she had been asking me to clear out of her basement. I couldn't bring myself to throw the old stuff out, so now it's taking up space in our basement. Few things have made me feel more like an adult than realizing that I now own a basement big enough to hold all the crap I have been collecting since childhood.

A couple of the old games, though, were promoted from the basement to family-room status, and have entered the regular household rotation for A.J. and me. One is an old quiz game called Your America (“An Enjoyable Game for Americans of All Ages!”) that you win by answering the kinds of civics-class questions that might have been a part of school curricula during the Eisenhower administration. (Example: Who invented the vulcanization of rubber?*) I remember loving this game when I was a kid because it gave me the chance to show off my adolescent history geek’s obsessive knowledge of state capitals and American military campaigns. What strikes me now about the game, though, is its hyper-patriotic tone. You get the feeling that the game’s designers believed that training America’s kids to answer certain questions was an essential component of the effort to beat back the Red Scare. (Take question #18 in the United States at War category: In the 1950s, America again found it necessary to defend democracy by fighting on foreign soil. In what country was this war fought?**) The problem, though, is that the game doesn’t even get its facts straight. It asks, for example, which president is pictured on a ten-dollar bill. Alexander Hamilton is on the ten, but he was never president. With mistakes like that, it’s a wonder we managed to win the Cold War.

The game both A.J. and I really like is Stratego. In Stratego, each player commands a Napoleonic-era army of game pieces that have to be maneuvered around a battlefield to capture the opponent’s flag. As the game board says, it is “a wonderful father-son game.” Right. What better way for fathers and sons to bond than by plotting deadly ambushes against each other? A.J. and I played again yesterday, and even though he has a good sense for the game, he was, as usual, undone by his lack of a poker-face. Whenever I get close to his flag he gets a wild-eyed, panicked look and actually starts to repeat under his breath, “Oh, no, no. Please, no. Not there.” His lack of guile is quite touching, really. Not that I don’t take advantage of it to beat him. Yesterday, when I captured his flag, he slapped himself on the forehead and said, “What have I done?”

I’ve seen new editions of Stratego in stores, but I like our old, beat-up version. The box, which is falling apart, features a photograph of a "Leave It To Beaver"-esque family in their paneled game room, gathered around a Stratego game board. The father, in a brown suit and tie, is pointing out some subtlety of military strategy to his admiring children. I love that picture. It makes me wish I owned a brown suit, just so I could wear it the next time A.J. and I played Stratego.
____

Your America Bonus Answers:
*Charles Goodyear
**Korea

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Put the Grass Down!

A.J. and his teammates finally received their coveted flag football jerseys, just before their first regular-season game. A.J. was assigned number one, and he seemed to like it. Tucking his oversized shirt in before the game, he kept asking, “Can you see the whole number?”

I’ve written before about my ambivalence about six-year-olds playing organized football: It seems wrong somehow, but not so wrong that I didn’t sign up my son. And now it turns out A.J. is quite a good little running back. He had a 55-yard touchdown run last week, his third score in his team’s first two games. His coach has started calling him Wheels. At the risk of sounding like one of those fathers who takes his kids’ sports way too seriously, let me say this: It is an amazing thing to watch your boy racing down the sidelines toward the end zone with the ball tucked under his arm and everyone on the sidelines screaming.

Not that it’s about scoring, of course.

I’m helping coach A.J.’s team and the thing about trying to teach kindergarteners and first-graders how to play football is that they have tiny, tiny attention spans. Running through a play in practice requires lining up seven kids in their respective positions. By the time you’ve positioned the seventh kid, the first kid has long since wandered off and started picking grass or wrestling with the kid next to him. Most often heard admonition at flag-football practice: Hands to yourselves, guys! Second-most often heard: Put the grass down!

Then there’s the pre-game ritual where the boys come charging onto the field through a double line of little six-year-old cheerleaders. It’s so weird that I don’t know what to make of it, except to say that both the boys and the girls seem to be really enjoying it and they all look adorable. I guess this is one of the things youth sports does to parents. It turns us into insufferable conformist yahoos.

Let’s hear it for the yahoos!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Toon Time

I’m just old enough to be amazed whenever I find what I’m looking for on the Web. A younger person might take it for granted that he could buy vintage basketball shoes or long-out-of-print books, or find the hard-to-decipher lyrics to a Guided by Voices song. But I’m always as wonderstruck as a rube in the big city.

So I was typically floored recently when I found an inventory of old Warner Brothers Looney Toons cartoons on YouTube. This was the stuff of the Saturday mornings of my childhood--Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote and Daffy Duck for about two hours each week. There’s no telling how much the rules of cartoon nature informed my world view in those days. I grew up believing that dynamite shacks dotted the American landscape, that shotgun barrels could be tied in knots like twine, and that people only fell from high places after first hanging motionless in midair for a second and shooting a pathetic look and a wave goodbye at the viewer.

I had given up my Saturday-morning cartoon habit a while ago, but through no choice of my own. I stopped watching only because all those great cartoons had disappeared from TV years ago, replaced by crummy, humorless martial-arts cartoons whose only point seemed to be to sell action figures.

I rediscovered my old Looney Toons favorites because my son A.J. was reading about animals in the desert and asked me a question about roadrunners. I made some comment about roadrunners not really saying “beep-beep” and he just stared back at me and asked what I was talking about. So I searched for a coyote and roadrunner clip to show him, and found a gold mine. We watched a couple of them together on my laptop, and he liked them—and it’s a rare surprise when your kid will admit to liking something that you have pushed on him.

So we’ve started a new Saturday morning tradition. We watch some Looney Toons together on my laptop. This is one of fatherhood’s real blessings—the license to indulge your leftover adolescent tastes, and do it in the name of good parenting. And best of all, since we’re watching on the little screen of my laptop, my boy and I have to sit right on top of each other, his head on my shoulder, one of my arms around him, laughing together. I hope this tradition lasts a long time.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Cruelest Month

I have a bad attitude about August. This goes back to my days in grade school, when the whole month was ruined for me by its proximity to the start of school. The first day of August was always, for me, the day that it became impossible to ignore the fact that the Best Summer Ever that I had planned for myself back in May was in fact not likely to come to pass. August was the month for trying—hopelessly, joylessly—to pack in all the hedonistic fun and supposedly unforgettable adventure that had eluded me in June and July. By the time of my family’s annual Labor Day cookout, I had given up trying. I would look around at all the people enjoying the sunshine, the food, the good times, and I would think, “How can you people enjoy yourselves when you know that school starts tomorrow?”

Now that A.J. is getting ready to start first grade, and our house is busy with supply-buying and backpack-readying, all my August-phobia is bobbing back up to the surface again. Thanfully, my son has a healthier attitude about summer and the end of summer. He likes school, and has ever since we started him in pre-school. He’s thrilled to be starting first grade, and is keeping a running countdown on the chalkboard in his bedroom of the days left until school starts. I just hope he’s always so excited about school. This is one of those cases where I’m really glad he doesn’t take after his father.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Badgering

I haven’t been to many state capitols, but I can’t imagine too many are much cooler than the one in Madison, Wisconsin. There’s the usual impressive dome and the hilltop views, but what I really love about this capitol building are the carved badgers guarding the doors to the Sentate and Assembly chambers. Maybe it’s just my fear of badgers talking, but they look like they’re about to go for your throat. (The female figure atop the capitol dome has another badger perched on top of her helmet. She’s 285 feet up in the air, which is awfully high up to be playing around with badgers on top of your head, if you ask me.)

We were in Madison earlier this week for a day trip, and we took A.J. to see the Capitol. Last time we were there, we were able to walk into the Senate chamber—they were not in session--and A.J. got to sit in one of the senator’s chairs and played with the yes/no voting button. It was just like he was a little Senator, except without the opportunities for graft and corruption. This time, we made the mistake of visiting on a Sunday, so all the rooms were locked. But A.J. still liked running laps around the observation deck that rings the base of the dome.

Another thing to admire about the Wisconsin State Capitol: It is surrounded by a surprising number of taverns. We had lunch at a nice Irish pub right across the street from the Capitol. I was trying to imagine finding someplace like that open on a Sunday in the state capital I know best, sleepy Springfield, Illinois.

Later, at the University of Wisconsin student union, we found an even nicer place to have a beer: on the union’s terrace overlooking Lake Mendota. We found a place to sit, let A.J. splash around in the shallow water, and watched the sailboats scuttle around. All in all, a pretty nice way to kill a Sunday afternoon.

I like the philosophy up there in Wisconsin. Higher education, state government: It all goes down better with beer.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Friday Night Tykes

A.J. started his first season of flag-football with his first-ever football practice this week. His mom and I drove him over to the practice field, and he was about as excited as I’ve ever seen him. For the several days leading up to the practice, there had been a litany of questions:

Do we get jerseys? Yes.

Will they have numbers? I don't know.

Can I play quarterback? Your coach will probably let everyone have a chance to try all the positions.

So I can play quarterback? I don’t know.

It’s an amazing thing, the enthusiasm of a six-year-old. It is, in the end, the best reason I can think of for signing him up for this league and standing around on the sidelines with the other parents.

Still, the idea of six-year-olds playing organized football does seem a little bizarre to me. Part of the problem is my suspicion of the overzealous youth sports culture, which is definitely on display in these parts. They start the kids on football at five, t-ball at four, and hockey, I think, even earlier. At every stage, parents seem to be obliged to advertise their kids’ youth sports affiliation with a sticker fixed on the back window of the minivan or SUV. At my son’s school, the boys in the youth football league wear their jerseys on Fridays, and the girls in cheerleading wear their little cheerleading outfits—even the first-graders—just like the big kids in high school. I guess it’s never too young to steer the kids into inflexible cliques.

You can argue about whether kids so young are emotionally ready for organized sports, but there’s no arguing this point: They can’t catch a ball worth a damn. I watched A.J.’s practice and the kids were as cute as could be, but not one of them could reliably catch a ball or throw a ball or even run with one for very long without dropping it. Come to think of it, they reminded me a little of some of the Bears teams of the late ‘70s I grew up watching.

Still, it was a good practice. The kids got to run around, throw some grass at each other, and listen to their coach try to explain what he means by “two parallel lines.”

The only real downer: No jerseys were handed out. So on the way home, the questions continued:

Daddy, will we get jerseys next week? I don’t know.

What color are our jerseys? I don't know.

Will they have numbers? Sounds of father sobbing.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Kid-Besotted

I had been warned that being a parent could be hard work, and now that I’m six years into the job, I’d say one of the toughest parts is finding someone who will listen to me brag about my kid.

No one really likes to hear a parent go on and on about his kid. It was as true a century ago as it is today. Evelyn Toynton reviews (Harper’s subscribers only) Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family by Alexander Waugh in the August Harper’s and quotes one of Arthur Waugh’s “almost daily” letters to his teenage son Alec, away at boarding school: “Son of my soul, who has walked so many miles, his arm in mine, and poured out to me a heart that the rest of the world will never know, but which I treasure as a golden gift from God.”

Toynton writes that Arthur was “so besotted” that “his friends feared for his sanity, and his employees…would inquire sarcastically as he entered the office, ‘And how is Master Alec this morning, sir?’”

I know better than to try to do kid-talk with my single friends. They don’t even try to hide their lack of interest. I’ve learned to save most of my stories of my boy’s wonderfulness for his grandparents, who seem like the natural audience for this sort of thing. But who knows, maybe they’re rolling their eyes at me the whole time, like Arthur Waugh’s employees. Not that this will stop me. Just last week my son wrote and illustrated his own eight-page book about prairie dogs, which must be an early sign of genius. It’s up to me to tell the world, or at least his grandparents, about it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Naming Names

According to the authors of this piece in City Journal, only five of Florida’s nearly 3000 public schools are named for George Washington, but eleven are named for manatees. That’s part of a trend, they write, away from naming public schools for public figures and instead naming them after landscape features, bodies of water and animals.

According to this report in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, some school districts forbid naming new schools after any person, dead or alive.

I'm just glad that Gabe Kotter taught at James Buchanan High and not at a school named for a manatee.

Monday, July 23, 2007

At Play

Turns out I may have been wrong to have played that game of basketball in the driveway with my son yesterday.

Christopher Shea in the Boston Globe reports on the debate among anthropologists, psychologists, educators and other academic types about whether it’s really all that healthy for parents to play with their kids. Shea starts by citing an academic paper by Utah State University anthropologist David Lancy that argues that parents playing with their kids is a relatively recent phenomena limited mostly to middle-class and upper-middle-class Americans. Parents in most cultures think it’s silly for parents to play with their kids, Lancy says, and he’s worried about efforts to push more parent-child play on lower-income families through programs like Massachusetts Parent-Child Home Program. He says such programs assume that lower-income parents are bad parents and warns that advocates of parent-child play are open to charges of “cultural imperialism” by trying to teach poor parents to play with their kids, just like middle-class moms and dads do.

Back at our house, I know A.J. is going to want to play catch in the backyard sometime later afternoon—we do it just about every day. And now that I’ve been warned of the dangers of playing with my kid, I don’t know what I’ll tell him. Maybe I’ll just send him over to Lancy’s house to play.

*****

Speaking of kids’ play: Last week A.J. overheard me talking about pinners, the baseball-style sidewalk game I grew up playing on Kilbourn Street on Chicago’s northwest side. In pinners, the batter scores by bouncing a rubber ball off a cement apartment building stoop and getting it past his opponent, who is playing the field and whose job is to catch the ball. (Into the street on the fly is a home run, usually.) A.J. wanted to know all about pinners, and insisted I show him how to play. Pinners doesn’t exactly translate well to the hinterlands, though. Instead of a concrete stoop, we had to make do with pine decking of our front porch. And instead of a sidewalk and parkway and a few weedy ailanthus trees, we had to play on our driveway, which is kind of antithetical to the whole pinners aesthetic. (Not enough street traffic in close proximity.) But whatever, A.J. loved it, and he’s been asking me to play it with him every day since. I think he’s itching to introduce the game to the kids next door. Maybe this is the start of a pinners revival in the hinterlands.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Rite Turn

In the wake of Pope Benedict XVI's removal of restrictions on the Latin Mass last week, Slate has recycled my article on the old-school rite. Read it here.

Dangerous Books

I brought home “The Dangerous Book for Boys,” by Conn and Hal Iggulden, a while ago, and I was expecting the worst. I’d been reading a lot about the book—about its year at the top of bestseller lists in Britain, but also about its sins against gender equality and child safety. (The book assumes that there are some activities that will appeal more to boys than girls, and that kids will survive skinned knees.) Not many things bore me more than an argument about gender politics, and the book seemed to have sparked a big one. And so I was almost tempted to write “Dangerous Book” off as reactionary and paranoid, and its critics as overwrought.

But “Dangerous Book” turns out to be more quaint than ideological. With its neo-Victorian aesthetic and nostalgic tone, it seems to be aimed not so much at boys as at their aging Boomer daddies.

My six-year-old boy has been dipping into it lately and the most dangerous thing he has taken away from the book has been an interest in the old game of three-coin table hockey. He and I have been playing just about every day lately.

But I’m not sure I agree with the authors that there is a groundswell of boys out there who really want to read Rudyard Kipling’s “If.”

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Angry Americans

My essay on anger is in the summer issue of Notre Dame Magazine. Read it here.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Le Jogging

Let’s start this post with a confession. I’m a jogger. I begin most days by going out for what I like to call a run—but to be completely honest, I could just as well call it a trudge or a plod.

There are some hardcore runners in my neighborhood, guys who like to talk about their running, compare their times, chat about the local road races. But for me running is more of a secret, guilty pleasure. If I were young enough and social enough to find myself some decent pickup basketball games, I’m not sure I’d be running at all. There’s something slightly embarrassing about running—not so much the running itself, as the fact that I’ve made it my workout of choice. Maybe it’s that running smacks of trying too hard. I see a runner all decked out in his short shorts and his Oakley glasses and his high-tech racing shirt and I peg him as a guy who is a little too into himself and his exercise. But do I look all that different when I go out for my runs?

The Boston Globe’s Brainiac blog
had an interesting piece on French intellectuals’ reaction to the jogging habit of French president Nicolas Sarkozy. One prominent philosopher called jogging an “undignified” and self-absorbed pursuit and the leftist newspaper Liberation asked, “Is jogging right wing?”

It’s an excellent question. But I’m going to keep running. If there’s one group I feel even less in common with than runners, it’s French intellectuals.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Johnny Frigo

Before we married, my wife and I used to go to a bar on Lincoln Park West called Toulouse to hear Johnny Frigo play violin. Frigo played the internatonal jazz festival circuit and he was regarded as one of the best jazz violinists around, but on Wednesday nights at Toulouse, he managed to make everyone in the tiny room feel like part of a circle of friends who were in on a secret. Frigo died today, at 90. The Chicago Tribune’s obit, by John Kelllman, is here.

Frigo got a lot of praise for his virtuosic technique and for his enormous repertoire, but what few people mentioned was that it was a lot of fun to listen to him banter with the audience in a small club like Toulouse. He and his pianist Joe Vito used to make the sorts of bad puns and wisecracks that reminded me of my dad and his buddies at a backyard cookout.

He took requests at Toulouse and one night he played “A Fine Romance” for me, and followed that up with “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” which an extremely tan retirement-age woman in gold jewelry had requested from the bar.

My wife got Frigo to play at our wedding, and I will never forget dancing with her while Frigo played “The Way You Look Tonight.” And my father-in-law, a former University of Michigan football player, will probably never forget Frigo playing “Hail to the Victors.” I’ve never seen so many people on the dance floor at a wedding. And I don’t know how many people came up to me that night to tell me that they had never heard anyone play like that.

Those nights at Toulouse were some of the best nights of my life. For all I know, my wife married me because I took her to hear Johnny Frigo.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Life in a Cage

Today's New York Times has this story by Lee Jenkins, about Anaheim Angels rookie Reggie Willets, who is living with his wife and family in a 60' x 30' warehouse-style building that houses Willets' batting cage. The Willets are building a real house, but for now life in the batting cage is convenient for Willets. He "merely has to roll out of bed and start taking his hacks," writes Jenkins. Here's more:

When he wants to bat, he pushes aside the sofas to form his personal playing field. He steps inside the net, suspended from the ceiling. If Amber is busy, he hits off a tee.

If she is free, she feeds balls into the pitching machine. Amber stands behind an L-Screen, the kind used to protect batting-practice pitchers. Still, line drives sometimes rip through the screen.

“I know she’s taken a few in the helmet,” said Mickey Hatcher, the Angels’ hitting coach. “But that’s part of the game.”


I read that part to my wife and she told me not to get any ideas.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Overparenting Update

Another week of t-ball, another week of mind-boggling displays of overparenting. Most amazing thing I heard on the field this week, from a father yelling at his six-year-old son, who was playing second base: "Tommy, stand up! You NEVER kneel on a baseball field. . . NEVER!"

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Naming Names

Not long ago at my son's t-ball game, my wife met two little kids, siblings, named Clark and Addison. Their father, a Chicago Cubs fan, had named them for the intersection that is famous as the location of Wrigley Field.

I'm a White Sox fan and I have to admit to being a little envious of that dad. If Sox fans tried a similar approach they'd end up with kids called 35th and Shields.

When it came to our kid, my wife and I went traditional. We named A.J. for his two grandfathers, Andrew and John. But according to Alexandra Alter's article in the Wall Street Journal, it's not done that way much anymore. Alter writes about couples consulting databases and websites and hiring "naming consultants" to help come up with a perfectly distinctive name for their kids. She offers us this quote from an author of eight books about baby names: "People who understand branding know that when you pick the right name, you're giving your child a head start."

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Summer

First thing this morning, my son A.J., who is the authority on all things meteorological around our house, reminded me that summer begins at 1:06 Central this afternoon. And my wife read to me an online news story about “pagans, druids and partiers” celebrating the solstice at Stonehenge wearing “antlers and oak leaves.”

Our own celebrations will be more low-key. A.J. is spending the day with the rest of the kids in his day camp visiting a zoo. And my wife is celebrating by going to Trader Joe’s and buying our first watermelon of the season. If the rain holds off, maybe we’ll make it the centerpiece of a picnic.

For me, the first day of summer is the perfect time to start thinking about how short summer is, how quickly it passes, and how its transience inevitably leaves you with a gnawing awareness of missed opportunities and your own mortality. I dug out a quarter-century-old column headed “Summer’s end recalls memory of a faded dream,” written by former Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist John Schulian. My old friend, M. had clipped it out and sent it to me right after it was published on September 24, 1983. M. and I were both sophomores in college then, and aspiring writers, and Schulian’s just slightly overwritten piece—which managed to be about baseball and death and chances not taken, while name-dropping Tom T. Hall, Yeats, White Sox DH Ron Kittle and the Police—struck us as exactly the kind of thing we wanted to write someday.

(I googled Schulian to see what had become of him and learned that, among other accomplishments, he helped create the TV show “Xena: Warrior Princess.”)

Schulian’s column begins:

Up ahead, you could see a full moon sandwiched between thick, wet clouds. Beneath them glowed the lights of Chicago, turning the soggy heavens red-orange and proving that this ribbon of highway actually led somewhere. Another country radio station faded into oblivion inside the car, so you pressed a button and came across the White Sox, summer's golden children at play on a night made for antifreeze.

Their presence should have been a comfort at 70 miles an hour, just as it had been since they used June as their launching pad to glory. But now the Sox were bidding adieu to their regular season at home. They weren’t going to return to Comiskey Park until October’s playofs, and the thought left you feeling as empty as a farewell at a train station. Summer was over.

All you could do about it was punch another button on the car’s radio, punch another button and hope you would hear the Police singing “Every Step You Take.” [sic!] For that was the song that provided the background music for the last three months, lingering in your mind whether you were mowing the lawn or trying to describe the cosmic significance of the infield fly rule. . .


I keep that column in a little cigar box along with a few other treasures—a grade-school-era rosary, some collar stays—and I still give it a read every now and then. Comiskey Park is gone, the Police are back, I don’t hear much from M. anymore, and the White Sox (“summer’s golden children”) aren’t as much fun to watch these days as they were in 1983 or in 2005, for that matter.

But summer starts this afternoon, and my kid is really excited about it. Who am I to disagree?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Few Kind Words About Teenagers

This has turned out to be Say Something Good about Teenagers Week. I was talking the other day with my old friend J., a psychologist who works mainly with kids, and he was telling me about the walls that go up between parents and their teenage kids. J. says that, despite the way we stereotype teens as difficult and dopey, the teenagers he works with tend to be articulate and reasonable. The problem, J. says, is usually that their parents can't bring themselves to trust their kids or listen to them or find ways to communicate with them.

The next day, I happened to be talking to my mother on the phone, and she mentioned attending a high-school graduation party for one of my cousins. She started telling me, in typical Mom style, about what polite friends my cousin had. “They were such nice kids,” she said, sounding a little amazed. “They all said hello when I came in and were very respectful. It kind of gives you hope that maybe all teenagers aren’t out of control.” I hadn’t mentioned my conversation with J. to my mother, but she seemed to be providing evidence both for his point about the way adults habitually trash teens and for his point that at least some of the kids deserve a little more credit.

Then this morning, I came across this interview from Psychology Today with psychologist Robert Epstein, whose book “The Case Against Adolescence” argues that teens are more competent than we think and that most of their problems can be traced to the restrictions placed on them.

Epstein says: "In recent surveys I've found that American teens are subjected to more than 10 times as many restrictions as mainstream adults, twice as many restrictions as active-duty U.S. Marines, and even twice as many as incarcerated felons. Psychologist Diane Dumas and I also found a correlation between infantilization and psychological dysfunction. The more young people are infantilized, the more psychopathology they show.What's more, since 1960, restrictions on teens have been accelerating. Young people are restricted in ways no adult would be—for example, in some states they are prohibited from entering tanning salons or getting tattoos."

Epstein makes a convincing argument against infantalizing teens, but I’m going to remain agnostic on the competent teen issue. I’d like to be more optimistic, but there’s one teenager in my neighborhood whose habit of driving his ATV in circles for hours on end has me soured on a whole generation. But then Epstein would probably say that the problem there is that we have failed to help the kid find something better to do.

Bragging Rights

It’s official. I have been named “The Best Dad in the World.” This, according to the really cute Father’s Day card my son made for me and presented, along with French toast and fresh-cut flowers provided by my wife, while I lazed in bed with the Sunday paper. It was such a wonderful morning even Frank Rich’s column couldn’t ruin it for me. But now I’d better get back to my parenting. I am determined to retain my title next Father’s Day. (I understand that there may be rival claims made in similar fashion by other little kids on behalf of their fathers. But I don’t care.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Paper Cuts

Dwight Garner, the really outstanding and damn nice editor at The New York Times Book Review has launched a blog called Paper Cuts that is well worth checking out. I especially liked reading short story master George Saunders' music playlist. It has both John Adams' "On the Transmigration of Souls" and the Allman Brothers' "Jessica."

Friday, June 8, 2007

Awards

My Notre Dame Magazine piece, “No Time For You,” received a bronze medal in the Best Articles of the Year category of the publication awards of the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. And the magazine itself, to which I’ve been contributing pretty regularly for the last few years, took a gold medal in the General Excellence category.

Return to Little Zagreb

I spent last weekend, with my wife and my son, in Bloomington, Indiana, where we attended the wedding of one of my wife’s longtime friends. For me, it was the first time I had been in Bloomington since I had spent a week at Indiana University in 1992 (or maybe it was 1988--all I know for sure is that I remember watching the summer Olympics on TV in my motel room that week) attending a writing workshop run by the editor Gordon Lish.

Lish’s class was a little strange. For example, though the class ran for six hours, he allowed no breaks. In his comments to us at the start of class, he seemed to equate the stamina and willpower needed to go six hours without pissing with the heroic effort required of the true artist. “You may, I suppose, go to the bathroom, if you must,” he would say, before adding, “But observe Gordon! Does he?”

That use of the third person was classic Lish. We heard a lot of it that week.

Lish projected the sort of bizarre, self-obsessed charisma that attracts acolytes. The class was full of Lish-ies starving for a minute of his attention and a few approving words. Even the few of us who weren’t completely sold on the program were caught up in the competitive, hyperambitious dynamic. Me, too. I wanted badly to publish some of my short stories, and I remember how excited I was when I sent Lish a batch, and he sent back a note that said, “Show me more.”

That remains the most encouraging note I ever received from Gordon Lish.

After class, my friend M., who had come down from Chicago with me to take the class, and I would walk around campus or downtown Bloomington, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Great Teacher. One night we found our way to a place called Janko’s Little Zagreb, where we had dinner and got drunk, which was our other usual post-class objective. What I remember about the restaurant was that it was decorated with a ridiculous number of photographic portraits of Bobby Knight. But here’s what, for M. and me, really matters: As we were leaving the place, I dropped my car keys to the ground and they came within a few inches of falling down a storm sewer drain. To M. and me, drunk as we were, that seemed like the most hilarious and outrageous of events, and even after we had sobered up, the night lived on in our re-tellings as “that night we got drunk after Lish’s class and Santella dropped his keys in the sewer drain.” There is no saying how many people—dates, mostly—we bored with the re-telling of that story. And now you, reader, can now also consider yourself bored.

But last week, in Bloomington with my family for that wedding, it for some reason seemed important to me to find Janko’s Little Zagreb again--if it was still there--and to see if it still looked at all the way I remembered it. And I wanted, of course, to see if I could locate that storm sewer drain.

So on Saturday afternoon, while my wife and the rest of the women in the wedding party were doing wedding things, I took my boy A.J. for a walk down Sixth Street in Bloomington. And before I could even really start looking for Janko’s, there it was. The place was not yet open, so I couldn’t get a look inside to see if the Bobby Knight photo gallery survived. But everything else about the outside of the place looked vaguely familiar. And there at the corner of Sixth and Morton was a storm sewer drain that must have been the very storm sewer drain of legend. It had to be. And so I stood there for a minute, thinking about the years that had passed since the last time I had stood there, and thinking about all the ways the world had changed and I had changed, and thinking mostly that I had really better not drop my car keys this time.

And then A.J. said, “C’mon, Daddy, let’s go somewhere else.”

Which is when I decided to try to explain to A.J. why I had come looking for this place and why I wanted to stand there for a moment in quiet contemplation. And so I told my son about the night, many years ago, I had almost dropped the car keys down the drain outside Janko’s Little Zagreb.

And I can tell you that of all the people I’ve told that story to, of all the people whose eyes I’ve seen glaze over in boredom, never have I seen anyone so uninterested in that story as my own son.

Smart kid.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Literate Jocks

The May 31 New York Review of Books has a review (subscription only) of a new biography of Gene Tunney, and reviewer David Margolick mentions the legend of Tunney giving a lecture on Shakespeare at Yale while he was heavyweight champion. According to the biography (Tunney: Boxing’s Brainiest Champ and His Upset of the Great Jack Dempsey by Jack Cavanaugh), Tunney in his lecture likened Ajax in Troilus and Cressida to heavyweight challenger Jack Sharkey. Tunney befriended George Bernard Shaw and later became boxing editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Margolick doesn’t have much use for Tunney’s literacy, though. He questions whether Tunney actually had anything of interest to say about the books he read. And he mentions Studs Terkel’s opinion of Tunney: “a phony intellectual.”

Literate jocks can’t win. Former New York Yankee pitcher Jim Bouton redefined the whole jock-memoir genre with his 1970 book Ball Four. (Here’s my essay on Bouton and Ball Four from The New York Times Book Review.) Even before Bouton, another pitcher, Jim Brosnan, published a readable insider memoir in 1962 called The Long Season. He wrote of reading Mark Twain on team flights while his teammates were playing poker. But like Tunney, Bouton and Brosnan were ostracized for their literacy. (When Bouton’s pitches were getting hit hard, the taunts would come from the opposing dugout: “Put that in your book, Shakespeare.”)

But why should athletes have to apologize for wanting to read and write? And why should the sports world be so anti-literate? Is it unmanly to read? To talk about reading? I wish there were an athlete like Tunney on the scene today. Even phony intellectualism would be a welcome relief from the unrelenting wave of clich├ęs and mumbled egotism that characterizes most locker-room discourse. Most athletes’ memoirs are dismal, ghostwritten dreck. Even ex-jocks turned color analysts are mocked by their on-air colleagues if they dare to try to sound intelligent: Use a “big word” and be prepared to defend your regular-guy credentials.

I’d be grateful for any jock who wanted to read and talk about “Troilus and Cressida,” instead of ridiculing him in The New York Review of Books.

The Swimmer

The neighborhood pool opened this weekend and with it, our campaign to get A.J. to give swimming a chance. He likes the pool, likes hanging out there, but he doesn’t swim so much as he lounges by poolside, watching his friends do their daring-verging-on-reckless cannonballs and dives into the deep end.

Since I want him to feel more comfortable in the water (which is to say, not so much on the verge of utter panic), and we’re not quite sure what to try next (the swim lessons and the peer pressure have had little effect), I did what any anxious parent would do. I threw some money at the problem. I bought A.J. a pair of swim fins, goggles and snorkel. They were waiting for him when he got home from kindergarten this afternoon, and he was so happy to see them that he insisted on trying on the whole kit right then and there. He spent part of the afternoon walking around the house in his new frogman look. He reminded me a little of Dustin Hoffman at the beginning of “The Graduate.” We now know he likes wearing them around the house; we still have to see if he’ll try them at the pool.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Death of a Magazine

Sad to read about the demise of American Heritage magazine. My dad was a subscriber and I grew up on it, which explains my complete ignorance of children’s literature. When I should have been reading “Jack and the Beanstalk,” I was trying to read Bruce Catton’s analysis of Jackson’s Valley Campaign or something like that. It was all way beyond me, but I loved the illustrations—the Remington paintings of cowboys and Catlin’s Indians. And it introduced me to the best and strangest story of all.

Easy Rider

A.J. has been wanting badly to learn to ride his bike. Most of his friends are bike-riding fiends, circling around in the neighborhood driveways like junior Hell’s Angels. But something has been holding A.J. back. We’ve tried training wheels and coasting down hills to learn how to balance and putting the seat way down so he would feel safe close to the ground. But, no matter what, he tells himself he can’t do it, and so he doesn’t.

But today he did it. He rode his bike on his own.

The last few mornings we’ve been going out to try riding his bike and I’ve been getting him started and running alongside him holding on lightly to the handlebar. (He made me promise that I would not let go.) And today, I could feel that he was doing all the balancing himself. And so I told him that he was really already riding his bike himself and that I was going to let go for a few seconds.

I expected him to scream, “No!” But he didn’t. He just kept pedaling, concentrating hard. And I let go, and off he went. In a few seconds he had left me behind.

It was a wonderful thing to see, and I felt proud and relieved. But I also couldn’t help thinking of all the times I’ve seen this moment portrayed in TV shows and commercials, and I had to wonder if we looked like the fathers and sons on TV.

Oh, just once to have an unmediated experience.

Anyway, A.J. was extremely excited and proud of himself, which I could tell because he was trying hard not to look too excited and proud of himself. When he got off the bike, I gave him a huge hug and then we went home to show his mom his new trick. And to celebrate: a chocolate donut with sprinkles at Dunkin’ Donuts, of course.

Afterward, he wanted to talk about what he’d learned.

“Riding by yourself is the best,” he said. “Training wheels are bad, riding with your dad holding on is a little better, but riding by yourself is the best.”

Monday, May 14, 2007

Career Day

Yesterday, A.J. informed us at breakfast that he wanted to be “a human body scientist” when he grew up. Then he asked if he would need any special training.

My wife went into a detailed explanation of the possible educational paths he could follow, with sidebars to define biology and botany and to explain the concept of an academic major.

When she had finished, A.J. was silent, as if considering what he had just heard. Then he said, “The other thing I could be is a clothing-store employee.”

The Domestic

I spent Friday as a home-office refugee, chased from spot to spot by my kid and his friends and the wall of noise they were making. I started in my favorite spot, on the screened-in porch, but had to leave when the kids got up a game of wiffle ball. (I say I had to leave, but of course I know plenty of fathers who would have told their kids to get lost in similar situations, and their approach is probably better than mine. But I’ve never been able to stand in the way of a game of wiffle ball.) I took my laptop up to the balcony off our bedroom, but had to move again when the painters working on the house next door started power-washing the deck. As much as I love working at home, and as much as I love not having to spend my days in a cubicle surrounded by miserable co-workers, there is something a little unnatural about a man spending an ordinary Monday or Tuesday in his house. The domestic world belongs to mom and the kids—I know that sounds starkly Larry Summers-ish, but there it is--and having a man around somehow seems wrong to everybody, including the man.

In the June Atlantic Benjamin Schwarz reviews a pair of books on domestic architecture, and calls the family home “contested terrain—between the individual and the family, children and the parents, wives and husbands.”

But I say it's no contest. Which is one of the reasons I’m writing this at five in the morning. I’ve got the house to myself at this time of day, and I can work where I want.

My wife and kid will be up in an hour or so, and they’ll reclaim their space then.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Game Over

A.J.’s team has finished its third week of T-ball without any major injuries, an impressive accomplishment when you consider the team’s defensive style, which is to watch all batted balls roll slowly through the infield and to not move a muscle until the ball has come to a complete stop. At this point, every player in the field runs to the ball, screaming as loud as they possibly can and forming a pile on whichever poor kid happened to get to the ball first.

We’ve been working with the kids on trying to actually intercept the ball while it is still in motion, to maybe knock it down or perhaps to even catch it. They’re getting it, slowly. I have to take this opportunity to brag about my son, who while playing in the infield last week actually caught a ground ball, turned his body and made a perfect throw to the first baseman. There was quite a lot of applause. You don’t see many actual putouts in T-ball.

Last Sunday, I was trying to explain to the infielders the vital importance of turning one's body to face the batter, instead of looking at the sky or beyond the outfield fence. D., one of the more introspective players on the team, was playing shortstop lying on his back with his glove over his face.

“Be ready, everybody!” I said in my way-too-enthusiastic coach voice. “I think this one’s coming to you, D.”

To which D. responded, “When is the game over?”

Yet another question I couldn't answer.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Slated

Slate has my piece on reactions to rumors that the Tridentine Mass may soon be more readily available to Catholics.

A must-read for all you fans of plainchant and incense.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Disrepair

I had a long list of home maintenance projects lined up for the weekend, but after reading Joyce Wadler’s story in the New York Times about home repair disasters—chainsaw amputations, ladder collapses, and one guy who nail-gunned his foot to the floor—I see no choice but to postpone everything.

If anyone needs me, I’ll be snoozing on the screened-in porch.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Dandelion Party

We took A.J. to the Lincoln Park Zoo yesterday, a perfect spring day of sun and breezes. Even A.J. was excited by beauty of the day. Leaving our house, we drove past an open pasture that was covered in a fresh wave of dandelions.

“Look at all those dandelions!” he said. “It’s like a dandelion party.”

Not as many dandelions at the zoo, but A.J. liked the polar bears and the seals and the lions, and I think he was most impressed by the way the red wolves howled every time they heard a fire-truck or police siren.

After the zoo, we took a detour for lunch at the Four Farthings, where everyone was watching the NFL draft on TV. My wife wanted to know why the draft was on TV and why anyone would want to watch a bunch of football players in ill-fitting suits walk up to a podium and pose for photographs. I didn’t really have a convincing answer for her.

By the time we finished with lunch, A.J was dragging.

“Can we take a cab back to our car?” he wanted to know. I like the way he wants to act the street-smart city kid—hailing cabs, hopping on the L—even though he’s growing up in the hinterlands.

Still, we walked back to the car. And every time we heard a siren, we howled like red wolves.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Taking the Field

Long before I became a father, I had vowed that I would never allow myself to be roped into coaching kids’ sports. I guess because I’m a devoted sports fan and maybe because I appear to have the mentality of a preadolescent, people are always telling me that I should coach Little League.

To me, that’s just like volunteering to babysit for half the neighborhood a few times a week all summer.

But when we got to A.J.’s first t-ball practice on Sunday and learned that no one had offered to coach his team, I found myself trying to organize a bunch of six-year-olds. (I don’t know why I stepped forward. I guess just seeing so many little kids standing around doing nothing and waiting for some direction made me nervous.) So I had them pair off and play catch, rolled them some ground balls, and told them what position to play.

A.J. seemed okay with all of it. He was happy just to be wearing his uniform and playing on a real baseball field. I made sure he got to play a little shortstop, which is where he had been hoping to play. He took his position there, then turned to me and said, “Daddy, shortstop is the best position because so many balls get hit there.”

While he was saying this, someone hit a ball almost right at him and it rolled past him and into leftfield. I don’t think he was ever aware of it. He looked really good in his uniform, though.

The kids were a lot of fun. They were goofy and easily distracted and their noses ran like faucets—basic six-year-olds, in other words—but no problem, really.

They had a lot of questions for me:

“Is it true that we’re getting trophies?” (Maybe at the end of the season.)
`
“Can I go to the bathroom?” (Yes.)

“Can I ask my mom for some water?” (Wait until this inning’s over.)

“How come that kid can’t hit?” (Uh….)

There was one kid who looked a little panicked, like he had no idea what he was supposed to do or where he was supposed to go. He was playing first base, so I tried to explain his job to him and told him he looked a like a real pro out there and gave him a few high-fives. When I was through with all that, he still looked as panicked as ever.

He got through the practice though, and so did A.J. and so did I.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Commuters

Just about every morning, around the time the traffic reports come on the radio, I remind myself to be thankful that my daily commute involves walking down a flight of stairs to my home office. One of the best things about my work-at-home job is that on most days I don’t have to deal with 90-minute train rides and monumental traffic jams.

I thought of all this when I read Nick Paumgarten’s entertaining piece in the April 16 New Yorker, about commutes from hell. Paumgarten tells about one woman's six-hour dailyy commute, argues that commuting makes people unhappy, and quotes “Bowling Alone” author Robert Putnam to the effect that unhappiness increases relative to the length of a commute. “Commuting is connected to social isolation, which causes unhappiness,” is how Baumgarten quotes Putnam.

That doesn’t make complete sense to me. Becase the downside of my no-commute life is that spending day after day at home with only your family and your laptop for companionship can be a little crazy-making. The isolation effect is especially bad out here in the hinterlands, where there aren’t enough welcoming distractions to get me through some days—no coffee house down the street to walk to, no welcoming corner tavern to kill time in. (It’s not that there are no coffee shops or corner taverns out here, just that they’re too spread out and tend to be not worth the drive.)

So one of the solutions I’ve worked out to the social isolation problem is to get on the train every once in a while and spend an occasional day in the city, where I meet old friends at actual corner taverns or coffee shop or sometimes even an art museum (something completely lacking out our way.)

It’s ironic: For me a train ride into the city is a cure for social isolation, and for the everyday commuter, if Putnam is to believed, it’s the cause of social isolation.

I guess that’s the difference between having to get on the 7:40 express and choosing to get on the 7:40 express.

At the Ballpark

We took A.J. to see the White Sox play the Texas Rangers a couple nights ago. A.J.’s a big Sox fan, but much more exciting than the game to him is the kids’ baseball learning complex the Sox built behind the left field bleachers. They have batting cages back there, and pitching speed radar guns, and a Little League infield for fielding practice, and a track where kids can race against an automated likeness of Scott Podsednik, the White Sox base-stealing specialist. It’s like a big habittrail for baseball-crazy kids.

By the time we got to our seats just in time for the first pitch, he had run out of gas and had shifted into crabby six-year-old mode. His complaining eased up only when Sox slugger Jim Thome hit a hard foul ball right toward us in the upper deck down the right field line. Almost right off the bat I knew it was coming right toward me. Watching it coming at us reminded me of a scene from an old Warner Brothers cartoon where the falling anvil gets bigger and bigger as it drops toward Wile Coyote. But somehow I managed to catch it and immediately turned it over to Andy, who frankly, didn’t seem to fully understand what was happening. It was only when other fans in the section around us started buzzing about it, asking to see the ball, asking me if my hand was alright (it was about 35 degrees out that night), that A.J. began to get it.

And then he couldn’t stop talking about it.

“Is this a real major league baseball?”

“Is that scratch there from when it hit Jim Thome’s bat?”

“Can I take it to Show and Tell?”

The ball is in A.J.'s room now, in a little display case, but he takes it out a few times a day to look at it.

I’ve been a father for six years now, but I’m not sure anything has ever made me feel more like a dad than giving A.J. that ball.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Making Babies

A.J. came downstairs to ask me a question.

He said, “Did you know daddies help make babies?”

I said, “Yeah, I knew that.”

Then he turned around and went back upstairs.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Cleats

T-ball season is almost here--four days until the Opening Day parade. A.J. has formed some definite ideas about how his season will go, and they mostly center on two ideas:

1) He will play shortstop; and

2) He will wear cleats.

I suppose the shortstop business can be traced back to last year's T-ball coach, who, when he saw A.J. scooping up some ground balls, announced, "OK, A.J., you're going to be our shortstop." I don't think I've ever seen a boy look prouder, even though the coach wasn't exactly fully serious. At that age level, it's generally accepted practice to rotate the kids around the diamond, so they get an inning at each position.

Nevertheless, since about mid-February, A.J. has been announcing to me daily, usually completely out of the blue, "I'm going to play shortstop this year."

I usually make some long-winded, buzz-killing dad's reply: "Well, I think your coach will probably have everyone take a turn at all the positions..."

To which A.J. will say, "I know, but I'm going to be shortstop."

Then there's his other obsession: Cleats.

Last year, they weren't allowed. This year, they are. It seems like bizarre overkill to me to have six-year-old kids wearing cleats and baseball pants for T-ball. Whatever happened to a t-shirt, rolled-up jeans, and a pair of Chuck Taylors? I have a hard enough time getting used to the idea of six-year-olds playing organized baseball (I started at eight), let alone having to outfit them.

But do I want my kid to be the only one on his team without cleats? This morning, we went to the mall and bought a pair of cleats, which, I have to admit, look pretty cool. A.J. tried them out in the store by sprinting down the aisle and sliding into an imaginary home plate. Then he got into a fielder's crouch and moved sideways, like he was getting in front of a ground ball.

"That's how I'll move when I play shortstop," he said.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Snow Day

We had what I really hope is our last snow of the season this week. It snowed enough for A.J. and his mother to make a snowman in our yard. The snowman is now melting nicely, all his mass shifting down to his base, so that it looks like he’s been eating really badly lately. But his top hat remains at a jaunty angle and his carrot nose holds firm. I give him two days.

A.J. and I went outside yesterday morning to check out a tree that had fallen during the storm. The two of us started taking snowball target practice on it, then we turned on each other and played a game of snow dodgeball.

What he really wanted to do was play baseball.

“Can you hit me some ground balls?” he wanted to know. He’s determined to earn the starting shortstop job in t-ball, which starts next week.

“Buddy, there’s four inches of snow on the ground.”

“So?”

We weren’t the only team to have its practice snowed out. Later in the day, I was walking through town and the lacrosse team from the local high school came around the corner on a training run. I guess this is what you do when your field is covered in snow. They were in single file, about 25 of them, all in helmets and pads and carrying their sticks, and running straight at me. It was like something out of a Wes Anderson movie or something. I moved over on the sidewalk and gave them room.

It was only after they passed that it occurred to me that I could have high-fived each of them as they went by.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Coyotes

A coyote wandered into a Quizno’s in downtown Chicago earlier this week. Animal control officers captured the coyote and yesterday he was released in Barrington Hills, about 40 miles outside the city. Somewhere along the way, someone seems to have named the animal Adrian.

In Adrian’s honor, let’s dip into the coyote archive for this profile from GQ of a trapper who patrols the suburbs where varmints and Volvos increasingly mingle. "People think what I do is crappy," says the trapper, "until a critter ends up in their backyard. Then it's a different story."

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

In the Park

Before we moved to the hinterlands from Chicago, I had a favorite Sunday morning routine. I’d ride my bike from my apartment in Bucktown to Lincoln Park, find a spot in the garden between the Shakespeare statue and the zoo, spread out a beach towel and read the Sunday papers there. It was probably my favorite spot in the city—beautiful and placid, but also undeniably urban, with all the minor hassles and unpredictability and potential for people-watching you expect in a big city.

I thought of that place today when I read Jane E. Brody’s column in today’s New York Times. It wasn’t that Brody had written a guide to ideal places for hungover adults to lay around and read the paper. Her column celebrated the value of spontaneous, unstructured free play for kids. But Brody’s piece reminded me of how parks out here in the remote, formerly rural suburbs function so differently from city parks. Parks around here are designed almost entirely with kids in mind. You’ll find playgrounds—sometimes ridiculously elaborate ones—and soccer fields, but few ponds, few conservatories, few bandshells.

I don’t expect to find a public space on par with Lincoln Park’s conservatory gardens out here—if I really wanted that, I never should have left Chicago. But suburban parks too often seem to go out of their way to make adults feel unwelcome. Ever tried to find a bench to sit on and read the newspaper in one of those treeless soccer-field parks? You might be able to do it, but you’ll probably get a lot of stares from kids and their parents and you might to start to feel like the neighborhood creep. The result is something like generational apartheid in suburban public spaces. Adults have their rec centers, old folks are shut away in their senior centers, and kids have the run of the parks. (Ever notice the way moms and dads seem to fidget and pace on the sidelines of the playground while their kids are playing? They know they don't really belong there, and they know it because the park was built without any effort to accomodate them or their interests.)

It’s hard to argue with Brody’s point that kids ought to be able to play outside and on their own, so that they learn to navigate all the ways to get along or not get along with other kids. And she’s appropriately doubtful about the proposed new playgrounds
in New York that will be staffed by “play workers” who guide the children in constructive play.

But I’m not so sure about her suggestion that, because kids tend to spend their after school hours with junk food and video games instead of playing outdoors, “this nation is suffering from an epidemic of childhood depression and obesity.” I’m skeptical about any claims about “epidemics.” If more kids are being diagnosed as depressed today, it may just be because more doctors and educators are inclined to make the diagnosis.

The real trouble is that the neighborhoods with the best parks are also the ones with the biggest backyards and the safest streets. You can go to a suburban park with an elaborately themed playground and manicured sports fields, then look across the street and see jungle gyms and trampolines in every backyard. (Full disclosure: we are one of the few families in our neighborhood with kids but without a backyard playset. I'd like to think that this makes us stubborn holdouts against the privatization of play, but it may just mean that I've always lacked the enterprise to try and put one of those things together.)

I love to complain about our town, but one of the wonderful things about it is that we can turn AJ loose in our backyard to play on his own without too much worry. I can see him and the neighbor kids running around on the trails that connect our yards and shooting baskets in the driveway and playing in the little stream out back. It makes me feel very lucky. In a lot of ways, the place is a kid heaven.

I suppose the price you pay for that feeling is not being able to take the Sunday paper to the park anymore.

Monday, April 2, 2007

The Problem With the Perfect Moment

Last week, we packed our bags, loaded the car full of kid-diverting videos and headed south for a week’s vacation at my wife’s parents’ house. My son A.J., who turned six, shares a birthday with his grandfather. (Of all the ways my wife impresses me, I don’t think anything has ever impressed me more than when she produced baby A.J. at about 11:30 p.m. on her father’s birthday—a just-in-time manufacture that delighted her father, created the lasting bond of the shared birthday between grandfather and grandchild, and finally ended a delivery that had been going on long enough.)

So we were going south to celebrate the double birthday.

I should point out that my in-laws are walking refutations of every lame joke you’ve ever heard about in-laws. I sometimes tell friends that I’m going to spend a week at my in-laws’ house and they give me this look of pity, and I have to explain that, actually, I like spending time with these people. Of course, I shouldn’t bother, because that’s the kind of confession that only makes you seem suspect. What sort of man likes hanging out with his in-laws?

The other thing that has to be said is that my in-laws live in a Perfect Community. The azaleas are pefect and the wildlife is perfect (a dolphin, an ibis, a bobcat!)and the beach is perfect. It's also almost always perfectly deserted. I remember my first visit there, walking over the boardwalk that leads over the dunes and onto the beach and actually having to stop and gape at the view. Miles of empty, gorgeous beach and the Atlantic rolling in.

A.J.’s birthday turned out to be just about perfect, too. He spent about two hours running through the surf, screaming and laughing the whole time. He seemed absolutely and without qualification, happy--in a way that maybe only a six-year-old can be. At one point, he stopped, looked at me and said, “It’s my sixth birthday and I’m at the Atlantic Ocean. Isn’t this great!”

What will stay with me was the game of catch we had out in the front yard in the late afternoon. There was dappled light and there were breezes and there was the tossing of the ball back and forth: all the stuff of bad baseball poetry. I couldn’t think of anything I would rather have been doing.

But here’s the thing about such perfect moments and (Perfect Communities, too): They make me a little nervous. There is an anxiety that accompanies such a scene, at least for me. Maybe there is a kind of pressure to feel a level of contented bliss commensurate with the perfection of the moment. Instead, having noticed how wonderful things are, you start to wonder why you don’t feel appropriately ecstatic. I think some of us are not wired to handle that kind of joy.

I’m glad my son seems to be one of the ones who can.

Acutally, I can think of one thing that wasn’t perfect about the Perfect Community. Too many golfers.