Lost and Found

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I’m a sentimental person until I’m not. My system for assigning emotional significance to things is arbitrary – one minute I’m filing away one of Sadie’s crayon drawings as a permanent keepsake of her life as a kindergartener, and the next I’m throwing away a two-inch stack of others just like it. My touchy-feely side is in a constant battle with my minimalist streak, and as I’ve grown older the urge to declutter and purge usually wins out. That’s how I thought I lost my most important baseball glove.

I played first base as a kid, which means I used the special paddle-shaped glove that’s the one perk for playing the position otherwise reserved the kids who were too weak-armed and slow to play anywhere else. In the major leagues, every player has a glove customized for the unique demands of his position, but when you’re a kid you either had a regular glove or a catcher’s mitt. The first baseman’s glove was next level equipment, and when I got mine at the age of 13 that meant I was serious about the position, and serious about playing baseball.

It was a tan-colored Rawlings, with a Mark McGwire signature embossed in the pocket and the slogan “Edge-U-Cated Heel” stamped across the thumb. It served me well. I used it for hundreds of games and thousands of practices, through junior high, high school and American Legion ball. I used it to record the final out of the sectional championship game my senior year in high school, what I now know was the high point of my playing career. I trusted the contours of its pocket, the well-worn flex and give of the webbing that could tell me if I’d managed to dig out a low throw from the shortstop, or more often that I want to admit, let one scoot past my reach.

I wasn’t good enough to play competitively beyond high school, but the glove stayed with me through intramural softball in college. When I moved to Chicago after graduation, I joined a hardball league for die-hards who weren’t quite ready to relegate themselves to beer league softball. I decided the old glove was a little too cracked and thin in the palm to last another season, so I bought a new one: another Rawlings McGwire model, but this time in a deep reddish-brown. I must have packed the old glove in a box and put it away. This is where I think things went wrong.

Debbie and I got an apartment together a few months before we were married, a dumpy little third-floor walkup in Lincoln Park with very little storage. When we moved, her parents must have offered to store some boxes we didn’t need in their attic, including the one holding my old glove. We got married, moved again, Carter was born, moved a second time, then Sadie was born. I didn’t think about my old glove again for years, until I started mooning over buying Carter his first glove and realized I no longer had my favorite one.

For years now I’ve been operating under the assumption that I threw it out after I bought the new one. I never once considered it an accident, that I simply lost track of the glove through all those moves and major life events. I just assumed – no, I knew – that I made a conscious decision to get rid of it for reasons that my resurgent sentimental side no longer understood, and I hated myself for it.

Except now Debbie’s parents are selling their house and moving to a new apartment, and in the process of packing last month they unearthed a box from the attic labeled “Matt’s,” the contents of which you can probably guess by now. I was flabbergasted, not so much because we found my long lost glove, but because it proved that I wasn’t as rash and thoughtless as I feared.

That glove’s weird, dusty journey matches the ebb and flow of how I have engaged with sports throughout my life. As a teenager with visions of still being able to catch on with a college team, it was one of my most important possessions, second only to my car. Then through college and early adulthood, the glove and the game it represented took a backseat to a career and family life, to the point that I thought I’d lost my attachment to it altogether. Now it’s back after I’ve gained a new appreciation of sports as a diversion from those grown-up problems, while my kids discover the joy of playing the games themselves.

The last known whereabouts of Carter's baseball glove

The last known whereabouts of Carter’s baseball glove

This summer we took them to a White Sox game. Carter insisted on taking his glove to catch a foul ball, and in the chaos of nachos, sodas, post-game fireworks and getting the two of them out of the stadium in one piece, we left it behind. The kind people at the US Cellular Field lost-and-found department told me the next day that no one had turned in a glove fitting that description, but I already knew it was gone, picked up by someone else as a bonus souvenir or scooped into a charity bin, never to be rediscovered in a box in the attic.

At first I was upset with Carter; I felt like he was old enough to take responsibility for his belongings. But later I was more upset with myself that I didn’t think to double-check before we left the stadium. This was before we rediscovered my old glove, after all. I assumed I’d managed to lose one of his irreplaceable keepsakes too.

But it wasn’t his first glove anyway – we still have the little black and tan Rawlings he used when he started playing t-ball. When I buy him a new one this spring I’ll put that first glove in its proper place next to my old first baseman’s glove, where it’s now on display like a museum piece, safe and sound in our family room.

Inside Baseball

1986 Topps TradedMemory is an untrustworthy thing. Large parts of my life are stored in my brain as undifferentiated blocks, marked by images of the place where I lived and faces of my family and friends at the time. I have to be reminded of specific events to recall them, sparked by an old photograph or the retelling of a story. I wonder if the version of the past I hold in my mind is historically accurate, or just an educated guess based on what I must have been doing given a certain age and location.

For about seven years of my life, many of those images involve me sitting on the brown carpeting of my childhood bedroom, hunched over boxes of baseball cards. This period stretched from when I started playing Little League at age nine until I got my driver’s license at 16. Of course, I did other things in this time period. Playing “Lot Ball,” a bastardized version of baseball that was essentially a home run derby with tennis balls in the empty lot across the street from my house; pickup basketball in the driveway; marathon sessions of Mike Tyson’s Punch Out and Zelda on the Nintendo. But if I picture myself alone, it’s almost always involves shuffling and sorting the stacks of cards I kept in white, corrugated cardboard boxes in my bedroom.

This sorting process turned into a kind of Zen ritual that only a kid can surrender himself to, a single-minded immersion that escapes me now as a perpetually distracted adult. I could do this for hours, usually after pedaling my bike to the drugstore to spend my allowance on a new box of unopened wax packs. I liked to assemble complete sets, subject to the luck of the draw, which meant that each new haul required hours of sorting by the sequential number of the back of the cards. I made meticulous lists of the cards I still needed on loose-leaf notebook paper and kept them in three-ring binders.

Despite how much care I put into collating my card collection, it languished in my old bedroom closet at my parents’ house until they retired and sold the house last year. When they moved I hauled them back with me to Chicago, where they landed in my son Carter’s bedroom.

It took me a few weeks after I gave them to Carter to get over my initial instinct of treating each card like a sacred artifact. The very reason they sat in a closet until I was 34 was that I knew they were worthless, ruined by the iron market forces of supply and demand. My collection was compiled from roughly 1986 to 1993, during the era when as many as four major companies were printing millions of cards while every kid and greedy adult, burned by memories of Mickey Mantle rookies mangled in bicycle spikes, preserved each and every card like it was the personal stationery of Abner Doubleday himself.

I finally let go and let Carter do what he wanted with my cards, which at first was a lot of what I expected: flipping through all of the sets and asking a million questions about which player this and what player that. But after this initial discovery phase he started doing something that surprised me (maybe just because I never thought of it as a kid).

One by one, he takes each set, sorts them into teams and lays them out on the floor, arranged like a real field with players in position according to the cards. Then he acts out whole games, picking up the team in the field and laying out the opponent every three outs. I’m not sure of his logic for determining hits and outs; it’s part Strat-o-Matic, part pickup game. He stands by home plate and walks into the field, holding his hand up to track the flight of a batted ball. Somehow to him, it all makes sense.

He keeps scoresheets in his jagged, first-grader handwriting, with batting lineups and tally marks for the score. A few weeks ago, I watched him work on one from a 1986 Topps Traded set. I cringed when I saw him handling the Barry Bonds and Will Clark rookie cards, but I was more interested in seeing his mind work as he jotted the names down on a notepad. On the surface, collecting baseball cards is an extension of fandom, another way to connect with the game, but it’s really about building an interior world, ranking and sorting and organizing players according to the way you see fit.

I meant to ask Carter about what he was doing with the lineup written on that piece of paper, with its somewhat dubious Murderer’s Row of Kurt Stillwell, Will Clark and Billy Sample, but he was acting up that night and we put him to bed early. Maybe it’s better that I don’t know. I’m starting to see flashes of a sulky teenager in him already, and if he’s anything like me he’ll soon be spending more and more time in his own private world. Maybe he wouldn’t want to tell me anyway.

Parenting is a constant exercise in finding connections to your own past through your kids. “This thing I created must be like me!” I keep trying to find those links in the baseball cards. Maybe Carter is into them because they were mine. Maybe there is no other explanation than that he’s a seven-year-old kid who likes baseball.

When I see him sorting those cards, or when I shuffle through them myself, I sometimes feel a tightness in my chest and the beginnings of tears welling up behind my eyes. I don’t know where it comes from; it’s not like my baseball cards represent anything unhappy in my life. I collected them in a world where I was most content, crouched by myself and mostly inside my own mind, the place where I’m most comfortable today.

The school year ended last week for Carter and my three-year-old daughter, Sadie. With that came home two backpacks full of the crayon drawings, photocopied sheets of math problems and notebooks full of mostly illegible but promising-looking handwriting. As I sorted the detritus of a completed year of first grade and preschool, that same feeling I get from looking at my baseball cards caught in the back of my throat, welling up in my sinuses and making me take a few startled, deep breaths. It’s not unhappiness, I realize, but the familiar, suffocating sentimentality that sneaks up on me sometimes. My children have graduated from another stage in their lives, each a step closer to the day they’ll no longer need my help.

I continued to empty out the backpacks, sorting the junk from the particularly funny drawings and assignments that I’ll save in two file folders with their name and school year written on the front. I’ll stack these folders high in their closets, where they’ll stay until they move out for good. Maybe they’ll decide to take it all with them; maybe they’ll say they don’t want it. Either way, I probably won’t have the courage to sort through it again. Those folders will stay perched in their closets like my baseball cards occupied a corner of my old bedroom, boxes of colorful memories from happy times that somehow make me incredibly sad as they recede into the distance.

The Grind

Earlier this month, I spent a Saturday in bed with a fever, an aching body and a queasy stomach, watching soccer and sitcom reruns on basic cable. I felt better the next day, but not before I passed it on to the rest of my family. One by one, they went down throughout the next week, each getting progressively more sick. First, Sadie had a fever for two days, and then Carter missed a whole week of school. Debbie got it so bad it turned out to be full-blown strep throat. My penance for slipping by relatively unscathed was missing two days of work myself to stay home and take care of the rest of them, running up and down the stairs to dole out Tylenol and Gatorade.

The payback hit its peak on the following Thursday night. Debbie was spending her second night unable to get out of bed, and I was trying to put both kids to bed at the same time. Sadie was feeling better by then, but unfortunately couldn’t shake her most troublesome symptom of being three years old. Carter was still running a fever, and both of them were in a contest to see who could be the neediest.

It was extremely windy outside, and the aging power lines in our neighborhood couldn’t handle it. Slowly, the lights in each room flickered, dimming lower each time until finally, a transformer at the end of the block blew and the house went black. The crying started in earnest, and my night had just begun.

Parenting is a grind. I know that’s not revealing any great secret, because anybody can tell you how hard it is. But you don’t really accept that until you’re staggering through the steady, day-after-day work of it. Getting dressed in the morning. Walking the dog. Breakfast. Packing lunches for school. The drop-offs. The pick-ups. Walking the dog again. The dinner and the homework and the baths. The bedtime stories interrupted when your seven-year-old has an urgent question about how to calculate a week into dog years. Meanwhile, you’re doing all of this while you and your spouse both work full-time and do all the other things to keep a household running. It’s death by a thousand sippy cups.

All of this makes some mighty good excuse-making when you also fancy yourself as a writer. I look at this website and see that I haven’t written anything new in months, and my best explanation is to shrug and say, “I have kids.” And really, there’s not much more to it than that. But underneath that very valid reason is the creeping feeling that it’s also a cop out, a persistent reminder that I’m not really as committed to this writing thing as I make myself out to be.

I went to the South By Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas the weekend after we were all sick. Now that I have a job in social media it was technically for work, but I’d been looking forward to it as a much-needed break for myself. This was my third trip to SXSW, and while I spent most of the time at panels related to my job, I knew from past conferences that I should take a break and pick out a few just for fun.

On the second-to-last day of the conference, I attended a panel on personal storytelling hosted by Kahlil Ashanti, an actor and comedian, and Michael Margolis, an entrepreneur and writer. Their main idea was that since we’re constantly sharing our lives online anyway, we need to learn how to tell our personal story in a more compelling way by writing about what matters to us the most.

This panel touched a nerve with me, especially since I’ve been floundering with my personal writing here. Besides making excuses about not having enough time, I worry that my schtick has worn thin. At a certain point, most parents realize that nobody wants to see every single snapshot of their kids, or hear every story about how they mispronounce “movie” as “moobie.” So why would anyone want to read my 1,000-word essays about buying my son a baseball glove?

I think about this a lot, and I’ve considered starting a new site to write about something else like sports or politics or books. But it never feels right, mostly because it’s not what I care about the most. In the storytelling panel, Kahlil called this the Give a Shit Factor. “If you’re telling us something and it doesn’t mean the world to you, we’re not going to care,” he said.

I don’t write about my family because I want to share our story, the way you might want to share your opinions on baseball or politics. I write about my life because I’m trying to figure it out for myself. That’s not to say I don’t ever want to write about other things, but even we I do write about something like my childhood idol or a murder that happened in my hometown, the story is partly about me too. I take what little time I have left at the end of each day to scribble something down and hope it helps me understand my world a little better. Without that personal element, I’m wasting my time, and I’m probably wasting yours too.

When I get this way, thinking about how hard it is to manage all this, I always come back to what David Foster Wallace said in his commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005 (known as the “This is Water” speech):

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.

The week after I got back from SXSW, I started to feel sick again. I soon found out that I had strep throat too, the real payback for getting everyone else sick the first time. I missed another day of work and felt positively awful until the antibiotics kicked in. I was probably more of a baby about it than I want to admit, but Debbie took care of me just like I took care of her and the kids before my trip. But what else would we be doing? The alternative Wallace described, that unconscious fear that comes with belonging nowhere and being needed by no one, is just too frightening. We have no choice but to grind it out, day after day, and in the process understand ourselves just a little bit more.

Mr. Sentimental

It happened twice recently: I looked up from what I was doing and saw Carter crying quietly to himself. It’s not unusual for him to cry—it happens about once a day for one reason or another—but usually it’s preceded by getting in trouble or an argument with his little sister, and in most of those cases the tears are big, theatrical, stage tears that can be turned on and off like a tap. But the two times I’m talking about weren’t an act. He was legitimately upset, his mouth turned up in a sad little grimace while he tried to wipe away the tears and hide them from me.

The first time, he was looking at a laminated piece of orange construction paper Sadie brought home on the last day at her old day care before she started preschool this fall. Her handprint was pressed onto the page with purple paint, and one of her teachers had written something on it about how fast she was growing up and how much she learned at school. She brought home lots of “arts and crafts” like that where the kids smeared some paint around and the teachers dressed it up into a keepsake. Debbie asked him why he was crying and he said, “I just remember all the good times when we played together after we picked her up from school.”

Carter came with us only about once out of every five times we picked up Sadie from day care, but he’s right. He did have fun horsing around with the little kids when he came along. We told him that he didn’t have to be sad because we’d have a lot more good times, and he cheered up. “I’m not crying because I’m sad, it’s because I’m happy,” he said.

About a week later he and I were sitting on the couch together before dinner. We have an Apple TV hooked up to our TV, and I set it up to show a slideshow of family pictures when it’s not playing videos or music. I was reading something on my phone, and then I looked over and saw him crying again. He said it was because he was looking at all the pictures on the TV from when he was little: snapshots of us at the park, going to ballgames, vacations at the beach. Again, he insisted that he was crying “happy tears,” but I reached over and hugged him and didn’t want to let go.

I’m not surprised he’s developing a sentimental streak. He gets it directly from me, just as I inherited mine directly from my dad. The longer I sit and watch those pictures float by on the TV screen, the more likely I am to choke up too. Carter has been playing with my old baseball cards lately, pulling out old Fleer and Score sets from 1989 and sorting them into teams on the floor of his bedroom. It’s enough nostalgia to make me lightheaded and have to sit down every time I walk by and see him clutching a stack of Terry Pendletons and Pedro Guerreros. And while the inscription on Sadie’s poster was cheesy in a Hallmark card kind of way, when presented on a milestone day with her little handprint in the middle, it got to me too. I’d be worried about my qualifications as a parent if I didn’t get choked up at the sight of my three-year-old’s palm preserved for posterity. But I’m surprised that Carter is feeling it so acutely already.

Most of those pictures he saw on the TV that night were from before he started school, back when I was still at home with him full-time, hanging out at the park all day, going to lunch at Manny’s and visiting Shedd Aquarium once a week. It was quite the life. Now that I’m back at work at and he’s in first grade, with homework and a little sister who knows how to push his buttons, life is more complicated for both of us.

I can see why he would look back get a little nostalgic. I miss those days when it felt like we had all the time in the world too. But it’s greatly oversimplifying the matter to say that it was easy and carefree back then. That time had its own set of frustrations that I’d rather not revisit, like changing diapers and waking up three times a night, to name a few. Nostalgia is tricky like that. We don’t take pictures of all the temper tantrums and food-stained clothes and put them into slideshows.

He probably doesn’t understand why he was crying, but I worry about what’s going on in his head. Is he just experiencing a normal emotion that runs in the family, or is he truly unhappy when he compares his life now to what it used to be? The rational part of me knows that it’s the former, but if there’s one thing parenting is good at, it’s making sure you feel like you’re doing it all wrong. It’s dangerous to try to make sense of the emotions of a six-year-old, but I worry that somewhere among all the work, errands, chores, and maybe trying to squeeze in a little time for myself, I’m screwing it up for the kids.

Last week I saw Jonathan Franzen speak at a panel for the Chicago Humanities Festival. During a question and answer period at the end of the talk, someone asked him about if the ending of his last novel, Freedom, was supposed to be happy or sad. “Things don’t turn out the way we want them to,” he said. “I would prefer to complicate the question.”

One of the great accomplishments of Freedom is that it resists that kind of categorization into happy or sad. It’s complicated, with an ambiguous ending and ambiguous characters who muddle through it every day, like we all do. Walter and Patty Berglund are both heroic and loathsome. They make mistakes. They hurt the people around them, but they show an immense capability for compassion and humanity too. Books like that don’t make sense until long after you put them down and think about them, if they ever do.

Though he doesn’t know it yet, I hope Carter is learning the same thing about life. Sometimes it’s happy. Sometimes it’s sad. Sometimes it’s a little of both. It probably won’t ever really make sense until it’s too late, and in that way, it’s like reading a good book. It’s complicated.

Reading by Example

I.

My son Carter is reading Harry Potter at six years old. I’m not saying that to brag (okay, maybe a little), but it’s important to the story. He made his way through the first three books pretty well, but I know that each book in the series is progressively longer and more complex, especially for a six-year-old, and as I expected he started to slow down by The Goblet of Fire. He finished it with an assist from me, reading together each night before bed, and insisted on starting The Order of the Phoenix right away. After a few weeks though, he had stopped reading it on his own and started asking me to read other books with him at night. I asked him about it, and he admitted it was too hard. We still read it together at night but he spends most of his time now doing other six-year-old boy things like building Legos and driving his little sister crazy.

II.

My personal theory of parenting centers around the idea that if you want your kids to behave a certain way, you should lead by example. If you want them to be polite and gracious, let them hear you thanking the waitress and witness you holding the door open for little old ladies. If you want them to read, let them see you with a book in your hand, lost in its pages, and show them how important reading is in your life.

Educators and bookish folks are worried enough about getting boys to read that they have a special name for them: “reluctant readers.” In a recent essay in the New York Times Book Review, Robert Lipsyte wrote that a big part of the problem in getting boys to read is finding books they can connect with, that speak to their emotions instead of just pandering to their base instincts. “Boys need to be approached individually with books about their fears, choices, possibilities and relationships,” he wrote. “The kind of reading that will prick their dormant empathy, involve them with fictional characters and lead them into deeper engagement with their own lives.” I read this and thought about what happened with Carter and Harry Potter. My theory of leading by example has worked. He clearly enjoys reading, but I’m afraid that by letting him find his own way and pick out a book that was too hard, he’ll be discouraged from reading more. I managed to turn a willing reader into a reluctant one.

III.

Carter spends a week with my parents at the end of each summer, in the gap between the end of camp and the start of school. They live in the Indianapolis area now, so this year we met them halfway at a Chili’s in Lafayette, Indiana to make the exchange. I’ve learned to expect him to be ornery when he’s excited about something big like a holiday or a trip, but this time he was so bad that when we pulled into the parking lot I made my parents wait outside the car while I let him have it. The problem was that we were 100 miles from home and he was about to spend a week with his grandparents. I couldn’t deploy my best weapons like taking away toys or cutting off TV and the computer, so I spluttered like Yosemite Sam in impotent rage.

Disciplining my kids like that always sets off a cycle of guilt and self-doubt. Later in the restaurant, I sat there eating a Flintstone-sized slab of ribs wondering if it had done any good, feeling bad for sending him off for the week on such a bad note. For all its rewards, raising children does a number on your self-confidence. What possible lesson could Carter take away from that outburst in the parking lot of a chain restaurant on a freeway interchange? That he should shout and issue empty threats when he doesn’t get his way?

The problem with my method of parenting by example is that I don’t always set the best example myself. It’s getting harder the older he gets, now that we’re past “share with your friends” and “don’t throw sand.” Things like empathy and patience are difficult to teach when I struggle with them myself. That’s why I want him to read, to experience the inner lives of characters who celebrate and suffer, succeed and fail in their own ways so he can learn from their examples too. Books can teach him how to live when I can’t show the way.

IV.

I started a new job recently, a new career in fact. I took three weeks off between jobs and spent a lot of time with Carter. We had fun together hanging out, playing catch at the park and hitting up the 7-Eleven for daily Slurpees, but he understood that I was excited to get started. The night before my first day at the new job we were reading Harry Potter again. I finished a chapter, put the book down, and unprompted, he said, “Good luck on your first day at work tomorrow.” I don’t know if he learned to thoughtful like that from me, his mother or a book. I’m happy with any of the three.

First Glove

My first baseball glove sits on a bookshelf in my home office. I left it at my parents’ house when I went to college (I had been through a couple more gloves by then), but I reclaimed it when I moved out for good and left for Chicago. It’s dry and brittle, and the fingers are curved around the old ball I keep stuffed in pocket with the name of my Little League team—Poseyville I—written on it in Sharpie. The glove is a MacGregor G19T, branded all around with slogans like “Flex Action,” “Adjusta-wrist,” “Lattice Weave,” and “The Athlete’s Choice.” The lining inside is shredded from years of sweat and dirt and wear, and it’s a little small for my hand now, but it’s still serviceable. Baseball gloves are like that. The basic design and build is no different from one you could buy today, and with a little glove oil and a tug on the strings, even a 30-year-old model could be ready for a game.

I remember buying this glove with my dad, or at least I think I do. I must have been five years old because that’s when I started playing T-ball, the first games when I used it. We went to Gus Doerner’s Sports in Evansville, to the downtown location where they sold the serious equipment, not the shop in the mall where they just sold running shoes and apparel. The baseball equipment was in a basement that smelled like rawhide and fresh tennis balls. I remember looking out over rows of gloves laid out on a table and having no idea which one to pick. I didn’t even know which hand I needed. I’m sure my dad picked out my glove for me, finding one that fit my hand and his wallet. It had a Vida Blue signature stamped in the pocket. I didn’t even know who Vida Blue was, but I was fascinated that some player was famous enough to have his name inside a baseball glove.

I’ve owned four baseball gloves in my life: the Vida Blue; a Worth with no signature that replaced it when I was in Little League; a Rawlings Mark McGwire first base glove that I got when I was 13 and started to play the position exclusively; and another Rawlings McGwire model that replaced it. Of the four, I still have all of them except that first first base glove. It was also the one I used for the most significant moments of my baseball career, namely winning the sectional tournament as a high school senior, and I don’t know what possessed me to throw it out when I bought my latest one. I wish I had it back, if not for sentimental reasons then out of a sense of completeness.

I have no real attachment to the new one, a stiff burgundy mitt I bought when I started playing in a weekend league after I moved to Chicago. I used it for a season and a half of sweltering games on ill-tended fields at far-flung suburban community colleges before I decided to hang up my hardball spikes for good, and now I mainly use it in games of catch with Carter. I’ve never broken it in properly, and when I put it on my hand now I long for the fit of a well-worn glove that feels like an extension of my hand.

When Carter first started to show an interest in baseball, I gave him a red toy glove I’d gotten as a souvenir from a minor league baseball game. It was good for him getting the hang of using a glove while we tossed around tennis balls in the driveway, but this season I decided he needed a real one. He’s starting in a T-ball league playing with real hardballs this year, and I couldn’t send him out on the field with a bright red glove in good conscience.

We made our trip to the Sports Authority on LaSalle downtown, in the middle of the nest of River North tourist traps like the Hard Rock Cafe, the Rainforest Cafe, and the newly rebuilt, space age “Rock and Roll” McDonald’s next to which tour buses disgorge camera-laden families and packs of Midwestern teenagers on class trips to the big city. This particular Sports Authority store is known for the giant sign with fiberglass balls wrapped around its northeast corner, and the handprints of famous Chicago athletes like Michael Jordan and Frank Thomas pressed into cement molds along its walls. Buying Carter his first glove in the midst of all this somehow seemed less authentic. I ought to be able to take him to a musty basement full of promise like where I got my first glove, but it was the best option available.

I tried to tout this as a Big Deal for Carter and he was duly excited at first, but frankly by the time we got to the store he was more excited about lunch at McDonald’s later. When we got to the baseball department he goofed around with the catcher’s equipment and bats while I tried to interest him in the gloves. He couldn’t decide if he wanted a black or a brown one, so we settled on a Rawlings that had a little of both (but sadly, no player signature in the pocket). It cost only $15. I picked out some athletic socks for myself, paid up at the register, and the moment was over.

We had our first catch with the new glove at the park later that day. Carter insisted we play with a hardball, but I was afraid of hurting him so I couldn’t quite figure out how to throw it. The trick is putting just enough mustard on it to snap his glove without throwing a total BB that would give him a shiner if he missed and it hit him. I couldn’t figure that out that technique, and I couldn’t get the right distance holding back on a lob either. Half the throws went way over his head, and the other half short-hopped him. He spent most of the time running after the ball. I’ve had more productive games of catch with my dog.

The game ended in tears when he did miss one and the ball plunked him right between the eyes. Fortunately there was no lasting damage, but he didn’t want to play any more either. Carter’s supposedly magical day with his new baseball glove ended with me thinking I’d broken his nose.

I don’t remember anything about the rest of the day after my dad bought me my first glove either. Maybe we played catch and he gave me a black eye too, which would seem about right. Parenting has a way of throwing beanballs at your best intentions and ruining the Norman Rockwell moments.

I must have done something right with Carter though. The next day he and Sadie pounced on our bed at 6:15 a.m. like they do every day, but instead of asking me to turn on a cartoon or help him get dressed, he cut straight to the chase.

“When can we go to the park and play catch?”

Birthdays Are Big

1.

Carter’s birthday is this week. I say it this way because his birthday has seemed to stretch from Christmas up until this actual day this week. My sister has a saying, “Birthdays are big!” to justify throwing big parties and buying lots of presents (mostly to convince people to do that for her, I think) and Carter has inherited that tradition with no prompting. From the minute he finished doing inventory on his Christmas loot, he started planning what he wanted for his birthday.

Debbie and I try our best to strike a balance between buying our kids things and not totally spoiling them. We’ve resisted repeated demands for a Wii, Nintendo DS, giant sprawling Harry Potter Lego sets that cost hundreds of dollars, and Carter’s own personal cell phone. Each time he asks for too much, we explain that we simply can’t afford to buy him everything he wants, and that he’s lucky to have all the toys and games and gadgets he has already, half of which have been discarded and ignored anyway. If he’s too persistent we go for the kill: “You know some kids don’t have any toys at all.” Somehow we managed to instill liberal guilt into him at six years of age, and the argument usually stops there.

This is all part of parenting, of course, but what I never expected was the amount of guilt saying no to your kids generates, and how that inner conflict between wanting to be a stern disciplinarian and wanting your kids to have it all builds up over time. It’s two separate impulses: the practical one that knows I can’t afford (in many ways) to spoil my kids, and the emotional lizard-brain that wants to give in. The practical one always wins—it has to—but the lizard-brain always does its best to make a scene, stomp its feet, and pout when it doesn’t get its way.

This conflict between indulgence and restraint has made us hesitate to throw a big birthday party for either of the kids yet. Carter’s friends (or their parents, rather) have already started throwing pizza parties at bowling alleys, hiring magicians, and renting out the local Inflatable House of Rug Burns and Head Injuries, but so far we’ve only had small family affairs at our house. We’re afraid to start down the path of birthday party escalation that ends at Sweet Sixteen and Vincent Chase’s Victoria’s Secret-sponsored blowout on a cruise ship.

This year, after attending parties for what seems like every other kid in Carter’s kindergarten class, we admitted that we couldn’t hold out any longer and booked a party at the indoor soccer gym where Carter takes classes every Saturday. We still did it small: just 16 kids (only boys, at Carter’s insistence), a cake,and some snacks. If anything it would be a break while the soccer coaches lead the kids in a little coordinated horseplay for an hour. The practical brain is telling me this was a good call. But the lizard-brain says I’m a jerk for taking so long to do it.

2.

My favorite political reporter John Dickerson once wrote something on Twitter about the nearly debilitating sentimentality that comes with raising kids. I can’t find it now because it’s impossible to find a tweet more than a few days old, but he said something to the effect that his kids had turned him into such a sap that, “By the time they’re twelve I won’t be able to get out of bed.”

My sister and I used to make fun of our dad because he would mope and stall whenever we started to pack up and leave after a visit home from college. Now I know exactly what he was doing. Every birthday and milestone and visit home is another instance of letting go of a stage in your kids’ lives, or just a few more days with them sleeping under the same roof. Carter is six now, which means he’ll never be five again. He’s halfway through kindergarten, which means he’ll never have another first day of school. It’s a terribly sad and depressing way to look at things, but that’s what that emotional parenting-lizard brain does to you, sitting in the corner and moping while the practical part is saying it’s time to be proud of them for growing up and moving on. It’s no wonder my dad made us hang around while he packed one last bag of snacks for the road or made us pose for a 10th family photo. It’s the same reason I write these sappy, reflective essays about my kids after every major event. It’s my way of hanging on to a moving target as long as I can.

3.

The party yesterday was fun; great, actually. The kids had a blast, played soccer, ate cake, and jumped on the giant inflatable slide that we got for free because the party before ours rented one—and there were no major head injuries or projectile vomits to ruin the day. It’s exactly what Carter wanted.

I’ll remember this birthday week from what he and I did on Friday night though. I got tickets to the Bulls game against Orlando from a friend at the last minute, and I kept them as a surprise for Carter. We live just a few blocks away from the United Center, so he and I walked to the stadium and stopped for cheeseburgers at the Billy Goat Tavern on the way. He was ecstatic.

Carter is a big sports fan, but a lot of times when we watch games, I feel like he just gets excited when I do, or cheers in response to the other fans. That night as Derrick Rose and Luol Deng fought off a 40-point effort by the Magic’s Dwight Howard to win 99-90, he cheered for each Bulls basket, screaming and pumping his fist without an elbow from me to prompt him. For the first time I felt like he understood the game on his own. He knew when to cheer and he recognized the good plays without checking with me first. He didn’t need my help. He’s six.