State Fair

Yesterday, we took our annual trip to the Illinois State Fair. I wouldn’t say it’s a high point of the summer, but it’s at least noteworthy. Something the kids definitely look forward to.

State Fairs strike me as a principally midwestern phenomenon (apologies to North Carolina, which is also quite pround of its Fair). Growing up in Pennsylvania, the closest approximation seemed to be the Farm Show, held every January. The Farm Show was a lot of things, most of them genuinely enjoyable, but it wasn’t a Fair. There was also the Bloomsburg Fair every autumn. I went to college not too far from Bloomsburg, and we made the pilgrimage a couple times. But even Bloomsburg wasn’t a STATE Fair.

The idea of a State Fair seems directly proportional to a state’s agriculture industry. Iowa’s is probably the most well known, as it makes the national news every four years when would-be Presidential candidates descend to show everyone how “real” and “normal” they are as they make big displays of their willingness to eat deep fried pickles and various types of meat-on-a-stick.

The other thing about State Fairs — or Illinois’ version of one, anyway — is how frozen in time they feel. Everything feels straight out of the 1950s, or even 30s. Traveling carnival rides, rigged games, farm animals on display, and a cornucopia of different foodstuffs all but guaranteed to give indigestion.

Also, the color. Nowhere is the color more vibrantly on display than in the carnival midway area, where my kids’ growth can be measured not only by the “You must be this high to ride” signs, but by the rides they are now either brave enough to try, or disdain as “for babies.”

 

 

Unknown-1This year’s highlights included the Crazy Mouse, a sort of spinning roller coaster light years more daring than any ride they’ve attempted before, as well as annual highlights like the Farmer’s Little Helpers display, and the butter cow, which made headlines this year for the misspelling of the word “Bicentennial” that no one noticed until its unveiling on the Fair’s first day.

Perfectly imperfect. Just like the Fair itself.

On Charlottesville

A year ago tonight, Heather Heyer was alive. White nationalists with torches marched on Charlottesville, chanting “Blood and soil!” They numbered in the hundreds, and menacingly surrounded a small number of University of Virginia students who had themselves encircled the statue of Thomas Jefferson in front of the famed Rotunda.

365FD65F-B25F-4ED1-AA48-835E543914D2

Perhaps 100 feet east of that statue, a bench sits under an old magnolia tree. It was not quite ten years ago that my wife and I sat on that bench, weighing the pros and cons of uprooting our lives and moving from greater Boston (Somerville) to Charlottesville, or C’ville, as we came to call it.

The pros won out that afternoon. In a matter of weeks, we (she) would receive and accept a job offer. Also within weeks, we (again, she) would become pregnant with our first child. Our first two children, as luck would have it.

Over the ensuing five and a half years, C’ville was home. The pros did not win as often as we had hoped. The job she accepted turned out not to be what was promised. My eventual employment at the University was fulfilling but ultimately short-lived. We made many acquaintances, but few genuine friends.

But our children were born there. Our older son lived his entire life there, 31 days in the University hospital. The outpouring of concern and affection in the wake of his death will always be with me. The people of Charlottesville are, with very few exceptions, good people.

I often wonder what I would have done, had we lived there a year ago. I remember the rage I felt a year ago, seeing that torch-wielding mob surrounding those students. I imagine I would have felt it even more intensely had C’ville still been our home. Still been my children’s home. I feel, in my heart, I would have been on the downtown mall that Saturday, after seeing those images. I know I would have been counseled by my parents to avoid it. Perhaps even by my wife. Or perhaps I would have gone in her stead. I don’t know. But I feel I would have gone.

Maybe I would have been blocks away from where Heather Heyer stood. Maybe I would have been right next to her. It’s all conjecture, all unknowable.

There were many reasons my wife and I moved to Charlottesville. Over time, few of those reasons panned out. But for five years, it was home. It’s where I became a father. It’s a beautiful city, and will always be an important part of my life. I hope everyone there has a peaceful weekend.

America’s game ain’t cheap

My son started tee ball last weeks. He’s pretty excited.

This will be his third sport, following past dalliances with hockey and soccer. It is already the most expensive sport we’ve signed him up for. Yes, more expensive than hockey.

The hockey league he tried was sponsored by the NHL. Everything – skates, pads, jersey, pants, gloves, helmet, stick, and gear bag – was branded with the Chicago Blackhawks logo. They were the Little Blackhawks. All that gear, plus the eight week introductory league, was $85. He took two sessions of that introductory league before deciding it wasn’t for him. $170 for his brief foray onto the ice. Not cheap, but not terrible. And we keep the gear. We could probably recoup some of our cost by taking it to Play-it-Again Sports or some other sports re-seller. More likely, we will just donate it.

Soccer was even cheaper. Cleats, shinguards, ball. Boom, done. Throw in registration fees and youth team sports don’t get much cheaper than soccer.

Which brings us to baseball. Even with recycling his soccer cleats, tee ball (and the baseball that follows it) is deceptively expensive. Our registration fees included nothing other than getting his name on a roster. Everything else, even a hat, is on us to provide. The cheapest glove available was $35. The cheapest bat — a “tee ball only” bat that apparently would burst into flame if used to strike a pitched ball — was another $25. Which actually isn’t so bad. But this is strictly entry level stuff; if/when he requires another bat in a year, the median price range appeared to be in the $70 neighborhood. Batting helmets allegedly are provided for games, or so says the coach. But he didn’t sound too sure that would actually be the case, so tack on another $17. Other items we decided against buying until we know whether he intends to play for more than a year or two. But they will add to the cost.

Baseball is America’s game. College and professional football have outpaced baseball as an industry, as a passion for fans. But baseball is still America’s game. Football never goes in a sentence with Mom and Apple Pie. Major League Baseball could take a cue from the National Hockey League. We live in an era where more and more parents are growing reluctant to let their children into football. It would take next to nothing from baseball’s profitability to step in and eliminate cost as a deterrent from getting kids to play.

The teams in my son’s league take their names from their MLB counterparts. There are Cardinals and Red Sox and Dodgers and Royals and even Expos. My son’s team is the Cubs. It’d be nice to see MLB invest itself a little more in making playing the game a more attainable goal for its youngest fans.

Take me out to the ballgame

This weekend, my family and I travel to Kansas City. We may visit Legoland. I would very much like to visit the Negro League Baseball Museum (particularly in light of recent incidents of vandalism targeting Negro League sites in and around Kansas City.)

The real reason for the trip is to take my kids to their first Red Sox game. The tickets were a birthday gift to my older daughter, who has always followed my lead in rooting for the Sox. (Her younger siblings have bounced around, at various times declaring themselves Cardinals, Cubs, and even Pirates fans. Although in the months since we announced this weekend’s trip, they have now followed their sister’s and father’s lead. We are a family of Red Sox fans. A poster of Mookie Betts hangs in my son’s room, a declaration of his undying fandom since 11 weeks ago.

This will not be their first trip to the ballpark. A year ago, also for my daughter’s birthday, my mother-in-law purchased tickets for a Cardinals game in St. Louis. My M-i-L is a diehard and lifelong Cardinal fan, having grown up here in the Midwest. She had hoped to make at least one of her grandchildren into Cards fans as well, and for a while it appeared she would be successful (note that the hat on the hot dog eating boy is a Cards hat). But a year later it appears I have won that battle. Sorry, Nona.

Regardless, the far more important thing is that they are baseball fans. I would rather raise a Yankee fan than a kid who didn’t like the game at all.

I have been to somewhere, I would guess, between 100 and 150 Major League Baseball games in my life, and probably a couple dozen minor league games (my post-college years were spent living walking distance from the Eastern League Harrisburg Senators). Kansas City will be the eighth stadium in which I’ve seen a game. I don’t remember all of them, but a few stick out.

 

June 21, 1977. To the best of my recollection, my first game. Baltimore was just a 90 minute drive from where I grew up, and it seemed we always made the trip for at least one game whenever the Red Sox were in town. We sat in the bleachers in right field. Luis Tiant threw a two-hit shutout. But what I really remember is George Scott hitting a home run, and my Dad teaching me that Scott’s homers were called “Long ‘Taters.” Jim Rice also homered, and he would spend much of the next 12 years as my absolute favorite player.

I probably saw somewhere between 15 and 20 games in old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore. It was a perfectly ordinary stadium, but kind of close to my heart anyway. Fenway is the only park I’ve been to more frequently. My last visit there was for a Steelers/Ravens game in 1996. RIP.

July 16, 1978. I stumbled across this one on Youtube about a month ago. I had sort of forgotten about it, but as soon as I saw the screen grab from the video, it jolted my memory. I knew it was after arguing a pickoff play before I even clicked to watch. I knew the manager threw bats on to the field during the course of his tirade. It’s weird, the things that embed themselves in the brain of a seven-year old. This was game two of a Saturday double-header. Baseball Reference tells me Rod Carew went 4-for-9 on the day, because of course he did. Carew also collected his 2,000th career hit in game one of the series.

By the way, I appreciate that use of instant replay to correct umpire errors is a net good thing. But we lost something when we lost purple-faced managers going absolutely bonkers over a missed call. If this happened today, Gene Mauch would calmly ask for a replay, the play would be overturned (he was definitely safe), and not one single seven-year old kid in attendance would remember it 39 years later. That’s just sad.

June 21 and 27, 1986Roger Clemens wins his 13th and 14th consecutive games to start the season. Over two starts, he throws 16 innings and strikes out 17 Orioles, allowing four earned runs. Ho hum. The first of these two games, in Fenway, I purchased a white towel with a red “K” on it. The following week, in Baltimore, I brought the towel with me, and promptly lost it in the parking lot after the game. C’est la vie.

Note: I know how it ended, but the 1986 season was my absolutely favorite season as a Red Sox fan. Clemens, winning Cy Young and League MVP. Jim Rice, with a final renaissance season. Dwight Evans and Wade Boggs, doing Dwight Evans and Wade Boggs things. A 10-game September winning streak to finally put away the Yankees. And the epic ALCS comeback over the Angels. The World Series disaster that followed does not erase all that. It just doesn’t.

Sometime in the summer of 2005. Visiting friends in Chicago, we attended a couple games in Wrigley Field. Sat in the center field bleachers for one game, down the left field line in Ferris Beuller territory for the other. We averaged about one Old Style per inning. Shockingly, my recollection of both games are hazy. I think the Cubs won, though.

Other games, other stadiums… The Phillies beat the Dodgers 10-3 at the Vet. I remember the Phananatic, I remember Mike Schmidt going 0-4, but I remember the way the whole crowd reacted when he flied out to the warning track in his final at bat… Petco Park in San Diego, the afternoon following a friend’s wedding. I think it was against the Mariners. I remember Hell’s Bells and Trevor Hoffman closing out the win… And the Cardinals just last year. I remember the looks on my kids faces. I hope to see them again this weekend.

The Red-Spotted Admiral

"Red Spotted Purple" by Saxophlute at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“Red Spotted Purple” by Saxophlute at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

When one sees a Red-Spotted Admiral butterfly (Limenitis arthemis Astyanax) up close, it is not the red spots that draw attention. It is rather the blue, a brilliant royal. So deep, it gives the butterfly its other common name: the Red-Spotted Purple. At least, that’s what I noticed.

Six years ago, I hadn’t noticed Limenitis arthemis Astyanax at all. Then one landed on my arm.

I was sitting in my back yard at the time. It was a warm, mid-spring day. I was still acclimating to the new house we’d moved into about three weeks prior. I was still acclimating to the new city we’d moved to about 20 weeks prior. I was acclimating to the idea of being a father, my wife having given birth to twins about five weeks prior. But mostly, I was still acclimating to reality of living my life without my son, who had unexpectedly died about three days prior.

I was alone, and I was feeling sorry for myself. My wife, as would become standard for her, was at the hospital, keeping watch over our daughter, who would spend another six weeks in the NICU before coming home. This was her response to grief: she would wake up in the morning and go to the hospital for morning rounds. She would sit by our daughter’s incubation crib for 16 or more hours, occasionally holding her, nursing her, or changing her. But mostly just watching her breathe.

My response was quite different. Apart from a few visits a day, I would avoid the NICU. In much the same manner as a person would avoid a street where he had been in an accident, or a neighborhood where he had been mugged. The mere act of walking through the doors turned my stomach. My desire to see and hold my daughter was in a constant battle with my desire to avoid the place where I watched my son die, and my desire for avoidance frequently won the battle. I would later learn this avoidance was my mechanism for coping with post-traumatic stress.

And so I sat there, not by my daughter’s crib. But in the back yard, staring at nothing. And a butterfly, a Red-Spotted Admiral, Limenitis arthemis Astyanax, lit upon my left arm. It crawled forward a bit and settled in a spot for five, perhaps 10 seconds, moving its wings slowly up and down. And then it flew off.

I don’t much believe in signs from above, or beyond. I believe God, who or whatever he is, created humans with free will. We can choose to believe or not believe, just as we can choose to be kind and decent to each other or to not. Whatever our choices, they need not rely on signs from him. And so, no, I don’t believe this butterfly was sent by God, or inhabited by the spirit of my son to let me know that things would be okay. It was just a butterfly. And yet…

And yet.

I guess we all emerge from our cocoons eventually.

I notice Limenitis arthemis Astyanax now. I notice it, and wonder how I never noticed such a beautiful creature before. I notice it, and I think of a time when I felt as low as I’ve ever felt in my life, and an insect lifted my spirits. I notice it, and I remember the power of tiny, almost insignificant things to enter our lives and impact them in a significant way.

The Big Moment

We all have those moments in life. Those moments where you get one shot, and only one shot to get it right, and if you get it wrong, the rest of your life will be the worse for it. Or, you could be like me. I got my Big Moment wrong, but it somehow ended up right anyway.

My Big Moment was nine years ago today, when someone asked me where I went to high school. My response was to look at her like she had 12 heads.

A little exposition: I was in some fancy bar in Boston’s financial district. A bar I had never set foot in prior, a bar I have never been in since. It was a Monday, and I was there for some local film-industry event. I had a pocket full of business cards from IFF Boston. I was there to schmooze, to talk about the film festival, then in its fourth year.

I have always been a terrible schmoozer.

While I was there, not schmoozing very well and nursing a bottle of beer, a girl began talking to me. She seemed nice enough, in a “whatever” sort of way. She wasn’t talking about anything remotely related to film production or the festival, and I was looking around for my friend who had come to the event with me. I didn’t see him.

Questions came rapid-fire. I answered each one, patiently if unenthusiastically. Finally came the question: “where are you from?”

“Pennsylvania. Right outside Harrisburg.”

And then it came. The Big Moment.

“Where did you go to high school?”

The question came not from the girl who’d asked all the other questions. It came from her friend, who’d sidled up sometime in mid-interrogation. As noted previously, my response was to look at her like she had 12 heads. If life were like a comic strip, the following thought bubble would have appeared above my head:

What the hell do you care where I went to high school? I just said I was from Pennsylvania. This is Boston.

After an uncomfortable silence, she answered her own question, helpfully, as if to prompt a response: “I went to Bishop McDevitt.”

Is this a quiz? I thought to myself. I’ve heard of Bishop McDevitt. Is that a place I shot a basketball game a couple years back? No, that’s not–  Wait. McDevitt. That’s in Harrisburg. She went to high school in Harrisburg. That’s why she’s asking!

“I went to Cumberland Valley.”

Over the course of the next several minutes, we dated, got married, moved to Virginia, had four kids (two at a time), lost jobs, moved again to Illinois, and now I’m sitting in my blue chair, sipping coffee, listening to my kids play in the next room and wondering where in the blazes nine years went.

All because I screwed up the Big Moment.

K

I remember a red windbreaker, emblazoned with little baseball patches that bore the names of the 24 (yes, 24) teams in Major League Baseball. I remember a tag about the size of an index card attached with a safety pin, on which was written my name, my classroom number, and the name of my teacher. I remember posing for pictures. And I remember getting on the bus and sitting near the front (nowhere near my fourth-grade brother).

That’s it. Whatever else happened that first day of kindergarten is lost. The other 179 days of that first school year are sort of all mashed together in a single file cabinet in my brain. The truth is, I didn’t get what was so special about the day.

Nora starts kindergarten tomorrow. She’s anxious about it. A little afraid. The fear and anxiety no doubt increased by the fact that we are in a new town. Back in Charlottesville, the first day of kindergarten would just be her fourth year at Montessori. She would know all her classmates already. She would know her teachers. Her brother and sister would be downstairs in the preschool room.

Here in Springfield, she knows one classmate, whom she met only Thursday. She sort of knows her teachers, from three weeks at summer camp in July. But she’s not yet familiar with them. Not yet wholly comfortable. She is attending Montessori for kindergarten here, just as she would have there — part of an effort on her parents part to ease her transition to her new home. But everything else has changed.

I have no doubt she will do well. Not just do well. She will do great. She will make her parents proud. She will make friends. She will have fun in the process. But that is still in the future. Today, now, she remains anxious and a little afraid. She asks me, “Will I have to do numbers in kindergarten? Will I have to write?” I find these fears moderately amusing, because she can do numbers. She can  write. I reassure her that, no, she doesn’t have to do these things. She gets to learn how to do them. No one will make her do anything; they will teach her.

Of course, it can’t be ignored that we are sending but one child to kindergarten tomorrow, and not two. For a long time, I have dreaded the emotions tomorrow would bring, fearing that I would once again be grieving for Ben. But while that reality hasn’t escaped my mind, it hasn’t overwhelmed it either. This week, this milestone, is not about me or my emotions. It is about Nora and hers.

And so here we are. Her outfit for tomorrow has been selected. Her special bedtime story has been read. Hugs and kisses have been issued, and prayers said. My little girl, who entered this world so fragile that it terrified me to hold her, who was so tiny that her fingers could not wrap completely around my pinkie when she gripped it, my 28-week preemie who spent the first 78 days of her life in the NICU, enters kindergarten tomorrow.

I know she’s ready. I just hope I am.