SPORTSMANSHIP

Sportsmanship evolves with society. We’d be shocked, for instance, to hear verbal abuse, based upon race or ethnicity that was routine at professional sporting events one hundred years ago. Players tolerated and participated in behaviors we’d find abhorrent today. Yet, they also enforced a code of conduct that’s now violated on a constant basis. For instance, imagine a football player dancing in the end zone following a touchdown in 1964?   The only suspense might have been who would beat him up first, the opposing team or his own.

A professional tennis player named Genie Bouchard recently ignited a kerfuffle when she refused to shake hands and wish her opponent good luck before a match. Her refusal represented a departure from tennis etiquette as old as tennis itself. Said Bouchard, in paraphrase: “I’m trying to beat her. I don’t wish for her to have good luck. Why should I fake it?” I find Bouchard’s honesty jarring. Yet, in a sense, it also makes sense.

My early encounters with sportsmanship issues varied. When I was about eight, I witnessed my aunt fling the board across the room following a defeat in Scrabble. Without ambivalence, I knew that that behavior was unacceptable. I also knew of an opponent who’d hid an “S” in her hand throughout the game so that she’d have it available in a crucial moment. That also was clearly wrong. (Who knew Scrabble could be so treacherous?)

While I was an early and enthusiastic participant in word games, it was baseball that consumed most of my thoughts during my first decade. And it was through a baseball game that I first encountered the moral question that confronts people on a constant basis, on issues big and small: “Does the end justify the means?”   Then as now, the answer is often unclear.

*****

“We need a pitcher,” said my wife, Katie, as we prepared to host some friends for a casual dinner party, “for iced tea.”

This innocuous statement, at once true and mundane, dislodged a brain cell that hadn’t stirred for nearly half-a-century. I played second base on a summer Little League team named the Pirates. Since my neighborhood was devoid of athletic facilities, the team played in a league in the neighboring community of Overbrook Park.

Most of my teammates are lost to the haze of memory. But I do remember the excitement of Saturday mornings at the playground, the feel of the sunshine, the smell of fresh-cut grass and the satisfying sounds: a baseball landing in a leather mitt or popping off a wooden bat.

Creating a less satisfying sound, throughout the games, each team serenaded the opposing pitcher in a manner I can’t imagine being allowed in 2015: “We need a pitcher, not a belly itcher.” This saying passed for wit among 8 and 9-year-olds in 1965. The fact that both teams used the same chant, in the same flat tones of voice, didn’t diminish its constancy.  The taunts continued even when the opposing pitcher performed superbly; in that case, the losing team simply sounded more mean-spirited, more desperate. (Picture Ted Cruz after the recent Supreme Court rulings).

*****

I lived for those games with the Pirates. Our coach was a middle-aged man named Mr. Greenfield. Almost unimaginably, in retrospect, he didn’t have a child on the team. I don’t know if he had children of his own. He simply volunteered his time to coach other people’s kids in Little League. Nowadays, sadly, I suspect we’d question his motives.

I wanted to play shortstop, the premier infield position. But during my time on the Pirates, we had a shortstop named Scott whose seemingly advanced puberty made him our unquestioned star. Still, I styled dark glasses on the field, even when it was cloudy. And when I batted, I held my bat at a jaunty angle, pointed down instead of up. Bashful and retiring in every other aspect of life, I craved attention on the baseball field.

Similarly, our team fashioned itself as front-runners. It was as though historical records were posted and the Pirates were always at the top of the Overbrook Park standings. Of course, that was not the case – to my knowledge, no one tracked historical records of local Little League teams; I’m not even certain anyone tracked ongoing standings in the league. Perhaps, drawing on his years of volunteer coaching, Mr. Greenfield imbued us with our sense of superiority. I can’t recall.

I know our bête noir, the rival we loved to hate, was the team sponsored by the local Italian church, St. Donato’s. In a world of Jewish kids, they represented the mysterious “other.” Since their players all attended parochial school and my teammates attended public school, they were, indeed, unknown to us. Objective facts may have fallen to stereotypes and the vagaries of memory, but my recollection is that they appeared bigger and tougher than my teammates. Their pitcher always inspired whispered speculation among my teammates: “How old do you think he really is?”

*****

Following my first two seasons under Mr. Greenfield’s direction, I aged out of the “minor league” and moved into the “major league” for ten and eleven-year-old players. Mr. Greenfield remained with the younger players, and I heard that if we couldn’t find another coach, the Pirates would disband. I agonized over this possibility.

Into the breach, like a savior, came my older brother, David, home from college for the summer. Not only did he save the team, my own status rose: Brother of the Coach! To his credit, David didn’t practice nepotism. I was still the second baseman, subordinate to the vaunted Scott. But it was immensely satisfying to have David there; though the youngest coach in the league, by far, he had a firm grip on strategies and techniques. Practices were fun and we won most, if not all, of our games. Crucially, David treated as many of us as could fit in his red Camaro to water ice after every win.

The season proceeded routinely as we whipped teams named after the Mets and the Cubs and a team sponsored by an undertaker. Boy, did that strike us funny! We had no trouble beating a poor team wearing tee shirts instead of real uniforms and trounced a team drawn from a local religious school – they made US look tough, by comparison. Looming for the last game, however, was St. Donato’s, with their big kids in their green-trimmed uniforms.

From the moment we arrived at the field, it was clear we were in trouble. Their pitcher, who we speculated was growing a mustache, was half a head taller than our biggest player, Scott. During warm-ups, we watched slack-jawed as he threw faster than anyone we’d ever seen. Though only ten, I could sense the smugness in the expression on St. Donato’s coaches (they had several) as they loomed over David in the pre-game meeting with the umpire.

Once the game began, our pitching and defense performed well. But we were totally cowed in the batter’s box. We sat silently on our bench between innings. We didn’t dare taunt the pitcher with our chant. From my first at-bat, I recall seeing him wind-up and then hearing a thump in the catcher’s mitt behind me. What had happened to the ball? How fast was this supposed eleven-year-old throwing? As the innings flew by we’d only surrendered two runs but our chance of scoring seemed nil. We couldn’t even get a base runner.

“Gather around,” said David, when we came in from the field before our last at-bat. “I have an idea.”

Following David’s instructions, our first batter sidled up to the plate barely concealing a smile. Though we were all right-handed, he took a spot on the LEFT side of the plate. He crowded into the space just inches from the plate. As a final touch, he crouched so tightly that his strike zone, the area between his knees and his chest, could not have been more than a few inches.

The pitcher looked confused. Left-handed batters were rarities. He threw his first pitch in the dirt. The next pitch flew over the catcher and bounced off the batting cage.

“Hey ump,” shouted St. Donato’s head coach. “That kid’s not left-handed!”

The umpire shrugged.

“How close to the plate can he get?” continued the coach.

“As close as he wants,” said the umpire, “so long as he’s in the batting box.”

Our first batter walked. Our second hitter took the same left-handed crouch and walked.

“Hey,” shouted the coach. “You gotta call some of these strikes! They’re bending over. This ain’t fair.”

The umpire turned to David, who shrugged innocently.   David said to us: “Hey, how ‘bout some life around here!”

We started our chant: “We want a pitcher, not a belly itcher!” The pitcher regarded us with a combination of anger, despair and humiliation. He walked the next batter to load the bases and hit the next batter with a pitch to score a run. By this time, in the effort to throw strikes, he threw so slowly the plunked batter barely flinched.

St. Donato’s coach glared at David with contempt. He walked to the mound to calm his pitcher, and we saw the kid wipe his eyes. After a moment’s discussion, the coach walked off the field with the big pitcher, now sobbing, and replaced him. Scott was our next batter. He hit the reliever’s first, ordinary pitch for a double and we’d won the game.

*****

Was it the right thing to do? Was it good sportsmanship? Did the end justify the means? I do know this: we celebrated that day without any ambivalence whatsoever, the day our coach David helped us beat Goliath.


A POLITICAL FUTURE?

Last week, an older, self-described Socialist from Vermont declared he is running for president. His last name is Sanders and, therefore, the nation has an opportunity to ponder what I’ve often deemed an obvious solution to its problems, namely: “Sanders for President.” Unfortunately for America, the candidate is named Bernie. I have not thrown my hat in the ring.

*****

I’ve never run for office. However, that didn’t prevent me from once being elected. During my first week at Dickinson College, my fellow residents on the third floor of Adams Dorm voted for me, in absentia, to represent them on the student council. My roommate, Keith, informed me of this upon my return from the library. (Or was it the ping-pong room?) In any event, he explained:

“At the floor meeting you skipped, Mike (the resident advisor) told us we have to elect a delegate to the student council. We chose you.”

“Why?” I said, stricken.

“You said you were going to major in political science,” said Keith.

“So?” I asked.

“This is political,” he said.

I was less than gracious about my election. The next day, I learned from Mike that the Council held meetings once a month, and I would be expected to keep my floor-mates informed of developments.

“Great, “ I said, grumpily.

“It’ll be good for graduate school applications,” said Mike.

“That’s four years from now,” I said. “I hate meetings.”

“Yes, I noticed you weren’t there last night,” said Mike, smiling. “This is what you get.”

*****

After only a few weeks of classes, I already knew that political science was dismal, as majors go. For instance, one of my classes was State and Local Government, wherein I studied the distinction between towns run by mayors and towns run by managers. I learned that some towns hold partisan elections and others do not. Most critically, I learned that Nebraska has only one legislative house, not two, and therefore, is called “unicameral.” Future success in Trivial Pursuits and Jeopardy secured!

The other problem in political science at Dickinson was that the classes were full of hyper-competitive, grade-grubbing pre-law students. Though I eventually completed the course work in political science, I shifted my primary field of study to English Literature. The classes were enjoyable, less grade-oriented and, incidentally, overwhelmingly female in make-up. The atmosphere seemed collegial, academic, not mercenary.

*****

Despite my misgivings, I dutifully attended the initial student council meeting on behalf of my of Adams Dorm constituents. Held in the conference room of the 200-hundred-year-old “Old West,” the setting was, admittedly impressive. Stern portraits of past College presidents gazed down upon the assembled representatives. I took a place in the back row, as was my custom in such matters and waited for the action to begin.

At a table in front of the room, facing out towards the delegates, were the officers of the Student Council. These were seniors who took procedural rules seriously. I recognized several from seeing them roam the halls of the political science building where they sought face time with professors at every opportunity.

A gavel brought the meeting to order, motions were made and seconded, speakers were given “the floor,” and a lively debate ensued on a matter of absolutely no interest to me, namely: How many student delegates would attend the College Trustees meeting and, when they attended, should they sit among the Trustees at their conference table, or should they sit in chairs set back from the table as sort of “advisory” attendees?

And would the attendees actually be “advisory” or would they merely be “witnesses” to the goings-on? And, if they were “advisory,” what sort of advice would they give? And how should a consensus be arrived at to determine the student council’s position? And wouldn’t all these matters depend (almost entirely, duh…) on the preferences of the Board of Trustees, whose meeting it was?

Most of the delegates had passionate opinions on all these questions. The debate continued for an hour. By this time, I’d filled my note-pad with doodles, looked at the beautiful grandfather clock in the corner of the hall at least twenty times, and wondered if anyone would notice if I just sort of slipped out the side door. My reverie ended with a decisive bang of the gavel and the announcement that a task force would be established to submit recommendations to the officers who would take the matter under advisement and blah, blah, blah. I had no idea what to tell my dorm-mates.

*****

I never aspired to the presidency of the United States. From the earliest household mentions of Presidents Johnson and Nixon in my formative years, I heard only complaints from my parents, particularly my father.   Therefore, the office held no special allure. Congressmen, however (in 1964, or so, a Congresswoman was a rarity and a “Congressperson” did not yet exist as a concept) struck me as special. I still detected an aura around what I thought of as silver-tongued orators.

On an eighth grade trip to Washington, two classmates and I strode freely through the hallways of the Capitol building; the high ceilings and marble impressed me and, as a student of geography, I thrilled at the sight of each huge doorway marked by the name and state of a different legislator. As a special treat, Senator Dirksen, a famous old lion whom I recognized from television news, strode past us looking important. He nodded in our general direction, and the three of us told anyone who would listen that he’d personally welcomed us to the Capitol.

*****

Half a century later, Congress’s public approval rating is below fifteen percent. Personally, with the drip, drip, drip of revelations over time, I’ve come to view legislators as narcissists with a tendency towards larceny. Why would any sane person choose such a life except to financially enrich themselves and/or their families and friends? That is why it’s so bizarre and refreshing to see probably-not-a-cousin Bernie with his uncombed hair, rumpled suit and unfiltered spleen sputtering in vain about the depredations of big banks and corporations. As Andy Borowitz pointed out in The New Yorker, he’s probably disqualified from the race due to excessive integrity.

*****

Back to my political career: I returned after the student council meeting and found that none of my floor-mates cared one whit about what had happened. No one asked about the meeting. When I told my roommate, Keith, that I’d attended, he shrugged.

The following month, I skipped the council meeting. I skipped the month after that, too, and, in fact, the rest of the year. The third floor of Adams Dorm did not have the benefit of representation, and no one noticed. When it came time to complete law school applications several years later, most included a question about whether I’d held elective office. I’m pleased to report that I checked “No.” My maintenance of that shred of dignity is the sole positive to come out of the experience. I wonder how many politicians would have answered the question the same way.


MYSTERY FAMILY

When I was little, there were no photographs of my father’s relatives in our house. My mother’s “side” was the only one that existed. My three siblings, all more than a decade older than I, had experienced limited contact with my father’s family in the period that preceded me, but the flames of kinship were almost extinguished by my early childhood.   This pullback occurred even though my father’s family contained just as many aunts and uncles as my mother’s, and a full set of cousins, most of whose names I never learned.

To my recollection, my father, who died in 1994, never uttered a word about the subject. When I was four or six or eight-years-old, I took relationships for granted. I didn’t ponder the absence of my father’s family. From occasional remarks, the unanimous impression I gleaned from the rest of my immediate family was that I wasn’t missing anything by not meeting the other half of my relatives.

To my knowledge, my father and his siblings rarely spoke. I recently considered this subject, after five decades, when a wedding provoked the question of how the couple would divide holidays between their respective families. We’d never had that issue.

My father absolutely had a right to privacy. He may have had perfectly valid reasons for his silence. But I’m still entitled to wonder, at least: “What happened?”

*****

I knew this from overhearing conversations as a child: my father had been fond of his older brother, Nathan, who lived in New York City until his multi-pack-a-day smoking habit hastened his death. The habit persisted after a cancer diagnosis. My father was neutral about a younger brother, Harry, who lived above his own corner store in a rundown section of Philadelphia. And my father disliked a younger sister who lived in New York City. My mother sometimes referred to her as “Shitty Shelley.” This made an impression; my parents never swore.

I didn’t know many details about my New York cousins. But Uncle Harry’s daughter in Philadelphia had the unfortunate name of Rhea, a source of hilarity at every mention by my siblings, who couldn’t resist adding “Dia.” He also had a son who fled his non-religious upbringing to become an ultra-orthodox rabbi in Israel, where he fathered fourteen children. Unable to support his brood, for years he begged my father, his uncle, for money. I never saw the letters, nor did I know my father’s response to them. From time to time, I’d hear him tell my mother, “I got another letter from the lunatic in Israel.”

*****

On a culturally historic evening, the night when Ed Sullivan introduced the Beatles on his variety show, I accompanied my parents on my only visit to Uncle Harry’s home. I would have been six or seven. After parking the car on a dark, dismal street, my father pounded on a door in an alley. I heard footsteps descend inside and the door creaked open. A bald man appeared who was so slight that my five-foot-seven father looked huge by comparison. Harry led us upstairs where we sat in a dim, cramped living room on plastic lawn furniture, and watched a tiny black-and-white television. I don’t recall what we ate but Uncle Harry and his wife, Celia, bustled around to try to make us comfortable. My father and uncle agreed the Beatles were “animals” and represented a threat to western society.

After the show, Celia took me downstairs to their store and handed me a pack of baseball cards from behind the counter. I opened them immediately. I couldn’t believe my luck. The first one was my favorite player, Ernie Banks. This act of generosity impressed me so much I recall it fifty years later, but I recall absolutely nothing else about my aunt, who I never saw again. My cousins were not present that evening.

*****

Then there was Aunt Shelley. One day, when I was a teenager, we received a family tree in the mail from a distant, unknown relative, with a request that my father complete our branch. My mother noticed that Shelley had listed 1911 as her year of birth.

“How can that be?” she asked my father when he came home. “You and Shelley aren’t twins, and you always said you were born in 1911?”

My father declined to respond, except to sigh: “Eccch, a business with Shelley.”

My mother dialed Shelley’s number for the first time in decades.

“Why did you say you were born in 1911?” she asked. “Aren’t you younger than Lou?”

Shelley rasped, with all the charm that may have inspired her nickname: “He’s a liar. He’s older than he told you.” With that, she hung up.

Confronted with this information, my father said: “1911, 1907, what difference does it make?”

*****

When my parents married in 1941, my father was likely over thirty and my mother had just turned nineteen. My mother didn’t learn for seven years that my father’s father was still alive and living nearby in Philadelphia. After she discovered this, my mother, who didn’t drive at the time, tracked him down and took my two oldest siblings, who were around three and five at the time, on a bus to visit. A grey-haired, brilliantly blue-eyed man opened the door then rushed to a closet in his tiny apartment and returned with a piece of candy for each grandchild.

My mother was shocked by her father-in-law’s terrible cough. Concerned the children had been exposed to tuberculosis, she insisted on taking him, by bus, to be checked at a hospital where they admitted him. He remained hospitalized for three weeks before dying from what the doctors concluded was a fungus, not TB. My father showed no emotion at the news.

*****

My father demonstrably loved his grandchildren and burst with pride at his own children’s accomplishments. He warmly welcomed a step-grandchild into the family. Friends and business associates found him engaging. So what happened with his family?

I can only speculate. The most plausible theory is that a rupture occurred when my father’s father came to America from Kiev before World War I. The plan was that he would quickly send the means for the rest of the family to follow.

Instead, nearly a decade passed before my father’s mother and the four children arrived. After several years in Cuba awaiting visas, they reached Philadelphia in the mid-1920s. My grandmother chose to live separately from her husband. My father lived with her until her death in the mid-1930s. Harry apparently lived with his father when he first arrived. Nathan and Shelley, in their late-teens or early twenties, settled in New York City.

Had my father’s father failed to provide as promised? If he did fail, was it his fault, or did World War I and the Russian revolution make it impossible? Did the siblings divide over their parents’ split?  Asked to explain, both before my time and in my presence, my father always declined. “It’s not important,” he said.

In the late 1960s, my father made a tape describing his emigration from Kiev. In it, he relates with gusto the time he slept in a safe house somewhere in Poland. Several ultra-Orthodox smugglers had charged a vast sum to shepherd my father’s family through the area. Feeling overcharged, my father awoke in the middle of the night, found a scissors, and cut off the forelocks of the sleeping men before fleeing. What priceless passive-aggression! I listened to the tape several times, smiling each time at the thought of the smugglers’ fury; he never mentions the roles of his other family members, though they must have taken part in the adventure. Why not?

I’ve fundamentally failed to solve the mystery.   When my son was born, it seemed natural to make “Nathan” his middle name, after my father’s favorite brother. Characteristically, when I told my father on the telephone, he didn’t react. I choose to believe he was pleased.


FIT-BIT TO BE TIED

My children were kind (?) enough to give me a Fit-Bit as an early Father’s Day gift. For those who don’t know, a Fit-Bit is an electronic bracelet that monitors how many steps one takes throughout a day. It can reflect the total on your computer screen along with numerous other tidbits of information if one chooses to enter them, such as: water consumption; caloric intake; and, how deeply one has slept.

For now, counting steps is sufficient to maintain my interest; I take off the Fit-Bit before I go to sleep. A typical target number for daily steps is 10,000. Boosted by a tennis match in the morning I managed 20,000 my first day. I’m also a Fit-Bit “friend” with my daughter and wife, so I can compare my performance with theirs throughout the day or week or month.   Time will tell if intra-family, friendly competition is desirable.

*****

Though not a social scientist, and without statistics to support my contentions, I believe the middle-aged recognize there is less physicality in life than there was a century ago. We believe our efforts to reintroduce movement and strength conditioning positively impact our health, appearance and quality of life. To that end, we PAY MONEY to join gyms, hire trainers, participate in yoga, and, yes, wear equipment that encourages these virtuous tasks.   I smile, after all, when my wristband buzzes to mark my ten thousandth step each day. It “syncs” with my computer to greet me with an image of a golden sneaker when I sit down at the end of a walk. How different from when I attended college!

*****

In the mid-1970’s, I played soccer goaltender for the glory of Dickinson College. During my first two seasons, team conditioning was sporadic. At practice, while I fielded light shots from an assistant coach and chatted with passersby, my teammates jogged a little, scrimmaged a little, and kicked the ball around in drills that lacked clear purpose or connection. It was as though our coach, Bill Nickels, a former football player, had simply copied a list of possible activities from a book. (In fact, he had).

The highlight of each day was shooting practice, where my teammates lined up to take a crack at the goal defended alternately by me and my back-up, a person without athletic skill, who had joined the team in order to recruit freshman for his fraternity. Never mind that shooting on goal is a skill rarely undertaken in a game by most defenders and mid-fielders. Twenty people stood in two anaerobic lines to await their turn to blast a ball in my general direction. Through no great skill on my part, their efforts were rarely rewarded; balls that did not go directly into my hands usually sailed over the goal or squibbed sadly to the side like popped balloons.

Our won-lost record during my first two seasons was nearly even. Apparently, in the 1970’s, other small college soccer teams also had coaches who had never played the sport, and consisted of players who were more hobbyists than dedicated athletes.

It was shocking, therefore, to arrive for my junior season and find Coach Nickles a changed man. He still looked the same, with his substantial mustache and dark glasses above a barrel chest in a too-tight tee shirt. But he had attended a seminar over the summer and resolved to mold our squad into a well-conditioned athletic machine.

“This season is going to be different,” he announced to the throng lounging on the grass in front of him. “First of all, there will be no more standing around between drills.”

Several of us looked up with mild interest.

“Second of all,” he continued, “only the forwards and halfbacks will take shooting practice. Fullbacks will work on their long kicking and heading.”

A few players raised eyebrows in surprise. A fullback groaned in disappointment.

“Finally,” he declared, “you’re going to get in shape. Two days a week, half of practice will be spent on ‘brutality drills,’ a combination of running and weight-lifting that will set us apart from the other teams.”

Now the coach had everyone’s attention.

“Weight-lifting?” said several players, surprised.

“That’s right,” said Coach Nickels, pointing to the entrance to the weight room adjacent to the locker room, an environment as unknown to Dickinson soccer players as the moon. “And the running begins right now.”

*****

True to his word, Coach Nickels cajoled the team to do wind sprints of varying lengths. Next up were calisthenics. Then an introduction to the various weights and machines from the trainer who we’d thought worked exclusively for the football team. Then more sprints, then a water break. Then, amidst looks of disbelief, he lined us up for more running.

“When are we going to use the balls?” asked one player, in a plaintive tone.

“When I’m satisfied there’s been a good enough effort in the running,” said Coach Nickels.

A group of 18-20-year-olds looked at each other like contestants at the end of a dance marathon. Lucky for me, as a goaltender, the coach sent me off with the assistant to field some shots; even under the new regime, field-long wind sprints were not deemed essential for me. From my vantage point in goal, I watched my teammates continue to run and strained to suppress my amusement.

While most of us complained bitterly and loafed whenever possible, particularly in the weight room, after several weeks, practices seemed more purposeful. And when we played our first game, the difference was clear. We knew from past seasons that Lebanon Valley College had a terrible soccer team; we looked forward to an easy game to start the season. But the anticipated 3-0 win became a 9-0 blowout. My teammates ran circles around the opponents while I stood, bored and inactive, in front of the goal.

Nonetheless, at practice, the complaints continued. Several players, who usually sat on the bench, quit the team. Soccer for them was meant to be a social experience, not a struggle. A few others begged off some of the running due to minor injuries or allergies.

We won two more relatively easy games and then lost to our only D-1 opponent, Bucknell, by a respectable score of 1-0. (The goal went in off the post; I still remember it like it was yesterday). We were a winning team. We felt strong. Yet, on ‘brutality’ practice days, we dragged ourselves to the field like prisoners approaching the gallows. To my knowledge, no one ever congratulated Coach Nickels for his initiative. No one acknowledged aloud that they could run farther without heavy breathing or that they could lift increasing amounts of weight. All we did was complain, even while compiling a record of 9 wins and 4 losses instead of the usual six wins, six losses and a tie.

*****

The following season, to my surprise, Coach Nickels returned to the drowsy routines of my first two years. Had someone complained to the administration? Were ‘brutality’ drills undignified? Un-Dickinsonian? The concept of coach/player communication had not been invented in the 1970’s. Whatever the reason, most of my teammates breathed a sigh of relief. I admit I was among them. We vaguely realized our regression to a record of 7-6 stemmed from the demise of serious conditioning. However, in our lazy, young minds, we were happy not to have to run those extra sprints, not to enter the weight room on a regular basis.

*****

Fast forward thirty or forty years. We pay to belong to a gym. We pay to belong to a tennis club. We purchase a collection of weights, bands and balls for home use on days we can’t get to the gym. We schedule walks or runs.   We own Fit-Bits to monitor our every step. All of this was free, available (not the Fit-Bit) and AVOIDED LIKE THE PLAGUE when we were young. It is said: “youth is wasted on the young.” I’m not always an adherent of that conclusion. In this instance, however, it may be true. I’m going to take a long walk and think about it.


HOMEWORK HELPER, A MOTHER’S DAY STORY

Our son, Sam, is an excellent student. He’s now in a PhD program at an illustrious university. However, when he was young, his intellectual ability rarely extended to artistic creation. Although we happily hang a Halloween-themed painting by him in our garage gallery, there are more bad memories than good from the era when he produced “projects” for school. By the time he was in fifth or sixth grade, we couldn’t stand to see him suffer. My wife, Katie, and I abandoned the traditional viewpoint that a student is responsible for all his own work; Sam received as much parental or sibling assistance as necessary to survive what we concluded was a silly, system-wide preoccupation with paper, scissors and glue.

Katie, an educator, and a person without a scintilla of chicanery in her arsenal, initially struggled with the decision to relieve Sam’s burden.

“Isn’t this cheating?” she asked. “Will it ruin his sense of responsibility?”

“I don’t think he’ll be ruined,” I said. “He still does all his other work. He’s learning disabled in arts and crafts. Wouldn’t it be wrong to deny him assistance?”

“So you don’t have a problem with this?” she asked, seeking confirmation, as she colored in the background in a workbook Sam had to illustrate.

“Absolutely not,” I said.

After all, in truth, I’d once received a little parental assistance myself.

*****

When I took mid-level (not for the brainiacs) biology in ninth grade at Friends’ Academy, the teacher was legendary; he’d single-handedly comprised the biology department for over thirty years. Mr. Farrington, white-haired and elfin, was a stern and serious academician. Accordingly, besides biology teacher, his position was Dean of Students. In that capacity, he handled matters of discipline and played a large role in determining where students applied to college. No, Mr. Farrington was not a man to mess with.

I’m not proud to admit that, in my teenage years, I resisted knowledge in subjects outside my core interests of English, history and music. I still apply some degree of willful ignorance, like a Republican presidential candidate, to a wealth of subjects. Biology, along with anything mathematical, was way out in my mental periphery.

Under Mr. Farrington’s steely gaze, the dissection of worms and frogs alarmed me without interesting me. And genetics? Forget it. He shook his head with incomprehension when my undistinguished classmates or I failed to “get it.” His classroom and walls were festooned with posters and projects produced by his more elite students, the “Section One” people, whom he delightedly steered towards his Ivy League contacts.

Unfortunately, while Mr. Farrington lectured, my mind usually drifted to the baseball field. He caught me flat-footed and spluttering the several times he called on me. I hunkered down in the hopes of avoiding his notice. An impressive student of the sciences I was not.

*****

The culmination of the year, and a third of our grade, depended upon the creation of an individual herbarium by each student, a miniature replica of a wild scene of flora and fauna, set inside glass, usually fish-tank-sized. I stressed over the project for several weeks, unsure where to even begin. Though I rarely involved my parents in the details of my schoolwork, I must have expressed my fears effectively because all I remember, to my immense relief, is that my mother took on the project as though her life depended on it.

After several visits to the hardware and plant stores, and hours spent around the dining room table, during which I handed my mother pieces like a nurse assisting a doctor, she’d created a display worthy of a natural history museum. Having seen similar quality on Mr. Farrington’s shelf, it didn’t occur to me this might present a problem. Vaguely aware there might be moral implications surrounding this matter, I chose to ignore them. I felt that I was not a “bad” person and I knew my mother was not a “bad” person, and I was unconcerned about this becoming a habit. I delivered the herbarium with a sigh of relief and then forgot about it. A passing grade in biology was assured, I thought, and that had been my only concern.

*****

I was taken aback several days later when my mother told me she’d been called by Mr. Farrington’s office to accompany me to a meeting with Mr. Farrington. I hoped, somehow, that his intention was to congratulate me for a job well done, but I wasn’t so naïve as to not feel nervous.

“What will we say,” I asked her, “if Mr. Farrington asks who made the herbarium?”

“I’m not going to lie,” said my mother. “But I’ll tell him you played a large role.”

“I’m not sure handing you stuff qualifies as a ‘large role,’” I said.

“We’ll just have to see,” she said. “You might have to re-do the whole thing and accept the consequences.”

My dread rose as we arrived at Mr. Farrington’s office and saw a sour expression on his usually impassive face. “My” herbarium sat on his desk between us.

“Mrs. Sanders,” he began, addressing my mother as though I weren’t present. “I’m afraid your son has violated a vital aspect of the honor system at Friends’ Academy.”

I turned pale, but my mother remained cool, merely raising an eyebrow to allow Mr. Farrington to continue.

“It is clear to me that Stuart PURCHASED this herbarium from a store,” he said.

“He ABSOLUTELY did not PURCHASE it,” said my mother firmly. “I would never allow such a thing.”

Mr. Farrington turned his gaze to me. “Well,” he said, “it’s just that this herbarium is professional in quality, worthy of a top Section One student, and Stuart has not previously shown such abilities.”

“Perhaps he was inspired,” interjected my mother, never a fan of the caste system at the school.

I lowered my eyes to look at the floor. I feared my mother might have gone too far. I certainly didn’t want Mr. Farrington to expect “inspired” work from me on a regular basis. Mr. Farrington remained silent for a long moment. Perhaps, the actual explanation occurred to him –- he was a smart man — and he weighed how much of a confrontation he deemed worthwhile.

My heart beat hard in my chest as several seconds seemed to last several hours. Finally, he merely shook his head, thanked us for coming in, and congratulated me on my excellent work. He addressed my mother, in a neutral tone: “You should be very proud.”

*****

“Phew,” I whispered, when we’d closed the office door behind us and hustled down the hallway.

“There’s a lesson to be learned from this,” said my mother.

“To always do your own work?” I asked.

“To not do too good a job when you do your kids’ work,” she said.

“What kind of a lesson is that to give to your child?” I asked, amazed, but also amused.

“A practical lesson,” she said.

As a parent, I’ve heeded that lesson several times over the years, sparingly, when somewhat, arguably, possibly appropriate.


THE GREATEST HITS OF 1720

We recently attended a harpsichord concert on campus at UNC. Two men played three-hundred-year-old music on a one-hundred-year-old instrument. The results were magical. One might wonder: “Who goes to such a concert?” The answer is: “Hardly anyone.” We were among eleven audience members marooned in a sea of ninety chairs in an otherwise charming, sun-splashed hall.

Later in the week, over 50,000 gathered several blocks away to watch UNC’s disgraced football team tackle a similar outfit from Florida State. Though a sports fan myself, I find the disparity disheartening. I won’t belabor the sad state of our culture. That’s a cliché’. Rather, I’ll focus on the harpsichord.

*****

In my formative years, during the 1960’s, my music resources were relatively meager. There was radio and there were vinyl records. I didn’t control the radio in our household. My father turned the dial to KYW, “News Radio 1060,” and my mother sometimes changed it to WFLN, “The Classical Station.” A child of limited imagination and even less rebellion, I never considered exploring alternatives. And, as a person of limited means — my weekly allowance of $.25 went towards baseball cards – I didn’t buy records.

Instead, I listened to whatever happened to be on. Thanks to KYW, compared to any other pre-teen in existence, I excelled at current events, traffic and weather. From WFLN, I formed distinct opinions about composers. I preferred orchestral pieces and piano concertos from the big guys, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. I was less enthused about solo pieces, opera, or relatively dissonant classical music composed after 1900.

In the living room, a state-of-the-art stereo system built by my brother, Barry  (speakers hidden in an inactive fireplace!), played our limited variety of vinyl recordings. Several Herb Alpert albums whetted a taste for pop. Broadway shows, such as: Camelot, Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story filled my consciousness, as well. Unbidden melodies and lyrics still pop into my head at any time via synapses first established in 1962. And two records featured my father’s favorite, the Yiddish ballads of Theodore Bikel.   To my recollection, my father never operated the stereo and I never volunteered to play his records for him. Even a teenager as compliant as me had a limit. (Never mind the issue of whether he was unable or unwilling to operate the stereo – that question never occurred to me – perhaps there are several potential stories there).

*****

I recall the first record that was “mine.” For approximately my tenth birthday, my mother combined my penchant for puns with my eighteenth-century sensibility and bought me a collection called “Go for Baroque.” It featured harpsichord pieces by J.S. Bach and Rameau, a comparatively unknown French composer. The tinkling of the harpsichord captivated me.

At the time, I “studied” piano with a teacher named Mr. Koffs, whom I called “Cootie Koffs.” Not that I deserved better, but he smacked my fingers for mistakes and generally contributed more to misery than to mastery. I craved the special baroque sound.

“Why can’t I play a harpsichord?” I asked. “I’d even practice.”

“No one plays a harpsichord,” said my mother, on the rare occasions my question elicited a response.

By the time I was eleven, piano lessons succumbed to my flood of complaints and my drought of practice. Thinking I’d have better luck channeling the Tijuana Brass, I requested trumpet lessons, instead. After three untalented years, during which I sapped the enthusiasm of my trumpet instructors and myself, I concluded my youthful career at the low end of mediocre on both instruments. Yet, I retained my eclectic tastes, more or less spanning from 17th-Century Europe to 20th-century faux-Mexico.

*****

As a shy, young lawyer alone in the suburbs in my late twenties, I had an abundance of free time. After all, Ridgewood, New Jersey wasn’t “hopping” like a big city and I wasn’t exactly a “player” myself. Happening to hear a harpsichord on the radio one day, it occurred to me I might arrange the lessons I’d always wanted. In an unusual burst of initiative, I looked through the musical instruments section of the Yellow Pages (for younger readers, a paper telephone directory, like a fossil version of Google) and, sure enough, a man in Northern Jersey advertised “Harpsichords, for Sale or Lease.”

I called Ed Brewer, who turned out to be renowned in obscure circles, and learned I could rent a small instrument for $63 a month.

“Does anyone give lessons?” I asked.

“There’s one fellow,” he said. “Do you know where Ridgewood is?”

“I live in Ridgewood,” I said, amazed.

“Well, then,” said Ed. “That’s good luck. Call Jack Rodland, the organist at West Side Church.”

I did. As the music director of the largest church in town, Jack tended to see things in spiritual terms, not luck. When I described on the phone why I’d called, he said: “I’ve been waiting for your call.”

“Did Ed Brewer tell you I’d be calling?” I asked, surprised.

“No, the Lord did,” he said.

“Hunh?” I said, or a similar sound.

Jack explained: “We have a beautiful, antique harpsichord moldering away in the basement. I want to cry whenever I see it. I recently asked the Church board for funds to restore and tune it, but was told I need at least one student. Your call is a blessing.”

To say the least, Jack and I viewed the world differently. Considering my skill level, connecting my musicality to the word “blessing” intimidated me to the point of near-paralysis. Still, how could I back out of a God-ordained activity?

We arranged to meet at the church two weeks later, by which time Jack was confident the church harpsichord would be tuned for him to give lessons. Meanwhile, Ed Brewer delivered a modest, recently constructed rental harpsichord to my home. It resembled a pine coffin more than a musical instrument. Still, it contained fifty-five brown and black keys (none of those black and white keys for me!) and made the tinkling sound I loved. For two weeks, leading up to my first lesson, I spent part of each evening alternately trying to recreate the background of “Scarborough Fair,” and the introduction to “The Addams Family.”

*****

It may surprise some readers, but playing the harpsichord did not immediately make me a girl magnet. I commenced weekly lessons at the Church with Jack – a patient and gentle teacher—and practiced diligently each evening after work. After six months of steady play, I’d become almost respectable. I mastered several minuets by Bach and also the Rameau variations I’d listened to years before. Jack became so enthused that he asked if I’d play before a church service.

“You mean, like, in front of people?” I asked, stricken.

“Yes,” he said. “It will be a treat.”

In my mind, I thought: “It will be a catastrophe.” But Jack was so earnest!

Again, the discrepancy between our worldviews became apparent. I managed to stall Jack’s urge for my public debut for several weeks but feared I couldn’t last forever. After all, my hobby intersected with Jack’s profession and he had a Board to impress. I dedicated a number of sleepless hours to the situation, namely: “How do I get out of this?”

One morning, at work, the phone rang. My deus ex machina came in the form of a phone call from a woman who asked me out on a blind date. We hit it off immediately and my practice time dwindled. For the first several dates, I didn’t disclose how I’d spent the preceding six months of evenings. Insecure to the utmost, I feared revealing myself to be steeped in the 1700’s. Her first visit to my home, however, brought my harpsichord habit to the fore. Instead of being turned off by it, it turned out my new girlfriend had been an All-State oboist in high school. We had baroque-era instruments in common! In short order, Katie and I were married, we sold our respective houses, we had a child, and music took a backseat. My harpsichord lessons dwindled to once a month then ceased. Life had moved on.

*****

Jack Rodland was completely supportive when I explained the reason for my change in focus.

“You’ve moved to a higher calling,” he said, speaking of my new love life.

Only months after I saw him for the last time, I heard that Jack, a man no older than fifty, had died. I felt devastated. Had he been ill? It occurred to me I knew nothing of Jack’s life outside of our lessons. My only small consolation was to recall his delight at having brought the harpsichord up from the basement. Also, having a student, even one of limited ability, had pleased him.

I’d deeply appreciated Jack’s gentle teaching and understanding. Due to its constant need for tuning and my lack of play, we returned my rented harpsichord and eventually acquired a piano in the unrewarded hope that our children might be interested. After we sold it several years ago, we bought an electronic keyboard for those rare, once-a-month urges that I have to play. When I do play, I always remember Jack for a moment. Though the keyboard can mimic hundreds of instruments, the harpsichord is usually my first choice.  And Katie and I still seek out those rare opportunities to hear live harpsichord music.


OPENING DAY

I failed to watch a baseball game today. I tried, but after two innings, I found the pace unbearable. As for viewing sports, I’ve become used to the excitement of basketball or the uninterrupted flow of soccer. My inability to sit and concentrate, as each pitch hits the catcher’s mitt and, in turn, is analyzed into submission with the high-tech tools of modern television coverage, disappoints me. I wonder if I’ve become unable to appreciate the slower-paced, nuanced aspects of life. I fear I’m no longer a person who can “stop to smell the roses.” Perhaps, I’ve “given in to the frenetic pace of modern life.” I wonder, am I a traitor to my younger self?

*****

Baseball played a huge part in my early existence.  I recall being exposed to basketball and to football, to hockey and to tennis. But only baseball captured my imagination. And when I say imagination, I mean it. My best, or, at least, most dependable friends in a neighborhood devoid of children, were named Sookie, Musselemy and Fireball Conky. Each loved baseball as much as I did and were available to play every day. They didn’t exist in a physical sense.

I’ve hesitated to mention my three friends in previous writing lest I reveal a major psychosis. But an hour of research has convinced me that, if not quite “normal,” having imaginary friends in the first decade of life is not unusual. And, no, they didn’t accompany me to high school. By the time I joined a little league team at nine with real, live teammates, my imaginary playmates were absent from my daily thoughts. I admit, however, that when I pitched side-armed, like Fireball Conky, or blasted a ball far, like Musselemy, their characteristics occasionally crossed my mind.

*****

Every fan remembers attending their first major league baseball game. At least, I expect they do. Mine was opening day, 1964. The Phillies played the Mets, and my mother took me to Connie Mack Stadium to see it.   I recall her paying a quarter to a street urchin straight out of Dickens to “watch our car” a few blocks from the stadium.

I couldn’t have been more excited and nervous, both about the game and the fate of the car, respectively. My fears about the car disappeared, however, when I stepped through the stadium concourse and beheld the shocking expanse of green grass before me, brilliant even in the early spring chill of North Philadelphia. I’d never seen anything so beautiful.

As to the game, Roy Sievers was the Mets’ third baseman and Roy McMillan was their shortstop. Funny, I thought, to have two guys named Roy. The Phillies had a hotshot rookie third baseman named Richie Allen and a left fielder, Wes Covington, whose tongue lolled permanently outside his mouth. We sat behind third base, which might explain why I recall the players on that side of the field.

Only five years short of its overdue demolition, Connie Mack Stadium led the world in support poles – you had to crane your neck around them in order to follow occasional moments of action. I wore my baseball glove the entire game, of course, in the hopes of catching a foul ball. Even at age 7, I was aware of the remoteness of my chances. But, just as an atheist might wonder “what if I’m wrong?” I remained ready, just in case.

The final score was 5-3. I think the Phillies won though it was less important to me than simply being there. I now know the 1964 Phillies were to experience a disastrous, Titanic-like sinking six months later, when they lost ten games in a row and tumbled out of first place on the last weekend of the season. In April, with that particular iceberg still invisible, we soaked in optimism and the promise of warmer days.

*****

In that era, my passion for baseball lasted year-round, indoors and out. Sitting cross-legged on my bedroom carpet, I played “spinner baseball” for hours. The board game, which I’d received as a birthday present, consisted of a piece of round cardboard with a metal arrow in the middle. For each batter in a line-up of real or imaginary players, I smacked the “spinner” with my finger and it circled, like a tiny roulette wheel, until it stopped on a result, be it fly out, ground out, strikeout, single, double, triple, walk or home run. I drafted fantasy teams of real and imagined players and kept meticulous, hand-written records on pieces of cardboard obtained from my father’s dry-cleaned shirts. Little did I know I’d hit upon a concept that would, fifty years later, become a national obsession. This activity made me a savant at figuring batting averages in my head. Did that help my career thirty years later when I estimated mortgage payments? Absolutely.

Outdoors, winter didn’t stop my exertions. Unless it rained or snowed significantly, I threw a ball against a target on the back wall of our house every day. I threw even if I had to shovel two or three inches of snow to access my imagined pitching mound. As a result, by the time I reached high school, I had major league control. If only my pitches also had major league speed, movement and spin. In an effort to develop those side benefits of arm strength, I spent the winter of my senior year throwing a heavy softball against the wall. It weighed twice as much as a baseball. As I’d hoped, my velocity soared when I switched back to a baseball in the spring. Alas, my naïve and unprofessional training regimen also ruined the tendons in my elbow and, in short order, my baseball career.

*****

Even before my elbow woes had moved me from a pitcher to an underhand-throwing outfielder, my high school playing career was dispiriting. I was the MVP for two years at the Friends’ Academy, but that was an accomplishment so easily achieved as to be embarrassing. My teammates matched their lack of ability only with their lack of interest. The main benefit I derived was that the coach was also my math teacher, and he graded compassionately due to my crucial contributions to our rare victories.

When I headed to college, I considered myself a baseball player who also played soccer “to stay in shape.” After success on the soccer field in the fall and continued elbow woes in the spring, however, I reluctantly put away my mitt. Thereafter, several factors caused my childhood love of baseball to dissipate to no more than an occasional glance at the standings in a newspaper. Sixteen major league teams in my youth now totaled thirty.   Due primarily to free agency, players were hard to track. As an adult, with work, family and other interests, baseball no longer had room in my life. As a parent, I thought my children might share my childhood passion; all three pronounced baseball “boring.”

*****

Why is the game now so unwatchable for me? I thought back to my viewing habits in the 1960’s, from about age six to eleven. All week, during the spring and summer, I eagerly anticipated the once-a-week televised game. I awoke on Sunday with sweaty palms and pounding heart, excited for the 1:00 p.m. start. I’d set myself up on the lounge chair in the den in front of our rabbit-eared, sixteen-inch black-and-white. I’d carefully place a tall iced coffee beside me on a tray table for two hours of entertainment. I remember the jingle for Ballentine Beer played between every inning.

Byrum Saam and Richie Ashburn were the Phillies’ announcers. When they spoke, I felt I was sitting at the stadium with two patient and friendly men with inexhaustible knowledge to impart. Their conversations meandered from anecdote to anecdote and only occasionally focused on the game action that unfolded before them at a leisurely pace. They allowed me to listen to their conversation and secure for myself a place on a continuum that encompassed the past, the present and, I expected, the future. There were no exploding scoreboards in the early 60’s, no hi-tech analysis, and few replays. In the background noise, amidst sparsely filled stands, you heard vendors hawking popcorn.

*****

Besides the glitz, noise and technology of modern broadcasts, what’s changed?   Among many factors, batters adjust their gloves and elbow pads, accouterments that didn’t exist in 1963, between each pitch. They also repeatedly step away from the plate, though I read that baseball is trying to curtail that habit in order to lop a few minutes from the bloated, three-hour games. Pitchers dawdle and shake off signs from the catcher. Batters perceive more value in patience than in power, watching pitches, fouling them off. The cumulative effect is to lengthen the game. Add commercial breaks between innings that are now twice as long, and you have not so much a viewing opportunity as an ordeal.

In addition, there’s nothing special about seeing a game on television. Cable broadcasts all 162 games a season for every team. ESPN endlessly replays notable hits or catches.   Even the umpires’ calls are subject to review. Yes, it’s good to “get the call correct,” but some of the mystery and chance has been taken from baseball. There’s no reason to watch for three hours – the highlights will be viewable at the touch of a button.

To see a game in person, one pays more for a decent ticket than for a Broadway show. Most seats are filled with corporate guests, not a child and his parent. With few exceptions, the modern stadiums are filled with artificial noise and massive electronic scoreboards. Every possible statistic is provided to the fan. As in a modern bowling alley where the score is calculated electronically, there’s no reason to invest personal calculations to the experience.

The players are no longer the “everyman” of physical proportions they seemed to me in 1964. Now, they are millionaires enclosed in bodies sculpted by nutrition, science and sometimes more. How ironic that they appeared like gods to me when I was young. Now, they strike me as terribly human, whenever their public relations handlers let them down.

Based upon my analysis, I have decided to absolve myself of guilt. I’m not a traitor. Under worthy circumstances, I’m able to slow things down.   Mostly, it’s baseball that’s changed.

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