Monday, July 30, 2007


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.