Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Not Keeping Score

My baseball-crazy eight-year-old boy is playing Fall Ball—a pared-down, more instructional, less competitive supplement to the summer leagues that tend to be all about championships and all-star nominations and too-intense parents. In Fall Ball, there are no playoffs and most of the teams don’t bother keeping score. My son’s enjoying it, and so am I. He likes it because he’s getting to pitch and steal bases for the first time. I like it because, as one of the assistant coaches, I don’t come home from games twitching with anxiety from dealing with screaming parents and crying children. I appreciate the laidback vibe.

At my son’s first Fall Ball practice, his coach gave the kids a little speech. He told them to let him know if they wanted to try playing a new position, and not to worry if they messed up. We’re here to learn, he said. Now’s the time to try things because there’s no pressure. And I was wondering: Why don’t we tell kids that in the summer, too? If instructional and pressure-free and noncompetitive is the right philosophy for Fall Ball, why not for summer leagues, too?

Maybe the answer is that kids—even more than pain-in-the-ass parents and crazy coaches—are competitive. Even though we don’t keeps score in our Fall Ball games, just about any kid on our team could tell you the score at any given moment of a game. For that matter, they know the score, and trash-talk freely about it, even when we’re playing a little intrasquad game in practice. I understand the impulse. When I play a game—pickup basketball with the old men, Scrabble with my wife—I want to win. A bad round of Wii golf can depress me for hours. And it's not that I think a little competition is going to kill anyone. So why is there still a part of me that wants to knock down all the scoreboards at the peewee baseball fields?

Monday, September 28, 2009


One of Chicago’s c-list historical sites is the McDonald’s s #1 Store Museum in Des Plaines, a recreation of the first McDonald’s opened by founder Ray Kroc, in 1955. When I was a Shamrock-shake-besotted kid living not far from Store #1, I thought this place was one of the sacred shrines of the national spirit--on par with, I don’t know, Gettysburg or Independence Hall.

I'm not the McDonald's maniac I used to be, but I still had to take note when the Boston Globe’s wonderful Brainiac blog linked to this map, from Weather Sealed, of every McDonald’s location in the Lower 48. It’s a stunning visual. The East Coast is pretty much one big mass of McDonald’s franchises, each the spawn of Store #1. The only gaps in the national coverage seem to be in Nevada and the Dakotas. And maybe this is just me, but if you tilt the map so the Pacific Coast is on top, does anyone else make out a scary Halloween mask of a face out west? Or do I just need a McCafe this morning?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Other People's Music

I admit to a low tolerance for other people’s music, which is why I bring an iPod and earbuds with me to the local coffeehouse. Shutting myself off in my own aural world probably violates the social contract of the coffeehouse, but it beats listening to their soundtrack, which leans too heavily on breathy girl neo-folk singers for my tastes.

But every once in a while you can find a gem among the music that’s forced on you in public places. One of the local supermarkets, for example, plays a not-awful ‘70s AOR mix; hearing something like Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” makes even comparison-pricing wheat bread fun. The song is good, but what I really appreciate is coming upon it in a supermarket, one of the least soulful environments known to man.

Another case: Not long ago, shopping for gym shoes for my 8-year-old boy in one of a series of depressing big-box stores, I heard a song that sounded familiar. It took me a minute to figure out what it was, because it had been transformed into a bit of syrupy instrumental elevator music, but then it came to me. It was the Replacement’s “Skyway,” a wonderful little song that I hadn’t heard or thought of in a long time. I don’t know if I’m entirely happy to have my college-rock heroes reduced to grist for the background music mill at Kohl’s, but hearing even a corrupted “Skyway” made that afternoon for me. For once, I was glad I had left the iPod at home. I suppose there are assertive technologies and protective technologies. And one of the functions of a protective technology (an iPod?) is to screen out all the noise made by everyone else's assertive technology. But maybe that function isn't without costs.

Any other stories of musical surprises in unlikely places?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Heavy Books

Over beer and burgers the other night, my friend T. was talking up Kindle. T’s a smart guy and a savvy writer on things techy, and since I don’t fully get the Kindle phenomenon, I’d asked him what he liked about it. And T., in the course of his typically coherent response, mentioned something that I’d heard from other Kindle-loving friends. With Kindle, he said, you don’t have to carry around big piles of books. They’re all in one little device!

What’s odd about this (and I want to articulate this without veering off into the territory of the Luddite rant, because for all I know I will have my own Kindle someday soon and will be declaring my own love for the device for making my life so much better) is that in all my years of reading, I’ve never felt oppressed by the onerous task of carrying around books. I brought a half-dozen or so along on a recent weeklong trip to New Mexico and they caused me no trouble. If I’d had their electronic versions all loaded up in a Kindle it would have saved me a little space and a little weight in my bag, which I would have taken up with—what, more socks? But I like the physical, pulpy presence of books. I like even the weight of them. (We have some real behemoths laying around the house. One of them, the 1634-page Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, is currently holding open the door to our back porch. Try that with a Kindle on a breezy day.) I like carrying them around in a bag over my shoulder. They feel like Christmas presents waiting to be opened.

Books—physical books—sometimes even feel like a physical comfort. Here’s Nicholson Baker in his novel The Anthologist: “What I do is I sleep with my books. And I know that’s kind of weird and solitary and pathetic. But if you think about it, it’s very cozy. Over a period of four, five, six, seven, nine twenty nights of sleeping, you’ve taken all these books to bed with you, and you fall asleep, and the books are there.”

I ran across the books-are-too-heavy argument again in this story about a prep-school library that is dispensing with its books and replacing them with flat-screen TVs, laptop-friendly work stations and electronic readers loaded with digital material. (They’re also building a new coffee shop with a “$12,000 cappuccino machine.”) The piece quotes a junior who likes the idea because “the more we use e-books, the fewer books we have to carry around.”

For the pro-paper perspective, the story offers this from media critic William Powers:“There is a kind of deep-dive, meditative reading that’s almost impossible to do on a screen. Without books, students are more likely to do the grazing or quick reading that screens enable, rather than be by themselves with the author’s ideas.’’

That’s probably even more persuasive than Baker’s books-are-fun-to-sleep-with argument. But then I’m already sold on paper. I wonder what any Kindle-ites out there make of Powers’ point about grazing versus deep-diving. Would anyone miss the serendipity of coming upon a book while browsing the stacks? And, while we’re at it, do you ever sleep with your Kindle?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Positively Left on 4th Street

In what can only be someone’s idea of a joke, the BBC reports that Bob Dylan “is speaking to a number of car companies about becoming the voice of their satellite navigation systems.” (A nod to the brilliant Henry Alford for this bit of news.) Dylan’s legendary status as a musician notwithstanding, I’m not sure I would find it reassuring to take direction from him while driving. (Would his directions have us continually revisiting Highway 61?) For that matter, I remain agnostic on Dylan as a musical artist, too. This attitude seems to run in my family. My mother once semi-famously said of Dylan, “He’s no singer. He doesn’t know how to make a woman feel beautiful.”

So I’d paraphrase: “He’s no sat-nav voiceover artist. He doesn’t know how to make some stressed-out lost person feel secure…”