Thursday, April 26, 2012

Baseball Angst, Part Two

Ahhh, sports.
We watched our sons grow up heavily involved in all kinds of them over the years. Both Colin and Paddy participated in football, soccer, basketball, track and field, bowling, hockey and swimming at different times in their lives, with a highlight being when they were both members of the starting varsity football lineup during the one year they were both in high school.
 And while we mostly enjoyed it, any parent can tell you it can be a little nerve racking from time to time. For us, at least, that profound sense of sports anxiety occurred mostly in baseball. Colin, whose extreme myopia made a hard liner to his side of the infield a dangerous business, indeed, hung up his glove and cleats before high school in favor of football and track, sports where an inability to gauge--even with contact lenses-- the exact speed and trajectory of a small white sphere screaming towards one's head at a zillion miles per hour is less of a life-or-death liability. Paddy, on the other hand, was born with a trait inherited from both his grandfathers:
He's a lefty.
That genetic predisposition has, throughout his career, meant he would be a pitcher, no matter how much he might have prefered playing shortstop, third base or behind the plate. While he was also a first baseman during little league and high school, once he hit the upper reaches of Legion ball, then onto his college team, it was the pitcher's mound, all the way.
Here's the thing about pitchers. Even the very best ones have days when nothing goes right. Fast balls dive into the dirt, breaking pitches hang in the strike zone, "seeing-eye" grounders find their way into the outfield, and routine-seeming flies drop in for base hits. And that doesn't even account for errors. Because even the most sure-handed shortstop boots one every once in awhile, along with dropped third strikes, misplayed popups, muffed throws and all the other miscues that can change a game in a heartbeat.
Pitchers hate those days.
So do their parents.
We called it "baseball angst," and it kept us on edge through the entire sixteen years or so that he played competitive ball.
I didn't know how much she disliked the whole "pitcher's mom" persona until one day when I arrived a little late to a game back in his high school days. All the other moms and dads were seated in the stands or lined up in lawn chairs along the backstop and the foul line. But she was sitting a good ten yards back, with her chair located just behind a corner of the bleachers, which afforded a view of most, but not all, of the field.
Me: Why are you sitting here?
She: Oh, it just seemed like a good spot.
Me: But you can't see the pitcher's mound from here.
She: Exactly.
From then on, whenever Paddy was on the mound, we sat apart. I generally watched from directly behind home plate, so I could offer helpful suggestions to the umpire. She, on the other hand, continued with her "just around the corner" arrangement, so as to spare herself of the sight of anything bad happening to her baby boy. But in any case, his college career was a fun, successful one, with his senior year climaxing with a "magnificent" (one sportswriter's adjective) outing against arch-rival Monmouth College, where he "baffled" (another newspaper kudo) the Scots for an important end-of-season win. He even attended a tryout with the Detroit Tigers organization, where he threw well, but discovered that big league clubs are most likely to be more interested in 18-year-olds with 90-mile-an-hour fastballs than ancient college grads with good breaking stuff and the ability to read and write fluently.
After a couple of years working and coaching in Galva, he moved to North Carolina, not far from where we currently spend a lot of our time. He's now teaching English and coaching baseball at Richlands High School, where they share the same gold-and-blue colors and wildcat nickname as his Galva alma mater. The RHS Wildcats have an up-and-coming baseball program, led by a head coach who is an ex-minor league outfielder, and supported by the school's principal, whose dad was a major league pitcher and who also played professional ball. We've become faithful fans, sitting with our young grandsons and cheering the Wildcats on to both victory and otherwise. She seemed comfortable with the relative anonymity of being a coach's mom until one night, when, at a critical juncture, an apposing batter lined a fluttering change-up into the left field corner for a run-scoring double.
"C'mon coach, let him throw," shouted one irate dad, who seemed to think the Richlands hurler should have been delivering nothing but fastballs.
"Who's he yelling at?" she asked.
"Who do you think?" I replied.
I patiently explained that one of Paddy's jobs as pitching coach is to call each pitch by signaling the catcher with a series of mysterious signs that indicate the type of pitch and its location.
"Do you mean that man thinks it's Paddy's fault that boy just hit that ball?" she said in a horrified tone.
"Pretty much," I said casually. "Why blame the kid if you can blame the coach?"
Then I headed for the concession stand to see if they had a fresh batch of popcorn.
When I returned a few minutes later, I noticed that she had moved her chair a few feet away from where she had been sitting before. As I approached, I realized her new location was just behind a pole, which cleanly blocked her view of a certain portion of the field.
Me: Why are you sitting here?
She: Oh, it just seemed like a good spot.
Me: But you can't even see the pitcher's mound from here.
She: Exactly.
Baseball angst strikes again.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

What goes around, comes around

Life goes around.
And comes around.
I am reminded of this happy fact via the almost-daily contact I have with my youngest grandsons. I am reminded, too, of my own dad who once shared the reason why he liked being the father of an unexpected child (that's me) when he was nearly 50 years old.
"It was one more chance to have a little fun."
Now I know what he meant.
Whenever I'm at home in Galva, I'm likely to be seen doing what I call my Captain Ahab thing.
No, I'm not actually on the lookout for a great white whale. It's just how I self-describe the back-and-forth pacing I do on our wraparound front porch. That big old structure, which was added by my grandfather back in the early 1900s, is one of my favorite features of our big old house. It's a place where I can keep an eye on the park across the street, just to see what's going on with the younger set.
I especially like it when they're out there playing soccer.
The Galva Soccer Association has been around since back in the early 80's. You might wonder how it happened.
Or you might not.
But in either case, I'm gonna tell you.
It started when son Colin, who was probably all of five or six years old at the time, saw some guys playing the game on TV and expressed some interest in trying it himself.
His mother, who has always believed that it's a parent's job to provide opportunities and expand horizons for children, hit the ground running.
Now, I should probably be glad it was soccer, and not fencing, monster truck driving or sky diving. So instead of having to purchase a bunch of swords, a huge, big-wheeled vehicle or an airplane, we just needed to do one simple thing:
Start a soccer league.
We got some help with sign-ups and insurance from the Kewanee YMCA.
After that, we were pretty much on our own.
We had several moms with top-flight concession stand skills, and my friend Ben was a marvel at designing t-shirts. But we were still missing one little thing that seemed rather important at the time.
Nobody knew anything whatsoever about soccer.
So we looked it up.
I called the game we played that first season "encyclopedia soccer," because most of what we found out came directly from the reference section of that handy bastion of information known as the Galva Public Library.
It was a lot of fun.
While it sometimes got kind of hectic being one of the people who had to recruit coaches and other volunteers, coach a couple of teams myself, find and hire referees, shop for the concession stand, line the field and determine whether we'd manage play on cold, rainy early-spring days, we felt that's just what parents needed to do. And we certainly enjoyed watching all our Galva kids as they gradually learned to play the game pretty well. Both of our sons did it well into high school, with opportunities to compete in leagues in Galesburg, Peoria and the Quad Cities. But they eventually found themselves too busy with high school football and other sports and activities to fit it into their schedule.
We "retired," too, leaving the Galva league in the able, enthusiastic hands of dads and moms with kids who were still involved. We missed it, but have really appreciated the way things have grown and continued, especially when we see kids we coached ourselves now running the show.
That was then, this is now.
We were happy to be on deck to be able to help our youngest grandsons sign up for teams of their own out in North Carolina this year.
It, too, has been a lot of fun.
They've had wonderful coaches and great weather, for the most part. Cyrus is a high-scoring forward for the U-6 Tigers, while John is a 4-year-old member of the Kicks, who like all of his teammates, pretty much roams around the field in a fast-moving, hit-or-miss cluster.
And instead of being coaches, referees, decision-makers and concessionaires, we've just been fun-loving fans.
Or, at least, that's what I thought.
I was waiting for her the other day, anxious to get down to the beach for a little bird-watching, dolphin-spotting and shell-gathering, when she said, "Wait, I've got to make some phone calls."
"Oh?" I asked, "Who do you have to get ahold of?"
"I have to call some of the parents on Cyus' team to ask them to bring snacks for after his games," she replied in that sweet/stubborn tone that just dares me to object.
"I'm the treat lady," she said.
I volunteered," she added.
"Uh oh," I thought. "Here it comes again."
Because what goes around, comes around.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Preserve your memories

From Western Illinois Family Magazine

The cover story of this month's WIF Magazine struck a chord with me, because there is truly an art to collecting, preserving and sharing precious family memories. Some folks maintain well-ordered photo albums, while others create definitive scrapbooks that detail every cute, funny, smart or interesting event in their children's lives.
And then there are the rest of us.
You know, the ones who harbor overwhelming numbers of bins, boxes, bags and bundles bursting with multi-generational piles family flotsam, including snapshots, post cards and letters, crayon drawings and old fifth-grade social studies reports.
That's OK.. Everybody does it.
We have, over the over the past year or so, been attempting to spread the wealth, so to speak, by presenting our kids with bins jammed with semi-organized treasures. They've been pretty nice about it, so far, though they probably don't realize that what they've received to date is just the tip of the iceberg.
That's OK, too, because they've got plenty of time to sift, sort, pitch and preserve, just like we did. And it's all important, in one way or another.
But of all the things we can share with kids and other family members, perhaps the one that's most often missed and neglected is family history. It's an unfortunate fact of life that time passes quickly, and we often fail to ask about the details of who and where we came from until it's too late.
I, for one, developed an interest in my family story several years ago, when, as a descendant of the Bishop Hill colonists, I was asked to speak at the yearly Old Settlers celebration. In cobbling together a version of my colony history, I realized just how little I really knew. But, happily, the Bishop Hill story is a well-documented one, with a lot of information available via the colony archives and an incredible online database of colony members. I got through that speech all right, but the experience made me want to know more.
Luckily, I had Helen.
She's my dad's first cousin, a remarkably independent lady who turned 101 this year.
She’s a close relative and a good friend. And she’s a last living link to my past.
She knew my mom and dad as kids, as sweethearts and as a young married couple who had settled in with their two children before an unexpected surprise (that’s me) came their way when mom was 40 and dad was 46. She’s provided some different views and recollections, indeed, from the people I knew as my loving, but (in my kid-view) rather old-fashioned parents.
She remembers the grandparents I never knew, and has told me stories about the wonderful, giving ladies who were my grandmothers.
She has shared many informative, sweet, poignant tales of those people who are gone, but not forgotten. She tells those stories as if they had just happened yesterday, which, in a way, they did.
The internet, that most modern of communications methods, also offers many connections to the past. While there are websites (often requiring a paid membership) that provide access to census records and other interesting stuff, you can also often find a surprising amount of information by simply searching with the name of an ancestor and a few other terms, like hometown and country of origin.
There are, too, a few of us lucky enough to have a predecessor who kept a diary or journal.
My mother was one of them. For years, she unfailingly wrote something every day. Sometimes, the entries were rich and descriptive, and told stories of important events in her life and the lives of family members and friends. Other days, it was as simple as "Nice day. Bought groceries."
It is, without exception, all precious today.
Mom used to have a small, hand-embroidered tapestry that hung beside the pictures of her and my father’s parents.
“Remember me,” it said.
And so, my advice to you is to do just that. Ask, listen, and tell the tales of the ones who went before you. Share those memories with your children and grandchildren.
Write them down, and preserve precious pieces of the lives of those we loved and will love forever.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Raiders of the lost arts

Disaster struck on Easter morning when, with a strange, scary noise and an evil, smoky smell, the microwave oven in our rented beach place gave up the ghost once and for all. It was no big surprise, as it was so old the instructions were written in Latin, and its warming power was only slightly greater than that of the sun on our windowsill. But it was inconvenient all the same, as we suddenly found ourselves unable to do some simple, essential things until we re-learned some basics from long, long ago.
Like heating water on the stove. And warming mashed potatoes in the oven.
It got me thinking about a basic fact of life that I'm pretty sure has been going on for as long as people have existed. Because, as far as I can tell, every generation looks at the next one as a lazy, flaccid group of ineffectual nincompoops who don't really know how to do anything.
And that's on a good day.
I'm gonna call it the Generational Knowledge Differential, partly because that's sort of what it is, but mostly because saying it makes me sound kind of smart. Moreover, while I'm going to admit right from the top that the aforementioned GKD is a river that flows both ways, I'm going to content myself with listing some of the lost arts I still know how to do that younger folks don't, rather than sharing all the new-age things I've still failed to master.
After all, it's my column, and I can do what I want.
I grew up hearing tales about an era where people knew how to drive horse-drawn buggies, grind wheat into flour, build their own houses out of trees and rocks, and whittle useful, interesting things out of large chunks of wood.
My generation has in no way been as inventive and self-reliant as that, yet I've been startled--amazed, even--at the number of young adults who have never done important things like change a flat tire, read a roadmap or pop popcorn on top of the stove.
How about darning socks, finding a library book with an actual card catalog or doing long division with pencil and paper? Pay phones, phone books and collect calls are all apparently heading towards extinction, as are the yellow pages, checkbooks and photo albums.
Can you buy any kind of car with a manual transmission except for a few zoomy sports models?
When's the last time you heard the words "slide rule," "snow tires," "flash cube" or "record album."
Does anyone under the age of 50 own an actual dictionary or encyclopedia?
Does anybody know how to whistle anymore? Or unplug a drain or change the oil on a car?
An entire generation is growing up without ever hearing the sounds of a typewriter, a busy signal, a gas station bell or a phonograph record with a scratch in it.
What, by the way, is a phonograph?
Or a movie projector, transistor radio or slide projector?
How about jump-starting a car, tying a necktie, building a treehouse or operating a bottle opener?
And really, does anyone ever say, "I don't know" anymore? Or do they just google it with a hand-held device that's a gazillion times more powerful than the computers that sent men to the moon?
Now, don't get me wrong.
It's not all bad.
Nobody ever really enjoyed darning socks, and I never really did figure out how to use a slide rule. Often as not, I burned the popcorn.
But it's interesting, all the same, to think of all those lost arts that have disappeared over time.
And I could probably think of more, but I gotta go.
We need to buy a new microwave.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

The April Fool

I'm not much when it comes to April Fool's Day.
It's not that I have anything against a holiday centered around nothing but pranks and foolishness. It's just that I tend to think that life and its special days should be sort of like a box of Cracker Jacks, where there's always a prize inside. So when it comes to tricks, I prefer the trusty Halloween scenario, where they combine with a hearty bagful of Snickers, miniature Hershey bars and other good treats, rather than a day that's nothing but practical jokes, like "kick me" signs and other sophisticated bits of humor.
Plus, I'm just not very good at it.
Despite all my good (bad) intentions, I am not, nor have I ever been, exactly the king of subtlety. Or cleverness, even. And a really, really good AFD joke requires both those attributes, I think.
So my young grandsons were most definitely barking up the wrong limb of the family tree when they asked me to help them skillfully celebrate a holiday that was pretty much new news to them.
But I tried.
"Tell Uncle Matt there's a chicken on his head," I suggested, steering them towards my wife's brother, who spends time with us here in North Carolina.
"Tell grandma she dropped a twenty dollar bill," I said.
Both U-M and grandma obligingly cooperated with the trickery, though I realized we were about at the end of the line as they both began to show some wear and tear as a result of the constant need to swat away invisible barnyard fowl and bend over for nonexistent cash. So, wishing to promote a few moments of peace and sanity among the older set, I aimed the boys at their dad, my son Patrick, who had just returned from a post-church trip to the grocery store.
They swarmed over him like a pair of young prankish piranas, gleefully pointing out birds on the roof, bugs on his head and various valuables lying underfoot.
He, too, complied with full good humor, while casting a cool eye towards me, the proud founder of all the holiday hubbub.
"Hmmm," I thought. "I'd better watch it."
But I discovered there was nothing to fear. There were no chickens on MY head, no fake fish or five-dollar fins underfoot. No nothing. Not even a flying pig to liven my day.
"I guess they think I'm too old for it," I thought. "They don't think I can take a little joke anymore."
I suppose I was kinda relieved. Maybe a little sad, too, because nobody had tried to trick me all day long.
We went home to the beach and took a walk, admiring the rushing waves, the rolling clouds and the gold-red hues of the setting sun.
When we got back to the house, there was a text message waiting on my phone.
It was from Paddy.
"I just heard on the news that there's a pod of whales beached around mile marker 16."
He knows we don't have a television, and that my news intake is mostly limited to what's on the internet, the local public radio station, the Star Courier online and the Topsail Voice, an island weekly that mostly specializes in hot news concerning bake sales, church socials and fishing conditions.
He knew I would want to know, because this was, most definitely, big.
While we've seen sea creatures like turtles, dolphins, sharks, jellyfish and rays, plus just about every sea bird imaginable, we've never managed to spot a whale. Now there was an entire pod, in need of our assistance, just three miles down our beachfront road.
"Quick, get in the car," I exclaimed to my equally excitable spouse. "Whales!"
Imagine the Marines going over the top in a far-off land. Imagine smoke jumpers rushing to their plane in the face of a raging maelstrom. Imagine, even, the Galva Fire Department racing to a grass fire in the middle of the night.
They all pale in comparison to the sense of urgency we felt as we rushed towards our mission of mercy.
I imagined her fearlessly wading through the surf to assist a sand-trapped cetacean. I wondered if we'd be able to lift their massive bodies from the shallow waters.
I even thought of the great story I'd have to tell in this column.
"Maybe we'll get our pictures in the Topsail Voice," I dreamed.
We had just passed the 17-mile mark, just a mile away from the beach access we sought, when my phone rang.
It was Paddy.
"Where are you guys?" he asked.
"We're just about to mile marker 16," I said in my best, most heroic voice.
"Really?" he asked. "Why?"
Suddenly, I knew.
It was subtle. It was clever.
"Oh wow," he laughed, "I didn't think you'd really fall for it."
I heard my daughter-in-law and grandkids laughing in the background.
"I'm sorry," he added.
But not me.
It was just about the best April Fool's hoax ever.
Played on me.
No, I wasn't sorry at all.
I was mostly just glad I was still worth the effort.