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


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.