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.

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.

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?”

The Home Team

1.

Carter has three baseball hats that he wears on a regular basis: a crimson Indiana University hat with the Hoosiers’ white pitchfork I crossed with a U logo; a navy blue St. Louis Cardinals road hat; and a Chicago White Sox hat that is so sweat-stained it’s turned from black to brown. Each of them is there for a reason. Debbie and I met when we were in school at Indiana, and I’ve followed the Hoosiers ever since I could sit in front of a TV to watch Bobby Knight menace referees on the basketball court. The Cardinals have been my favorite baseball team my whole life, and the White Sox are my adopted hometown team now that I live in Chicago, mainly because they aren’t the Cubs.

One morning last summer I was helping Carter get dressed for his day camp and I asked him which hat he wanted to wear. He picked the Sox hat again, as he had every day that summer.

“Why don’t you ever want to wear your Cardinals hat?” I asked. He would say the Cardinals were his favorite team if you asked him directly, but I always suspected he did so because of me.

“Well, people will think I’m from St. Louis if I wear it,” he said, summing up the life of an out of town sports fan in the frank way that only a kindergartener can.

2.

Rooting for out of town teams is a lonely way to follow sports. One of the best things about watching athletics is the camaraderie with fellow fans, the high fives after a home run, or the way one comment to a stranger on the bus about last night’s game can lead to an instant friendship.

I cheer for out of town teams because I moved to Chicago long after I had established my loyalties, but aside from the annoyances of living amidst a bunch of Cubs fans, it’s easier than ever now to follow whatever team you want. With enough persistence and the right cable channels and internet subscriptions, you can follow along with every game whether you’re five or 5000 miles away. Just like the internet has allowed us to separate large parts of our social life from our physical location, the modern sports broadcasting industrial complex lets us assemble a fan experience that isn’t determined by physical proximity to stadiums. But the local loyalty and social aspect of fandom pretty much guarantee that most people will end up cheering for the home team, simply because it’s more fun to root for the same guys as all your friends.

Since my loyalties are scattered across the Midwest, I’ve given Carter the impression that you choose the teams you like on a whim. He understands that I like the Colts in football because they were the team from my home state, or that I like Indiana basketball because that’s where everyone in my family went to college. But that’s an abstract concept for a six-year-old to grasp, one step removed from saying, “I like the Chicago White Sox, the team that plays eight train stops from my house.” Every time we watch a random football game on Sunday he asks me which team I want to win, and he never accepts my explanation that I only really care about the Colts (and whoever is playing the Patriots). To him it’s always a matter of immediate choice, not preferences set in stone years ago.

3.

This fall before school started, Debbie’s mom wanted to buy Carter a new lunchbox. She thought he might like one with a team logo on it and let him pick it out online. Inexplicably he chose the Green Bay Packers, passing over both the Colts and the Bears when my mother-in-law suggested them first. Somehow he had latched onto the Packers during one of those random Sunday decisions, and now every day he walks to school in downtown Chicago carrying a bright green and gold emblem of the home team’s fiercest rival.

I’ve always been hesitant to push Carter to like the same teams I do, because I want him to be able to enjoy that shared experience of rooting for a team with his friends like I did when I grew up. It’s great if he decides he likes the Cardinals or the Colts or the Hoosiers, but I won’t protest if he’d rather watch the local teams (okay, I admit I’ve purposely steered him away from the Cubs, I can’t help it). I want him to be able to see his favorite teams play in person, and have those imaginary games on the playground where he and his friends argue over who gets to be Devin Hester or Brian Urlacher. Rooting for the home team is about more than picking the most convenient option, it’s about growing into a shared community. I doubt anyone would be a sports fan if we had to watch all the games from a distance in isolation. It’s okay for me to do this as an adult because I’ve established an identity, but I worry about my son enjoying the social aspect of sports fandom.

4.

Carter is particularly worried about today’s game between the Packers and the Bears. He says it’s because he’s afraid there won’t be any Packers fans to cheer for them at Soldier Field, but I think the real problem is that he’s starting to feel the heat from his friends. Earlier this week he came home and said, “My friend Evan says only Bears fans can come over to his house to play.” I tried to tell him that his friend didn’t really mean it and that people say a lot of dumb things about sports, but it didn’t help.

I have no idea if he’ll stick with the Packers thing, but he could do worse than being a Packers fan in Chicago. There are probably more Packers fans here than in Green Bay itself anyway. But he’s starting to learn the biggest problem with not rooting for the home team, especially if you like their archival instead. It’s not a big deal for me to put up with the ribbing and the bad jokes when I wear a Cardinals hat or my Peyton Manning jersey, but it’s a different thing for a kid who for some reason decided he likes the Packers the year they stood between the Bears and the Super Bowl.

Aging Slowly in the Big City

1.

On my birthday last month, I watched with narcissistic glee as the obligatory well wishes piled up on my Facebook wall. I’m not a big Facebook user–I prefer the news sense and black humor of the people I follow on Twitter–but my birthday is the one day of the year I check the Social Network first. It’s not the same as a surprise party or thoughtful gift, but at the very least it makes me feel like someone thought about me for a second, even if “Happy birthday man!” is the most they’ve said to me in 15 years.

Most of my birthday posts this year had the same drive by quality, but of the handful of friends who added a little extra (mostly wise-assery, but still appreciated), my friend Kevin added the comment that struck me the most. “I hope you write something poignant about aging slowly in the big city.” I didn’t ask him what exactly he meant by “aging slowly,” but until then I hadn’t thought much about getting older. I’m 34, and after I passed the milestones of 16 and 21, I stopped thinking much about how old I was at all. In fact, I’ve actually had to stop and calculate my age a couple times in the past few years when someone asked me.

Before I had kids, my life was divided into phases according to school: grade school, high school, college, then the post-college hedonism of the same college lifestyle, but with money. I thought of myself according to my peer group, people largely within one or two years of my own age, and for the most part this group still consisted of people I actually knew from school. But once I had kids my perspective changed (and I don’t mean that world-changing, nothing else matters now perspective that all new parents attain). Instead my life was defined by my children’s ages and levels of schooling. I was father of a newborn, then a toddler, then a preschooler, etc. As my life revolved more and more around them, my peer group began to consist of parents with children of the same age. Sometimes these other parents happened to be of similar age, but Debbie and I both married and had children rather early for our particular group of yuppies, so more often than not these other parents were at least 5-10 years older. I shifted into a different cohort but the distinction mattered less, because as any parent with internet access will tell you, at that point it was all about the children. Instead of measuring my life by the years passed since high school graduation, for instance, I now measure it by how many months until Sadie is potty trained, or how many years before I can leave Carter at home by himself while I go to the 7-Eleven for milk.

Once you get past the scary/exciting/sleepless newborn phase and your kid starts to resemble a replica of yourself, being a parent becomes a constant reassessment of the past, as you try to repeat and revise your own childhood. To answer Kevin’s challenge to write about aging in the big city, then, means that for the past six years at least it’s been about contrasting that metropolis with my upbringing back in a small town, and since I didn’t move to Chicago until I was 23, experiencing aspects of city life for the first time alongside my children. Modern urban parenting practices like scheduling play dates instead of letting the kids outside to run with the neighbors, going to a city park instead of the school playground, or teaching Carter how to ride a bike on the sidewalk instead of a driveway or the street create a certain mirror-world quality between their childhood and mine, experiences that are pretty much the same but just a little bit off. But the sheer amount of cultural activities on offer in Chicago that weren’t available to me in Poseyville often have me playing the part of a kid too: exploring the Shedd Aquarium and Museum of Science and Industry, staring down at the streets below from the Sears Tower, or watching every major professional sport just a walk or a short train ride away. For me, aging in the big city with kids is like having childhood 2.0: bigger, faster, and with more features, plus a mortgage and a lot more of me shouting, “Don’t you dare pull down your sister’s pants when she has a poopy diaper!”

2.

Last week I got a frantic text message from Debbie saying, “We missed the application date to schedule the CPS testing for Carter.” She was talking about the test to apply for the gifted program in Chicago Public Schools. The kids’ schooling hasn’t been one of those happily updated analogs to my childhood. I went to public school when I was a kid, everybody did. It was the only school in town, and it didn’t involve a bewildering array of programs and magnet schools and Byzantine application processes. I just went to school. Debbie and I are determined to stay in the city but don’t have the means to send our kids to private school, so that means we’ve thrown in our lot with CPS. Fortunately our neighborhood has a fantastic public elementary, open to all comers, with a gleaming new building and the kind of test scores that would make your average city parent salivate. But they also offer gifted classes, and wanting the best for Carter (not to mention the pride of having an officially sanctioned “gifted” kid), naturally we wanted to see if he could make it.

Carter missed the cut last year for the gifted kindergarten class, but his teacher this year insisted that he has what it takes and told us we should apply again. Instead, we blew it. In our defense the application date was a month earlier this year, but that’s really not an excuse. We should have put the date on our calendar at the beginning of the semester. He’ll still be going to the same school with largely the same curriculum and he can try again next year, so it’s not the end of the world. I’m not 100% sold on the idea of putting him in separate classes and being told he’s smarter than the other kids anyway, but there’s really no way to avoid feeling like an irresponsible asshole about it. We screwed up, and now I feel like I cost him an opportunity because I wasn’t paying attention.

I have another friend who is expecting his first child, and I fear he’s driving himself crazy trying to anticipate every possible hurdle before the baby is even born. I told him to let himself off the hook because I know from experience that he’ll screw up in ways he can’t even imagine. This is the part where aging slowly in the big city is no different than in a small town or the suburbs. It’s about reassessing your own life, but with that comes acknowledging your faults and accepting regret. Aging is about understanding that you still have a lot to learn.

Sunday Mornings

This piece originally appeared at The Millions

1.

My parents spent the weekend at my house recently, and besides the standard good feelings of spending time with the people who raised me, I’ve come to look forward to these visits because they are two able-bodied adults who can help watch my kids. Once the initial greetings are shared, bags unpacked, and meals cooked, their presence in the house offers the unusual chance to sneak away to check my email unmolested and go to the bathroom without being interrupted mid-stream by a door-pounding demand for apple juice.

Since my kids won’t be old enough to read this for a few more years, by which time they’ll probably hate me for other reasons, I’ll say this out loud: I sometimes fantasize about a life without them. Okay, I fantasize about that all the time, but the daydream is most vivid at those times when I know the childless people in my peer group are off doing the spontaneous, self-indulgent things you can do when two little bellies and attention spans aren’t dependent on your constant presence. I think about it on Friday nights, when instead of going to a concert or movie I’m chasing my naked two-year-old daughter down the hall after a bath so I can slap a diaper on her before she pees on the carpet. I think about it on Saturday afternoons, when instead of flipping channels between baseball games and movie reruns, I’m at the park spotting my five-year-old son on the monkey bars to avoid another trip to the emergency room for a broken wrist. And I think about it a lot on Sunday mornings, when instead of sleeping in and enjoying a leisurely breakfast while reading the Sunday paper, I’m mopping up spilled bowls of cereal and juggling remotes to find the right episode of Dora on Netflix.

During my parents’ latest visit, I thought I had my chance to pull off that lazy Sunday morning. My mom was helping my son finish his homework for school the next day. My dad was watching cartoons with my daughter on the couch, and I settled down to read the New York Times travel section on my iPad. I was halfway into an article about getting lost driving the back roads of Ireland when my daughter hopped off the couch and announced, “I sit Daddy’s lap.”

No one was going to stop her. It was cute, see. I should mention now that she was wearing nothing but a diaper–she had stripped off her PJs earlier during an Alvin and the Chipmunks dance party in her brother’s room–and carrying a bag of Corn Chex. I tried to prop the iPad on the arm of the chair and continue reading, which worked for a minute until I started looking at the slideshow that accompanied the article.

“Cow! I see cow!” she squealed when she saw a picture of a brown cow standing in a verdant Irish pasture overlooking the sea. “More cow pictures!” I tried to convince her that was the only cow picture in the series, but nothing else would do until I had pulled up a Google image search of every cow, bull, heifer, and steer you’d ever want to see. Soon we were watching YouTube videos of placid Swiss cattle with giant bells around their necks munching grass in the shadow of the Alps. Sunday morning fantasy: over.

2.

What bothers me more than these compromised moments of leisure is the feeling that my kids take up my time to write. In terms of hobbies, writing is a terrible choice, because it may be the only one that makes you feel guilty when you’re not doing it. I use my kids as my excuse, as in “I’d write at night after work, but by the time we’ve had dinner and get the kids to bed it’s 9:00 and I’m worn out,” or “I wish I could write on the weekends, but my wife works a lot and I’m always stuck with the kids.” It’s a convenient way to rationalize pure procrastination and the fear of, I don’t know, failure I guess.

At least parenting is a more responsible excuse than saying I pissed away my time playing video games or nursing debilitating hangovers, but it’s an excuse nonetheless. I know this every time one of those whiny thoughts pops into my head, but it never stops the rush of jealously I feel when a friend from my writing group says she spent the afternoon at a coffee shop working on an essay, or when I hear about people my age with the independence to strike out on freelance writing careers. Never mind that given all the free time in the world, I’d develop much more subtle, insidious ways to explain away my lack of production. I still feel a sense of injustice that they seemingly have all these opportunities to write and I don’t.

I’ve only been writing seriously for about eight years now, but I’ve already inherited the mantle of self-aggrandizing victimhood, that feeling of possessing a voice that must be heard but can’t because of the conspiring forces of short-sighted editors, unappreciative bosses, and family obligations. And since it involves my offspring, it’s countered with equal measures of guilt for feeling like I’m entitled to anything other than the satisfaction of raising two healthy, happy children.

3.

That Sunday afternoon we took the kids to a new park in our neighborhood. It takes up a whole block, crosshatched with diagonal walkways that separate a state-of-the-art playground, futuristic misting fountains, a dog park, and grassy mounds built from the dirt excavated to build the rest of the park. I was standing by the fence of the playground, nursing stale coffee from a travel mug, when I had to stop and chase down my daughter before she opened the gate and made a break for it. After I scooped her up, she saw a man sitting with a Great Dane on top of one of these mounds and said, “Cow!”

To her credit the dog was white with black spots, just like a Holstein cow, and half the size of one too. If we hadn’t spent a half hour that morning watching videos of cows, she wouldn’t have made the comparison. And if I had spent the morning scratching myself in a bathrobe instead, reading the news and watching Chris Berman bellow on ESPN, it would have passed unnoticed, indistinguishable from every other lazy Sunday morning. I might have looked past the picture of the cow, finished that article, and sat down at a computer to write something. But then if I spent my morning alone, what would I write about?