Swing, Fail, Swing Again

Baseball

Stay focused. Stay relaxed. See the ball, hit the ball. Failure is inevitable. How you respond is up to you, and it can make all the difference.

We played ball out back on a makeshift miniature diamond I mowed into the high, early summer St. Augustine grass. The 8-year-old stepped to the foam-rubber home plate, batting lefty, knees bent just so, arms high but relaxed, head cocked toward the pitcher — me.

I wound up and tossed the ball softly in his direction.

It occurs to me that I was 17 when I became a sportswriter. Nine years older than this boy at the plate. I stepped into that life before my life had really begun, and had no real reason to regret it for two decades. But at the end, when it was over, it could only be classified as a failure.

The boy swung and missed. The swing was handsy, too much upper body, but there was purpose to it and his head and eyes were where they were supposed to be. That’s more than half the battle when you’re learning to hit a baseball. Watch the ball hit the bat. See it, hit it. He retrieved the ball and tossed it back.

How could a career as rewarding as mine be considered a failure? Because it didn’t end on my terms. Where did the fault lie? With me alone? With a newspaper industry in its dying throes? A combination? No matter. When I began that career, I intended for it to end many years from now, many games later, when I was too old to carry my computer bag into the press box. Didn’t happen that way. I failed.

I reminded him to focus on the ball, to keep his arms relaxed, to step toward me, pivot and turn his hips, throw his hands at the ball and explode into the swing. I pitched, he swung — and missed again.

Failure of that sort — mammoth, life-altering, frightening — can derail a man. You think you’re moving along toward a certain destination, surely, confidently. And then … it stops. Even if you sensed it coming, knew failure was inevitable, it stung. Worse, for the first time in your life, you didn’t know what came next.

The ball sailed over the shrub and the external AC unit as he swung and missed a second time. It was a bad pitch, a ball in any league, but at age 8 he still swings at anything and everything. He has not yet developed a discerning eye, a well-defined hitting zone. Every pitch is a promise. Every swing and miss is that promise broken. He dropped the bat and hustled after the ball again.

You didn’t know what came next, but you understood for the first time in your life that nothing was promised. Really understood that fact, not merely the theory. That there were dead ends. 

He found the ball in the high grass and tossed it back. Insects disturbed by the lawn mower began to crowd around us. He swatted at a bug in front of his face and stepped in for one last pitch from dad.

There are dead ends. Failure is inevitable. How you respond to that inevitability determines whether dead ends crack and split and branch off in promising new directions or stay dead ends. You choose your response. You choose to move forward. You choose. That’s what failure does for you, if you let it. If you let it.

This one came in under-handed, an acquiescence to physics and undeveloped, 8-year-old muscles. His eyes grew large as it arced toward the plate.

He stepped. He pivoted. He swung.

How Will Our Sons Remember Me?

Boys, I don’t know if you’ll ever have kids of your own. I imagine you will. I don’t know whether I’ll ever meet these theoretical grandchildren of mine. I hope I do.

If you do have kids, and if I’m gone by then, they’ll probably ask about me.

“Tell me about your dad,” they might say.

What will you tell them?

What am I doing now to create a legacy worth remembering, memories worth sharing with your own children?

I know what I hope you’ll say:

“Your grandfather was smart, kind, patient and funny.

“He loved to read, and he loved to write. He read to us and made up stories with us as the heroes and helped us with our homework. He played video games, too. He was just a big kid at heart.

“He taught us how to throw, catch and hit a baseball, and how to kick a soccer ball. He taught us to care for animals. He took us to nature parks and movies and arcades.

“He loved to visit Disney World every bit as much as we did when we were little. As I said, he was a big kid his whole life.

“He could really sing, and he taught us to appreciate music. He couldn’t dance even a little, but he was funny when he tried.

“He always told us to ‘be good, be nice, be you and have fun’ every morning before school.

“He loved Mom more than anything in the world, except maybe for us.

“He showed me how to live with grace and dignity, and every day I try to be the kind of man he was.”

That’s what I hope you’ll say.

Here’s what I fear you’ll say:

“Your grandfather loved us, but he had no idea how to relate to us – or to anyone – in a mature, meaningful way. He really was just a big, immature kid his whole life.

“He liked to call himself a writer, but he never published a book and he would put us to sleep with boring stories about covering baseball for a newspaper.

“He played video games, for God’s sake. And he dragged us to Disney World so many times I get hives just thinking about Mickey Mouse.

“Oh, and don’t get me started about all the times he tried to live vicariously through us with Little League baseball and youth soccer. He just didn’t understand why we didn’t care about playing or watching sports. If he had the sense God gave a ferret, he’d know we hated sports because he constantly shoved them down our throats.

“Sure, he could sing a little, but not as well as he thought he could – and he made an absolute idiot of himself whenever he tried to dance.

“He was like a parrot with that ‘be good, be nice …’ blah, blah, blah every day before school. What did that even mean, anyway? As if platitudes could replace genuine communication and empathy.

“As I say, your grandfather loved us – probably – and I think he meant well. But every day I live my life trying not to be like him.”

____________________________

Here’s the thing about legacies: They are impossible to forecast. Memories are fickle. Even if I do everything right in your eyes from now until the day I’m gone, I have no way to know how I’ll be remembered by you.

Chances are, boys, if you do have kids one day and they ask about me, the things you tell them and the tone of voice you use will be determined by things that have not yet happened, by moments that have not yet been lived. You are just now beginning to form long-term memories. This is Chapter One in your story of me.

All I can do is to attempt to live up to the ideal, while remaining mindful of the possibility of disappointment. If I’m fortunate, my true legacy to you will not be the memories and stories you share about me, but how your children remember you. Because if you grow up to be worthy of emulation in the eyes of my grandchildren, then I’ll consider this a job well done.

Why Do You Hate Squirrels, America?

This is how most of America sees squirrels: tweaked out, hyper, incompetent, good for a laugh. This must cease, for the good of humanity and squirrelhood.

This is how most of America sees squirrels: tweaked out, hyper, incompetent, good for a laugh. This must cease, for the good of humanity and squirrelhood.

The negative and inaccurate portrayal of squirrels in American mass media and entertainment must cease. Consider this a rallying cry on behalf of our furry-tailed, tree-climbing, acorn-eating friends.

Your eyes are rolling. I can hear them. I know what you’re thinking. They are squirrels. They have been handed all of life’s advantages for eons. Why should you care whether a writer or filmmaker or advertising hack depicts a squirrel in an absurd and utterly unrealistic way to get a laugh or sell a product?

Because even though many squirrels do, in fact, live down to the appalling mass media stereotype, the vast majority of squirrels actually are competent, caring, engaged, hard-working rodents. Rodents who are tired of being made fun of as a group, just for the sake of a cheap laugh.

As Scrat from Ice Age proves, this is not a new problem.

As Scrat from Ice Age proves, this is not a new problem.

Think it’s not a problem? Consider how squirrels have been depicted in children’s movies in recent years. Scrat from Ice Age? A tweaked out, acorn-obsessed addict who would rather chase a nut than avoid certain death in an avalanche. Hammy from Over the Hedge? Also tweaked out, particularly susceptible to the lure of caffeinated beverages, which are like squirrel amphetamines. One dose, and Hammy turns into a seething mass of hyperactivity and pure adrenaline. That’s just not realistic, and it has to stop. In the brilliant animated film Up, what do Dug and the rest of the talking dogs of the South America jungle get distracted by throughout the film? That’s right. Squirrel! They are merely a comic prop, good for nothing but a laugh. Squirrels demand equal screen time from now on. Or any screen time, for that matter. And not of them being tweaked out. Screen time of squirrels being squirrels, as they do. It’s only fair.

Even our preschoolers are not immune from negative stereotypes of squirrels. Witness one of our younger son’s favorite board games: Sneaky, Snacky Squirrel. Sneaky and Snacky? Why not just call the game Felonious, Gluttonous, Stinking Rodent and be done with it? Say what you really think, game makers. Show the true depths of your anti-squirrel bias.

Or, better yet, in all seriousness, why not call it Industrious, Athletic, Cute-as-a-button Yard Pet? Because that would be far more accurate and provide America’s youth a genuinely positive impression of our furry little buddies. Our children deserve to know the truth about squirrels. Their lifelong impressions are being formed now. It’s not too late.

Not every depiction is inaccurate or demeaning. Fortunately, the good people at Mary Baldwin College — home of the Fighting Squirrels — have it right. Here’s an excerpt from the school’s website, explaining why the squirrel was chosen for its school mascot.

“In heraldry the squirrel is a symbol of industriousness, trustworthiness, and preparation for the future. It also has been used to represent those with a love of the woods. In Nordic mythology, the squirrel is a symbol of the soul. These ancient meanings apply to Baldwin athletes who know that diligent work will pay off at game time and that their teammates depend on them — and equally apply to all Baldwin women (and men) who are disciplined in their focus, strive to do good in the world, work toward environmental sustainability, and seek wellness of body as well as soul.”

Now, that's more like it! Thank you, Mary Baldwin College, for your squirrel-savvy depiction of our furry friends.

Now, that’s more like it! Thank you, Mary Baldwin College, for your squirrel-savvy depiction of our furry friends.

Yes. That’s more like it. Truly inspiring. Thank you, Mary Baldwin College. It is encouraging to see that someone, somewhere, understands the plight of the gentle, humble squirrel. Perhaps there is yet hope for the squirrel community, after all.

We can dream.

Let’s Talk About God

“Every mythology, every religion, is true in this sense: It is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery.” – Joseph Campbell, the Power of Myth

God

Detail of Michelangelo’s ceiling fresco at the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City. Source: Photo illustration by DadScribe.

Our first summer in Florida, I was 13 years old and wheelchair-bound after corrective surgery on both feet. My parents sent my brother and me to vacation Bible school at the Presbyterian church up the road from our Palm Beach Gardens apartment complex. There, in the Sunday school classroom, as I sat in my wheelchair with my feet in their twin casts sticking straight out in front of me, a young man with shaggy brown hair, bad acne and huge glasses asked me if I would accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior.

If so, he added, my soul would be saved and I would be guaranteed a place for all eternity in the Kingdom of the Lord.

That sounded OK to me. So I said, “Yes. Yes, I do.”

And he said, “Praise Jesus. You are saved today.”

So, I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.

__________________________

Sundays at our house have always been reserved for rest. If not rest, Disney World. If not Disney, Busch Gardens. Or laundry. Or yard work. Or the community pool. Or grocery shopping. Or anything except church.

Put simply, we don’t go. We are among the 20 percent of Americans who a Pew Research Center poll identified as having no religious affiliation. That’s not to say we are not religious. Beth certainly is. She prays regularly, and she believes in the traditional, organized-religion definition of the Christian God.

I don’t share her beliefs. I suppose I would have to be lumped in with the 33 million Americans who identify themselves as atheistic or agnostic. I don’t know what that means, though. What I do know is that I don’t know what happens when we die.

I also know this: Neither does anyone else know. But you know what else? That doesn’t matter.

Religion isn’t about that. Or it shouldn’t be.

Joseph Campbell, a scholar of comparative mythology whose work influenced George Lucas as he created the Star Wars universe, makes as much sense to me as anyone I’ve read or listened to when it comes to the purpose of religion. He said it exists not to reveal the meaning of life, but to help us find a way to live life with grace, to discover within ourselves an accord between what we experience and the questions and concepts that transcend our experience.

Campbell said God was, in fact, a metaphor for the things that transcend thought. I think what he meant was that because we exist in the field of time — we’re born, we live, we die — it is incredibly difficult, maybe even impossible, to grasp the concept of eternity.

And that’s about as deep as I want to go with that. As I say, I don’t know. I want to know, but I also am not arrogant enough to believe that I have the answers. That said, nor will I at this point in my life acknowledge that anyone else truly knows, either. That’s what I believe.

Which brings us to our sons.

__________________________

Beth wants them to go to church. We have found one that might serve, at least for now.

I have qualms.

On one hand, I want our sons to learn about organized religion, about spirituality, about humanity’s attempts to make sense of it all.

On the other hand, I believe that much of humanity’s strife — today and throughout history — has been caused by organized religion. As Campbell said, practitioners of the individual religions get stuck in their own interpretations of their chosen metaphors. That is, they fail to read the sacred texts or hear the sacred stories as poetry. Instead, they read it and hear it as prose. It is, Campbell said, a purely literary problem.

I see people in the public eye espouse views in the name of their religion about topics such as homosexuality, and it is clearly a bigoted way of thinking. Here’s the problem, though: They don’t think of themselves as bigoted, because they simply are adhering to the things they learned from their religious leaders. They are wrong to think that. Hiding behind specious lessons does not excuse the ignorant. While I might not know the answers, I do know this: Any religious teaching that is used to objectify and dehumanize other people is deplorable. I hope our sons never think that way.

Some of my favorite people in the world are deeply religious, and so sure in their convictions that it sometimes makes me wish that I could give myself over to the rapture and let the joy wash over me like a baptismal font.

It’s tough, but our sons need a frame of reference. They need to be exposed to these ideas — and at 7, our older son is probably as impressionable as he’ll ever be when it comes to ideas about spirituality.

It’s tricky. I bought our older son a book the other day called The Kids Book of World Religions, and he sort of freaked out about the drawing of Jesus on the cross. He needs to know what that means, that the resurrection is emblematic of the “death” and “rebirth” we all must experience as we transition from one stage of life to another (I am aware there are those whose interpretation of the crucifixion differs from this one). I Googled [talking to children about religion] and found an entire blog dedicated to the subject, along with this Washington Post story about the author of that blog. This is not a problem unique to us.

It’s necessary. We want our sons to make informed decisions about how they choose to think about spirituality in the future. We’re going to expose them to different ways of thinking, to different paths. We’re going to let them make their own decisions when they’re ready. You’ve got to start somewhere. So … we’ll start by giving up our Sunday rest or recreation to explore the spiritual.

And we’re going to hope that when (if) they choose their paths, they find grace and peace and love. Above all else, we hope that.

Michelangelo

Michelangelo’s Pieta, Vatican City. Source: Photo illustration by DadScribe.