Parenting Tips

Mindfulness 101: Drown and Know That You Are Drowning.

This is my view this morning before the others are up and before a full day of 12 year-old baseball players begins. I’ve nearly made it to the bottom of my navy blue mug of coffee, when I decide to sneak in a quick, app-enabled “mindfulness” session; noting how strange it is to click the “bubbling stream” toggle to the off position. I don’t need the pre-recorded bubbling stream humming in the background of the meditation guy’s directions. I literally have a gurgling stream at my feet. So for 5 minutes, I use my son’s iPhone earbuds that I scrounged from the living room table earlier, cross over from one side of the stream to the other on well-placed stones but wearing hastily-chosen flip flops, slide a couple potted plants over to the side of the seat of a wooden bench, and meditate.

I press “play” on a session from one of the half-dozen apps gathered into my “Meditation” home screen folder. While wearing a layer of Patagucci gear because it’s a little chilly still. And vaguely annoyed (and annoyed with the fact that I am vaguely annoyed) that I am not wearing my Fitbit to measure how far my heart rate drops while meditating. The Fitbit ran out of juice last night, sending me on a fruitless power cord search in the dark, in unfamiliar environs where the light switches are unknown to me and I don’t want to wake up my sleeping, jet-lagged wife. The Fitbit now sits hooked up to the cabin’s electricity in one of the outlets, I can’t remember which one at the moment. And it’s all the way across this bubbling stream there. Despite looking painfully out of place, and totally aware how dependent I am upon technology and wearables and a disembodied voice telling me to “sit and know that I am sitting,” I force myself to close my eyes and breathe. Ahh.

But my mind darts around even more than usual. I even flicker my eyelids open at regular intervals, to defend against any sort of sneaky retribution from my brother or son. Both of whom would be entitled to sneak up on me and scream in my ear due to last night’s series of jump-scares, rocks thrown in the pond surreptitiously to mimic fish jumping while the guys fished, and generally tense, I’m-going-to-be-scared-at-any-moment-where-is-keir-hiding-now? vibe that I whipped up without mercy. So sure, I’m meditating. But I am also on edge with every sound around me that might be my brother in the grass behind me (it wasn’t) or that might be the creaky front screen door opening (it wasn’t).

Plus — and yes, this is exactly the wrong kind of “mindful” for which to be shooting while meditating as I am — I catch myself being mindful of an unpleasant scene captured yesterday at home on our driveway security camera. Late last night, my wife called my attention to some activity recorded earlier in the day (12:39 PM, to be exact). As she slept, I spent half an hour scrolling through the NestCam video footage while lying in bed. Then another 15 minutes composing a rant for my neighbors to read on the NextDoor app. It appears that an upstanding citizen sauntered into the little vestibule in our driveway in broad daylight yesterday, pee’d in my bushes, furtively took two drags from a little pipe, then went speed-walking off in a westerly direction. I’m guessing crack, but really I don’t have any idea. And I’d probably be nearly as irritated if he were puffing on a perfectly legit cigar.

“Sit and know that you are sitting,” my meditation guru reminds me from my son’s borrowed iPods. Ahhh. The stream bubbles on. I can smell the coffee in my mug. Pure bliss. Then my mind wanders to the day ahead, which features a long-ish drive to my younger son’s tournament baseball games outside Cooperstown. I’m antsy because for some reason, the games that I dutifully plugged into my iPhone’s calendar last week (Ev Game 1, Ev Game 2…), careful to ensure that I applied the proper time zone and that I “invited” my wife so that she didn’t need to do all this plugging, well, those entries have disappeared from my calendar. Totally freaking disappeared. It makes no sense. The thought of having to resort to re-doing all this calendaring is near-debilitating.

“Breathe and know that you are breathing,” he tells me. And I am in heaven. For perhaps 10 seconds. Before I am really able to settle back in, and while sprinting through an abbreviated “body scan,” I note that my ass is soaking wet. The little potted plants I slid over to claim a spot on the bench have left me a damp reminder as to why they were placed there in the first place. This bench is meant to be decorative. Not for sitting on, no matter how eco-friendly the sitter’s (now-wet) fleece pants.

“Now gently open your eyes,” he tells me. And with that, it’s over before it really began. I don’t think I ever even got to the “know that you are sitting” part, if I’m being honest.

On the plus side, my Fitbit is charged, no one has managed to sneak around to the bushes behind me, my fleece pants will dry out on their own, and the kitchen’s coffee pot is still pretty full. Now I need only navigate my way back across this raging fjord, relying on the fragile footing of my flip flops. Perhaps I will stumble into the stream. But at least I will know that I am stumbling into the stream. If I knock my head on a rock while falling down, I will know that I am knocking my head on a rock and falling down. If I drown, I will know that I am drowning. This meditation stuff is simple….

The Lady Is in Charge.

Four years ago during our first Cooperstown trip, I managed to book on Airbnb a rental house which, I am 75% certain, was haunted. I did not do so purposely. In that house overlooking Lake Otsego, I stumbled on an especially troubling portrait (dare I say, self-portrait?) of a monkey, hidden away in a side room (the painting, not the actual monkey, I don’t think). This was my Exhibit A (of many) in support of my haunting theory. It seemed to me that Mr. Monkey was in charge.

Probably he still is and probably that house is still haunted.

Which is why, during my online search for a rental home this summer, I carefully combed through all of Airbnb’s search filters, ensuring that I did not check any suspicious boxes described with any remotely troubling words. And if these words were already pre-checked due to some malevolent algorithm, I promptly unchecked them. “Desolate,” “Mysterious,” “Old Hunting Lodge,” “Used as a location for ‘Paranormal Activity’ movies,” and so on. Uncheck, uncheck, uncheck. Nothing but whistling robins and babbling brooks this trip. Whew.

So here we are, back in the Cooperstown area. I got up a bit early this am, and went for a short jog to town and back. I saw no other human beings walking or otherwise ambulating to, from, or in the town of Andes. This was actually a rather pleasant experience, allowing me to pause periodically and snap a photo or two of the Insta-worthy architecture and landscape. The yellow Victorian at the top of this post is a charming example of the local environs. Plus, I could pull out my iPhone and do this without the slightest hint of self-consciousness or concern that I might be invading someone’s privacy. Snap, jog, snap, jog.

Except that I did feel self-conscious near one particular photo stop. I had the unmistakeable feeling that I was being watched. Carefully. I spun my head around, saw nothing, no one, and continued on my way.

It was only later, when scrolling through my iPhotos over a coffee, that I caught a glimpse of something unnerving about that charming yellow Victorian…

And now I see that this time around, apparently, the Lady is in charge. Move over, Mr. Monkey. God help us. And I think I’m going to have to quit Airbnb.

Cooperstown, Take Two (This Time, I Am Ready).

It’s been four years since we last pointed our compasses 2,881 miles to the east, and made our way to baseball’s purported birthplace. The “birthplace” part is a stretch, since the idea that Abner Doubleday invented the sport in Cooperstown has been debunked (a long time ago, to be clear, not in the last four years). A hotel owner conjured up Baseball’s Hall of Fame (and likely played a part in germinating the Doubleday myth) as a much-needed shot in the arm for a local economy reeling from the double whammy of The Great Depression and Prohibition. The rest, as they say, is history. Well, actually there was plenty of history before “the rest,” so perhaps more accurately, “the rest” is a sublime monument to the history that transpired before the Hall’s construction, and to that which has transpired since. And to that which transpires, still. This weekend, in fact, marks the annual rite by which the newly-elected cohort of mostly recently-retired major leaguers are inducted into the Hall with great fanfare.

This weekend also marks my family’s return to an out-of-the-way Airbnb rental house for a climactic youth baseball tournament. We weren’t ready then. 2014 saw my eldest son Max, (The Kraken), trot around on the field with knickers and red socks (not “sox”), and turn 13 when he blew out the candles on a birthday cake my wife had clandestinely carried into the ballpark. I suppose we hadn’t planned ahead with sufficient foresight to avoid some serious rule-breaking (“ABSOLUTELY NO OUTSIDE FOOD ALLOWED!”) with that birthday cake. I believe the statute of limitations on that clear transgression has run. But to be safe, this time around, we are taking our act down the road a bit, to a different ballpark tournament altogether. Because we are better prepared.

Moreover, we have ensured that our youngest son Everett (he of the infrequently brushed teeth), has no expectations regarding any illicit pastries. There are no looming birthdays (nor forgotten birthdays) or other holidays that might otherwise force his mother and I to give in to our baser parenting instincts, Americana baseball field rules be-damned. If Ev sneaks verboten items into his little dormitory (and this is not a very big if), that’s on him. I have deliberately avoided reading through the printed tournament rules carefully, dodging direct confrontation with any prohibitions associated with candy or soda or PlayStations or Fortnite or whatever. I have therefore managed to arrive on the east coast armed with plausible deniability. And I aim to preserve this status. Printed Tournament Rules? What Printed Tournament Printed Rules? Yessir. 2018–Everett’s turn at Cooperstown–will be different. Because this time, I am ready.

This means that I am better prepared for on-the-fly, unexpected developments that might occur away from the environs of the baseball diamond, too. During our last visit, I spied across a restaurant a fraternity brother whom I hadn’t seen in 25 years. This might seem a joyous occasion, but for the rather unfortunate fact that I could not for the life of me recall his actual name. Only his pledge name came to mind. And as is the case with most if not all pledge names, this would not be a pleasant moniker to deliver up at his dinner table as he sat surrounded by his wife and children, no matter how big I forced my smile. I interrupt his reverie out of the blue to remind him of some unflattering physical characteristics rather cruelly called-out a quarter century ago by only slightly older college kids who were themselves still stinging from once being similarly called out and therefore overly eager to pass along this lovely tradition. No, I couldn’t bear to perpetuate this jackassery of my younger self now that I sat at a restaurant as a grown man.

But I still couldn’t remember his name, no matter what sorts of memory tricks I anxiously sprinted through in my mind. No matter how many random first names my wife stage-whispered to me in a generous but totally-unhelpful attempt to come to my rescue (there are a lot of names, you see). I saw my fraternity-brother-without-a-name go through the motions of paying his bill and begin to gather his rental car keys and progeny. I struggle to stifle my increasing panic at the prospect of drawing a blank. An absolute blank on his name when he would pass my table and see my face on his way out to resume his presumably happy life during which no one called attention to any unflattering (or flattering, for that matter) physical characteristics. Reaching under the table cloth, I furtively text another fraternity brother who lives in Reno, whose pledge name and real name I have not forgotten, and who I knew would instantly recall our younger fraternity brother’s given name. “What is Knuckle Dragger’s real name?” I text him this with absolutely no context. There is no time for context. “Phil,” my savior texts me back almost immediately, just as “Knuckle Dragger/Phil” (neither his real name nor his real pledge name) obliviously approaches my table. This last-minute reprieve via an absurd text message exchange allowed me 2 or 3 seconds to compose myself, stand up, and magnanimously greet him (by his real name) as if we were the best of friends.

“Phil” was dumbstruck, literally appearing to be in shock, and maybe just maybe sufficiently flattered that he might forget his “Knuckle Dragger” mistreatment at my hands and those of other slightly-older college kids 25 years ago, each of us overly eager to leave the sting of our own pledge names and unflattering characteristics behind. After a few minutes, we parted ways and I sat back down at my table, emotionally exhausted, having narrowly averted disaster due to a lack of preparation.

This time around, during our trip in Cooperstown, I am better prepared. I will be shouldering a heavy backpack containing every grade school and junior high school and high school and college and law school yearbook I could gather up over the past four years. The pages are taped and flagged and referenced and cross-referenced with classmates long-forgotten but who may pop up with their own baseball-playing son, having made their own pilgrimage to this Mecca of baseball. This time around, for Cooperstown Take Two, I am ready. Wish me luck.

I (Still) Got a Woman.

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So this morning I’m sitting on my bed, back propped up with pillows, cranking away at my keyboard, as I have been for the last several weeks-worth of mornings just like this one.  I’m busily transcribing the chicken-scratched edits from a hard copy of my book manuscript, clicking “save” more than is probably necessary, as I am terrified of losing the 260 or so digital pages comprising this memoir that have been over a year in-the-making. And I am in full-on “racing mode,” rather than “creative mode.” It’s as though I am working with someone else’s words rather than my own. So I am not being delicate and emotive here.  I just want to finish typing all the damned edits into the Word doc, like yesterday. Because (although she doesn’t know it yet), a certain famous author will soon have my manuscript pressed into her hands, buttonholed into service by some very helpful friends we share in common (Hi Kelly!). Truth be told, these are more accurately described as my wife’s helpful friends. My own connection to the to-be-conscripted author is rather tenuous (Hi Kelly!). So this is the harried state in which I find myself this morning when I turn to the manuscript’s next page and stumble upon a scene I wrote that transpired exactly 4 years ago today:  On our wedding anniversary.  Woah woah woah, hang on a second, people! Of course I haven’t forgotten about our wedding anniversary; I never do.  But I hadn’t paused yet to savor it. And this sort of thing is definitely worth savoring. So I figured this would be a good time for such a pause to savor. A good time to remind myself how lucky I am to (still) be married to my wife. And a good time to re-post something I wrote four years ago, but that could just as well have been written today (with the addition of a few links here and there for context) —

***

I bolt awake at 4:00 am. The Kraken has a baseball tournament in Sunnyvale, the first game of which begins at 8 am. Show up time is 7:00 am. The drive will take an hour. We’ll need to be on the road by 6:00 am. Raising Max from his slumber will take 5 minutes. Tyga’s “Rack City” is my go-to “wakeup” song (not to be confused with “walkup” song) with Max. Guaranteed to jumpstart his sleepy head and elicit some questionable hip-hop moves involving thrusting hips that I should probably forbid. Scrambling around the house collecting all the pieces of Max’s uniform will take 15 minutes. This despite my orders last night to have everything packed, zipped, and ready to go. Net, net, this all means a 5:30 am wake-up call. It’s only 4:00 am now, I see. But I slip out from under the covers anyhow, taking inventory on various aches and pains exacerbated by a night’s sleep that has come up short by a couple hours. This is how I begin the morning of Hilary and my 17th wedding anniversary.

This is what my life has come to. And I can’t imagine it any other way.

We’ve had a rough year, of sorts. Family and friends have passed away. I’ve endured several months of being considerably less than 100% myself. We have weathered a handful of bitter disappointments. Slights real and slights imagined. All of which has served to give me perhaps the deepest and broadest perspective on my marriage, and on my life for that matter, that I’ve managed to feel thusfar in my 45 years.

The lemonade–Grandma’s Lemonade–is tasting pretty good.  Still. Even with the wooden mixing spoon picked up off the floor, particles of dirt stirred in there. Maybe a long black dog hair entwined around one of the ice cubes. A few too many lemon seeds swirling around. One of which tries to ruin my sip by jumping into my thirsty mouth along with a big gulp. Gonna need to try harder than that, seed.

So yeah, I’m feeling thankful this morning, 17 years to the day from when Hilary first showed me how much stronger and tougher she is than I. She strode purposefully down the red-carpeted aisle. Standing tall. Clear-eyed. Solid. I, on the other hand, was a puddle. Tears welled up in my eyes rendering me nearly blind, blinking and squinting to keep my burning eyes trained on my approaching bride-to-be. My throat so tight. Had I spoken aloud during her proud walk, Kermit the Frog’s voice would have come out. At best. My mind reeled, as it would years later when our babies popped out in the delivery room (and years later again when my innards were gripped by the elevation and exposure at Angel’s Landing in Zion). It was all I could do to keep my feet and not topple over.

And things only got worse during the ceremony itself. My Best Man had the foresight to bring along something should I need to wipe my brow or corral a cough. Since this was the same guy who bought the Alien Head for $5, perhaps I should have known that that something would be a wad of hotel toilet paper rather than, say, a situationally-appropriate linen hanky monogrammed with something undeniably masculine.  So there I stood, sweat dripping into my burning, bloodshot eyes overflowing with tears. My cheeks blushing red and feeling like they were on fire. Little pieces of hotel toilet paper clinging to my face as I swabbed myself repeatedly in a desperate attempt to keep my shit together.

Probably being in the House of God and all that stuff did not help. I’ve always managed to feel profoundly uncomfortable there (you may recall the 10th Grade Spurious Communion Incident). Never knowing what to do with my hands, either–probably clasped in front, maybe folded behind my back, but I don’t think in my pockets, probably not in my pockets, no definitely not, get your hands out of your pockets! In this wretched state, I glance at Hilary. Her eyes hold mine. Her smile so calm and confident and comfortable. Her right hand squeezing my left just a bit harder now. Not too hard, though; not really a “keep your shit together” squeeze.  And nowhere near the knuckle-crunching vice grip she would deliver as Max came into the world a few years later.  Rather, just enough pressure to push some of her abundant strength and resolve into me. And somehow, I pull through. Depleted. Drained. Spent. Tapped out.  Sweaty red face dotted with toilet paper pieces.  In the end, I made it. Sure. But only because of her.

I mentioned it’s been a rough year. This is when Hilary is at her best, you see. Our wedding day was just my first glimpse of that truth. So during this recent tough patch of ours, she remains: Unwavering. Loyal. Her hand literally or figuratively squeezing mine. Squeezing all of our hands–my hands as well as those of our sons now, too.  And Wailea’s fuzzy paw, even. She’s got us all.

So these are the warm thoughts in my head as I return to Earth and find that I will be forced to sprint across the chewing tobacco-stained and sunflower seed-littered parking lot in order to catch the start of Max’s 8 am game.

Maybe not exactly the sort of anniversary Hilary had in mind.

Then again, maybe exactly the kind of anniversary she had in mind, because I’m spending the morning with our first-born. His birth was the second time Hilary showed me how much stronger and tougher she is than I. So it seems fitting today that I get to sit and just watch Max zip around the field for the next few hours. One of several amazing things in our life together, the product of our union 17 years ago today.

Happy Anniversary, my love. And please keep squeezing my hand.

The End of an Era

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May 29, 2018.  I’ve known this day was coming for me since August of 2006, when my Little League coaching journey began.  That month, my elder son Max (now a high school Junior) first picked up his glove in service of a San Francisco Little League team — the Giants, no less — as a kindergartner.  Team names are picked at random each season by coaches out of a hat (an envelope, really). That first season, we had plucked the name of our hometown San Francisco Giants — the first and last time the folded up piece of paper would have those particular words scrawled on it.  An auspicious beginning to a memorable coaching career.

Over the years I would coach the Grizzlies, Cubs, White Sox, Angels (twice), Red Sox, A’s (thrice), Indians, Mariners, and a couple more I cannot currently bring to mind.  Perhaps because I coached each of my sons throughout this adventure, I was keenly aware, from the very beginning, that each practice and each game meant that I would have one less practice, one less game, to savor before it all came to a crashing halt on a baseball diamond in the future. A silent clock in my head, counting down. In 12 years from now, then 10 years, then 5, then 2, then just one more, than just a matter of months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, then down to a final at-bat, then down to just one last out.  I saw the end coming the whole way. 

And the end made its long-awaited appearance last night. May 29, 2018. Our San Francisco Little League Majors A’s huddled in the left field grass at Tepper Field one last time. My bloodstream was still flooded with bitter feelings from our sudden loss just minutes ago. The sensation of a dozen (somewhat begrudging, if I’m being totally honest) high-fives with the opposing team’s players still buzzed a bit in the palms of my hands.  Now, I silently regretted my deliberate decision not to pencil out an end-of-the-season speech beforehand.  I took several deep breaths in an attempt to gather my thoughts, to ensure that I was going to say the “right” things, rather than rail about missed practices, ground balls slithering through legs, and strike threes taken. And though I was painfully aware that this moment marked the end of an era for me, I tried not to peer down into that new, empty void.  Tried to focus on the boys.   

This is not supposed to be about me, you see. It is supposed to be about them. Sure, I had just coached my final game.  With the second of my sons (and I have but two).  “Dad” is my favorite word in the English language.  “Coach” had always run a close second, but  pulled up lame, as I knew it would, falling behind and off in the distance and suddenly now about to be gone forever. But not until after I try to muster up just one final (and unscripted, regrettably, again) speech on soiled knee in the outfield grass.  So I need to get this right. 

Our season had begun, as all of them do, with promise. A chance to forge a scattered and disconnected group of 11 and 12 year-olds into a cohesive team, applying lessons learned over each of the previous dozen seasons. Just last year, my team (the Mariners) won the regular season, and narrowly missed winning the playoffs, too. Arguably, our loss in the League Championship can be attributed to the overzealous coach bouncing in the third base coaches box.  That would be me. I foolishly windmilled a slow-footed runner around the third base bag, and destined him to a waiting tag at home plate.  Game over.  I expect that he has managed to forget that moment, with the youthful gift of jelly-headed resilience.  I have not been so lucky, replaying that scene over and over again in my own jelly-head. 

With some disappointment, I recognized at the start of this season that a miracle would be required for these A’s to repeat the on-field success of their predecessors, the Mariners. Sweet kids, all of them, but also offering up new challenges.  I struggled to resist my inner Captain Bligh each time players showed up at practice or even a game, invariably late, and without his hat, his cleats, his glove, his bat, his belt.  My assistant coach and good friend John routinely suffered through sunburns on his forehead, having generously, once again, “donated” his own cap to one of our forgetful A’s.  Over the course of the season, we had roughly 30 practices.  Repetition is key, I’ve learned.  And then, more repetition.  But all the sessions I had dutifully reserved, scheduled, planned for, and schlepped bags and buckets and bats and balls to over my shoulders? I believe we only had one practice at which our entire squad was present, and that may have been our very first, remind me what’s your name again? practice of the year.  

Other than near-constant, grumbling emails from me to our players’ parents, this meant that we coaches were simply never able to pontificate on all the subtleties and vagaries and nuances of the game of baseball to the entire team at once.  I never signaled a “bunt” sign during a game.  We never got around to that. We relied on only one “first and third” play when we were in the field, left to ignore the other half-dozen options given currency in every other Little League Majors season I’d coached. We never got around to that. Our most experienced pitcher — who threw the ball harder than anyone I’d ever seen in Little League — was an especially busy lad, such that I never found a meaningful opportunity at practice to iron out a kink in his swing and a rush in his pitching delivery.  We never got around to that, either.  

And so I knew, as early in March, that this would be a season of triage.  Of rushed instructions delivered during the game while sitting on my bucket of balls poised at the corner of the dugout.  Flashing the pitch sign between my legs to our catcher, while reminding him, “Big target! Stick it! Squeeze it!” Then glancing at my players in the field, assessing their body language. Beseeching our corner outfielders (who often hadn’t seen real action for several innings), “Sprint in and out and in and out and in and out, every time!” (It is a tall order, backing up potential pickoff throws from the catcher to the third baseman or first baseman.) Then cajoling our infielders, “Move your feet! Expect ball! Coming to you!” And finally sneaking in one last piece of encouragement to our pitcher, “Take a breath. See it before you throw it. Chest to knee. You got this.” I felt a near-constant, burning need to stuff twelve years of coaching instruction into a single year, into every single game, hobbled as we were from scant practice time together and from forgotten hats and gloves and bats and sunscreen and snacks and water bottles and belts. I never worked so hard on a Little League team. After games, I would pour myself into the front seat of my car and just sit there for a minute or two, trying to regain the energy required to drive back home over the Bay Bridge. 

If I could do it all over again, I wonder, do all of the orders and instructions and pitch-calling really matter? Would I, would we, have been better off had I chosen instead to sit on my hands in the dugout all season, with a smile on my face, simply letting whatever will happen, happen? I don’t know.  I suspect I would have blown out my eustachian tubes trying to hold back all the “helpful” instructions banging around in my head.  But still, I don’t know. 

To my credit (I hope), I generally tried to counterbalance the in-game micromanagement tendencies with more emotionally intelligent commentaries delivered in the outfield after each our games. More often than not, I would apologize for something I did or didn’t do during the game.  Said or didn’t say, in the heat of the moment. The players likely suffered whiplash from this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine, but I think any honest youth coach understands and struggles with this same push-pull dynamic of which I speak.  During a game, I have no fewer than 8 people inside my head shouting orders, or attempting to sooth the savage beast, or thinking make sure you smile so the parents don’t think you are a complete jerk and your players don’t fear you, or why didn’t you practice bunting more, you should have practiced bunting more this would have been a great time for a bunt. It is an emotional whirlwind, immediately followed by (ideally) a much calmer discussion about life lessons and such in the outfield grass.

And this whipsawed dynamic was on full display last night.   

We had managed to hang tight with a team that won, handily, the regular season.  Our previous encounter with the juggernaut Red Sox found the A’s on the unpleasant end of a 12-4 trouncing.  And yet, at the top of the 5th inning, here we were in a tie game, knotted at 3 runs apiece. I began entertaining visions of these A’s miraculously finding themselves playing for the League Championship four days hence.  In my 3 previous Majors seasons, two of those teams played in the championship game.  Last year we nearly won it. Why not these A’s? Why shouldn’t fate smile upon me, at long last — after 12 years — and give me a League Championship? Don’t I deserve it? 

While I fantasized about dog piles and beaming parents and shiny trophies coming my way on Saturday, I lost my full concentration on the field in that moment.  Loosed just a bit my grip on the action in front of me.  Our speedy outfielder drew a two-out walk, advancing the self-glorifying narrative building in my head, and now the meat of our order jogged up to the plate. Things were looking good.

But while standing in the third base coaches box, with my head full of delusions of grandeur, I failed to notice a devilish glint in our speedy outfielder’s eyes.  I had been preaching aggressive base running all season (to the detriment of other bedrock rules dealing with the sanctity of runs when our team is a couple runs behind, for example).  And so, inspired by his coach’s fiery pre-game rhetoric, our outfielder suddenly careened around first base in a courageous but ill-advised attempt to stretch his walk into an extra base. He almost made it, too.  But the throw and tag were true. The home plate umpire’s emphatic thumb and fist-punch ended our season.  

And I knew, right away, exactly what had happened.  Despite all these years, I had neglected the central truth:  It is not about me.  It is about them.  

And so, only minutes later, kneeling in the outfield grass one last time, I tried to look within and find that proper perspective. To come up with a valedictory speech rather than a eulogy.  To leave the boys with something poignant but not saccharine. So that they would remember the right stuff, not the wrong stuff.  To ensure that my last post-game words as a coach would be meaningful.  I told them I was proud of them, and they should be proud of themselves.  Every one of them, proud of themselves.  And of each other.  I told one of our players — whom I have coached for as long as I have coached my son Everett — that I didn’t care how many balls went under his legs. That knowing what I know now, right now, I remain grateful to have coached him all these years, and I wouldn’t have changed a thing.  And then I looked into his eyes and told him that I loved him. (This line I rushed through, because I wanted to get it out before my increasingly choked-up throat cut me off at the pass.) I scanned the others’ faces, and told them to look at each other in our semi-circle.  We live in different parts of the city, we look different from each other, our families came from different parts of the world. But sitting here right now, what you guys have been through together, those differences don’t matter, do they?  Never forget the fun times you had together and how much you learned together. Savor the good stuff. 

I told them that the winning and losing stuff seems really important right now, I know, but it isn’t.  It’s only baseball.  Only a game.  And that each muffed ground ball, or strike out, or whatever, is another chance to see what you’re made of.  To get back up.  To rise to the challenge.  That losing this game, and losing all the games we lost this season, is actually a good thing.  Because down the road when you have girlfriends or boyfriends who tell you one day they no longer want to be together with you, maybe you will have felt that pain before, on a baseball diamond, and maybe you will remember that you can go on.  That you will be OK.  You will fail tests, and suffer disappointments, and lose jobs. People you care about will get sick.  But you have been there before. You have been given the opportunity to play this game and make all kinds of mistakes and learn from them. Grow from them.  Push yourselves up off the floor.  At least try to get up, and keep trying to get up. 

It’s a lifelong journey, I think to myself as they boys scramble to their feet, none of them, thankfully, even remotely aware of the enormous loss I feel in my own belly.  I am still making mistakes, I acknowledge.  And gritting my teeth to remind myself each time that each mistake is an opportunity, not a failure.  A challenge, not a loss.  And while my Little League coaching career has reached it conclusion, as I always knew it would, I am trying to take my own outfield advice. To remember and savor the experience.  To appreciate that it happened. To maybe learn from it, rather than get stuck on this “end of an era” thing.  It is all a work in progress. But I am trying.  And that is enough for now. 

Thanks for reading.  And a heartfelt thank you and tip of the cap to the 2018 San Francisco Little League Majors A’s (and to all the other teams of girls and boys I’ve had the privilege of coaching). 

 

Go Syraduke Orangebluedevilmen (Part 2)

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Well hello there, milestone.  How you been, life signpost?

Duke and Syracuse University square off tonight in a March Madness’ Sweet Sixteen matchup. I last wrote about this spine-tingling college hoops rivalry a little over 4 years ago.  At the time, I was raw and reeling from my grandmother’s sudden death, and yet newly-inspired, too, to create this here blog and start documenting my day-to-day.  Trying to emulate my grandmother’s inexhaustible good humor and optimism.  I called it a “quixotic quest for the bright side.” At the time, my sons were 12 and 8 years old, in people years.  Our dog was 1, also in people years.  My wife and I were, ehm, younger, too.

That was four years and a couple hundred Lemonade Chronicles blog posts ago. So the game got me thinking: What has happened in my life since then? Well, on the negative side (and it remains difficult not to tackle this end of the ledger first), my family and I have lost loved ones and dear friends. Some older and therefore perhaps not entirely surprising.  Some far younger, and therefore entirely surprising.  Neither category seems fair, of course.  And while these people are gone, it’s safe to say we think about them all, just about every day.  Still, these heartbreaking losses have served as rallying calls for my tribes: My college buddies, my wife’s family.  We have grown tighter and more appreciative of one another as a result.  Doesn’t make it hurt any less, I suppose, but it is something to grab onto while staring at the ceiling at 2 in the morning.  Or while stumbling over an old Facebook photo depicting a smiling face that smiles no more.

My kids have gotten older.  One has moved away, willingly, to a boarding school on the east coast.  Max is trudging through his 4th Nor’easter at the moment, as I type on my MacBook Air sitting in our San Francisco backyard, pant legs rolled up since it’s a little warm in the sun. Our younger son Everett is in 6th grade and none-too-happy about the fact that the white hot parental spotlight shines only in his direction. At least it seems that way to him. And my wife and I probably want to perpetuate this myth, because Everett is the sneaky one.

I’ve continued to coach Little League teams for as long as my sons’ birth certificates allow. I’m in my last season right now, in fact.  The number of times I’ll get to remind a player to tie his shoes or to show me where her baby tooth recently fell out? Dwindling. Honestly, this coaching thing has been going on so long (13 or 14 years now), I verge on panic when contemplating its sudden absence from my identity.  At times, I find myself fantasizing about returning to the pitching mound someday to coach my grandchildren’s Little League teams.  This gives you an idea of how bent I am about this phase of my life coming to an abrupt halt in a couple months.

I’ve been writing a book inspired in-part by my Lemonade Chronicles blog.  I wrote a 500+ paged manuscript, covering 4 years, then cut it down to 8 months, in the process realizing that a health scare had played a more prominent role in my psyche than I knew.  The manuscript is currently in the hands of a half-dozen “beta readers” from whom I fear I will learn that my book is actually awful.  Even if they like it and their constructive criticism doesn’t leave me dry-heaving, there is still the matter of finding a literary agent, publishing house, and readers willing to pay to read what I write. Wish me luck.

Since my first Duke-SU post, I have worked at three startups, none of which left me with a feeling of doing something meaningful.  Which probably explains, in part, why I have taken the past year off to focus on writing this book.  The book is now “written” — or at least the hard part of putting something together that lasts 254 pages and has pretty pictures such that I can hand it to someone with sort of a straight face.  So suddenly, the gobs of time each day spent pulling my hair out and shuffling around hundreds of pages of draft writing lies empty.  So I find myself, tentatively, exploring the possibility of a new adventure. Something ideally complementing this dream of mine to be a guy who regularly writes and publishes books that people want to read, and maybe goes to neat little bookstores all over the place to meet and talk with those people.

A large part of my family has, rather surprisingly, left Syracuse altogether.  My sister, mother and step-father, all gone. Living in North Carolina. A good example of how things you assume will last forever, well, they usually don’t. I have been trying to figure out how to go to North Carolina to visit, and while I have been doing so, my nephews are getting older in their Instagram photos. I have yet to step foot in my mother’s year-old house, to say nothing of the home my sister and brother in-law have lived in for several years now.  I tell myself that I am busy with book writing, and being a husband and a dad, and coaching Little League, and walking the dog. But perhaps I am simply not a very good son or big brother.

Both may be true.  Take tonight:  As an example of how far things have come, I actually will miss watching this milestone college hoops game.  I won’t be watching it live in a bar downtown with a couple college buddies, backslapping each other and yelling.  I won’t be the object of some purportedly good-natured text taunting from my far-flung, Syracuse born-and-bred, family members. I won’t be giggling over funny texts shared among a sizable group of other college buddies, each live-texting the game with relevant comments and with totally irrelevant comments of the sort I dare not publish here (or anywhere for that matter).  In fact, I will take the extreme step of shutting down my iPhone and burying it in a backpack until later this evening.  Or perhaps until tomorrow morning.  Because I won’t see this game until my rendezvous with TiVo ’round about 9pm tonight.

Instead, I’ll be standing in the third base coaches box, cheering on my Little League team’s players.  It’s not even a real game; just a hastily-arranged scrimmage.  Earlier today, I contemplated skipping the scrimmage myself in favor of the yelling and backslapping and harried texting. For about 15 minutes.  But then I thought about my Little Leaguers, down in the mouth from their 3rd consecutive rained-out game. And I knew where I belonged: On the field with my gaggle of 11- and 12-year olds, shoelaces untied and baby teeth still rooted. The hoops game can wait.

Thanks for reading.

 

My Final Season (and So It Begins….)

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This is what Opening Day looks like in San Francisco.  Technically not “Opening Day.” That event and its annual parade was actually cancelled a weekend ago. The rainy conditions introduced the unpleasant prospect of baseball-cleated pre-teens sliding around in the payload of rented pickup trucks like a pile of slippery mackerel.  This would have been my last San Francisco Little League Opening Day Parade, since my younger son will graduate out at the end of the current season.  I’ll get over it, but I would have liked just one more trip around the block with a pile of fish. 

Even after 12 or 13 years of these rides, I can almost remember each.  When loaded with a dozen 50-pound first-graders, space comes at a premium back there for coaches who haven’t seen first grade and 50 pounds since 1975. Sixth-graders now, the players on my Majors A’s team this year have doubled in size from their first-grade selves. We coaches have, maybe, added a few pounds here and there as well. Sitting in the open air on the bump of a metal wheel well, pinching one’s knees together as the driver careens around the Marina, the players rhythmically banging their fists on the quarter panels, sounds, objectively speaking, undesirable. But I would have liked to take one more spin around the neighborhood, my own hand stinging at the end of it (it’s not just the kids that do the banging). 

Thankfully, lightning and sneakers losing purchase and liability did not come into play for our team’s actual first game, which transpired this past weekend.  This is not to say that my boys (it’s only boys this season) pranced around in the bluebird skies, blazing sunshine, and fresh cut grass from my youth. Nope. I suspect our field had recently played host to a lacrosse game or rugby match or Friday evening adult softball game featuring a keg drained down in the visitor’s dugout. The field has seen better days. I can’t blame the outfield, pockmarked with ankle-twisting gopher holes, on those other folks, though.  That’s just nature.  The kids have been navigating those vermin-built land mines for so long, we don’t even bother mentioning this hazard to our right fielders anymore. 

Gopher holes? What gopher holes?  

The unusually heavy fog added an interesting variable to the mix. The Golden Gate Bridge’s fog horn moaned the entire night before our game.  The late evening news weatherman, his opinion seconded by the opposing team’s head coach, said it would be thick.  He was right.  At 7:15am on Saturday morning, the fog bank operated as a de facto outfield fence.  If any player was able to jack one out into the fog, literally hitting the ball out of sight, I suspect the home plate umpire would happily circle his index finger in the air.  That would be a very cool sight, and I wouldn’t care whether our team did it, or their team did. 

Fog? What fog?

Given the paucity of playable fields within the 7 mile by 7 mile footprint of San Francisco proper, the League struggles mightily to accommodate the 1,000+ rabid little leaguers with crooked caps and untied shoelaces. Hence our 8am game on Saturday.  My team’s players, presumably still bleary-eyed from an all-night Fortnight video game bender, drifted onto the field one and two and three at-a-time; eventually comprising a full quorum by the time the umpire requested my hand-written lineup. Our pre-game drills turned just-unwrapped official league baseballs into the heavy dirty gummy dun spheres on display at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.  I whack a brand-spanking new ball with my fungo bat out into the outfield, someone (hopefully, eventually, corrals it), and throws back to me an unrecognizeable ball covered in mud as though it had time-traveled (backwards or forwards, I’m not sure which).  But none of the players and none of the coaches complained about the mud balls.   

Mud balls? What mud balls?

As it turns out, we got our butts kicked on Saturday morning.  Wasn’t much of a contest, really. Sure, we talked about it after the game.  A little bit. The strikeouts and botched plays and missed steal signs and such.  But that stuff hardly mattered as we all knelt in the still-wet grass surrounded by the still-lingering fog. I glanced around this semi-circle of boys, ready smiles on their faces, some giggling and poking at each other, no hints of dejection or disappointment over why didn’t I swing at that third strike. In that moment, I thought to myself, “getting our butts kicked never felt so good.” 

This is my last season, and I’ve resolved to savor every moment of it.  So bring on the rain and fog and gophers and mud balls.   

48% Dread, 52% Magic

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I can’t stop staring at this photograph, though it fairly twists up my insides. Despite the vaguely unpleasant mix of light-headedness and fluttering heartbeats triggered by the rich memories conjured up, I am transfixed. Mesmerized. I’m staring into my own eyes spanning a yawning gap of 36 or 37 years.  One one end, looking into an exhilaratingly unknown future, with absolutely zero idea of what may come. Perhaps wondering whether my older self will have figured things out somewhere down the line. On the other end, looking backwards in time, desperate to catch a glimpse of that deer-in-the-headlights boy’s thoughts, the same age then as my younger son is now, give or take.  

If we were to meet today,  this boy and I, would he feel pride, or disappointment, in the life he and I have lived?

I honestly don’t know.

I stumbled on this photograph of a photograph in the midst of what has become an annual event marked by melancholy and reminiscing. My maternal grandmother passed away four years ago yesterday — a seismic event still felt palpably by my mother’s side of the family.  Still felt by me.  Glutton for punishment that I apparently am, I have not afforded myself the opportunity to let my grandmother’s death clear my system.  Rather, I have been doggedly blogging around and within its periphery beginning a few days after she died.  And for the past year, I have been pounding a book intended to honor her into the keys of my MacBook’s keypad. Running so many laps around Memory Lane that I have lost count.  

The photo above, plucked from my mother’s shoebox of pictures in the wake of my grandmother’s  death, owns a permanent address on Memory Lane. I have passed it repeatedly, rubbernecking at a sprint every time. The boy with the tongue and the boy with the dread, Pete and Teddy, respectively, are still with me.  Pete lives in Calistoga with his family, and thankfully emerged from those recent wine country fires in one piece. Teddy lives in Chicago, newly married on a gorgeous Florida beach, to a woman who sees as much in him as I always have.  Pete’s comical expression is pretty typical for that time period; actually, pretty typical for any time period.  Funny enough, almost, to make me forgive him for smashing my borrowed electric guitar at a college lip synch competition of his.

The purple tongue is admittedly vexing, because I can assure you that my parents stocked nothing in our kitchen cupboards capable of staining anyone’s tongue that particular color.  Or any color, for that matter. Powdered milk and oatmeal molasses cookies and buckwheat pancakes (“thick-ass buckwheat flapjacks,” as Pete reminds me) don’t leave that kind of mark. I’d put my money on a contraband grape lollipop snuck into 115 Robineau Road amidst the chaos of my little birthday party.  I suspect Pete knows precisely how many licks it takes to get to the center of that cartoon owl’s Tootsie Pop

In Teddy’s face, I sense a certain wariness.  A concern about what might happen next.  At the time, he was working his way through the complicated dynamics of his parents’ divorce, and I recall that this took a toll on his emotional well-being.  On the other hand, Teddy knew how emphatic my parents — particularly my father — were about sugar and artificial coloring and health foods and such.  His flat expression is equally likely to have been inspired by a fear of my father’s anticipated reaction to Pete’s Purple Tongue. Maybe my dad would insist on “entertaining” us boys in the backyard with yet another episode of breaking bricks with his bare fist. Thrilling to me; terrifying to my buddies, who always read into the brick-breaking some sort of message to them.  In this case, maybe “This is what will happen to the next friend of Keir’s who brings a Tootsie Pop into my house — CRAAAAAACKKK!”  It’s possible 12 year-old Teddy foresaw this scene, as I suggested in a text I sent to 49 year-old Ted this morning along with the photo.  He responded, “My formative years consisted of 48% dread. My apologies for the facial expression.” 

No apologies necessary, my man. That still leaves 52% for the magic part.

My 12 year-old self may or may not agree, but by this point, I might argue that a life made of 52% magic and 48% dread is a life well-lived. 

Thanks for reading. 

Shaken, Not Stirred

The tables have turned.

Yesterday morning saw me begrudgingly play the role of my wife’s stiff-legged running partner. Plucked from bed by the ankles in mid-slumber. Pressured to leave the cozy confines of our Queen-sized bed in order to shuffle in the chilly rain for 40 dark minutes.

Today, however, I was the heel grabber, not the heel grabbee. Grabbed the bull by the horns, you might say. And somehow, like yesterday, when our roles were reversed, I’m reasonably confident that things worked out well.

Before kids (at the turn of the century), Hilary and I were regular devotees of Bikram Yoga. Eighteen years ago, we would eagerly sweat our way through 26 “poses” intended to pretzel ones limbs in a stifling room, with an ambient air temperature not far removed from our toaster oven’s “broil” setting. It sounds awful, and it is actually worse than it sounds. At least until you settle in and get yourself accustomed to the overheated misery over the course of many sessions. One of my fondest memories of my wife involves witnessing her standing in “Balancing Stick” pose with her 9 month-old pregnant belly protruding proudly (the human we would later meet, called “Max,” was in there somewhere). She looked like a freakin’ warrior, and I was in awe. (As I said just yesterday, she is tough.)

But in the ensuing years, two kids and a mortgage and law firms and start ups and a puppy and slowed metabolisms and pre-arthritic toe knuckles and friends and loved ones coming and going and all of the rest of normal life conspired to keep Hil and me out of the yoga studio.

I missed it.

So this New Year, with some newfound free time due to one child being away at boarding school, I resolved to take a crack at revisiting this small piece of our former lives. Unbeknownst to Hilary, I signed us up for a month of Bikram. I handed her the gift certificate on Christmas Morning, feeling very proud of myself. At the time, we were far away from home with a gaggle of family, so I didn’t think to loop back around afterwards to confirm that my gift was as well-received as it was well-intentioned. I simply assumed that, once again, the “World’s Best Husband” statuette would stand firmly on my bedroom bureau for yet another year. Sigh.

This morning marked the appointed Bikram Day One. I awoke fired up. I assumed we were both fired up. Then I noticed immediately that my enthusiasm was mine alone. Out of the blue, Hilary started giving currency to a litany of (objectively reasonable) excuses. I know about excuses. She was trying to weasel out of Bikram, I realized.

But there would be no weaseling.

Yes, our 12 year-old would be home alone for nearly three hours. Yes, this likely violates one or more criminal statutes regarding child neglect. Yes, our dog is whimpering from some inexplicable, circular chunk mysteriously missing from her hindquarters since yesterday. Yes, it is possible that one explanation for the Silver Dollar Chunk was inattentive driveway driving on my part. Yes, we are at least 16 years older than the last time we twisted ourselves up into sweaty balls among two dozen strangers.

Still, all of this paled in comparison to the angelic vision of my 103-degree wife in Full Locust Pose that I hoped to rekindle. So, against the better judgment of perhaps anyone not named “Keir,” I insisted that we press on.

And off we went.

It was hot. It was hard. My bouts of dizziness verged on passing out more than once. I caught my own eyes unintentionally cross-eyed in the mirror a half-dozen times. But I did manage to sneak a quick glimpse or two at Hilary; spied her face set with intensity and mettle, completely oblivious to my voyeurism. I saw my warrior again. Maybe she saw her warrior too.

Perhaps a better husband would have cut his wife some slack. Let her off the hook this morning. For sure, we will both be terribly sore along our rib cages and such for several days. And our 12 year-old came very close to dialing up Child Services during our absence, assuaged only when we agreed to make him syrupy pancakes for breakfast. And our dog ended up with an unscheduled vet appointment. There she earned an unwanted new accoutrement reminiscent of an adult beverage at cocktail hour (see above photo; see above blog title).

Nevertheless, well worth it, in my view. To travel back in time nearly two decades, recapturing at least a sliver of our younger selves. And maybe setting in motion something old yet new that we can both enjoy together once or twice a week now in the New Year, and perhaps beyond. On the other hand, I may have to wait another 16 years to see my warrior again. I suppose I’m good with either scenario.

Thanks for reading.