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


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


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.