May 03

Play ball …

My wife gave me the most extraordinary anniversary present. It was a 96-page, hardcover photo album (with accompanying text) celebrating our courtship and first 10 years of marriage and nearly eight years as parents. For a guy who finds self-pity less than a hop, skip and jump away, it was like being handed my very own “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

The words she wrote were obviously sentimental and loving, but they didn’t hide the struggles we’ve had or the disappointments we have encountered. Sometimes we make bad choices; sometimes we aren’t good enough. Sometimes we do everything right, but it just isn’t meant to be. Marriage isn’t one World Series championship after another, and within it there are frustrations large and small.

But in the most mundane moments can come the most diabolically precious memories.

When I paged through that photo album and saw so many dagger-to-my-heart images piled on top of each other, I was staggered. And it was amazing how many of them occurred on the most uneventful days, days that had no meaning other than bringing smiles to our faces then, and now, and in the future. It’s a book of tear-dropped happiness, not a book of triumphs.

When we’re up against it, when the dreams and peace of mind are deferred, we have to remind ourselves (some days I’m better than this than others) that the little things add up. It isn’t done fairly, and the calculus isn’t comprehensible. But we have to remember. I have to remember. Otherwise, when the time comes, I’ll go straight into missing them without having appreciated them.

Apr 28

Riding in the tunnel …

.

Tony Jackson of ESPNLosAngeles.com has the lowdown on Ned Colletti’s critical comments of the Dodgers’ play. (Dodgers Blog has Kemp’s response.) I’ll agree with Colletti that Matt Kemp’s basestealing and defense have been a disappointment that we’d all like to see corrected, but if you’re going to start throwing out pointed comments about the effect of his new contract, you might at least balance it with the fact his hitting has been MVP-caliber. The Dodgers are not losing because of Matt Kemp.

Jackson adds, as many of you might already have suspected, that Charlie Haeger’s roster spot is in jeopardy after another unsatisfactory outing. Not sure what move the Dodgers would make, but Saturday might bring a decision.

* * *

On April 29, 2000, I stood at one end of a room and a woman walked toward me from the other end of the room. And then we made vows, and we walked out of that room together, married.  I’m not sure what’s more amazing – that it ever happened, or all that has come in the nine years and 364 days since. It feels unreal. It’s been very real – family life can be bliss and it can be hard. But thinking about it feels unreal. It’s a ride I don’t want to get off.

So I’m off to celebrate – you’ll next see me here Friday or Saturday.  There will game chats, so stick around and think good thoughts about the Dodgers, when you can.

Apr 07

Happy 100th birthday, Grandma Sue!


Aaron and Sue Weisman

I’m in such awe that I don’t feel I can convey it sufficiently, so I’m left with starting this post with the basics.

Sue Weisman, my grandmother, born on April 7, 1910, is 100 years old today.

The last thing you expect is for someone to live to be 100, but if anyone were going to do it, it was Grandma Sue, a straight-shooting, take-life-as-it-comes woman. Her early childhood years – the sixth of eight children of Minsk immigrants – came during World War I: “I used to be scared that those horrible helmets would be walking down the street. During the night I used to think about that. … The spiked helmets scared the hell out of me.” Grandma heard about the end of the war from a phone call to the family business: Hers was the first family she knew to have a telephone. “There was a false Armistice, and we thought we’d get a day off from school. So, instead of us going to school — and of course, we were penalized, and we had to stay after school, so I never forgot that. And then about two weeks later, there was a real Armistice.

Her parents owned a restaurant. “They were originally in the saloon business until … Prohibition came. My father was a Beau Brummel, a gay blade, who wore something on his mustache when he went to bed and kept his hat in a leather case and loved all the nice things. My mother worked like a dog.”

My favorite story about her is from her New York/Lower East Side childhood, when in between ice skating and baseball and football with her friends of both genders, this little Jewish girl was dressed as if she were being driven to church, all so that he could be a decoy for liquor to be smuggled undetected during Prohibition. Married and moving to Chicago at age 20, her next decade brought her a husband, Aaron, who found work during the Depression working as an accountant for Ralph Capone, Al’s brother – years living in terror underscored by Aaron’s uncle Sol being “taken for a ride” and never returning. “Honey, the stuff I had to take in that crappy apartment, oh God. Every hoodlum in the world was up there.“  The first year they were married, Aaron met her outside their apartment one night and told her he was nearly tossed out the 10th floor window.

And then there was her live-in mother-in-law, Aaron’s mother Ida, who once held a butcher’s knife to her and was so remorselessly unpleasant that when she passed away in 1961, my father says he went down to the hospital “to make sure she was dead.”

Sue has three children – Jerry, my father Wally (75 next month) and my aunt Elinor – eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. It’s both fact and appropriate metaphor that Sue did all the driving in the family. Aaron, who never got behind a steering wheel in my lifetime, retired relatively young from a liquor distribution business and led a sedentary life, but Sue was constantly out and about. Papa Aaron taught me poker; Grandma Sue played catch with me in my backyard well into her 60s.  A fanatic about books, art and culture, Grandma Sue was an original volunteer at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when it opened in the 1960s and, long after my grandfather died in 1994 at age 86, continued there past age 95. No doubt, soon after we celebrate her birthday tonight and this weekend, she’ll be escorted to a play or the opera. Physically, she isn’t what once was, but her mental acuity has barely dimmed at all.

My sister Robyn – whose video interview with my grandmother from years back provided the quotes above – offers the following:

In 1928, Grandma Sue took the New York State Regents Exam in English. She scored 90 on the exam, with a perfect 50 on the essay portion. Not only was it the highest score in the five boroughs of New York City, it was so unheard of that 20 years later, Grandma’s younger sister Mickey, by then an English teacher herself, mentioned this to an older colleague, and he said, “Your sister was the one who scored that 50?” with the sort of awe that’s typically reserved for Hank Aaron’s 715th home run or Sandy Koufax’s perfect game.

“I don’t know what the hell I did! I wrote something very naturally, and I never had a grammatical error,” Grandma told me a few years ago. When I asked her what the topic was, she said she wrote about a young man who came from lowly surroundings and built himself into a well-dressed and well-educated boy who wore a suit and a real hat when other boys his age were still wearing caps or going bareheaded.

“So it was a creative essay?” I said.

“No, I couldn’t write about Tom, Dick and Harry. I couldn’t write a story,” she said. I didn’t argue with her because her hearing is so bad and shouting and enunciating is something I try to avoid unless it’s really necessary. If a (then) 96-year-old woman wants to claim she isn’t a storyteller, I guess I can nod with the condescension the middle-aged too often show the elderly and think, “Right, this coming from the woman who changed her name from Sarah to Sue around the time ‘The Great Gatsby’ had its first printing because it sounded more modern.”

But just know that Jon can’t help it that he writes about baseball with such depth, humor and lyricism. It’s in his genes. He descends from a woman who tells a story with such craft that it feels tossed off, which it may well be. It’s an intuitive sense that she has, like her perfect grammar.

I’d love to recount some of her recollections from the days when our grandfather worked for the Capone mob, among so many other stories. Instead I’ll tell one she told offhandedly to Jon, me and a few other relatives the day of Jon’s youngest son’s bris because it’s an example of her offhand approach to storytelling.

We were waiting in Jon’s living room while Jon’s wife and the baby were in a guest bedroom with the mohel, and everyone was nervous. Then Grandma piped up. “After Jerry was born, my father came to Chicago for the bris, and when he saw how the mohel was holding the knife, he grabbed it out of his hand — because from running the restaurant, he knew how to use one — and he said, ‘I didn’t come all the way from Manhattan to see you castrate my first-born grandchild!’ And he did it himself. It was a real worry back then, you know.”

She was 98 when she told that story. She’s 100 today. Happy birthday, Grandma. We wouldn’t be here without you (obviously), and you shaped us into who we are. And for my part, I’m grateful to you for it.

Yes, happy birthday Grandma. I have never been the greatest grandson, but I am so proud of you and to know you, and do love you.

Feb 03

Case study of a 5-year-old athlete

When I last wrote about my oldest son, he was a 4-year-old with barely enough interest to keep him upright on a T-ball team that I was coaching.

He was more interested in playing with the dirt in the infield than the ball running along it past him. He was sold on the idea that he’d get to have fun with his friends, but because you can’t have nine shortstops, he was constantly told to move away from his friends. He found fun where he could, but he never really seemed to grasp the overall purpose of his being out there.

For this, I faulted him not at all, but rather questioned the decision my wife and I made to have him be on the team at that age. There was reason enough to fear that the experience might kill any interest he had in sports. And I wasn’t at all sure that my being his coach was a positive thing. I didn’t doubt that on some level he loved having me there, but I also wondered if my presence was stunting his development.

By the end of the season, I sort of came around to the idea that the good outweighed the bad. He did have some fun, though it had nothing to do with fundamentals. He improved slightly, although even as late as the final game, we still weren’t sure if he should bat righty or lefty. His attention still wandered off, but not quite as long. On some level, I think he felt some sense of pride from being on the team. So even if this wasn’t his thing, the experience was probably a good one. I still wouldn’t say it was necessary for someone his age, but I don’t think it was harmful.

* * *

Summer came, along with his fifth birthday. He had another round of day camp and swimming lessons, and man, he loves being in the pool. All the ambivalence you saw in T-ball was a faint memory when you saw how eagerly and joyously he went into the water. He would go every day if he could.

Fall came. My wife took me by surprise one day by suggesting we take the training wheels off his bike. Amid my skepticism, I started limbering up. Teaching my daughter (now 7) to ride on two wheels had been fairly backbreaking, as I was constantly hunched over, running alongside her with a hand on the handlebars until she was ready for me to let go … then bending over to pick her up after she teetered over. After a few weeks, I got a tip from another dad at the park to lower her seat way down. This made an immediate difference. Still, I had no illusion two-wheeling would be easy for child No. 2.

But within just a few seconds of his starting to pedal, my son called out, “Let go, Daddy! Let go!” And he was off. The kid who needs a court order before he’ll play catch with you was an utter natural on that racing-striped bike. After a quick reminder that he get a foot down when he wanted to stop, the instruction was all over. It was amazing.

Winter came. Thanks to the generosity of my parents, we made it to the snow, where daughter got her third week of ski lessons and eldest son got his second. Learning to ski involves a lot of moving parts. Getting the rhythm and mechanics of it can be a painstaking quest, and that’s when the weather’s nice. But my kids didn’t mind. They get it. They like it. They look forward to it. And they can now making their way down green runs with considerable ease and also have done several intermediate slopes.

And my son is fast. He’s got that little-kid, no-fear gene activated on the slopes. It’s a little scary, but it’s also pretty dang cool.

* * *

Immediately after coming home, we began my son’s first basketball season, which I greeted with much the same misgivings I had for T-ball, minus two: I wasn’t coaching, and I thought the pace of the game would engage my son’s interest more. And I have to say, he is always smiling. But many of those smiles have absolutely nothing to do with the game going on around him … or 30 feet away from him, given his intermittent reactions to what’s happening.

The game itself has no purpose for him. He knows the rules – get the ball and try to score – but he just doesn’t see a point in it. Whenever possible, he and one of his best buddies goof around. And then … snacks.

One time I told him (calmly, I promise) that it was great he was having fun but that he did have a responsibility to make his best effort out on the court. Otherwise, I’ve mostly let all this go. If a 5-year-old boy doesn’t see a purpose in the back and forth of basketball, well, is he wrong?

Meanwhile, his sister just had her first rock-climbing class (indoors, but otherwise the real deal) – for which the minimum age is 6. And I already know, exactly six months from today, my oldest son will be ready for his.

* * *

T-ball season is coming. Signups are this month, practices starting next month. I know that my son will survive, and heck, maybe he’ll even thrive.  It’ll be interesting to see how he does as a proven T-ball veteran as opposed to a mere T-ball prospect.

But here I have a boy who’s interested in at least four sports – swimming, biking, skiing and rock climbing – that he can do for the rest of his life. Who takes piano lessons and loves to read. Who concocts wild adventures for his stuffed animals. Who likes going to school and, in a 180-degree switch from his father, actually likes going to religious school. And so I do ask myself, “Why T-ball?”

I’m not worried that he’s overscheduled, not yet, because all this stuff is relatively spread out throughout the week, throughout the year. I’m still of a mind that playing T-ball will do him good, not harm – though I have very modest expectations about that good. I’m of a mind that even though baseball and basketball and soccer (the first one he tried) didn’t do it for him, team sports might still click for him at some point. Or, they won’t.

Right now, the value for him in playing baseball is twofold: the team camaraderie, and the possibility that the experience now will help him down the road, should he ever fall in like or love with the sport. There’s the possibility he’d someday regret him not playing T-ball. Whether those are reasons enough to have him out there, I’m not entirely sure. It might be just as possible that baseball will click for him when he’s not playing it.

I love baseball, but I don’t need my son to love it. He might even be better off not loving it.  A boy who loves swimming, biking and climbing is, as far as I’m concerned, just fine.