Monday, September 24, 2007

Dressing to Coach

I’ve been noticing something strange at A.J.’s flag football games. (Yes, something even stranger than the idea of five- and six-year-olds playing organized football.) I’ve noticed that some of the coaches really dress the part. For the last two weeks, A.J.’s team has played teams whose coaches have worn matching polo shirts in their team’s colors. Last week, in fact, his opponent’s coaches not only wore matching polo shirts, but also carried clipboards--though what they were writing down there I can’t imagine. Really, the only other thing they needed to look like aspiring Nick Sabans or Tony Dungys were headsets.

Those of us dads who help coach A.J.’s team have made no effort to color-coordinate. We usually show up in basic suburban dad get-ups: t-shirts and flip-flops, running shoes and baseball caps. Maybe that makes us lousy coaches and bad dads. But am I wrong in thinking that the matching coaches shirts smack of trying too hard?

What puzzles me is that I watch a lot of football and I’ve seen hundreds of pro and college and even high-school coaching staffs dressed like this, and it has never struck me as odd. But outfitting yourself like this to coach a bunch of first-graders (kids, that is, who are less interested in whether they are on offense or defense at any given moment than in making sure that someone remembered to bring their post-game snack) just seems wrong. Which makes me wonder: What’s the cutoff point for color-coordinating coaches? At what age level can coaches wear matching polo shirts in team colors and not look like complete yutzes?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Chasing Van Gogh

A.J. and his mother made a trip to the Art Institute a few days ago. They’ve been reading the kids’ book Chasing Vermeer and A.J. had the idea of seeing some Vermeer paintings for himself. Honestly, I don’t remember being all that enthused about 17th century Dutch genre painters when I was a kid, but then A.J. is a little different.

I don’t know if the two of them actually got to see any Vermeer. When they returned home, all the talk was about the miniatures collection and a Richard Misrach photo exhibit. And A.J. had a new viewfinder, with slides of a dozen or so works from the Art Institute collection. I asked him which was his favorite, and he showed me Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” I told him I liked Van Gogh’s painting of his bedroom, and A.J. said he wanted to take another look at it. After looking, he announced that he liked that one, too.

Then, because I have this annoying habit of trying to turn too many conversations into teachable moments, I decided to quiz him about the Van Gogh. I asked him if he thought the room looked peaceful or scary. He thought for a second, then he said, “I don’t know, I guess it looks peaceful.”

I said, “Okay, but to me it looks kind of scary.” A.J. looked at it again and asked me what I meant. I said, “Well, maybe it doesn't look scary, maybe it just looks a little creepy.” A.J. looked at it again, and said, “Yeah, I see what you mean. It kind of looks like it’s going to come alive.”

I said, “You know what, that’s a great way to put it. I think that’s exactly what it looks like.”

A.J. looked pleased with himself, and then we put the viewfinder away. He wanted to play some football in the yard. Van Gogh was a nice painter and all, but postimpressionism can’t really compete with two-hand touch.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Middle-Age Wasteland

I’ve written before about academic defenses of teenagers, quoting psychologist Robert Epstein, whose book The Case Against Adolescence argues that kids are more competent than we think and that most of their problems stem from restrictions placed on them by adults.

In today’s New York Times researcher Mike Males writes that too many experts on adolescent behavior malign kids “to draw attention from the reality that it’s actually middle-aged adults—the parents—whose behavior has worsened.”

I like Epstein’s argument against infantilizing teens, but I can’t really bring myself to take sides in any debate about whether teen or adult behavior is more disturbing. I’d rather take the misanthrope’s position: People keep proving themselves capable of making asses of themselves at any age.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Little Presidents

Every day A.J. comes home from school and unloads his backpack on our kitchen counter so that his mother and I can look over the art projects, penmanship practice sheets and math workbooks that he has brought home. Yesterday, there was something else, too: A list of the kids in his class. And there, about halfway down, I saw it. There is a boy named Grant in his class. When I saw that, I had to stop myself from shouting, “Another one!”

Lately I have been noticing how many little kids are running around in the world with the last names of presidents for first names. The boy in A.J.’s class is the second six-year-old Grant we’ve gotten to know in our small town. Then there was Harrison, from t-ball. And Madison, the little girl across the street. And I’m pretty sure there was a girl named Reagan in his preschool class a couple years ago.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not trying to make fun of these kids’ names. They are perfectly good names, most of them. (I have my doubts about Reagan.) I just wonder what’s behind this proliferation of presidential last names as kids’ first names.

I’m not ready to go out on a limb yet and posit this as a full-fledged theory, but I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that presidential names have otherwise pretty much disappeared from our culture. A while back in this space I noted that fewer and fewer schools are being named for presidents or for any other kind of person. The trend now is to name them instead for natural features or animals. (There are, reportedly, more schools in Florida named for manatees than for George Washington.)

Maybe the only form of presidential memorial available today is to name your kid after your favorite former chief executive. In a few years, teachers everywhere will be asking little Roosevelts and Buchanans to stop copying from little Van Buren.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Game Boy

A few months ago, I came home from a visit to my mother’s house with a load of ancient sports equipment and board games that she had been asking me to clear out of her basement. I couldn't bring myself to throw the old stuff out, so now it's taking up space in our basement. Few things have made me feel more like an adult than realizing that I now own a basement big enough to hold all the crap I have been collecting since childhood.

A couple of the old games, though, were promoted from the basement to family-room status, and have entered the regular household rotation for A.J. and me. One is an old quiz game called Your America (“An Enjoyable Game for Americans of All Ages!”) that you win by answering the kinds of civics-class questions that might have been a part of school curricula during the Eisenhower administration. (Example: Who invented the vulcanization of rubber?*) I remember loving this game when I was a kid because it gave me the chance to show off my adolescent history geek’s obsessive knowledge of state capitals and American military campaigns. What strikes me now about the game, though, is its hyper-patriotic tone. You get the feeling that the game’s designers believed that training America’s kids to answer certain questions was an essential component of the effort to beat back the Red Scare. (Take question #18 in the United States at War category: In the 1950s, America again found it necessary to defend democracy by fighting on foreign soil. In what country was this war fought?**) The problem, though, is that the game doesn’t even get its facts straight. It asks, for example, which president is pictured on a ten-dollar bill. Alexander Hamilton is on the ten, but he was never president. With mistakes like that, it’s a wonder we managed to win the Cold War.

The game both A.J. and I really like is Stratego. In Stratego, each player commands a Napoleonic-era army of game pieces that have to be maneuvered around a battlefield to capture the opponent’s flag. As the game board says, it is “a wonderful father-son game.” Right. What better way for fathers and sons to bond than by plotting deadly ambushes against each other? A.J. and I played again yesterday, and even though he has a good sense for the game, he was, as usual, undone by his lack of a poker-face. Whenever I get close to his flag he gets a wild-eyed, panicked look and actually starts to repeat under his breath, “Oh, no, no. Please, no. Not there.” His lack of guile is quite touching, really. Not that I don’t take advantage of it to beat him. Yesterday, when I captured his flag, he slapped himself on the forehead and said, “What have I done?”

I’ve seen new editions of Stratego in stores, but I like our old, beat-up version. The box, which is falling apart, features a photograph of a "Leave It To Beaver"-esque family in their paneled game room, gathered around a Stratego game board. The father, in a brown suit and tie, is pointing out some subtlety of military strategy to his admiring children. I love that picture. It makes me wish I owned a brown suit, just so I could wear it the next time A.J. and I played Stratego.

Your America Bonus Answers:
*Charles Goodyear