Rough in the Diamond


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.


Identity Week: Worry Wednesday

Identity Week: Worry Wednesday

I know you can’t get AIDS from a soda can.

I know it. Right?

And yet I worry.

I’m a complete and total germaphobe—a realization to which I only recently came. I haven’t always been this way. It seems to have started, however, when my first daughter arrived, and suddenly the world looked like a massive infection-delivery system.

Every passerby’s cough was of the whooping variety, every mosquito bite was laced with West Nile, and every feather on the ground—the sorts of feathers I used to collect on walks when I was young—was lousy with bird flu. This is not something I’m happy about, nor do I think it’s a healthy—ha!—way to live, and I can keep it in check when I try. Most of the time.

I need to remind myself that I’m a guy who, in junior high, found a dog skull in a remote corner of a park, picked it up, and brought it home, uncleaned. There was no meat sticking to it or anything, but it was still pretty dirty. I have it to this day. I used to display it in my home, until it fell off a shelf and cracked.

A couple of years back, my family was at a pumpkin patch with some friends, and my then-4-year-old daughter took a few steps away from where we had all stopped to sit and eat lunch. I looked away, and when I looked back, she was drinking from an abandoned can of soda she’d picked up.

I broke out in a cold sweat, mentally cataloging the diseases she’d likely—pretty much obviously—just contracted. Anything that can be transmitted by human saliva. And mucous. And blood, because what if the person who was drinking this before had a cut in his or her mouth? What if there had been blood on the rim? What if somebody had peed in it? What if the can had been left there on purpose to make my child an unwitting Patient Zero is some horrible outbreak?

I’d like to say that I’m exaggerating and that I didn’t fire up the computer once I was back at home to Google possible transmission media for AIDS, meningitis, and a host of other diseases, infections, syndromes, bacteria, parasites, and the like. I’d really like to say that I’m smarter than that.

This is the sort of stuff they teach you about in high school biology and health class—most of it, anyway—so you don’t go around perpetuating misconceptions about some serious medical issues.

But I don’t do well with stuff I can’t see. If my daughter were to have fallen and scraped her knees, I’d have been fine. I know how to identify, assess, and treat skin abrasions.

But if she gets a fever or a rash—how am I supposed to know what’s going on? Especially if I try to get to her to point to exactly where it hurts or describe to me what her throat feels like inside, and all she does is cry at me, sort of angrily? Like even she gets that I’m overreacting.

I have a fear of flying, too, and I think it stems from the same place. I’d be OK, I figure, if I could sit in the cockpit and see and hear what the pilots are talking about and not freaking out about. Back in the cabin, every little jostle and bump makes me think: “Was that it? Was that knock the sound of my imminent death? If it was, they certainly wouldn’t tell us back here.”

If I could just see for myself that the people in charge aren’t worried, that nobody’s silently mouthing “uh-oh” as they watch a little sonar outline of an engine dropping 30,000 feet (I really don’t know how planes work), I would be fine. Better, anyway.

So it’s rough, because in my family, when one of my kids handles dirt that I’m pretty sure had cat poop in it (toxoplasma gondii!) or pops some little yellow pellets into her mouth—pellets she randomly found under a rock while camping, as actually happened this past summer—I’m the one in the cockpit. The kids are looking to me to see whether they should be worried. And I’m often looking to my wife, who assures me (and thereby the kids, who just hurt me blurt, “What if that was rat poison!”) that the stuff wasn’t rat poison.

(It wasn’t. In an act of sacrifice and scientific research, I popped a few into my own mouth. They were lemon-flavored Nerds. But even then, I worried a little that maybe rat poison manufacturers make their products extra sweet in order to attract more vermin.) (I really did.)

Look, knowledge is key here. The unknown is scary, and parenting already has unknowns enough without my throwing in unreasonable hypotheticals.

Honestly, I don’t have much of a “lesson learned” for the end of this post. Instead, I’m declaring Wednesdays to be Worry Wednesdays, so I can maybe excise a few of these ridiculous recurring nightmares I have about outlandish concerns. And you can laugh at me. Or shake your head. Or, in the case of my wife, do both, punctuated by a pitying-and-yet-loving, “Oh, Honey.”

As a bit of penance (and to show that, yes, I do actually know how AIDS is transmitted) and to try to throw some support to a worthy cause, check out the AIDS Support Network, which offers services to people living with HIV disease and AIDS in my neck of California. The group “works diligently to stabilize clients’ health—financially, emotionally and physically, at no cost to the client.” There’s a fundraising Walk for Life set for Nov. 2. Sign up, support someone else who did, or look for something similar in your own community.

And if you do join the walk, don’t drink from any random cans you find lying around. There could be bees in them, and you don’t want one to sting your tongue.

Reality Week: Freaky Friday

Reality Week: Freaky Friday

My kids say a lot of stuff. Relevant, irrelevant, insightful, nonsense—it comes pouring out of their little mouths in a near-constant stream.

They sing. They make up poems. They fight. They bully. They plead for just one more show. They tell me they love me, and when I say the same to them, they say, “We know. We know. You tell us all the time!” They ask for chocolate before I’ve even finished telling them they can’t have any ice cream, and then they ask for ice cream again while I’m starting to address the chocolate issue.

And they terrify.

We used to live near a cemetery. We still do, actually, but we used to live closer, within easy walking distance of this 9-acre stretch of grass studded with headstones. We treated it a bit like a park, because—hey—it’s a 9-acre stretch of grass. Sure, there are no slides, but there’s plenty of room to run.

One day, when my firstborn was about 3 years old, we’d just finished walking around the manicured lawns and were on our way out of the gate when she stopped, turned around, waved, and shouted a cheery, “Bye!”

We were alone in the cemetery that afternoon.

“Who are you talking to?” my wife asked.

“Those kids,” my daughter said, pointing at not any kids.

Out of curiosity, I jogged over to the empty air she had apparently befriended to see what the ground beneath it had to say. The little plaques set into the dirt were all for children. I was standing on the site of either a supernatural playdate or the creepiest place ever to coincidentally conjure up some imaginary friends.

My daughter couldn’t read yet. She didn’t understand the short spans indicated by the two dates on the slabs. But she associated that section with children anyway. And she waved.

I’m reserving Fridays in the Shallows for the freaky stuff of parenting. Or at least the freaky stuff I encounter in my parenting. Many times, quotes taken out of context sound like lines from some non-dome-related Stephen King tale, but—as with today’s cartoon—I’m almost just as likely to hear something isolated that makes me laugh at first, and then lie awake at night.

I’m joking. Mostly.

My oldest daughter, in particular, seems to have a knack for peppering her personal monologues with the macabre. She’s fascinated by predators and bones, scary stories and mounting tension. I can tell that she already has a tendency toward the grisly. And the spooky. Because why was she thinking about her skin peeling off? And why would her boots matter at that point?

She’s probably just messing with me.

Are your kids inordinately interested in death and destruction? How about you?

This is my second daughter

This is my second daughter

I caught this one. I literally caught her as she was being born.

My wife and I chose to have home births, and everything went (relatively) smoothly with the first and third kids. There were some complications with No. 2, however, so we went to the hospital so my wife could be induced.

Once there, one thing led to another, my wife ended up on all fours in the hospital bathroom, the OB couldn’t quite get to her in time (I’m really rushing through this story), and I was the nearest person to the action. When I, well, looked underneath to see how things were going, I saw the top of a baby. I stuck out my hand, and this little girl dropped headfirst into my palm.

I promptly scooped her up to my chest, accidentally snapping her umbilical cord and sending blood fountaining everywhere. The OB had made it into the room by then and calmly clamped what needed clamping, checked what needed checking, and calmed down what needed calming down.

She’s had a relatively less chaotic life since then (my daughter, I mean; I have no idea how the OB has fared). As the second kid, she looks up to her big sister, for good and for ill. She’s the cuddliest of the three, and (don’t tell her siblings I said this), she has the best comedic timing.

Her: I’m hungry.
Me: …
Her: Actually, I’m thirsty.
Me: …
Her: Actually, I have to go potty.

She’s as stubborn as her older sister, but in a different way, which feels unfair to me. Until I had two kids, I didn’t know there were different kinds of stubbornness.

The biggest lesson she’s taught me is that a second child isn’t a repeat of the first child, which—sure—sounds obvious, but I’m amazed at how long it took me to figure it out. I love her distinct personality, her subtle zaniness, and her hugs. She’s a peacemaker, which I admire, but that quality also makes me worry, because I want so desperately for her to stand up for herself and make her own voice heard in a world/society/school/family full of voices trying to talk louder than she can—or will.

I’m apparently worse at drawing dimples than I am at hands, but I can’t draw ripples on the sides of her face, thus those little dents in my illustration.

Finally, some questions (and I ask for no reason, no reason at all): Fellow second children, did your parents take fewer pictures and videos of you than they did of your older sibling? And how messed up are you because of that?

This is my firstborn

This is my firstborn

In Ben Folds’ “Still Fighting It,” he sings, to his young child, “You’re so much like me. I’m sorry.”

I love the song, and I love that line, though my enjoyment of the words was pretty much abstract until my first daughter came into my life and showed me what I would have been like if I had been born a blond girl.

Some of it is positive, I think. She genuinely laughs at what I laugh at. She’s into bugs and sharks and owl pellets. Her favorite part of “The Empire Strikes Back” is at the end, when Luke gets his new robotic hand, and she can perfectly imitate the twitches he makes as the droid jabs his fingers to make sure the synthetic nerves are working. She tells stories and gets lost in the telling.

She also gets frustrated like I got (and get) frustrated. She gets inordinately angry when she doesn’t immediately grasp and master a new skill. Being right is incredibly important to her in every discussion/debate/argument. Vitally important. As important and inevitable as gravity.

Throughout my childhood, my parents often told me that they hoped I’d someday have a kid just like me. It was a blessing, I think, and a curse. While my firstborn daughter—my firstborn child—looks like my wife, she acts like me and seems to think like me. I can’t tell if it’s nature or nurture. Sometimes (as when she suddenly exclaimed, on the way to kindergarten, “Dad, the future turns into the past!”) I am thrilled to hear my voice echoing somehow in hers. She’s fascinated by science. She falls asleep reading, with her book still propped upright in her hands—an ability I’ve only seen demonstrated elsewhere in myself (actually, I’ve been told of it, since I’m unconscious when it happens).

But she is so, so stubborn. When my wife and I are feeling charitable, we call her “willful” or “persistent” or “committed.” But most of the time we just say she’s stubborn—though we do take comfort in knowing that the challenging qualities of today will someday benefit her when she’s a supreme court justice.

An anecdote to end this on:

I once gave her a dollar I had in my pocket when I got home from work.

Her: Oh, thank you! You’re my best daddy!
Me: Oh yeah? Who’s your not-best daddy?
Her: You, sometimes.