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


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


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.