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


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


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.”


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


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.