Rough in the Diamond

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I totally faked out a bunch of other dads today.

At my daughter’s softball practice, I put on a glove, walked out onto the field, and played catch with her.

Classic, right?

These other guys—and a couple of moms—had no idea I’ve never played a team sport in my life. Likely only one or two of them noticed that I had to borrow the glove, since I don’t own one myself.

But there I was, the 1997 star of my high school production of The Music Man, the guy who opted to take ballet instead of P.E., the son who read one of the Chronicles of Narnia books through a Lakers game he attended with his parents, and I was totally throwing a ball around with my kid.

I’ve tossed a ball back and forth with her lots of times, sure, but that was just playing around. During this practice, I Iooked like I knew what I was doing. Roughly. I even caught the ball with my opposite bare hand when my firstborn’s enthusiastic throws went wildly askew—a move that impressed her to no end.

I must admit that I paid close attention to her coach when he came around to explain how to stand. “Elbow up!” he said. “Keep this hand high, and turn your hand so the ball’s facing this way! Make sure you look like the Statue of Liberty!”

I kept my elbow up. “Give me your tired, your poor … ,” I thought to myself as I prepped to lob another ball my daughter’s way. When I felt someone looking directly at me, I rolled her some grounders.

I was a confident kid, but my firstborn has way more personal confidence than I do now. She jumped into softball with an enviable enthusiasm, not caring that she’d never so much as touched a real bat before her assessment day.

She’s recently been talking to my wife about the future, probing for information about what she can be when she progresses beyond elementary school and gets closer to adulthood. She wants to know how laws are made. After quizzing my wife on various rules and realities, my daughter has decided—completely on her own—that she wants to be a child model to earn a lot of money until she’s old enough to go to law school. Then she’ll use her earnings to get a law degree so she can practice as a lawyer. But that’s only until she turns 35, at which point she’ll run for president.

I know a lot of kids say they aspire to be the leader of the free world. I don’t know too many who map out their steps to getting there from first grade.

Maybe someday she will. Maybe someday she will help the homeless, the tempest-tossed. Maybe someday she will lead this country watched over by the woman who lifts her lamp beside the golden door.

If I can venture into the world of athletics for the first time in my 35 years, for her sake, anything is possible.

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I Love it When She Uses the Oxford Comma …

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My wife’s Valentine’s Day present to me this year now hangs above a drawing I gave to her for Valentine’s Day two years ago.

I thought about arguing that I’m more geeky than nerdy, but 1) I realized I shouldn’t nitpick a Valentine’s Day present, and 2) I remembered how I get about grammar. Plus, “talk geeky to me” doesn’t carry the same pun value.

I totally love my wife.

‘Who is REALLY caring for your children?’

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My wife came with me to the recent Dad 2.0 conference in New Orleans (thanks again, Cottonelle, for the trip!), where I attended sessions and workshops while she drank cafe au lait at Cafe du Monde, visited cemeteries, and otherwise explored the city.

I’m joking. Mostly. While she did sample more of the local cuisine and color than I did, she actually attended some sessions, too, and visited the sponsor booths and suites, and met and talked with dads from around the country. She was an active attendee, and I was excited and proud to be able to share the experience with her.

My wife works with developmentally delayed infants and toddlers, a job for which she attended a conference of her own on Tuesday earlier this week. The day after she got back, she surprised me with this e-mail:

“Yesterday, I went to a conference in a neighboring city. It was nothing like Dad 2.0, with all of its glitz and swag (the entirety of my ‘swag’ for this one was a printout of the PowerPoint presentation and a folder—in my color choice—to store it in). No Lee jeans, no Starbucks (in fact, the first announcement of the morning was an apology for the fact that they forgot to buy Half and Half to accompany the industrial urns of watery coffee). I left my house at 5:45 in the morning and returned roughly 12 1/2 hours later. The conference was attended primarily by educators, child development specialists, child advocates, and foster parents.

“During the breaks, I chatted with the people at my table. One woman asked if I hoped to have children someday. I informed her that I already have three children. She declared, ‘Oh, you do not look old enough to have children at all!’ Bless her heart. Of course she asked my kids’ ages. I told her. Upon learning that I have a toddler, she asked how I could get away from him for an entire day to attend a conference. I assured her he was safe and sound with my husband/his father, and I had no concerns about being away for a day. Then she said, ‘Sure, but who is REALLY caring for your children? You must have a nanny or a daycare provider. A man couldn’t possibly handle a toddler and two older children ALL DAY LONG.’ I was shocked. I’m sure I said something about my husband being an amazing father and just as capable of caring for our children as I am. But mostly I remember working very hard to keep myself from expressing my outrage in a way that was sarcastic, rude, or unproductive.

“I wish I could say this was an isolated incident, but this conversation—and the sentiment behind it—was repeated all day long as I chatted with more and more conference attendees. I am disheartened to realize that in a room of more than 150 professionals who work with children for a living, so many people are clinging to the idea that men cannot be competent (if not excellent) caregivers.

“I am thankful for Dad 2.0 and the blogging world that is working hard to change stereotypes of men and fathers. I am happy to see small changes in the media and advertising that are depicting involved, loving fathers. I hope to see more. I hope, as each year passes, fewer and fewer people react with surprise and shock when I say my children are with their father for the day.”

I was humbled and grateful to read my wife’s perspective, and though I have flown solo with the children before, I do have to point out that the two girls were in school for part of this particular day, and a friend did watch the kids for a couple of hours in the middle of the day since I edit two weekly newspapers and we were on production deadline. But I did get everyone out of bed, dressed, fed, brushed, and packed up in the morning; had the toddler with me in the office for the first third of the work day; handled all of the school drop-offs and pick-ups; edited articles for two newspapers with and without kids tugging at my sleeve; gathered up all the kids for the third third of the work day; drove them to an appointment in the late afternoon; and took all three back into the office with me at the end of—and past the end of—the work day because a computer crash in our production department deleted several files and I had to re-approve already-done work in order to make sure the paper could get to the printer late but intact.

Quickly moving from assessing libel risk to changing a poopy diaper is an odd shift, but not a prohibitively taxing one.

I am fortunate to have giving and flexible friends, bosses, and co-workers, without whom none of this crazy juggling would be possible. I’m amazed and grateful at the help we receive, and at the fact that my wife has a similarly busy schedule—plus she remembers the laundry—and pulls it off.

I’m not doing any of this (or mentioning it) for applause; it’s what has to be done. But I’m sure glad she’s the one I’m doing it with.

The Chaos

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I’m still in the midst of playing catch-up after my New Orleans trip and getting a handle on my freelance work. The above page of doodles is something I dug out of a drawer. It’s from 2002 or thereabouts, and it represents, well, chaos. There’s also a rare hand in the middle there.

In the midst of my busy schedule and tapped mental state, I haven’t wanted to post just for the sake of posting. But every day that goes by without an update on this blog makes me antsy.

Today I had my son with me at the office for a spell, and then all three kids for a particularly busy stretch after a co-worker’s program crashed and took a chunk of work with it. It was a marathon day, a nonstop day. And now I have my work at home. Still, I wanted to post tonight.

Journalist Josh Levs is writing a book, titled Stretch Out, about “American fatherhood” and ways life can improve for families. I talked to him at length while in New Orleans, and he’s looking for more dads and moms to contribute to his research. You can find a list of questions here.

I was happy to be able to give him some potentially usable material, and I can’t wait to read his book. I’ll have to wait until 2015, but I have enough to keep me busy until then, I’m sure.

New Orleans, Part 1

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I was looking for New Orleans. After two days in the city, I was itching to find it. It being an undefinable something I hadn’t yet discovered, but that I would soon recognize as being quantifiably New Orleans. Maybe I was looking for the heart of the city. Or its soul.

But that it can’t be forced. Truth be told, I don’t think it really exists.

The problem is that I was looking for my idea of the city: a fictional amalgamation of various incarnations of the Big Easy pulled from books and movies, music and stories, even visits to Disneyland. I was looking now for a New Orleans that no longer existed and would never exist, a romantic vision that mingled the most haunting and historic aspects of its past with the most poetic and glimmering hopes of what it could be.

As a visitor, I nonetheless didn’t want to be a tourist. As a stranger, I nonetheless wanted this city to be familiar.

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Whatever I was looking for wasn’t in the drunken bustle and hooting on Bourbon Street. It wasn’t in the hemmed-in stretch of water that I belatedly realized was The River. It wasn’t in the unshaven beggars and tipsy street artists, the bands competing for ambient dominance on every block in the French Quarter, the slick nods to voodoo and ghosts and vampires in every corner shop selling suggestive T-shirts and factory-produced Mardi Gras masks.

I didn’t want the New Orleans everyone else got. I wanted my own, private New Orleans—one that met my lofty expectations and revealed to me the secrets it knew I was looking for, even if I didn’t know what they were.

I wanted, I suppose, to be welcomed into a family that had been waiting for me to return to a home I’d never lived in, to feed me with authentic, generation-spanning crawfish-and-catfish recipes, to speak to me with a Creole patois and pull back a beaded curtain to reveal—aha, yes—the New Orleans I’d built in my mind.

My search was, of course, both naively selfish and obviously fruitless. I think we all do this when we travel—if we travel—though we do it to varying degrees. We search for the Hollywood sign in the redwood forests of Northern California. We look for smoky, starlit French cafés in the middle of a Parisian traffic jam.

I do, anyway.

I imagine wandering alone or with my wife along otherwise deserted stretches of parks, museum corridors and galleries, famous and photogenic thoroughfares, architectural marvels and monuments—and then bristle at everyone else doing the same. As author Bill Buford wrote, “The crowd is not us. It never is.”

When I arrive, I complain that I can’t see the city for the tour buses and tacky merchandise and people. Really, I can’t see the city for my own expectations.

And when I realized that—remembered it, really—I was able to find the New Orleans that was there: the solid, welcoming, real New Orleans with wet sidewalks and commercialized mystique. It.

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All history is manufactured, and it’s still being churned out today. Marie Laveau’s tomb. The graffiti on Marie Laveau’s tomb. The historical society member/tour guide lamenting the graffiti, the attempts to remove the graffiti, the attempts to repair the damage made by the attempts to remove the graffiti.

One night, my wife and I ate at an obviously modern restaurant set up in a building erected in the 1780s. We bought locally made pecan praelines that were individually wrapped in plastic and packaged for shipment anywhere in the United States. At another restaurant, we asked about the property’s history, only to learn that our apologetic New York waitress had only been in town for a couple of months and had no idea as to its past. “I think a princess lived here?” she ventured. We sipped absinthe in a pirate-themed bar, where we pushed two chairs next to a gas fireplace and ignored the ATM against my wife’s back. Next door was a bookstore set up in the space where William Faulkner worked on his first published novel. Election-day paraphernalia for a local office littered the streets. Emergency-vehicle sirens split the night in numbers the likes of which I’ve never previously heard.

I had expected a city preserved like a dragonfly in amber. But despite all my looking down for what was crystallized and unchanging, I was fortunate to catch a quick glimpse of iridescent blue-green wings lifting into the muggy Southern air. To catch a quick glimpse of New Orleans.

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Almost … There

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As I write this, I’m about an hour away from the penultimate leg of my journey back from the Dad 2.0 Summit in New Orleans. I’ll write over the next week about the amazing experience I had at the conference and in the city, but for now, I’m just anxiously waiting for the final several-hour flight that stands between me and my three kids. We have a big drive ahead of us tomorrow, but that’s no big thing to me.

I really can’t wait to see my children.

Birthday Week: The Eve

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My secondborn opted to not have a meltdown until after the five-hour car trip, which is, I suppose, a small mercy.

After an immensely draining day at work, a five-hour drive, and more shoving aside fears of flying tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. than I can count, I was ready to collapse into bed and get, say, four hours of sleep. But my 4-year-old decided that she didn’t want to sleep in her own guest bed. She didn’t want to sleep anywhere but with my wife and me (and, by default, the baby), which made my 6-year-old want the same thing. There was weeping. Mostly hers.

She’s settled down now, but she’s like that. Earlier this week, she began sobbing that her tummy hurt, telling me of the pain in her most desperate voice, only to immediately stop and tell me it didn’t. I think she was just on autopilot from the day before when she was throwing up every 20 minutes or so for 18 hours; she’d just gotten so use at shouting her ailment and my wife and me, routine briefly took over.

She seems to be fine now. The tears have stopped.

I fly in the morning.

Birthday Week: Kicking Worry

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As I noted over the weekend, my daughters each started an activity recently: softball for the 6-year-old and ballet for the 4-year-old. My wife and I committed the family to months of weekly or multi-weekly activities. The girls loved the first days of their respective pursuits and went to bed happy. My wife and I celebrated by watching the Bronies documentary streaming on Netflix that night. It made us both get all teary eyed.

Last week ended well, but this week didn’t start off so great. My 4-year-old woke me at 4:45 a.m. on Sunday asking for water, then more water, then some food. She had refused to eat dinner the night before, so I guessed she was fairly hungry. I made her a bowl of cereal and toast. At about 6 a.m., she started throwing up, an activity that—unlike ballet—continued for another 14 or 15 hours.

On Monday, I wasn’t feeling great—nobody in the family was, except for our first grader—so everyone (but the first grader) stayed home. And though she was keeping down food at that point, my secondborn then declared, sobbing, that her throat hurt. Of course, throwing up for an entire day will make anyone’s throat raw, but I immediately began worrying about antibiotic-resistant strep throat, since she had strep a month earlier.

Before you judge me, know that I’m about to fly soon—I’m heading to New Orleans for the Dad 2.0 Summit later this week—and I’m a terrified flyer in the best of times. Louisiana is currently in the grip of what meteorologists are calling a “once-in-a-generation winter storm.”

Tie all that up with a particularly stressful season at work and you’ll get an idea of why my mind is racing many miles a minute.

I’ve written about dread before in the Shallows, and that’s what really gets me: Dread that something bad will happen on (or to) my flight. Dread that my kid will get really sick. Dread that the flight will be fine, but my kid will be seriously sick while I’m far away.

My trip is coinciding with my 35th birthday. Here’s to hoping that 35 marks a year of less worry—less to worry about and less energy given to worry from my end. On that note, I’ll be writing Worry Wednesday posts only occasionally. I’ll still write on Wednesdays, but I don’t want to give all of them over to what’s eating away at me. I still want to leave that door open, though, since there’s something therapeutic about pouring it all out.

Sometimes.

Awkward Week: Up to Bat

I have little to no athletic ability. Sure, I can sink wadded up balls of paper into across-the-office trash cans—typically when no one’s looking—and I play a pretty mean game of table tennis, but I’ve never played team sports or anything. Not really.

My wife swam in high school, but she isn’t what anyone would call athletic either.

As our firstborn has demonstrated both talent and interest in sports, we figured it would be a good idea to get her into something official, hence our first-ever foray onto a softball diamond this afternoon. Actually, my mom played softball for years, but I usually spent her games looking for bottlecaps.

I’m not a sports guy, if you couldn’t tell.

I’ve tossed a ball around with my 6-year-old from time to time, so she at least understands the concept of throwing and catching, but as I walked her toward the sign-in tables and paired-off lines of girls lobbing (overhand!) pitches into each others’ mitts, I realized that I should’ve talked to her a little more about the game.

“Do you know what you do after you hit the ball?” I asked her, pointing to home plate as we passed. “In a game, after you hit it?”

She thought for a moment, then: “Throw it back?”

“You run,” I said. “Run to first base.”

I got a blank look in return.

Fortunately, based on my observations from this morning, she’s a quick study and will likely trick everyone into thinking her parents know at least a little bit about softball. I mean, she’s not perfect right off the bat or anything, but she’s confident and has good hustle and is coordinated enough to actually connect a bat with a ball, or later throw that same ball in the direction she intends it to go.

I’m excited and nervous about this new phase in parenting, in life. I don’t know the team sports environment, either from personal experience or as the parent of a participant since this is so new.

We also chose today to start dance lessons for our 4-year-old, so we felt like cliche parents today for the first time: loading three kids into the minivan and shuttling everyone from home to rehearsal to home to practice to home.

So it begins.