Sunday, July 5, 2009

Diamonds Are Forever

So, once again, it's been awhile since I last posted something. Hey, I've been busy. Doing what, you ask? Uh... hmmmm... well, for one thing, I was coaching my sons' baseball team. (Yeah! That's it!)

And, to commemorate the end of the Little League season, I thought I'd re-print (with some minor changes) my very first article for the Courant, which originally ran on October 12, 2003. The piece chronicles my time coaching in Charlestown, Massachusetts, from 1994 to 1998. (Man, that's a long time ago...crap, I'm old.) And, to my knowledge, it's the only baseball article in the history of baseball articles to incorporate, in a meaningful way, a quotation from William Wordsworth.

My apologies to any of my former players mentioned in here, most of whom are now, no doubt, college graduates by now. (Again: crap, I'm old...)

Anyway, here's the piece:

I remember praying for rain.

Call it a ritual; only instead of eating ceremonial fried chicken or wearing lucky underwear, I would pray for a well-timed deluge of the local baseball diamond to delay the infamy of actually playing the game, if only for another day.

Even when cursed with sun, I used procrastination offensively; I spent many anxious dugout minutes constructing mental matrices -- considering the number of batters before me, their approximate averages, and the skill of the other team's infielders -- to calculate the odds of making the dreaded Third Out. Poor attempts to trick time, I admit. And time returned the favor: Things slowed way down on that field -- the walk to the plate, the time in the batter's box, even the trip around the bases when I got to them ("Take that piano off your back!" my coach would yell to me). Yet the fastballs still blazed past the logo on my shirt ...

So why return to the minors 11 years later, as a coach? To redeem my own unheralded baseball career? To beef up my resume or impress women with my sensitivity? Maybe to "prove something" to my father, who was still my hometown's Little League president? Or perhaps it had more to do with my favorite Wordsworth quote, paraphrased: "The best portion of a good man's life are his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love."

Ultimately, I don't really know what inspired my cold-call to the local Little League commissioner, the ample-bodied Wayne Davis, in 1994; luckily, Wayne-O didn't ask.

I'm quite sure Wayne never knew what to make of me. A recent college graduate, I just moved to Boston the previous September. I had no family in the city -- no kids of my own or even any distant cousins. And, as far as he could tell, I didn't excel at or even particularly like playing baseball. But I did have a few things going for me: my own clipboard; three dedicated assistants, Mac, Ace and Jason -- whose cool names, I hoped, compensated for their lack of skill; and, most important, persistence.

We coached for five consecutive seasons. Five years, five annual trips for ice cream and five rosters populated by players of all temperaments and abilities. We had all-stars like the Buhay boys, Danny and Timmy, who seemingly played three different sports at any given time. We had Kerry, the 9-year-old girl who could out-throw anyone on the team, including the coaches. And we had our share of kids like Bobby Stone.

Ah, Bobby Stone (always say first and last name, like Charlie Brown) ... I'm quite sure he prayed for rain. And why not? The kid was terrified of the ball; he hurled himself violently into the dirt on every pitch -- right down the middle, high and outside, didn't matter. Bobby Stone thought everyone was against him, even the coaches. And maybe he was right; we invested so many frustrated practices just trying to keep the boy vertical for his entire at- bat, we almost gave up. But, in truth, I liked Bobby Stone. We needed the naturals to win, but I needed Bobby Stone -- mostly because of my sneaking suspicion that, when I played, I was a bit of a Bobby Stone.

The Bobby Stones notwithstanding, Mac, Jason, Ace and I did enjoy a few successes as coaches. A couple of times, we watched as our team went to first place, once after an undefeated season. With a record like that, you'd think I'd have a few knuckleballs of wisdom to pass on to aspiring coaches, right? In truth, I have a few.

First, always put your name on your glove; with all the post-game commotion, the odds are good someone else will walk off with it accidentally. Don't try to coach alone; you can't juggle everything, and besides, who else will want to listen to your war stories about the unassisted triple play?

Don't argue with the ump; you may think you're standing up for your kids, but you're really undermining the spirit of sportsmanship. Don't have scrimmages as practices; they degenerate too quickly. Concentrate on catching and throwing; at this level, defense wins games.

Don't even bring up bunting.

And that crap about "little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love" -- don't believe a word of it.

Maybe, to my shame, I wanted my acts of kindness named and remembered. And maybe that's why, when I look back on my coaching career, I keep returning to this one spot of time.

It's our second year, after the first win of the season (not too many follow that year). I take aside our spunky pitcher, Ryan Collins -- who brought religion to the team by blessing himself before every pitch -- and privately present him with the game ball. Bursting with excitement, Ryan asks if I have a pen. I don't -- we kept score in pencil --and ask him why.

"I wanted to write your name on it," he tells me, before running off to show his mom his blank trophy. Meanwhile, I remain crouching there by that first baseline, thinking: Of all the times not to have a pen!

By signing that baseball, by cementing that moment through the power of ink, I could have guaranteed that our time on the field would be kept somewhere, preserved. Somewhere in Ryan's bedroom -- maybe on a bookshelf, maybe under the bed, to be uncovered only when he packs up for college, but somewhere -- would remain a baseball with a name on it. And I could live again.

Of course, Ryan Collins wouldn't remember he said that; he probably didn't remember two minutes later, and I think that's precisely what ate away at me that night. I want the instant replay to apply in the minors. And I mean, permanent instant replay. I want the kids we coached to remember their time on the field with nostalgia, not as obligations that fell in between thunderstorms. And, when they do remember their baseball days, I want them to recall their coaches not just as the guys who yelled frantically from the baseline to get the ball back to the pitcher. I want them to show up on ESPN someday and mention their former coaches by name. But, in a simpler way, if they grow up, get good grades, go to college and just end up as good people ... well, I want to take a little bit of credit for that, too.

And I know that's unfair. I vaguely remember my own Little League coaches as nice-enough guys, but none of them affected my life in a lasting manner. And yet, I somehow assumed my coaching experience would work differently. We spent our time telling them to get their gloves down when stopping a ground ball, to lift the bat off their shoulders, to run past first base. Somehow, from that, they were supposed to learn, "Don't do drugs, drive carefully, be good to each other."

The four of us -- Mac, Ace, Jason, and I -- always said that one of the best parts about being a coach is the distance: your responsibility to these kids ends with the last out. Yet I found myself referring to them as "my kids," as if we had anything to do with them when a bat and ball wasn't in the vicinity. In truth, I was just someone who told them where to go next inning. I had to give them back.

To rescue me from complete self-absorption, Mac once offered: "Is it about whether they'll forget us? The question is, will we ever forget them? No way."

And this has comforted me. And so, while some more accomplished Little League veterans get ready to do battle in the upcoming World Series, I'll be remembering that impromptu post-game practice when we stayed with Ashley and used a Wiffle ball and bat to help her get over her fear of hitting. Or that season-ending loss, when Steven came over to give me a hug, as tears crushed down his disappointed, befreckled face. Or that 1994 championship final, when Bobby Stone planted his feet in that box and swung the bat, connecting ...

Five years in the minors. Five summers, with the length of five long winters. Five years, five rosters, and a few insights. Don't yell at the ump; you don't want to be remembered that way. Put your name on your glove. Make sure they step on each base.

Oh, yeah. .. and always have a pen handy.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

George Lucas, Jar Jar, and the End of the Innocence

I was twenty-eight going on ten.

Ten years ago, in May 1999, I was caught up in the same cultural phenomenon that was
sweeping the nation, but for me, it was something more.

You have to understand: when I was a boy, Star Wars was my life. I bought the figures, play sets, cards, books, comics, soundtracks, puppets, posters, candy—you name it, except for maybe the Underoos.

I saw Return of the Jedi the day it came out, and then saw it at least five more times that summer. I saw all the movies many, many times. In fact, I knew all the movies by heart. (We didn’t have VCR’s back then, so I would actually sneak a tape recorder into the movies, so I could at least listen to it.)

In my young and oh-so-innocent estimation, George Lucas, the lord of all things Star Wars, was an unqualified genius—and a kind and generous one at that: after the saga seemed to conclude with the death of Darth Vader in 1983’s Return of the Jedi, George promised “prequels”—three more movies, three more adventures filled with great stuff like the Ice Planet of Hoth, the Millennium Falcon, and (my personal favorite) Boba Fett the bounty hunter.

So a year went by, then five, then ten. Finally, in May 1999, sixteen years after the last Star Wars movie, George Lucas offered his legions of fans the dream come true: Star Wars—Episode One: The Phantom Menace.

I didn’t know what to do with myself. I bought my tickets a week before and took the day off from work on opening day. And when the lights went out, and those familiar trumpets blared John Williams’ iconic score, and the words Star Wars, in big, yellow letters, filled the screen, it didn’t matter that I was twenty-eight, married, and somehow charged with teaching the nation’s youth. No, at that point, I was a ten-year-old kid again, feeling the Force flowing through him.

Then a terrible thing happened: I actually watched the movie.

Was it the worst movie I ever saw? No. But it was nothing I had expected or even could have settled for. It seemed George Lucas and Co. were so wrapped up in their new-fangled, computer-generated special effects that they forgot to, you know, write an interesting story.

Instead, they reduced the once and future Dark Lord of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker, to an annoying kid.

They offered up a mind-numbingly elongated desert chase sequence, complete with a goofy, two-headed sports announcer.

They created a potentially cool new bad-guy, Darth Maul, and then they (literally) took the legs out from under him.

Worst of all, they subjected fans to… I can hardly bring myself to say it… the loathsome, unforgivable Jar Jar Binks.

A computer generated idiot-alien, Jar Jar almost single-handedly brought down the entire franchise. (And considering this franchise also includes the Ewoks, that’s saying something.)

Jar Jar talked like a four-year-old, which I guess was supposed to be cute. It wasn’t. He was kind of clumsy, too, and I guess watching him trip all over the place was supposed to make us laugh. It didn’t. In fact, it was all I could to keep from crying.

I waited sixteen years for the movie event of a lifetime… and I got Jar Jar Binks?

I suppose it was my own fault. Because I had built it up and built it up to such a degree, the movie could never have exceeded my expectations. But how was it possible that it wasn’t even in the same universe as my expectations?

I’ve actually come to appreciate, over the past ten years, the irony associated with the prequels. At their core, the first three episodes— the plot-challenged Phantom Menace, the inconsequential Attack of the Clones, and the overstuffed Revenge of the Sith—warn against the danger of unchecked power. And, in a bizarre way, that’s the story of George Lucas as well; he became so powerful, no one had the guts to tell him that his ideas were getting increasingly lamer. In the end, the all-powerful Emperor Lucas, seduced by the dark side of his own hype, was not, in fact, a genius—just a schmuck who got lucky.

Looking back ten years later, I can see that Phantom Menace truly marked the abrupt end of my rather prolonged childhood. Few experiences could have topped the high I felt sitting in that theater on the opening day of Phantom Menace back in May 1999. And few could match the disappointment I felt, two hours later, when the movie was over, and my childhood, I realize, was too—irretrievably lost, in that galaxy far, far away.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

It's Been Awhile...

Yeah, I know I haven't posted in a bit. In my defense, though, I did write something intended for this space a couple of weeks ago; it just ended up in the newspaper instead.

Here's the deal: my sons, who are in third grade, are playing basketball this year. They've been playing in this league since they were in kindergarten, but this year things got much, much more competitive. There's shouting, name-calling, swearing, and even near-brawling.

And I don't mean the kids. I'm talking about the parents and coaches.

Over the course of this season, I've seen a coach throw down his clipboard after he didn't like a call; parents and coaches mercilessly riding referees (who, incidentally, are just teenagers); coaches blatantly playing favorites and doing anything to win.

And I've heard stories, as well. Stories about coaches actually scouting other teams. Stories about a coach calling another coach an "a-hole," right in earshot of the children. (I'm censoring here; he didn't.) Stories about a coach who got so angry about a call, he and the ref nearly came to blows.

Did I mention these kids were in THIRD GRADE?

So I decided to write a piece about all this for my blog, which I called "When Coaches Lose Perspective, Kids Lose More." But before I posted it, I showed it to my wife to get her thoughts. I don't always run my blog posts by anyone, but this was one was different, because I was being critical of some people in the community; we still have to live here, after all.

Not only did my wife like the piece, she suggested I send it in to the Hartford Courant. She has a good sense about these things, so I took a chance. I figured if they didn't like it, I could just publish it myself.

That was a Tuesday. On Friday, the editor called and said he was going to publish it. On Sunday, February 8, the piece appeared in the Opinions section of the Courant under the headline, "Only a Game-- Until the Adults Suck the Fun Out of It."

I had concerns that the subject matter wasn't particularly original, but the piece definitely generated some great conversation. Even people I hardly knew or didn't know at all sent me e-mails and messages to my Facebook account and even hand-written letters to my high school. A woman who works at my sons' school stopped my wife and asked if she was married to the guy who wrote that piece in the paper. And the feedback was all good (a welcome change from the feedback I got for my Kid Rock article from last July).

Everyone had a story to share, about an incident at a local game involving overzealous parents or an obsessive coach. Everyone agreed that things get too competitive too soon.

And I was even able to take my sons to basketball without getting beat up by the coaches-- which either means they didn't read it, or they read it, but didn't know I was the guy who wrote it, or they read it, knew I was the guy who wrote it, but didn't think I was referring to them.

Here's the great lesson I took out of this whole thing: people still read the newspaper. I've heard a lot over the past couple of years about how newspapers are becoming extinct because everyone gets their news online. That's hooey, I say. People are still reading; they're still sitting down with their coffee and Corn Flakes on Sunday morning and flipping through the paper. That's comforting to me. (So sayth the guy who's writing a blog.)

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Sweater Resurgence of 2009

This winter, if you've noticed your kid complaining a little more about the chilly temperature in school, don’t go hating on your superintendent. He or she is just joining the club.

According to a 2008 study conducted by the American Association of School Administrators, 62 percent of superintendents surveyed have already resorted to “altering thermostats” as a way to reduce costs during this economic downturn.

Now, some may regard this trend of turning down school heat a sad sign of the times. Me, I welcome it, as another step in the Great Sweater Comeback.

“Comeback?” you ask. “When did sweaters ever leave?” Well, as a high school teacher, I can assure you: sweaters have fallen out of favor among adolescents. And I mean way out of favor: not only do many teenagers claim they don’t own sweaters, a disturbing number don't even seem to know what sweaters are.

After an informal poll of the sweater-wearing habits of the students in my school, I was able to divide teenagers into the following categories:

(1) Students who deride sweaters as Nerd Uniforms.
(2) Students who don’t mind sweaters but prefer “hoodies” (“sweatshirt,” in teen lingo). Said one young man: “If I’m wearing something heavy, it better have a hood. It’s like sitting on a couch without a remote—it just feels awkward.”
(3) Students who claim they don’t own sweaters.
(4) Students who believe they do wear sweaters, when in fact, they’re wearing sweatshirts.

I don’t know what to say about the first two categories; I may not agree with them, but—hey, it’s a matter of taste. The third and fourth groups, though, baffle me. Students who don’t own a single sweater? Could it be possible? I work in a pretty affluent town: do you mean to tell me these kids’ grandmothers didn’t buy them sweaters at some point? (Actually, I’m guessing Grandmas are buying sweaters, but the kids—indignant they didn’t get an iPod, Guitar Hero game, or a Lexus—immediately banish them to the back of the closet.)

Even more bewildering to me is the sizable percentage of students who can’t distinguish a sweater from a sweatshirt. Is the truth that unknowable? Look, if what you’re wearing has pockets, a hood, and the words ‘G. Unit’ across the front, it’s probably not a sweater.

Now, some may say, “Sweaters aren’t out of style, because they were never actually in style.” Personally, I don’t believe that. Think about all the pop-culture sweater references from just a decade ago: on TV, Chandler Bing tried to do for the sweater vest what the Fonz did for leather jackets; and on the radio, the Cardigans polluted the airwaves with that despicable “Lovefool” song, while disenchanted teens across the nation rocked out to Weezer’s great argyle anthem, “The Sweater Song.”

And a decade before that, Dr. Cliff Huxtable offended millions of Cosby Show viewers every week with his freakish, multicolored abominations.

Who does this generation have? Who are their sweater icons—their Chandler Bings, their Dr. Huxtables? Quite simply, they have none.

In the past, some well-meaning crusaders have done their darnedest to spark a sweater resurgence. Nearly two years ago, for example, school systems in the Netherlands turned down the heat to celebrate Warm Sweater Day (in an attempt to reduce emissions of greenhouse gas). And last spring, an American non-profit called Family Communications Inc. christened March 20th “National Sweater Day,” in honor of what would have been Mr. Rogers’ 80th birthday.

So far, these attempts haven’t done much to turn the tide of sweater apathy among adolescents. But maybe fiddling with the thermostat will finally do the trick.

So, teens, in these trying economic times, I implore you: pull those pullovers out of your drawers. Let the turtlenecks peek out from the dark shell of your closet. Ask your grandfather if you can borrow his classic white button-down—you know, the one with the little green Izod alligator.

Wear a sweater. Stay warm. Start a revolution.

So, yes, turning down the heat in our schools is not ideal, but if these measures help to bring sweaters back into fashion—well, maybe that’s the silver lining. Luckily, in this case, the lining is fleece.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

MLK and Atticus Finch: Defenders of Nonviolent Change

Yeah, I've been a bad, bad blogger. But I have a good excuse: I was in a play, a three-person play called The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)." It was an absolute blast-- I'll write about it some day, when I have some distance from it-- but it was also very time-consuming. Long story short: I had to back-burn the blogging.

And now, this post, my first one in weeks, is going to be devoted to someone else's words. Luckily, that "someone else" to a pretty amazing substitute.

During my first year teaching high school, I read Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. (How is it possible, you ask, that I never read it before? Blame my high school. I honestly feel cheated that I had to wait until I was thirty before I read one of the greatest books ever. But let's stick that in the "rant for another time" file.)

Anyway, while reading the book, I realized that Atticus Finch, in his quest for racial equality and his commitment to nonviolence, shared a lot in common with Martin Luther King. After I did some research, I discovered I wasn't the only one who saw this connection; so did King himself.
In fact, King actually makes an allusion to Atticus in his 1963 book Why We Can't Wait.

The Atticus reference occurs in a chapter called "The Sword That Heals," which is itself part of a metaphor King uses to describe "the just and powerful weapon" of nonviolence. Reverend King alludes to a moment in Mockingbird when Atticus goes to the local jail to protect his client, a black man named Tom Robinson, from a mob that wanted to lynch him. The scene gets tense very fast, with the men telling Atticus to get out of the way and let them do their thing.

Suddenly, Atticus' daughter Scout-- blissfully innocent as always-- comes out of the shadows and recognizes the leader of the gang; he's the father of one of the boys in her class. When she calls the man, Mr. Cunningham, by name, the mood changes; it's as if just the simple act of hearing his name awakens Mr. Cunningham to his potential actions, even shames him. The gang disperses, and the crisis is averted. Later, Atticus-- ever the wise sage-- says the incident reinforces the fact that "a gang of wild animals can be stopped, simply because they are still human."

That's the incident in Mockingbird. Here's what King had to say about it in Why We Can't Wait:

"We are a nation that worships the frontier tradition, and our heroes are those who champion justice through violent retaliation against injustice. It is not simple to adopt the credo that moral force has as much strength and virtue as the capacity to return a physical blow; or to refrain from hitting back requires more will and bravery than the automatic reflexes of defense.

"Yet there is something in the American ethos that responds to the strength of moral force. I am reminded of the popular and widely respected novel and film To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Finch, a white southern lawyer, confronts a group of his neighbors who have become a lynch-crazy mob, seeking the life of his Negro client. Finch, armed with nothing more lethal than a lawbook, disperses the mob with the force of his moral courage, aided by his small daughter, who, innocently calling the would-be lynchers by name, reminds then that they are individual men, not a pack of beasts.

"To the Negro of 1963, as to Atticus Finch, it had become obvious that nonviolence could symbolize the gold badge of heroism rather than the white feather of cowardice."

I haven't taught Mockingbird in years, but I'd encourage anyone who does teach the book to use this connection. Not only does it allow for a discussion about the similarities of Atticus Finch and Martin Luther King, but it also drives home a larger point: that the literature we read in class does not exist in a vaccum. Indeed, the ideas in these texts have real-life implications. They don't always believe it, but it's true.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Truth about First-Footers, Sauerkraut, and Other New Years Superstitions

I was just talking to my wife's grandmother (whom we call Mommom) about some wacky New Years Day superstitions-- things to do to bring yourself good luck in the new year, or, at the very least, ward off bad luck. She learned these superstitions, apparently, many, many years ago, when she was living in Pennsylvania. And let me tell you: she had some doozies. For example:

When the new year begins, the first person to cross the threshold of your house-- known in some circles as the "first-footer"-- needs to be a man. And it can't be a man who lives in the hosue either: it has to be a male visitor. (And if a woman enters first? Bad luck for a year!)

On New Years Day, you have to eat a meal of pork, sauerkraut, and mashed potatoes; this will bring good fortune. (And, yes, it is indeed rare to see "sauerkraut" linked with "good fortune.") But whatever you do, do NOT have chicken on New Years Day, as this means you will be "scratching" for money all year.

Mommom also mentioned a superstition involving washing your face while holding coins in your hands... but she never really bought into that one.

While she was telling these stories, my mother-in-law chimed in with a superstition her Italian hairdresser once told her: on New Years Day, you should fill a bucket with water and throw the water out the fornt door, which symbolizes throwing out all of the bad luck from the previous year. But this superstition comes with a caveat: don't throw water on the front porch, because if the water freeze, someone might slip and fall. (This, apparently, happened to the hairdresser's brother.)

When I asked Mommom if she believed these superstitions, she said no... but she still wanted me to be the first visitor to cross the threshold today. "Why take chances?" she said wisely.

(Incidentally, you can read about other New Years Day superstitions at one of my favorite websites,

Before I wrap up this post, I wanted to take one last look back. I started this blog at the end of last May; I ended up writing 50 posts in 2008. Maybe not "magnum opus" numbers, but not bad. I was pretty proud of some of them, and I wanted to give a few of the forgotten posts one last plug:

"Reviewing a Review" (June 3, 2008): someone reviewed a short story I wrote, and I gave my assessment of his assessment. All very meta.

"Sox Education" (June 19, 2008): This one basically uses the 2004 Red Sox as a metaphor for teaching. I know it's January, and no one cares about baseball right now; still, I wanted to give it a shout-out because I always considered it an "unsung hero" kind of post.

"Mostly, for Worse" (August 30, 2008): In this one, I basically bemoan how newspapers keep running the same comic strips they ran thirty years ago, despite the fact that many of the creators of said comics have died. A fascinating sociological study that no one actually read.

"Last Person on Earth" (October 6, 2008): Here, I talk about how teaching can be an extremely insulating and isolating job; sometimes, it takes an encouraging word from a co-worker to bring you back form the brink of insanity. (I actually got two comments for this one...)

"So Help Me Me" (October 9, 2008): This was an election-themed post, using NBC's West Wing to prove my theory: in order to want to be president, you have to have a God-complex. Again, time has made it less topical, but I was a big West Wing fan, and I had that idea cooking for years, so I wanted to give it one last plug.

"Society is the Spice of Life" (November 30, 2008): All about this phenomenon of "society-blaming." Hey, I liked it, but what do I know?

Thanks for reading. Enjoy the pork and sauerkraut.