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.

My Son and I Have Been Watching Too Much Basketball

A conversation on the way to school, while carrying a poster board for his second grade history project:

“You know I think next year you’ll be old enough that you can do these posters all on your own.”

“In third grade they have to dress up like someone and do a report about that.”

“Who do you want to be?”

“I don’t know if it has to be someone from Chicago. Maybe Michael Jordan?”

“That would be cool.”

“It’s too bad I’m not from where Dr. J is from, I could dress up with a big afro.”

“…”

This Is Just to Say: A Poem for My Son

We took the kids to a fancy dinner at Chipotle the other night, and Carter brought home about half of his burrito. I asked him about three different times if I could eat the leftovers for lunch, and he made me swear I wouldn’t because he knows me too well.

Turns out he was right to beg me not to, because he went to a birthday party today and I totally ate it. I was feeling pretty bad about the whole thing, so I thought I could make it up to him with a poem. Ahem:

I have eaten
the burrito
that was in
the fridge

and which
you were probably
saving
for lunch

Forgive me
it was delicious
so spicy
and so bold

Apologies to William Carlos Williams

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.